La femme au temps des cathédrales, Régine Pernoud

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Un vrai trésor ce livre, quelle découverte. Je dois une fidèle chandelle à Alain Finkielkraut et son émission, Répliques, qui me l’a fait découvrir.
C’est un livre qui fait état des lieux et des temps -le Moyen-Âge en temps pré-Carolingien, féodal, et médiéval- par rapport au statut de la femme.
N’en déplaise aux anti-cléricaux (moi le premier), cette période ne peut être conçue en dehors de la chrétienté médiévale. Une chrétienté qui n’a de rapport avec la notre qu’en ce qui concerne la théologie. La métamorphose que fera la chrétienté sur ce monde du 10ème au 13ème siècle, se fait sentir dans le vécu, dans le quotidien.

Dans la première partie du livre, Avant le temps des cathédrales, Régine Pernoud nous rappelle que les premiers à avoir reçu le message des Évangiles, étaient les femmes, qui se voyaient libérées par la Bonne Nouvelle. Elle nous livre un schéma de ce qu’était la vie des femmes sous l’empire romain et se réfère aux juristes et aux historiens du droit. Sa position est d’emblée très claire envers le droit romain. Bien que tant admiré à partir du 13ème siècle et surtout depuis le 17ème siècle, pour Régine Pernoud, le droit Romain est profondément anti-féministe, au sens classique du terme. Il sera plus tard adopté par le code Napoléon au 19ème siècle.
Pour résumer, elle cite Robert Villers: “À Rome, la femme, sans exagération ni paradoxe, n’était pas sujet de droit… Sa condition personnelle, les rapports de la femme avec ses parents ou avec son mari sont de la compétence de la domus dont le père, le beau-père ou le mari sont les chefs tout-puissants… La femme est uniquement un objet.” Bien de détails et de citations seront ajoutés pour éclaircir ce que sera plus tard l’évolution du statut de la femme sous l’Empire et sous le Bas-Empire, reste que la femme, pas plus que l’esclave, n’existe pas par rapport au droit romain.

La transformation qui sera faite plus tard du temps des Pères de l’Église (par rapport à la société citadine) n’est possible qu’à cause des Évangiles qui énoncent l’égalité foncière entre hommes et femmes et condamnent la répudiation autant que l’adultère. Citant le Petit Larousse (Je dois rappeler que les citations du livres sont toutes antérieures à 1985), elle relève quelque 21 noms de femmes des 2ème et 3ème siècles (contre 4 noms d’hommes); Parmi les 21 femmes, 19 sont des saintes: Blandine de Lyon, une esclave martyre de l’Église, Agnès, Cécile ou Lucie des contestataires dans leur monde qui refusaient l’époux que leur père leur destinait.
Régine Pernoud prétend que ces femmes (ou plutôt les femmes) ont vite compris le message des évangiles et se voyaient les récipients d’une liberté de choix qu’aucun droit législatif ne leurs accordait.

C’est une longue introduction mais qui donne une idée précise du contenu des parties suivantes. Et l’auteur de prolonger cette idée de l’adoption de la chrétienté par les femmes pour montrer à combien de femmes l’on doit la “conversion” des états Européens au christianisme, La France avec Clotilde, L’Ukraine avec Olga, L’Italie (plus précisément l’Italie du Nord) avec Théodelinde, Tolède (Espagne) avec Théodosia, l’Angleterre avec Berthe de Kent. Toutes ces femmes ont réussi à faire baptiser leur époux-roi. Cela donne une idée au changement du statut judiciaire de la femme suite au déclin de l’empire romain.
On est toujours avant le temps des cathédrales. Régine Pernoud dresse dans cette partie le portrait de la religieuse qui va avoir une influence sur l’urbanisme du Moyen-Âge à travers l’expansion des abbayes surtout en France, mais aussi en Angleterre, l’Irlande, l’Espagne et l’Italie mais aussi sur la littérature du Moyen-Âge avec l’apparition de la littérature courtoise. Entendons-nous bien, les abbayes n’ont rien à voir avec les couvents de notre temps; jusqu’au 13ème siècles, certaines de ces abbayes hébergeront un nombre considérable de moines et moniales allant jusqu’à presque 3,000 dans le cas de Fontevraud. Ce qui m’a absolument surpris c’est que ces abbayes étaient la demeures de femmes et d’hommes, de femme nobles, paysannes ou même prostituées et étaient sous la direction d’une abbesse! Véritables cruches de travail, d’échange commercial avec le monde extérieur (qui, en certains pays ne pesait pas grande chose par rapport a l’étendue de certaines abbayes), de trésors de documents, de livres, oeuvres le plus souvent des copistes. Les archives de ces abbayes font fréquemment l’objet des études des médiévistes.

J’ai expressément mis un point d’exclamation devant abbesse pour ouvrir cette parenthèse et se demander combien des Fortune 500 compagnies ou de celles du CAC40 sont aujourd’hui dirigées par des femmes? En Allemagne (et presque partout dans le monde occidental) on se bat toujours pour des quotas de femmes au sein de la direction des entreprises et j’entends dire, par des féministes, que seuls les quotas parviendront à établir l’équité homme-femme au sein des entreprises!
Il me semble que ce qui était évident au temps du Moyen-Âge par rapport au statut et à la condition féminine ne l’était plus qu’avec le combat de l’émancipation des femmes du 20ème siècle. Dans le chapitre 8 intitulé “La Femme et l’Activité Économique” plusieurs documents, dont la fameuse investigation commandé par Saint Louis, attestent des professions occupés par les femmes. Là aussi, on est loin des professions respectables que pouvaient exercer les femmes au 19ème siècle par exemple (et même -j’ajoute- de nos jours, au Liban où l’on peine à convaincre les filles de s’essayer à des études techniques). Régine Pernoud nous livre une liste de professions parmi lesquelles: coiffeuses, barbières, boulangères, médecins, poissonnières, etc… On est bien sur dans un monde très rural.

Hormis l’influence chrétienne, le livre ne nous offre pas autre raison, autre explication historique pour que la femme au moyen-âge puisse jouir  d’une telle émancipation. Régine Pernoud fait une référence hâtive au droit franc qui était, dit-elle, plus indulgent avec la femme que le droit germanique ou romain. On peut aussi, à travers ce livre, extraire cette absence du temporel de l’Église. Par exemple, en ce qui concerne le mariage au moyen-âge, le prêtre était plutôt témoin de l’échange des voeux entre époux et épouse et non pas celui qui mariait (qui a écho avec le mariage civil de nos jours). Bien sûr l’Église était impliquée dans le politique (croisades, excommunions des nobles adultères ou des mariages nobles illicites ou incestueux, etc…) mais on est loin du temps des Borgias et des alliances politiques.
Elle nous donne plutôt une idée de ce qui va changer par rapport au statut des femmes dès le 14ème siècle: on assistera à une renaissance du droit romain, et à une résurgence de la pensée aristotélicienne, surtout à l’Université de Paris, et qui n’était guère favorable aux femmes. Un autre coup sera porté par Thomas d’Aquin qui intègre la pensée d’Aristote à la Révélation, et qui tient pour certaine la supériorité de l’homme sur la femme.

Je n’ai fait que couvrir un dixième du contenu de ce livre, qui a bouleversée ma pensée par rapport à l’émancipation de la femme. Bien que pas très épais, (380 pages) ce livre est foisonnant et riche en détails sur l’activité politique, littéraire, économique et civile de la femme au temps des cathédrales.

L’Ardeur des Pierres, Céline Curiol

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I took a chance on this book. The blurb didn’t particularly interest me and I haven’t heard at all of the writer but I guess an old marketing trick worked on me: my copy appeared to be the only one left in the bookstore, so better snatch it before the next reader. I do fall for this trick: this is how I bought my last books even though I had plenty of unread ones on my shelves, but the fact that they suddenly show up in the bookstore in singletons triggers a buying reaction form me, as if by doing this I’m snagging a one-of-its-kind opportunity.

A missed opportunity it would have been, indeed, had I not picked it up again, even though in the beginning I abandoned it after a rash tweet to Curiol that I am reading her book and very much enjoying it. I abandoned it because I didn’t know anything about Japan, I didn’t know about Japanese gardens, nor about patchinko (even though it’s only mentioned once in the book). It’s strange that a book by a French about Japan got me curious about the culture, and a classic Japanese (Snow Country, Kawabata) failed to do that. Both are slow reads (is it something about the country?) but with Curiol I felt that I was feeling my way through the book, much as she was, I would suppose.

This book challenges my stubbornness in refusing to admit that I learn anything from literature. In a way it’s true I didn’t learn anything from the book itself, but the book triggered my curiosity, which would have been otherwise dormant vis-a-vis a country like Japan. Et donc, armed with my tiny knowledge about Japan and with a tweet committing me to finish the book, I present to you L’Ardeur des Pierres.

Almost every page of the book felt to me like going through a cycle: the writing would get a hold on my attention but the inactivity and the silence of the lieu would distract me until the writing would reclaim my attention again, all the way until the climatic ending.

The story is framed by factual dates and names both in the beginning and in the end and this would have normally irritated me had it not been for the fictitious which quickly takes over:

Sidonie, a black French woman, travels to Japan on vacation. Her first, real Japanese encounter is with her ryokan‘s receptionist, a man who dyes his long hair blonde, not a sight Sidonie would have expected as she remarks to herself.Her black skin, her thick hair, and her uncanny presence in such a place will trigger the imagination of the two main characters, Kanto and Yone.

Kanto is presented to us as a man who will go about with his life refusing to apologize, a one-time thief of kamo-ishi (rare stones), maintaining the garden of a Frenchman in Kyoto, the owner of a villa which is unlike its surrounding Japanese structures. Thus, in a few pages, all the clichés that a foreign reader might be expecting of Japan are demolished yet without taking out from us the consciousness that the plot is taking place in Japan.

A floor above Kanto, resides his neighbor, Yone, a big man within a 35m2 apartment, who -though familiar with Kanto- will only once make contact with him, towards the end of the book. The two men live in unsettling isolation which will only worsen time moves forward setting them face to face with their obsessions.

In his scarcely maintained apartment with its faltering bonzais and expiring food, Kanto places the two kamo-ishi having psychologically endured in physically removing them from their habitat:

A découvert, il céderait presque à la tentation de se mettre à courir par précaution, l’imagination nourrissant la peur et la peur, l’imagination, un hélicoptère de la police surgit derrière les cimes des arbres, vrombissant de toutes ses palmes, assigné à la seule surveillance de Kanto le voleur.

Kanto transports the two stones into his van away from curious eyes, or eyes he imagines might be curious of the content of his van, and in this long journey to the safety of his home, he manages to offend his boss, to distance himself from his friend Fumito, and to risk getting caught by the police. Whenever he moves away from his stones, whether physically or in his imagination, like a magnet he is drawn back to their presence, or to their idea. The anxiety weighs on him so much that the precious stones start appearing to him as if they are in mutation, as if they are alive. The awareness of this imaginary characteristic of those stones is so trying to his nerves that it even pulls him deeper into his own seclusion.

Away from the reclusive Kanto, our first impression of Yone is that of successful, happy fellow, working as a questions writer for a popular television game show, Gradually however, we realize that this man is in search of his own identity: he doesn’t know who his father is, his bulky build is a cause of his insecurity around people, and to top it all, he doubts his own virility. In such a frame of mind, Yone becomes intrigued by the story of Ichihachi, a murder not yet caught by the police, and whose story Yone is attempting to write… literally one phrase at a time. His obstinacy in writing this novel takes on epic (in the traditional sense) proportions once he sets his sight on a complex typewriter whose mechanism produces one sentence after an eternity of maneuvering, and he does all what it takes to acquire the machine.

I was surprised that such a scene worked, it didn’t struck me as fake, even though it is implausible; I suppose it’s the blowing up of what should be a simple tool that works in this case, and blends fiction and reality in this story. Our machine will be present in the end scene, but what is the role of Sidonie in all of this? How will Yone and Kanto be brought into contact, and why? I will not reveal those juicy details; instead, I invite you to read the book and check out for yourselves.

In fact, the interest in reading this book lies in the banal situations which Curiol renders so vividly, as in her recounting of the swiftly stolen second stone:

Avec de meilleurs réflexes, il redescend la pente tel un tarzan de liane en liane, un professionnel skieur sur pieds, en moins de temps que prévu atteignant la rive qu’il remonte sans ralentir, certain à présent de sa direction. D’une main arracher le ruban, puis se mettre à deblayer la neige, pas une seconde à perdre, les gestes répliqués à l’identique, les mains encore plus froides devenant outils.

Or in her writing of Sidonie’s effect on Kanto:

Il doit se convaincre de rentrer, de l’oublier, d’oublier toute espèce de divagation dans laquelle elle puisse figurer.

Within such a short book (200 pages) light touches like the above are enough to convey the right image to the reader. I was also impressed with her knowledge of the Japanese culture, and I cite here an example that reminded of Graham Greene’s A Burnt Out Case wherein the European priest, who got accustomed to Africa, remarks the following: “Father Thomas, when you have been in Africa a little longer, you will learn not to ask an African a question which may be answered by yes. It’s their form of courtesy to agree. It means nothing at all”

Curiol writes about Kanto prying into the contents of the living room of his boss

Mais il espère qu’en ne bougeant absolument pas, qu’en jouant au Japonais détaché, impavide, une ruse nationale, qu’il parviendra peut-être à dissuader le propriétaire d’insister, par respect des coutumes étrangères.

The books is recommended even if the slow reading pace might discourage some readers. I will definitely be reading more books by Curiol: a very fine discovery, one that could only have been done inside a bookstore.

Sous Le Soleil de Satan, Georges Bernanos

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As far as I know, this book is no longer available in English; if it is, Amazon prices it in the hundreds of dollars, and I don’t think it’s worth that much. The French original version is freely available here

I can’t remember how it was that I came to know of Bernanos except that he was mentioned in several online articles as being one of those excellent writers who are now forgotten. I had no idea that he was a Catholic so that while I was reading the excerpt on the back cover I thought that I will be reading something akin to The Lord of The Rings, a battle between manifest good and evil. I was wrong.

Bernanos said that he wasn’t a Catholic writer but a Catholic writing books, and I hope this will bring back the readers who might have mistaken the title for being a dogmatic pamphlet. It is not, and Bernanos himself was not a theologian, nor dare I say was he interested in theology per se. This makes the book even more worthy to be reviewed, for this was the first work of a regular man, impressed by the ideas of his age, politically engaged yet still an average father and husband.

The book is split into a prologue and two parts, though the prologue is a hefty one and I wonder if such a construction is due to rookie’s mistake or whether it was setup on purpose. The prologue introduces us to Germaine Malorthy, fondly referred to as Mouchette, a 16-year old who collapses one day in front of her mother as the early symptoms of her pregnancy are revealed. This is how Bernanos introduces to us the enamored Mouchette (all the translation is mine, a hell of a job!)

À seize ans, elle savait aimer (non point rêver d’amour, qui n’est qu’un jeu de société)… Elle savait aimer, c’est-à-dire qu’elle nourrissait en elle, comme un beau fruit mûrissant, la curiosité du plaisir et du risque, la confiance intrépide de celles qui jouent toute leur chance en un coup, affrontent un monde inconnu, recommencent à chaque génération l’histoire du vieil univers.

At sixteen, she knew how to love (not so much dream of love which is but a parlor game)… She knew how to love, that is to say she nurtured in her being, like a ripening fruit, the curiosity of pleasure and of risk-taking, the intrepid confidence of those who gamble their lot in one shot, confront an unknown world, and repeat with every generation the age old story of the universe.

The fingers are pointed at the Marquis de Cadignan, a known womanizer. In the ensuing rage between the Malorthys as to the proper action to be taken, Mouchette takes a bold step and confronts her lover who refuses to assume his responsibility. Realizing the futility of this relation, Mouchette kills the Marquis, attempts to peg her pregnancy on another lover, and a month later delivers a stillborn. I’m not sure why Bernanos elaborated so much on the above tragedy; only Mouchette’s character survives the coming events.

Part one of the book opens up on a very sophisticated discussion between two abbots: Menou-Segrais, the dean of the Campagne village, superior of Father Donissan, the main character of the novel, and Abbot Damange.The ambiance is calm, poised and quite distant from the flare ups at the Malorthys:

De tous les embarras de l’âge, l’expérience n’est pas le moindre, et je voudrais que la prudence dont vous parlez n’eut jamais grandi aux dépens de la fermeté

Of all the embarrassment brought on by old age, experience is not the least of which, and I should want that prudence, of which you refer, ought never to have grown at the expense of firmness

Father Donissan is talked of as being clumsy, of limited education, more zealous than wise, ready to work but always botching things up and lacking the eloquence of his superior when celebrating mass. Father Donissan is aware of his shortcomings and in a very elliptical conversation with his superior suggests that a convent might be a better place for him. This is the first episode of a series of doubts and insecurities that will fail to leave Father Donissan in peace until the very end of the novel. Thrusting his disciple forward through the good parish work that is needed in Campagne, Abbot Menou-Segrais concludes his preaching to Donissan with the below:

Alors, la prudence humaine n’est que pièges et folies. La Sainteté! s’écria le vieux prêtre d’une voix profonde, en prononçant ce mot devant vous, pour vous seul, je sais le mal que je vous fait!

Therefore, human prudence is but traps and follies. Holiness! cried the old priest in a deep voice, in pronouncing this word before you, for you alone, I know of the pain I will cause you!

This is a most marvelous sentence to me, because it defies conventional wisdom, and could only be uttered by a religious person. It opens up the human spirit to exceed Aristotle’s limiting prudence and to thrust himself into the unreasonable, into faith itself.

The essence of the book is here for holiness without wisdom is but folly, and the Christian faith, as our dear Donissan will find out, is rooted in love not performance. In a very 19th construction, the word holiness acts as a reinvigorating elixir for Father Donissan and he sets himself to work filling up the gaps in his education, improving his parish work, excelling in his visits to the faithfuls and for a while I wanted to believe that bubble will last, but unfortunately, the insecurities still linger, and to punish himself for doubting the grace of God, for thinking that he could have done better, should have done better, Father Donissan never gives up his self-inflicted mortification in a description that spans up pages and is of the most disturbing for readers sympathizing with Father Donissan.

There doesn’t seem to be a way out for Father Donissan’s insecurities: for they do not come about as he interacts with the outside world. To him, Satan does not reside in the pale temptations of the flesh, but traps the solitary faithful in his prayer, in his fasting and the deepest corners of his heart. That may be true and Bernanos, through fine traces here and there, sends his readers the message that Christianity is not the religion of the solitary, no matter how much the solitary soul would like to give more, do more and spread out the greatness of God. In fact, Father Donissan is tempted the most when he is face to face with his conscience, when indeed he is inactive, when his preaching and confessions and visits have come to an end. This understanding of Christian faith doesn’t surprise me form someone who wasn’t insensitive to his surrounding, and who was, on the contrary, even politically engaged.

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Another aspect of Christian faith was left out of Father Donissian’s reach and that is Christian love. For Father Donissan, towards the middle of the book, having overcome the presence of Satan during a long and dark journey to another village, receives a gift, the gift of a true believer, and that is to look past the sinful human flesh and penetrate into the depth of the soul of any human being. The good priest puts indeed that gift into use in his parish work and visits to the faithful. Sadly for him, his zeal consumes him and exceeds both his capacity to love and his wisdom.

Consequently, on his way back to his village, Father Donissan encounters Mouchette and is able to pierce through her, revealing her long-kept secret’s details and urges her to repent in an effort to vanquish Satan. There is no compassion nor understanding in his approach to her, just his obsession to vanquish Satan residing in her soul. Twice, Father Donissan attempts to rescue or save a soul but he does it in a showoff with Satan to vanquish him, he tests God, and Bernanos at the end of one Donissan’s messed up interventions, writes: ********SPOILER QUOTE ONLY********

Et ce signe ne lui sera pas refusé, car la foi qui transporte des montagnes peut bien ressusciter un mort… Mais Dieu ne se donne qu’à l’amour.

And this sign [from God] would have been given to him, as faith that moves mountains may as well resurrect the dead… But God offers himself to love.

Bernanos does not come out of this book as the enchanted Catholic standing by his clergy in their redemptive endeavors. On the contrary, when the priest fails in the matters of this tangible word, a man of science is standing right next to him to provide support for the poor devouts who placed too much faith in the works of another human being. If I remember my catechism correctly, that is hardly a Catholic message.

I will not add more to the plot of the story, and would like to note the writing of Bernanos, complicated and convoluted as it seemed, some passages I found myself referring back to them, and I think it is one of the books I tweeted the most quotes from.

Bernanos evokes the problematic Time for our Father Donissan frequently throughout the book; as one temptation is vanquished, in a matter of minutes another one sweeps in, as after Father Donissan has overcome the temptation of Satan in a long scene that spanned several pages, only to be doubting its occurrence phrases later:

Chaque objet reconnu, des habitudes reprises une à une, rendaient plus incertaine et plus vague la grande aventure de la nuit. Bien plus vite encore qu’il n’eût pensé, elle perdait ses détails et ses contours, reculait dans le rêve.

Each recognized object, habits repeated one after the other, made the great adventure of the night more uncertain and more vague. Faster than he could have fathomed, the night was losing its details and contours, retreating into a dream.

Or when he writes:

Souvenons-nous que Satan sait tirer parti d’une oraison trop longue, ou d’une mortification trop dure.

Remember that Satan can take advantage of too long a prayer, or of too hard a mortification
I hope that this book, if it will ever be picked up by any courageous reader of this blog, will be read as a serious piece of literature, and that the reader will not limit him or herself to the confines of Catholicism in interpreting this book. It’s true it’s got priests galore and temptation is the central theme, but there is more to that: the priests are a product of their (then) time: Donissan’s superior advises him to stay silent on his visions, his gift and his battles with Satan, for the “fashion of the time is towards neurology” and proceeds that the clergy itself would probably find the mentioning of Satan a ludicrous term. The setting and the themes are Catholic yes, but their treatment is Christian, and as the debut novel of a writer, it is very much worth one’s time.

Les Heures Souterraines (Underground Time), Delphine de Vigan

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I picked up this book after a long period of erratic reading from my part: I had started several books that I was just unable to finish. I attribute my failure to the old-time setting of the stories: early 20th century Iceland, mid-century Japan, 1960s Rome… Consequently, I awaited with impatience the start of the Salon du Livre in Beyrouth, and promised myself to buy books with more modern themes, characters and settings.

And so I landed on Delphine de Vigan’s Les Heures Souterraines. I had seen a couple of Youtube interviews with her; her book No et Moi had received much praise, was translated and later turned into a movie. Her later novel Rien Ne S’oppose A La Nuit was well received and was rewarded with literary prizes

I pick up this book, check out the back cover and note the praise form Le Monde, L’Express, and the mysterious blurb that the book is the story of two wandering souls who might or might interact within a bustling city. Nice.

My pleasant surprise grew when I read that the main soul of our wandering souls, Mathilde, is a Marketing Assistant (my background), well placed within the company, working nicely alongside her boss, Jacques, who delegates her the planning of marketing studies, conducting meeting with key clients, and even allows to be present at upper management’s meetings.

All this will change when, one day, the poor soul makes the unthinkable of recommending to listen to the complaint of a client, against the wish of Jacques, who was looking to hastily dismissing the claims and wanted to wrap-up the meeting.

What follows is psychological torture that grows in magnitude and in creativity as Mathilde is gradually stripped from tasks she was undertaking for Jacques. Then follow the many bullet points of her job description which are handed over to other colleagues, who suddenly form the circle of Jacques’ assistants. Add to the loss of one’s missions the loss of those un-coded perks that some employees enjoy, a nice office location for example, access to certain printers, bathrooms, etc… Or the obscuring of the content and details of meetings and bi-lateral discussions. As anyone who has worked in an office knows, those perks and one-on-one meetings are sometimes as important to the well-being of the employee as are the salary and the financial compensations. They can contribute to an increase in the performance of the employees, as they form part of the psychological well-being the employee seeks within (especially) a large, impersonal enterprise.

Because she documents the tumbling of Mathilde as a result of psychological office torture, I gave the book 2 stars. Otherwise, I would have given it one star. It amazed me how much the writer failed in attracting me to the main character or to the events of the book, noting that I am not unfamiliar to this world, and that I was psychologically prepped to read a novel set in a time and place with which I could identify.

The problem, in my opinion, lies in the structure of the book. The book is not lengthy enough to magnify such a harmless mishap into the (almost epic) proportions given to it by de Vigan. The style is crude to the point that I associated it with the non-fiction writing of weekly magazines. There is too much listing of office and computer jargon, of an enumeration of tasks that add little to the story. It didn’t help my perception of the book as I plodded through it my knowing that de Vigan was a statistician at a company before focusing exclusively on writing. It seriously diminished any merit she had in the few touches she used to portray the realities of office life.

On the counterpart of Mathilde, is Thibault. Thibault for a couple of pages struggles with the idea of breaking up with his girlfriend and soon musters his courage and does it. Interspersed between the various episodes of Mathilde’s life, we drive through the streets of Paris with Thibault as he visits studios and apartments administering medical care to those who call the hospital’s emergency line. Like Mathilde, Thibault is given a backstory -of the most classical essence- which I found added little to the story or to its ending.

In the end, I do not think it is only the structure of the story itself that irritated me but the writing style of de Vigan. Normally, a plot I dislike is something I easily forgive a writer, but not to feel the beauty or the rhythm of the writing is something I cannot tolerate, and as such, I doubt I will give de Vigan a chance again.

Incidences, by Philippe Djian

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This is the original cover of the book, for the paperback edition, which I prefer to the one I got, taken form the movie that was released in 2013.
I’ll start by saying that I wasted too much time waiting to read this book and circling around it, by reading its review and watching the movie based on it. I find myself frequently repeating this same pattern where I’m hastily tasting something and later deciding that I want to patiently savor it. The end result is that too much time is wasted waiting for the ideal situation, time or even setting.
Speaking of setting, I knew that I would be biased (positively) towards Incidences because it is set in the mountains. Because there is snow everywhere. Because it’s cold and the wind roars to fill up the silence of winter.
In such a setting, Marc, the main character of the book, is driving his Fiat 500 back home from a party laden with alcohol, an attractive young girl by his side, his student from the literature class he teaches.
In a sense, the first couple of pages are the story itself, and I’m thoroughly enjoying such a structure (blame Robbe-Grillet) in which my mind does not wander much to “hollywoodian” twists and turns, but enjoys the writing that repeatedly draws out thoughts, feelings and words from the characters. Once the characters are defined within a couple of locations, and interact among each other, it’s a real test for the writer to hold the attention of the reader, to keep him/her motivated to flip the pages.
The intrigue is created when one reads of a professor of literature sneaking into his own house to spend the night with a girl; the intrigue grows when the reader discovers that the professor does not wish to wake up his sister, Marianne, thereby drawing her attention to the remaining of his night. I’m glad Djian did not add surrounding neighbors to Marc and Marianne’s house (as he judiciously did in Oh…), I think this would have diluted the intensity of the story and I fear would have also tinted the events with a comic tone.
At daybreak, Marc wakes up to the realization that the girl sleeping next to him is dead. The solution that would least raise questions by his sister and by the police would be to dump her body in a ditch, up in the mountains. With time, the ditch becomes the focal point of the book, and Marc is drawn there on several occasions, and we the reader understands that Marc is no stranger to climbing up the mountain to find refuge on the edge of that deep fissure.
Having gotten rid of the body, and with no trace to indicate his relation with the girl, Marc proceeds to his work confident in the monotony of the events and people around him: his average students, the head of the literature department who may or may not be in a relation with Marianne, his sister whom he managed to dissuade from asking too many questions…
In this clearly set-up world, enters Miryam, the dead girl’s step-mother, towards whom Marc will let down his guards and will gradually grant her access to his world.
This is my third Djian. I can now safely say that there is a lot of Simenon in him. For starters, the tone adopted by the narrator closely resembles the one in the non-Maigret: though Marc is not the narrator, one feels as if he is the one telling the story; everything that happens is seen through Marc’s eyes. I find this technique to be less patronizing than the first person narrative: without tricking me into taking a side, with or against this “I”, it softens the characters to me, characters I normally wouldn’t sympathize with. I often found myself standing next to Marc; even when he is brooding on some problem he has with his students, for example, he notices his surrounding: the rabbits, the squirrels, the lake, the mountains, the wind, and the reflections varying with the intensity of daylight… Such writing brings him closer to the reader.
There is nothing which is revealed crudely to the reader. Even when the intrigues start to untangle, Djian does them in light touches, at the risk of alienating the reader – might-I-add . The analysis of why Marc is the way he is gradually built up as Marc heads outside of his classroom, into his apartment, as he encounters Marianne’s potential suitor, as he rejects the advances of his students, etc.

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A word about the movie, to close this review. I think I was unjust to the movie, L’Amour est un Crime Parfait. It’s a stupid title (why add the word Amour) but I think, in retrospect, that the movie did succeed in emulating the narration itself. I think that this blurring between a narrating voice and Marc was well captured in the movie. Another autocorrection I would like to add is that casting Amalric as Marc seemed to be the right choice. Marc inadvertently becomes a flirt to his female students; it’s not because he is macho nor a heartbreaker. Accordingly, Amalric with his physical appearance and the vocal tone he adopted in the movie seemed to me to best embody the character of Marc .

Les Fruits d’Or by Nathalie Sarraute

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Until February of this year, Les Fruits d’Or felt to me like Duras’ Le Ravissement de Lol V Stein. Twice did I start with both books, only to find myself quickly dropping them and moving to a more familiar book. This time, though, I came prepared; quite prepared actually.
By chance, I stumbled upon Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Preface A Une Vie d’Ecrivain, freely available on ubu.com. I was vaguely familiar with Robbe-Grillet and his Nouveau Roman phenomenon but until I heard him defending himself and his Nouveau Roman and expounding on his thoughts on literature and writing, the Nouveau Roman and the shift in modern literature would still have remained intangible to me.

In those 21 audio clips, Robbe-Grillet sounds fiercely anti-Balzacien but he justifies himself: Europe was demolished after World War 2, it had to be rebuilt again, therefore, the Europeans had the chance of starting afresh; in literature, this meant a rejection of the classical structure of the novel: plot, characters, environment, but most notably the certitude of the omnipresent narrator, and the truthfulness of the dialogue.
Robbe-Grillet -it felt to me- believed he had a mission to compile and push forward the efforts and works of the Nouveaux Romanciers into a school (ironically, a very structuralist endeavor from someone like him) that should have its legitimate place in Literature and Cinema. I don’t think the other Romanciers (Sarraute, Simon, Butor, Pinget) saw the Nouveau Roman as he did; at least Sarraute didn’t but it seemed they all agreed to step out of the dualist form/content of literature, to get rid of perspectives, therefore of characters, to neutralize psychology and to pay a closer attention to the relationship of time/space and to explore non-linear action (if one could label what happens in these books as action)

I anticipated that I would start Les Fruits d’Or once I would be done with those clips, and therefore, I classify the above as my planned literary fortification against what Nathalie Sarraute might throw at me. But there is another aspect of my literary education which I would like to dwell upon; it is not planned -indeed cannot be planned- but it’s an accumulation of experiences and knowledge and I believe other readers will identify with it.

The past 2-3 years have forged in me a somewhat global understanding of modern art, of modern literature, cinema and music. Indeed things have changed a lot, though one could choose to disregard this transformation and maintain an attachment to ancient words or lines or sounds packaged in 21st century form. Much of modern art still eludes me, but I am beginning to appreciate the possibility of experimentation and I feel that, gradually, I’m able to make some sense out of it.

One is struck by the immense change that gradually came over Western Art strolling in a museum from room to room and coming in contact with the shocking, the strange, the objects, the details, the vague, the eerie… The familiarity of human shapes and figures, of landscapes well-defined within a known time and space, the meaning in the painting -if only a recognizable beginning and end- are no longer available to us.
Bit by bit, I no longer rejected discontinuity in a work of art; indeed, if I myself no longer recognize a continuous stream of events in my life, I cannot ask for it from the artist.

I assume that this all started with the death of God which I do not qualify as blasphemous; instead, I consider it liberated imagination, triggered questions, and opened possibilities. It behooves the modern thinker to answer such inquiries in an absence of meaning/structure, though I wonder if one can do more than doubting, or focusing on the fleeting, or finding certainty in repetition – a repetition of events, a mirroring of faces – as if modernity dealt a blow to the linear progression of History as a whole and focused on the micro-event magnified to provide substance to the thinker.

I suppose out of all of this humor emerged; of a different form, no doubt. It’s the humor of the cynics, perhaps, but it’s humor. Liberated from God, independent of a linear progression of time, yet facing the certainty of a linear progression of time, and therefore age, the modern artist revels in the absurdity of the minutiae and dresses juxtaposition in a some comical robe: Kafka, Bunuel, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute…

It is through the gate of modern humor that I decided to tackle Les Fruits d’Or. The first half of it is immensely funny. Because this is Sarraute writing, I don’t know when or where the dialogue is taking place and how many people are there in the book. At times it feels only 1 or 2, at times a gathering of invitees, and at others an infinity of generations…
Still, I assumed that this is a Parisian literary salon where invitees got together for some reason. Eminent among them are two art critics (maybe 3). Because I read it in French, I was able to spot (among the invitees) a man and a woman dialoguing in the opening pages: the woman was surprised at the indifference with which the man handed over a postal card of a Courbet painting of a dog’s head to his female companion, triggering a consternation on the face of the critic.
Because the woman found such an affront too harsh on the critic, she lends him a helping hand and asks him: “And, Les Fruits d’Or, how did you find it?”This last sentence is repeated infinitely throughout the book because [Sarraute’s] Les Fruits d’Or is this question and the implications this question triggers.

The woman is surprised by the reply of the critic: “Les Fruits d’Or, I found it to be good”. This scenario which could have ended in the first two pages, is repeated in various shapes and forms many times, sometimes recounted in its entirety, at others, fragments of it are thrown in paragraphs  where the fictitious Les Fruits d’Or is being defended or ridiculed.
In non-conventional, yet very humorous, dialogues and “actions”, we get a glimpse of the pretentious conformity that people in literary salons slip into in the presence of “eminent critics”.
Personally, this conformity wouldn’t have made much sense to me, had it not been for serendipity and Youtube. Recently, INA (Institut National de l’Audiovisuel) released its video archives on Youtube, and searching for Robbe-Grillet, I found an episode from a Bernard Pivot show. The invitee was Robbe-Grillet against a threesome of conventional critics and I found it to be a gem: the reaction of the critics and their derision against Robbe-Grillet’s book when Pivot gave a a brief synopsis of it to the guest, and asks him: “Did I get it right?” “And Robbe-Grillet replies: “Yes, this is one way of looking at it”.

Of course Sarraute could not have been referring to that, because the book came decades before that episode, but it clearly demonstrates the attacks Les Nouveaux Romanciers were enduring from critics who, apparently (and as Robbe-Grillet fiercely declares it in that show, “They have not even read Joyce or Kafka or Faulkner”) had no idea of what those writers were writing, and who refused to admit of writers who did not maintain the Balzacienne vein.

But back to the book. Within the frame of this affected elegy and praise, there comes a simple-minded reader who challenges the eminent critics and their backup choruses to demonstrate to this ignorant -book in hand- where the genius lies of the fictitious Les Fruits d’Or lies. This unfolds funny episodes where the critic attempts to elude the challenge by ruse rather than reason, such as when the critic makes use of his divine right to confer a literary quality to an otherwise banal work of art by announcing that it was done on purpose, with the express knowledge and planning of the writer.

The book could be read as both: in the first of half of it, it is an attack on the critics of classic literature, which Sarraute refers to as: “this well-built, properly-oiled, old machine, untouchable and well-preserved”. It is also a reflection on the collective hallucination that accompanies the release of a work of art by an established artist and the wave of synchronized chorus from laypeople and critics alike that uplifts that work to the level of glorious masterpieces.
Conscious of but disregarding the classical focus on content, the writing is one of the most captivating in French literature. (And here I go, impersonating any character from Les Fruits d’Or – and I knew I would fall into that trap) She utilizes this classic French writing habit of successive adjectives or descriptive words to make fun of the classical critics themselves.

Sarraute -if I shouldn’t assume that she is intelligent – shows her support to Le Nouveau Roman – even if without adhering to it – through the posing of a very literary question towards the end of the book when the woman asks: “Le sujet… quelle importance? Simple pretexte.” [What is the importance of the subject? it’s only a pretext]
This has always been the position of the Nouveaux Romanciers regarding content and subject, and they take this from Flaubert who considered that Madame Bovary without the writing, without the form, would not be Madame Bovary, or it would be anybody’s Madame Bovary.
The reviewed book joins this stream of thought. In this book where nothing happens, somehow 160 pages are filled on the premise that someone is surprised that another liked a particular book. It’s amazing when I think of it in retrospect. Indeed, the subject completely disappears to reveal the excessiveness of the writer’s imagination, another typical position adopted by the Nouveaux Romanciers. (The films of Robbe-Grillet and Bunuel, thought not an adherent of the Nouveau Roman, reflect this subordination of content to style)

I waited no less than 5 years to read this book -I think I added it to my  Currently Reading list on Goodreads ever since I opened the account- and now I rank it among my favorite books of all time.

Vengeances by Philippe Djian

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I had the pleasure of reading this one with Emma from Book Around The Corner and the fortune of actually meeting Emma and chatting with her about Vengeances over some (quite) hot beverages.

Vengeances left me with a sense of unease and I had the feeling that the ending was botched up and incidents quickly wrapped up, though the book is fairly short (< 200 pages) and so I suppose that a couple of additional pages wouldn’t have hurt anyone and would have cleared up some of the ambiguities of the book.

Ambiguity is what characterizes this book. The opening paragraph is a first-person narrative told by Marc, the main character of the book, whose son, Alexandre, apparently struck by something, shoots himself in the head in front of his father’s neighbors, days before Christmas. Before proceeding with the content of the book, its ambiguous character is reinforced by the use of the double perspective: first and third person narratives alternate in almost regular succession throughout the book. Of course, one notices the difference in tone between the heartfelt and subjective first-person narrative and the impartial and rather cold (in comparison) third-person narrative. At first, I was irritated by this, especially that neither brings anything additional to the events of the story, and either method could have been dispensed with, but then I realized that the third-person narrative is used to lend credibility to the first; after all, how much can one trust a storyteller who was under such a shock? This comforts me when I came to the last paragraph of the book which is told in the voice of Marc, and so I was able to assume that this is how things rightly ended.

Ambiguity also extends itself to the content of the book. We never know for certain why did Alexandre commit suicide. With such a spectacularly tragic start of the book, one assumes that the elucidation of such an act, or at the very least its effect on the father, the changes that it brings on the father, would take center stage of the book, that is not the case. The explicit alteration in Marc’s life is that his companion Elisabeth leaves him and he “adopts” a drunken young girl, Gloria, who throws up all over him in the metro.

In fact, that is what I like about the book. Few of the plot changes are predictable, yet without them being shocking to my taste. The relationship between Marc and Alexandre is faintly felt throughout the book and for a reason: Marc never really matured to be a father, he never managed to let go of his past’s little cocoon: a tripartite relationship involving Michel, his best friend, agent and promoter of his creations, and Anne, Michel’s wife, whom Marc screwed (Djian’s word) for over a year before she ended up marrying Michel. Anne and Michel offered Marc the sustainable chance of indulging in alcohol and drugs at will, of vacationing together and attending gallery exhibitions and other similar events.

This tripartite relationship is at the heart of the book, and Djian manages to bring in a sweet mix of subtlety and aggression in painting the characters and evoking the transformations in the plot. Starting with such an aggressive act as the suicide of the son, we are, page after page, led through the implicit complicity that ties Anne, Michel and Marc together to the point where Marc’s first wife felt completely left out from it. Gloria herself starts off as an aggressive character yet her destabilizing of the trio’s relationship is done quite imperceptibly, with insinuations rather than explicit words or actions. I loved how a character like her could destabilize their age-long relationship, and it seemed so logical in such a double-faced relationship, on the surface solid, its fibers loose: for the adults of the book, Anne, Michel and Marc, are not really adults. They are characterized by a scarring egoism. Their ethics are meager and can be summed up with “ne se laisser pas aller” (not to let go, not to be dragged into).

Writing this post helped me realize that there is more to this book then when I turned over the last page. Djian’s writing – strangely even the portrayal of adults – reminded me of Ann Beattie’s writing in Chilly Scenes of Winter. That said, Djian’s writing comes off as more colorful, more sarcastic – I would even risk sardonic, and smarter. I very much appreciated when he writes the following, when Marc, unbeknownst  to Gloria, is surprised by her presence in a shady area:

J’avais passé les dernières heures à m’interroger sur ce que j’avais vu, et j’avais très envie de lui en parler, mais j’avais peur de commettre une de ces maladresses qui peuvent à jamais ternir une vie, la flétrir, la ronger, j’avais peur de la faire fuir en la poussant dans ses retranchements et de perdre alors tout espoir de sauver quoi que ce soit

My translation: I had spent the last hours wondering about what I had seen, and I really wanted to tell her, but I was afraid to commit any of these blunders that may forever tarnish a life, make it fade, gnaw at it, I was afraid of scaring her, pushing her to the wall and then lose all hope of saving whatever is there to save

Emma informed me that Djian’s earlier writing was lighter in tone, and when I will read him again – because I will – I suppose I will be considering one of his first books.

Au Bonheur Des Ogres by Daniel Pennac

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English title: The Scapegoat

I liked this book. I really did. Why? Because I enjoyed it. I thoroughly did. Simple answer, but it isn’t to me. I’m always searching for “serious” books, books I want to learn something from, books that challenge my thinking, get me to ask questions.  But I don’t know why I fixate on this, since I know that I rarely (if ever) learn anything from literary fiction, and so I should remind myself that “learning” is not why I read fiction. If a book, or indeed any work of fiction, deals or addresses these general issues like spirituality, socialism, feminism, etc… whatever the complexity of the work, to me, the scope of the study will always remain narrow. The writer, or the director, or the composer, never really offer a thorough study or an alternative to the issue they discuss, but at best they might offer characters that symbolize the pro or the con, characters who might react differently or strangely under the circumstances set out in the work of fiction.

I don’t say to belittle works of fiction, on the contrary, but to reaffirm the limited study possibilities given the choses medium. What I get is a slice of society magnified to a point that engulfs me in a matter of pages and so I gradually find myself connecting or disconnecting from this microcosm laid out before me. And I love or hate or am warmed up or disgusted and this playing on emotions and feelings is what captivates me and always leaves me with the sensation that I exited a world of a different dimension once I near the end of a book. As grand as the scope of the study might be, a work of fiction remains to me the opinion of the writer, his wishful thinking, her vision or reactions towards circumstances, but not more. If I want to learn about a culture, or about a historical period, or about the evolution of a thought, I would consider a book of sociology, a historical study, a philosophical treatise, a political snapshot of a time period… And I know I would struggle with them, and they will rarely provide me any joy… until they incorporate the lives of real people, when their period studies start to borrow from literary techniques, when out of the blue a study of the Gulag becomes visible through the exchanged love letters of a prisoner and his wife (Orlando Figgs) or the daily actions and decisions of unknown Arabs in tumultuous times (Robert Fisk) whose names become familiar to me like those of Emma Bovary or Eugénie Grandet. In such works, I find again the joy of reading, for the sake of reading.

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Which brings me back to this little gem, Au Bonheur Des Ogres, whose author I knew of via Emma’s “Book Around The Corner”. This story is the first of a saga of 6 books, and I don’t normally fancy tying myself to a saga, but since this one was the first, and readily available to me, and I trust Emma’s recommendations, I thought what could go wrong…

This book is what I personally insist on fiction being: fictitious. Fictitious to the point I don’t have to worry or to question about how realistic the people or the events might be (thankfully, not in a science-fiction style though!) Belleville, where the action of the book takes place, is very much real. In a Magasin, constantly referred to as such, an old man is torn apart by an exploding bomb. This act is repeated and the main character is thus mildly suspected as being the perpetrator. I wonder had this book was published in this or the past decade if the author would have employed exploding bombs or would have resorted to other deadly means to stay away from any political insinuations, but I’m glad the book was published at a time where apparently such a consideration was not relevant.

But my feverish gulping of the pages of this story does not lie in the whodunnit aspect of the police investigation (although it exists but is quite weak as a denouement for the exploding in-store bombs), or in the slice of the working life, or the working mechanism of any modern institution that renders it in need of scapegoats, as the writer makes clear.

No, I was interested in the main character, Malaussène, and his strange surrounding: his family of two brothers and three sisters, his colleagues, his transvestite friend and his language, since he is the narrator as well. It’s a 284-page book with larger than normal typeface (my Folio at least) so it’s quite the fast read, and Pennac manages to create such a microcosm of characters in 5-7 page chapters. I couldn’t wait to read more about (and am looking forward to the consecutive books) sweet Clara and how her obsession with photography will develop, or what kind of quirky things Therese will think and say, what verbal and physical mischief will come out of little Jérémy, and how the relationship between Malaussène and his sister will develop, amidst more up-coming bizarre incidents, I’m quite sure, in a write style of the funniest.

I don’t think I ever quite readily and happily paused my reading to check out the definitions of the French slang dispersed here and there by Pennac and reread the paragraphs for the pure joy of it. And this is my own love affair with literature. This is what I personally “learn” from literature, and this is the pure pleasure it offers me.

I wonder how the book reads in translation, I suppose it will be a hard one to translate. It seems to me that there are two types of book that will never translate well: the seriously highbrow literary works and those of the everyday of slang, those that employ the living language one loves to hear daily (not that the two are mutually exclusive).

Therefore, I conclude this review with a list of French slang I learnt ( and I believe I still know the definitions of most of them) which I post to you in the hope that these words offer you as much a laugh as they gave me:

Papelard, costard, plumard, mastard, mouchard, loufiat, bicher, zieuter, finasser, schlinguer, roter, pieuter, marner, galoche, godasse, chiourme, mezigue

 

Connais-moi toi-même

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Connais-moi toi-même: Guerres, humour et franbaniaiseries by Samy Khayath

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I never thought a Lebanese humorist would write a book, and for sure, I never assumed the book would be that good! The reason is I come from a generation that did not really know the likes of Samy Khayath and am stuck with subpar humorists, people who are so cheap on the stage, I wonder if they ever acquired some form of education or learning.

As it happens these days, the non-traditional book-finding procedure, somebody posted a link to a youtube video of Samy Khayath, and I went through his channel, and found a video of him signing his book in Beirut, two years ago. Luckily, there remained one or two copies in our bookstores and I was lucky to have one on that same afternoon.

Samy Khayath is part of a generation that has probably vanished from Lebanon. Francophile to the last bit, his pre-war representations demonstrated a love and a command of French that was equally appreciated by a large audience of Lebanese theater-goers, as high as around 30,000 spectators during the civil war! These days, one is lucky to stumble upon a play in French in some forgotten something-turned-theater in one of the quarters of Beirut where residents still hopelessly cling to that language.

Samy’s book was a joy to read. Written in a very literary French -some words gave me a hard time with a couple of dictionaries, yet boosted my Scrabble-playing skills- frequently in sentences that seem never to end, therefore, giving the reader the physical sensation of catching his own breath. Probably as a collateral damage, some of these figures of speech when directed towards himself bordered on vanity and self-grandeur, as in when he refers to himself as one invested with some religious mission to make people laugh.

I would understand why someone of his caliber would repeatedly employ such imagery. For one thing, here is a guy who never tired over a career of 40 years to remain faithful to his audience in being present yearly on the stage and making them (intelligently) laugh all throughout the years of war, with no support safe the loyal attendance of his spectators. For another, before the war and even after it, no explicit recognition came from the Lebanese state as a reward for his career, no serious prize of the sort exists in this country, no books or journals or reviews on Lebanese theater. I suppose the only recognition one gets is from the reviews of some newspapers or magazines in the cultural section.

Samy Khayath was famous for his physical energy on the stage, for making pranks on the audience itself whereby the play would halt because of some on-stage quarrel between the actors, or some fake props’ incident, for his special effects and magical tricks which mesmerized the audience at that time, for his parody songs boldly caricaturing Lebanese and world political figures, for his attention to details in designing brochures and advertisements for his plays, and last but not least, for his clever puns, and example of which, I reproduce at the end of this post (unfortunately in French, and I do not dare translate it for fear of massacring it).

I should have imagined that such an acclaim should be everlasting, alas, if things do not come to an end, they radically change. The Lebanese society itself following the hemorrhage of a good portion of the population towards other countries changed, the entertainment scene obeyed other rules, francophone adherence no longer commanded such attraction on the population, and this invariably reflected on the increasingly shorter-run spectacles, and smaller audiences attending Samy’s plays. The decline in the interest showed by the spectators towards his plays is one that is so transparently laid out in the book that I couldn’t but feel sadness towards the book’s main character. Nevertheless, I was much in respect for him, painting himself in such a light in his glorious days yet faithfully able to describe this anti-climax with such clarity.

In the absence of any moral or legal guiding principle, several of his sketches have been plagiarized, or have served as “inspiration” for other comedians or writers, and I could not retain my shock at some of the sketches or puns that I see everyday reproduced quite liberally on Lebanese television, not the least of which being his sketch about our first names that people automatically use to categorize their holder into a religion, religious sect and even a certain locality.

For my part, I was astonished with how much cultural life strived in this country during its darkest hours. That people should drive under shells to attend a 2-hour play is a remarkable will for survival. Similarly, I admire the drive and commitment that the actors and the technical staff displayed in making every written script a reality. I was surprised by our own level of education, which had to be of some respectable level to appreciate the subtle jokes and cultural references Samy always made, in French nonetheless! I also admired the courage and support assumed by Christian orders in offering Samy the theater and the logistics he requested, at a time when, supposedly, the  Christian part of the country suffered under a reputation of isolationism, imperialism and backwards-thinking.

I will be looking over that book again, something I never do for non-fiction books; but the writing, probably because it is autobiographical, has such a literary force that I would recommend it, even to non-Lebanese who delight in experiencing the refined beauty of the French language.

As promised, I faithfully, reproduce the witty pun of the title Samy Khayath chose for his play, “Salam…use”

(note: at the time of the play, a time of great discordance in the country, the Prime Minister of Lebnese was Saeb Salam, Salam meaning peace)

En ce-temps-là, il n’y avait pas de place pour l’analyse lucide et sereine de évènements. Seule l’histoire dira qui avait raison et qui avait tort. En ce temps-là, j’étais toujours habité par mon rôle de témoin de son époque. En ce temps-là, il me tardait de raconter de façon vivante tout ce que mon pays a connu comme rebondissements au cours de cette année. Je me mets de suite à écrire un nouveau spectacle. Inspiré par l’atmosphère politique ambiante, je lui donne pour nom “Salam…use”. D’une part, le président du Conseil, fort de la légitimité populaire et institutionnelle qui l’a consacré, “use” de son autorité pour gérer le pays, d’autre part, il me semble, à moi humoriste, que par sa superbe et son goût accentué du panache, “ça l’amuse”. En fait, j’ai adopté ce titre définitif lorsque je me suis assuré de la situation stable de Saeb Salam. Auparavant, lorsque ce dernier avait entamé la procédure de formation du cabinet et que tout semblait facile pour lui, le titre de mon show était “Salam…beau” avec la permission de Flaubert. Mais lorsqu’il échoua dans cette première tentative, cela devait: “Salam…aigri”. Puis des scandales éclatèrent et je change à nouveau la dénomination en “Salam…aux roses” qui prend sa double signification si on fait la liaison en prononçant ainsi le titre: “Salam morose”. Mais Saeb bey a pu faire taire ses détracteurs et ce fut “Salam…mate”, avec un clin d’oeil au salut oriental “salamâtt” qui peut avoir une connotation péjorative de taquinerie dans le genre “à bon entendeur salut!” Enfin, tout s’est tassé pour le grand manitou de la République et “Salam…use” s’est imposé. Il n’empêche que la hantise d’une chute du cabinet me tracassait. Si une situation aussi grave survenait, j’aurais recours à un accent aigu et le titre sera: “Salam…usé”, un jeu de mot qui conserve toute sa saveur dans les deux sens du terme. Mais tout s’est bien passé et le nom définitif fut adopté. Je l’annonce à mes amis et à la presse en signalant que je me suis tiré d’une situation bien “salambiquée”.

Simenon by Pierre Assouline

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I always imagined Pierre Assouline to be a Simenon parasite. This is because I had bought his biography of Simenon two years before he published the Auto-dictionnaire of Simenon, and I wondered how much more would he milk out of Simenon’s reputation.  

In all honesty though, both books are quite nice to have for Simenon fan(atics)

“Simenon” is the first biography I read (I think… at least not counting the political figures’ biographies). I normally don’t like to know the hidden details of the lives of authors – or people in general – whom I admire; but I rationalized that I have read too many Simenon books that I could take the blow, if there would be one. And boy are there plenty in this book! 

Assouline managed to write 940 pages on Simenon and he still has tons of unpublished material; this is hardly surprising, as Simenon was such a prolific writer. Around 400 published books of hard novels, Maigret stories, crime stories without Maigret, some fluffy romance novels, screenplays, and memoirs… Surprisingly, the material for those romance novels and for the crime stories (the bulk of his work) come from Simenon’s youth: he had little exposure to the world of police and courts after his journalist years. 

Assouline divides the book into titled chapters including the timeframe the chapter deals with. I think Assouline did a very good job reflecting the gradual transition Simenon undertook from a simple reporter to an author hugely admired by Gide and supported by the prestigious Nouvelle Revue Francaise. Then again, Simenon himself aids Assouline in this clear-cut division of his working years; it seemed that Simenon knew exactly where he wanted to be at particular points in time. 

He knew how much time span to give writing popular novels, before moving to Maigret, building his reputation there, before again taking the risk to write serious literature. Assouline presents to us a writer who was in control of the the minutest details that affect his work: for instance, he had a daily writing routine that he changed little wherever he would find himself around the world: waking up at 6 am, soundproof bureau, his pipes charged and ready before him, yellow envelopes, white paper, the yellow pages, dictionaries, coffee (and Coca Cola when he was writing in America).

He exercised a lot of control over his author’s rights, and he was one of the few who were able to command such high royalties and advances over his books. Assouline goes into the intricate details of Simenon’s accounting books, unearths correspondence between Simenon and his publishers to demonstrate what a tough businessman he was; a reputation that became solidly established in the world of publishing at that time. Even when he was young in the business, he would be furious at the manipulation done to his books when they were transported into movies (though having his books made into movies at that time was a feat by itself) and he learned, early on, to be quite cautious with production houses, screenwriters and directors. Similarly, once he familiarized himself with the English language, living in America, he rechecked the English translations of his books, and it did not take him more than a year before he broke off his contract with his English translator, the respected Geoffrey Sainsbury.

Though Simenon had such a rigorous system when he was writing, yet he managed to get in touch with the local culture, wherever he found himself, but only as an observant. Assouline tells of an incident where Simenon sensed the suspicious looks of two gentlemen at a cafe in Lakesville, Arizon who suspected “The Frenchman”, as they used to call him there, fishing around for stories. Nevertheless, his environment never influenced his writing style, and it would be quite the challenge to point out which novels were written in Paris, which ones in America, and which ones in Switzerland, later.

What I particularly loved about the book are the thorough investigations Assouline undertakes when digging out little details. He does an excellent job, since early on in the book, in setting apart the memorialist from the writer. Frequently, he will point out to some incident that Simenon writes about in his “Mémoires Intimes” or in his previous memoirs, and will detail the differences between the two, supporting his claim by other evidences. Early on, we are told that Simenon is not be trusted when he remembers the past events of his life. 

Assouline reveals, albeit towards the end of the book, what could be (because we are never sure) the true source for the name Maigret, he also reveals personal, family details about the Simenons, about Marie-Jo, about Denyse, Simenon’s second wife. He shocked me with how little Simenon read and how little interested he was in the literary world. By itself, this is not a bad thing, but Simenon in this biography is quite the self-centered type. For example, it wasn’t until later that we realize, from his own letters, how little he paid attention to Gide and how ignorant he was of his novels, even though Gide was quite helpful in pushing him upon Gallimard, in proofreading his stories, in helping him draw his characters… Though I write this months after reading this book, I still remember how horrified I was when I read Simenon’s notes about Gide – sometimes, his egocentricity bordering on ungratefulness and hypocrisy. 

Having said that, Simenon himself suffered from his Maigret-writer reputation, his voluminous production – though with all the care and business strategies in the world – could never shift the light from Maigret to his hard-novels. He was never the recipient of the Goncourt prize, never made it to the Académie; his “presidency” of the Festival de Cannes was a big flop. 

At the end of the book, it seemed to me that he was quite a mechanical writer, quite modern in his production: he was able to structure his novel in such a way to attract the regulars yet with slight variations to keep readers asking for more, but rarely, if ever, showed much originality. This is clearly reflected in the sales figures of his books, his Maigret books outselling his romans-furs 3 to 1, but both maintaining more or less the same publication figures: the Maigrets at around 60,000 copies (in France) and the romans-durs at around 20,000 copies.

In conclusion, I found the book quite entertaining, very enriching, as objective as a biography could be, and quite honestly a must-read for Simenon fans.