French Literature

Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano Translated by Barbara White

It seemed ironic, yet fitting, that Jean B. made documentaries about lost explorers. He was, after all, a lost explorer himself. Driven by his desire to discover the reason for an old acquaintance’s death, he embarked on a journey. This quest would transcend time and location. He traveled from present day France back to the era of the German Occupation. He did so alone as his wife feared he would “involve her in an adventure that leads nowhere.” (Page 114)

For those not familiar with Modiano’s work, Honeymoon would serve as a good introduction. It included many themes common to the author’s books. It included the elements of memory, the German Occupation and a protagonist searching for the past. He weaved them together to craft an engaging narrative.

As a young man, Jean B. spent a brief period of time with a couple named Rigauld and Ingrid. He discovered the latter’s death several decades later. At the time, he’d felt disillusioned with his own life. He embarked on a search to discover what happened to these two people.

The book included some superb writing.

She took my arm because of the sloping road. The contact of her arm and shoulder gave me an impression I had never yet had, that of finding myself under someone’s protection. She would be the first person who could help me. I felt lightheaded. All those waves of tenderness that she communicated to me through the simple contact of her arm, and the pale blue look from time to time—I didn’t know that such things could happen, in life. (Page 24)

Unless the line of life, once it has reached its term, purges itself on all its useless and decorative elements. In which case, all that remains is the essential: the blanks, the silences and the pauses. I finally fell asleep, turning all these serious questions over in my mind. (Page 36)

It does also happen that one evening, because of someone’s attentive gaze, you feel a need to communicate with him not your experience, but quite simply some of the various details connected by an invisible thread, a thread which is in danger of breaking and which is called the course of life. (Page 88)

As one can tell from the passages, Modiano’s writing is pretty deep. It may not suit all readers’ tastes. My version of the book contains 120 pages. It took longer to read than I anticipated. I found myself re-reading numerous passages because of the writing style.

For my personal preference I don’t mind reading works that challenge me. For that reason I enjoyed Honeymoon and would recommend to others.

In 2014, Patrick Modiano received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Academy cited his work: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” Honeymoon serves as a good example.

 

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Book Review – Notes on Andre Gide by Roger Martin du Gard

Andre Gide dedicated his first novel, The Counterfeiters, to Roger Martin du Gard. The later repaid this act of kindness by publishing Notes on Andre Gide as an encomium to his friend and mentor. What a book! It’s not just one Nobel Laureate in Literature’s biographical sketch of another Nobel Laureate in Literature, it’s a record of some serious conversations between two of the greatest authors of the twentieth century. The author’s powers of description made me feel like I was in the room listening to his subject’s ruminations. I could visualize Gide telling me, “Whenever I have the chance to enjoy myself, I do it.” (Page 11)

I’m a huge fan of both men’s work. Du Gard’s decision to publish his memoirs on Gide elated me. For those more familiar with music, imagine Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page struck up a friendship. Years later one of them released recordings of their jam sessions. Notes on Andre Gide is in the same category for fans of great writing.

Emulating Ben Franklin, du Gard presented his thoughts on Gide “warts and all.” Literally.

The light falls on Gide’s fine head. His whole face is alive with pleasure. He puts on the tortoiseshell spectacles (which sit now above, now below, the wart on his nose, according to whether it is me or the transcript that he is looking at.) (Page 13)

Du Gard delivered a very balanced view of his subject. I didn’t expect the level of explicitness. Even when critical he still strove for fairness. Here’s an excerpt dated 1928.

Gide is being spoiled by the complaisance of his entourage. He no longer pays the least attention to the preoccupations, the desires, the troubles, or the tastes of anyone but himself. He can hardly conceive that somebody should not, at any given moment, be free. And by ‘free’ he means: ready to give up everything in order to put one’s self entirely at his disposition; ready, not only to visit him, but to share, for the inside of a day, his life, his work, his pleasures, and his meals; ready to enter into the most trifling of his anxieties; ready to speak of the subjects which preoccupy him, to the exclusion of all others; ready to laugh, if he is in the mood to be amused; or wax indignant, if he has some pretext for annoyance or chagrin; ready to sit patiently with a newspaper or a magazine while he has his siesta; ready to read the letters he has just received, and to discuss with him the answers he has prepared; ready to read on with him the book he has already begun; ready to go out, if he takes it into his head to go to an exhibition or a cinema, or to call on a colleague… (Page 59)

That’s a long passage and du Gard had a few other issues to add at the end. I included it to show the author’s eloquence and command of detail. It certainly presented an unfavorable view of Gide. The author followed it up with the very next paragraph.

(How unjust I am! And how shameful of me to give way to that moment of bad temper! Have I ever spent an hour with him, and not been the richer for it? Even on his most tyrannical days he finds an opportunity twenty times over, of giving more than he gets. He gives fresh life to everything he touches. He talks as the sower sows; and the seeds that he scatters all around him ask only to be allowed to take root, and to flower.) (Page 59)

I’ve read many biographies and memoirs. I cannot recollect an instance where the author attempted, let alone achieved, this level of objectivity.

In a previous post, I reviewed Gide’s Corydon. I wanted to get insights from this book about just why he published something so controversial. Du Gard objected to the choice, but offered an explanation.

The idea of a public confession is infectious; like the hero of a Russian novel, Gide is burning to affront Society and invite its punishment; outrage, opprobrium, the pillory—those are the things to which he aspires…He has such a strange inspired smile when he disposes of my objections! When he thinks of being misunderstood, shunned and despised—the expiatory victim of a sublime sincerity—I believe he feels enlarged and exalted. (Pages 26 – 27)

I wonder if the Chinese curse about getting what one wishes for had been around in Gide’s time.

At any rate, for his myriad contributions to the field of letters the Nobel Prize Committee honored him with the award for literature in 1947. Du Gard included the following except from the citation.

Gide has often been accused of corrupting young people and leading them astray; the great influence which none can deny him is regarded by many as an influence for evil. That is the ancient accusation which has been laid against all the emancipators of the human spirit. Protests are superfluous, however; we need only consider the worth of those who are his real disciples…It is doubtless this, as much as, or more than, his literary work which has made him well worthy of the signal honor which Sweden has just accorded him. (Pages 94 -95)

Gide once wrote, “Believe those who seek the truth. Doubt those who find it.” If he’d had the opportunity to read du Gard’s Notes, even he just may have reconsidered.

Book Review – Therese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac

Count Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with one of the most memorable lines in literature. He wrote about all unhappy families possessing their own unique brand of misery. In Therese Desqueyroux, Francois Mauriac pushed the envelope. In the introduction, Raymond MacKenize described the author’s approach to the subject as such:

First, it is a revolt against the idea of the family, revealing it as not the nurturing center of the individual’s life but instead a claustrophobic, repressive, vindictive social unit. (Loc 176) 

Mauriac created the impression that smoking served as the sole source of joy in the protagonist’s life. She partook in this past time rather liberally throughout the book. At one point in a clever bit of foreshadowing, the author wrote, “But she shouldn’t smoke so much; she was poisoning herself.” (Loc 849) I have to acknowledge that puffing on a cigarette much more exciting than her husband Bernard’s personality. His disposition conflicted with Therese’s self-acknowledgement that, “She might die of shame, of anguish, of remorse, of exhaustion—but she would not die of boredom.” (Loc 588)

Throughout the book, Therese’s life fluctuated from the prosaic to outright gloom. Her marriage left her feeling unfulfilled. Even her pregnancy didn’t elevate her mood.  Mauriac wrote,

She had counted the months left until the birth; she would have liked to know some God she could implore that this unknown creature, all intertwined with her insides already, would never show itself. (Loc 1020)

It’s pretty bad when those were the character’s good days. Not long after:

As much as Therese suffered during that time, it was only the day after giving birth that she really ceased being able to tolerate living. (Loc 1308)

Pretty progressive material for a novel published in 1927. Unfortunately for her husband, all of these elements contributed to Therese’s decision to attempt his murder.

What drove Therese to want to kill her husband? From Mauriac’s description, I have to honestly admit I didn’t feel any empathy for him.

Bernard, the most precise of men: he classified all feelings, separating them off from each other, unaware of the complex network of passages through which they were joined together. (Loc 582)

And

But he left nothing to chance, and he took pride in his well-organized life: “Bad luck only comes to those who’ve earned it,” the somewhat too-plump young man liked to say. (Loc 647)

Mauriac went even further,

Nothing is ever truly grave for those incapable of loving, and because he was without love, Bernard had never felt more than that species of joy that comes from having eluded a great peril, the sort that a man might feel when he learns that he has been unknowingly living for years on intimate terms with a dangerous maniac. (Loc 1508)

Okay. Bernard wasn’t the type of person who could write greeting cards for a living. He didn’t come across as a bad person, per se, but I didn’t like him. Still, the question remained. What drove his wife to poison him?  

At the end of the book he directly asked Therese for a reason. Yes, you read that right. Even after surviving a poisoning attempt, he remained on speaking terms with his wife. You read that right also. The two remained married. Therese told Bernard,

“I was about to tell you, ‘I don’t know why I did it,’ but now I think perhaps I know—imagine that! It was maybe to see some disquiet, some curiosity in your eyes—some trouble, essentially. I’ve just discovered that, just this second.” (Loc 1908)

Did the guy really deserve to die for being an emotional wasteland? That’s some reason to want to take someone’s life; especially, that of one’s spouse.

My version of Therese Desqueyroux also included Mauriac’s first draft of the story. He titled it “Conscience, the Divine Instinct”. It differed significantly from the completed novel. The narrative took the form of a letter. Obviously, this limited the author to First Person Point of View. Removing the Omniscient POV gave the story a completely different dimension. I enjoyed the great opportunity to delve into another writer’s creative process.

The character descriptions served as the strongest aspect of Therese Desqueyroux.  While I found the people Mauriac wrote about reprehensible, I still wanted to read more about them. I’m also not used to seeing such a pessimistic portrayal of family life. Few authors could write a book about a topic this depressing and including such depraved characters. While doing so, he still crafted an engaging read. While perhaps not suitable for all tastes, I’d still strongly recommend this book.

Book Review – Corydon by Andre Gide

Andre Gide found Corydon so subversive that he only printed a dozen copies when he wrote it. You know there’s an issue when even the author thinks his work too controversial. To compound this, Gide kept those copies in a drawer. He didn’t release Corydon to the public until 1920: nine years later! He included the following quote in his preface: “’Friends,’ said Ibsen, ‘are dangerous not so much because of what they make you do, but what they prevent you from doing.’” (Loc 50) He went on to write:

However, I consider the considerations that I expose in this little book to be of the greatest importance, and I believe it necessary to present them. But, on the other hand, I was very worried about the public and I was ready to seal my thoughts as soon as I believed they could trouble good order. That is why, rather than by personal prudence, that I stuffed Corydon into a drawer and smothered it there for such a long time. However, these last months have persuaded me that this little book, as subversive as it might appear, is only fighting against lies, and nothing is unhealthier, for the individual and for society, then (sic) to accredit lies. (Loc 56)

Just what subject could be so disturbing and contentious for the public good? Corydon served as Gide’s philosophical justification of the then taboo topic of homosexuality.

While I’m heterosexual myself, I knew I had to read this book. I have monumental respect for those who willingly risk personal or professional well-being for the sake of their principles. I also admire people willing to fight for their civil rights in an intransigent society that refuses to yield. For those reasons, I dove into Corydon.

The unorthodox structure won’t appeal to all readers. Gide crafted it in the form of four dialogs between Corydon and an unnamed narrator. He broke the first into three parts, the second into seven, and the third into five. The fourth diverged from this pattern in that it had only one part. I didn’t care for the lack of symmetry.

Although scandalous at the time of publication, I found the narrative dry. Gide performed exhaustive research on his topic and cited many scientific studies on the subject of “uranism” as it was known in his day. Corydon, the character, did espouse some ideas that got my attention. For instance in regard to animal mating, “Fertilization is not what an animal is seeking, simply sensual pleasure.” (Loc 410) Corydon quoted Pascal’s observation that, “all tastes are natural.” The most jarring text read, “…sadism accompanies heterosexuality more than uranism does…” (Loc 358) Expressions such as the later helped to animate the book and make up for the “scientific” parts.

Walter Ballenberger did a good job translating. I did have a few minor issues. At one point Corydon removed a book by Rabelais from his shelf. He then read a passage to the narrator. In the e-book, only two and-a-half lines of periods followed; not the text the speaker cited. I also didn’t like the footnote layout. With most e-books, clicking on the number will take readers to the details. In this version of Corydon, I had to go to the end of the chapter to read them. It became cumbersome.

While Gide published Corydon as an effort to address bigotry, he included some of his own. He wrote the following virulent anti-Semitic remarks:

The Jews have become masters in the art of breaking up our most respected institutions, the most venerable, those that are even the foundation and support of our Western civilization, for the profit of I do not know what kind of license and what looseness of morals which fortunately is repugnant to our good sense and our instinct of Latin sociability. (Loc 1165)

It’s difficult to take the author seriously when he’s just as prejudiced as the target audience.

In spite of that, I thought Corydon erudite and interesting. It’s difficult to comprehend the context of the book as now homosexuals share many of the same rights as heterosexuals. At one point Gide wrote, “The most important thing is not to be cured but to live with the illness.” (Loc 181) Thanks in part to Gide, we now live in a more enlightened era where one’s sexual orientation isn’t viewed as a disease.

Book Review – “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Andre Gide

I became giddy when I found that Walter Ballenberger had translated yet another work of Andre Gide’s. Discovering Gide wrote his own rendition of a parable made this discovery Biblical in proportion for me. As I’ve learned from novels such as The Immoralist and especially Corydon, Gide didn’t hold back in terms of taking shots at society and social mores. I jumped in to “The Return of the Prodigal Son” with stratospheric expectations.

While not the controversial polemic I anticipated, I still enjoyed the story. It took me between a mere half-hour and 45 minutes to read, but it contained a deep multi-layered premise. The concepts of searching, liberty and service repeated throughout the story. During a discussion between the Prodigal Son and his mother, the following exchange appeared.

“I was not looking for happiness.”

“Then what were you looking for?”

“I was looking for…who I was.” (Loc 157)

While speaking with the Youngest Brother, the Prodigal Son revealed the following thoughts.
“I lost the liberty that I was searching for. I became captive in having to serve others.” (Loc 243)

And

“Ah! To serve or not to serve, does one not have the liberty to choose his serfdom?”

“I was hoping for that. As far as my feet carried me, I walked, like Saul in pursuit of his asses, in pursuit of my desire, but where I was awaiting a kingdom, it was misery that I found. And, however…”

“Did you take the wrong route?”

“I marched straight ahead.” (Loc 251)

The author presented most of the story in the form of dialog, a la Corydon, limited to two characters at a time. After rehashing the original story of the Prodigal Son, the author included more chapters to explicate it. In each, the protagonist discussed his journey with his father, older brother, mother, and youngest brother, respectively. All of these elements gave the story an intriguing structure.

I’d recommend Gide’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” to a wide audience. Those familiar with the New Testament parable will enjoy the author’s interpretation. People interested in great French Literature will also find it enlightening. Even though brief, deep, philosophical people will get the most out of this tale. If one does happen to read it after reading this review, please clue me in on the meaning in the various layers of the story.

Gide once wrote, “Believe those who seek the truth, doubt those who find it.” Nothing illustrates his application of that view better than “The Return of the Prodigal Son”.

Book Review – Precedence by Francois Mauriac

I’ve completed reading Walter Ballenberger’s latest translation of great works of French Literature. Unfortunately, Precedence will not be taking precedence among the works in this series.

I’d like to thank Mr. Ballenberger for taking the time to translate the novels of Andre Gide and Francois Mauriac into English. As I’m not fluent in French I’m greatful to have the opportunity to read works I’d otherwise be unable to. As both these authors received the Nobel Prize in Literature, monolingual philistines such as myself now have the opportunity to experience their novels.

Mr. Ballenberger included some fantastic lyrical flourishes in his interpretation. Among them I found a memorable use of synesthesia: “In the exasperation of the cicadas and the flies, he went as if he was drunk with sun, and he became irritated by my complaints.” (Location 303) He added an unusual description of “fauve hair.” (Location 321) Even I had to look that one up. The following more than justified the $4.99 cost of the e-book: “But then I thought that perhaps this was her real face, like the one that God had created with love before the world had caused it to change.” (Loc 418)

While I enjoyed the prose overall, I did discover a few issues. I found the following sentence too much “telling”: “She put her two hands on her face in a gesture that expressed shame.” (Loc 1345) I can’t visualize what such an expression looks like. While I understand Mauriac wrote the novel in 1921, I thought the translator could’ve used this opportunity to provide a bit more description. It would’ve made this passage for digestible to a modern audience.

The use of passive voice in the following sentence jarred me. “Some steps were heard in the vestibule.” (Loc 1382) Once again, while I understand French and English two different languages with divergent means of expression, the translator could’ve cleaned this up.

As I instruct the writers in my Critique Group: was is the mother-of-all “tell” words. Ballenberger overused it in a few cases as the following passage illustrates:

He sensed this was a disaster brewing and made fewer visits, He was already trying to investigate. Since he was an employee in our offices, the people who were alerted to the situation showed him a lot of reserve. (Location 1522)

Was appeared near the beginning of three sentences in a row. In the last phrase, the translator used the word were, which is the daughter-of-all “tell” words. As Mauriac wrote the original novel close to one hundred years ago, the use of action verbs would make this story more appealing to contemporary readers experiencing this work for the first time.

In terms of Mauriac’s novel itself, the overall story came across as hackneyed and banal. I assure everyone reading this that the quote below actually appeared in the story. It’s not a plot summary I wrote myself. It showed up in Location 1004 in the e-book version.

At that point I could no longer contain myself. I described to her the peril. I recalled for her, when we were children, our humiliation and shame of belonging to a class of merchants that was not engaged in wine. I recalled for her our ruses, our strategies, and the triumph of her marriage. She interrupted me and cried out her disgust for such schemes, and that the unforgivable crime of her life was to have misused Augustin (she called him “The unique child”) in order to fulfill our ambitions of belonging to the most horrible of possible worlds. (Location 1011)

Yep. That’s pretty much the entire book. I saved readers 2-1/2 hours of perusing Precedence. I think even those interested in the Machiavellian machinations of those trying to enter vintner high society in early 1920’s France will pass on this one. I’ll spare readers a diatribe on the perils of poorly used exposition.

Precedence didn’t live up to the high expectations its title established. I’m still glad I had the opportunity to read this novel written by a French Nobel Laureate. I’d strongly recommend those interested in English translations of great French Literature to check out some of Ballenberger’s other interpretations of Mauriac and even the works of Gide. They undoubtedly take precedence over this one.

Book Review – The Invitation by Claude Simon

French Nobel Laureate Claude Simon earned the reputation as one of the more challenging authors of the “New Novel” movement. In 1987’s The Invitation he addressed the new direction of Russian government following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I enjoy both challenging reads and political stories, I found this story inviting and couldn’t resist the bidding to read it.

Mr. Simon approached the novel in such an original way that to call it unique wouldn’t describe it adequately. I would label his prose as a hybrid of stream of consciousness with bizarre syntax and punctuation. For those reasons, his work doesn’t appeal to all readers. Here’s an example. I should add that I threw open the book and located this passage at random.

And finally (the plane had already been flying three hours—the plane specially chartered for the fifteen guests, their interpreters, and the five or six attendants whose true purpose, be it to take care of them, to watch them, or to watch each other while among them, no one knew for sure—the airplane, whose departure they had awaited for almost two hours (after having already waited about an hour (which makes three altogether: as though the waiting (because of mysterious orders, annulled by counter orders no less mysterious, themselves annulled in their turn) (Page 18)

I’m not sure how many more pages until a period appeared, so I’ll stop there.

While Simon delivered his prose in a befuddling way, his unorthodox means of expression made this novel worth reading. He presented some marvelous lyrical flourishes. He delivered an outstanding view from an airplane. “…Enigmatic pool of gold that continued to drift on the sea of darkness.” (Page 21) The line about nightfall from the Rush song “Presto” has stuck with me since I first heard the track in 1989:

The evening plane rises up from the runway
Over constellations of light

With the greatest of respect to Neil Peart, I think Simon’s portrayal much better.

Simon’s writing reminded me of the acerbic cynicism of former Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham. Here’s a description of the secretary-general addressing the group of dignitaries sent to meet him. Simon’s unusual syntax worked very well in this section.

…and now he (the secretary-general—or rather the interpreters seated in the little cubicles along the wall parallel to the long table: it was now no longer women that they heard, their unhappy voices tired, stumbling: but men now, whom each of the guests, headphones over his ears, could hear in his own language, the sure tones following the assured speech of the secretary-general speaking without looking at any one of them in particular (none of the fifteen seated guests, seven on one side, eight on the other, here and there at the table where the only element of luxury was the bottles of mineral water: the fifteen guests whom his counselors had said (or whom his counselors had been told) were, each in his own country, important men (or brought out already—or complacent—or sensitive to flattery) and whom he (the secretary-general) took for nothing more than that, though he judged it wise (which his counselors had judged wise) to spend (to have him spend) two hours of his time…with people whose only capacity was to write books, to act in movies, to paint portraits in the English style, or to draft economic treaties (and probably his own experience of economic problems made him see these as less important than the others—except to take into account their influence not on the laws of the markets but proportionally to their renown) (Pages 46 -47)

At times while exploring this passage, I thought I was reading one of Lewis Lapham’s Notebook pieces about a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations.

My main criticism of The Invitation centered on the plot, or rather, the lack of one. The dignitaries attended numerous events in Russia, but still, nothing related to an actual story or moving the narrative forward occurred. I understand the secretary-general sent “the invitation” for a good will tour. Simon described it at his sardonic best, but he made his point very well in the section I cited above. While the novel came in at a brief 65 pages, it did still drag in parts.

Mr. Simon was to literature what Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz was to that genre. The Invitation isn’t for everybody; no doubt it will frustrate casual readers. The passages I cited above give a good sampling of the author’s prose. For those willing to challenge themselves, I’d invite readers to check out this novel.