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Archive for the ‘French Literature’ Category

I first discovered Madame de Sévigné’s letters through Somerset Maugham’s book ‘The Razor’s Edge‘. In that story two of my favourite characters sit on the bank of a river everyday and read Madame de Sévigné’s letters to each other. I have wanted to read those letters since that day.

I later discovered that in Marcel Proust’sIn Search of Lost Time‘, Madame de Sévigné’s letters are the favourites of the narrator’s grandmother and mother. Not surprising, as Somerset Maugham has a long record of lifting stuff from his favourite French writers. Why would an American sit on the riverbank in the French countryside and read Madame de Sévigné’s letters with a French woman? I didn’t think like this when I read Maugham’s book. I didn’t ask this logical question. I am glad I didn’t. I wouldn’t have discovered Madame de Sévigné otherwise.

There are 1120 known letters of Madame de Sévigné today. (or 1386 letters, depending on who is counting 😊). There are around 138 that are present in this selection. The earliest letter is dated March 1648, and the last letter is dated March 1696 – that is 50 years of correspondence right there. As these are all letters written by Madame de Sévigné to her family members and friends – her daughter is the recipient of most of her letters – they are very personal. She praises her daughter and showers affection on her in every letter and it is endearing to read. However, if Madame de Sévigné was around today, she would be shocked to know that her personal letters, have been translated into many languages and are being read by strangers in other continents. But I am glad that her granddaughter broke all kinds of etiquette and published her grandmother’s correspondence. We would have lost a great literary and historical work otherwise.

There is another important feature to these letters. As Madame de Sévigné knew most of the prominent French personalities of her time – she was close friends with Madame de Lafayette and La Rochefoucauld, and she even knew the Queen and the King – her letters give a first-hand insider’s view of how historical events unfolded during her time. She writes about how a corruption scandal rocked French society of those times, about how different people gain the King’s favour and fall out of favour, how the King’s mistresses are jealous of each other, about the different wars that the French fought and the personal impact they had on Madame de Sévigné and her friends (because friends and family members were deployed in the army on the front), the complex relationship between France and England and their royal families, her own friendship with Madame de Lafayette and La Rochefoucauld – Madame de Sévigné writes about all these and more. One of my favourite parts is that in which she compares the plays of Racine and Corneille. A new play called ‘Bajazet’ by Racine has just been staged and people are raving about it, and this is what Madame de Sévigné says about it initially –

“Racine has written a tragedy called ‘Bajazet’ which raises the roof; indeed it doesn’t go from bad to worse like the others. M. de Tallard says it is as far above the plays of Corneille as those of Corneille are above those of Boyer. That is what you might call praise; it doesn’t do to keep truths hidden. We shall decide later with our own eyes and ears.”

Later having watched the play, she says this –

“‘Bajazet’ is very fine, but I do think it is a bit muddled at the end. There is plenty of passion, and not such unreasonable passion as in ‘Bérénice’. But to my taste I don’t think it comes up to ‘Andromaque’, and as for the finest plays of Corneille, they are as much above those of Racine as Racine’s are above all the others.”

In another letter she says this –

“Of course there are some good things in it, but nothing perfectly beautiful, nothing that carries you away, none of those speeches of Corneille that thrill you. My dear, let us be careful not to compare Racine to him, let us appreciate the difference. There are cold and weak parts, and he will never go further than ‘Alexandre’ and ‘Andromaque’. ‘Bajazet’ is less good in the opinion of many people and in mine, if I may make so bold as to quote myself.”

I have read neither Racine nor Corneille and so I can’t really compare. But I have seen Racine’s plays in the bookshop but I have never seen Corneille’s plays. I don’t know why. I want to read both and see whose works I like more.

Another fascinating thing I discovered from the book is about a person called Madame de Brinvilliers. Brinvilliers is accused of poisoning her family members after her lover’s papers (in which he talks about that) end up in the police’s hands, after he dies. There is not much evidence otherwise, against her, but still she is convicted and condemned to death. I am wondering whether Alexandre Dumas based his character Milady de Winter on Madame de Brinvilliers.

Madame de Sévigné’s letters are filled with beautiful lines, words of wisdom and quotable quotes. Reading her letters is like talking to our favourite aunt who has come visiting (or we have gone visiting to her place) and Aunt Marie tells us about the people she met and the interesting things that happened recently, and it is wonderful and charming to listen to. (Aunt Marie is from Marie de Rabutin–Chantal, which is Madame de Sévigné’s original name.)

Madame de Sévigné’s letters cannot be read like a journal or a diary or a novel or a nonfiction book. Because they are letters, it is assumed that the recipients know the people mentioned in them. And Madame de Sévigné mentions a lot of people. It is almost like the cast of ‘War and Peace’. So it is a more enriching experience to read them slowly, read more on the historical events she has written about, and research more on the personalities she has mentioned.

I loved reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné. It gives us an intimate, first-hand view of the happenings of that era. It is living history, as they say, and we get a glimpse of that in these pages through Aunt Marie’s charming voice. Reading this book is a perfect example of what Yoshida Kenko says – “It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.” Talking to Aunt Marie through this book and hearing her voice through these letters was beautiful.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. I am too lazy to type and so am sharing the picture of the page, sorry 😊

Have you read Madame de Sévigné’s letters? What do you think about them?

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In Raymond Queneau’sThe Flight of Icarus‘, the novelist Hubert Lubert discovers one day that the main character in the novel he is working on, Icarus, has disappeared from the pages of the book. He is not able to proceed further with his novel in the absence of the main character. He is upset. His author friends suggest that he hire a detective who can find Icarus and get him back. Hubert hires this detective. Meanwhile, Icarus has jumped from the novel manuscript into the real world, ends up in a bar, learns to drink absinthe, meets a beautiful woman, and goes home with her. Before long, more and more crazy stuff happens, Icarus starts living his life in the real world, the detective is looking for him, two other characters leave the pages of the book to come in search of him, and another character leaves another book, because he doesn’t want to do what the author wants him to. How all this craziness ends and the situation is resolved forms the rest of the story.

The Flight of Icarus‘ is regarded as the only Queneau novel written in the form of a play. I have heard of novels-in-verse, but this is the first time I am hearing of a novel in play form. I thought that something which is written in the form of a play is a play. I don’t know why it is called a novel. Well, whether it is called a novel or a play – which is all just semantics anyway – it tells a fascinating story. This kind of story – a character jumping out from a book into the real world – has been done to the death in the 21st century by authors including Cornelia Funke, Jasper Fforde and even Jodi Picoult (with her daughter Samantha Van Leer), but when Queneau wrote this book, he was probably the first to do it in modern times. For readers unfamiliar with this plot device, this book is innovative and mind-blowing. It is a classic Oulipo experimental work which we would expect from Queneau. The other writers probably borrowed this idea from Queneau’s book.

The fact that the book is written in play form works in its favour, because the story moves through dialogue, it is engaging and the pages fly by fast. The vintage Queneau humour and puns are on glorious display throughout the book. Queneau even sneaks in philosophical passages in a conversation in humorous ways. In one scene, there are two characters having a conversation, and the first one is called Jean and the second one is called Jacques – we almost expect a third character called Rousseau there 🙂 I loved all the characters in the story, they all play their roles perfectly, but my favourite was one called LN – she is the person Icarus meets when he ends up in the real world. She is cool, no-nonsense, speaks her mind, and does what her heart wants. At the beginning of the book, the translator Barbara Wright talks about the challenges of translating Queneau into English, and the challenges of translating in general, and it is very fascinating to read.

I loved ‘The Flight of Icarus‘. It is a pioneering book and it was lots of fun to read. I think out of the three Raymond Queneau books I read recently, this is my favourite.

Have you read ‘The Flight of Icarus‘? What do you think about it?

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When I was trying to explore French literature a few years back, one of my friends recommended Raymond Queneau’sZazie in the Metro‘. I couldn’t read it at that time, but finally got to read it today.

Zazie arrives at Paris from the countryside where she lives. Her mother hands her over to her uncle for the next two days. Zazie has one dream that she wants to realize during her time in Paris. She wants to travel by the metro. But the metro is not operational that day because the metro employees are on strike. Zazie is not interested in anything else and is bored at her uncle’s home. Then she decides to step out of her uncle’s home and wander the streets and meets a stranger and one thing leads to another, and before she knows she is involved in one adventure after another. I thought the book would be about Zazie’s adventures, but at some point the cast of characters in the book expands, the action explodes, things get crazy, there are surprises revealed, and before long the story resembles a screwball comedy.

Raymond Queneau’s prose has a lot of wordplay and it is very enjoyable to read. For example, this sentence :

“‘Coming!’ she replied, just loudly enough to enable her words to cleave the air with the desired speed and intensity.”

And this one :

“…analysing this strange behaviour, some according to deductive reasoning, others according to inductive…”

And this one :

“…whose nascent passion had not entirely obnubilated her native cartesianism”

And this one :

“At the hour when one is wont to drink soft drinks of strong colour and strong drinks of pale colour…”

And this one, which made me smile 🙂

“Zazie has joined Laverdure in somnia.”

Wordplay is very difficult to translate from one language to another, especially between two languages which have very different grammatical structures like French and English. The English translation of the wordplay is enjoyable, but one can’t help wondering whether it is an accurate translation (and whether such a thing is possible) or an acceptable anglicized one, and how much more beautiful the French version must be. Zazie and many other characters also seem to speak in a regional dialect of French and that contributes a lot to the atmosphere, the style, the mood and the humour in the story. The translator has attempted the impossible task of rendering this in English, and one can’t stop admiring her heroic effort, but it is also hard to avoid the sneaky feeling of despair that this is a fool’s errand.

A few times, Queneau sneaks in some philosophical passages, without revealing his intentions – we are not sure whether we should contemplate seriously on them or whether we should laugh aloud because of the underlying, understated humour 🙂 One of my favourites of these philosophical passages was this one :

“Being or nothingness, that is the question. Ascending, descending, coming, going, a man does so much that in the end he disappears. A taxi bears him off, a metro carries him away, the Tower doesn’t care, nor the Panthéon. Paris is but a dream, Gabriel is but a reverie (a charming one), Zazie the dream of a reverie (or of a nightmare) and all this story the dream of a dream, the reverie of a reverie, scarcely more than the typewritten delirium of an idiotic novelist.”

Zazie in the Metro‘ is a rip-roaring, irreverent comedy from the beginning to the end with wonderful wordplay. Zazie, with her sharp wit and repartee, wisdom beyond her age, and the ability to annoy grown-ups effortlessly with her intelligent retorts and quick wordplay, is one of the cool, stylish characters in fiction. ‘Zazie in the Metro’ is probably very different from other Raymond Queneau books, because the Raymond Queneau who wrote this book was not the nerd Queneau, the ‘intellectual and polymath of the highest order’ who founded the Oulipo group. The Raymond Queneau who wrote this book was a person who loved fun, who loved humour, who loved wordplay, and who revealed his boyish, fun side to us through this book. I enjoyed very much seeing this side of Raymond Queneau. This book was adapted into a film too, and it was well-received when it first came out. I want to watch that sometime.

Have you read ‘Zazie in the Metro‘? What do you think about it?

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The Small Pleasures of Life‘ was highly recommended by Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’ and I have wanted to read it for a long time. I finally got to read it today.

The Small Pleasures of Life‘ is a collection of short essays, most of them two or three pages long. In each of these essays Philippe Delerm meditates on one of the little things in life, that we take great pleasure in. There is one essay on shelling peas in the morning after breakfast. There is another on the fragrance of apples. There is another on getting up early in the morning and going to the bakery when the air is still fresh and crisp, enjoying the fragrance of the freshly baked bread, and buying delicious croissants and having them on the way back. There are other essays on the first sip of beer, the pleasures of a banana split icecream, reading on the beach, a trip to the cinema, reading a newspaper during breakfast, the mobile library. There is even one on Agatha Christie. There are thirty four essays in all.

The Small Pleasures of Life‘ is a beautiful little gem. Each essay in it is a delight. My favourites were the one on shelling peas, and the one on buying croissants. But I really loved them all. I wish I had been able to read the book in French – I think it would have been even more delightful. It is a beautiful book to take out with you to the garden, taking in the cool, pleasant spring air, watching the butterflies glide around, while dipping into the book and enjoy reading about these little pleasures, while indulging in one or two of them yourself, like sipping a cup of delicious tea, or scratching your dog or your cat behind her ears. If you can read it in French, it will be even better.

I wasn’t sure whether share a few favourite passages from the book or one full essay. I opted for the latter, so that you can enjoy the delights of a full essay. Happy reading!

Helping Shell Peas

It always happens at that low ebb of the morning when time stands still. The breakfast leftovers have been cleared, the smell of lunch simmering on the stove is still some way off and the kitchen is as calm as a church. Laid out on the waxed table-cloth: a sheet of newspaper, a pile of peas in their pods and a salad bowl.
Somehow you never manage to get in on the start of the operation. You were just passing through the kitchen on your way to the garden, to see if the post had arrived, when …
‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
As if you didn’t already know the answer. Of course you can help. Just pull up a chair. Soon an invisible metronome will lull you into the cool hypnotic rhythm of shelling peas. The operation itself is deliciously simple. Use your thumb to press down on the join and the pod instantly opens itself, docile and yielding. For reluctant peas who disguise their youth with shrivelled skin, use the nail of your index finger to make an incision that will rip open the green and expose all the moisture and firm flesh beneath. You can send those little green balls rolling out at the push of a finger. The last one is unbelievably tiny. Sometimes you can’t resist crunching it. It tastes bitter, but fresh as an eleven o’clock kitchen where the water runs cold and the vegetables have just been peeled – nearby, next to the sink, naked carrots glisten on the tea towel where they’ve been left to dry.
You talk in little snippets of conversation, the words welling up from the calm inside you, and again an invisible music seems to be at play. Occasionally you raise your head at the end of a sentence, to look at the other person; they, of course, keep their head lowered – it’s all part of the code.
You talk about work, about plans, about feeling tired – steering clear of anything psychological. Shelling peas isn’t a time to explain things, it’s a time to go with the flow, in a detached sort of way. You’re looking at five minutes’ worth of work, but the pleasure lies in rolling up your sleeves and making the moment last, slowing down the morning pod by pod. You plunge your hand into the contents of the salad bowl and let the peas trickle through your fingers. They’re delicate as liquid, all those contiguous round shapes in a pea-green sea, and you’re actually surprised to discover that your hands aren’t wet. A long, fulfilled silence, and then: ‘Right, all we need now is someone to go and get the bread …’

Have you read ‘The Small Pleasures of Life‘ by Philippe Delerm? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Raymond Queneau’sExercises in Style‘ for many years. I finally got around to reading it today.

Raymond Queneau was one of the founders of the literary movement called Oulipo. Writers who were members of this movement, experimented with the structure of the novel and extended it into new territory. In ‘Exercises in Style‘, Raymond Queneau tells a story in the first page in two short paragraphs. Then, in the rest of the book, he tells this same story in 98 different ways. So there are 99 different versions of the same story here. While retelling these stories in those infinite different ways, Queneau plays with perspective, with prose, with language, with grammar, with literary form. In some versions of the story, the differences between the new version and the original version are so stark, that it is fascinating. There are, of course, some versions that I liked more than the others. You can read some of my favourites in the pictures below.

Matt Madden took inspiration from Queneau’s original idea, and created a one-page comic, and then retold the same story in 98 different ways and compiled them into a book called ‘99 Ways to Tell a Story : Exercises in Style‘. In principle, it is a book which is similar to Queneau’s, but because Madden adopts the comic form, it is also very different and fascinating in its own way. I have shared some of the stories in the pictures below so that you can experience them for yourself.

The third thing I wanted to write about was that Margaret Atwood did something similar many years back. She wrote a story in one paragraph. Then she wrote different versions of it and each version was very different and very fascinating. The whole thing was called ‘Happy Endings‘. I am sharing that too in the pictures.

Raymond Queneau’s book was pathbreaking because he was probably the first to do something like this. It is so hard to believe that it came out in 1947, because it feels so modern, and it is still quite fascinating to read. Matt Madden’s book will appeal to modern audiences because it employs the comic form. Margaret Atwood’s version is an education in the art of storytelling. I loved all three.

Have you read any of these books / stories? What do you think about them?

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I have wanted to read ‘Batchalo‘ by Michaël Le Galli and Arnaud Bétend, for a long time, and today I took it down from my bookshelf and read it in one breath.

In February 1939, a caravan of Tzigane gypsies (Hungarian gypsies) come and camp in the outskirts of a small village in Bohemia. They visit that village regularly to sell the beautiful stuff they make. But this time, a couple of children in the village go missing. The villagers suspect the tziganes. When the villages visit the tziganes to ask about it, they discover that the tziganes are closing camp and leaving. This leads to suspicions that the tziganes might have stolen their children. But after some questioning, the tziganes reveal that some of their own children who have been playing with the village children have gone missing too, and so they are going in search of the missing children. The village policeman, Josef, who is also the narrator of the story, joins them, because his own son is one of the missing children. What adventures befall the tziganes and Josef? Are they able to find the missing children? The answers to these are revealed in the rest of the story.

Batchalo‘ is a beautiful, poignant, heartbreaking story. It is an account of the life and the culture and the mythology of the gypsies – a community who don’t belong to any country, who have their own culture and beliefs, and who believe in freedom and living under the open sky – how the Nazis try suppressing them, and what happens in the aftermath. We see the events unfolding through the eyes of Josef, the policeman. Though I liked Josef, my favourite character was Silenka, the gypsy medicine woman and witch who takes Josef under her wing. She is strong, inspiring, fearless, and speaks her mind. The sepia-tinted artwork by Arnaud Bétend is exquisite and is a visual treat which sets a melancholic, atmospheric tone to the story. I read that it took him four years to complete the artwork featured in the book.

I loved ‘Batchalo‘. It is one of my favourite graphic novels. I want to read more about the European gypsy community and the Tzigane community now. I am sharing the first few pages of the book, so that you can get a feel for its artwork and atmospheric tone.

Have you read ‘Batchalo‘? What do you think about it?

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