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Archive for the ‘My Year Of Reading French Literature’ Category

I discovered Nicole Brossard through the book ‘One Hundred Great French Books’ by Lance Donaldson-Evans. Brossard’s ‘Baroque at Dawn’ was one of the books featured there. I found the description of the book interesting. Unfortunately, the English translation of the book was out of print and used copies were difficult to come by. So I did some research on other books by Nicole Brossard. I liked the plot outline of ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’. I got a used copy and finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

 Yesterday At The Hotel Clarendon By Nicole Brossard

Before I tell you what I think about the book, a few words on the author and the edition of the book I read. The first passage below is going to be a long rant. Pardon me for that.

 

Nicole Brossard is French Canadian. When one thinks about Canadian literature and Canadian writers, the name which comes to the top of one’s mind is Margaret Atwood. And then probably L.M.Montgomery, Alice Munro, and Carol Shields. And maybe Michael Ondaatje and Rohinton Mistry. I also think about the Spalding mother-daughter duo, Linda and Esta, David Gilmour and Miriam Towes. (This list of names says more about my own ignorance of Canadian literature than anything else. Canadian literature is alive and kicking, rich and thriving. Me on the other hand – I need to read more and learn more.) Of course, the one thing common between all these writers is that they write in English. And so one normally assumes that Canadian writers write in English. One conveniently forgets that Canada has one province – Quebec – where the first language is French. Or atleast I do. When I discovered that Nicole Brossard was French Canadian and she wrote in French, I was quite excited. I have never heard of a French Canadian writer before, leave alone read one. So I was looking forward to reading one of her books very much. While pondering on Nicole Brossard’s background, I also wondered about something. I wondered what kind of literary prizes a French Canadian author can aspire to and win. Eventhough Canada is part of the Commonwealth, a French Canadian author is not eligible for prizes like the Booker, the John Llewellyn Rhys prize, the James Tait Black memorial prize and other similar prizes because her / his books will be in French. Someone like Nicole Brossard won’t be eligible for the Orange prize because that is given only to women writers writing in English, irrespective of their nationality. I wondered whether a French Canadian writer would be eligible for the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Femina, the Prix Medicis, the Prix Renaudot and the like. I suspect all these prizes are awarded only to French citizens. This made me think of a larger issue – that a writer, who produces great works of literature, might not be known outside her immediate environment because she is not eligible for many of these international literary prizes. It is a real shame, isn’t it? Nicole Brossard has been writing for nearly fifty years (yeah, that is right! It is forty eight years to be precise – she published her first book in 1965), and I don’t know anyone who has read her books. And most of her books are not easily available in English. Which is a shame because she writes quite beautifully (more on this later). She deserves a wider readership.

 

Now on the edition of the book that I read. It is an English translation made in 2005. (The original French book came out in 2001). It is a beautifully produced edition. The paper is thick with horizontal stripes (it can be seen only when you notice it carefully – do you know what this kind of paper is called?). The fragrance of the paper is like that of a new book. The used copy I read came from a library which had given it away. Why would a library give it away? Did no one want to read the book? (The book looks practically unread). The good news though is that if the library hadn’t given it away I wouldn’t have been able to get the book. So that was good for me. Atleast one good thing came out of it.

 

Now on the actual book. ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’ is made up of six parts. The first part which runs for nearly half of the book follows the lives of four different women. One of them is an unnamed narrator who works in a museum. She talks about her life and about her feelings for her mother whom she lost sometime back. The narrator also talks about a writer she meets regularly at the bar called Carla Carlson. Carla always comes to Quebec city (where the story is set) to finish the current novel she is working on. The narrator and Carla have long conversations at the bar while they discuss about their lives – the narrator talks about her mother and about her work while Carla talks about her father and about her novel. The other two characters whose lives the book follows are Simone and Axelle. Simone is the director of the museum in which the narrator works while Axelle is Simone’s grand daughter. Simone’s daughter Lorraine leaves her home and city many years back when Axelle was a child and so Simone and Axelle haven’t met for many years. Both of them somehow get in touch and plan to meet at a restaurant for dinner. The second part of the book goes for around ten ages in which Simone is walking around in her museum admiring different art objects when she receives shocking news. The third part is structured as a play and is set in a bar where the four characters meet, two of them – the narrator and Carla – by design and the other two by coincidence. The fourth part takes the story to Carla’s room and the story continues as a play and reaches its conclusion. The fifth part contains ‘Chapter Five’ of the book that Carla is working on. The sixth part has notes which are found in the room at the Hotel Clarendon. There is an appendix after that which has the English translation of a Latin scene in the fourth part of the book and a list of books that Carla mentions in that part.

 

When we look at the plot, the story told in ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’ seems simple enough. There are four women whose lives the book tracks and whose lives come together in some interesting way. Maybe there are a few surprises in the end. (I am especially intrigued by the identity of the narrator.). Though this is an important part of the book, this is not the whole book. The book is also about a few other things. Interesting things. The book is almost Joycean in its experimental structure. In one of the initial chapters, the unnamed narrator talks about James Joyce and how he refused to use quotation marks in dialogues. Then in one of the next chapters we see a dialogue where there are no quotation marks. This is the beginning of the Joycean game. Later in the book, something interesting happens. Though the narrative is linear, in the third and fourth parts the story is structured as a play – clearly inspired by Joyce. Towards the end of the fourth part, the four characters of the story get transformed into four characters in the novel that Carla is writing which is based on the life of the French philosopher Descartes. And that scene is enacted in Latin. When that scene gets over, the four characters get back to their normal selves. But one of the characters, Carla the novelist, speaks in two voices – as herself and as the Cardinal in the novel on Descartes. The fifth part which is ‘Chapter Five’ of Carla’s novel, doesn’t read like Carla’s novel at all. It reads like a piece written by the narrator because of what it says and some of the clues that the author gives. When I read again this passage from the early part of the book (told by the narrator), after finishing ‘Chapter Five’ I saw things in a totally different light.

 

Our every encounter disturbs the meaning of Carla’s novel. Refreshing it without her awareness. Even here in the bar at the Clarendon, in what Carla calls the mystery of a city that gives insight into the continent, her novel rips us out of history, out of the quiet temporality of bell towers and convents.

 

The sixth part which contains notes seems to be written by the author. But one of the scenes which it describes is the same scene which the narrator of the main novel is part of. It makes us wonder whether the author is the narrator of the novel and whether she is a part of the story. Then when we step back and think it comes to our mind that if the author is a part of the story and is the narrator in the story and the author meets Carla and has conversations with her and the ‘Chapter Five’ which Carla is supposed to have written seems to be written by the narrator and hence it seems to have been written by the author herself, we start wondering whether the narrator and Carla are the same person in actuality but separated into two characters in the narrative. And what about Simone and Axelle? When we start thinking more, our minds start spinning…

 

I liked the inventiveness that Nicole Brossard cunningly employs in the book but this inventiveness hit me only after I finished reading the book and started to think about it. The thing which I totally loved while reading the book was Brossard’s gorgeous prose. It was sublime, lush, delightful, transcendent, luscious, intoxicating. After reading a particular passage and falling in love with it, I thought that this was it. Now Brossard will get back to business and get on with the story. And then followed another intoxicating passage. And then another. And another. It was the kind of intoxication that one gets while listening to classical music, the kind which is pleasurable but on which one never gets drunk. Nicole Brossard is also a poet and it shows in her prose. I want to read this novel again just for Brossard’s prose. As a sample, I will give below some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

While others march gaily toward madness in order to stay alive in a sterile world, I strive for preservation. I cling to objects, their descriptions, to the memory of landscapes lying fully drawn in the folds of things around me. Every moment requires me, my gaze or sensation. I become attached to objects. I don’t readily let go of days by banishing them to the blank book of memory. Certain words ignite me. I take the time to look around. Some mornings, I yield to the full-bodied pleasure of navigating among seconds. I then lose my voice. This doesn’t bother me. I take the opportunity to lend an ear to ambient life with an eagerness I never suspected. The idea of remaining calm doesn’t displease me. Some days I make sure everything is grey, like in November, or somber, for I like storms.

 

Some time ago, while looking for a book in the museum library, I came upon a typewriter page sticking out of a book about diamond cutting. Prompted by curiosity, I read the first lines. I read and reread. Ever since then, this page is always with me. I sometimes read it several times a day Its meaning varies, depending on whether I read it when I get up in the morning, in the afternoon when the sun floods my work table or when I get back from meeting Carla Carlson. I don’t think the page was part of a personal diary. Perhaps of a novel. Some days the meaning of the page seems obvious, on others it wavers like a conversation by the seashore where syllables are drowned out and pronouns merge with the noise of wind and surf. Today I memorized the page. Now it’s part of me and can surge into my thoughts at any time. Whole or in parts, slowly infiltrating my everyday life.

 

When Mother died, I knew every feature of her face by heart. It’s crazy how we never look at faces when we’re speaking with people. As if, from not looking into the eyes too much or seeming not to want to insert ourselves into the other’s thoughts, we end up seeing nothing. Mother couldn’t defend herself. Her whole face was vulnerable to my worried gaze discovering the curve of her nose, of her eyebrows, eyelashes so short, wrinkles not as deep as I’d thought.

 

For a long time I believed it was good to let fiction into one’s life. That this would make it possible to reframe existence, to unfurl landscapes so stunning that afterwards one couldn’t help but love the most ordinary gestures and objects, for, once fiction had traversed them with its kaleidoscopic brilliance, everything comprising reality would shine with a thousand intriguing fires. Fiction was my foothold for touching light

 

Yesterday, Carla called me a passionate reader without knowing a thing about my reading habits. I think she meant I’m a passionate person and the word reader escaped her like a glass slips out of a hand. It’s true that reading is part of my life, that it brings me pleasure, but at the same time it burns me. From the inside. As if, encountering m nostalgia, it ignites an unbearable elation in me.

 

It took me a long time to understand that human beings could find pleasure in one another. I long believed that only necessary things like work, sexuality and providing aid in times of emergency, in times of great disaster and uncontrollable fear, were at the root of all conversations. I always felt I was living in the margins of friendships, which must, they say, be cultivated and maintained with precautions infinitely more subtle than those required for love. Just like the word agony was unknown to me, friendship is, in its essence, I believe, foreign to me. This I discover while talking with Fabrice and Carla. Increasingly, Fabrice is something like a friend. He has that anxiety that often makes men worried and bony yet philosophical. Fabrice transforms his anxiety into a generous tenderness. He knows how to distinguish between true knowledge and the danger of half-baked knowledge rotting in the interstices of lucidity.

 

What, in the end, is a life? What one has seen and told, what one avoids talking about or simply what one has invented and which has been lost over time, unbeknownst to us, very slowly just as one says a week has gone by already, the last day before your departure, three whole years of mad love, seven years of misery, a quarter of a century of war or a quarter of an hour spent waiting on a winter street corner for someone, something, that doesn’t come, that won’t come.

 

People think a ten-year old child is unable to think or to really want. Something. At that very moment, more than anything, I wanted my mother, her rough and busy gestures, her worried look, her blue eyes which, even when she was angry, always seemed soft. Looking in her eyes was like going to the movies. I always tried to do it as long as possible. Children rarely look into parents in the eye, but I always looked at my mother right in the eye. Eventually she’d laugh and say, ‘Hurry up and look at me, we’re leaving’. When I looked at her I felt like I was honouring her and getting closer to her dreams, to her real dreams.

 

To continue the rant from one of the earlier passages above, I just found two reviews of this book on the internet and both of them were in Canadian literary magazines (if you are interested, you can find them here and here.) There was just one review in Goodreads and the first line of it read – I just can’t stand this book anymore.” Really? I am sad at all this.

 

I loved Nicole Brossard’s ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’. The inventive structure was quite interesting and intellectually engaging, but what I loved most was Brossard’s sublime and intoxicating prose. I want to read this book again, just for that. I know that it is early days yet and we are just in March, but I have a strong suspicion that Brossard’s book will be one of my top favourites this year.

 

Have you read ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’ or other books written by Nicole Brossard? What do you think about it?

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‘Simple Passion’ by Annie Ernaux was one of the books mentioned in Lance Donaldson-Evans’ ‘One Hundred Great French Books’. I haven’t heard of Annie Ernaux before and so I decided to try this book. I read it in one sitting and finished it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Simple Passion By Annie Ernaux

‘Simple Passion’, at around sixty pages, is not really a novel. With wide spacing between lines and with luxurious space on the borders of the page, it could be called, at best, a novella or probably a long short story. It is not clear from the book whether it is fiction or a memoir. The classification on the back cover says ‘Literature / Memoir’. The narrator of the book describes the affair she once had with a married man from a different country who was working in Paris. The only way they communicated was by phone when the man called her and told her he was going to visit her. She then waited for him to visit, anxiously preparing herself – getting the right clothes, wearing the right makeup, getting food and drink for the evening, preparing herself emotionally – but also looking forward to the visit with a lot of excitement. But then he comes, they have intimate moments together, he leaves and then she is worn out. And she starts the long agonizing wait for the next phone call from him. At some point she stops seeing her friends, going out for movies or having any kind of social life as she is waiting for her lover’s phone call, when she is not working (this was during the days before the advent of the mobile phone). The narrator’s thoughts about this whole affair comprise the rest of the book.

 

‘Simple Passion’ is an interesting book. There is not much of a plot here – the plot can be told in two lines. The book is mostly about the narrator’s thoughts on life, love, longing, waiting, the agony of parting. I am pretty sure it will deeply resonate with anyone who has had an affair or even with anyone who has ever been in love. Annie Ernaux’s prose is spare and simple, but there are beautiful sentences in every page. Though I read it in one sitting, I read it very slowly and enjoyed lingering over those beautiful sentences. For example, she describes the brief time she spends with her lover as :

 

An interval of time squeezed in between two car noises – his Renault 25 braking, then driving off again

 

And she describes her feelings after her lover leaves like this :

 

As soon as he left, I would be overcome by a wave of fatigue. I wouldn’t tidy up straight away. I would sit staring at the glasses, the plates and their leftovers, the overflowing ashtray, the clothes, the lingerie strewn all over the bedroom and the hallway, the sheets spilling over on to the carpet. I would have liked to keep that mess the way it was – a mess in which every object evoked a caress or a particular moment, forming a still-life whose intensity and pain could never, for me, be captured by any painting in a museum.

 

In another place the narrator describes how she used to shop for new outfits to look beautiful for her lover when he visited her the next time :

 

In his absence, I was only happy when I was out buying new dresses, earrings, stockings, and trying them on at home in front of the mirror – the ideal, quite impossible, being that he should see me each time in a different outfit. He would only glimpse my new blouse or pumps for a couple of minutes before they were discarded in some corner until he left. Of course I realized how pointless new clothes were in the event of his feeling desire for another woman. But presenting myself in clothes he had already seen seemed a mistake, a slackening in the quest for perfection for which I strove in my relationship with him.

 

In another place the narrator talks about the imperfection of communication with her lover and how paradoxically, this imperfection is sometimes perfect.

 

At first I was discouraged by the obvious limitations of our exchanges. These were emphasized by the fact that, although he spoke fairly good French, I could not express myself in his language. Later I realized that this situation spared me the illusion that we shared a perfect relationship, or even formed a whole. Because his French strayed slightly from standard use and because I occasionally had doubts about the meaning he gave to words, I was able to appreciate the approximate quality of our conversations. From the very beginning, and throughout the whole of our affair, I had the privilege of knowing what we all find out in the end : the man we love is a complete stranger.

 

Sometimes we think that writing about something which affected us deeply helps us make sense of it and is therapeutic, but the narrator of the story says something different :

 

I know full well that I can expect nothing from writing, which, unlike real life, rules out the unexpected. To go on writing is also a means of delaying the trauma of giving this to others to read. I hadn’t considered this eventuality while I still felt the need to write. But now that I have satisfied this need, I stare at the written pages with astonishment and something resembling shame, feelings I certainly never felt when I was living out my passion and writing about it. The prospect of publication brings me closer to people’s judgment and the “normal” values of society. (Having to answer questions such as “Is it an autobiography?” and having to justify this or that may have stopped many books from seeing the light of day, except in the form of a novel, which succeeds in saving appearances.)

      At this point, sitting in front of the pages covered in my indecipherable scrawlings, which only I can interpret, I can still believe this is something private, almost childish, of no consequence whatsoever – like the declarations of love and the obscene expressions I used to write on the back of my exercise books in class, or anything else one may write calmly, in all impunity, when there is no risk of it being read. Once I start typing out the text, once it appears before me in public characters, I shall be through with innocence.

 

Annie Ernaux ends the book with this beautiful passage :

 

When I was a child, luxury was fur coats, evening dresses, and villas by the sea. Later on, I thought it meant leading the life of an intellectual. Now I feel that it is also being able to live out a passion for a man or a woman.

 

I have to say that I have got the ‘leading the life of an intellectual’ part right – so I can say that my life is filled with luxury, in a way 🙂

 

‘Simple Passion’ is a beautiful, slim gem. It is a book to be savoured over a winter evening warming oneself next to a fire having a drink. Or alternately, it can be savoured on a warm summer evening, watching the sun set, while sitting outdoors in the garden and sipping a delicious cup of tea. I want to read other books of Annie Ernaux now.

 

Have you read ‘Simple Passion’ by Annie Ernaux? What do you think about it?

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When I read the book One Hundred Great French Books’ by Lance Donaldson-Evans recently, one of the books from Donaldson-Evans’ list which intrigued me was ‘Nadja’ by André Breton. It intrigued me because of two reasons. The first reason was the story – it was about the narrator meeting a strange woman in the streets of Paris and carrying on a conversation with her everyday. The story appealed to be very much, as it reminded me of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘White Nights’ which I like very much. The second reason was the fact that this was regarded as the first Surrealist romance ever written and probably the best. I wanted to see how a Surrealist romance looked like. (I think Mansoura Ez Eldin’s ‘Maryam’s Maze’ is also surrealist, but it is probably not a romance.) So I got ‘Nadja’ a couple of weeks back and finished reading it a few days back. Here is what I think.

 Nadja By Andre Breton

‘Nadja’ has three parts, each spanning around fifty pages. The first part doesn’t have a story – in it, the author, who is also the narrator, describes images of people, places and things that he encounters in early twentieth century Paris. He also describes some events. This part of the book was extremely hard to read. After I read the first two pages, I realized that I can’t read this book like a regular novel. It required lingering on sentences and meditating on words and the images they were trying to paint. Still, I read the first fourteen pages like a regular novel and then went back and read them again from the first page. Then I read the hard paragraphs again, starting from the first one.

 

The first part of the book was not uniformly difficult – some passages, which described people and events, flowed smoothly, while others, which described ideas, required a lot of intellectual effort and moved slowly. The first passage went like this :

 

Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt”. I must admit that this last word is misleading, tending to establish between certain things and myself relations that are stranger, more inescapable, more disturbing than I intended. Such a word means much more than it says, makes me, still alive, play a ghostly part, evidently referring to what I must have ceased to be in order to be who I am.

 

Difficult to read, but also very beautiful, isn’t it? So far, so good. How I wished most of the pages were only as difficult as this. Ten pages later, I encountered this :

 

We might establish a number of intermediate steps between such slope-facts and such cliff-facts. Between those of which I can be only the agonized witness and those others about which I flatter myself I possess the full details, there is perhaps the same distance as between one of those declarations or series of declarations which constitutes the sentence or the text known as “surrealist” and the declaration or series of declarations which, for the same observer, constitutes the sentence or the text whose every term he has fully weighed and measured. He does not consider his responsibility involved, so to speak, in the first case; it is involved in the second. On the other hand, he is infinitely, more surprised, more fascinated by what happens in the former than in the latter. He is also prouder of it, which is certainly remarkable, and feels the freer for it. This is the case with those privileged sensations I have mentioned and whose share of incommunicability is itself a source of pleasures that have no equal.

 

Harder, isn’t it? But also very beautiful. This passage was like reading a text version of a complex computer program. The love of French writers for long sentences with multiple clauses, made it harder for me to read the book. But when I was able to penetrate the meaning of those long, labyrinthine sentences, it was very rewarding. I also thought that it was good practice before starting to read Marcel Proust 🙂

 

The second part of the book was about how the narrator met Nadja in the streets of Paris one day and how they started meeting regularly everyday taking long walks, having conversations and sometimes sitting in a café and talking for long hours. Nadja appears to be a very unique woman. She is a free spirit, she roams the streets, she has a few friends who are all very unique and she discusses art, literature and poetry with the narrator with her own unique insights. Nadja lives in a hotel and it is not very clear how she earns her living. Once she confesses to the narrator that she tried smuggling in cocaine from Amsterdam for one of her friends but she got caught by the police. But the fact that Nadja leads an unconventional life appeals to the narrator even more. At some point, the narrator and Nadja stop meeting and then the narrator discovers that Nadja has been committed to a psychiatric ward. The narrator doesn’t believe that Nadja is mad but he believes that she is just different. This part of the book was an easy read compared to the first part, because most of the pages here were filled with conversations between the narrator and Nadja or described their meetings.

 

The third part of the book has reproductions of paintings and sketches that Nadja has done and given to the narrator. They are all surrealistic with unconventional, powerful images. The narrator also describes these paintings and sketches and gives his own interpretations of their themes.

 

I don’t know how to describe ‘Nadja’. I liked the first part of the book very much, though it was hard to read, because after I learnt to penetrate the meaning of those long sentences, I found it very rewarding. The second part of the book was the story part and logically this should have been the most interesting part of the book. I went into this part expecting delightful conversations like in Dostoevsky’s ‘White Nights’ and the movie ‘Before Sunrise’, but for some reason the conversations didn’t have the sparks that they had in these other works of art that I love. I think that if Dostoyevsky or Chekhov or even Somerset Maugham had written this part of the book, it would have been a roaring success. The third part of the book had a lot of pictures and their descriptions and interpretations – it was like reading a critical appreciation of someone’s work of art. The whole book is interspersed with paintings, sketches and photos of different people and places that the narrator mentions or discusses about in the book. These images are either an integral part of the book or enrich our reading of it.

 

‘Nadja’ is not a book for everyone. It is a challenging read and while there were parts of the book that I loved, there were parts of the book that I wasn’t sure about or which I felt could have been written better. I will however keep coming back to the first part of the book again, because I want to read all those beautiful sentences (which taxed my brain so much) again.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from the book.

                                              

…let no one speak to me of work – I mean the moral value of work. I am forced to accept the notion of work as a material necessity, and in this regard I strongly favor its better, that is its fairer, division. I admit that life’s grim obligations make it a necessity, but never that I should believe in its value, revere my own or that of other men. I prefer, once again, walking by night to believing myself a man who walks by daylight. There is no use being alive if one must work. The event from which each of us is entitled to expect the revelation of his own life’s meaning – that event which I may not yet have found, but on whose path I seek myself – is not earned by work.

 

We are in front of a fountain, whose jet she seems to be watching. “Those are your thoughts and mine. Look where they all start from, how high they reach, and then how it’s still prettier when they fall back. And then they dissolve immediately, driven back up with the same strength, then there’s that broken spurt again, that fall…and so on indefinitely.”

 

I envy (in a manner of speaking) any man who has the time to prepare something like a book and who, having reached the end, finds the means to be interested in its fate or in the fate which, after all, it creates for him.

 

“…each man hopes and believes he is better than the world which is his, but the man who is better merely expresses this same world better than the others.” (this is a quote from Hegel)

 

Have you read ‘Nadja’ by André Breton? What do you think about it?

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I got to know about ‘The Lost Estate’ (‘Le Grande Meaulnes’ in French) by Alain-Fournier after Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ recommended it. As the only novel of a writer who died young and as a novel which is known to deeply resonate with readers, it had a lot of romance attached to it. I couldn’t resist reading it. I finished reading it yesterday and here is what I think.

 The Lost Estate Le Grand Meaulnes By Alain Fournier

 

‘The Lost Estate’ is about two friends Francois Seurel and Augustin Meaulnes (the ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ of the title). Seurel is the narrator of the story, but most of the story is about Meaulnes. Seurel’s father is the headmaster of the school in the village where Seurel also studies. One day a tall boy comes to stay in Seurel’s home and also joins him in school. This boy is Meaulnes. From the day he joins school, he becomes the most popular boy and leader at school resulting to a few other boys getting jealous of him. Then one day Meaulnes takes the cart with the horse to pick up Seurel’s grandparents from the station, but disappears. When he comes back after three days, his clothes are dirty but he is quiet and doesn’t tell anyone what happened. Slowly, after a while he tells his friend Seurel where he had been and what happened. When Meaulnes goes to pick up Seurel’s grandparents, he loses his way and ends up in an old château, where the celebrations for a wedding are in progress. He meets a beautiful girl there, with whom he falls in love at first sight. He later discovers that she is the groom’s sister. While the celebrations are on, people are waiting for the bride and the groom to arrive. When finally the groom comes he says that the wedding is off. Everyone leaves the château and it is empty like nothing ever happened there during the past three days. Meaulnes is dropped near his school by one of the locals. He keeps thinking about the beautiful girl everyday and wants to find the château once again and go back and meet her. But he doesn’t know the way. The rest of the story is about whether he is able to find his way back to the lost castle and win his beloved’s love.

 

I don’t know how to describe ‘The Lost Estate’. It is a story of the loss of adolescence (when we read the narrator’s line ‘inside that old carriage my adolescence had vanished for evermore’ a deep pain seeps into our heart), of how the dreams of adolescence, even if they are realized at a later time, look different in new light. It is a story which will resonate with most of us – about a dream place, sometimes real sometimes imaginary, which if we are lucky, we might discover when we are adolescents, a place where we are able to spend only a few fleeting moments or days, but moments which are joyful, idyllic, blissful, exhilarating and happy and which change our lives forever, a place which we spend the rest of our lives trying to find again. It is a beautiful, sad, poignant and haunting story. The ending is bittersweet – part tragic and part happy, but mostly tragic. Alain-Fournier’s prose is lush, luscious, delightful, beautiful. It is the perfect companion to the haunting story.

 

The Penguin classics edition I read had a wonderful introduction by Adam Gopnik which was a beautiful education in itself. The introduction had this beautiful line which made me smile – “It is left to ordinary books, of which there are many, to teach realistic lessons and point out morals; good books cast spells and cast out demons”. Gopnik’s introduction had this wonderful passage which summarizes the book beautifully and which I partially agree with :

 

But if the novel’s incidents are improbable, its images are unforgettable. Hard to enter, it is still harder to abandon. Once read, Le Grand Meaulnes is forever after seen. Seen rather than remembered. I have noticed that most French readers who are devoted to the book hardly notice or recall, or even brood much on, the somewhat improbable entanglements of the second part of the book…The force of the imagery…is…so strong that it blissfully erases the apparent point of the story.

 

The translator’s note by Robin Buss was beautifully written too and addressed the challenges of translating a fascinating work, starting from the title – a work which is supposedly untranslatable.

 

I also discovered some interesting facts through the story – that French schools had holidays on Thursdays (instead of Saturdays) during the 19th century and an acrobat called Jules Léotard gave his name to the garment. I was also surprised at the use of the word ‘speechifying’ in the story – I had always thought that this was an ‘Indian English’ construct.

 

I loved reading ‘The Lost Estate’. If you like reading poignant stories with beautiful prose, you will love it.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

I am looking for something still more mysterious. I’m looking for the passage that they write about in books, the one with the entrance that the prince, weary with travelling, cannot find. This is the one you find at the remotest hour of morning, long after you have forgotten that eleven o’clock is coming, or midday. And suddenly, as you part the branches in the dense undergrowth, with that hesitant movement of the hands, held unevenly at face height you see something like a long, dark avenue leading to a tiny circle of light…

 

From time to time, the wind, laden with a mist that is almost rain, dampens our faces and brings us the faint sound of a piano which someone is playing in the closed house. At first it is like a trembling voice, far, far away, scarcely daring to express its happiness. It’s like the laughter of a little girl in her room who has gone to fetch all her toys and is displaying them to a friend. I am reminded, too, of the still timorous joy of a woman who has left to put on a lovely dress and returns to show it off without being sure of the effect it will have…This unknown tune is also a prayer, an entreaty to happiness not to be too cruel, like a greeting and a genuflection to happiness…

 

…in the old days, my mother would get worried and come out to tell me, ‘It’s time to come indoors’; but she would take a liking to this walk through the rain and the night, and just say gently, ‘You’ll catch cold!’ then stay with me, talking for a long time.

 

This evening, which I have tried to spirit away, is a strange burden to me. While time moves on, while the day will soon end and I already wish is gone, there are men who have entrusted all their hopes to it, all their love and their last efforts. There are dying men or others who are waiting for a debt to come due, who wish that tomorrow would never come. There are others for whom the day will break like a pang of remorse; and others who are tired, for whom the night will never be long enough to give them the rest that they need. And I – who have lost my day – what right do I have to wish that tomorrow comes?

 

Have you read ‘The Lost Estate’ (‘Le Grand Meaulnes’) by Alain-Fournier? What do you think about it?

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When I decided to read more of French literature this year, I thought I will look for a French anthology, something similar to ‘The Norton Anthology of English Literature’. I hoped that Norton would have a French anthology. I thought I will use this anthology as a base for exploring French literature. But, unfortunately, sometimes our best laid plans come crashing down. I discovered that Norton didn’t have a French anthology. Even more surprisingly I didn’t find any other French anthology in English translation! I was totally surprised. But an interesting thing happened during my search. I stumbled upon a book called ‘One Hundred Great French Books’ by Lance Donaldson-Evans. Without thinking twice I got it last week. Initially I thought that I will browse it a little bit and read one or two pieces and keep it for reference. But after reading the introduction and the first few essays in it, I couldn’t put it down. I also didn’t want to read it fast and so read a few essays everyday for the past week. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

One Hundred Great French Books By Lance Donaldson Evans

‘One Hundred Great French Books’ has two-page essays on a hundred French books which the author Lance Donaldson-Evans thinks are a good place to start while exploring French literature. As each essay is two pages long, the book has a perfect two hundred pages (not including the introduction and the afterword). In each essay, Donaldson-Evans manages to squeeze a lot of things in – an overview of the book and its writer and historical and contextual information about the book. The essays are in chronological order of publishing year. It starts with ‘The Song of Roland’ from the eleventh century (which is regarded as probably the first French book ever) and ends with Michel Houellebecq’s ‘The Possibility of an Island which was published in 2005. Donaldson-Evans has made sure that he has included only books which are available in English translation. This might have resulted in some great books not being included, but it was wonderful news for me. The big stars from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are all there. But starting from 1950, many of the authors were unfamiliar to me. It probably says more about me than about the books included. This part also had many of the books that I wanted to read, because of the unique themes and plots and because of the experimentation in style and storytelling. Some of the authors who were part of the ‘Le Nouveau Roman’ and ‘OuLiPo’ literary movements are included in this part and so it is no wonder that their books are extremely attractive and appealing.

 

When I read the essays on some of these experimental works I felt that some of these French writers had taken, what we might call a regular novel structure – a plot which had a beginning, a middle and an end – which resembled, if we may use an analogy, a simple and perfect square and then had done all kinds of things to it – folded it and created a triangle or snipped off the corners and created an octagon or squeezed it a little bit and created a parallelogram or pulled the edges and smoothened it into a perfect circle or twisted it totally out of shape into a strange or even an impossible object like an Escher painting or a Penrose triangle or a Möbius Strip, so that we have to really challenge the limits of our imagination and think topologically to see the resemblance between the new exotic object and the original innocent square. It is interesting what these experimental writers have done – taking something simple and creating something wild, exotic and unexpected out of it. I myself – I can’t wait to get acquainted more with some of these exotic literary flowers.

 

If we look at ‘One Hundred Great French Books’ through a 21st century lens, the following things are revealed.

 

  • The selection is heavily tilted towards recent centuries – there are 39 books from the 20th/21st centuries, 23 books from the 19th century, 11 books from the 18th century, 10 books from the 17th century, and 17 books from the 11th to the 16th centuries.
  • There are just 10 writers featured who wrote in French but who were from other countries (11 if we include Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was Swiss before he became French).
  • The two omissions that came to my mind were Alain-Fournier (and his book ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’) and Aimé Cesairé (the book describes him as Martinique’s greatest writer while recommending books by other writers from Martinique). Also not a single native Algerian author writing in French is mentioned (though Albert Camus, who is not native Algerian, is there).
  • There are 23 women writers featured out of which 11 are from the post Second World War era. This is no surprise. The interesting thing however is that the first woman writer featured in the book is France’s first woman poet Marie de France from the 12th century. A more interesting writer for me was Christine de Pizan from the 14th / 15th century, who is regarded as probably the first woman writer from Europe (and probably the world) to earn her living by writing. She must have been one hell of a pioneer during her time.  
  • The book doesn’t stick to the main literary genres – novels, short stories, plays, poems – but also includes biographies, philosophical discourses, comics, murder mysteries (how can Georges Simenon be left out? 🙂), essays, travelogues, spiritual texts and books on film. So there is something in it for everyone.
  • This is the last of the numbers, I promise. Out of the 100 books mentioned in the book, I have read just 5 (shame on me!). I really need to redeem that.

 

I made a list of new-to-me writers and books, based on Lance Donaldson-Evans’s book, that I hope to read soon. The most interesting books on that list are these :

 

  • The Heptameron by Marguerite de Navarre – It is the French version of ‘The Decameron’ but has only 70 stories, hence the title. Written Marguerite de Navarre, a Renaissance princess who was the sister of the French king, the story is about five men and five women who have to take refuge in a monastery because of floods. They amuse themselves by telling stories and after each story they have a discussion about it – in some ways it was a predecessor of today’s book clubs. How can one resist a book about a medieval book club? 🙂
  • Letters of a Peruvian Woman by Françoise de Graffigny – It is an epistolary novel written by a fictional Inca princess who ends up in 18th century France and writes to her Peruvian fiancé. What is not to like in this book?
  • Reveries of the Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Rousseau takes walks and writes about the reveries he has in beautiful prose. Walks in the beautiful mountains of Switzerland, communing with nature, observing the birds and the flowers and the meadow and writing down one’s thoughts – it is irresistible, isn’t it?
  • Nadja by André Breton – The narrator of the story is walking in the streets of Paris when he meets a strange woman. They strike a conversation and talk for a long time. They start meeting often and walk aimlessly on the Parisian streets and sit in cafes and talk. There is more to the heroine than meets the eye, of course. As soon as I read the plot summary, I knew that I had to read this book. It had an eerie resemblance to Dostoevsky’s ‘White Nights’ and Ethan Hawke’s ‘Before Sunrise and ‘Before Sunset’ seem to be similar to it too. This is the kind of plot I love and I can’t wait to read this book. It is also the first surrealist novel written – so that aspect of the book is fascinating as well.
  • The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir – I have known about Simone de Beauvioir’s book for a while now, but have never got around to reading it. When I read that she practised what she preached, I realized that she was no ordinary woman. The guru of all modern feminists, I wish she were around today – I would love to sit at her feet as a humble student and ask her to share a little bit of her immense wisdom. I also want to read one of de Beauvoir’s novels, maybe ‘She Came to Stay’ or ‘The Mandarins’.
  • Mythologies by Roland Barthes – Barthes’s literary and intellectual essays on popular culture and themes – well, that says it all. I can’t wait to read it.
  • Trap for Cinderella by Sébastien Japrisot – A murder is planned by two women (to kill a third) and it appears that things go well. But the survivor can’t remember anything, her body is scarred beyond recognition and she doesn’t know whether she was the murderer or she was the one who has survived the murder attempt. How much better can a literary thriller get? Want to read it now!
  • Missing Person by Patrick Modiano – It is about a man who has forgotten his past and who tries to get it back. While on his quest for the truth, he first discovers that he is one person and then he discovers that he is another person. The plot had an uncanny resemblance to ‘The Bourne Identity’. So I did some research and discovered that ‘Missing Person’ was first published in 1978 while ‘The Bourne Identity’ was first published in 1980. Was Robert Ludlum inspired by this book? We will never know. If will be a shame if Ludlum had lifted the idea from this book without acknowledging it. However, this resemblance makes me more and more confident of a suspicion that I have had for sometime now – if there is an inventive new plot written by a new writer there is almost always a French original out there. Anything new, inventive and experimental – the French have already done it decades back. The others are just inspired by it, copying it or reinventing the wheel.
  • The Sand Child by Tahar Jen Belloun – A storyteller tells a story in the marketplace based on a manuscript that he says a woman gave him. The story is about a father who wants to have a son (so that his inheritance will pass on to him smoothly) but has only daughters. So when he has a eighth child who is also a daughter, he does something and then gets a son. What he does, whether the secret comes out and who the mysterious woman who gave the manuscript to the storyteller is – the answer to these questions forms the rest of the story.
  • Baroque at Dawn by Nicole Brossard – This novel explores the connection between desire and literary creation. It also has a character called Nicole Brossard, which essentially means that the book has this delicious structure where there are stories within stories and characters move from an inner story to an outer story and then on to the real world and vice versa, the kind of book which will blow your mind. I can’t wait to read it.

 

I loved Lance Donaldson-Evans’s ‘One Hundred Great French Books’. Starting from the cover which had reproductions of Pierre Auguste Renoir’s ‘The Reader’ (Renoir’s son Jean Renoir’s memoir is one of the books featured inside) and Eugene Delacroix’s ‘Leading the People’ (Delacroix’s diary is also featured in the book), to the wonderful introduction (which had an interesting fact – that the Marquis de La Fayette fought in the American War of Independence on the American side), to the crisp essays, to the interesting afterword, to the font, the whole book was perfect. I felt like I was doing a crash course in French literature in a pleasant way, getting introduced to important French books through beautiful, concise essays without the hard parts which are there in an academic course – writing papers and exams. Donaldson-Evans has been a teacher of French literature for more than forty years and his love and passion shine throughout the book. The afterword in the book mentions fifty more French books that the reader might want to explore. If you are new to French literature and would like to explore it this book is an excellent place to start.

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