Posts Tagged ‘20th Century French Literature’

This year is French writer Romain Gary’s centenary and Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’ is hosting ‘Romain Gary Literature Month’ to celebrate the occasion. I have wanted to read a Romain Gary book since I discovered him last year and so I decided to participate and read Gary’s memoir ‘Promise at Dawn’. Here is what I think.

Romain Gary Centenary

‘Promise at Dawn’ is Romain Gary’s memoir from the earliest time he can remember till the time around the end of the Second World War. The book starts with Gary sitting in the beach alone in the company of birds and seals and looking back at his life. Gary then describes his early life from the time he lived in Russia where his mother was an actress in the theatre circuit. It then charts their journey from Russia to Poland where they lived for a few years in between and then their move from there to Nice in France. Gary talks about his mother’s love for him, the dreams she had for him (should study to become a lawyer, should become an officer in the airforce, should become an Ambassador of France, should be popular among women, should become a famous writer and win the Nobel prize – Gary managed to achieve all of it, except the Nobel prize winning part, but in his defence he won two Prix Goncourt). The early scenes in which Gary describes his family’s poverty and how his mother tries her best to make ends meet while always making life comfortable for him, are very moving. The way his mother shows him gentle maternal love when it is needed and the way she shows him tough love when it is required is beautifully portrayed. Gary’s prose is simple and beautiful. There are long sentences – positively Proustian in their length – but they pull us inside the story and so they don’t feel long. I sometimes found myself resisting the pull of the story and putting myself outside it and trying to find out how long some of the sentences were (and they were long, very long). I think it is a tribute to his mastery that he makes long sentences accessible to a general reader.

Promise At Dawn By Romain Gary


There are beautiful passages throughout the book which I lingered on when I read the first time, and which I went back to again and again and re-read many times. Some of my favourites were these : 

The Sea

My first contact with the sea was unforgettable. I had never met anything or anybody, except my mother, who had a more profound effect on me. I am unable to think of the sea as a mere “it” – for me she is the most living, animated, expressive, meaningful living thing under the sun. I know that she carries the answer to all our questions, if only we could break her coded message, understand what she tries persistently to tell us. Nothing can really happen to me as long as I can let myself fall on some ocean shore. Its salt is like a taste of eternity to my lips, I love it deeply and completely, and it is the only love which gives me peace.

How Goethe Lied

I also feel it is time that the truth about Faust be made known. Everyone has lied before, Goethe worse than anyone; he has lied with genius. I know that I should not say what I am going to say, for if there is one thing I hate doing, it is depriving men of their hope. But there it is : the tragedy of Faust is not at all that he sold his soul to the devil. The real tragedy is that there is no devil to buy your soul. There is no “taker”. No one will help you to catch the last ball, no matter what price you are willing to pay. There is, of course, a gang of smart phonies, who give themselves airs and claim they are prepared to make a deal, and I don’t say that one cannot come to terms with them with a certain amount of profit. One can. They offer success, money, the applause of the mob. But if you have had the misfortune to be born a genius, if you are Michelangelo, Goya, Mozart, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Malraux, you are destined to die with the feeling that all you have ever done was sell peanuts.

The Attraction of Endings

I was sitting in my room on the ground floor in front of the open window, writing the last chapter of the great novel I was working on at the time. It was a great last chapter. I regret to this day that I somehow never got around to writing the preceding chapters. I have always had a certain tendency to do last things first, a feeling of urgency, an eagerness for achievement that always made me very impatient with mere beginnings. There is something pedestrian and even mediocre about beginnings. In those days I had written at least twenty last chapters, but I somehow could never bother to begin the books that went with them.


There is an underlying sense of humour throughout the book. The fairytale picture of France that Gary’s mother paints when they live in Russia and Poland, telling him that one day they will reach there and become truly French, are touching but also make us smile. One of my favourite funny scenes was when a girl suddenly arrives by taxi to Gary’s home rushes in and hugs his mother and starts crying and tells his mother that Gary made her read all the volumes of Proust and now no one would marry her and so he should marry her immediately. There were also many touching and beautiful scenes in the story. One of my favourites was about his friend from the airforce called Bouquillard during the Battle of Britain. It goes like this :


      He became the first French “ace” in the Battle of Britain before being brought down after his sixteenth victory. The roof of his cockpit jammed and he couldn’t bale out, and twenty pilots standing in the operation room, their eyes riveted on the black maw of the loudspeaker, heard him sing the great battle hymn of France until his Hurricane exploded…

      No Paris street has been christened after him, but for me all the streets of France bear his name. 


That passage brought tears to my eyes when I read it the first time. It brings tears when I type it now.


There were mentions of writers in the book, some of whom are my favourites, which made me happy – the poètes maudites Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire and Walter Scott, Karl May and Robert Louis Stevenson. There is also mention of a delicious biscuit called Les Petits Beurres Lulu (At the time of the writing of the book, Gary says that this biscuit is still available. It has been fifty years since the book was first published. I hope Les Petits Beurres Lulu is still available. Because I want to try that.) Gary also mentions Russian dill pickles many times and says that his favourite thing to do was to buy them from a vendor put them on a newspaper and sit somewhere and eat them slowly and peacefully. One of my biggest regrets was not trying them when I was strolling the streets of Moscow. Maybe I should make a trip again just to try them. Or maybe I should make it at home. The ingredients mentioned in the recipe look like ones I could get.


The ending of the book was like the climax of a novel or a movie. It was surprising and heartbreaking, though Gary leaves some clues before and I could see it coming.

La Promesse De L Aube By Romain Gary

I loved ‘Promise at Dawn’. It is the story of a mother’s love for her son and her dreams of a new country and a new future for him. It is a beautiful song that Romain Gary sings for his mother and it is sweet to hear, though it talks about both the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful things of the world. Definitely one of my favourite reads of the year and one of my favourite memoirs ever.


Have you read ‘Promise at Dawn’? What do you think about it?

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After reading Annie Ernaux’ Simple Passion, I read somewhere that that book was similar to Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. So, I thought I should read The Lover sometime. Recently while thinking of new French novels to buy, I discovered that there was an omnibus edition which had four of Marguerite Duras’ novels in it – The Square, Moderato Cantabile, 10:30 on a Summer Night and The Afternoon of Mr.Andesmas. Four novels in one book – how can one resist it? I also remembered that Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat had recommended Moderato Cantabile and 10:30 on a Summer Night and Moderato Cantabile was also one of the featured books in Lance Donaldson-Evans’ One Hundred Great French Books. So, I had to get this collection. I got it last week and finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Four Novels By Marguerite Duras

All the four novels featured in the collection – The Square, Moderato Cantabile, 10:30 on a Summer Night and The Afternoon of Mr.Andesmas – had one common narrative technique. Two strangers, typically a man and a woman, met accidentally in a place – a park, a café, a bar, a meadow – and started a conversation. The rest of the book was the conversation. Sometimes the conversation happened over a few hours. Sometimes it got interrupted and continued the next day and went on like this for a few days. So, most of these books were filled with conversations and dialogue. This is the kind of narrative technique which is irresistible for a reader like me. So, I totally loved the format of these novels.


Now on the individual novels.


The Square features a travelling salesman and a housemaid who meet accidentally in a park. They sit at the opposite ends of a bench and strike up a conversation. They talk about their lives and experiences which touched them deeply. The maid wants to change her life, but she feels that she can do it only if she gets married. The salesman is indifferent to his life and has accepted it. He enjoys travelling and the experience of discovering new cities though he doesn’t think much about his job. How this accidental meeting touches these two people and brings subtle but important changes to their perspectives on life forms the rest of the story.


Moderato Cantabile is about Anne who takes her son every week to a piano class. One day, at the café opposite the piano teacher’s house, a man shoots and kills a woman. After the class Anne strikes up a conversation with a bystander and discovers that the man and the woman were lovers and the woman was already married. It is not clearly known why he shot the woman. Some people say that she asked him to shoot her and he did it out of love. The next day Anne takes her son for a walk to that place, enters the café and has a glass of wine. A stranger sits next to her and Anne strikes up a conversation with him. They talk about the dead woman and her lover who killed her and who has now been arrested. This stranger buys Anne more wine. After a while Anne leaves, but she comes back the next day. The stranger waits for her. They have wine together and continue their conversation. They continue talking about the two lovers, one of whom is dead. The stranger says that they probably met in a café like this and started having a conversation accidentally which later turned into love. After a while we the readers start getting the feeling that Anne’s life starts resembling that of the dead woman more and more – she meets a stranger in a café and has a conversation, she starts going to the café regularly and the stranger waits for her and buys her wine and the continue with a conversation, and they start feeling a connection. Anne is also married to a wealthy man and she has a son. What happens next? Will this all end well? Will Anne’s life really mirror that of the dead woman? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.


10:30 on a Summer Night starts with a scene which is very similar to the main theme of Moderato Cantabile. There is a woman who is sitting in a café and she has a glass of wine while having a conversation with a stranger. The stranger tells her about a murder that has happened in the town recently. A young woman has been shot and killed by her husband Rodrigo. When I reached this point of the story, I couldn’t wait to find out whether this was another version of the story told in Moderato Cantabile, but told from a different perspective. But, at this point the story changes direction. This woman, Maria, goes to the hotel where her husband Pierre, her daughter and her friend Claire are waiting in the lobby. Maria senses that Pierre and Claire are in love, but they try to hide it from her. She is unsure of the future. That night because of the storm which is passing over the city there is no power and everything is dark. There is a murderer afoot as Rodrigo hasn’t been caught by the police yet. There are policemen everywhere waiting to nab Rodrigo. Maria is not able to sleep at night, while everyone else is sleeping soundly. She suddenly sees a humanlike form on the opposite roof. She realizes that it could be Rodrigo. She calls him gently. After a while he responds by getting up and waving his hand. Maria asks Rodrigo to wait, goes out, gets her car, goes to that building entrance and asks Rodrigo to climb down from the roof and come down. He comes down and hides in her car. Maria beats the police patrol and drives out of the city into the countryside. She parks near the fields and Rodrigo gets out. They have a short conversation. Maria tells him that she has to go back to the hotel. She says that she will come back by around noon and get him and then they can leave the city. Rodrigo nods and then goes to sleep in the fields. Maria goes back to the hotel. Is Maria able to come back and get Rodrigo? Is Rodrigo able to escape from the police? Does anything happen between Maria and Rodrigo? What happens between Maria and Pierre? Do Pierre and Claire get together? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.


The events of The Afternoon of Mr.Andesmas happen across an afternoon. Andesmas is sitting in his chair outside his home which is there on a hill, dozing away the afternoon. He has an appointment with Michel Arc who is expected to come and discuss with him about building a terrace for his house (his daughter Valerie wants the terrace) but Michel hasn’t arrived. After a while a dog passes through the place, tries to be friendly, wags its tail and then leaves. Then Michel’s daughter comes and tells him that Michel will be late. Andesmas waits for hours but Michel still doesn’t arrive. Then Michel’s wife arrives with the same message – that Michel will be late. She then comes and sits next to Andesmas and they have a conversation. The story continues in this vein till the end. Michel doesn’t arrive till the end.


I liked the first three stories in the book very much. The Afternoon of Mr.Andesmas didn’t have the same kind of impact on me. It was probably because it made me think of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot where two people wait for Godot and nothing happens on the stage and Godot doesn’t arrive till the end. My favourite out of the first three was probably the first story The Square and this is probably because I read it first. If I had read one of the other two first, they might have been my favourite. But I liked the way all three stories explored the characters’ interior worlds through conversation and dialogue and when we think that there is nothing happening in the stories – there are no events, only conversations – we realize when we reach the end of the stories that a lot has happened in the characters’ interior worlds and the characters have undergone subtle and sometimes strong changes which have transformed them in very important ways. The way Marguerite Duras brings out the intensity of emotion and feeling of her characters not by describing them but through conversations and how through this conversational window she gives us a peek into the core of her characters’ hearts is a defining feature of all the stories. I loved this aspect of the stories.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. (all from The Square)


      “All the things you describe and the changes you notice are there for anyone to see, aren’t they? They are not things which exist for you alone, for you and for no one else?”

      “Sometimes there are things which I alone can see, but only negligible things. In general you are right : the things I notice are mostly changes in the weather, in buildings, things which anyone would notice. And yet sometimes, just by watching them carefully, such things can affect one just as much as events which are completely personal. In fact it feels as though they were personal, as if somehow one had put the cherries there oneself.”


      “As for the other kind of fear – the fear of thinking that no one would notice if you died – it seems to me that sometimes this can make one happier. I think that if you knew that when you died no one would suffer, not even a dog, it makes it easier to bear the thought of dying.”


      “Please don’t think I want to contradict you, but you must see that whatever you do, this time you are living now will count for you one day. You will look back on this desert as you describe it and discover that it was not empty at all, but full of people. You will not escape it. You think this time has not begun, and it has begun. You think you are doing nothing and in reality you are doing something. You think you are moving towards a solution and when you look round you find it’s behind you.”


Have you read any of these four novels or any other books by Marguerite Duras? What do you think about them?

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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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