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Posts Tagged ‘French Literature’

A Man’s Place‘ is Annie Ernaux’ ode to her father. In the book about her mother, Annie Ernaux compares her father and mother and says this :

“He took me to the funfair, to the circus, and to see Fernandel’s films. He taught me how to ride a bicycle and recognize the garden vegetables. With him I had fun, with her I had “conversations”.”

Ernaux expands on that in this book, by going back to the beginning, to her grandparents’ time, describes the environment her father grew up in, how her grandfather hated people who read because he himself couldn’t read or write, how her father did well in school but was still taken off school when he was around twelve years old and made to work in a farm and earn his keep. And how because of this Ernaux’ father always wanted her to do well academically and was proud of her achievements.

A Man’s Place‘ takes us back to a different era, to early twentieth century France and makes us see the world through the eyes of a twelve year old boy who becomes a farmworker, then a factory worker, who fights in the First World War and later gets into the grocery and cafe business with his wife. I liked it very much. Though I liked Ernaux’ book on her mother, ‘A Woman’s Story‘ even more, ‘A Man’s Place‘ complements that perfectly, as we get to know about Ernaux’ father.

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

“He had to walk two kilometres to get to school…The teacher was a harsh man, rapped the boys’ fingers with an iron ruler, he was respected. Some of his pupils ended up among the best in their canton to have passed their primary certificate; one or two even made it to teachers’ training college. My father missed class when he had to harvest the apples, tie the straw and hay into sheaves, and sow and reap whatever was in season. When he and his elder brother went back to school, the master would yell : “So your parents want you to remain as ignorant as they are!” He managed to learn how to read and write properly. He liked learning. He liked drawing too…At the age of twelve, he was due to take the primary certificate. My grandfather took him out of school and got him a job on the same farm as him. He could no longer be fed without paying his way. “We didn’t even think about it, it was the same for everyone.””

“…it took me years to ‘understand’ the kindliness with which well-mannered people greet each other. At first, I felt ashamed, I didn’t deserve such consideration. Sometimes I thought they had conceived a particular liking for me. Later I realized that their smiling faces and kind, earnest questions meant nothing more to them than eating with their mouth shut or blowing their noses discreetly.”

I read this for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month‘ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. The edition of ‘A Man’s Place’ I read was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Have you read ‘A Man’s Place‘? What do you think about it?

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In ‘A Girl’s Story‘, Annie Ernaux takes us to the time when she was eighteen years old, when she had just graduated from high school and was joining a summer camp as one of the group leaders. It was the first time in her life she was staying away from her family, especially away from the constant gaze of her mother. How this sudden freedom impacts her life, how she is able to stay up late, go to movies, drink with friends, act on her feelings of desire for the first time, and how she lost her innocence and virginity – all these are told in the first part of the book. The second part of the book talks about her time after camp, when she tries to train to become a teacher and how it doesn’t work for her, and how she leaves that and goes to London with one of her friends to work as an au pair and how she comes back after that and enrolls in university to pursue the study of literature.

A Girl’s Story‘ is different from other Ernaux books in three ways. It is double the size of other slim Ernaux books. It has a new translator, Alison L. Strayer. (I miss Tanya Leslie). The most significant difference though is this. In this book Annie Ernaux has clearly amped up her prose. There are sentences like this :

“But she, no doubt, was forgotten more quickly, like an anomaly, a breach of common sense, a form of chaos or absurdity, something laughable it would be ridiculous to tax their memories with.”

And this :

“But what is the point of writing if not to unearth things, or even just one thing that cannot be reduced to any kind of psychological or sociological explanation and is not the result of a preconceived idea or demonstration but a narrative : something that emerges from the creases when a story is unfolded and can help us understand – endure – events that occur and the things that we do?”

I don’t know whether this is because Annie Ernaux changed her writing style, or whether the new translator rendered it this way. I am leaning more towards the first, though the second one could be the truth. I love the new style, the long sentences and the beautiful prose, but they feel very un-Ernaux. One part of me, the Ernaux fan in me, misses the prose of early Ernaux, the short sentences, and the deceptively simple prose which was powerful.

I enjoyed reading ‘A Girl’s Story‘. It is about a time when a girl becomes a young woman and the kind of changes she goes through as a person and how she navigates that transformation. I liked the way Ernaux looks back at her past and treats her past self as a different person and tries to look at that person from the distance of perspective that time gives. It is fascinating to read.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“The time that lies ahead of me grows shorter. There will inevitably be a last book, as there is always a last lover, a last spring, but no sign by which to know them. I am haunted by the idea that I could die without ever having written about ‘the girl of ’58’, as I very soon began to call her. Someday there will be no one left to remember. What that girl and no other experienced will remain unexplained, will have been lived for no reason.
No other writing project seems to me as – I wouldn’t say luminous, or new, and certainly not joyful, but vital : it allows me to rise above time. The very thought of ‘just enjoying life’ is unbearable. Every moment lived without a writing project resembles the last.”

I read this for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month‘ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. The edition of ‘A Girl’s Story’ I read was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Have you read ‘A Girl’s Story‘? What do you think about it?

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This is the third consecutive Annie Ernaux book I’ve read. In ‘Happening‘, Annie Ernaux takes us back to the year 1963. She is a young university student. She is 23-years old. One day she discovers that she is pregnant. She doesn’t want to have the baby. There is one small problem though. Abortion is illegal in France. Doctors don’t even mention the word while speaking to patients. Doctors can go to jail and be permanently barred from practising medicine, if it is revealed that they helped a pregnant woman in any small way to get an abortion. As Ernaux tries to come to terms with her condition and tries to deal with the situation, she finds that people around her can’t be relied upon. But she also finds help in unexpected quarters, especially from a religious classmate who thinks that abortion is evil. As every kind of method to induce a miscarriage – including medicines, injections and even inserting a knitting needle inside herself – fails, Annie Ernaux is pushed into a situation of finding an abortionist who is working outside the confines of the law. If she or the abortionist are caught, they both will go to jail. What happens after that is told in the rest of the book.

Happening‘ is a powerful, moving book. Though it talks of a time which is nearly sixty years back, and we have come a long way since, as the law has changed and abortion is not illegal anymore in many places, in practice things are still complex and freedom of choice exists only on paper. Ernaux’ book describes how things were once upon a time, and how she survived to tell the tale, and she further goes on to ask some tough questions.

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

“The fact that my personal experience of abortion, i.e. clandestinity, is a thing of the past does not seem a good enough reason to dismiss it. Paradoxically, when a new law abolishing discrimination is passed, former victims tend to remain silent on the grounds that ‘now it’s all over’. So what went on is surrounded by the same veil of secrecy as before. Today abortion is no longer outlawed and this is precisely why I can afford to steer clear of the social views and inevitably stark formulas of the rebel Seventies – ‘abuse against women’, etc. – and face the reality of this unforgettable event.”

“Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalauréat nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure.”

“Girls like me were a waste of time for doctors. With no money and no connections – otherwise we wouldn’t accidentally end up on their doorstep – we were a constant reminder of the law that could send them to prison and close down their practice for good. They would never tell us the truth, that they weren’t prepared to sacrifice their career for some young doe-eyed damsel foolish enough to get knocked up. Or maybe their sense of duty was such that they would have chosen to die rather than break a law that could cost women their lives. They must have assumed that most women would go through the abortion anyway, in spite of the ban. All in all, plunging a knitting needle into a womb weighed little next to ruining one’s career.”

“The law was everywhere. In the euphemisms and understatements of my journal; the so-called forced marriages; the shame of women who aborted and the disapproval of those who did not. In the sheer impossibility of ever imagining that one day women might be able to abort freely. As was often the case, you couldn’t tell whether abortion was banned because it was wrong or wrong because it was banned. People judged according to the law, they didn’t judge the law.”

“The next morning I was back in my room, which I’d left early the previous afternoon with all my books for class. The bed was neatly made, nothing had been touched and almost a whole day had gone by. This is the sort of detail that tells us our life is beginning to fall apart.”

Happening‘ is a powerful book and is a must read. I am glad I read it.

I read this for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month‘ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. The edition of ‘Happening‘ I read was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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

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I Remain in Darkness‘ by Annie Ernaux is kind of a sequel to Annie Ernaux’ book about her mother, ‘A Woman’s Story‘. In this book Ernaux describes the last two-and-a-half years of her mother’s life, when her mother had Alzheimer’s and had to be admitted to a nursing home. The book is in the form of a journal. On the title – ‘I Remain in Darkness‘ were the last words that Ernaux’ mother ever wrote.

Annie Ernaux’ book is moving and poignant and sad. It is hard to watch Ernaux’ mother who was a dynamic, strong woman descend into Alzheimer’s and become someone who can no longer remember her daughter and her family. When Ernaux describes the time when her mother can no longer eat a piece of cake herself because her hand cannot find her mouth, we feel devastated.

This book made me remember Erwin Mortier’s book about his mother, ‘Stammered Songbook : A Mother’s Book of Hours‘, which is on the exact same topic – about Mortier’s mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. I felt that Mortier’s prose was poetic, while Ernaux’ prose was spare and meditative, though both were beautiful in their own ways.

Anyone who is or has been the caregiver of their aged parents would be able to relate to Ernaux’ book and would be moved powerfully by it. I was. The anxiety, the worry, the guilt, the anger, the love – Annie Ernaux describes them all perfectly.

I loved ‘I Remain in Darkness‘ though it was not always easy to read, and it was sometimes moving and sometimes heartbreaking.

Have you read ‘I Remain in Darkness‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Annie Ernaux‘ ‘A Woman’s Story‘ many years back through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) review of it. I finally got around to reading it.

In this short book, which runs to 90 pages, Annie Ernaux describes the life of her mother, from the time she was born, her childhood, how she stopped going to school when she was twelve and went to work, her teens, her marriage, her ambition to run her own grocery store, how she navigated the war years, the time when Annie Ernaux was born, the relationship between mother and daughter, and on towards the final years when her mother had Alzheimer’s. It is hard to believe that the book is so slim, because Ernaux packs so much in it. The story of how her mother rose from poverty to make something of her life is so inspiring to read.

The book is Ernaux’ beautiful love letter to her mother. It is also an insightful portrayal of the history of France of the 20th century, if we choose to look at it that way – not the glitzy, glamorous France of the popular imagination, but the real France with real people like Annie Ernaux’ mother. The central theme of the book is, of course, the relationship between Annie Ernaux and her mother, which is beautiful and complex, loving and exasperating at the same time, the way relationships between close family members are.

Annie Ernaux’ prose is spare but it also has a calm, serene, meditative quality to it, which is almost like reading a Zen monk’s spiritual account. It is fascinating and surprising, because the first line of the book starts with “My mother died on Monday 7 April…”

I loved ‘A Woman’s Story‘. I’m looking forward to reading more books by Annie Ernaux soon.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“One could tell whether she was upset simply by looking at her face. In private she didn’t mince her words and told us straight out what she thought. She called me a beast, a slut, and a bitch, or told me I was “unpleasant”. She would often hit me, usually by slapping my face, or occasionally punching my shoulders. Five minutes later, she would take me into her arms and I was her “poppet.”
She bought me toys and books under any pretext, a party, a trip into town, or a slight temperature. She took me to the dentist’s, the lung specialist, and made sure I had good shoes, warm clothes, and all the right stationery I needed for class (she had enrolled me at a private establishment run by nuns, and not at the local primary school). If I mentioned that one of the other girls had an unbreakable slate, she would immediately ask me if I wanted one : “I wouldn’t want them to think you’re not as good as the others.” Her overriding concern was to give me everything she hadn’t had. But this involved so much work, so much worrying about money, and an approach to children’s happiness so radically different from her own education, that she couldn’t help saying : “You know, we spend a lot of money on you” or “Look at everything you’ve got, and you’re still not happy!”

“I thought her a cut above my father because she seemed closer to the schoolmistresses and teachers than he did. Everything about my mother – her authority, her hopes, and her ambitions – was geared to the very concept of education. We shared an intimacy centered on books, the poetry I read to her, and the pastries in the teashop at Rouen, from which he was excluded. He took me to the funfair, to the circus, and to see Fernandel’s films. He taught me how to ride a bicycle and recognize the garden vegetables. With him I had fun, with her I had “conversations”. Of the two, she was the dominating figure, the one who represented authority.”

I read this for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month’ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. The edition of ‘A Woman’s Story‘ I read was published by Seven Stories Press.

Have you read Annie Ernaux’A Woman’s Story‘? What do you think about it?

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After reading Colette’sChéri‘, I decided to read her first book in the Claudine series, ‘Claudine at School‘. I read this for ‘Women in Translation Month‘.

Claudine is a fifteen year old girl. She lives in a village and is in high school. She is the narrator of the story. In the story Claudine tells us about her adventures in school, her friends, her teacher, her love for nature, events that happen in her school and how it impacts her and her friends, her love for her dad, her love for books – these and other things are narrated in the book.

When I first heard of Claudine’s story, I thought it would be the story of a girl at school and the adventures and fun she has. I thought it would be Colette’s French version of a Judy Blume book. Part of the book is that, but there is more to the book than that. Claudine falls in love with her teacher, but her headmistress is also in love with her teacher, and there is a three-way lesbian love story there. It is amazing because Colette wrote this book in 1900, and I don’t know anyone else who wrote a lesbian love story in 1900. Even if there was, things would have been described in vague language, so that it could be open to different interpretations. Colette will have none of that nonsense and she describes things as they are. Colette was brave and she was a pioneer. After reading more of her work, I am able to understand why she has been revered by readers and writers of her time and since.

Claudine is a charming narrator and from the first lines – “My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there” – she grabs our attention and never lets go. Claudine’s voice is somewhere between that of a child and a grown-up and she describes the hypocrisies of the grown-up world as she sees it. There are no bad characters in the book, atleast I didn’t feel there were any. There were just imperfect human beings with flaws, and Claudine describes them perceptively through her fifteen year old voice. There are people she likes and people she doesn’t like, and she herself is not nice sometimes, but she doesn’t shy away from describing things as she sees them. One of the things I loved about the book is the way it beautifully describes the real world of children and teenagers – how they are nasty and fight one day and exhibit kindness towards each other the next, sometimes even in the next moment. Claudine keeps treating with contempt, one of the girls in the class who likes her, but fights for her when she is in trouble, and helps her when she needs that. Reading that took me back to my schooldays. My favourite part of the book is the one in which Claudine tells us what happens when she and her classmates go to write their final exams. Claudine takes on one of the tough professors during the oral exam and she has her own opinion on history based on her wide reading and he disagrees with her strongly, though he respects her for holding on to her opinion and standing up to him. At one point when Claudine’s headmistress tries to intervene and cool things down he says – “Let her alone, Mademoiselle, there’s no harm done. I hold to my own opinions, but I’m all in favour of others holding to theirs. This young person has false ideas and bad reading-habits, but she is not lacking in personality – one sees so many dull ones.” I smiled when I read that 🙂

The book has an introduction in which Colette describes how she wrote the book – her husband asked her to write the book and then published it in his name. It was one more case where the husband took credit for the wife’s work, and it makes us angry when we read it, and we are glad to read how Colette came out of that situation and how the books were later published in her own name.

I loved ‘Claudine at School‘. It was almost as if Colette’s was speaking in Claudine’s voice. I don’t know how much of the book is autobiographical, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. Claudine is one of the great charming heroines and one of my favourites. She made me remember Ronja and Pippi, Astrid Lindgren’s great heroines. I can’t wait to read the second part of the series now, ‘Claudine in Paris‘.

Have you read ‘Claudine at School‘ or other books in the Claudine series? What do you think about this book?

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This is the third book I read for ‘Women in Translation‘ Month. I have had Colette’sChéri‘ with me for many years. I finally took it down from the bookshelf and read it.

Léa is a courtesan. She is forty-nine years old. She is in love with twenty-five year old Chéri. They have been together for a few years. Now Chéri’s mother decides that it is time for him to get married to a rich young woman. Léa reluctantly accepts that this is the end of their relationship. But both she and Chéri find it hard to let go. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I liked very much, the first part, which runs to around fifty pages. Léa is the main character in that, she is my favourite character, and we see things from her point of view. Then she disappears from the story for around thirty pages, and we see things from Chéri’s point of view. In my opinion, this part wasn’t that appealing. Then Léa comes back into the story, but for some reason the story isn’t as good as it was in the first part. The ending is heartbreaking.

The book created a lot of waves when it first came out in 1920. Interestingly, this year is the book’s centenary. There are other books which tell the love story of an older woman and a younger man. But I think ‘Chéri’ must have been the first story or one of the earliest ones with this plot, written by a woman writer. The blurb says that this is Colette’s finest novel. I liked the book in parts, but I feel that the book hasn’t aged well. I think it will make a great movie though, and I want to watch the movie adaptation.

Colette’s prose is beautiful. There were beautiful sentences and passages sprinkled across the book. I am sharing one of my favourites here.

“She took a thermometer from the drawer of her bedside table and put it under her arm. ‘My temperature’s normal, so it’s nothing physical. I see. I’m just unhappy. Something must be done about it.’ She drank some water, got out of bed, bathed her inflamed eyes, put on a little powder, poked the fire, and went back to bed. She was on her guard, full of mistrust for an enemy she had never known : grief. She had just said goodbye to thirty years of easy living : years spent pleasantly, intent often on love, sometimes on money. This had left her, at almost fifty, still young and defenceless.”

Colette was one of the great French writers and someone who defied the conservative world of her time. She once gave this advice to a young writer – “Look for a long time at what pleases you, and longer still at what pains you.” That always makes me think. I have heard great things about her Claudine books. I want to read them sometime.

Have you read ‘Chéri‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Colette book?

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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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