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

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

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

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

Helping Shell Peas

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

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

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This is my last book review in the fading moments of the year. This book is a compilation of short essays that Voltaire wrote on different topics, arranged according to the letters of the alphabet. There is atleast one essay for each letter, except for ‘X’ and ‘Y’. In his essays, Voltaire shares his thoughts on a wide range of topics with his customary intelligence, humour, satire. The essays are interesting to read, insightful, intelligent but accessible. In many essays, Voltaire pokes gentle fun at existing practices, beliefs and systems. The legendary Voltairean wit is on glorious display – at times gentle, at time sharp, at times acerbic. It is to be expected from a man whose words offended the powers-that-be of his time that he was imprisoned many times by them. Voltaire’s love for freedom of speech, his critique of religion, and his curiosity and acceptance of other cultures shine through in the book. This is to be expected from a man to whom is attributed the legendary lines – “I may vehemently disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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There were many passages in the book which made me smile and some which made me laugh. For example, he says this about ‘Enchantment‘ :

“The word enchantment is said to derive from the Greek by way of the Chaldean, meaning ‘song that has power to move.’ Thus it was believed that Orpheus made stones and trees dance. If this ballet was so simple, a city might be built with a violin or razed with a ram’s horn.”

And he says this about ‘History‘ :

“History is the recital of facts represented as true. Fable, on the other hand, is the recital of facts represented as fiction. As for the history of man’s ideas, unfortunately this is nothing more than the chronicle of human error.”

And he says this about ‘Novelty‘.

“Nobody gets very excited by the wonderful spectacle of sunrise, which can be seen every day, but a lot of people run to gape at the smallest meteor that plummets through the autumn sky. We despise what is common or what has long been known.”

Later in the essay, he tries to answer, why we like novelty.

“Perhaps this widespread hunger for novelty is a benefit of nature. We are told, ‘Be content with what you have. Desire no more than you deserve. Quell your restless spirits.’ These are good maxims. But if we had followed them we should still be feeding on acorns and sleeping under the stars, and should have had no Corneille, Racine, Molière – or Voltaire.”

There was one essay on ‘Optimism‘, which I loved very much. It was not at all about optimism 🙂 I wish I could quote it in full, but it is too long – it is the longest essay in the book. Instead of that, I will give below three of my favourite essays, so that you can get a flavour of the book.

Appearances

Are all appearances deceptive? Have our senses been given us only to trick us? Is everything error? Do we live in a dream? We see the sun still setting when it is below the horizon. A square tower seems to be round. A straight stick in water seems to be bent. You see your face in a mirror; the image appears to be behind the glass when it is neither behind nor before it. The glass itself, seemingly so smooth and even, is made up of tiny projections and pits. The fairest skin is a bristling net of minute hairs. What is large to us is small to an elephant; what is small may be a whole world to an insect.
      Nothing is either as it appears to be, or where we think it is. Philosophers, weary of being deceived, have in their petulance declared that nothing exists but what is in our mind. They might have gone all the way and concluded that, mind being as elusive as matter, there is nothing real either in matter or mind. Perhaps it is in this despair of ever knowing anything that certain Chinese philosophers say that Nothing is the beginning and end of all things.
      You do not see the net of hairs of the white and delicate skin you idolize. Organisms a thousand times less than a mite perceive what escapes your vision; they lodge, feed, and travel about on it as in an extensive country; those on a right arm are ignorant that creatures of their own species exist on a left. If you were so unfortunate as to see what they see, this charming skin would transfix you with horror.
      All is in due proportion. The laws of optics, which show you an object where it is not, make the sun appear two feet in diameter when it is s million times larger than the earth, a size impossible for your eyes to encompass. Our senses assist much more than they deceive us.
      Motion, time, hardness, softness, size, distance, appearances, all are relative. And who has created the delicate adjustment of relativities?

Happiness

Can one man be happier than another? It is clear that a man who has the gout and stone, who has lost his money, his good name, his wife and family, and who is about to be hanged after having been mangled, is less happy than a young, vigorous sultan, or La Fontaine’s cobbler. But how are we to determine which is the happier of two men equally healthy, prosperous, and placed in society? Their temperaments must decide it. The most moderate, the least worrisome, the most keenly perceptive is the most happy; but unfortunately the most keenly perceptive is often the least moderate. It is not our position, but our disposition, which renders us happy. Our disposition depends upon the functioning of our organs, over which we have no control.

Queries

Why was not a tenth of the money lost in the war of 1741 used in helping and improving the country? If half the men killed to no purpose in Germany had lived, might not the state have been more flourishing? Why prefer a war to the happy labors of peace?
      Why have nations reduced to extremity and humiliation still supported themselves in spite of all efforts to crush them? Is it not because they were active and industrious? Are not their people like bees : you take their honey and they work to produce more?
      Why in pagan antiquity were there no theological disputes, or hostile sects?
      Why do booksellers publicly display the ‘Course of Atheism‘ by Lucretius, why is it to be found, in handsome morocco, in the libraries of princes and bishops, while the works of modern deists are banned?
      Why do we abandon to sneers and neglect that great mass of men who cultivate the earth that we may eat of its fruits, while we pay court to the useless men who live by their labor?
      Why is there no place on earth where there are not more insects than men?
      Why, since we are always complaining of our ills, are we always doing something to redouble them? Why, since we are so miserable, is it thought that to die is bad – when it is perfectly clear that not to have been alive, before birth, was not bad?
      Why do we exist? In fact, why does anything exist?

I loved ‘Voltaire’s ‘Alphabet of Wit‘. Can’t wait to read more of Voltaire’s work. If you have read this, I would love to hear your thoughts.

So, that’s it 🙂 This is my last review of the year. Hope you enjoyed reading it.

Wish you and your family a very Happy New Year! May your New Year be filled with light, love, friendship, joy, happiness and beauty!

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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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I first got to know about Muriel Barbery’s ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ more than a year back, when I read reviews of it in book blogs. The reviews I read raved about the book, and so I have been thinking of getting the book since then. But I could get the book only a couple of weeks back and I have been reading it for the past one week. I finished reading it today. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given on the book’s inside flap.

We are in an elegant hôtel particulier in the center of Paris. Renée, the building’s concierge, is short, ugly, and plump. She has bunions on her feet. She is cantankerous and addicted to television soaps. Her only genuine attachment is to her cat, Leo. In short, she is everything society expects from a concierge at a bourgeois building in a posh Parisian neighborhood. But Renée has a secret : she is a ferocious autodidact who furtively devours art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With biting humor she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants – her inferiors in every way except that of material wealth. 

Then there’s Paloma, a super-smart twelve year old and the youngest daughter of the Josses, who live on the fifth floor. Talented, precocious, and startlingly lucid, she has come to terms with life’s seeming futility and has decided to end her own on the day of her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue hiding her extraordinary intelligence behind a mask of mediocrity, acting the part of an average pre-teen high on pop subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a new tenant arrives, a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu. He befriends Paloma and is able to see through Renee’s timeworn disguise to the mysterious event that has haunted her since childhood. This is a moving, witty, and redemptive novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

  

What I think

What can I write about Muriel Barbery’s magnificent work? How can I, an inconspicuous reader, pass judgement on such a work of genius? But being the fool that I am, I am going to venture out to do just that.

First the bad news.

The plot of the story is extremely thin. It will probably occupy two pages. If it had been originally written in English, it would have been rejected by the publisher. I am glad that it was written in French. I am also glad that Muriel Barbery likes writing books with thin plots, but with great ideas, deep insights and beautiful prose. I love such books.

Another thing about the book which is bad news is this – the ending. Muriel Barbery, why did you do this? Exactly at the time when the reader is looking forward to some magic, you make her / him cry. Why? What is the pleasure that authors get by making readers sad? Is it because you subscribe to Shelley’s view that ‘Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts’?

One more complaint that I have about the book is that the potted biography of the author just says that she has written two books. How brief can biographies get? I was really disappointed with that. I did some research and found out that Muriel Barbery was born in Casablanca, studied philosophy in university and was a philosophy professor at the university when she wrote this book. I also discovered that she lives in Japan now and is working on her third book. We can see all these influences (philosophy and Japan) in ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’.

Muriel Barbery

Now that I have got the bad news out of the way, I can wax eloquently about the book 🙂 I think ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ is one of the best books that I have ever read in my life. The insights, ideas and wisdom that the author puts into the mind of the characters are amazing. Some of them were life’s lessons for me, which I had arrived at after a lot of experience of doing all the wrong things, observing things around and after a lot of contemplation. And then I read Muriel Barbery’s book and there are pages and pages of wisdom and insights and ideas – it was as if Barbery had read my mind! David Gilmour said this about ‘The Beatles’ in his book ‘The Film Club’ : “They had the extraordinary quality of making you feel as if, in spite of their hysterical popularity, you alone understood how great they were, that they were somehow your own private discovery.” This is exactly how I felt, when I was reading this book. It made me think a lot – where did it all come from? Did Barbery go through similar experiences that I did? Or did she go through different experiences, but were the insights she gained out of them the same as I arrived at? Or is she a contemplative genius who picks insights out of her platonic world and puts them in her novels, which we can relate to, after we have arrived at the same insights the hard way? Sometimes I wish I had written this book. I honestly feel that Barbery has stolen some of my lines 🙂

Now on the things that the book talks about. Within the cloak of a story, the book talks about such weighty topics like the meaning of life, love, friendship, art, good movies and soaps, the pleasures of Tolstoy and Russian literature before 1910, the pleasures of music, Japanese culture, autodidacts, philosophy (and philosophy and more philosophy), beauty, tea, bees and countless other beautiful subjects. (It will be impossible for me to list the topics that the book covers, in a few lines). Reading the book was like having a conversation with a wise friend, on serious topics. I was highlighting sentences and passages throughout the book – it was difficult to stop.

Having given the good and the bad news about the book, I will have to say that this book is not for everyone. If you are someone who reads for de-stressing after a hard day at work, or someone who expects a novel to have a plot and events which move the plot to an unexpected climax, this is not the book for you (though here the ending is unexpected). But if you are someone like me, who likes reading a sentence, reveling in its beauty and likes reading it again, contemplating on it and allowing your thoughts free rein before going to the next sentence, if you are someone who keeps going back and forth through the book comparing passages and if you are a person who enjoys digressions inspired by the book (like, for example, trying to get hold of Tolstoy’s book to see how Barbery’s description matches with what Tolstoy actually said, or trying to watch a video of a tea ceremony and experience the beauty of Barbery’s description there), then you will love reading this book. Also as a bonus there are cats named Constitution and Parliament in the book 🙂

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

Words and Deeds

  …humans live in a world where it’s words and not deeds that have power, where the ultimate skill is mastery of language. This is a terrible thing because basically we are primates who’ve been programmed to eat, sleep, reproduce, conquer and make our territory safe, and the ones who are most gifted at that, the most animal types among us, always get screwed by the others, the fine talkers, despite these latter being incapable of defending their own garden or bringing a rabbit home for dinner or procreating properly. Humans live in a world where the weak are dominant. This is a terrible insult to our animal nature, a sort of perversion or a deep contradiction.

Who is really on the leash?

…in town it is the dogs who have their masters on a leash, though no one seems to have caught on to the fact. If you have voluntarily saddled yourself with a dog that you’ll have to walk twice a day, come rain wind or snow, that is as good as having put a leash around your neck.

The Pleasurable Ritual of Tea

      I pour the tea and we sip in silence. We have never had our tea together in the morning, and this break with our usual protocol imbues the ritual with a strange flavor.

      Yes, this sudden transmutation in the order of things seems to enhance our pleasure, as if consecrating the unchanging nature of a ritual established over our afternoons together, a ritual that has ripened into a solid and meaningful reality. Today, because it has been transgressed, our ritual suddenly acquires all its power; we are tasting the splendid gift of this unexpected morning as if it were some precious nectar; ordinary gestures have an extraordinary resonance, as we breathe in the fragrance of the tea, savor it, lower our cups, serve more, and sip again : every gesture has the bright aura of rebirth. At moments like this the web of life is revealed by the power of ritual, and each time we renew our ceremony, the pleasure will be all the greater for our having violated one of its principles. Moments like this act as magical interludes, placing our hearts at the edge of our souls : fleetingly, yet intensely, a fragment of eternity has come to enrich time. Elsewhere the world may be blustering or sleeping, wars are fought, people live and die, some nations disintegrate, while others are born, soon to be swallowed up in turn – and in all this sound and fury, amidst eruptions and undertows, while the world goes its merry ways, bursts into flames, tears itself apart and is reborn : human life continues to throb.

      So, let us drink a cup of tea.

      Kakuzo Okakura, the author of the book Book of Tea, laments the rebellion of the Mongolian tribes in the thirteenth century not because it brought death and desolation but because it destroyed one of the creations of the Song dynasty, the most precious among them, the art of tea. Like Okakura, I know that tea is no minor beverage. When tea become ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?

      The tea ritual : such a precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a license given to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and of the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony. Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog : on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog : a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.

Offending and Communicating Doors

From the very first film I saw, Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, I was fascinated by the way the Japanese use space in their lives, and by these doors that slide and move quietly along invisible rails, refusing to offend space. For when we push open a door, we transform a place in a very insidious way. We offend its full extension, and introduce a disruptive and poorly proportioned obstacle. If you think about it carefully, there is nothing uglier than an open door. An open door introduces a break in the room, a sort of provincial interference, destroying the unity of space. In the adjoining room it creates a depression, an absolutely pointless gaping hole adrift in a section of wall that would have preferred to remain whole. In either case a door disrupts continuity, without offering anything in exchange other than freedom of movement, which could easily be ensured by other means. Sliding doors avoid such pitfalls and enhance space. Without affecting the balance of the room, they allow it to be transformed. When a sliding door is open, two areas communicate without offending each other. When it is closed, each regains its integrity. Sharing and reunion can occur without intrusion. Life becomes a quiet stroll – whereas our life, in the homes we have, seems like nothing so much as a long series of intrusions.

On Bees

…the queen bee, when she is ready, takes off on her nuptial flight, pursued by a cloud of drones. The first drone to reach her copulates with her, then dies, because after the act his genital organ remains stuck inside. So he is amputated and this kills him. The second drone to reach the queen, in order to copulate with her, has to remove the genital organ of the previous drone with his feelers and, of course, the same thing will happen to him, and so on and so forth until you end up with ten or fifteen drones who have filled up the queen’s sperm pouch and will enable her, in the course of four or five years, to produce two hundred thousand eggs a year.  

The Beauty of Involuntary Motion  

I am particularly fond of this scene, first of all because it takes place in Pokrovskoye, in the Russian countryside. Ah, the Russian countryside…there is a very special charm about such a place – it is wild and yet still bound to mankind through the land, mother to us all…The most beautiful scene in Anna Karenina is set at Pokrovskoye. Levin, dark and melancholy, is trying to forget Kitty. It is springtime, he goes off with the peasants to mow the fields. In the beginning the task seems to arduous for him. He is about to give up when the old peasant leading the row calls for a rest. Then they begin again with their scythes. Once again Levin is about to collapse from exhaustion, once again the old man raises his scythe. Rest. And then the row moves forward again, forty hands scything swaths and moving steadily toward the river as the sun rises. It is getting hotter and hotter, Levin’s arms and shoulders are soaked in sweat, but with each successive pause and start, his awkward, painful gestures become more fluid. A welcome breeze suddenly caresses his back. A summer rain. Gradually, his movements are freed from the shackles of his will, and he goes into a light trance which gives his gestures the perfection of conscious, automatic motion, without thought or calculation, and the scythe seems to move of its own accord. Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will.

       This is eminently true of many happy moments in life. Freed from the demands of decision and intention, adrift on some inner sea, we observe our various movements as if they belonged to someone else, and yet we admire their involuntary excellence. What other reason might I have for writing this – ridiculous journal of an aging concierge – if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences, that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.

      In this way, in the full proof and texture of my self, I accede to a self-forgetfulness that borders on ecstasy, to savor the blissful calm of my watching consciousness.”

Rebelling against Destiny  

Indeed what constitutes life? Day after day, we put up the brave struggle to play our role in this phantom comedy. We are good primates, so we spend most of our time maintaining and defending our territory, so that it will protect and gratify us; climbing – or trying not to slide down – the tribe’s hierarchical ladder, and fornicating in every manner imaginable – even merely phantasms – as much for the pleasure of it as for the promised offspring. Thus we use up a considerable amount of our energy in intimidation and seduction, and these two strategies alone ensure the quest for territory, hierarchy and sex that gives life to our conatus. But none of this tuoches our consciousness. We talk about love, about good and evil, philosophy and civilization, and we cling to these respectable icons the way a tick clings to its nice big warm dog.

       There are times, however, when life becomes a phantom comedy. As if aroused from a dream, we watch ourselves in action and, shocked to realize how much vitality is required to support our primitive requirements, we wonder bewildered, where Art fits in. All our frenzied nudging and posturing suddenly becomes utterly insignificant; our cozy little nest is reduced to some futile barbarian custom, and our position in society, hard-won and eternally precarious, is but a crude vanity. As for our progeny, we view them now with new eyes, and we are horrified, because without the cloak of altruism, the reproductive act seems extraordinarily out of place. All that is left is sexual pleasure, but if it is relegated to a mere manifestation of primal abjection, it will fail in proportion, because a loveless session of gymnastics is not what we have struggled so hard to master.

      Eternity eludes us.

      At times like this, all the romantic, political, intellectual, metaphysical and moral beliefs that years of instruction and education have tried to inculcate in us seem to be foundering on the altar of our true nature, and society, a territorial field mined with the powerful charges of hierarchy, is sinking into the nothingness of Meaning. Exeunt rich and poor, thinkers, researchers, decision-makers, slaves, the good and the evil, the creative and the conscientious, trade unionists and individualists, progressives and conservatives; all have become primitive hominoids whose nudging and posturing, mannerisms and finery, language and codes are all located on the genetic map of an average primate, and all add up to no more than this : hold your rank, or die.

      At times like this you desperately need Art. You seek to reconnect with your spiritual illusions, and you wish fervently that something might rescue you from your biological destiny, so that all poetry and grandeur will not be cast out from the world.

 On Mothers and other things 

(Note : The following passage is some kind of spoiler. So, if you haven’t read this book and are planning to read it and don’t like spoilers, consider yourself sufficiently warned 🙂 I cried after I read this passage.)

       I remember all that rain…The sound of it drumming on the roof, the paths running with water, the sea of mud at the gate of the farm, the black sky, the wind, the horrible feeling of endless damp weighing upon us as our life weighed upon us : neither consciousness nor revolt. We are sitting huddled together by the fire when suddenly my mother got to her feet, throwing the rest of us off balance; we watched in surprise as, driven by some obscure impulse, she headed to the door and flung it open.

      All that rain, oh, all that rain…Framed in the door, motionless, her hair clinging to her face, her dress soaked through, her shoes caked with mud, staring lifelessly, stood Lisette. How did my mother know? How did this woman who, while never mistreating us, never showed us that she loved us, either by deed or word – how did this coarse woman who brought her children into the world in the same way she turned over the soil or fed the hens, this illiterate woman, so exhausted by life that she never even called us by the names she had given us – to the point where I at times wondered if she even remembered them – how had she known that her daughter, half-dead, neither moving nor speaking but merely staring at the door without even thinking of knocking, was just waiting in a relentless downpour for someone to open and bring her into the warm room?

      Is this a mother’s love, this intuition of disaster in one’s heart, this spark of empathy that resists even when human beings have been reduced to living like animals? That is what Lucien said : a mother who loves her children always knows when they are in trouble. Personally, I do not much care for this interpretation. Nor do I feel any resentment toward that mother who was not a mother. Poverty is a reaper : it harvests everything inside us that might have made us capable of social intercourse with others, and leaves us empty, purged of feeling, so that we may endure all the darkness of the present day. Nor do I nurture any sturdy illusions : there was nothing of a mother’s love in my mother’s intuition, merely the translation into gesture of her certainty of misfortune. A sort of native consciousness, rooted deep in the heart, which serves to remind poor wretches like us that, on a rainy night, there will always be a daughter who has lost her honor and who will come home to die.

      Lisette lived just long enough to give birth to her child. The infant did what was expected of it : it died within three hours. From this tragedy, which to my parents seemed to be part of the natural order of things, so that they were no more – and no less – moved by it than if they had lost a goat, I derived two certainties : the strong live and the weak die, and their pleasure and suffering are proportionate to their position in the hierarchy. Lisette had been beautiful and poor, I was intelligent and indigent, but like her I was doomed to a similar punishment if I ever sought to make good use of my mind in defiance of my class. Finally, as I could not cease to be who I was, either, it became clear to me that my path would be one of secrecy : I had to keep silent about who I was, and never mix with that other world.

      From being silent, I then became clandestine.

Further Reading

You can read the review by Emily, that originally inspired me to read this book, here.  

You can find out what Bina was doing when she read this book by clicking here 🙂 (Pictures are better than a thousand words, aren’t they?)  

You can read about Mrs.B’s experience of re-reading the book, here.

Final Thoughts

I loved ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’. It is a book that I hope to read again (and again). Highly recommended (subject to the caveat above). I can’t wait to read Muriel Barbery’s ‘Gourmet Rhapsody’ now.

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