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Posts Tagged ‘French Literature’

I discovered ‘All About Sarah’ by Pauline Delabroy-Allard recently and was finally able to read it today.

The narrator of the story is a single mom who has a young daughter. She and her husband divorced sometime back. One day she goes to a party and bumps into a woman called Sarah. Sarah is loud, talkative, unconventional, doesn’t care what people think. Our narrator is drawn towards Sarah and is deeply attracted towards her. And Sarah responds to that. And as they say, it is the end of life as they know it. I won’t tell you anything else about the story here. I’ll let you read the book and discover its pleasures.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part describes the love story between the narrator and Sarah. It has short chapters and it is mostly a happy story. The second part is a bit sad, is a bit dark. It has chapters which are a little longer. I liked both the parts, but I loved the first part more. The attraction, the seduction, the love, the fights, the making up were so beautifully described there. Though I loved the first part more, one of my favourite scenes came in the second part in which a minor character appeared and said some beautiful things. My favourite passage from that scene goes like this –

“Isabella insists on taking me to see the castle. When we stop briefly at a café, we talk about love and the agonies you have to experience in order to appreciate the joys. She doesn’t ask any questions when I start to cry silently. She just says – gently, in her irresistible accent – you have to get through the nights and be fulfilled during the day.”

Pauline Delabroy-Allard’s prose is a pleasure to read and there are many beautiful passages in the book. I’ve shared some of my favourites below. As Sarah is a violinist who performs in classical music concerts, the whole book has a musical backdrop and Beethoven and Schubert and Vivaldi and others make guest appearances in the book which adds to the charm of the book.

I loved ‘All About Sarah‘. It is one of my favourite lesbian love stories. Pauline Delabroy-Allard is a beautiful, new find for me and I’m looking forward to reading more books by her.

I’m sharing below a couple of my favourite passages. The second one has three parts from three different places in the book, which I’ve stitched together, because I felt that they read beautifully together.

“Passion. From the Latin patior, to experience, endure, suffer. Feminine noun. With the notion of protracted or successive suffering: the action of suffering. With the notion of excess, exaggeration, intensity: love as an irresistible and violent inclination towards a single object, sometimes descending into obsession, entailing a loss of moral compass and of critical faculties, and liable to compromise mental stability. In Scholasticism, what is experienced by an individual, the thing with which he or she is associated or to which he or she is subjugated.”

“It’s January but yet again the miracle happens. Yet again winter admits defeat, drags its heels a little longer and tries one final flourish, but it’s too late, it’s over, the spring has won…It’s a spring like any other, a spring to depress the best of us…It’s a spring like any other, with impromptu showers, the smell of wet tarmac, a sort of lightness in the air, a breath of happiness that sings softly about the fragility of it all.”

Have you read ‘All About Sarah‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Emmelie Prophète’sBlue‘ recently and read it today. This is my first book by a Haitian author 😊 So happy!

A woman is sitting in an airport. She is travelling from one country to another. It might as well be from one world to another. She thinks about her mother and her mother’s two sisters, and how their lives panned out very differently. The rest of the book moves between the past and the present and across geographies as we get to know the stories of the narrator’s mother and her sisters.

The above story is just a simple outline. The actual book is more complex, more fascinating than that. Emmelie Prophète’s writing is very poetic. I am not saying this in a general way, but in a literal way. The book could be read just for that alone. I can’t resist thinking how it would be, if the book, instead of being organized in paragraphs of prose, had been structured in poetry stanzas like a novel-in-verse. I feel that this would have made the book even more beautiful, because we tend to read prose in a faster flow, but we tend to linger on poetry lines to take in their beauty, and this book deserves this lingering, and this pausing and this experiencing of its beauty. The second thing I want to say about this book is that, probably because of this reason, this book cannot be read like a straightforward prose work. If we expect an initial setting up scene, an introduction to the characters, the story moving with the progression of events, some dialogue, and a climax with a revelation, it is not going to be there. Atleast, in the form we expect. A better way to read the book is to go in with no expectations and start reading from the first page, from the first word, and just go with the flow and continue reading, and let the book come to us. In test cricket, there is an advice given to batsmen, who go out to bat on the first day of a test match, when the ball is new and it is swinging. Veteran opening batsmen say that the best way to play under these conditions is to let the ball come to you, and not to go after the ball. We can translate that advice to this book, and go with the flow, and don’t think too much, and just read, and let the book come to us. When we do that, at some point, the book opens its heart and speaks to us and reveals its secrets to us, and it is beautiful.

I loved the original French title of the book even more – ‘Le Testament des Solitudes‘. So beautiful!

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

“We remained tethered to our sorrows, like horses of despair. We ran, heads bent low, wounded and silent. We shared nothing. Words lived only in our heads, or on scraps of paper. We surprised ourselves sometimes by suffering. Expressions were complaints, and we looked outside ourselves for ways to exist, to live. I hid myself away in books, lost my head over heroes of fortune late into the night, and woke in the morning with other solitudes. Terrifying and unspeakable.”

“I watch the rain fall, a thousand fairylike drops on the tarmac. Life is beautiful when you’re watching it from a distance, watching it through the window of an airport somewhere else. I imagine that it’s even better when your head isn’t filled with several deaths and more farewells than you know what to do with. The rain is lovely here, soft and steady. Like it was once, on the corrugated metal roof of the house on hot July evenings. Those rains, which were also sometimes storms of fury that came straight from the graves of the dead in the cemeteries, carried away children and objects and even our memories.”

“That was what always happened in this family after someone died. You had to die to earn the right to be loved.”

“My mother’s heart makes the same sound as her sewing machine, which I have known my whole life. It’s older than my brothers and me. Its brand is a woman’s first name: Linda. It has always looked like a museum piece. All of my little-girl dresses came from beneath her magical needles that broke sometimes. I’ve seen many women from this family sitting behind that machine, which makes an ancient mechanical noise like Maman’s heart, like the heart of all women who have been poorly loved…I’ve seen sewing machines that looked like the ones belonging to other women in the quarter, but none ever looked like Linda or had a woman’s name like hers. She wasn’t the most beautiful, but she was unique. She had been built to withstand time, like her owner, to watch others pass through and go away, even the youngest ones. She outlived Maman’s two sisters.”

“I used to be afraid of the dark. I was afraid that the flame of the lamp would flicker so hard it would fall. The crickets accompanied the night with their long traumatizing songs. But since then, the night has won me over to its cause of solitude, unobtrusive and infinite. I am overly reliant on its calm, making up for the years of unwarranted fear, of eyes shut tight. My only beautiful times have been in complete darkness and heavy rain. Every word of love, of fate, has taken the path of the night. Daytime is the cruel bearer of “I”: it is all that light on the beaten earth of my childhood quarter, and on the marshes of Gros-Marin, and the Church of Saint Paul, and the runway of this airport—reality and its incomprehensible detours, its aches, its way of not making concessions.”

“My stories have always come to me when they’re already in progress, almost over, even my love stories. I have hidden myself too often beneath words and their images; I’ve only ever just brushed the surface of anything, I am nothing but a memory trying to exist, and no one would notice, possibly, if I disappeared. I tell myself that no one sees me in this airport; my fate is to be a fleeting memory. I would like to learn the business of everyday life, real life, quivering and ever changing.”

“Each morning is the start of a new war against nature, against misery, against oneself or one’s neighbor. Survival has many meanings and almost no purpose.”

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

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I discovered Nina Bouraoui recently and I got this book of hers, ‘All Men Want to Know‘.

All Men Want to Know‘ is classified as fiction and autofiction, but it looked like a memoir and so I read it like a memoir. Nina’s parents are from different countries – her mom is French, her dad is Algerian. So her life is complicated. Both her parents love her and her sister, but because their grandparents are from totally different cultures, her relationship to her grandparents from the two sides is very different – it is beautiful, affectionate, but also very different. Nina lives the first fourteen years of her life in Algeria, but after that her family moves to France as the political situation in Algeria becomes unstable. With all this going on, to add to the complexity, Nina discovers that she is gay. The parts of the book in which she talks about this – how she hides her sexual orientation from her family and other people in her life, how she feels guilty about it, how she tries to accept her true natural self, how she tries to find gay friends with whom she could hang out, how she goes on a quest to find love – these are some of the most beautiful and moving parts of the book. Nina Bouraoui’s prose is beautiful, lyrical but also deceptively simple, which makes it powerful and moving.

All Men Want to Know‘ is a beautiful, moving book about being part of a multi-ethnic family and the challenges and the pleasures and joy which come out of that, about what it means to belong (or to not belong) to two countries which are at loggerheads with each other. It is also about embracing one’s true nature and celebrating it, and it is a beautiful love letter to being gay and falling in love. It is early days yet, but I think this is one of my favourite books of the year. I can’t wait to read more books by Nina Bouraoui.

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

“At the Kat, I experience a form of social unease, a class anxiety that fills me with shame. I’m mixing with women outside my social circle, factory workers, former prisoners, prostitutes. We are thrown together by fate, driven together by the one thing we share : our sexual orientation. I’m a victim of my own homophobia. I despise myself for sneering at the embracing couples on the benches, the girls locked in one another’s arms on the dance floor, the courageous couples in the street. I resent them for flaunting themselves in this way. I could be compromised if I were seen with them. I envy their freedom. I stay locked into my fear. When someone offers me a lift out of concern for my safety, I refuse; they might remember my address, come to my door the next day, I could be outed to my fellow students at the university who know nothing of my ‘tendencies’, my ‘invert’ nature; I use these outmoded expressions to taunt myself and because the Kat exists outside of time, cut off from the 1980s I’m living through. I’d rather walk home, be followed; it’s the price I pay for calling into existence what I call my ‘nature’. I’m not breaking any laws but I’m flirting with decadence; I must be, I spend so much time at the Kat.”

“There is such a thing as a gay childhood. My childhood. No excuses are needed. There’s no explanation. It simply is. There is a history to homosexuality, a story with roots and a territory of its own. Being gay isn’t a question of choice or preference, it simply is, just as blood has a type, skin has its colour, the body its dimensions, hair its texture. I see it as organic. The gay child is not lacking, she is different, outside of the norm, inside a normality of her own; not until later will she come to understand that her normality marks her out from others, condemns her to secrecy and shame.”

“‘We’ll never know what the ingredients of love are, how people are put together,’ my mother says when I ask her what happiness means to her. ‘The truth is that you can never really know another person, there are always surprises, both good and bad: reality sets in, stronger than the relationship itself, stronger than desire, the spell of being in love wears off. You have to be able to accept it: life isn’t a dream, we aren’t here on this earth for a life of constant pleasure; it’s the difficult times that matter, much more than the lighter moments.’”

“My grandmother loves my mother in her own way, like a child one no longer understands and keeps at arm’s length…My grandmother has never accepted my father…On the rare occasions she does come and visit she feels out of place, as a woman, a Frenchwoman…She fears for us, her two granddaughters, she’s sure our growth is affected by the heat, by our diet. I have difficulty drawing up a family tree, a ‘tree of love’ as some call it. The branches of my tree don’t flower, or if they do, the blossoms appear on the wrong branches, as if they’ve migrated, bloomed from the soil or on a branch not meant to bear flowers. This is how I feel about my French family, it doesn’t work, it never will; it makes me uncomfortable, as if I’m outside my real self, as if I’ve failed to love my whole self. I feel the same with my Algerian family. I hardly know them. They live four hundred kilometres from Algiers, you have to drive along the coast road towards Petite Kabylia, in the east. My Algerian grandmother doesn’t speak French, I don’t speak Arabic, our only link is her tenderness, her hands in mine, in my hair, on my shoulders, her kisses on my forehead, her smiles; but this gentleness is beyond me, I don’t know what it means, I don’t know if it’s an expression of love or a way of apologizing for being so unlike us, for not wanting to be like us. We are so very different.”

“Ely is of the opinion that men and women weren’t made to be together, they’re too different. She doesn’t go along with the idea of complementarity. When you’re with someone that different, you end up losing your essence, your sense of self, you waste all your energy trying to be more like the other person, but it’s futile, a battle you’ll never win. With another woman, there’s no threat of being overpowered, we’re evenly matched and it stays that way; we’re equals physically, and even if one of us is stronger mentally, there’s none of that business of one person taking control.”

“My mother says it’s impossible to say where you come from without getting something wrong. Searching for your origins is like following a winding path that branches off into more winding paths, even a family tree won’t reveal the truth: families bury their secrets, it’s the one thing they all have in common, they keep them hidden and if any of those secrets do come to light, they deny them. Families are forbidden chambers of forbidden memories, sealed units that leave a trail of destruction; when I ask my mother what kind of destruction, she answers without thinking and says, just as her mother does: ‘I can’t tell you.’ People’s lives appear to me as an unending series of unanswered questions, a web of doubts, shadows, fears and imaginings; I play out the story of our relatives the Aschpiels in my head: Central Europe, travelling, hiding, camps perhaps. Everything is hidden, kept in silence, held in check not by shame but by fear. Families are fertile territory for fear, and I’m scared. I know nothing about my past, my ancestors; I carry their sorrows, their misdeeds perhaps, within me, and because I search where others do not look, because I see in my mother what others have not seen, I will pass those sorrows and misdeeds on to others; I will write, I will piece together the story with my words, I will create scenes that are invented, reported, true, untrue, I will bring the tale to life and stop it from haunting me.”

Have you read ‘All Men Want to Know‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘The Godmother‘ by Hannelore Cayre recently and I just finished reading it.

The narrator of the story, Patience, is a 50-year old woman. She starts the story by telling us about her parents and her childhood, about the good things and the bad things that happened in her life, and how she reached the present stage she is in. She is working as an translator for the police department now, especially translating wiretaps of drug smugglers from Arabic to English. One day she uses what she hears in the wiretap to do something. Whether what she does is good or bad, I won’t tell you. Things snowball beyond that, the action explodes and what happens after that is told in the rest of the story.

The thing I loved the most about the story was the narrator’s voice. It is cool, charming, irreverent, doesn’t beat around the bush, calls a spade a spade. From the first passage –

“My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money. For them it wasn’t an inert substance stashed away in a suitcase or held in some account. No. They loved it as a living, intelligent being that could create and destroy, possessing the gift of reproduction. Something mighty that forged destinies, that separated beauty from ugliness, winners from losers. Money was Everything; the distillation of all that could be bought in a world where everything was for sale. It was the answer to every question. It was the pre-Babel language that united mankind.”

– Patience’s voice grabs our attention and never lets go. Patience is such an awesome narrator.

The story is very gripping too. I read most of the book on one day. We can call this noir fiction and it is up there with the best. French crime fiction is soaring high these days and this is a shining example of that.

Another thing I loved about the book is that there are really no bad characters. Or rather the story depicts people as imperfect with flaws and so we see people as they really are – there are no simplistic black-and-white depictions here. I loved that aspect of the book. I loved most of the characters in the book, especially the nurse Khadija who takes care of Patience’s mom, Khadija’s son Afid, Philippe the police officer who is in love with Patience, Bouchta Patience’s nanny when she was a kid, Madame Lò Patience’s neighbour, and DNA, Patience’s dog. They are all fascinating characters.

I don’t know whether the story is pure imagination or is inspired by real events. The author is a practising criminal lawyer and she has thanked translators who work in the court. If the story is inspired by real events, then the book is a scathing commentary on some aspects of life in today’s France.

I loved ‘The Godmother‘. I discovered that it has been made into a movie with Isabelle Huppert in the lead role. I can’t wait to watch that. I want to read more books by Hannelore Cayre now.

You can find Emma’s (from ‘Book Around the Corner‘) review of the book here.

Have you read ‘The Godmother‘? What do you think about it?

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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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