Category Archives: French Literature

Year of the Drought by Roland Buti

Thirteen-year-old Gus Sutter vividly remembers the summer of 1976 not just for the preternaturally harsh drought, but also for the incidents leading up to the disintegration of his family.  Gus, his mother and father, his older sister Lea, and a mentally challenged worker named Rudy live on the family’s farm in the Swiss plateau.  Buti’s take on a coming-of-age story is captivating because of the impending sense of doom and ruin that he weaves throughout Gus’s narrative.  All of the nature around them foreshadows the sad fate of this family; the crops are burning in the sun, the family dog, Sheriff, keeps fainting and their chickens are dying by the dozens in the heat.  The Sutter’s ancient mare, Bagatelle, who never moves from her barn has broken free from her rope and made her way down to the local river to die.  And finally, perhaps the most eerie omen of all, is that Gus has found a dove that cannot fly because its fail feathers have been destroyed by a predator.

The arrival of a strange woman named Cecile, an employee at a neighboring post office, is the first hint that something is wrong with the Sutter family unit.  Cecile seems  oddly close to Gus’s mother and he can’t quite figure out why their relationship makes him so uncomfortable.  His mother has never shown very much affection or emotion towards her family.  Gus’s description of her, the morning after he finds the wounded dove,  is particularly sad since it comes from her thirteen-year-old son who clearly craves his mother’s affection:

I was glad that she had petted my dove, accepted its presence without argument.  Mum was always busy with a multitude of tasks that no doubt helped to keep her from feelings of despair.  I would have liked to be in the bird’s place.  I would have liked her to set down her towel and dry her hands, to come over and kiss me, stroke my hair, tickle my neck with the tips of her fingers.  When I left for school, she would give me a dry peck on the cheek, a kiss from the very tip of her lips that echoed in the cool morning.  Lingering on my skin for less than a millisecond, her mouth imparted no sense of its moistness.  She never gave me a tender pat of encouragement to send me on my way.

She is too busy playing the role of mother, housekeeper and accountant to enjoy anything else in life, but Cecile awakens something in her that Gus has never seen before—genuine happiness.  Gus slowly realizes that Cecile is a threat to his family when he discovers that since Cecile has moved in, Gus’s father is sleeping in the guest room.  When Gus questions his father about it, he is ruthlessly scolded for not minding his own business.

The character for whom I had the most sympathy was Gus’s father, Jean.  He inherits his farm from his own father and works from sun up until sunset to make barely enough of a living on which to sustain his family.  He is a man of few words, so it is through his actions that he demonstrates his unique, unconditional love for his wife, even when she abandons him, their children and the farm.   One night at dinner when Cecile encourages Gus’s mother to get a job, Jean nearly chokes Cecile to death in a fit of rage.  Later on, a group of neighbors make fun of Jean because of his wife’s indiscretions with Cecile and he punches and kicks these men until they can no longer stand.  But as revenge, those same men beat Jean with farm tools until he can’t walk and has to stay in bed for days.  Even Gus himself, who makes a disparaging comment about his mother after she leaves, is punched in the mouth and knocked out by his father.  As his wife drifts further and further away from him, he seems to be preparing himself for the inevitable.  Gus observes about his father:

He seemed to have decided that only objects and animals were worthy of his consideration.  He would carefully examine each tool he picked up, as if a pitchfork or a shovel could bring some answer to the problem of suffering.  He had taken to sitting down in front of Sheriff and staring at him, which made our dog uncomfortable, unused as he was to being treated as anything more than part of the furniture.  He would hang his head to the side quizzically, tongue hanging out, as if waiting for an explanation.  The truth was that Dad was training himself for solitude.

Gus’s father, after his wife leaves and the children are on their own, spends his days alone at the farm.  A very sad fate for a kind, honest, hardworking man who loved his wife, his family and his land.  Buti has created a memorable group of characters whom he fittingly sets among a vivid and harsh landscape.

Thanks to Grant at 1st Reading for recommending this book to me.  Please stop by his blog and read his wonderful review of this novel: https://1streading.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/year-of-the-drought/

 

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Filed under French Literature, Literature in Translation

A Lover’s Discourse—Fragments by Roland Barthes

I had a couple of very intense discussions recently with two people closest to me about the complicated, enigmatic, confusing concept of love—both filial and passionate.

There were two comments, each from a different person, that didn’t sit well with me and that I keep returning to over and over in my mind:

“You can dislike someone but still love that person.”

And

“You can love someone but feel no affection for that person.”

I did what I always do when I am struggling with something:  I read a book.  Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse is what jumped out at me from my shelves.  Divided into fragments, each chapter of sorts deals with different terms related to love—absence, affirmation, body, languor, tenderness, etc.  The author’s thoughts come from reading Goethe, Plato and Nietzsche, from conversations with friends and from his own life experiences.  Wayne Kostenbaum in the introduction to the translation describes Barthes writing: “Barthes never dissertates.  Barthes never stops to explain.  He is happy to make the lightest of allusions—a lodestone such as “Nietzsche” or “Descartes” in the margins—but to leave the reference unplumbed.”

I will share a few passages that were especially striking to me:

From the fragment entitled “Atopos”:

The atopia of Socrates is linked to Eros (Socrates is courted by Alcibiades) and to the numbfish (Socrates electrifies and benumbs Meno).  The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos.  I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire.  The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype (which is the truth of others).

Yet I have loved or will love several times in my life.  Does this mean, then, that my desire, quite special as it may be, is linked to a type?  Does this mean that my desire is classifiable?  Is there, among all the beings that I have loved, a common characteristic, just one, however tenuous (a nose, a skin, a look), which allows me to say: that’s my type!

From the fragment entitled “At Fault”—fautes/faults

Any fissure within Devotion is a fault: that is the rule of Cortezia.  This fault occurs whenever I make any gesture of independence with regard to the loved object; each time I attempt, in order to break my servitude, to “think for myself” (the world’s unanimous advice), I feel guilty.  What am I guilty of, then, is paradoxically lightening the burdern, reducing the exorbitant load of my devotion—in short, “managing” (according to the world); in fact, it is being strong which frightens me, it is control (or its gesticulation) which makes me guilty.

From the fragment entitled “The Ghost Ship”—errance/errantry:

How does a love end?—Then it does end?  To tell the truth, no one—except for the others—ever knows anything about it; a kind of innocence conceals the end of this thing conceived, asserted, lived, according to eternity.  Whatever the loved being becomes, whether he vanishes or moves into the realm of Friendship, in any case I never see him disappear: the love which is over and done with passes into another world like a ship into space, lights no longer winking: the loved being once echoed loudly, now that being is entirely without resonance (the other never disappears when and how we expect).  This phenomenon results from a constraint in the lover’s discourse: I myself cannot (as an enamored subject) construct my love story to the end: I am its poet (its bard) only for the beginning; the end, like my own death, belongs to others; it is up to them to write the fiction, the external, mythic narrative.

From the fragment entitled “Special Days”—fete/festivity:

The Festivity is what is waited for, what is expected.  What I expect of the promised presence is an unheard-of totality of pleasures, a banquet; I rejoice like the child laughing at the sight of the mother whose mere presence heralds and signifies a plenitude of satisfactions: I am about to have before me, and for myself, the “source of all good things.”

For the Lover, the Man-in-the-Moon, the Festivity is a jubilation, not an explosion: I delight in the dinner, the conversation, the tenderness, the secure promise of pleasure: “an ars vivendi over the abyss.”

Barthes’ book of fragments is one that I will dip into over and over again and find something new, fresh, and thought-provoking each time.

Finally, Books, Yo has written a fabulous personal reflection about love in his review of Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc.  Please do take a look at his blog and his fantastic writing.

 

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Filed under French Literature, Nonfiction, Philosophy

The School for Misfit Children: Such Fine Boys by Patrick Modiano

The Modiano titles that I’ve read so far, Little Jewel, Suspended Sentences, and this latest novel published by Yale University Press, all have a mysterious yet emotionally languid quality to them.  It is both odd and compelling to mix these tones in a narrative but the author does it, quite successfully, in all three of these books.

Such Fine Boys describes a French boarding school for boys in the mid-twentieth century.  Modiano’s description of The Valvert School in the first few pages of the book is strange and even a bit dark:

The Valvert School For Boys occupied the former property of a certain Valvert, who had been an intimate of the comte d’Artois and accompanied him into exile under the Revolution.  Later, as an officer in the Russian army, he fell at the Battle of Austerlitz, fighting against his own countrymen in the uniform of the Izmailovsky Regiment.  All that remained of him was his name and a pink marble colonnade, now half ruined, at the back of the park.  My schoolmates and I were raised under that man’s morose tutelage, and perhaps some of us, without realizing it, still bear the traces.

The fourteen chapters in Such Fine Boys each contain a different story about a boy who attended the school.  The young men that attend Valvert come from wealthy, aloof families who don’t have very much time to spend with their children and as a result they become melancholy, feckless adults.   Most of the stories are told from the first person point-of-view by a man who is a former student at the school named Patrick.  The author shares more than a name with his protagonist since Modiano also spent most of his young life in a French boarding school and saw very little of his parents.  Another oddity of the novel is that two of the stories are told by a different narrator, another former student named Edmond who becomes a minor actor in a traveling theater troupe.

The narrator’s interaction with each of the boys at Valvert is overshadowed by a mysterious set of circumstances.  A boy named Michel Karve, for example, is described as having a cold and formal relationship with his parents who don’t visit very often.  Even though Michel’s parents are wealthy, the boy wears badly fitting clothes and is fed simple meals while his parents dine out with friends.  Michel sends the narrator to his parent’s apartment to retrieve his few belongings and never wants to have anything to do with his parents again.  As is typical in all fourteen vignettes in the book, the narrative raises many questions about Michel’s circumstances that are never fully explained.

The chapter that best illustrates the languid tone of Modiano’s stories is the one which describes an old schoolmate named Alain Charell. When the narrator meets Alain by chance at the Gare du Nord he reminisces about the boy he knew at school: “What had become of his parents? His father, with his saffron-yellow hair and mustache, looked like a major in the Indian Colonial forces.  Had they disappeared, like their lawn and their Trianon?  I didn’t dare ask.”  Alain and his wife, Suzanne, have a bizarre open marriage and have sex with random strangers while the other spouse listens in the next room.  They both seem to take quite a few drugs and one night, in particular, Suzanne suffers from the affects of whatever substance they are ingesting as she must be held up and taken to the restroom by her husband.

One night while the narrator is sleeping he receives a startling phone call from Alain who insists that he and his wife must see him. Alain says on the phone, “Come right away.  It’s urgent.”   When the narrator arrives at a brassiere, no details about the importance of such a sudden meeting are given; they sit for a while in the crowded restaurant and they eventually take a walk around the deserted city.  The only word I could think of to describe these bizarre events and the tone with which they are conveyed is languid, unexpectedly languid:

After a while, Suzanne rested her head on my shoulder.  They surely didn’t want me to leave, and I suddenly thought we might spend the entire night on this bench.  On the other side of the empty street, from a tarpaulin-covered truck with its lights out, two men in black leather jackets were unloading sacks of coal with rapid, furtive movements, as if on the sly.

What was so urgent that the narrator was suddenly woken out of a sound sleep?  Why didn’t he ask his friends these questions immediately?  Perhaps, once again, it is something he didn’t dare ask.

Trevor at “The Mookse and the Gripes” has also reviewed this title as well as Modiano’s other latest release, Sundays in Augusthttp://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/30/patrick-modiano-such-fine-boys/

 

 

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Filed under France, French Literature, Literature in Translation

…And a Dream: Anna Soror by Marguerite Yourcenar

As I was reading Anna Soror, the third and final novella in Yourcenar’s Two Lives and a Dream, I kept thinking about the images of love that Ovid creates in Amores.  The beginning poems in Amores Book I, in particular, depict Love (Amor)—personified as  Cupid replete with arrows— as something to be feared because of its (or his)  unpredictable nature.  The poet himself has fallen victim to this volatile and unruly emotion and he is tortured because it is something over which he has no control.  He begins Amores 1.2 (the translation is my own):

Esse quid hoc dicam, quod tam mihi dura videntur
strata, neque in lecto pallia nostra sedent,
et vacuus somno noctem, quam longa, peregi,
lassaque versati corporis ossa dolent?
nam, puto, sentirem, siquo temptarer amore.
an subit et tecta callidus arte nocet?
sic erit; haeserunt tenues in corde sagittae,
et possessa ferus pecora versat Amor.

What should I call this, that my bedsheets seem
so hard to me, and my coverlets do not stay in their
place on my bed, and without sleep I have passed
the night, oh for so long, and the weary bones
of my tormented body are suffering? For I think
that I would feel it if I were tempted by love.
Or could it be that cunning Love has crept up
on me with its hidden arts? It will be thus;
Love’s subtle arrows have pierced my heart and
savage Love disturbs my breast which he
already occupies.

The image of Ovid’s tumultuous night recalls the character of Don Miguel who suffers from fevers, insomnia and exhaustion because he is in love with his sister, Anna.  Their story takes place in Naples in the late-16th century when their father, Don Alvaro, is serving as the Spanish Governor of that city.  They live in an elaborate, well-guarded castle and they are raised together by their mother, Donna Valentina, a pious women who cares deeply for both of her children.  Mother, daughter and son form a close bond that largely isolates them from the rest of the world.  When the three of them travel to southern Italy to oversee the grape harvest on one of the family estates, Donna Valentina is taken to her  bed with fever and her ensuing death devastates both of her children.  When their mother dies, the brother and sister oftentimes find themselves alone and this causes a strange tension between them.

Yourcenar, through an extreme example with incest, is attempting to make the same point about love as Ovid did with his poetry; love is unpredictable, it cannot be controlled, and no matter how hard we try to resist it or fight it or reason it away, it is an emotion to which we are all susceptible.  Yourcenar treats her characters with compassion and understanding.  Her story is not shocking, lewd or salacious, but instead she highlights the torment that Miguel and Anna feel in their deep and innocent love for one another.  Their feelings are very subtle at first and neither one of them understands why they are suffering from constant anxiety, haunting dreams and extreme fatigue.  Yourcenar is a master at slowly and steadily building tension in her stories.  She describes Don Miguel on one of his sleepless nights:

He no longer repressed his nightly fantasies.  He awaited with impatience the half consciousness of the mind falling asleep; with his face buried in his pillows, he gave himself over to his dreams.  He would awake from them with his hands burning, his mouth stale as if from a fever, and more obsessed than the day before.

And later, when brother and sister consummate their love during a brief period of joy and passion, Yourcenar’s text is subtle and sensitive.  She only composes a few lines about their sexual encounter: “In the darkness, she discerned his anguished face , which seemed eroded by tears.  The words she had prepared died on her lips.  She fell upon them with an anguished compassion.  They embraced.”  Don Miguel and Anna do not apologize or regret their relationship, but they fear eternal damnation so each chooses a penance in the hopes of mollifying their sin.  Don Miguel volunteers for a dangerous mission to rid the Mediterranean of pirates and dies in battle.  Anna, despite marrying and having two children, never feels the same joy that she experienced in her five days spent with Don Miguel.  Throughout her life she wears hair shirts and prays constantly in the hopes of being released from her sin.

Yourcenar does not shy away from exploring different kinds of forbidden love in her other writings.  In An Obscure Man, for instance, Nathanaël has an intimate, physical relationship with another man that he enjoys and for which he feels no remorse.  He knows the world would judge him for engaging in what are considered unnatural acts, but he refuses to believe that his genuine affection for another man should be considered wrong.  Yourcenar makes it clear in Anna, Soror that Don Miguel and Anna, likewise, are unapologetic for their sincere, kind and passionate love.  It is the church and its laws which they are taught to obey that condemns their connection and it is because of the church that each chooses a penance.

As Ovid’s poem progresses, he realizes that there is no fighting against Love (Amor) so he willfully surrenders to passion and embraces his fate.  The torment of the first scene of the poem in which he is tossing and turning in his bed fades away.   In the Postface to this collection of novellas, Yourcenar’s description of  her characters feels very similar to the force of Love that Ovid experiences: “Their passion is too powerful not to be acted upon, yet, despite the long inner conflict which precedes their fall, is immediately felt to be an ineffable happiness, so that no remorse penetrates them.”

I would also like to share this great article in the New Yorker about Marguerite Yourcenar that Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed recommended to me.  Yourcenar is a fascinating writer and I am looking forward to reading her memoirs as well as her historical fiction novel about the emperor Hadrian: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/02/14/becoming-the-emperor

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Filed under Classics, French Literature, Historical Fiction, Novella

Two Lives…: The Novellas of Marguerite Yourcenar

Two Lives and a Dream, which includes three of Yourcenar’s novellas, was originally published in 1934 as La Mort conduit l’attelage (Death drives the cart).  The English version I read was translated by Walter Kaiser and published in 1987 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  The first two stories in the collection An Obscure Man and A Lovely Morning take place in mid 17th century Amsterdam and England and describe the rough and turbulent lives of a man named Nathanaël and his illegitimate son named Lazarus.  My first impression of Yourcenar’s writing is that she was a master storyteller, especially in the genre of historical fiction.

We are introcuded to the character of Nathanaël in An Obscure Man with a description of his childhood in Greenwich, England to which place his Dutch  parents have emigrated and live in a small community of expats.  Nathanaël was “weak chested and afflicted with a slight lameness” so he was not sent to work on the docks with his father and his brothers.  Instead he becomes an assistant to the town’s schoolmaster who educates him and teaches him Latin, which skill will come in very handy later in his life.  As a teenager, Nathanaël falls in love with Janet, an apprentice to a tapestry maker, whom he defends against the violent advances of a local drunk.  When Nathanaël fears that he has killed the intoxicated man he stows away on a ship bound for the Caribbean and later the primitive wilderness of Maine and Canada.  When the rest of his crew perishes in a shipwreck off the coast of Canada, Nathanaël is saved by an older couple and their daughter, Foy, with whom he falls in love.  Their life in the wilds of the New World is harsh as it is difficult to live such a primitive existence.  But his time in this wilderness, with its simplicity and his uncomplicated love for Foy, comprise some of the happiest moments in his life.

After spending two years in the New World, Nathanaël loses Foy to consumption so he decides to make his way back to England and then to Amsterdam where he works for his uncle as a proofreader in his printing business.  One night he meets a prostitute named Sarai in a local tavern and their sexual connection leads him to believe that he loves her.  But he learns that Sarai is a liar and a thief and when she becomes pregnant he wonders if the child, a boy named Lazarus, is really his. Nathanaël eventually loses contact with Sarai and his son and he becomes a valet in the home of a wealthy politician.  Throughout the story, Nathanaël’s health worsens as he is prone to fits of coughing and fever.  His master sends him to the Frisian islands in the hopes that Nathanaël will regain his strength, but instead he dies alone on this island among the waves of the sea and the nesting, peaceful birds.

Nathanaël’s life is always in flux as the story moves from one interesting episode in this obsure man’s life to the next in rapid succession.  One of the few constants in his life is death and loss.  Death Drives the Cart would certainly be a fitting title for this collection had Yourcenar chosen to keep it.  I don’t think I’ve ever read such a short book with so many death scenes.  But Yourcenar uses this theme to reflect on the value of life, which actually serves to make the book uplifting and even thought provoking.  Even though Nathanaël has endured the brutal hardships of an average, obscure man in the 17th century, every where he turns he encounters the kindness of others.  A dying Jesuit priest, Foy’s parents, a coworker, an employer all demonstrate to him that kindness is not hard to come by in this world.  And Nathanaël himself develops into a kind and compassionate man—he once saves a puppy from being fed to a lion which is a unique example of his good character.  A Lovely Morning, the very short sequel to Nathanaël’s story shows that this kindness is extended to his son who escapes the streets of Amsterdam by being invited by generous strangers to act in a traveling theater group.

As Nathanaël is dying on the Frisian island, he takes stock of his life and decides that overall he has been a good and decent man.  His tolerance for all people, regardless of race or religion, is a perfect example of how we all ought to live and is a timely message of tolerance that counters the violence and disgusting display of bigotry demonstrated by hate groups in my country this weekend.  I will end with an apt quote from Yourcenar that includes some of Nathanaël’s thoughts during the last few hours of his life:

People falsify everything, it seemed to him, in taking such little account of the flexibility and resources of the human being, so like the plant which seeks out the sun or water and nourishes itself fairly well from whatever earth the wind has sown in it.  Custom more than nature seemed to him to dictate the differences we set up between classes of men, the habits and knowledge acquired from infancy, or the various ways of praying to what is called God.  Ages, sexes, or even species seemed to him closer to one another than each generally assumed about the other: child or old man, man or woman, animal or biped who speaks and works with his hands, all come together in the misery and sweetness of existence.

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Filed under French Literature, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized