Category Archives: French Literature

Review: Like Death by Guy Maupassant

I received an advanced review copy of this title from NYRB via Edelweiss.  This English version has been translated from the French by Richard Howard.

My Review:
like-deathOlivier Bertin is a painter in late nineteenth century Paris and his most famous work, his Cleopatra, has earned him enough fame to be sought out by the rich and famous of high society.  He is not interested in any romantic relationships with the bourgeois women he paints because he feels that are insipid and boring.  At a party one night, however, he meets the Countess Ann de Guilleroy and is immediately captivated by her beauty and charm and decides he must do her portrait.  As Bertin paints the Countess in his studio, the two have stimulating conversations and enjoy one another’s company more and more.

Like many romantic relationships, Anne and Bertin’s starts with great conversations and friendship.  Slowly, feelings of love overtake both of them until the painter can stand it no longer and decides he must have her.  When they consummate their relationship, Anne feels very guilty at first because she has had a good marriage to the Count de Guilleroy for seven years and they have a five-year-old daughter.  But she quickly realizes that Bertin makes her happy and she welcomes the painter into her inner circle so that they can have daily contact.

Henceforth she felt no remorse, merely the vague sense of a certain forfeiture, and to answer the reproaches of her reason, she now credited to a certain fatality.  Drawn to him by her virgin heart and her void soul, her flesh vanquished by the slow dominion of caresses, she gradually became attached, as tender women do who love for the first time.

There is no suspicion among Parisian society that they are having an affair and it simply appears that the Countess and Bertin are the best of friends and both share a love of the arts.  Bertin even becomes great friends with Anne’s husband, the Count.  Their affair carries on for twelve years and settles into an easy comfort, similar to many long-term marriages and relationships.  In two simple lines, Maupassant’s sublime prose describes the deep and abiding affection achieved by the lovers:

Months then passed, then years, which scarcely loosened the bond uniting Countess de Builleroy and the painter Olivier Bertin.  For him, this period was no longer theexaltation of the early days but a calmer, deeper affection, a sort of anitie amoureuse to which he had become easily and entirely accustomed.

The central crisis in the book occurs when Anne’s daughter, Annette, who has been growing up outside of Paris, makes her entrance into Parisian society at the age of eighteen; Annette is the exact image of her mother at that age and everyone, especially Bertin, notices the striking resemblance between mother and daughter.  Maupassant takes a lot of care in his writing to develop the contrast between the youth of Annette and the growing age of her mother and the painter.  He uses the seasons as a backdrop which  mimic the painter’s feelings and observations about mother and daughter.  For example, when Bertin first realizes that Annette is a younger, more energetic version of her mother it is springtime and Bertin has accompanied Annette to the park where children are playing and mother nature is in her first bloom.  The brighter, fresh weather and Annette’s youth give Bertin feelings of energy and passion that haven’t been stirred in him for many years.

At first it seems that the appearance of Annette has just reminded Bertin of the early stages of his relationship with Anne, that all-consuming, passion that marks the beginning of an affair.  But Bertin’s feelings gradually become deeper for Annette and he soon realizes he is even jealous of her fiancé.  Bertin doesn’t acknowledge his love for the young Annette until Anne detects them and points them out to the painter.  At this point in the book, Anne and Bertin both become hopelessly wretched because the painter has fallen in love with Annette, the younger, prettier version of Anne.  At times Anne and Bertin are a little hard to take because their feelings of misery are so intense and  they make frequent allusions to death which seemed a bit melodramatic.

Maupassant weaves an interesting commentary throughout the book on beauty, age, youth and the standards of beauty upheld by society.  Anne notices her increasing wrinkles and sagging skin and believes her appearance is to blame for Bertin’s lack of affection towards her.  And instead of being proud of her daughter she is jealous of Annette’s complexion yet unblemished by time and age.  Anne takes more time to apply make-up, takes extreme measures to make herself thin and only greets her lover in the dim light of the drawing room.  Olivier, too, suffers from an obsession with his aging appearance.  His white hair and paleness are particularly emphasized.  When a Parisian newspaper calls his art work old-fashioned, he becomes particularly distraught about his advancing years.  Maupassant’s meditations on the impossible standards of beauty to which we hold ourselves are just as relevant now as they were in the nineteenth century.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read because of Maupassant’s prose which perfectly captures the extreme and conflicting emotions of love and suffering.  The ending is rather dramatic, although not at all surprising given the title and other elements of foreshadowing that Maupassant scatters throughout his text.

 

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Filed under Classics, France, French Literature, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books

Post-truth, Post-structuralism, and now Post-Pleasure?: My Review of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Coming

coming-coverIn this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure? There are just a few of the provocative questions that French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy raises in his book Coming as he explores the tricky, elusive and titillating French word jouissance and its various associations with orgasm, sex, coming, pleasure, joy, property and consumption.

Coming, which is the English translation of the French title la jouissance, takes the form of an interview, divided into five part as Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy, asks Nancy a series of questions about the idea of jouissance.  Through the course of this dialogue, Nancy lays out the original meaning of jouissance, which was used solely as a legal term, and he takes us on a fascinating linguistic journey to discover how this word evolved to become associated with sexual pleasure and orgasm and from consummation is now associated with the modern idea of consumption. This book is an excellent introduction for those who are new to Nancy or for those who are familiar with his prolific writings as it contains some of his most favored topics: community, modern psychology, linguistics, Christianity, the body, sex and Platonism, just to name a few. Continue reading my review in the February issue of Numero Cinq

You can also read an excerpt from the book translated by Charlotte Mandell here

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Filed under French Literature, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction, Philosophy

Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2017

books-2017

I have the privilege every day of going to work at a place that I love and that has a long and rich tradition of education.  The Woodstock Academy, founded in 1801, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and it has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum– “Look back at your future.” (For the philologists out there, respice is a present active imperative, a compound made up of the prefix re (back, again) and the verb spicio (to look) and futurum is the accusative, singular of the noun futurum which is formed from the future active participle of sum.)

These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past.  My husband likes to say that this motto is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.  I thought Respice Futurum is apt for a reflection on books as well;  it seems fitting to look ahead to my reading plans for 2017 while also reflecting on the types of books I have encountered over the past year and how they will influence my reading choices moving forward.

According to my list on Goodreads I read 105 books, a total of 24, 484 pages in 2016.  A few books were left off this list such as Pascal Quignard’s Roving Shadows and The Sexual Night. The Goodreads list also doesn’t include a few volumes of poetry I’ve read and some collections of essays.  And my list does not include any of the Latin or Greek authors I’ve translated or retranslated in 2016.   This was not a bad year for me, but not my best either.   The books in translation I have read have come from the following languages:  French, German, Spanish, Estonian, Russian, Italian, Bulgarian, Korean, Malayalam, Kannada, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Slovene, Icelandic, Hebrew, Norwegian, Portuguese.

In looking at this list of lit in translation, I would like to explore more books from Asia and Africa which are not well-represented on my list.  I would also love to explore more books translated from Arabic which is a huge gap in my translated fiction.  If anyone has suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

Almost all of the books I have read have been published by small presses which will continue to be my main source of reading: Seagull Books, New Vessel Press, Open Letter and Deep Vellum, Archipelago, New York Review of Books and Persephone Books. 

My first read of 2017 has been The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospondinov.  This is #29 in the Cahier Series and the first one I’ve read from this series.  I loved it so much that I went back and bought six more titles from the series, so there will be more Cahier titles in my future.

Gospondinov’s book The Physics of Sorrow is my favorite book from the Open Letter Catalog and one of my first reads in 2017 that I just started is another title from Open Letter, Justine by Iben Mondrup. 

A book that I have already started in 2016 and will finish in 2017 is The Collected Prose of Kafka from Archipelago Press.  This is a title that I am slowly making my way through and savoring.  Archipelago has managed to collect some of Kafka’s best short pieces into one volume.

I have discovered the works of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy this year and reading his extensive backlist published in English should keep me busy for a very long time.  Next up on my list of books written by him is his title on Sleeping.

Speaking of French writers, I am eager to read Pascal Quignard’s Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings in 2017.

I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy of  Russian author Sergei Lebedev’s The Year of the Comet which is being published in 2017 by New Vessel Press.  I am very excited that I will have an interview with Lebedev coming up in an issue of Numero Cinq, for which literary magazine I am also privileged to continue to do production editing, to scout and recruit translators and to write reviews.   I am also looking forward to two additional lit in translation titles from New Vessel:  Moving the Palace (from Lebanon) and Adua (from Italy.)

I am always eager to read whatever Seagull Books publishes and thanks to their wonderful catalog I have discovered some classics of Indian literature.  I am also looking forward to reading Goat Days by Benyamin which is already sitting on my bookshelf.  I also understand that Seagull is publishing more works from Tomas Espedal in English translation which I am very eager to get my hands on.  A long-term, very long-term goal of mine is to read the entire backlist from Seagull Books.  I will do my best to put a large dent in that list this year.

This year I discovered Ugly Duckling Presse and I am eager to explore their backlist of poetry as well as their essays.  I have a copy of To Grieve by Will Daddario on my shelf already.  I would like to read more essays this year, so please leave suggestions for essays in the comments!

Finally, I would like to read more classics in 2017, especially Tolstoy, Pushkin and other Russian masters.  I have a collection of Tolstoy’s short stories and a copy of The Complete Prose of Pushkin sitting on my shelf that I have yet to read.  I also look forward to the reissues of classics from NYRB who is publishing more books my Henry Green.  I am hoping to have read all six reissued Green books by the end of 2017.  And, as always, I look forward to whatever classics from British, (mostly) female authors that Persephone Books has in store.

And as far as posts on my blog are concerned, I have always shied away from writing about Latin and Greek and classics, but my reading of Logue’s War Music has inspired me to continue writing about The Iliad and to do some of my own translations and interpretations of various Latin authors.

classics-booksA sampling of some of my most cherished classics books; the Loebs are nestled snugly on the bottom shelf.

Well, I could go on and on about my reading plans for 2017 or I could just go and actually get to reading.  Happy new year to all of my fellow bibliophiles.  I hope you also get a chance to Respice Futurum.

chair-bookroomThe cozy spot where much of my reading takes place.  It is overlooked by a print of The Roving Shadows cover done by Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull Books artist.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, French Literature, German Literature, Hungarian Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Opinion Posts, Persephone Books, Seagull Books

Review: The Heart of the Leopard Children by Wilfried N’Sondé

leopard-childrenThe Heart of the Leopard Children is Wilfried N’Sondé’s first book to be translated into English.  It was written and published in French and this English edition has been translated by Karen Lindo.  This title is part of the Global African Voices series by the Indian University Press whose mission is to publish “the wealth and richness of literature by African authors and authors of African descent in English translation. The series focuses primarily on translations of new works, but seeks to reissue longstanding classics that are currently out-of-print or have yet to reach English-speaking readers.”

The unnamed narrator in this novella emigrated to Paris from the Congo when he was a small child.  His parents were hoping to escape poverty in Africa, but the deplorable conditions in the housing project where they live with many other immigrants is not much better than their original home.  The narrator is sitting in a jail cell because he has been accused of a violent crime.  In between beatings from the police, he reminisces about his younger days which he spent with his best friend Drissa and his girlfriend Mireille.

My full review appears in the January 2017 issue of World Literature Today.  To read my full review click on the link: http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2017/january/heart-leopard-children-wilfried-nsonde

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Filed under Uncategorized, Novella, Literature in Translation, France, French Literature

Reflections on Jean Luc Nancy’s Listening

listeningFor those who are especially interested in music and music theory this book will be of great interest.  The title was published in the original French in 2002 and this English version has been translated by Charlotte Mandell.  This is in no way an attempt at any time of a review or a summary of Nancy’s ideas about Listening.  His writing  in this book defies any sort of comprehensive analysis or review.  The best way for me to approach this particular piece of writing is to glean a few words of wisdom here or there and see where his thoughts take me.  Many might disagree with me and be downright annoyed and/or angry at my approach.  But this is what I’ve got.

Nancy begins his discussion of language with an analysis of the verbs we use for listening and hearing.  In English we tend to used the verbs to hear and to listen interchangeably.  When we say, “Did you hear me?”  what we oftentimes really mean is “Did you listen to me?”  “Are you understanding me?”  The verb écouter, to listen, is derived from the Latin verb auscultare (to listen) and the Latin noun auris (ear), so écouter, which is derived from these words means “to lend and ear,” “to listen attentively.”   Nancy states:

We listen to someone who is giving a speech we want to understand, or else we listen to what can arise from silence and provide a signal or sign, or else we listen to what is called “music.”

Nancy’s discussion of timbre in music is particularly fascinating.   We cannot, through the use of musical notation, indicate timbre, so it is more subjective than other musical characteristics such as pitch, duration, and intensity.   The literal meaning of the word timbre comes from the Greek tympanon, which is the tambourine of orgiastic cults.  So Nancy concludes,

Timber can be represented as the resonance of a stretched skin (possibly sprinkled with alcohol, the way certain shamans do), and as the expansion of this resonance in the hollowed column of a drum.  Isn’t the space of the listening body, in turn, just such a hollow column over which a skin is stretched, but also from which the opening of a mouth can resume and revive resonance?  A blow from outside, clamor from within, this sonorous, sonorized body undertakes a simultaneous listening to a “self” and to a “world” that are both in resonance.  It becomes distressed (tightens) and it rejoices (dilates.)  It listens to itself becoming distressed and rejoicing, it enjoys and is distressed at this very listening where the distant resounds in the closest.

There is a short essay at the conclusion of the book which poses the question of whether or not someone who knows nothing about music can listen to and appreciate music.  Can a novice, without knowledge of timbre, pitch, tone, intensity, etc. comprehend or understand the masterpieces of Beethoven or Wagner?  This made me think about Julian Barnes’s book The Noise of Time in which the great Russian composer Shostakovich is constantly under attack and scrutiny for writing subversive music.  Lenin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and he absolutely hated it.  The next day a bad review which labeled the performance as “muddle instead of music” appeared in Pravda and the composer became terrified that this would not only be the end of his music career but also the end of his existence.  What did Lenin hear in that music that so repulsed him?  Was it the timbre, the pitch, or the intensity of the music that was so offensive to him?  How was Lenin’s listening to the music different from others who listened to the piece before him and declared it a masterpiece?

The questions that Nancy poses about listening can be applied, I think, to other aspects of listening besides music.  As a teacher I am constantly thinking about listening and hearing and how my students receive, understand, process and react to what I say.  If my timbre or rhythm in delivering a lesson are not quite right then I see the results when my questions are met with blank stares or class assessments are poor.  I also have to understand that some students are extremely sensitive to sound so when I approach them with the sound of my voice I must regulate my tone, my pitch, even my volume.

And in return I am dealing with an age group that is full of angst but who is not quite capable of properly expressing or communicating that angst or asking for help.  I have learned over many years that more than anything else, more than mastering an ancient language or learning anything about the Ancient World from me, they want to know that I am listening to them.  At the beginning of every year on the first day of class I ask them what qualities they think a good teacher should have and without fail every year almost every student writes “a good teacher should be a good listener.”   But they are so used to expressing themselves in the briefest terms via text and twitter that oftentimes I am left with the smallest scraps of communication by means of which I must somehow be that “good listener.”  Nancy’s passage about listening in relation to the self especially resonated with me:

When one is listening, one is on the lookout for a subject, something (itself) that identifies itself by resonating from self to self, in itself and for itself, hence outside of itself, at once the same as the other than itself, one is the echo of the other, and this echo is like the very sound of its sense.  But the sound of sense is how it refers to itself or how it sends back to itself [s’envoie] or addresses itself, and thus how it makes sense.

The more means of communication that we have—text, email, social media, Skype—the less inclined we are to actually listen to one another.  I see this in my students every day.  Not only do their phones and i-Pads distract them from listening to what is going on in class, but these so-called communication devices distract them from interacting with one another, on a human and personal level.  I’ve noticed that when they are fighting or disagreeing with one another it is often the result of something that started as a text or a Tweet.  And because they are so accustomed to electronic means of communication I fear that their ability to listen, to truly listen will be more and more diminished over time.  This thought makes me feel bewildered, overwhelmed and maybe even a little depressed.  But the only choice I have is to keep listening.

 

About the Author:
nancyJean-Luc Nancy is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Université Marc Bloch, Strasbourg. His wide-ranging thought is developed in many books, including The Banality of Heidegger, The Disavowed Community, Ego Sum, Corpus, Anima, Fabula, and, with Adèle Van Reeth, Coming.
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Filed under French Literature, Philosophy