7.30.2010

Loving by Henry Green

Last month, when I was perusing the stacks for an easily readable Modern Library Top-100 book, I found the delightful Muriel Sparks and enjoyed that escape tremendously.  See here for why I was undertaking such a search.  While there, I also picked up another Modern Library Top-100: Henry Green's Loving, which I finished on the plane the other day.  Given that I was reading it with less -than-stellar attention (riding the shuttle to the airport, half-listening for boarding announcements, looking out the window at the clouds), I didn't have an immediate reaction to finishing it.  It just felt like an item marked off the to-do list.  And though I do love marking items off to-do lists, I have been plagued by a nagging feeling that I have been missing something here.  Green is considered a wunderkind - a "writer's writer's writer" - and has been classed among Virginia Woolf and James Joyce for his experimental style and remarkable technique.  And though I would agree that the dialogue-heavy writing is something to be admired, I did not finish this book feeling like it warranted such a classification.

Loving is set in a castle in Ireland during the early days of World War II.  The castle is owned by a British woman and is staffed almost exclusively by British servants.  Though we are introduced to Mrs. Tennant and a few other upper-class characters, the focus of the novel is on the life "below stairs."  Green's exploration of class distinctions is light, and he relies beautifully on comic moments to keep the book from becoming some sort of polemic.  But the tension dwelling on the boundaries between these two groups does provide the reader with something to consider.  And even within the lower class, the distinctions based on status and position make clear how difficult social mobility was at this time in these circles. 

The plot basically follows Charley Raunce, who was a footman until the death of the butler allows him the opportunity for advancement.  Charley (previously known as Arthur because all Mrs. T's footmen have been Arthur) seizes the opportunity and makes himself over into Mr. Raunce, THE man among men in the servant's quarters.  We then track his efforts to woo one of the housemaids, Edith, and his difficulties and successes in managing the household, the other servants, and his personal affairs.  There is adultery, theft, drunkenness, flirtation, and - oh yes - peacocks.  It really is quite fascinating.

So, here I sit, two days past finishing it, already gushing over my next read (I can't wait to talk about this one!), and I still cannot get settled how I feel about this book and its inclusion as one of the Top-100 English-language books of the 20th century.  I cannot feel it is a masterpiece, but I equally cannot dismiss it as overrated and unworthy of praise.

In trying to gain a little more insight into Mr. Green and his work, I stumbled across this: The Paris Review's interview with Green in 1958.  This one is not collected in my 4-volume set, so it won't officially count in my upcoming TPR challenge (invitation post coming - really, I promise!).  But it stands as another great teaser for that event and offers us this gem of an exchange:

INTERVIEWER
I’ve heard it remarked that your work is “too sophisticated” for American readers, in that it offers no scenes of violence—and “too subtle,” in that its message is somewhat veiled. What do you say?


GREEN
Unlike the wilds of Texas, there is very little violence over here.  A bit of child killing, of course, but no straight shootin’. After fifty, one ceases to digest; as someone once said: “I just ferment my food now.” Most of us walk crabwise to meals and everything else. The oblique approach in middle age is the safest thing. The unusual at this period is to get anywhere at all—Goddamn!


INTERVIEWER
And how about “subtle”?


GREEN
I don’t follow. Suttee, as I understand it, is the suicide—now forbidden—of a Hindu wife on her husband’s flaming pyre. I don’t want my wife to do that when my time comes—and with great respect, as I know her, she won’t . . .


INTERVIEWER
I’m sorry, you misheard me; I said, “subtle”—that the message was too subtle.


GREEN
Oh, subtle. How dull!

Brilliant!

7.26.2010

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Things I've done today:

Made Plum Jam
Watched Large Tree Being Cut Down
Ate Plum Tart with Ice Cream Before Dinner
Had Soup and Chips for Dinner
Napped on the Couch During Thunderstorm
Finished Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Can you tell my family is once again out of town without me?  I miss the little buggers a little, but a quiet house surely is a nice excuse to indulge oneself.  Le Petit Prince was a lovely indulgence and a lovely way to conclude my Paris in July experience.  I know July is not officially over.  However, on Wednesday, I am joining my family out of town and won't be back until August begins, and I think I must begin now to transition my brain toward classes, planning, and fall.  And that means a different kind of reading.  And thus, a different kind of blogging.

But for tonight, I can linger a little longer in Le Petit Prince.  This book is widely beloved, and though I assumed I had experienced the English translation as a child, I found my assumption to be wrong as I read the original French.  Nothing was familiar, but perhaps thanks to the Chateaubriand, the reading went much more quickly and was so enjoyable.  It was still work, and my dictionary remained a close companion, but it was a comparative romp after the sludge-like progress I made on Le Dernier Abencerage.

The tale is narrated by an adult pilot who has crashed in the Saharan Desert.  He is there for 8 days, and during that time, he encounters the little Prince, who shares his story and teaches the narrator (and us) a great deal in the process.  In his travels, the little Prince has encountered (on the 6 planets he visited before coming to Earth) a king who reigns over all but only orders his subjects to do that which they were already going to do,  a vain person who only responds to applause or praise, a drunkard who drinks because he is ashamed that he drinks, a business man who ceaselessly counts the stars, which he claims to own, a lamplighter who must light and extinguish his lamp every minute, and a geographer who never leaves his office but doesn't trust the accounts of the explorers who tell him where things go on the map.  Though these characters touch on the absurd, they expose a great truth about humanity (which also often tickles the edges of the absurd).  And then, the Prince comes to Earth where he is confused by many things (the echo from a mountaintop and the constant coming and going of people at a train station) and inspired by many things (mostly the wisdom of a fox).

The fox teaches us, too:

L'essential est invisible pour les yeux. (The vital is invisible to the eyes - it must be experienced in the heart)
Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoise.  (You become forever responsible for that which you have tamed - you must care for the things that you love and depend on and that love and depend upon you)

There are so many truths here and different ways to apply these lessons in life.  For me, though, the most important element comes in the very beginning when the narrator explains how he used to draw until he learned none of the grown-ups in his life understood what he was drawing.  They made him feel that he could not draw.  This section made me laugh and cringe simultaneously.  The accompanying examples of his open and closed boa are priceless.  But even as I laughed, I was reminded of how important it is to cultivate the child in our grown selves and to allow our children to remain small and confident in their smallness for as long as possible.  I don't want to be one of those silly grandes personnes always typing away self-importantly on my computer.  I would rather be one of the few who understands.  And I want my children to know they can draw - whether un chapeau or un serpent boa qui digerait un elephant - and draw and draw and draw to their heart's content.

And in the meantime, I will watch a tree being cut down and eat dessert first and look forward to playing with mes enfants on Wednesday.

7.24.2010

Chateaubriand's "Les Aventures du Dernier Abencerage"

Francois Rene de Chateaubriand.  Nice hair.  Nice gesture to your boss with the hand tucked in the jacket.  Nice little short story about the tension between the conquering Spanish and the conquered Moors.  Nice.

It took me three weeks, but I have finally finished "Les Aventures du Dernier Abencerage."  And despite the language barrier, I still found myself swept into this tale of passion (Chateaubriand is considered the father of French Romanticism, after all) and faith and homeland.  Aben-Hamet is the last Abencerage - the last of a tribe of Moors that were exiled from their original home in Spain.  He has heard the stories of his people's valiant fight and ultimate defeat throughout his life and decides one day to embark on a project in his native land.  We don't learn the details of his plan until the end, and in the meantime, he meets and falls in love with Blanca de Bivar.  Blanca just happens to be a descendant of the conquering Spanish hero, Le Cid.  Also, she is a devout Christian, and Aben-Hamet is an equally devout Muslim.  Oh, and did I mention her brother and his enduring hatred of the Moors?  There's a lot in this little story and much of it is thought-provoking even today.  I won't reveal the ending as I found it most satisfying to discover on my own.  Suffice it to say, the ending had the appropriate level of complexity for a reader (me!) that prefers less resolution to more.

As I was just trying to understand what I was reading, I'm sure there were many passages that I missed the beauty of, but there were some that came through even my meager translation abilities.  For instance, I liked this description of Aben-Hamet's love, Blanca de Bivar:

Tout était séduction dans cette femme enchanteresse; sa voix était ravissante; sa danse, plus légère que le zéphyr: tantôt elle se plaisait a guider un char comme Armide, tantôt elle volait sure le dos du plus rapide coursier d'Andalousie, comme ces fées charmantes qui apparaissaient a Tristan et a Galaor dans les forets.  (17)

Without a doubt, the challenge of reading in another language is a fun intellectual exercise.  It is nothing at all like my normal reading experience, but I enjoyed it and will look forward to making one more effort at translation before Paris in July reaches its conclusion. 

7.20.2010

Book-Buyer's Remorse

Do you ever do this?  You are getting ready to leave on a trip or participate in an event, and you feel compelled to have a certain book.  You might check the library, but when they don't carry it or it's checked out, you just haul off and order it or stop by your local bookseller, and you move forward all excited about your purchase because you really, really wanted this book for this experience?  And then you read it, and you realize this was a book you don't actually wish to own.  Book-Buyer's Remorse: it doesn't happen often, but when it does, you feel so deflated.

It should come as no surprise that I love books.  I don't have an e-reader because I prefer to own my books - completely.  I write in them, refer to them, return to them years later.  But, several years ago, I made a conscious decision to only own those books that really matter in a fairly significant way.  I went through my shelves and did some culling: if it is a book I want my kids to "stumble upon" as teens, or something I know I will return to, then it stayed.  If it was mere entertainment with no notable notetaking or if I didn't even really enjoy the book, it was pulled.  I try not to buy a book unless I already know I will want to keep it.  The risk there lies in borrowing a book from the library and realizing that you really need to own it.  There you are, trying to keep track of interesting passages and quotes and ideas - all without writing in the book.  Not an easy task, I tell you.

So, when I bought - in my Paris in July excitement - the Styron memoir previously commented on and this one, A. J. Liebling's Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, I did so in full knowledge of my infraction.  I was swept up in the idea, and though the Styron was a decent bet, I had no idea what to expect from the Liebling.  A classic food writer.  Paris.  The New Yorker.  All things I trust, but still a risk.  And as it turned out, it was a risk I wish I had not taken. 

Now, don't get me wrong.  The book was not horrendous, it did not offend (too much anyway), I did not despair ever having read it.  But it equally was not superb, it did not enlighten, I did not want to ever read it again.  Now I am left with Book-Buyer's Remorse.  Alas.

Liebling was a young man in Paris in the 1920s, and his experiences there were unique.  His voice is forceful and funny at times, but I simply could not get on board.  I am not a fan of boxing (something Liebling loved and often uses for analogies or descriptions), and though I do consider myself something of a food person, I am not the most adventurous of eaters, and I do not cotton to Liebling's brand of gluttony. And for a supposed food memoir, I did not finish the book feeling like it was overwhelmingly about food.  He wrote more about quantity than quality - or when he referred to quality, he merely said it was or wasn't quality.  Being unfamiliar with many of the dishes, I could not immediately appreciate the truth of what he was asserting, and he did nothing to incite or inspire or tantalize the reader to appreciate the dishes.  He just ate and drank and occasionally told us what he ate or drank.  Or sometimes he talked about boxing or about prostitutes or money or his family.  But there was no continuity of narrative (understandable because they began as separate articles), no enduring characterization, no real embrace even of the city itself.  In fact, I take real issue with James Salter's comment in the introduction (also excerpted on the back cover):

Though not a novel, it has a novel's grip - there is dialogue, character, description, and the unmistakable signature of a real writer: an entire book thrown away on nearly every page. (xv)

Perhaps that last statement reveals the problem.  Perhaps Liebling could have produced something amazing, but instead of working at it like a novelist must, he merely threw away his novel on every page.  Working under the constraints of journalistic timelines and being more concerned with his next meal than with what happened between meals, perhaps Liebling could not devote that kind of passionate energy to his writing.  That passion was reserved for the food and wine.

So, to counter the Book-Buyer's Remorse, I am giving away my copy of Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris.  If you would like it (despite my less than glowing review), comment below.  Tell me about your experiences with BB Remorse, if you have had any.  I'll pull a name out of the hat and let you know who gets it.  And if no one wants it, I'll take it to my used bookseller and try to learn my lesson next time.

7.16.2010

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

I know, I know, I know.  Paris in July is supposed to be a celebration of all things Parisian.  And it is not very celebratory to read a little piece chronicling someone's descent into depression, even if that someone is William Styron.  But Styron's thin volume (which originated as an address at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and then became a long essay published in Vanity Fair) is a fascinating exploration of his particular struggle with mental illness and with the fabric and reality of mental health at the time.  It also examines some of the capital-T-Truths about this disease regardless of time or circumstance.  As one of the "millions more who are relatives or friends of victims," (35) I took especial interest in his ability to explain, his willingness to discuss what was going on at the time.  Many sufferers never feel comfortable talking about the full depth of what they were experiencing at the time.  And of course, those that commit suicide have no way of making their loved ones understand. 

Styron begins his tale at the peak of his decline.  He acknowledges that he had been suffering and struggling for some months, but it was a trip to Paris in 1985 that revealed to him the true nature of his illness.

The moment of revelation came as the car in which I was riding moved down a rain-slick street not far from the Champs-Elysees and slid past a dully glowing neon sign that read HOTEL WASHINGTON.  I had not seen that hotel in nearly thirty-five years, since the spring of 1952, when for several nights it had become my initial Parisian roosting place.  . . . It reappeared, however, that October night when I passed the gray stone facade in a drizzle, and the recollection of my arrival so many years before started flooding back, causing me to feel that I had come fatally full circle.  I recall saying to myself that when I left Paris for New York the next morning it would be a matter of forever.  I was shaken by the certainty with which I accepted the idea that I would never see France again, just as I would never recapture a lucidity that was slipping away from me with terrifying speed.  (3-4)

Because of the subject matter, there is nothing here to recommend Paris to the reader.  But it is Styron's attachment to the place, the force of feeling that attachment withdrawn, that causes him to see his condition for what it truly was - even though he was in little position to control it at the time. 

As he describes his descent into (and subsequent emergence from) the "darkness," Styron notes that he suffered from hypochondria and makes reference to the 17-century perception of melancholia and hypochondria as interchangeable concepts. 

It is easy to see how this condition is part of the psyche's apparatus of defense: unwilling to accept its own gathering deterioration, the mind announces to its indwelling consciousness that it is the body with its perhaps correctable defects - not the precious and irreplaceable mind - that is going haywire. (44).

This astute analysis caused me considerable reflection.  It is true: we can much more easily replace a failing body part (knee, hip, even heart) than we can repair a mind that is broken.  Thankfully, Styron's great mind did return from that brink.  And even though he contributed nothing else to the literary canon after that break,  this memoir offers something to those who need to hear his voice.  To see the evidence of his healed mind.  To attempt to understand the unknowable.

As a companion to this little memoir, I read the Paris Review interview with Styron (1954) collected in The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. IV.  Perhaps the most interesting moment of collide is when Styron actually admits to hypochondria and nervousness - when he's not writing.  In the memoir, he made it sound like the hypochondria was a fairly recent addition to his symptoms in that declining period.  Instead, he reveals in the interview the ongoing nature of the thing and the ability of the written word to somehow save him from that struggle. 

Now - even though I know I am really stretching the boundaries of Paris in July here, I am actually using this concept as a launching point for a new challenge.  I have the complete set of these fantastic interviews, and each of the authors included has at least one work that I have yet to read.  So, my goal is to regularly (time-frame yet to be established; watch for official launch post next month) read an interview alongside one of the TBRs from these masters.  There are 16 interviews in each collection, which totals 64 authors.  Should I go in the order they were collected?  Chronologically?  Your thoughts, questions, concerns, or even excitement about such a challenge are welcomed. 

Finally, I leave you with this quip from Styron:

Interviewer: Do you enjoy writing?

Styron: I certainly don't.  I get a fine, warm feeling when I'm doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day.  Let's face it, writing is hell.

7.11.2010

Le Ballon Rouge

A series of fortunate events:
1.  The husband and I were stocking our Instant Queue in Netflix, I stumbled across this little film, and something about it struck me as terribly familiar, so I added it to the queue.
2.  Paris in July came up, and I had an excellent reason to watch it.
3.  The husband went out of town, so I had an evening to myself. 

Now, the husband is no slouch, and he will do a lot of things just because I want to, but I figured an artsy short film - in French, no less - might be something he'd endure rather than enjoy.  So, I enjoyed it in his absence! 

After doing some internet research, I have found that this film was regularly shown to American school children in the 60s and 70s, so it is possible I saw it then.  It is also possible I watched as part of one of the many French classes I have taken over the years.  However, after that initial familiarity, nothing else made me feel like I'd seen it.  I was able to watch it with completely "new" eyes, even if I had seen it some years ago.  I'm so glad I did, too.

This 1956 film is only about 35 minutes long, and the plot is less than compelling.  A boy (Pascal) finds a large balloon on his way to school one day, and it becomes his companion.  At first, he is afraid of losing it to the sky, and then when his caregiver (a grandmotherly type) releases it outside, he realizes it has a will of its own and has chosen to stay with him.  Throughout the rest of the film, we watch it trail him through the streets of Paris - almost exclusively in a quarter of the city that no longer exists - and in and out of trouble.  The schoolmaster locks the boy in a closet for distracting his schoolmates, and those schoolmates and other gangs of boys make it their quest to take the balloon from him.  There are several fascinating chase scenes before the gang of boys finally corners Pascal and the balloon.  One boy's slingshot finally hits its mark, the balloon slowly deflates, and another boy applies the final blow with his boot.  I won't relate the rather fantastical ending here, but I will say that despite the seemingly silly plot and utter lack of dialogue, this film does satisfy something unusual in me (and apparently, in many other viewers).

Certainly, I must add my praise of the cinematography to the slew of similar accolades thrown upon this film.  Paris here is not the city of lights, or glamour, or fashion; we don't even ever see Le Tour Eiffel or L'Arc de Triomphe.  Instead, we are shown the gray facades of post-war Paris.  There are crumbling walls, vacant lots, empty storefronts, peeling signs.  Pascal is dressed all in gray, and much of the film is shot in low light or fog.  Understandably, then, the red balloon jumps off the screen and is visually arresting.  The cinematic choices really work.  And even though the balloon was supposed to be the star, I was still completely enamored of the Paris shown through this lens.  I love the streets, the slant of light in those teeny, narrow alleys, the stairways, the mounted gendarmes, the occasionally view of the city from a hilltop.  I wanted to be there, to buy a pastry from that boulangerie, to simply be a child in Paris. 

I am not alone in my fascination with this place.  Clearly, the Paris in July experience has brought us out from under our covers.  It holds a certain mystique for me that has not yet been matched by other places.  And though I've been there once (a fleeting, frantic trip which I will try to relate in the next few days), I don't feel like I've ever gotten to experience Paris the way I would like.  Like the balloon, I feel like I mostly floated somewhere above the reality of Paris; my feet did not clamor on those beautiful, historic cobbles. 

The movie is charming.  When I decide to share it with them, my children will love it.  Who knows?  The husband might even enjoy it as well.  And even though I now know those particular stores and stairs no longer exist, I will watch it again, hoping to see the Paris that will one day be familiar to me as it is to this boy and his balloon.

7.07.2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

I was supposed to be posting today about my Parisian reading progress (see more below), but I've been hijacked by the reminder to register for the Book Blogger Appreciation Week . . . thing.  Since I am so new to this book blogging community, I thought this event might be a nice chance to see and be seen - so to speak.  So, I stand before you in utter vulnerability.  Be kind, please.

The posts I am submitting are:
More on the Moor
Reading While Moving or Why I Hate Endnotes
How to Read a Book
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Now, about the Paris in July reading:  I have chosen to read (not sure if you can call what I'm doing reading, but we'll go with that for now) Chateaubriand's short story "Les Aventures du Dernier Abencerage."  What's most interesting to me is that I understand a lot when I just read a sentence or a section and let it make sense on its own rather than translating every word.  However, I'm still looking up quite a bit - mostly as an attempt to improve my vocabulary as I go.  I want to do more than just get the gist. 

The funniest thing about my aventure en francais is that it took me to the end of the first paragraph when I read "Pluere maintenant comme une femme un royaume que tu n'as pas su defendre comme un homme" (5) before the bells started going off in my head.  Only then did I recognize this story as the same events used by Rushdie for the underpinning to his fantastic The Moor's Last Sigh, which I so recently gushed over.  How could I be so obtuse?  Despite my struggles, I am loving the challenge this reading has posed as well as the accidental overlap here, and I will forgive myself if you will.

7.02.2010

Trouble in Paris

I have done no productive Parisian reading today, but I had to post a link to this news bit about the Tiny Souvenir Eiffel Tower Crime Ring.  I understand the basic legal issues here, and I even get the problems such black market Eiffel Towers cause for the legitimate tourist shops in the area.  Howevah - I can't really sympathize with the shop owner who laments his inability to compete (found in the AP content in our local paper) because the black market guys (who were apparently back the next day after 39 of them were arrested) sell for 1/5th the price he sells the same trinkets for.  A 5x markup?  Really?  Perhaps we should look into what it actually costs to make the little metal buggers and shoot for reasonable pricing.  That might do more to hurt the black market than these arrests apparently have.

Oh, and though I really am supposed to be writing about reading here, I cannot neglect the obvious overlap between Paris in July and the Tour de France starting tomorrow.  Allons-y!

7.01.2010

Bienvenu Juillet!

Today marks the beginning of Paris en Juillet, and I have not done nearly enough to plan my month.  Here's what I've got:
Le Voyage de Babar.  I actually cheated and already read this one with the kids the other day.  If they're interested, we'll do it again, and I might even comment on it.  It is hilarious.



A set of beautiful, old books in French.  Some Baudelaire, Flaubert, Stendhal, a collection of short stories by various authors.  Even though I rarely read in French, I will almost always buy books in French whenever I find them at estate sales.  Waiting for this moment, I suppose.



The Paris Review Interviews, which I have been pining after for some time.  I'm sure they are not Parisian enough to make the cut, but I'm thinking I'm going to make it work somehow.  And, bien sur, Le Petit Prince.  My sister apparently had to translate this one back in high school (although she thankfully stopped writing the translation in after the first few pages).  I'm thinking of reading it to my kids later this month.  After we finish Ramona the Pest, of course.



And waiting in my Netflix Instant Queue: Le Ballon Rouge.  I stumbled across this film when we first set up our account, and it struck me as familiar.  So much so that I immediately wanted to see it.  Perhaps we watched it in school at some point?  Je ne sais pas. 

What do you think?  Other ideas?