Books & Reading

Reading French Writers in English: Echenoz, Sobin & Colette

Since I first began learning French nine months ago, I’ve acquired all the competence of a mumbling three-year-old. My journey has been a series of stumbles and fumbles, faux pas and misspellings, verb-noun disagreements and quite a few horror stories starring dismal efforts at conjugation and communication, not least amongst them the time when I spotted a long-furred cat on a sweltering afternoon and said “La chatte est chaude“. Happily, my first tentative steps are a thing of the past, and my vocabulary has since expanded to consist of more than bonjour, oui, ca va, and the perennial favourite/highly disreputable, “voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” (From what I’ve been told, the French absolutely abhor this putain of a phrase.) In any case, if I happen to find myself in France, I’m happy to report that, in an atrocious, milk-curdling accent, I’d be able to express my needs and wants, but, unfortunately fall short of talking about my favourite books.

To complement my learning journey and make the French language come alive in context, I bought a handful of novels by French authors. Of course, since my competence is nowhere near what’s required to read an entire novel in French, I acquired translations. I’d already read the usual suspects in university – Camus, Sartre, Flaubert, Voltaire, Balzac – and, besides, these days I’m more inclined to contemporary voices. Guardian has a respectable list of crowd-sourced French books and authors; I’d recommend anyone interested in reading French authors/novels in English to start there if they’re looking to add a sizeable addition to their TBR list. That’s exactly what I did.

Jean Echenoz – Je m’en vais (1999), translated as I’m Gone

Echenoz

Jean Echenoz won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for I’m Gone. For a moment let’s forget that right now, the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize, is suffering from a bad reputation for being unusually sexist. I’m Gone begins simply enough: in its first sentence, Felix Ferrar, an urbane Parisian art dealer, walks out on his wife – “I’m going. I’m leaving you.” He drops his keys on the table and closes the door behind him. He then goes on to pursue a memorably pathetic international crime spree that takes him across the tundra of the Arctic. I shouldn’t reveal the plot because half the fun in reading is discovering where Felix intends to go next, but suffice to say, the novel is a sly, witty exploration of love, mid-life crises, and a biting satire on the art world. I loved it, and I plan to re-read it, if not for the humour, then at least for the little descriptions of Paris:

‘Around the Madeleine church, strings of unlit Christmas lights hovered above the streets still more deserted than the subway. The decorated windows of the high-priced ships reminded the nonexistent pedestrians that they would survive the end-of-year festivities.’

Gustaf Sobin – The Fly-truffler (1999)

sobin

Language is alive, sensual and languid in Sobin’s expert hands; the story as soft and creamy as a delicate Camembert. Set against the fading of the Provencal traditions and language, each page is a remarkable tribute to the lush romance of the region, and celebrates France’s fecundity of nature.

Since the premature death of his wife, Philippe Cabassac, master fly-truffler, has come to expect more of the truffles that he discovers every winter on his family estate in Provence. He discovers that the truffles bring him a series of dreams where his lost wife is restored to him in intimate communion. His seductive dreaming epiphanies threaten to take over his waking life, as he becomes more and more obsessed with collecting and storing truffles.

I never thought reading about silkworms could be so dreamy, or that someday I’d know the practice of something as precise as how locals in Provence discover truffles in their gardens and woods. Read this especially at night, for that is when the magic of Sobin’s prose is unstoppable:

‘He’d have to wait, though, for the ground to thaw and the first timid signals of spring to break like so many flags from their hard little shell cases. He’d have to wait until the first wild almonds had begun blossoming, bringing with them a whole host of honeybees, before unearthing the last truffle. It lay between the pawlike roots of a holm oak at a depth of no less than forty centimeters. A richly faceted “black diamond”, as they’re occasionally called, this particular truffle had a wild, oily provocative aroma.’

Read the first chapter here.

Colette – Cheri (1920)

colette

Cheri is one of my favourite love stories. I know I mentioned being more inclined towards contemporary voices, but Colette writes so well (and without affectation) that you could easily imagine Cheri being written recently. This slim, sad novella is about the separation between the 25-year-old spoilt and beautiful titular protagonist and his lover of five years, the 49-year-old courtesan Lea. When an advantageous marriage is arranged for Cheri, Lea reluctantly ends the affair. However, despite his apparent detachment, Cheri is increasingly isolated from his marriage and haunted by the memories of Lea. Things aren’t better for Lea either, who, in spite of her extensive experience in matters of the heart, finds that she, too, has fallen in love with the young, brash boy-child. For six months, both parties find ways to escape their memories, until fate decrees that they meet again one tumultuous night.

What really hooked me was Colette’s unflinching account of Lea’s slowly crumbling beauty. Imagine an incredibly stunning woman in her twilight years, disenchanted with the suffocating company of elderly courtesans. Even better, imagine a society where courtesans are a necessary part of the social hierarchy, and celebrated rather than stigmatized for their profession. That’s a France I’d like to travel back in time to visit.

Painting by Evengy Lushpin

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Book Review, Books & Reading

What I Learnt From Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

1. An ultra fashionable way of expressing a vacant expression, unfurnished with emotion. This is what I look like when I’m being informed about the efficacy of homeopathy:

He has the strangest expression on his face – the emotive equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND.

 

2. I’ve never been to New York but apparently in the Big Apple, humans, not birds, tweet:

The thinnest tendrils of dawn are creeping in from the east. People in New York are softly starting to tweet.

 

3. If you want to give your child a name that he will curse you for for the rest of his life, you can always turn to softwares:

Hadoop! I love the sound of it. Kat Potente, you and I will have a son, and we will name him Hadoop, and he will be a great warrior, a king.

 

4. Let’s say you meet an alien one day and it asks you ‘What is this Internet thing? Why does everybody love it so?’ Memorise this answer:

I’d sit at my kitchen table and start scanning help-wanted ads on my laptop, but then a browser tab would blink and I’d get distracted and follow a link to a long magazine article about genetically modified wine grapes. Too long, actually, so I’d add it to my reading list. Then I’d follow another link to a book review. I’d add the review to my reading list, too, then download the first chapter of the book – third in a series about vampire police. Then, help-wanted ads forgotten, I’d retreat to the living room, put my laptop on my belly, and read all day.

 

5. Does an inventive analogy make you simultaneously shudder with pleasure and hate the writer for coming up with it first? I’m a sucker for analogies:

…I can´t stop squirming. If fidgets were Wikipedia edits, I would have completely revamped the entry on guilt by now, and translated it into five new languages.

 

6. For a while in 2013, the hashtag #firstworldproblems took over my Facebook news feed like a meme-wrecking hurricane. To see an example of a first world woe in a novel is just.. priceless:

Kat bought a New York Times but couldn’t figure out how to operate it, so now she’s fiddling with her phone.

 

7. This is what my books tell me every time I snuggle into bed with my newly acquired Kindle:

I have one and I use it most nights. I always imagine the books staring and whispering, “Traitor!”

 

8. And this one little priceless gem, which someone should have told me about when I was still in school learning how to string together a friendship:

Let me give you some advice: make friends with a millionaire when he’s a friendless sixth-grader.

 

***

I love the expression on people’s faces when I summarise the plot of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The conversation, with few variations, goes like this:

“Hey Preet, what are you reading?”

“Oh, it’s just this novel about a 500-year-old black-robed cult dedicated to unraveling the mystery left behind in the encrypted book of Italian printer Aldus Manutius, in which is the secret of immortality. But it’s also a love letter to Google and the world wide web.”

“O-kay.”

“In a nutshell: global conspiracy, code-breaking and girlfriends who work for Google.”

In a nutshell: be careful when you ask me about what I’m reading. I don’t know how to stop talking.

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Let’s get it clear: no one reads Dan Brown to uncover the mysteries of the universe or unravel the complexities of the human psyche through skillfully turned phrases. We read Dan Brown because he is bloody entertaining. He makes 500-year-old paintings relevant and textbook Dante, well, cool. I like that he’s managed to unearth such precise architectural terms that reading about Byzantine and Gothic buildings is like a vocab lesson. He’s like that supernerd in school who finds everything fascinating. My friend wasn’t wrong about the writing. What kept me going were the tiny nuggets of trivia. Just fascinating.

Book Review

Book Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

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The time is post WW-II and the scene is a small and idyllic old Japanese fishing village, Uta-Jima. A poor boy, Shinji, falls in love with the daughter of the village’s kingpin, Hatsue, a young girl of remarkable beauty. The love that blossoms between them is as pure and virginal as the island itself. Both protagonists and the pastoral island setting seem to embody Mishima’s notions of etiquette and the simple, conservative Japanese way of life. Analysis aside, this is actually one of the best love stories I’ve ever read.

Book Review

Book Review: The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

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Frightening and hard-hitting, this book on life in a Mumbai slum is a rare example of how truth surpasses fiction.

Annawadi is a slum near Mumbai’s international airport and nestled within the shadow of luxury hotels. As India becomes one of the world’s fastest growing economies, Annawadians, convinced of the new India’s many miracles, begin to nurture dreams. An old man dreams of a new heart valve; another dreams of becoming the slum’s first female college graduate.

However, for a book that claims to be reporting the truth, there is little depth in the representation of non-Annawadi characters.

Book Review, Fiction

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

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A jaded journalist heads to Venice to attend Belini-fueled parties, snort cocaine, fall in love and write about the Biennale. The whole scene is something out of a dream; a wild, hedonistic celebration of the body. Then the scene changes to Varanasi, that holiest of holy places where people go to die. Here comes the search for something deeper, more transcendental and also more insane. Look out for the knee-slapping gripes about the peculiar behaviour of locals.

For the record, Geoff Dyer knows how to write a sentence.

Book Review

Book Review: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer

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Tender, luminous, lively and poetic, this is a novel I wish I’d written. Four generations of the Patel family are documented, and while the questions Doshi asks are not new (Where is home? What is my identity?), her writing sparkles. The story flows seamlessly from episode to chapter to continent. Each character is richly realized, no small feat considering this is a slender novel traversing almost 80 years. You meet characters as they fall in love, and follow them through their life, meet their parents and grandparents and children, and children’s children and lovers and… it’s just beautiful. Read it.

Book Review

Book Review: The Pleasure Seekers by Tishani Doshi

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