Posts Tagged ‘french’

March 18, 2013

I pretty much always finish books – like, always. Even if I don’t buy the characters or if there’s something structurally awry or other significant issue X, Y or Z. I’m a completer-finisher, what can I say. (Obviously, when I’m reading a book for work – say I’m reviewing it or interviewing its author – I always finish it.) But it’s been a really long time since I didn’t finish a book I was reading for leisure. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time that happened.

This seems to put me in the minority: a lot of people I talk to generally put a book down and either forget about it or don’t pick it up again for whatever reason. Possibly I’m good at picking books I know I’ll like and avoiding books I know won’t suit me, and/or I’m bloody-minded enough to forge on with something I’m not really into just so I can understand why it didn’t work for me. I tend to think it’s more the former, because I rarely feel like I would be better off not finishing a book than I would be finishing it.

Buuuuuuut I recently read three books that I really didn’t want to finish. I felt a bit bad about it but I knew from what non-finishers said that I was feeling the same way they did when they put a boring/bad/not right for them/not right for them at that time book down (and never pick it up again). And I think it had a lot to do with style. I read fairly broadly, across a range of genres, so I am open to a lot of things: clichéd storylines, experimental writing styles, a bit of pretension here and there, irksome authorial quirks. As long as a book has something I’m invested in, be it one character or story arc or whatever, I’m generally in for the long haul.

Here’s how I know I didn’t want to finish them. Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimmmmmmmmmmmmmeeeeeeee wwwwwwwwwwwweeeeeeeeeennnnnnnnnntttttt bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy sooooooooooooooooooooooooo slooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwlllllllllllllllllllllyyyyyyyyyy (and time can do so much).

I did actually finish one of the books. It was White by Marie Darrieussecq, she of the Google-by-necessity surname. I’d been really wanting to check out her work for a while and when I was trawling the library for books about far-flung places, a novella based in Antarctica seemed like just the thing. I think you’d have to do a fair bit to make a book about Antarctica boring, but I struggled to finish this book. Really struggled, like at the end I just wanted to push the book violently away from me.

As I said, this was mostly because of the prose. The premise is interesting: two people running from secrets in their respective lives decide to join a working team on the French base in Antarctica. Edmée is French, and as the only woman in the team, who is also charge of expensive, limited communications with the rest of the world, she piques the interest of the others. Peter is in charge of keeping everyone warm, the weight of which responsibility is one of the most convincing personal tensions in the book. The plain facts in this book are actually fascinating. Two images from White have stayed with me: a bottle of champagne exploding in the fat cook’s hands as he leaves the plane and finally steps foot in Antarctica; and Antarctica’s five suns. These scientific and experiential details are based on Darrieussecq’s husband’s real-life stint in Antarctica, and are totally interesting.

It’s in every single review, and on the back cover blurb, so it’s no spoiler to say that Edmée and Peter end up having an affair. In the build-up to this, Darrieussecq allows Edmée and Peter to consider their pasts, including present and past partners, but the affair is scarcely affecting – apart from the logistical issues it raises in a small, isolated Antarctic camp – because these portraits are so sketchy. Many critics praised Darrieussecq’s evocation of isolation in White, but I am not sure that isolation is a powerful narrative pressure if the characters it acts on are so thinly sketched. One interesting, but still frustrating, element, is that the narrators are the ghosts of those who have died in Antarctica. Their voice is not quite funny, and not quite serious, playing havoc with the assumption that their deaths were noble – or even the convention for choric narrators to be simply elegant or angelic. Again, though, the variation and inconsistency in the voice gets a bit frustrating.

Above all, though, it was the image-heavy prose that made me stabby. It’s just not my favourite style, especially juxtaposed with the theme of isolation and barren images of Antarctica. To give you a taste, here’s a section that Michael Worton excerpted in his (very positive) Guardian review:

The colour of the leaves of crumpled skin fluctuates, beige/purple; curtains, hangings, shutters. If he leans more heavily on her thigh, the leaves open, one tautens, the other wrinkles up a little more, and their pearly pink interior is revealed to be almost blue there where, like a highly polished slide, the vagina begins.

It’s not my thing at all, and the whole book is like this: little, shardy, decorative sentences/sentence fragments. So when I finished the book (only about 110 pages or so) I felt like I had run a marathon. Still, even though I wasn’t keen on this book, I’m still interested in reading her other books, including her new one and the first novel, Pig Tales, which is a Metamorphosis-style tale of a woman’s transformation into porcine being.

The next book I didn’t want to finish – and didn’t – was also French: David Foenkinos‘s The Erotic Potential of My Wife. I’m going to be brief about this one, because I don’t think it’s as interesting as White. On the back cover blurb, there’s a quote from a French magazine that claims Foenkinos is France’s Philip Roth. Honestly, if I were Philip Roth, I would find this epithet so amusingly inapt that I would frame it and put it on my wall. (I don’t know, maybe he’s more of a throw-into-the-fireplace kind of guy.)

This book’s hero is Hector, the survivor of a suicide attempt and a recovering collector. Hector’s psychological profile is more like a couple of dots on a piece of paper; this book is not a serious look at mental illness. Not that it’s supposed to be; it’s billed as a comic novel. But it’s not even funny, containing laboured jokes that almost seem to come with a belated clash of cymbals as you turn the page. It’s the kind of book that might work as a kind of cutesy Amélie-style film, with lots of visual gags and colour, but the writing doesn’t hold up. I think I got about 50 pages through.

Finally, a book I only got about 10 pages through. Super disappointing in this case, because I’d bought it when it came out and was desperately awaiting a gap in my reading so I could get cracking. However, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and I are just never going to be friends. It’s like when you meet a rad person at a party but you don’t quite hit it off? And then you later reflect that it was probably for the best? It’s like that. Lawson’s ‘mostly true memoir’ is written in a hugely over-the-top style (which is probably what bagged her the book contract). Lots of italics and avowals and rambling digressions, peppered with wit and references to eighties fashion. I can’t speak too much to the content, because obviously I didn’t read much of it, but Lawson talks charmingly about her childhood in a very small West Texas town. Though she seems like a very cool person, Lawson’s storytelling style lacks panache. Some of the tales she tells are undoubtedly funny, but she overdoes the humour to the extent that I thought the actual situation was probably much funnier. As I told a friend, Lawson makes things less funny than they probably are, as opposed to someone like David Sedaris, who makes mundane things seem hilarious.

So, hope you’re going okay. The end of 2011 was just a haze of activity, so excuse the absence. As a prize for sticking around/being good at Google/being a spambot, here’s a post to illustrate my mental declivities during the final months of 2011.

Running commentary on my reading of Madame Bovary:

Page 5: God, I can’t wait until Vronsky shows up.

Page 19: Where’s Vronsky?

Page 45: Where’s Vronsky?

Page 116: Okay, there’s a big party. I bet this is where Vronsky comes in.

Page 125: Where’s Vronsky?

Page 140: I just don’t know how someone with a name like Vronsky is going to show up in this tiny French town. It doesn’t make any sense.

Page 210: This book is practically over, and no Vronsky.

Page 267: OH MY GOD, TOTALLY WRONG BOOK. IT’S LIKE I HAVE NO BRAIN CELLS OR SOMETHING.

End: Pretty good book though.

Some day I shall regret being so open with all of you.

Hope you’ve all had a great year of reading. Looking forward to another.

having selected the book by georges perec called the art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise to read you are faced with a dilemma or if you like an unsolvable problem on the one hand you would like to read this book which is not perec’s most famous book but maybe his third or fourth most well known for which you have laid down the not insignificant sum of twenty-seven dollars and ninety-five cents and if you are honest with yourself you were expecting a book bigger than the eighty-four page volume you receive in the mail actually perhaps it is over one hundred pages with preliminary matter but that is really not to the point – and we must try our best to keep to the point – but on the other hand you are worried that if you are seen on the way to work with such a title other people on the tram may think you grasping and even worse someone who works with you may spot you and think you insensitive as well as grasping for it is well known that your industry is going down the toilet but it’s one or t’other you have after all spent your hard earned money on this book which is not perec’s most famous book but maybe his third or fourth most well known perhaps not more well known than a void written without the use of the letter e no not once yes really quite a feat anyhow you decide to read this book regardless of what the general public and more specifically your colleagues may think should they see you reading it in this economic climate and more specifically in the midst of this age of uncertainty in the industry in which you work after all you have spent your hard earned money on this book which is not perec’s most famous book but maybe his third or fourth well known and what you discover is that you are relieved that the book is only eighty-four pages rather than say one hundred and forty-four pages because there is only one full stop in the whole thing and it appears at the end that is to say that this book is made up of just one sentence though whether it is a sentence or not is questionable because the book doesn’t even start with a capital letter and there are so many digressions asides whatever you want to call them and clauses lots of them and many ambiguous points where what is missing could as easily be a semicolon as a full stop or a dash em or en whatever you prefer or whatever is house style and even the translator some professor at princeton university has called this book unreadable or what he really calls it is close to unreadable and you would not like this work at all if it was merely an exercise in unreadability but it is not the difficulty of getting through the work that is the point – and we must try our best to keep to the point – but the kind of translation the author attempted to begin with even before the translation by the princeton professor occurred or had been thought of the author accepted a challenge from the computing service of the humanities research centre in paris to write as a computer writes that is to say to adhere strictly to the possible plot given by a flowchart said flowchart is produced winningly in the front of the book so you know whether the protagonist ever gets a raise before you even start reading the text proper but if you have ever worked in an office you probably already know the answer nevertheless as previously alluded to the point – and we must try our best to keep to the point – is that you have never read a book before that has been written as a computer might have written it but of course a computer couldn’t write a book or could it think of those choose your own adventure books from your childhood surely if you plugged in some short scenes the machine would be able to work something out no matter how circuitous or repetitive and perhaps even shades of meaning would come through regardless of whether a machine is capable of creating allegiances or attachments as indeed it has in this book which you have in your hands having laid down the not insignificant sum of twenty-seven dollars and ninety-five cents though you did think that perhaps nothing could be more boring than a book written as if a computer had written it but of course a computer couldn’t write a book or could it really boredom is besides the point – and we must try our best to keep to the point – there is repetition and there is recursion here the book is after all following a pattern laid down by a flowchart what did you expect but as you know a flowchart builds in its let’s call it a reader a flowchart builds in a reader levels of expectation and tension and this book builds its story in washes like a watercolour almost it’s nothing like a mere circuit really finally you discover that the book you are holding in your hand not perec’s most famous book perhaps not more well known than a void was once produced for radio my god you think how did they do that how did they produce this work for radio being that you have just finished reading this book by georges perec called the art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise having selected it to read regardless of flash judgments that may be made by co-travellers on public trams and the glances of your co-workers because although you know it must have taken you a few hours to read this book you feel like you have not taken a breath that whole time.


Though the picture above is so genteel, what with the nice succulent and all, there is going to be some explicit language below because this book is all about sex. I wiggle my eyebrows at you in warning.

I got so excited when I saw Delta of Venus in the Popular Penguins stand that I bought it right away. I remember borrowing this book from the local library, sub rosa of course, when I was fourteen or fifteen. It was a surprising book for the young me, as there’s no Hardian delicacy about female sexuality in Nin’s work, and the things that are typically romantic about the characters (they’re all firm-fleshed, like pumas) are balanced out by, well, oddnesses. In the first story, ‘The Hungarian Adventurer’, the titular adventurer plays a game with two little children of the Spanish ambassador, in which the goal is to ‘catch’ the Hungarian’s erect penis as he waves it around under bedsheets. Those poor girls.

I never finished reading Delta of Venus when I was a teenager. Perhaps I found it weird that the mystery and nobility of sex (how sweet and naive a teenagerly conceit) was here reduced to the paedophilic gamble of a charming but unlikeable man. But I always remembered the passion with which Nin expressed, in the introduction, her endeavour to use ‘a woman’s language’ to describe sexual experience. Even though there are few people who would today subscribe to the view that there is such an absolute, discrete entity as ‘a woman’s language’, the idea that women should be writing about sex was compelling enough for me to want to pick the book up again this year.

Most of the stories take the name of their protagonists: Mathilde, Lilith, Marianne, Pierre, the Basque and Bijou. All have their proclivities and sensitivities — Mathilde is an idealist who rejects unromantic overtures from seemingly suitable aristocratic lovers, and her curiosity leads her to seek out different sexual partners, but the combination of her idealism and curiosity takes her to dangerous ground. Manuel is an exhibitionist who likes to expose himself in public, and searches for a woman who can understand his desires.

Sometimes it’s fun and titillating, sometimes it’s boring and a bit like flipping through a postal order catalogue, but sex is accorded primacy in each story. Delta of Venus‘s characters are all libertines who seem to live and die for sex, artists and aristocrats and prostitutes whose constant openness to sex seems to propose that all human relationships are potentially erotic ones. The extent to which the characters are willing to go past the boundaries set by society and themselves — Bijou progresses from struggle to pleasure in a forced bestiality scene — reveals their slavery to experimentation or sex itself.

But are the characters slaves to sex or to each other? Though Nin was interested in portraying sex from a woman’s point of view, Venus is not necessarily a feminist party. While the characters, bearing only first names like signs of the horoscope, all have their particularities, Nin sometimes writes the sexual act in erotic detail that deidentifies the participants: ‘A hand was opening someone’s buttocks.’ Women in these stories are often humiliated and dominated, as are their male counterparts. One character, Maria, is tricked into having sex by a man pretending to be another woman. Also problematic is Nin’s iteration that emotion, poetry and monogamy are necessarily bound up in her ‘feminine self’, a generalisation which she enthusiastically but somewhat unnecessarily extends to all women.

Some people consider her books as damning an accessory to the owner’s identity as plastic light sabres. But though I am not right behind her in politics, I still admire Nin as a lively, passionate person who couldn’t resist the urge to live and write about sex, which so enthralled her. You can roll your eyes all you like at teenage girls who brandish their copies of her books, but the passion and sensuality she championed is absolutely palpable in Delta of Venus. Just think about that the next time you read a sex scene.

Here’s a really bad one, to take you out. From Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart (which won a Bad Sex Award in 2007)

“You wanna pop me?” she said. This must have been some new-fangled youth term. The verb “to pop.”
“I wanna bust a nut inside you, shorty,” I said. “I wanna make you sweat, boo. Let’s do this thing.”


So my first attempt to characterise this book didn’t go so well. A conversation between me and my boyfriend about this book:

Me: It’s so French.
Him: What do you mean?
Me: Oh, I am zo in love, zis woman ‘as come along and iz ruining my life, she wants to marry my fazzer…
Him: The only thing French about that description is your accent.

So, again. Seventeen year old Cécile has just failed her exams, but it doesn’t bother her or her father, Raymond. Instead, they spend the summer confiding in each other about their lovers, dining and drinking together on the coast with their friends. However, Anne Larsen, an old friend of Cécile’s deceased mother, comes to visit them and exerts her calm, productive influence on their lives. Cécile is by turns grateful and resentful, and develops a plan to rid her and her father of Anne, who has designs on Raymond.

It’s a really enchanting little book (only 113 pages) mostly due to how Sagan portrays her heroine. Cécile should be distasteful; she is self-centred, cowardly, fulminant, crafty, changeable. Yet she is also contemplative, passionate and has been given an opportunity to benefit from her natural ability to understand human nature. When Cécile is chided for a giddy comment about her father’s love life, her emotions flare up, but the thoughtfulness of Anne has given her pause:

I suddenly felt angry…All the same I felt she was right: that I was governed by my instincts like an animal, swayed this way and that by other people, that I was shallow and weak. I despised myself, and it was a horribly painful sensation, all the more since I was not used to self-criticism. I went up to my room in a daze.

Yet her habits of self-possession and waywardness leads her to take a 26 year old lover, Cyril, and she co-opts him and Elsa, a pretty ex-lover of her father’s, into a scheme that will allow her and her father to live as before. However, she constantly suffers crises of confidence about whether she really does want Anne to depart, and spends as much energy desiring for her plan to fail as to succeed. The tragedy of the novel stems from Cécile’s inability to take her childish plan seriously:

And that is how I set the whole comedy in motion, against my better judgment…still it was amusing to try the plan out, and see whether my psychological judgement proved right or wrong.

Sagan pulls off a great trick by making a kept daughter a charming protagonist. Cécile has no illusions as to her ambitions or personality: ‘I realized that I was more gifted for kissing a young man in the sunshine than for taking a degree.’ There is something about her nonchalance that is quite lovely. In and amongst Cécile’s chatty, intimate disclosures, Sagan also allows her heroine moments of hyperbolic poetry:

We were of the same race; sometimes I thought we belonged to the pure and
beautiful race of nomads, and at others to the poor withered breed of hedonists.

Despite these self-evaluatory interludes, the novel crumpled into a bathetic end that reminded me of an execrable French film I attempted to watch on the plane once. (If you’re interested, La Fille de Monaco, IMDB user comments: ‘A comedy that turns serious for no very good reason’.) Still, considering Sagan was herself around Cécile’s age when she wrote the book, Bonjour Tristesse is a diverting novel with plenty of vitality and grace.


I thought that if I was going to read any Houellebecq novel, I might as well read one that didn’t have a picture of a semi-naked waif on the cover, but I was deceived. The Elementary Particles was released in the UK and Australia as Atomised, so as it turns out I read the book I was trying to avoid. In any case, I would probably have been better off with the naked lady cover as a warning since the sexual content of the book was so graphic and plentiful that I became paranoid about people on the train glancing at the pages and giving me an unwanted thumbs-up, or some more boisterous equivalent.

But first things first. An introduction informs us that Michel Djerzinski was a key player in the ‘metaphysical mutation’ resulting in a new Western historical era. Then, a (crappy) poem, and we are thrust into the depressing realia of Michel’s middle age: embryos, a poster of the Lakes of Germany, a dead white canary. In 2009, the fictive present, Michel has disappeared, leaving behind materials that re-conceptualise the reproductive process, and humanity as a species.

In its exploration of the fictional prophet’s life, The Elementary Particles wants to have its cake and eat it too; documentary-style prose bookends the narrative, which is in turn interspersed with scientific explanations of phenomena tangentially related to, and ostensibly elucidative of the events at hand. Juggling these three approaches requires the author to have an unfailing and minute sense of balance, but the impacts of the respective devices lack cohesion and direction; the novel is a three-headed snake, and you’re never quite sure which head will strike next, or why.

The first section details the formative years of half-brothers Michel, a biologist who little regrets his life’s emotional nullity, and Bruno Clement, a sex-obsessed teacher whose personal life could be equated to the cost and frequency of his visits to prostitutes. Sourcing the emotional deficit of the hapless siblings requires contemplation of the biological linchpin, but really the fracture, of the family; Michel and Bruno’s mother Janine (later Jane) is a loyal disciple of seventies free love with only one scruple, which is not to initiate her sons into the mysteries of sex herself.

It’s easy to be flippant and disgusted about the degree of attention paid to sex in Houellebecq’s novels. But in addition to putting masturbation and voyeurism on display, The Elementary Particles limns a French masculinity that is self-destructive because circumscribed. While the first section puts on display all the embarrassments, inadequacies, furtivenesses and crimes of sex, the second section deals with the collaborative and healing capacities of sex. But in the respective trajectories of Michel and Bruno, these capacities are explored as potentialities rather than certainties, and the fey scientist, Michel, eventually dismisses it as ‘a form of narcissistic differentiation’, an activity that is so unstable and contingent that it is key to the entropy of rational humankind.

While not altogether successfully executed, The Elementary Particles is assiduous in its self-appointed task: disputing the role of normative sexual practices in an increasingly transactional society. It was written in 2000, and the novel suggested that by the current time the West would have had no choice but to confront the exclusionary effects of difference through deeper analysis of social and sexual mores. Like the dubious privilege of those who, cigarette in hand, watched 1984 pass by, it’s safe to say that Houellebecq’s call-to-arms, though well judged, has not been answered.

Achilles, Antigone, Mary Magdalene–these are all figures we are used to associating with strength, sacrifice and forgiveness. Marguerite Yourcenar rewrites their extraordinary stories and interpolates therein the experience of tragic romantic love. But for all Yourcenar’s skill and thoughtfulness, evident in her other works, the torment and deliciousness of love are but poorly served in Fires; I was disappointed, even a little disgusted. The great dramatic potential in the most well-known stories of pre-Biblical times is utterly adrift in the prose, which ultimately seems to be the end point of a cathartic process rather than a narrative which can convey the true pathos of catharsis itself.

Fires
comprises 11 stories, or rather portions of lyrical prose, in the voices of the respective title characters. Thus, ‘Clytemnestra, or Crime’ begins with an address by Clytemnestra to the jury assigned to her case, the murder of her husband Agamemnon. ‘Clytemnestra’ is among the easiest of the chapters to follow. Others, like the Antigone story, begin with stream of consciousness musings and gain little structure thereafter. There is a certain horror to witnessing such emblematic women made the mouthpieces of trivial, bitter laments. One can only assume from the repetitive yet strangely vague vocalisations that Yourcenar had a very specific emotional axe to grind but was satisfied merely with wearing it away. The historical details used to set the scene, though plentiful, are overwhelmed by violently devotional symbolism and such time-travelling therefore seems useless. The utterer of the line ‘I am rich and hairless’ might well have been Donald Trump as the fabled Xerxes.

It’s possible, though, that if the book contained only these portions, Fires would not have been so unpalatable. But inserted between the stories are poetic segues in a voice ex nihilo, and it is these that completely unbalance Fires. Fawning, aggrandising epistles dedicated to an unnamed love-object are rarely attractive to anyone other than the recipient, and we get 11 of them here. They only aggravate a reader already left in tatters from the counter-intuitive and unknowable shifts of emotional direction that arise from the schizophrenia of catharsis.

What I had hoped to find from this book was an exquisite representation of reworked characters of classic literature, a typology detailing what love can drive a person, fabled or not, to do. Fires instead reads like the unedited diary of an anguished girl, and the bridging parts apparently were reworked versions of extracts from Yourcenar’s diary. However, the preface is fascinating; it’s analytical and controlled yet seems more convincingly passionate than the book proper. Read the preface, if you like.