Thursday, August 16, 2018

From the Earth to the Moon, with sandwiches - "Hurray for Edgar Poe!"

A culture, a literary tradition, emphasizes its own writers more than anyone else does.  It’s normal and natural.  Exceptions are of the highest interest, yes.  And I am thinking of French readers, who like more of everything.

So Jules Verne is read more in France than in the United States, is where I am going today.  Looking at Amazon, judging the number of editions and the numbers of reviews, it looks like four Verne novels are still widely read in the United States.  In France it is at least eight novels, maybe as many as a dozen, and recently there was a beeyootiful reissue of everything, in cheap paperbacks with attractive embossed red covers and vintage illustrations, so that bookstores had plenty of random “now what is this” titles.  The School of the Robinsons?  The Sphinx of the Ice?  Maybe someday I will find out what they are.

This is not to say that the French take Verne particularly seriously.  A junior high-level collection of travel writing that I read called him a “popularizer of genius,” which gets the attitude.  He really is popular, still popular, with Verne-derived images all over, most charmingly on carousels.  And he is taken more seriously – more critically – than he was when he was alive.

I just finished De la Terre à la Lune, trajet direct en 97 heures 20 minutes (From the Earth to the Moon, on a Direct Path in 97 Hours, 20 Minutes, 1865), which I tried for a couple of reasons: it is fairly short, fairly easy, and inspired much of the imagery of a much greater work of art, George Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.  I occasionally had to force myself to really read the French text, since it was easier to just substitute an image from the film.  Close enough!  Sometimes quite close.

The title pretty well summarizes the novel.  The means of transportation is a big bullet shot out of a giant cannon.  To the extent that the book has characters, they are a couple of American artillery-makers who, lacking purpose with the end of the Civil War, come up with this crazy scheme.

To the extent that the novel has a plot – eh, it barely has a plot.  Based on this book alone, I would doubt the ability of Verne to plot.  From the Earth to the Moon is mostly engineering – a great moment of tension is the pouring of molten metal into a Florida pit to found the huge cannon (which is entirely underground) – but the parts that are not are satire.  This novel is packed with jokes.

The bomb-makers who belong to the Gun-Club have all been blown to bits, and now have wooden legs and rubber jaws and so on.  “[T]here was not quite one arm per four persons, and only two legs per six” (Ch. I).

I took this as a bit of a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and his story “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839).  The Gun-Club is in Baltimore, maybe another nod.  The President of the Club gives an inspirational speech in which he covers a pretty thorough history of fictional journeys to the moon, so Poe is there again:

“Hurray for Edgar Poe!” cried the assembly, electrified by the words of its president. (Ch. II)

That’s the spirit.

Several chapters are nothing but meetings.  The meetings feature sandwiches.  Easily my favorite sentence in the novel:

“We are ready,” replied the members of the Committee while each absorbing a half-dozen sandwiches.

– Nous sommes prêts, répondirent les membres du Comité en absorbant chacun une demi-douzaine de sandwiches.  (Ch. VII, “The Hymn of the Bullet”)

Three chapters straight of meetings.  Not satire, really, but gritty realism.

Gags, statistics, nonsense, engineering, and at the end, kaboom!  A strange novel.

All translations mine, so don’t trust them.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Auerbach, Kermode, Benjamin, Frye - an invitation to read some classic literary criticism with me

That was useful.

I have settled on a hybrid plan.  More logical.  More German.

A few shorter books to see how things go, then Mimesis.

End of September: The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (1967), Frank Kermode.  Time and apocalypse.  The word “fiction” in the title does not mean “novels.”  Under 200 pages.

End of November: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (essays from the 1920s and 1930s), Walter Benjamin.  A wide range of topics.  I know that there are other ways to read Benjamin in English now, which was not so true in 1968.

End of January: Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (1963), Northrop Frye.  His “practical” companion to the more theoretical (and longer) Anatomy of Criticism.  More essays, really.

Then we can spend the winter in front of the fireplace with a goblet of claret studying Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), Erich Auerbach.  Mimesis has twenty chapters, and I can imagine a madman, or genius, simply reading through them, but I will want months.  Not sure how many.  Open-ended.

Each of these books embraces a range of traditions and languages.  Their scope is a good part of their appeal to me.  It is the fantasy of knowing everything.  Here are some writers, readers, who got close to that.  Their subject is literature, but also history, language – civilization.

As far as “participating” in a “readalong” goes, do whatever you want, whenever you want.  These books, even Kermode’s, are well suited to rummaging.  I mean, don’t miss the first chapter of Mimesis, but otherwise do whatever is useful and pleasant.  I hope you will find it useful and pleasant to report back on what you have discovered.  Feel free to do so at Wuthering Expectations.

For some reason Arthur Krystal wrote a 2013 New Yorker profile of Auerbach and Mimesis.  This is a book with its own story, worth knowing.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Would anyone be interested in a readalong of classic, or at least good, or at least one hopes so, literary criticism?

My fifth idea is to read some literary criticism.  Classics of.  Books that are great in their own way, perhaps even works of art of some kind.  I have two impulses.

First, to steal ideas, or let’s say to find some new ways of looking at what I read. Spur some thought, if possible.

Second, it is clear that some of the best parts of the blog have been readalongs, and some of my worst ideas for readalongs have actually been my best (e.g., What Is To Be Done?), so why not invite interested people to join in.

The number of participants is of little importance.  A readalong of Melville’s Clarel had only one other reader, and she made an original contribution to Melville scholarship!  And anyway the important thing is that I learn a lot.

Two ideas.  One is to schedule a series of relatively short books, one every two or three months.  A variety of subjects, approaches, countries, forms.  Nothing too Theoretical.  For example, in ten months or a year, with readers joining as they like (all books I have not read):

Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations
William Empson’s Milton’s God
Barbara Hardy’s The Novels of George Eliot: A Study in Form
Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism
Paul Valéry’s The Art of Poetry

Except I feel obligated, for competing educational purposes, to read the latter in French, which seems unlikely, really, so let’s say a collection of essays by Eugenio Montale or Umberto Eco or something like that.

Maybe I am wrong about what is in these books.  My understanding is that they are good books.  But there are many other possibilities.

The other tack would be to tackle a monster.  E. R. Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Mikhail Bahktin’s Rabelais and His World, Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore.  Books that might take months to work through.

I am thinking of this project as work, maybe more like a study group than a readalong, but the kind of work that can be intensely pleasurable.
A good readalong ought to give the readers a lot to do, right?

Maybe this is a bad bad idea, rather than a good bad idea.  Please let me know what you think.  Feel free to contribute suggestions – favorite books, logistics, anything – even if you have no interest at all in participating.

We all have plenty to read.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Books I might read

Why would anyone care, but I have to remind myself how to write, so here we have this bit of self-indulgence.  What do I want to read in the next whenever?

1.  French, books in French.  No principle of organization besides reading level.  Hard enough so I learn, not so hard that I give up.

The most tempting project-like reading is a good wallow in French Romantic poetry – Lamartine, Vigny, Musset, Desbordes-Valmore, Hugo, more Hugo, and yet more Hugo – followed by a plunge into Baudelaire, Verlaine, etc., etc., stopping with – perhaps never stopping.  It’s the great glory of French literature, modern poetry, and much of it is graspable at my reading level.  Or almost graspable.  A little more patience; a little more work.

2.  Post-Victorian British literature.  The Lyon public library had an outstanding but maybe old-fashioned collection of British literature.  They absorbed an English library in – I don’t know when – and thus had plenty of Aldous Huxley, Richard Hughes, D. H. Lawrence, that sort of thing.  Cold Comfort Farm and Rogue Male and Malice Aforethought and Elizabeth Bowen and Rudyard Kipling short story collections in their original formats.  Whatever expats might have wanted to read circa 1965, I guess.  If I had refused to learn French, there would still have been plenty to read.

I thought I would be tired of this stuff, but back home I found myself picking up old favorites like Zuleika Dobson and Howards End, more of the same like The Moon and Sixpence, and even New Grub Street, which now looked like an immediate Victorian precursor of this post-Victorian tradition or attitude.

Maybe I should write some of this out, so that it makes some sense.  Anyway, more second-tier, sarcastic British literature.

3.  Not French, not British.  What I thought I would want to read immediately was the thing I was deprived of in France, like great Russian and German literature.  The Magic Mountain, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Red Cavalry, The Foundation Pit.  I want to revisit Kafka, who I haven’t really read for a long time.  Same for Bely’s Petersburg.

4.  The 1910s.  The 1920s.  Otherwise I will likely resume my chronological drift, floating through the 1910s into the 1920s.

5.  I have one more idea I would like to pursue –  literary criticism – but I would like advice on that, so I will write it up tomorrow.

What will you be reading in the next six months?  Something good, I hope?

Friday, July 27, 2018

What I really enjoyed about France

I am going to make some comments here that are likely wrong.  They are based on my observations at the moment, that is all.  Please sprinkle liberally with the phrase “to me.”

What is so appealing about France?  Culture – the arts, history, even philosophy – is a normal part of public and private life.  Quotations of poetry, references to painters, discussions of wine or food or you name it that includes the history of the subject.  The humanities historicize everything.

Why are the humanities so prominent in normal life?  Because French humanities education is so good.

Why is the education good?  I suppose this goes in a circle. Because the culture values the humanities.  I don’t know.  But French school children are taught directly how to think about – no, let’s be careful, how to talk about, how to write about, but there begins thinking – art, novels, film, and so on.

I would routinely go to films where large blocks of seats were reserved for school groups.  Wong Kar-wai, King Kong, Charlie Chaplin.  High school kids at the former, grade school in the middle, quite little children at the Chaplin.  I began to expect it.  Similarly, I learned to expect large numbers of children at the opera, or certain music and dance and theatrical performances, and most of all at art museums.

At a different level, the French president can, in public speeches, say things like “Who understood Baudelaire better than Walter Benjamin?” and no one bats an eye.  This is normal.  Sorry, I could only find the speech, from the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair, in German.

The French criticize their own music education.  I suspect they are comparing themselves to their neighbors, to Germany and Austria – hardly fair.  They criticize their language education.  Why can’t they accomplish what the Dutch do?  An American hardly has any place to comment.

French culture is more top-down and elite-driven than in the U.S., yet the split between high and low culture is less important – maybe unimportant.  Everyone reads Asterix.  The resentments I see in the U.S., in both directions, are minor in France.  Liking poetry or jazz or theater is all right; having no interest is all right, too.  The arts do not work so well as class signifiers.

It must be hard to be a genuine cultural protester in France, to try to reject French culture, which has a literature full of weirdos and literal criminals.  Everything is embraced so easily.  Maybe too easily.  Maybe that is a criticism of the French arts, that the appreciation is too enthusiastic.  I am not the one to make that criticism.  I loved it.

In the United States, literature, reading, feels like a hobby, one of many.  In France, it feels like participation in civilization.  This is appealing, for many reasons.  Perhaps it just pumps up the importance of my hobby.  I don’t think so.


I remind myself that although I am writing at the blog again, I have no fixed schedule, no quota of pieces, no godly purpose.  The easy ways to see if I have written something are an RSS reader – how I keep up with all of you – and the email subscription off to the right somewhere.

Thanks for the immediate comments on my adventure with French.  Encouraging!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Even more French books, mostly appropriate for children

Since I could read, I read.  I studied French in the winter and spring mostly by reading French, lots of it, in many forms, constrained only by the sense that I should stay near my collège reading level, which was barely a constraint.  Don’t get stupid and jump to Rabelais or Proust.  Plenty to read right here.

I could assemble, for example, a little Theater of the Absurd unit: Jean Anouilh, Jean Cocteau, Jean Tardieu, and Eugène Ionesco, ending with a trip back to Alfred Jarry.  Ubu Roi is strictly speaking assigned at the lycée, the secondary school, level, but once in a while I would push the boundary.

Or in preparation for the Quais du Polar, I could read crime novels, mysteries – books that were on the collège reading lists since, as part of what ought to be a basic literary education, the French teach literary history, including the histories of specific genres.  Thus my annotated edition of Thierry Jonquet’s La Vie de ma mère! (The life of my mother!, 1994) included essays on the history of the mystery from Poe onwards, with an emphasis on the French contribution, which is heavy on the anti-hero, like  the gentleman burglar who stars in Arsène Lupin gentleman cambrioleur gentleman (1907).  There is a student edition of this collection of crime stories, as well as one for Gaston Leroux’s locked room mystery La mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907).  The editions exist, but how often are these books actually assigned?  A mystery of its own, how the potential curriculum relates to the actual one.

I was on a guided tour of the chateau of the Duke de Uzès, the tourists being the middle-aged French people one might expect.  The guide at one point said (I translate) “I now propose to you a visit to” (arches eyebrows) “the Yellow Room,” and everyone laughed.  Everyone got and enjoyed, more than I did, the reference to the century-old Leroux mystery, or perhaps one of it film adaptations.

A curious feature of both the Leroux novel and Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin stories is that they are both explicitly competing with Sherlock Holmes.  The thief or detective cannot just be ingenious, but has to defeat his English competition.  They both have explicit Holmes characters.  Leblanc’s is named Herlock Sholmès, which is a great gag, but Leroux’s use of Holmes is even more outrageous.

Speaking of outrageous, it is outrageous that that Thierry Jonquet novel is not available in English.  It is of high ethical interest.  A Parisian schoolkid, a Serbian immigrant, is torn between his criminal friends and a more normal French life.  But he does not know that he is torn.  How would he know, he is twelve.  It is a battle between innocence and experience.  Experience, at the end of this bleak novel, is destructive, at least for someone that young.

This book was a productive mistake for me, and not the only one I made.  The language was extremely difficult, with a lot of slang including the subset where the protagonist takes the “tromé” to the mall and then listens to some “zicmu.”  It’s like a word game.  Between the language, the violence, and the sexual content (things the character observes), I thought, this is for junior high kids?  But collège extends to 9th or 10th grade, which is a long ways from 6th or 7th.  I made this mistake several times, trying a book that was not too hard for me but was very hard.  The mistake was so valuable that now I do it deliberately.

I could keep going.  I have not written about J. M. G. Le Clézio, or Marguerite Yourcenar, or Joseph Kessel, all collège level, or Annie Ernaux or Raymond Queneau, successful lycée-level experiments.  At some point, I do want to read Proust and Montaigne in French, that seems achievable, but I am patient.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Some books I read in French

What did I read when I was, in French terms, 9 years-old?  Just some examples, aside from Le Petit Prince and Petit Nicolas and Asterix and Tintin.

My first great discovery was a series of poetry collections for children of poems not written for children.  Please see them here.  I read the collections of Victor Hugo, Max Jacob, and Louis Aragon.  Other writers in the series include warhorses like Baudelaire and Rimbaud through difficult avant-gardists like Jean Cocteau and Henri Michaux.  Michaux for children!  In English, Michaux was difficult enough.  These are, again, not collections of poems written for children, but poems appropriate for children, which presumably means, in part, subject matter but as far as I could tell mostly meant reading level, which is just what I needed.

At some point I “graduated” to complete books by French poets, but these were great.  Yes, in France Baudelaire and Rimbaud are poets suitable for tiny little children.  If you poke around at that link, you might find Dadaïstes et surréalistes for children.

Is it true – an aside – that there is not even a selected poems of Louis Aragon in English?  What is wrong with us?

Once I discovered that I was reading at the junior high level, and that French junior high students read good, good, good books, I just read what they read.  Or might read.  The days of the universal French curriculum are long gone, but aside from some conversation with Book Around the Corner, I do not really know what goes on in the French classroom.  This Gallimard website suggests, at least, what might be read.

I loved the Folioplus classiques editions.  They were like Norton Critical Editions for junior high students operating at the university level.  Or is all of that supplementary material for the teacher?  Every edition includes, for example, a ten page essay about the cover art!  The fundamental basis of analysis was historical, literature as literary history, art as art history.  But again, I don’t know what is actually taught.

I could observe, occasionally.  Standing in line at a bookstore to buy an annotated edition of Charles Perrault’s Contes – Bluebeard and Cinderella and so on – I saw that the girl behind me was buying Michel Tournier’s Vendredi ou la vie sauvage (Friday, or the Savage Life, 1971), which I was reading, and carrying with me, at the time.  Evidence!

Tournier’s first novel was a Robinson Crusoe rewrite, Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique (Friday, or the Limbs of the Pacific, 1967), available in English as Friday.  For some reason he wrote a shorter, simpler version – not a children’s version, he insisted – and the result is that the simple one is assigned in junior high and the more complex one in high school.  It is like a literary pedagogical experiment.  The simple one is quite good.

Molière is assigned incessantly, beginning with the short prose farce Les Fourberies de Scapin (1670) and advancing year after year to the complex verse masterpieces like Tartuffe.  I just read the simple stuff, like The Flying Doctor and The Doctor against Himself, culminating, to my surprise, in George Dandin or Le Mari confondu (George Dandin, or the Confused Husband, 1668), which inverted the standard jokes of the farces by the writerly magic trick of making the central characters real.  What was funny when they were cardboard becomes pathetic, perhaps even tragic, when they are real people. Even though I know full well that they are not real real people – what a trick, what a genius.  A local theater put on the play in March – what luck – and Emma wrote about it.

I could just keep going.  I will, tomorrow.

Endless thanks to the Lyon public library, my home away from home away from home, for all of these books.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

How I read some French

What do I do, I read, right, so I was reading French from the beginning.  French books and French bookstores identify reading level clearly, so the only question was how old I was.  At first I was maybe 9, maybe 10, but with effort I aged quickly.

Another barrier adult language-learners face is a reluctance to read children’s literature.  Overcome that neurosis, is my advice, although with French I would add first that a number of important authors have written for children, so read those; second, a number of French children’s books are of such high cultural significance that you ought to read them anyways, Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (1943) being the most famous example although René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé’s Petit Nicolas (1959?), a kind of French Peanuts in prose, was even more instructive.  Goscinny is the creator of Asterix, also essential.

The latest Asterix volume, the 37th, now written by someone else, was released in October, and I saw it almost literally everywhere, read by almost literally everyone; it was easily the best-selling book in France in 2017.  When was the last time we had a book like that in the U.S.?

And third, the important thing here is forward motion, to read anything readable, anything not so difficult and frustrating that I stop reading.  My breakthrough came in November, after less than three months of intensive French, when, trying a Maupassant collection, I discovered that I had turned let’s say 12 and that I had entered the collège as a 6ème, or in U.S. terms that I was in junior high.  I have no idea what is read in American junior highs now, but in France, they read literature.  I love literature.  Balzac and Hugo, Molière and Maupassant, Michel Tournier and Marguerite Yourcenar.  I could – I did –  read Molière in French.  Kinda dumb Molière, one-act prose imitations of Italian farces, but still, real Molière, in real French.

This felt like some kind of accomplishment.

More breakthroughs: the first time I decided I did not need a book in English over lunch – my French book would do.  Reading without a dictionary, an exercise I still regularly use.  Each increment of pages: twenty French pages in a day, thirty, sixty.  My first book longer than two hundred pages.  I have yet to read one over three hundred.  Five hundred – that hardly seems possible.

As a matter of energy expenditure, I could feel my improvement.  At first, ten pages in an hour, of a book written for 10 year-olds, exhausted me.  But soon enough it was twenty pages an hour, and of something harder.  Now, twenty pages of struggle an hour is for Flaubert.  Something simpler, like the Jules Verne novel I am now reading, I merely read, although slowly.

So now I can read in French, more slowly and less accurately than I could read in English translation.  There are more books that I can read, but I was hardly running out of books.  What good does that do me?  Why did I bother?  Let’s not pursue this idea.

I fear that my new skill could easily rust with neglect.  It is necessary that I read French every day.  Almost every day.  If you see, in my Currently Reading box to the upper right, that there is nothing French, please, give me a poke with a sharp stick.  “Get reading!”

Tomorrow: what I read.

Monday, July 23, 2018

How I learned some French

Is language learning interesting?  I mean, other people’s language learning?  I mean, mine.  I am not sure.  Maybe someone will find this useful.

I spent the last year working on my French.  Here’s what that meant.

Where I Started

I had taken French for a couple of years at the Alliance Française in Chicago, a slow once-a-week course, and I vacationed in France frequently.  A year ago in May, I took a week of French at CAVILAM in Vichy.  CAVILAM is an endless rolling French course.  Take a test Monday morning; start class at the appropriate level a couple of hours later.  Whee!  Just plunge in.

To my surprise – those Alliance Française classes, those were several years ago – I tested at level A2, “Basic / Elementary” in the framework commonly used in Europe, and a big step above A1, “Basic / Beginner,” what I had expected.  In American terms, I had made my way through the first semester of college French, however raggedly, and was ready for the second semester.

That test was amusing.  The first piece was five true-or-false questions.  Listen to a sentence, read another sentence about the first.  True or false?  My responses were:

Q1.  Hey, I understood that!
Q2.  Hey, I think I understood that.
Q3.  Well, I can make a guess.
Q4.  No idea.
Q5.  Hey, trick question – that wasn’t even French!

So, A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 in a few minutes.  I guess the rest of the test was to identify lucky guessers.

Class in Lyon

In August, I took another placement exam, this time for the Alliance Française in Lyon.  Again, A2.  I spent September studying French for about six hours a day, half in class and half in the library.  To many people, this would sound miserable, although I will bet that many people who read Wuthering Expectations would like it pretty well.  Throughout the fall, I kept pushing hard on French study, sometimes in class, sometimes on my own, until I had completed what was effectively second-semester French.

I spent the winter and fall studying French by means of reading in French.  I’ll write about that tomorrow.

To skip to the end, my level is still A2.  My reading level is higher.

I had accumulated a number of ideas about the obstacles adult learners face, or create for themselves, in language classrooms.  It is possible that knowledge is a form of inoculation.

I cannot say, for example, that I was bothered by being among the older students in the class, thirty years older than the youngest, who seemed to be accomplishing more with less effort.  Eh, good for them.

Adults in the Language Classroom

I knew that adults often have, compared to children, more anxiety about making mistakes, about looking like fools.  Perhaps I had imagined my way through this fear already, or perhaps my temperament is otherwise – it is clearly otherwise, see Wuthering Expectations for no end of evidence – but I jumped in, volunteered, babbled until silenced, whatever I needed to do.  I had one great teacher in Lyon, who tailored her corrections to each student’s specific weaknesses.  “Anglicism,” she would tell me over and over, “anglicism, anglicism.”  I was ambitious.  “Let’s see if this word works – it might!”  But the important thing is I wasn’t shy.

Is the brain of the adult learner, the actual capacity to learn, different?  I don’t know.  Win some, lose some, I think.  The adult’s capacity for imitation is probably lower.  And my hearing is worse than it used to be, that was clear enough.  But I had learned a lot of ways to compensate – to study, to organize, to theorize.

I would do this again.  I would do it with a language new to me.  Spend the first week of a vacation in Italy in a language class, for example.

Next: I slowly shift back to literature.

Monday, April 23, 2018

My final presentation in France - book blogs are good

If you find yourself in France for an extended period, a couple of months, even, you are crazy not to track down and join the local branch of the Acceuil des Villes Françaises, the AVF.  The organization is for people new to the city, the members a fascinating mix of French and non-French.  Many of the French members are themselves new not just to the city but to France, having lived abroad for many years.

The benefits: meeting people, parties, practicing French, food, French, wine, French, parties.  The members are self-selected to be the friendliest people in France, and the most welcoming to outsiders.  They are also saintly in their patience, as I will demonstrate here.

Last week I gave a half-hour presentation on book blogs to an AVF audience, about a dozen people.  In French, a language I do not really know.  My French is a lot better than it was in September.  This was not a final presentation in a French course, but it sure felt like it.

An AVF member had organized a series of talks on “Passions,” meaning true amateurism, hobbies taken seriously.  Material for a blog, right?  Using myself as a case study, I showed what a blog is, how it works, and why it is useful, without putting much emphasis on literature as such.  The blog is an all-purpose form.

With no internet connection, I could not play around with the blog but had to screenshot every relevant item in advance.

So: screenshots, half-hour, general interest, and French-in-progress.  Those were the constraints.  That suggests the level of the talk.  I doubt I said anything that would surprise anybody.

I defined some terms.  I deployed the Samuel Johnson quote about how only blockheads write for free.  If I were writing for the blog, I would just drop in the word “blockhead” and assume every possible reader knew the Johnson quote already.  I used Wuthering Expectations to show some bloggy features, especially the comments and commenters.

I emphasized two things, really, first, the community or interactive side of blogs, the mysterious process by which actual humans who know a lot wander by and help me, and second, the remarkable international diversity of bloggers and blog readers.  I showed some examples, maybe even your blog!  Who can say.  Whatever arguments I might have against social media, the global connections among people with shared passions have worked as advertised.

I ended the talk with a bit of French-flattering English-bashing, all true, I am afraid, arguing that book blogs have had a special role in countering Anglophone insularity and connecting the small number of English-reading people interested in non-English literature, in so-called “literature in translation,” and have had a real, expansive influence on publishers, translators, and readers.  And how we need those books.

Before the talk, I asked for advice on Twitter – many thanks to everyone who contributed.  Some hint of every suggestion was somewhere in the talk.  Ma femme gave a short, illustrated talk on beautiful libraries before my section, which surely helped put the audience on a good mood.  And there was, as always, wine, and snacks, and pastry.  I guess there were worse things than enduring my talk.  Still, what kindness.  Endless thanks to the Lyon AVF, international branch.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Today at the Quais du Polar: French class and translation class - maybe it's not perfect but maybe it's great

A better view of the Quais du Polar bookstore on Sunday morning.  I figured out that I could go upstairs for a picture.  While we were waiting in line for the building to open, employees were hauling in more books.

Today was like a school day for me.  Aural comprehension day.  I went to a discussion of the social noir by my new anti-hero Jean-Bernard Pouy and several other writers, all in French, too fast, too difficult.  Pouy has written, I learned today, a crime novel featuring and partly narrated by a telepathic cow.  Larchmütz 6532 (1999) is the title.  I am learning a lot.

The next panel was about food in mysteries, this time in French and Italian but fortunately much easier to understand, but still exhausting, eventually, and the writer who was hardest to understand – who spoke most rapidly – seemed honestly way more interested in food as a vehicle for the delivery of poison than as an expression of culture.  I know, a mystery writer  who can’t stop talking about poison – a comic figure I have now encountered in so-called real life.

I ended the festival at a Translation Joust, a friendly but rigorous public translation seminar.  Two young French translators independently worked up the first chapter of a novel-in-progress, Blackwood, by Michael Farris Smith, not really a mystery or detective writer at all, but a testament to the expansiveness of the French term polar.  The two translations and the original were projected, side by side, for all to see.

I first thought that this process would be painful for the translators, but at least as much wincing came from the author.  More than once, after the translators went over a difficult phrase, Smith would say a bit about what he had been thinking and finish with “But I think I’m going to cut that.”  Once, we, the audience, or at least some of us, had to overrule him.  “Noooo, noooo!”

Smith is, in this book, this chapter, at least, a blatant Faulknerian.  Light stream of consciousness, long sentences with biblical cadences and surprising intrusions, followed by strings of fragments.  If these translators were expecting a mystery, boy were they surprised.  This text was hard.

There was one relatively simple sentence where the translators made different choices for every possible word.  As one translator noted, they had just three words in common, and those were the equivalents of “he,” “the,” and “of.”  Different nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  For “street lamps,” one “réverbères” and one “lampadaires.”  And – here is the great lesson – both sentences were good translations!

In ten years of reading book blogs, I rarely saw anyone reading William Faulkner, and much of what I did see was in a spirit of fear and loathing.  I don’t, as usual, get it.  But today I saw a real Faulknerian get the same response.

A few older members of the audience seemed genuinely freaked out by the end of the phrase “he walked in the satisfaction of night,” which both translators had as “la satisfaction de la nuit,” just word for word.  An “anglicism,” the protestors said.  A translation error.  But the translators pushed back – “satisfaction” is an ordinary French word; it is the English that is unusual, poeticized.  Over-written, maybe, but truly Smith’s, an example of his style, which has a strong flavor.  It is the common problem, that a reader dislikes an author’s style but blames the translator.

It was to a different example, but this response of Smith's was good: “maybe it's not perfect but maybe it's great.”  I like authors who think like that.

This was an instructive session, an instructive book festival.  Nerve-wracking for the author, in this case, but they usually seemed to be having a good time.  Get your mystery novel written and get invited, that is my advice to you.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

noir, metaphysical and hopeless - having fun at the Quais du Polar

The core of the Quais du Polar is a giant bookstore.  The big hall of the Bourse, the 19th century stock exchange, is occupied by ten local booksellers, all medium to small independents, with huge heaps of books, the piles sometimes concealing the authors.  How the authors are assigned to particular bookstores I do not know.  C. J. Tudor, signing away, took better photos than I did.

The last time I was in this hall, it was for an organic wine expo.  That was also nice, and much less crowded.  The French are more serious about crime novels than about organic wine!

The other surprise has been how muted the publishers have been.  Aside from sponsoring the hamburger truck, they are concealed.  I cannot help but contrast to the Frankfurt Book Fair, which was about publishers, agents, and book rights, not books.  The Quais du Polar is about books and writers.  And readers.  I see people reading more here, reading one of their new, newly-signed books.

I had the public library’s copy of Jean-Bernard Pouy’s A Brief History of the Noir Novel with me, and I wanted to get him to sign it, but ma femme seemed to be against that.  I asked Pouy and he seemed fine with it, but he would be, since one chapter of his book is devoted to pessimists and nihilists and two chapters contain nothing but weird stuff, the craziest books.  Has anyone wandering by read Peter Loughram’s The Train Ride (1966), for example?  “[T]his descent into hell is one of the most noir, metaphysical and hopeless novels that the history of the genre warms in its moist and malodorous folds” (p. 80, translation mine, be suspicious).

So anyway I bought my own copy; he signed that; the library book is pristine.

I went to an event featuring Patricia MacDonald, Camilla Grebe, C. J. Tudor, and two debut novelists, all of whom have recently written novels about old crimes that have returned, so that the novels have multiple time frames.  The moderator said that his Belgian teen students hated flashbacks because flashbacks are for adults, who look into the past, while young people look to the future – I congratulate whichever Belgian kid came up with that bit of sophistry.  The mystery writers were dismayed, visibly dismayed, every one of them.  Otherwise, this panel of professionals gave predictably professional answers.  Patricia MacDonald only spoke in French, which impressed me.

More doomy and interesting was a panel of Deon Meyer (South African) and Yana Vagner (Russian), both mystery writers who have written disease-apocalypse novels.  Meyer’s book was openly a kind of Year Zero Utopia, but Vagner’s seemed truly grim.  Her direct quote about her characters, transcribed into my notebook: “They all know that they are doomed.”

The happy part of the story is that Vagner, not a professional writer, not a fiction writer, wrote the novel directly to her blog, a chapter at a time, picking up an audience, and a publisher, and a movie deal along the way.  It’s the blogger dream!  Meyer was stunned, and kept interrupting her with questions.  Stunned and impressed.  Me, too.

One more crime day.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Quai du Polars, Lyon's big detective novel festival, begins tomorrow - everything is in everything

The Quais du Polar, Lyon’s author-centered celebration of the polar, the crime novel, begins tomorrow.  Readers of Book around the Corner are well aware of the pleasures of this book festival.  My impression, not just from her but from other things I have read, is that it is a favorite of authors, which is why it attracts such a substantial group of international mystery authors.  Camilla Läckberg, Harlan Coben, and Ian Rankin are the biggest names this year.  I think.  See below.

Of course the festival is attractive to authors.  It is in Lyon.  Just think of what they will be given to eat and drink.  I am thinking of it now.  I plan to eat and drink more or less whatever they are having.  Lyon is so pleasant, and so well-fed.

The second* real problem, for me, is that I do not particularly care about crime novels, not as such, not as a fan, and thus the third problem is that I do not feel like I know that much about them.

The latter problem I know how to fix, by reading.  Over the last several months, with the help of the surprising English-language collection of the Lyon municipal library, I read many crime writers I had never read before, one book apiece: Agatha Christie, John Buchan, Erle Stanley Gardner, B. Traven, Anthony Berkeley, Francis Iles (the last two are the same person, I know), Geoffrey Household, Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, Stanley Ellin, Craig Johnson (he’ll be at the festival – maybe he is also one of the biggest names).  I relied heavily on the “Top 100” lists of the British Crime Writers’ Association and the Mystery Writers of America, alongside the odder and more interesting 100 Best Crime & Mystery Books by H. R. F. Keating.

I also read, in French, books by Maurice Leblanc, Gaston Leroux, Fred Vargas, Thierry Jonquet (plus another Georges Simenon).

My tastes in the genre run to weird stuff, anti-mysteries, but I enjoyed all of these writers on their own terms.  They all had their surprises.

Maybe I like crime fiction more than I realize.  Jean-Bernard Pouy’s Une brève histoire du roman noir (A Brief History of the Crime Novel, 2009) invokes, in the first chapter, Robert Louis Stevenson, Émile Zola, and Thomas de Quincey along with many other examples that I have mostly read.  He argues for, well:

For example.  Oedipus Rex ( - 430), by Sophocles, is a crime novel.  The proof is that it has been published in the “Série noire” in 1994, and that was at the time more than a cultural provocation, but the confession, late, that in literature also, and maybe mostly, everything is in everything.  (p. 13, translation mine)

The “Série noire” has been the French prestige series for mysteries, home of Chandler and Hammett, for example, since 1945.  I had a tiny suspicion that Pouy was joking (and he is, with the word “proof,”) but the bookstore at the mall had three copies of this specific Oedipe roi on the shelf.  In the mystery section.  Three copies of a translation of Sophocles.  In the bookstore at the mall**.

This Pouy book is great fun.  He’ll be at the Quais du Polar, too.  The festival should also be great fun.  My hope is that I will come across things worth writing about here.

*  The first problem is that the language of the Quais du Polar is French.  How good is Ian Rankin’s French?  I guess I will find out.

**  The mall is adjacent, almost attached, to the big public library, where I am writing this piece.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Literary branding in Lisbon and Lyon

In Lisbon, where I vacationed recently, images of Fernando Pessoa were everywhere, in street art, on mugs and shirts and puzzles, even on books.  This lovely tile example is near the Pantheon, overseeing the Saturday flea market where I bought my own Pessoa souvenir, a €1 tile with the image of Pessoa used on the cover of one of the many Richard Zenith translations.  There were three different Pessoa tiles available.  That seems like a lot to me.

Maybe it is not.  Maybe more cities than I know use once-obscure Modernist writers as their mascot, as their brand.  Kafka in Prague.  Others?  There should be others.  The portrait of Pessoa amounts to a moustache, glasses, and a hat, so it is endlessly flexible and instantly recognizable.  Why is New York City not full of stylized Marianne Moore art?  She wore a distinctive hat.  She was even famous while alive.

Lisbon’s pride in its writers is so great that it was easy to find souvenirs for other writers, the most thorough being a little box meant to contain a tealight; one side of the box had a caricature of Pessoa, of course, and the others had Luís de Camões, José Maria de Eça de Queirós, and José Saramago.  I know that Saramago has had international best-sellers, but it is hard to believe that this is an item for non-Portuguese tourists.  More Eça stuff is visible on the right.

I wondered about Lyon.  It should be more heavily stamped with writers.  The airport is named after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but images of the Little Prince are rare.  Even this snowy statue of the Prince and the Aviator is almost hidden, a surprise.  Maybe the Little Prince is too expensive.

François Rabelais is public domain.  He was only in Lyon for a few years, working as a doctor in the Hôtel-Dieu, the big Renaissance hospital, and editing humanist texts with his printer friends, but these are also the years that he wrote and published both Pantagruel (1532) and Gargantua (1534).  The renovated hospital is about to reopen as a gargantuan International City of Gastronomy, whatever that is, the perfect setting for cartoons of Rabelais, Gargantua, and Pantagruel.

Too openly gluttonous, maybe, and anyway Lyon already has its literary restaurant mascot, the puppet Guignol, created in Lyon in the early 19th century.  Although here he has a popsicle, he is normally carrying a wooden club.  It makes a deeply satisfying thwack against the heads of other puppets.  “Should I hit him [the pirate] again, or has he had enough,” Guignol asked the children at the performance I saw.  Guess how the children responded.  Guignol is a version of Punch, but friendlier and much less weird.

That performance, at La Maison de Guignol, included a surprise guest appearance by another Lyon icon, not exactly literary, although he is responsible for a number of books.  Please see this article in the regional paper Le Progres for the origin of the puppet of Paul Bocuse.  The pirates, in this play, kidnap M. Paul for their ship’s mess, as is logical.  Bocuse had died just a few weeks before we saw the play, which was not stopping anybody.  They even added a line: “You can’t kill me, I’m already dead!”  French theater works fast, and is ruthless.

Images of Paul Bocuse are everywhere in Lyon, is my point.  Maybe they will fade away, but maybe not.  Maybe a hundred years from now, this will be the Platonic ideal of what a chef looks like. He is not a literary character yet, but might become one.  Still, the city’s branders should make room for Rabelais and Gargantua, for the legendary gluttons who swallow of all that great, bold, heavy Lyon food and wine.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Encounters with Rousseau and Borges in Geneva

I was recently on vacation, in Lyon and Burgundy, a food-and-wine vacation, of little literary interest.  Well, try the Memoirs of Phillippe de Commines for some firsthand Burgundy history.  The Duchy, not the wine, I mean.

Aside from that, we ended up, briefly, in Geneva, where we visited the birthplace of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the upstairs of which is now, how to describe it, a narrated, illustrated encyclopedia entry.  How fun does that sound.  Not worth visiting except as a pilgrimage, and an excuse to think about this complex, and, to me, confusing figure.  So, put that way, worth visiting, absolutely.

A bit down the street, this tribute to Jorge Luis Borges:

“Of all the cities in the world,
of all the intimate homelands
that a man searches for (to deserve)
in the course of his travels,
Geneva seems to me
the most propitious
to happiness.”  (translation mine, obviously; third line a puzzler)

Geneva has no place at all in my idea of Borges, but my idea is wrong.  He went to John Calvin High School, for pity’s sake.  That is a true Genevan credential.