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.