Thursday, January 23, 2020

A “new book” ramble - caves, Zurbarán, Proust, French nursing homes

Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (2019) is as good as everyone says, so what do I need to say.  It’s a travel book where the locations are caves, mines, and the tunnels of Paris.  The chapter describing Macfarlane’s three-day trek under Paris is completely insane.  Like much great travel writing, the stories of the people who work in, explore, and learn about the caves and mines and so on are really the highlight.

I fear that Macfarlane is some kind of tyrant in England.  Literally every British book in the Travel and Nature sections of the bookstores had a blurb from Macfarlane.  One could read nothing but books blurbed by Macfarlane.  Good books, they looked like good books.  But pity the poor schlub who does not get the Macfarlane blurb.

Józef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (1944 in Polish, 1987 in the original French, 2018 in English) is as good as everyone says.  I suppose you have to enjoy reading about Proust and his novels.  How I love reading about Proust.  Here, though, there is no escaping the strange tension between the fine, enthusiastic, thoughtful essay about Proust and its circumstances, as described in the book’s subtitle, dictated and delivered in a Soviet prison camp for Polish officers as a way of distracting them from the almost certain, sudden death that awaited them.  Art and beauty against horror.  The essay would be outstanding without the horror, but there it is.  The notes and commentary added by the translator, Eric Karpeles, are also outstanding, but I love reading about Proust.

Hannelore Cayre’s La Daronne (2017) is as good as Book Around the Corner says.  The English translation (2019) picked the not quite accurate but necessary title The Godmother.  The narrator is a police interpreter, translating intercepted phone calls by Arabic-speaking drug dealers.  Some useful inside information falls in her lap.  She has an ailing mother with dementia in a nursing home, and can use some money.  She is one cool cat.  Thus, the novel.  The dry, sharp voice is really the appealing thing, as Emma describes.

Isabelle Huppert, perfectly cast, is starring in the movie, although that is the author herself, playing her character, on the cover over at Emma’s site. The author is what in the U.S. would be called a criminal defense attorney.  Emma met Cayre at the Quais du Polar festival; I think my wife did, too.  I must have had something else to do.

Florence Delay, Haute Couture (2018) – no idea what anyone has said about this smart essay in art history by the actress turned writer.  That title could be attached to about anything, but the carefully written book is in fact about the clothes worn by various saints in the paintings of Francisco de Zurbarán, for example Santa Isabel of Portugal, from the Prado, to the left.  Detailed descriptions of the clothes blend into the lives of the saints, and the strange paths their stories take, with miracles and martyrdoms moving from saint to saint over time.  Thus, the book is as much about myth-making as about clothes or painting.  Yet the stories are always embedded in Zurbarán’s painting somewhere.

The book has no illustrations, which is irritating, but I have the internet.  One little bonus: Delay explains why I could not find the dang Zurbarán in the Louvre, despite the clear sign saying where it should be.  They’re locked away in their own room for some reason “because of a lack of personnel” (p. 86).  So Delay, a French Academician can arrange to see it (and even for her it’s not so easy), but a poor schmoe like me has to look at it on the internet, see right, Saint Apollonia.  You do not want to know too much about her martyrdom.  “Between the jaws of the horrible pliers that Apolline holds at the height of her face there is a little white tooth” (87).

With all of the fabrics, garments, and colors, Haute Couture did terrific things for my French vocabulary.  It will never be translated into English, right?


  1. I thought the Czapski was outstanding - so much in such a slim book.

  2. He had to put in everything he had. This was the last chance, probably.

  3. I have given the Macfarlane as a gift but have not read it myself (something I never do, but I was pretty sure in this case). On the same subject, this is a fascinating volume to have around and dip into once in awhile:ère/dp/2840961911

    La Daronne is really outstanding, and a trove of contemporary idiomatic expressions and Franco-Arabic slang. One cool cat indeed.

    Very interested in the Delay book, and equally interested in what led you to it. I started one of her novels a few years ago but set it aside for some reason having nothing to do with dislike.

  4. I think Macfarlane talks to some of the people who made that book.

    As for the Delay, I think my wife bought it, I saw that it was about Zurbarán, and then I figured out that I could read it (looking up a lot of clothing terms). That is not much of a story.

  5. I've never been under Paris, I should book a tour in the Catacombes.
    Thanks for the mention about La Daronne, I'm glad you liked it.

    I'll have to look for the
    Józef Czapski.

  6. That chapter of Underland is a pretty strange look at Paris. Les Catacombes are the least of it - they are barely mentioned. There's some weird stuff going on under Paris.

    I wonder what the Czapski book is like in French. The editor adds so much extra material. The extra material in the French editions could be quite different. Or exactly the same; what do I know.

    I thought I would find a thousand reviews of The Godmother now that it is in English, but no, not too many.

  7. i've been curious about underground Paris for a long time... i read one about lower London which i can't recall the name of but was pretty interesting... i'll have to get this one... tx... great post as usual...

  8. Macfarlane talks to some of the people who "spelunk" under London, but it is Paris where he lets a guide take him on a multi-day, cross-undercity trip.

    This is travel writing in the "trips I will never take myself" category.

    1. have you read Mysteries of Paris by Sue? it has some harrowing descriptions of the Parisian depths...

    2. Sue, no, that book is such a monster. It must be full of curious things. Curious that Hugo also sent his characters on a journey through the Paris sewers. It is a good way to make Paris strange - there is a whole other world, right under your feet.