Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie

Random House, November 16, 2010, Language: English

I am back and ready to write my thoughts, spin my own yarn for a change and take my time to ramble about this book which has kept me away from my keyboard for about four days. A children’s book! Four whole days to read with undivided attention, taking over my brain and my imagination to such a point that I was simply unable to pick up something else to read quickly and write about just as quickly. Salman Rushdie was the subject of my BA paper one hundred years ago, so it’s safe to say I know him fairly well and greet his every cover with a knowledgeable smile.  However, everything changes when Salman Rushdie moves from magic realism mode to fantasy mode, which he had already done before in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, another book I loved but which made my brain hurt. As I was saying before, I am really bad with fantasy and by bad I mean impatient. It’s not that I don’t like it, but generally it is impossibly rich and I get exhausted and don’t understand anything anymore by the middle of it. I do sometimes think that maybe I’m a bit retarded that way and like one of those characters who are too cynical to understand the world of magic and just crawl about in their grey lives and never look up at the blue sky. That’s me in reality, but that’s not me ideally. So, as if to just to prove that, a book will once in a while hypnotize me into its universe where one has no rules to rely on (this might actually be my problem with fantasy, the lack of rules) and will force me to stay there until I finish the damned thing even if it takes me a decade.

Luka and the Fire of Life is a quest, constantly alluding to computer game quests (another thing I really am behind on) but also to legendary quests, with the particularity that the hero is a boy, at the threshold of puberty. The mission he has is that of saving his father, the storyteller Rashid Khalifa (in which one easily recognizes Salman Rushdie himself -the fact that he has dedicated the book to his son, Milan, also helps) from his Big Sleep by feeding him the stolen Fire of Life. Yes, one very demanding father-son relationship. On the other hand, we also know that Luka, being Haroun’s little brother, is expected to have a fantastic adventure of his own, so this is like his coming of age voyage and his initiation within the clan of Blah, the Shah of which is Rashid himself. Because he talks so much. The whole thing eventually turns out to be, therefore, a trip inside his father’s fantasy and trust me, that’s a complicated place to travel through. Because, you see, magic realism is one thing: one has something to hold on to, reality is there, but just distorted from time to time in wonderful or scary ways in a sense that is always somehow predictable. Renouncing, like Luka did, actual reality to go into the World of Stories and try to make heads or tails of it requires a tremendous amount of confidence in the author’s willingness and ability of making you feel welcome.

There are things in this book that made me remember what I loved about fairy- tales as a kid and there are other things making me remember why I have developed such a passion for Salman Rushdie as an adult in the first place. I will start with the things that I loved thinking about as a child. First and foremost and always at the top of my wishlists: a flying carpet. In this case, King Solomon’s flying carpet (I had never known he owned one before reading this book). This particular miraculous vehicle has the unheard of ability of shrinking to the size of a handkerchief and extending immensely as well, so as to transport any number of people and/ or stuff. I imagined it emerald green with a fringe, even though I can’t remember if the color was mentioned in the book or not. Another thing-I-loved-to-think-about and wished to be: a beautiful flame-haired warrior princess with a name to match – Soraya. My favorite character today, but also someone I would have positively worshiped 20 years ago, an icy and rude girl with a heart of gold. Another personal favorite: a glistening river full of magical creatures, on which the hero glides in his boat. So, already two modes of transportation that I would most likely have killed for as a kid and might commit illegal deeds in order to obtain even today. Also: stars moving in the sky and shining very brightly, the difference between right and left (on the left there was the palace of the king, on the right there was a parking lot – this one is mine, not from Salman Rushdie), and flying at extremely high speeds.

What appealed most to my adult mind was, as always, the humor. I can’t even begin to explain what a tremendous difference in perception there is between a book that makes me laugh and one that doesn’t. And while I know that this is not the most mature of criteria, I find it immensely important for the author to not take himself too seriously: when coming across humor, it’s as if one gets a sense of the spontaneity of writing and the joy of the whole enterprise of creating a book. The author becomes just a partner for the ride and great company.  Even more so if the humor stems from irreverence. In Luka and the Fire of Life, the ancient gods from all extinct civilizations hang out together like retired people and get bored pretending they are still relevant. Prometheus goes under the nickname Old Boy and giggling references are made to his titanic nudity – since he’s a titan and the goddesses of beauty have fighting matches in the mud every day to conquer the title of loveliest of them all. There’s a coyote speaking like Machete and excessively polite rats who are the scum of the earth. When it’s raining hard, watr cats (cats made of water) fall from the sky. The dogs are not there, though, dogs are nice in this book. And also, when the heroes reach the giant whirlpool of time and try to fly over it, so high that they reach the Karman line, something like this happens something like this happens something like this happens something like this happens something like this happens until they manage to get past it and on to the next level in the game.

The imagery in the book is absolutely luxuriant, and it seems that as it also happened with Sjon’s novel before, I can only describe the highlights of the novel without actually making a very valid point or interpretation. I can only say that it has caused me to plunge headlong into these worlds upon worlds of miraculous creatures and kicked my imagination in the ass making me go back in time to when I could still calmly consider fairies and princesses and talking animals as part of a regular day in the life of any 5-year old. If only I had more patience for fantasy!

This is roughly how I imagined the Mountain of Knowledge when it turned into a grassy hill

Le lexique nomade 2011

Editions Christian Bourgois, 2011, langue: français (textes traduits par les traducteurs habituels de chaque auteur)

Comme je viens de dire dans mon dernier poste en anglais, je ressentais le besoin d’écrire un post en français pour que toute cette démarche trilingue fasse au moins semblant d’être équitable. Il a été difficile de me décider, car je voulais écrire sur un roman cette fois, mais le dernier roman en français que j’ai lu m’a tellement déplu que je n’ai pas pu le finir et je l’ai abandonné à trois quarts, regrettant ma ténacité et la perte de temps. Je ne dirai pas de quoi il s’agit, c’est un des grands. Je viens de commencer des nouvelles de Maupassant mais je ne sais pas si elles figureront ici, parce que meeh…Donc, je me suis arrêtée sur le choix évident mais extrêmement subjectif du Lexique Nomade, un bouquin qui est comme une excursion parmi les univers des écrivains contemporains (d’où le nomadisme je crois) et une excellente lecture pour un dimanche après-midi indécis.

Je suis subjective d’habitude, comme nous tous et tout ce blog tourne autour du fait que je l’assume. Dans ce cas, pourtant, c’est presque révoltant, car je parle d’un bouquin dont j’ai témoigné la naissance, pendant que je travaillais aux AIR de Lyon, cette année (allez regarder sur leur site ce que c’est, vous verrez, c’est génial). L’idée de ce volume est d’établir un lexique de mots clés centraux à l’écriture des auteurs invités. Les écrivains choisissent un mot qu’ils estiment être essentiel à leur travail et ils en donnent la définition selon leur guise: une définition type dictionnaire, de quelques lignes, ou des pages entières de texte tournant autour du concept choisi. C’est vrai, cela ne fait pas une lecture très uniforme ou homogène, mais c’est ça son charme. C’est un luxe de pouvoir avoir des mostres d’écriture d’une cinquantaine d’écrivains contemporains, de pouvoir choisir qui on veut connaitre mieux, qui nous a déçu. Leur demander de choisir un mot cher et le définir, c’est en fait leur demander de se définir, eux-mêmes et même si certains l’ont fait un peu à l’arrache, ou en récyclant des vieilles idées, c’est toujours fascinant de comprendre ce que c’est qui émeut un auteur. Il y  a presque dans tous les textes ce moment où on a l’impression de voir à travers tous les procédés littéraires, à travers toute la fausse modestie et les poses, pénétrer dans l’intimité de leurs bureaux et de leurs nuits d’insomnie (ah, le vieux cliché) et comprendre clairement pourquoi ou comment ils écrivent.

Je pense ici par exemple au texte de Gilbert Gatore, exaspéré par l’écriture, ou à Srdjan Valjarevic, qui trouve de la tranquilité en écrivant, ou à Carlos Liscano et Yanick Lahens, qui se réfugient tous les deux dans leurs silences. Comme d’habitude, les idées se répondent souvent et s’entrelacent formant des fils qui semblent subtilement mais très fortement lier certains auteurs l’un à l’autre. Ces correspondances sont naturelles dans une anthologie établie par un éditeur qui sélectionne les textes, ici elles sont plus miraculeuses, car les invités ne se connaissent pas et croyez-moi personne ne leur dit quoi écrire, ils sont complétement libres de choisir leurs thèmes (et même, malheureusement, d’envoyer leurs textes deux jours après la date limite au grand désespoir des petits nains qui traduisent, corrigent, impriment et diffusent ces créations). C’est intéressant à noter que, mis devant cette tâche de se mettre à nu devant leur public, les écrivains, mêmes les plus prosaïques,  (je suis brillante ce soir, que quelqu’un arrête ce torrent d’originalité) semblent avoir une tendance à tourner vers la poésie. Pas forcément dans la forme, mais dans le rhythme des phrases et dans la fréquence des intonations dramatiques, on les voit légérement déstabilisés devant cette forme courte, désireux de donner à leurs mots plus de poids. C’est charmant. Les propositions deviennent sentencieuses et les points en fin de phrase tombent solennelement comme des coups de tonnère. Boum, comme dans mon blog.

Ma définition préférée est aussi la plus courte (hm, quelle coïncidence inquiétante) et elle a été écrite par l’auteur israélien David Grossman : “COURAGE – Ce que nous appelons courage, parfois, n’est ni plus ni moins qu’une aversion pour la honte qu’il y aurait à voir faire le mal sans intervenir.” Je n’ai rien lu de David Grossman, il est sur ma liste de priorités, et cela non pas justement grâce à son discours émouvant pendant les Assises, mais aussi grâce à cette courte définition dans laquelle je me reconnais complétement. Abilio Estevez semble raconter aussi mon enfance lorsqu’il décrit son obsession pour le voyage et comment ses lectures et ses auteurs préférés, ont comme les miens, alimenté cette soif du départ, “car moi aussi, comme eux, je pensais que tout était forcément mieux ailleurs, loin, dans un pays lointain où tout était luxe, calme, ordre, plaisir et volupté.” Eh, oui, là je le cite en parlant de moi, parce que ce serait mon mot aussi, voyage, si j’étais écrivain et si quelqu’un était intéressé par ma personne et mon écriture et ma fabuleusité en général. Même si je n’habitais pas sur une île comme lui, nous avons eu le même expérience parce que j’étais en Roumanie, les portes fermées, nulle part où aller par manque de passeport, d’argent et surtout de courage.

Les traces des voyages vues par Caliap

Great Modern Short Stories, selected by Bennet A. Cerf

Yes, yet another post in English, against my very reasonable efforts to bring linguistic diversity into my reading and into my writing. This has two causes: the obvious one- I read in English a whole lotta lot, (especially since I got my Kindle, it is much easier to find e-books in English than in any other language) and the less obvious one of not actually being able to read that quickly. I have set a somewhat unreasonable goal to try and write at least once a day, during the week, just to make sure I don’t lose the habit. This poses a tiny logistical problem, which is that I normally cannot finish a book in one day so as to be able to fawn over it here immediately. Moreover, I said I’d only write about what I love, which means that even if I do have this rhythm, I have to love the book enough to write about it. Great dilemma. This takes me to why yet another post in English, since today I have decided to write about this collection of short stories I haven’t finished yet. The book is, of course, in English and it is here that I read Galsworthy’s Apple Tree that I was talking about earlier. So today I can get away with writing about the collection, and tomorrow, or whenever, with writing about the individual stories. Pretty ingenious, huh?

I am not, however, as lazy as it may seem, because this book is really something special. I must say, I did have a French alternative, but could not bring myself to not write about this great volume. I bought the book about a year ago in a small thrift English bookshop in Grenoble (The Bookworm Café) and I paid something like 3 euros for it. I never thought about it again and sort of forgot it on the shelf for all this time, until I had run out of books to read and I took it out on a whim. Now, I have recently been arguing that electronic books are not the devil and that we should not wallow in sadness and despair for the fate of the paperback, since the contents of the book is important and not its form. This, of course, is my new rhetoric, since before getting my Kindle, I was saying the exact opposite things, talking about the scent of books and being in libraries, etc. Today, all this seems very snobbish to me, so I have but contempt for nostalgia. This, however, before I was proved wrong again, by this particular volume, who has become one of my new favorite things. It is your normal, run-of-the-mill grey and sober paperback, but even as I did not pay a second thought to the object itself, I did notice that I loved how natural it felt to read. As if it had been a book all its life; it knows its job, you open it and stays open, you can hold it in one hand since it’s not too heavy, the pages are not too yellow, they don’t stick together and the cover is not falling apart. Really, it’s everything a normal book is supposed to be, including discreet. It does not attract attention to itself, but lets the contents do the talking and maybe this is why I forgot it on a shelf for so long.

So, I finally started reading it. I tried to re-read Heart of Darkness, which is the first short-story in the book (never managed to finish it, even though I do like it. I think I don’t enjoy it), then I read The Apple Tree, then The Prussian Officer, then Miss Brill, and went on merrily until I got to the American short stories (in the second half of the novel) and while on the train, I don’t know what prompted me to look at the book more carefully, and saw the name on the first page, written in ink : O. Lévy then instantly got this image of the well-educated Jewish intellectual who had owned it before me, then thought huh how strange, I wonder where he bought it and then saw that it had been published by Random House in1942, in New York. First, what struck me, was the realization that that perfectly functioning, discreet object, was 60 years old and I had never given it a day over 20. Then that it had been published during the war. And only then, the very clear (yet of course, completely unverifiable and imaginary) story of this book and of its French Jewish owner started to unfold in my head. So there, so much for “the object is just an object, it’s what’s inside that matters”.

So, what does an editor decide to publish in troubled times in a very affordable format? Stories that, as the foreword states, “will live forever”. Immortality, of course, it’s what they would be trying to bring to the table, and reason and intelligence. I read somewhere, I can’t remember where, that during the Second World War they established spontaneous libraries in shelters across Europe and at the end of the war, the records were kept and analyzed. They had all types of books there, and what had been borrowed mostly was not, as one would have expected in those times of extreme poverty, do-it-yourself manuals or cookbooks, but philosophy and classics. What would happen today in similar circumstances I would not venture to speculate, and hope I never find out, but these things do give you more faith in civilization and humans. It also made me feel that the choice of the editor to put English and American novels back to back in the same book must have been a political one, because this division is so accentuated and so strange! It is as if, in order to show the Americans what and who they were fighting for, they felt compelled to stress the fact that they spoke the same language and had the same values so they underlined English and American three times, to show there was no difference.

The best part was that this is how I found out Katherine Mansfield was British, I always thought she was American. And the other best part is that once more, I am shown that I had better bite my tongue before I blab sentential remarks because I will most likely change my mind sooner than I can say Kindle.

The Illustrated Theory of Everything, by Stephen Hawking

Publisher: New Millennium; October 2003, Language: English

I dare to approach this book and step out of the realm of fiction, because it was so powerful that it made me think of life, the universe (it takes quite a lot of might to get me thinking about these subjects) and changed my opinion of how important the color of my shoes is for ever, I suppose. Considering the grand scheme of things and having at least one inkling of an idea about what we think we know is extremely empowering to the scientifically handicapped person that I am. I will not attempt to explain the universe to anyone, anytime soon. This has not made me go about town lecturing my friends who are all ten times smarter than I am. I will not dare tell anyone that they are wrong in their support of string theory, or that they have misunderstood the theory of relativity. What I do know, however, is that the color of my shoes is really not that important, that the CERN cyclotron will probably not cause us to plunge headlong into a black hole, but if it does that we will have gone heroically and that all in all, trying to understand the Universe is the noblest of missions and the most spiritual experience of all.

Ok, ok and before we get too serious and gloomy, I will say that Stephen Hawking’s prose is extraordinarily engaging and that he has a sense of humor. I didn’t really expect that, so my mood while reading this book varied from pensiveness and orgasmic revelations to fits of laughter, augmented in their intensity by the sheer surprise of actually having them at all.  Thanks to my previously mentioned smart friends, I already  have some inside information on the world of scientific research and academic gossip, with anecdotes featuring old professors throwing acid at each other because of accusations of sabotage and misdirected funding, but it’s quite a different story to hear stories like that from Stephen Hawking. Researchers placing bets on the veracity of their hypotheses makes my day.

There is also a good deal of history of science in this book, a subject which is so wonderfully approached, with theories so limpidly explained, that this potentially boring section of the book is a true pleasure to read. One also learns (and remembers too) a great deal of things about the scientists of days past and I could not help but wonder at how creative they had to be and what exceptional visionary qualities they had to have about them. Someone like Newton for instance, getting so much absolutely right, that today one hardly needs anything more than his theories to fly to the moon. This is where you sort of realize that this type of intelligence goes way beyond being talented at maths or having a knack for numbers; someone like Stephen Hawing or the geniuses preceding him, making scientific history, are all-round exceptional creatures. I mean, they are good with words, with numbers, with theories, with thought, with jokes. What else could one hope for? And no, I won’t make the obvious Stephen Hawking bad joke, even though I am thinking about it. In these situations, even though I would normally disagree, the body really does seem unimportant.

Since I myself am no Renaissance man nor even a Renaissance woman, there is only so much I can understand from these books. And I say these, because I have read more works by Hawking, one by Etienne Klein and I am going to plunge soon into “Death by Black Hole”, by Neil de Grasse Tyson. Little by little, my understanding of these subjects is deepening and I expect that I will be fluent in mainstream astrophysics theories at some point. However, I cannot help but be more struck with the philosophical implications of what I am reading than with the scientific ones. I am no philosopher either, I am really not much of anything, but it just so happens that I understand thought put into words better than thought put into digits, and that I am not quite at home with abstractions, so I’ll take the practical -example-based philosophical theories over science any day. Reading “An Illustrated Theory of Everything” is, without being modest, for the literary minded, a string of philosophical discoveries and subjects of meditation to last for a lifetime.

Now, I have read on different websites that this book has become somewhat of a renegade because Stephen Hawking has said that he no longer agrees with what he has written in it and that he wishes for it to stop being published. On the Amazon website, some readers advise against reading it as if it were plagued with the monstrosity of not being current enough. I for one really don’t understand this attitude and couldn’t care less about Hawking’s change of heart and/or of scientific credo. It’s not as if my extensive knowledge will suffer and my reputation will be destroyed if I am not up to date with the very latest of Hawking’s thoughts or with all the cutting edge theories. Such an attitude is pointless and I think that any book kindling an interest in science for profane readers such as myself is worth the read and I will recommend it to anyone. I have started with “The Illustrated Theory of Everything”, because of it and ever since I have taken an interest in all the recent research that has been made available to the greater public (the speed of neutrinos, for example, I’m really waiting for the explanation of that one. See, I know stuff) I will read his recent books as well and I see no reason to stay away from this one and kill it with fire as if everything in it were absolutely false. This was just to say that I am aware with what is being said out there; don’t care, I still like it.

Caliap stargazing

Cimitirul din Praga, de Umberto Eco

Editura Polirom, 2010, Limba: romana, traducere din italiana de Stefania Mincu

Wow. Cincisprezece straturi de fictiune unul peste altul, plus o lectie de istorie, plus o teorie a teoriilor conspiratiei si o singura donşoară intimidata si cam ignoranta (eu) ratacind prin padurea narativa. Rezultatul a fost ca mi-a luat o luna sa termin cartea. Din nou, ca de nenumarate alte ori la sfarsitul unui roman complicat (ca si Kaltenburg de curand) ma simt mai educata si cu cativa centimetri mai inalta decat inainte. Un fenoment de-a dreptul deconcertant s-a petrecut in timpul lecturii acestui roman, si cred ca el face parte din intentiile autorului: s-a intamplat sa citesc “Cimitirul din Praga” pe Kindle. Or, dupa cum stie oricine care a parcurs macar cateva pagini din el, in pofida structurii alambicate, este un roman care tinteste, citeaza, romanul clasic de aventuri: ilustratiile, pedanteria scriiturii, epoca in care se petrece actiunea, sunt toate caracteristice unor carti de Jules Verne din copilarie, de Eugene Sue sau de Alexandre Dumas, toti scriitori ale caror figuri si nume apar de altfel in “Cimitirul din Praga”, cu roluri mai mult sau mai putin importante. Contrastul dintre senzatia ca citesc una din acele carti ingalbenite, patate de ai mei cu dulceata cand aveau la randul lor zece ani si realitatea ecranului din fata ochilor mei, dar mai ales a faptului ca autorul traieste bine mersi (desi nu in floarea varstei) in epoca digitala a fost bulversant. Pe intreg parcursul romanului a trebuit sa imi trag cate o palma mentala cand gandurile imi divagau si incepeau sa formeze concluzii de genul : “ah, daca ar fi stiut pe deasupra autorul cum s-a concretizat ura fata de evrei in secolul XX” samd. Culmea este ca naratorul (primul – haha, daca n-ati citit nici nu banuiti ce va asteapta) nici macar nu pretinde ca ar locui altundeva decat in lumea contemporana, insa din cauza complexitatii povestirii din rama, tendinta cititorului hulpav ca mine este sa nu isi puna prea multe intrebari si sa ii trimita pe toti gramada la sfarsitul secolului XIX, cand se petrece cea mai mare parte a actiunii, dupa care sa confunde taraneste naratorul cu autorul si uite asa pe Umberto Eco l-am transformat din contemporanul lui Ashton Kutcher in cel al lui Sarah Bernhardt.

Veti fi inteles de acum ca ultimul roman al lui Eco va fi studiat la cursurile de teorie literara de acum si-n pururi, fiindca facand uz de hipertext, intertext, metatext si alte texte (carora le-am uitat numele fiindca a trecut o eternitate de cand dormitam in fundul salii crezandu-ma speciala si prea interesanta pentru Harold Bloom) te invarteste de nu mai stii unde te afli, pentru ca in final sa iti acorde cu un ranjet binevoitor cheia.  Sau cel putin asa crezi, fiindca nu mai ai putere sa te duci sa verifici. You’ve been punked.

Case si mistere din secolul XIX

Naratiunea in sine, cu iz de “Pendulul lui Foucault”, este o reconstituire a urzelii de minciuni si de interese care ar fi dus la antisemitismul extremist al inceputului de secol XX, cuprinzand momente cheie ale istoriei europene: campaniile militare ale lui Garibaldi, razboiul Franco-Prusac, afacerea Dreyfus, insa vazute nu din mijlocul actiunii, ci din perspectiva unor mici oportunisti care profita de pe urma tulburarilor politice sperand sa faca istorie. Nu este clar pana unde merge eficienta lor si unde incepe grandomania, dar comploturile imaginate de personaje (inspirate din realitate) par sa explodeze uneori in acte care schimba mersul societatii.  Personajul narator, Simonini, este construit in mod extrem de interesant ca un individ abject si slinos cu apetit pantagruelic si fara principii. Nimic nemaivazut, insa creatura nu se preteaza nici identificarii cu cititorul, nici identificarii cu autorul. Ramane deci undeva in vidul fictiunii, un ghid antipatic si incomod, dar extrem de eficient in lumea intrigilor subterane pariziene.

De curand am citit o parte a corespondentei lui Proust care este ghidul perfect in lumea intrigilor superficiale pariziene si de care cred ca m-am indragostit. Il stiti pe Proust, cu finetea lui si inteligenta scanteietoare si accesele de umilinta perversa. Simonini este fix inversul lui. Da stiu, ca este personaj fictional, dar asta a devenit si Proust in mintea mea deci nu compar mere cu pere, shush! Nu mi-a fost usor, pe parcursul lecturii, sa mi-i imaginez in aceeasi lume, in acelasi oras si frecventand de multe ori aceleasi personaje, insa odata ce i-am situat pe unul si pe celalalt de o parte si de alta a cauzei dreyfusarde, mi-am dat seama ca sunt norocoasa detinatoare a unei imagini destul de complexe asupra secolului XIX gratie acestor lecturi – una fictionala una non. Si ce profesor mai extraordinar decat Umberto Eco, cu eruditia lui atat de vasta incat este complet neverificabila si dupa cate am vazut exasperanta pentru unii care prefera romanele cu templieri care isi codeaza mesajele scriind in engleza in oglinda. Incet incet in zilele care vin ma voi ocupa cu cercetari aprofundate si neerudite pe Wikipedia, fiindca sunt o victima a generatiei mele, asupra personajelor diverse care apar in roman. Mi se pare o incheiere fireasca oricarei opere a lui Umberto Eco.

Grenoble, fiindca e mentionat o data in roman si fiindca asa arata lumea pe vremea lui Simonini

The Apple Tree by John Galsworthy

Nonsuch Publishing, August 1, 2005, Language: English

Right, so anyone who knows me knows that I have a penchant for the classics and that I manage to appreciate novels that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with, well,  life now and today. One of the things I adore about books is that they manage to make me go back in time; I never want to go forward, just back. Science fiction is lost on me, but I sure like my Victorians (yes, I do know that Gaslworthy comes a bit later, I don’t mean just him). I am all for quaint, bucolic adventures on the moors, or at least what seems as such to other people, for to me they are mostly disturbing tales of great psychological insight and the best escapism there is. Fluid writing, intelligent observation and wit as well as a good dose of confidence preventing the author from falling into the trap of gimmicks make an enjoyable reading experience for me. I really appreciate my friends who love fantasy and science fiction and I hope to one day open myself more to these genres, since I really do feel that I am missing out. Maybe this blog will help, but until then, let’s talk about John Galsworthy’s Apple Tree.

Let’s be clear from the start: I am not going to pretend that this short story is mind blowing, that it made me rethink my views on the world or that it changed my life. However, not all books are supposed to do that : I love a relaxing read with a certain flowiness to it that transports me for one afternoon and never once makes me cringe. It is a simple story about spring, love and all those things that come with it. Also, a hint of darkness and cruelty,  a dramatic ending and a short meditation on memory and the passage of time. Nothing never heard of before. But (and here’s when I start to sound like that old lady we all know) the descriptions of nature, of spring nights, of the flowered trees and of innocent maidens wandering on the moors or around candlelight parlours lulled me to a place of harmony and serenity which is so perfect it’s tacky. We do need this, though, don’t we?

The main character, one of those too well educated, too well-off youths with nothing much to do, discovers his own power and the extent of his hypocrisy within the space of one month of April (which, as we all know, is the cruelest month). What is interesting to follow in the character’s development is the lowering of his self esteem from the first paragraph to the last, the loss of his innocence perceived by his own eyes. Righteous at first, comparing himself favourably to his coarser, less sensitive travel companion, he goes on to admitting he is a scoundrel within the space of a few weeks and finding excuses for it with the easiness of a Ibsen character.  The final blow to his barely salvaged self image comes years later, as he is experienced enough to be fully aware of his scoundrelness and likely not forget it to the end of his days. The other characters are, on the other hand, a bit flat. The two female characters perfectly complement each other, being complete opposites, with an obviousness that is not even awkward: it just goes without saying.

There is also a hint of a remnant of Romanticism about this short story. Often mocked and turned around by the main character, the tendency towards idealizing the past (ahem, I know) and getting lost in considerations on the savage beauty of the elements and the purity of the simple folk is nonetheless there. For some reason, though, this did not bother me: I saw it as proof of an exquisite optimism, of that beginning of the century belief in the better nature of man when left to his own devices and unspoiled by civilization and education.  The kind of belief that Isadora Duncan’s dancing stemmed from, or Nietzsche’s convoluted reasoning. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the story was written in 1916 and the Great War was just starting to give further proof that men were all beastly regardless of education and that savage was not such a fascinating thing to be after all.

Oh, and before you jump to any conclusions: no hint of the war in this short story. We feel it’s not there, not just yet. The Belle Epoque glides understatedly on, serving as a perfect background to this story about becoming an adult. It’s only too bad that it takes roughly one afternoon to read, one afternoon to write about it, and then one is left with the ruthless October rain which seems to characterize a month that is nonetheless crueler than April. It’s really cold and the wind is blowing and really, The Apple Tree bears no resemblance to real life whatsoever. Thankfully.

The countryside and apple trees made me think of this

Kaltenburg, de Marcel Beyer

Editions Métailié; 16 septembre 2010; Langue : Français, traduit de l'allemand par Cécile Wajsbrot

Kaltenburg est un gros livre, dans tous les sens: un roman lourd et morose, qui parcourt l’histoire récente des deux Allemagnes à son rythme et qui impose au lecteur la discipline d’une lecture sérieuse. Mais quelles satisfactions apporte sa découverte! Ce n’est pas facile de pénétrer le monde du professeur ornithologue Ludwig Kaltenburg, en dépit de sa personnalité cocasse il reste un ours, perpetuellement mécontent. Les personnages de ce livre ne sont pas sympathiques, même pas le narrateur et il y a un soupçon de pédanterie pédagogique chez chacun d’entre eux.

Pourtant, la fascination évidente que l’auteur porte à l’univers de l’ornithologie nous emporte et nous convainc, donc nous nous rendons finalement volontiers à la force extraordinaire de ces personnages, des sommités du domaine, juste pour apprendre un peu plus sur les choucas, sur les martinets, sur les animaux, les hommes et l’histoire. Encore une fois, j’ai l’impression d’avoir eu une réelle expérience d’apprentissage en lisant ce livre: à partir des images d’une Dresde sous le feu des bombardements pendant la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale, aux luttes idéologiques de coulisses du monde académique européen, violemment secoué par la nouvelle division est-ouest, jusqu’aux particularités extraordinaires des oiseaux, chaque page est une leçon.

J’ai appris, une fois le livre fini, que Marcel Beyer a été très inspiré par la figure du professeur Konrad Lorenz, un célébre ornithologue autrichien, connu pour son extravagance, recompensé d’un prix Nobel pour son étude comportamentale des oiseaux. Avoir fait cette découverte m’a beaucoup réjoui; je crois que je voulais qu’un Kaltenburg ait existé, pour le bien de l’humanité. En regardant sa photo sur Wikipedia, j’ai eu le choc de découvrir qu’il était identique au Kaltenburg de mon imagination et cela est encore une raison de satisfaction, quoique je ne comprends pas exactement pourquoi. Le charme de cet homme semble venir d’une sagesse plutôt soupçonnée que manifeste et dans le livre, en dépit de ses nombreux défauts, on est conscient de ses bonnes intentions qui tournent souvent mal. On comprend l’admiration que le narrateur lui porte, on comprend son exaspération aussi.

Konrad Lorenz being followed by geese. Photo from Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

L’ambiance générale du livre change complètement des fois, grâce à des scènes surprenantes, qui sont soit d’une délicatesse minutieuse, soit d’une violence inattendue. Je parle, d’un côté, des scènes de l’enfance du narrateur, de la figure de sa mère, de celle de Maria, sa bonne et de la scène où Klara, enfant, se promène dans la neige du parc avec sa soeur. Visuellement, cette dernière est une des plus vivantes dans ma mémoire. A un pôle opposé, la scène où le narrateur, enfant lui même et désormais orphelin, est surpris par le bombardement de Dresde et se réfugie dans le jardin public où des oiseaux brûlés tombent des branches des arbres me donne encore des frissons. Ce n’est pas toujours facile à visualiser les phrases de Marcel Beyer, mais lorsque on y arrive, elles construisent souvent des images remarquables. Comme celle de la maison de Kaltenburg, par exemple, un labyrinthe de nids, d’abris et de cabanes logeant des centaines de bestiaux de toutes tailles, les vraies propriétaires de la maison et du parc qui l’entoure. Un monde à part, protégé des misères de la vie urbaine, mais en permanence mis en danger par les suspicions des citoyens normaux et bien pensants, prêts à tuer tout ce qui bouge pour prouver que les hommes sont tout de même plus forts.

Finir le roman était une victoire en soi, un peu comme finir La Montagne Magique de Thomas Mann, car, je le répéte, ce n’est ni une lecture facile, ni divertissante. C’est comme un régime du cerveau: de la concentration, de la concentration et l’accumulation des informations, de la rigueur et de la perspicacité aussi, car les nombreux flashbacks et digressions peuvent déstabiliser des fois. L’écriture est sobre, fine et précise, l’ambiance souvent poussiéreuse, les personnages réticents, prisonniers de l’histoire. Mais c’est un monde tellement complexe et intéressant.  Tout comme après un rigoureux régime d’entrainement, on en sort plus forts, plus sages et réellement satisfaits de l’expérience.

Photo by Caliap