Turn About, by William Faulkner

Great Modern Short Stories, Random House, 1942, Language: English

I have just finished reading this lesser known Faulkner short story and have fallen in love with the man all over again. My 1942 anthology of short stories keeps delivering gem after gem of awesomeness and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.

Faulkner was probably indirectly one of the main reasons I’ve started this blog. A long time ago, during a Theory of Literature class, a young professor at my University (the one all the girls in first year were infatuated with and who had earned my respect for the passion with which he had spoken about books during the first two classes we had already had – me not being the infatuated type, of course) asked us to read The Bear, by Faulkner, and then tell him what the Truth was. I re-read the Bear, trying to figure out the Truth but mostly being bewildered at the task and understanding it about just as much as anyone reading this is now. I had a few ideas but they seemed a bit unimpressive. We got to the following class, one of the most confusing ones of my life, with everyone shouting out different insane or less insane hypotheses all of which were of course not the right answer. To this day, I have no idea what the Truth was or if he actually revealed it to us. I have a feeling he did and it had nothing to do with the contents of the book and that I was deeply disappointed. I am not sure, however. Anyway, what this led to was a significant amount of insecurity on my part, which coupled with some remarks he went on to make about people reading things a certain way and others reading them another way and a certain use of terms I was not familiar with, managed to swiftly persuade me that I did not know how to read. I had spent a good part of my life up to then doing just that and all of a sudden it dawned on me that I had been doing it the wrong way and moreover that I was not aware of any other way. It took me a long time to recover from what was almost an identity crisis and draw up the courage to speak about books again since by the time the first year of university ended I was sure I was very stupid. That is why today, all mended up and my usual cockiness reacquired, I am so adamant about being honest about literature and reading for pleasure. Because I am sure now that he was wrong and I am right and I represent the people,  the 99%, whereas he,  as a member of the 1% is somewhat of an intellectual bully and one of those who do more harm than good to literature by intimidating all readers out of their wits and out of libraries. So, I say occupy Yoknapatawpha!

So, all this anecdote was just my way of saying that ever since I got past my shyness of Faulkner, I have taken my revenge by enjoying him immensely and letting myself go with the wonderful flow of his prose without asking questions that are not there and meditating upon those that did indeed come up upon reading his works. Out of everything I’ve read by him so far, this particular short story is one of the more conventional ones. However, it is deeply disturbingly beautiful and manages to capture the main character’s thoughts in a way that is strongly reminiscent of The Sound and the Fury, but without even a glimpse of stream of consciousness techniquness. (Not that I don’t like stream of consciousness, on the contrary I think I am its biggest fan alive.) I love love love works of fiction where the characters don’t explain themselves and are not explained and this is one of them and this is also why I love Mad Men, but that is the subject of a different conversation I think. The story is set during the First World War, in a European port where British and American troops are stationed together and  from where they launch daily or nightly attacks on Germany and territories belonging to the Central Powers. Fighting together does not however make them understand each other better and it isn’t until some personal contact is established that reciprocal spite is overcome.  Bogard, the American aviation captain and the kid, a British naval officer make a pair of complicated and fascinating figures and complement each other without ostentation.  Strangely, in spite of his logorrhea, the British 17 year old boy remains much more of a mystery than Bogard (in whose head we seem to be in spite of the absence of any stream of  consciousness) and I couldn’t help but wonder whether his childlike enthusiasm is a sign of innocence and misunderstanding of danger or of some kind of screwed up cynicism that makes him get his kick out of constantly being on the verge of death. Ronnie, his mate,  is like a silent backdrop against which he can unfold his verboseness – as if each one of them had assumed and stuck to a well defined role and a ritual in order to make their task bearable and to not go insane with fear.

Against what you might possibly think, even if it does speak of friendship and mutual respect, this is a rugged, non-didactical story. I will again mention the fact that it has been included in that 1942 anthology and it seems as if, once more, the editors were trying to prove to their public the strong bond that existed between the American and British people, a relationship worth fighting for. However, more than launching into a hymn to comradeship, Faulkner seems to engage into a meditation on spite and prejudice.  The Americans are persuaded of their valor, discipline and superiority over the English soldiers who they have come to the rescue of. Besides Captain Bogard, who is the most open-minded of them all, none of them will get to acknowledge the horrifying conditions in which the British divisions fight. The Americans, fresh to the war and physically remote from it (since they are fighting above land) also seem to still be able to hang on to principles and be stiff about rules and spit on misbehaviour, whereas the British soldiers are merry, drunk, sleeping in the gutters and impossible to tell apart because they are all so so young. And this is precisely why the atmosphere in the story becomes unbearable at some point; their desperation of having nothing more to lose becomes almost thick and tangible. The feeling of loneliness generated by the scene where they ride together in a tiny boat facing a gigantic enemy in the open sea seems to linger still, long after having shut the book and long after listening to some music to chase away the chills.  Stories like this always make me painfully acknowledge what my peaceful existence has been built on. This being said, I will leave you with PJ Harvey whose last album makes me feel precisely what this short story has made me feel. Besides, this video is perfect.


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.