“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler writes beautifully and I have really enjoyed all of her previous books. This was a lovely read, if a little slight. It’s about a man whose wife dies and how he gets over it. It reminds me a little of Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” though it is not as good a book. It is a much more enjoyable book though with a happy ending.
“Memoirs d’une Jeune Fille Rangée” by Simone de Beauvoir [New Year’s Resolution]
Simone de Beauvoir remembers a lot about her childhood. A little two much, if you ask me. 120 (densely printed pages) in, she was still under ten. I felt it would be good for me to read this in French. I wasn’t so sure by the time I’d finished. Though I do now know what a hobereau is. Your best guess in the comments, please. Googling will disqualify. One clue, the author’s aunt married a “hobereau”.
So, when she was under ten, i.e. before 1918 she didn’t really notice that there was any lack of equality between the sexes. She seems to have been deliberately obtuse. She seems much more interested in the question of where her family fitted in the social structure. It’s a bit complicated but I think, in summary, they felt that they were at the top but they weren’t really and they didn’t have a great deal of money compared to everyone else. Though, of course, they still had servants. I do love the bit where she describes her guardian angel who is devoted to her service, just like Louise, her nanny.
She was a voracious reader and her mother used to pin together pages which were unsuitable for the young Simone’s eyes. The Princess, when I told her this, was incredulous, as I was myself a bit. However, Simone did tell this story that the priest preparing them for first communion told her, which may explain her obedience. He told them that a young girl, with indifferent parents, was allowed to read everything including, gasp, improper books. The girl came to the priest in some distress but he was too late to save her so she committed suicide. It’s hard to see where Simone would have come across a more inappropriate story for young ears, frankly. It was quite odd to see her waxing lyrical about “Little Women” and identifying with Jo. Hands up if you knew Simone de Beauvoir was a passionate fan of Louisa Alcott as a child.
She is very good on the intensity of girls who are best friends in their early teens. Her description of her friendship with Zaza rings very true. I bet Zaza and her family were less than entirely delighted by this book, though. Do you want everyone to know that your father had to propose several times to your mother before he was accepted and then only with great reluctance?
She starts off a very devoted daughter and her father’s favourite but she becomes disillusioned with him. At one point she is reading about voting being restricted to those who pay more than a certain amount in taxes. She is outraged by this. Her father’s response is to smile and say that as a nation is the sum of its goods, it is to be expected that those who own them should administer them.
“Papa sourit. Il m’expliqua qu’une nation, c’est un ensemble de biens; à ceux qui les détiennent revient normalement le soin de les administrer.”
She sees the hypocrisy of this as her father has become poorer and poorer as his career failed. Did he think he should be deprived of his rights?
We spend a good 100 pages when she starts in the Sorbonne inside Simone’s head. She may be one of the great French intellectuals of the 20th century experiencing existentialist angst or she may be a cranky teenager. It’s a bit hard to tell. Things definitely start to look up once she starts hitting the bars though. She is still living at home and her mother thinks she’s off at some club to help the poor in Belleville but in fact she has found alcohol and she likes it. The gin-fizz is her drink of choice. She does the oddest things to get attention. Herself and her sister arrive in bars separately and then pretend to fight – pulling hair and slapping. Why would you do that? Frankly, given what she gets up to, her parents seem to have been entirely justified in keeping her on a tight rein.
I did not expect to get my first sniff of Sartre only at page 383. Was it for this etc? We learn a lot more about her other friends and Zaza is a constant presence. SPOILER ALERT – stop now, if you think you will ever read this. Zaza dies in the end and suddenly you realise that really the book was all about her and it seems like quite a lovely tribute to their friendship.
Another friend who gets quite a bit of coverage towards the end is Stépha and her lover Fernando. As I was reading this book in France, I was also reading the death notices daily in Le Monde (look, we all have to have a hobby) and I was quite touched to see this one: “Mon ami, Tito Gerassi ne parlera plus de ses parents, Fernando, le peintre, parti se battre avec les républicans espagnols, Stepha, venue d’Ukraine, Berlin les années 20, amie de Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, un intime.”
“The Temptations of Saint Anthony” by Flaubert translated by Lafcadio Hearn [New Year’s Resolution]
When I came across the following sentence in the introduction to this book, I nearly gave up there and then:
“But works like the Temptation were far less common, in their appeal also to a kind of voluptuousness of the life of the mind, a … self-indulgence within a seemingly infinite library, where meaning is at the heart of the book but understanding is challenged on every page. In the twentieth centrury we had to wait for writers like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett to give us something similar.”
Please note that this is the easier of the two introductions. The other, by Michel Foucault, is a harder read although he did say one thing that I found, much to my surprise, to be true – “The visible sequence of scenes is extremely simple…” And, actually, it is. In fact, it’s a much easier read than Foucault’s introduction and at no point does Flaubert have to resort to diagrams to show how the reader should appreciate the work.
This book was a present from this man who when reproached (after I had read the introduction but before I had read the text) said that he didn’t remember much about it but at least it was short. This also turned out to be true.
Before turning to the text proper, I must point out that this is the version translated by Lafcadio Hearn of whom I was dimly aware as an Irish man who spent time in Japan. Thanks to the more intelligible of the two introductions, I now know a lot more about Lafcadio. Unusual life story.
This is a weird, weird book but, as advertised, quite easy to read. I found it easier going than “Madame Bovary” mind you, my expectations were pitched far lower. It describes how Saint Anthony was tempted. It lingers on the heresies of the early church in loving detail. It’s a bit dull but very understandable. I liked the glossary the best. Did you know that Sheba is in the Yemen? How about that Sartor is an agrarian god of the Romans who presided over the weeding of gardens?
“The Fall of Paris” by Alaistair Horne [New Year’s Resolution]
This is a history of the siege of Paris in 1870. Guess what happens in the end. I read a good review of this once and it spent about 15 years on my shelf waiting to be read. It assumes a knowledge of French history which I do not have, alas. The author assumes that the main figures in the drama are well known to the reader and are old friends who need no further introduction. It also has quite a bit about military tactics which I always find very dull.
On the plus side it is filled with entertaining incidents and contemporary comment on the siege. I liked the bit where one of the contemporary accounts talks about a newspaper from Rouen which arrived during the siege bringing some news from outside: “whoever had said 3 months ago that a Provincial paper a fortnight old arriving in Paris would cause a sensation would have been laughed at; however such was the case”
The whole thing is made worth while by the chapter on hunger. What did the Parisians do when the food ran out? Well, all manner of things. They began to eat horsemeat. Then the signs “Feline and Canine Butchers” made their debut. By December one man was commenting in a matter-of-fact way “I had a slice of spaniel the other day.” Another man was “fattening up a huge cat which he meant to serve up on Christmas Day, ‘surrounded with mice, like sausages.'”
The passage below appeals:
As more and more of the two traditional domestic enemies became reconciled in the cooking-pot, Gautier claimed that they seemed to grow instinctively aware of their peril:
Soon the animals observed that man was regarding them in a strange manner and that, under the pretext of caressing them, his hand was feeling them like the fingers of a butcher, to ascertain the state of their embonpoint. More intellectual and more suspicious than dogs, the cats were the first to understand, and adopted the greatest prudence in their relations.
Rats, you will be delighted to hear were essentially a rich man’s dish “on account of the lavish preparation of sauces required to make them palatable.” They also ate the animals in the zoo.
The whole chapter is full of hilarious and very odd anecdotes. The whole book is strong on primary sources which is its great virtue though the comment on the back of the book that “[o]ne lives through the siege of Paris and the Commune as much as those who were on the spot” is certainly overstated.
I don’t think it’s a good introduction to the period as it requires to much detailed knowledge but I still found it really interesting. Even though the commune were idiots in many ways – making decrees about administrative matters in squabbling committees when the Versaillais were marching determinedly on the city – and bloody, it’s hard not to admire them a bit. The influence of the short lived commune was huge. The last line in the book is “In 1964, when the first three-man team of Soviet comonauts went up in the Vokhod, the took with them into space three sacred relics; a picture of Marx, a picture of Lenin – and a ribbon off a Communard flag.”
“Sister Morphine” by Catherine Eisner [New Year’s Resolution]
This is a bit odd. I bought it ages ago. I thought that it was about women and insanity and it is a little bit but mostly it’s short stories about women’s lives. Some are more successful than others. I loved the fairy tale feel of Isolde and her sister which is partly set in a forest with a hint of wolves but the one about the girl in the catholic day school really annoyed me. It had a sort of gothic view of catholicism which, for someone who comes from a country where catholicism is still the religion of the majority, just seems idiotic and over written. The stereotypical Irish nun didn’t help either.
I thought the whole device of framing this as the case notes of a psychiatric nurse was a red herring and it didn’t add enough to the text to make it worthwhile. I suppose it did mean that you regarded the narrator as unreliable and that put you off balance. The final story is deeply annoying. It is narrated by the psychiatric nurse herself who, wouldn’t you know it, has her own problems. It analyses and links the cases identifying them by patient ID and also from time to time by name. As none of the stories is identified by this in the table of contents one is constantly flicking through the book trying to make out who on earth she is talking about. She also throws in a couple of other cases not mentioned in the book (I think). I nearly threw the book in frustration.
What’s particularly annoying is that I do think that this writer is talented but I found the format to be over-indulgent and in serious need of pruning. Snort.
“The School at the Chalet” by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
I picked this up at the library on the basis that it might appeal to herself. I was never much of a Chalet school girl but I read a few of them. I started reading this and it’s alright. I think it’s very dated and deeply improbable but I suppose it’s not really fair to read it from an adult perspective. It was published in 1925 which is why this piece of dialogue appears that amused me:
“Start a school!” He stared at her. “My good girl, that sort of thing requires capital; which we haven’t got”
“Yes, I know that as well as you do!” retorted his sister. “At least it does in England but I wasn’t thinking of England.”
“Then where were you thinking of?” he demanded, not unreasonably. “Ireland? Shouldn’t advise that! You might wake up to find yourself burnt out!”
“Of course not! I’ve got some sense!…”
Elinor loves the Tyroleans and the Southern Germans but the Prussians are horrible. I found the attitudes just that bit too dated to feel any enthusiasm for handing it over to herself but I suppose, if she fancies it, she can read it, she’s read worse.
“Le Voleur D’Ombres” by Marc Levy
I got desperate in France. Ouest France said that this man was a bestseller. I thought that this would mean it would be an easy read. It was. That doesn’t mean it was good though. It’s a coming of age story with a twee supernatural angle that the narrator can read people’s thoughts by stealing their shadows. I am not against science fiction but I just found this cloying.
“Westwood” by Stella Gibbons
She didn’t just write “Cold Comfort Farm” you know. This is not a particularly funny book though it is funny in places. It is the story of a plain young teacher who is dazzled by the glamour of a family who live in a big house nearby. It’s set in London during the Second World War. It has loads of characters and because it is quite long by the time you’ve finished, you really feel you know them. Even the characters who are almost caricatures have some depth. I was sorry to say goodbye to them without having any particular affection for any of them. This book is very long on character but short on plot. The big incident that the book leads up to [signalled from early on] is too slight to sustain the whole novel. The characters are great but you have to give them 200 pages of your time to warm up which is a lot. I’d try another of her books all the same.
“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” by Jeanette Winterson
I like Jeanette Winterson and I’ve read a lot of her stuff. I liked this too. It’s well written and it is heartfelt. It first part covers much of the same ground that was covered in “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” and the second part is about her search for her birth parents. This book is so sad. It seems to underline that you can’t escape a damaged childhood. Despite her success, she is a deeply disturbed and unhappy woman. Only read it, if you’re feeling very cheerful.