Suite for Barbara Loden – Nathalie Léger (tr. Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon)

United States, 1970, Kent State and Jackson State shootings occur during violent student protests, there’s a burning disenchantment with President Nixon and the Vietnam War, the previous year’s Woodstock Festival is released on film, along with the counterculture films ‘Five Easy Pieces’ and ‘M*A*S*H’. At the 31st Venice Film Festival a small independent film, ‘Wanda’ premiered, winning the Best Foreign Film gong.  Despite the award ‘Wanda’, directed by Barbara Loden, was released in a single theatre in New York, “Cinema II”, and was never shown in the rest of the country.

It quickly slipped from view “Forgotten in the United States”, but “much admired in Europe”, screening at various festivals and events.     

Pick up a recent textbook about Hollywood movies from the 1970’s and you are likely to come across a ‘Wanda” reference:

…although the auteur renaissance introduced a new American cinema, this generation of movie directors was still by a vast majority male. The few women directors working at the time did not benefit from the commercial Hollywood financing that their male counterparts accessed and instead were relegated to indie micro-financing and playoffs at the art house, university film series, and museum showcases. Even the best of the films made by women in the 1970s remain difficult to find and screen today. For example, in 1970, the accomplished stage actress Barbara Loden produced, wrote, directed, and starred in a terrific no-budget film, Wanda. The film tracks its title character as she stumbles upon a petty criminal with whom she goes on the lam. He treats her with casual cruelty, but she stays with him anyway, because her life before she met him (drinking, sleeping around, sponging off her sister) wasn’t any better. Creatively financed, shot on a shoestring, and distributed by a company otherwise specializing in martial arts imports, Wanda grossed on its first run, such as it was, just over $100,000. “When the Movies Mattered : The New Hollywood Revisited” edited by Johnathan Kirshner & Jon Lewis

This short precis does not give the film any justice, Wanda, disenchanted with her life leaves her husband and children, in search of something better, throughout she carries a large oversized handbag, which contains her worldly possessions, she grips it so tightly you can also believe it contains her hopes, her memories, her desires.

Fast forward forty odd years, and Nathalie Léger has been asked to provide a short encyclopedic entry on ‘Wanda’, and/or Barbara Loden. Her research, obsession, exploration becomes far too detailed to be an encyclopedia entry, it has become a journey, a book, ‘Suite for Barbara Loden’ (translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon), and thankfully the wonderful Dorothy Project has brought this French work to English readers.

What is it that attracts me so to Wanda? I have never been homeless, I have never abandoned my children, I have never given over my existence or even my financial affairs to any man, I don’t think I have ever entrusted even the most banal area of my life to anyone. I’ve left men, sometimes heartlessly, with the trembling joy that one feels slipping away down a side street, or vanishing into a crowd, or jumping onto a passing train, or standing someone up; the acute and rare pleasure of avoiding something, of evading something, of disappearing into the landscape – but never the experience of surrender. And yet: it did happen to me once, just one time and it was enough, but who hasn’t experienced that – not knowing how to say no, not daring to say it, yielding to the mortal threat, escaping in the end by withdrawal, absence, slipping to the ground, no longer even offering him the gift of fear, no longer pretending, no longer thinking the unthinkable, protecting oneselg in shock, vomiting, the lusted-after body suddenly repulsive, leave me alone, leave me alone. But mostly what happened is that I’ve allowed myself to be pushed around, just waiting for it to be over, preferring misunderstanding over confrontation – it’s impossible in moments like that to think that defending my body could be worth the effort, and anyway what does that mean, “my body,” at the age of fifteen? Only this matters: not to be alone, not to be abandoned.

This short work is a blend of auto-fiction, research and memoir, like Wanda, Nathalie Léger is carrying around a metaphorical oversized handbag, a repository for her thoughts, a place to store her memories, and her bag becomes the pages you read.

I watched ‘Wanda’ a few years ago when I was doing a 1970’s Hollywood counter-culture binge, and revisited the movie last year with a poet friend of mine, whose insights into the female psyche added an extra layer to this wonderful film. Now I’ve experienced Nathalie Léger’s response, her “Suite for Barbara Loden” and the appreciation again increases.

Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men. We were in the kitchen having breakfast: he told me that he was afraid of that habit particular to women in general and me in particular, in his opinion, of being either unable or unwilling to resist uninvited male desire, of the madness of giving in to whatever they asked of us. He couldn’t understand how hard it is to say no, to be confronted with the desire of another and to reject it – how hard it is and possibly how pointless. How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it?

The book also plays through the various scenes in the movie, “she sits up and gently strokes his forehead until he cries out”, and then fallows Nathalie Léger’s personal attachment to each scene. A short work, this is also a fine accompaniment to a wonderful film.

I have seen a few reviews, of this book, that are quote scathing and I wonder if the reader hadn’t had the opportunity to view Barbara Loden’s film before reading, it was very hard to find, until recently when the Criterion Collection released a restored print. My reading journey was brilliantly enhanced by having a solid grounding and relationship with the film ‘Wanda’ and a fair understanding of Barbara Loden’s struggle to raise funds, be recognized, be acknowledged as someone other than Elia Kazan’s wife, and her subsequent death at only forty-eight years of age. This allowed me to travel with Nathalie Léger and see her peeling away the layers of the film, applying them to her own experiences, justifying her obsessive travel to understand more about Barbara Loden and simply relishing in a gem of a movie that could easily have been lost.

Once again the Dorothy Project delivers a thoughtful and provocative work of feminist literature, a collection of works that deserve wide readership.

Charles Baudelaire & Agnès Varda


Seems readers like the merging of poetry and film, last week’s post about Roy Andersson’s film featuring Peruvian poet César Vallejo’s poem ‘Stumble Between Two Stars’ has been my most popular post for 2020. Let’s continue the theme.

“The only female director of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda has been called both the movement’s mother and its grandmother” according to Criterion. Her short, 12 minute, film ‘Les dites cariatides’ (‘The So-Called Caryatides’) (1984) was made for French television, and features the music of Offenbach (his 1864 opera bouffe ‘La Belle Hélène’) and the poetry of Charles Baudelaire.

The film opens with a slow panning shot of a nude bronze sculpture light pole and then a nude man walking the streets of Paris. From the off the feminist themes abound, I won’t comment on these here, but if you’re after an explanation of the feminist themes in this short film I highly recommend the article “Wandering in the Presence of Women: Les dites cariatides” by Eloise Ross – click here for a link.

Caryatides, “the bearers of doors, lintels, capitals or balconies.” Agnès Varda tells us their origins and a brief history, whilst her camera pans from feet to head across a number of Parisian examples, from the late 19th century. In Paris there a twelve twin like men – “Pairs symmetrical but not identical” the males representing force and power, there are fifty twin like females, naked, bearing the weight on their heads, calm and composed.


Poems from Charles Baudelaire’s ‘The Flowers of Evil’ are read by Agnès Varda, again whilst the camera pans the caryatides. The subtitles on the version of the film I watched were uncredited, so I can’t direct you to the translator, however I transposed a number of the lines and have managed to find three of the poems in ‘The Flowers of Evil’ (with very different translations).

Sonnet XLIII

What sayest thou, to-night, poor soul so drear,

What sayest—heart erewhile engulfed in gloom,

To the very lovely, very chaste, and very dear,

Whose god-like look hath made thee to re-bloom?


To her, with pride we chant an echoing Hymn,

For nought can touch the sweetness of her sway;

Her flesh ethereal as the seraphim,

Her eyes with robe of light our souls array.


And be it in the night, or solitude,

Among the streets or ‘mid the multitude,

Her shadow, torch-like, dances in the air,


And murmurs, “I, the Beautiful proclaim—

That for my sake, alone ye love the Fair;

I am the Guardian Angel, Muse and Dame!”


Illusionary Love

When I behold thee wander by, my languorous love,

To songs of viols which throughout the dome resound,

Harmonious and stately as thy footsteps move,

Bestowing forth the languor of thy glance profound.


When I regard thee, glowing in the gaslight rays,

Thy pallid brow embellished by a charm obscure,

Here where the evening torches light the twilight haze,

Thine eyes attracting me like those of a portraiture,


I say—How beautiful she is! how strangely rich!

A mighty memory, royal and commanding tower,

A garland: and her heart, bruised like a ruddy peach,

Is ripe—like her body for Love’s sapient power.


Art thou, that spicy Autumn-fruit with taste supreme?

Art thou a funeral vase inviting tears of grief?

Aroma—causing one of Eastern wastes to dream;

A downy cushion, bunch of flowers or golden sheaf?


I know that there are eyes, most melancholy ones,

Wherein no precious secret deeply hidden lies,

Resplendent shrines, devoid of relics, sacred stones,

More empty, more profound than ye yourselves, O skies?


Yea, does thy semblance, not alone for me suffice,

To kindle senses which the cruel truth abhor?

All one to me! thy folly or thy heart of ice,

Decoy or mask, all hail! thy beauty I adore!


Both of the above translated by Cyril Scott.

The third poem, the first Agnès Varda quotes is “Beauty”


I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone,

And my breast where each one in turn has bruised himself

Is made to inspire in the poet a love

As eternal and silent as matter.

On a throne in the sky, a mysterious sphinx,

I join a heart of snow to the whiteness of swans;

I hate movement for it displaces lines,

And never do I weep and never do I laugh.

Poets, before my grandiose poses,

Which I seem to assume from the proudest statues,

Will consume their lives in austere study;

For I have, to enchant those submissive lovers,

Pure mirrors that make all things more beautiful:

My eyes, my large, wide eyes of eternal brightness!

Translated by William Aggeler, and if you’d like the original text with other translations click here.

More poetry on film and as I come across further examples I may post them here, Agnès Varda’s film may be short at only 12 minutes but it packs a lot into that time, worth hunting down.

Life A User’s Manual – Georges Perec (tr. David Bellos) – the tables and lists


To continue my posts about literature that has unusual, or strict, structures. I’ve been fascinated by the works of the Oulipo for some time, and I eagerly awaited the publication, in late 2018, of ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect; Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, edited by Ian Monk and Daniel Levin Becker. Naturally the book contains a few references to Georges Perec and his novel ‘Life A User’s Manual’. The “game” continues as I further explore the constraints, rules etc. that Perec employed when writing this book.

‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect; Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’ contains writing from the (current) forty-one members of the Oulipo. The piece ‘Un bilboquet d’ébène á boule d’ivoire’ (translated as “Ebony Cup and Ivory Ball”) by Marcel Bénabou, “subtly encloses a phonetic equivalent of its author’s last name”,(note, I’ve made the reference bold and underlined in the title). This is apparently a “trick borrowed from Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’, whose text contains echoes of the names of all the Oulipians at the time” of publication.

So a digging around is required, another game to play with Perec’s novel (translated by David Bellos), let’s start with the members of the Oulipo in 1978 the year the book was published in France:

Noël Arnaud (Founding Member)
Marcel Bénabou 1970
Jacques Bens (Founding Member)
Claude Berge (Founding Member)
André Blavier (Foreign Correspondent)
Paul Braffort 1961
Italo Calvino 1974
Ross Chambers 1961
Stanley Chapman 1961
Marcel Duchamp 1962
Jacques Duchateau (Founding Member)
Luc Etienne 1970
Paul Fournel 1972
Latis (Founding Member)
François Le Lionnais (Co-Founder)
Jean Lescure (Founding Member)
Harry Mathews 1973
Michèle Métail 1975
Georges Perec 1967
Raymond Queneau (Co-Founder)
Jean Queval (Founding Member)
Jacques Roubaud 1966
Albert-Marie Schmidt (Founding Member)

Twenty-three names that could be echoed within “Life A User’s Manual”, however Perec may have not used his own name for the “game” so I could potentially only be looking for twenty-two.

For interest (and completeness) sake let’s add the remaining members of the Oulipo (joined after 1978)

Michèle Audin 2009
Valérie Beaudouin 2003
Eduardo Berti 2014
François Caradec – 1983
Bernard Cerquiglini 1995
Frédéric Forte 2005
Anne F. Garréta 2000
Michelle Grangaud 1995
Jacues Jouet 1983
Hervé Le Tellier 1992
Étienne Lécroat 2012
Daniel Levin Becker 2009
Pablo Martín Sánchez 2014
Clémentine Mélois 2017
Ian Monk 1998
Oskar Pastior 1992
Pierre Rosenstiehl 1992
Olivier Salon 2000

Even the Wikipedia entry for Perec’s novel contains an explanation of the lists he used in composing the work, however I again refer to ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect; Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, and specifically the entry by George Berge written in 1967 “Letter to Jacques Rouband & Georges Perec”.

Dear Friends,

If our project concerning the use of orthogonal Latin squares is still on the table, as I hope it is, I think one of you will need to take the initiative to convene the sub-sub-co-committee. In the meantime, however, I am sending an extremely rare specimen, found recently by Parker for n = 10: (p32)


Using my previous post about the 10×10 grid employed for Perec’s novel  , we can see a strong resemblance between George Berge’s letter and the structure of Perec’s novel.

However instead of a simple “ten texts…in which there appear ten characters” with “two attributes, denoted by a capital letter and a lowercase letter”, Perec created a complex system of forty-two lists of ten things. Forty of the lists are broken into ten groups of four, with lists 41 and 42 being “couples”, to add complexity to the puzzle, list 39 is “Manque” (lack) and list 40 is “Faux” (false), these lists were simply numbers 1-10, however if Perec consulted the “Faux” bi-square and found, for example, a “6” in a given cell, he would ensure that the chapter corresponding to that cell would do something “false” when including the particular fabric, colour, accessory or jewel the bi-squares for the lists in group 6 had assigned to the cell/chapter in question.


Here is the “List of Lists”



Thanks to “Ex Libris: Architecture + World Literature” blog ( for the lists, there was a lot of internet trawling to find them. I have used the official Oulipo site for the list of current members (and members joining dates) at

Hoping the “clues” I have posted here lead to further revelations when reading Perec’s novel, you might be able to spot which list is being used in which chapter!!! One day I may get to the riches and anomalies contained in “The Fifty-first Chapter” the only one oddly named (the rest are simply “Chapter xxx”) and the lists that it contains, or maybe the list of 107 “Stories narrated in this manual”…maybe not, after all it’s just a game.

EDIT – I had missed one Oulipien from the list (that’s what happens when you transpose) – apologies to François Caradec (even though he’s deceased), I’ll make up for it by looking at his ‘Dictionary of Gestures’ (tr. Chris Clarke) sometime in the future.

Life A User’s Manual – Georges Perec (translated by David Bellos)


UserManual…play is essentially a separate occupation, carefully isolated from the rest of life, and generally is engaged in with precise limits of time and place. There is a place for play: as needs dictate, the space for hopscotch, the board for checkers or chess, the stadium, the racetrack, the list, the ring, the stage, the arena, etc. Nothing that takes place outside this ideal frontier is relevant. To leave the enclosure by mistake, accident, or necessity, to send the ball out of bounds, may disqualify or entail a penalty.
Roger Caillois “Man, Play and Games” (translated by Meyer Barash) p6

Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’ is a place for play, a 580-page game, ninety-nine chapters structured “with precise limits of time and place.”

Here is a work that can be examined on many many levels, today I have chosen to look at the structure of the book, the “play”.

Imagine a building, (possibly) nine storeys high, with a basement, an entrance hall, stairwell, lift and various apartments, no need to image too hard, at the conclusion to the novel there is an outline;


Let’s break these rooms down a little further, ten sections, over ten storeys in height, 10×10 – one hundred evenly sized squares:


I would love to add a credit to the creator of this “map” however all sources (Pinterest etc) do not quote a source.

Let’s now remove the façade from the building and take a snapshot of the detail in each of the squares.

Enter the stairwell, up to half way (the square marked “1” on the image above), you are a knight, the chess piece, and from here you are to move in an ‘L’ shape, you will either move two squares sideways and then one square up or down, or two squares up or down, and then one square sideways. Let’s make this a little easier, as I made my way through the book, I highlighted the completed squares on a printed grid using a different colour each time I completed a part of the book.


Perec’s novel is a giant chess game, in fact it is many games, chess, a jigsaw puzzle, solitaire, and then there are games within the games;

Let is imagine a man whose wealth is equalled only by his indifference to what wealth generally brings, a man of exceptional arrogance who wishes to fix, to describe, and to exhaust not the whole world – merely to state such an ambition is enough to invalidate it – but a constituted fragment of the world: in the face of the inextricable incoherence of things, he will set out to execute a (necessarily limited) programme right the way through, in all its irreducible, intact entirety.
In other words, Bartlebooth resolved one day that his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion. (p117)

At the novel’s core, and he does sit near the centre of the building, is Bartlebooth and his mission to paint five-hundred watercolours at various locations on the planet, have the paintings made into jigsaw puzzles, which he will complete and then return those paintings to their place of origin and have them reduced back to blank paper. “A fragment of the world” that is futile, “A single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion.”

Throughout this journey, there are hundred and hundreds of asides, games played in rooms, crossword puzzles, futile meditations, hints for the reader to solve the unsolvable, and a cast of thousands (well probably 100’s, there is a 59 page Index listing all of the references, it forms part of the game – as well as a checklist for “some of the stories narrated in this manual”).

As the reader travels into the depths of a painting, or along with an historical story, you are stopped in your tracks and returned to the concrete world of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, the building where you will need to move as the knight into another space, and another puzzle.

Sometimes Valène had the feeling that time had been stopped, suspended, frozen around he didn’t know what expectation. The very idea of the picture he panned to do and whose laid-out, broken-up images had begun to haunt every second of his life, furnishing his dreams, squeezing his memories, the very idea of this shattered building, laying bare the cracks of its past, the crumbling of its present, this unordered amassing of stories grandiose and trivial, frivolous and pathetic, gave him the impression of a grotesque mausoleum raised in the memory of companions petrified in terminal postures as insignificant in their solemnity as they were in their ordinariness, as if he had wanted both to warn of and to delay these slow or quick deaths which seemed to be engulfing the entire building storey by storey; Monsieur Marcia, Madame Moreau, Madame de Beaumont, Bartlebooth, Rorschach, Mademoiselle Crespi, Madame Albin, Smautf. And himself, of course, Valène himself, the longest inhabitant of the house. (p127)

The book contains such oddities as family trees, newspaper articles, map titles, visiting cards, shop signs, chessboard diagrams, advertisements, to name only a few items, keeping the playfulness bubbling along.

Ahhh, but there are one hundred squares, and only ninety-nine chapters? Yes, there’s a blank square, a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, how could a user’s manual on life be complete?

Returning to Roger Caillois;

Thus games are not ruled and make-believe. Rather, they are ruled or make-believe. It is to the point that if a game with rules seems in certain circumstances like a serious activity and is beyond one unfamiliar with the rules, i.e. if it seems to him like real life, this game can at once provide the framework for a diverting make-believe for the confused and curious layman. Once easily can conceive of children, in order to imitate adults, blindly manipulating real or imaginary pieces on an imaginary chessboard, and by pleasant example, playing at “playing chess.”
“Man, Play and Games” (translated by Meyer Barash) p9

I urge you to step into 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, dressed as a knight of course, head up the stairs, and take your instructions from Georges Perec, you’ll enter a second reality!

Compass – Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


Early in Mathias Enard’s Prix Goncourt winning novel “Boussole”, translated as “Compass”, our protagonist Franz Ritter references Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu”, translated as both “Remembrance of Things Past” or more recently as “In Search of Lost Time”, the second volume of such, “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs”, also winning the Prix Goncourt in 1919.

Using “The Literary 100, A Ranking of the most influential novelists, playwrights, and poets of all time” by Daniel S. Burt” (published by Checkmark Books 2001), as a reference tool, Proust comes in at number 17;

“In Proust’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)

Similarly, Enard’s novel breaks ground, referencing memory, complex societies, sensibility and subtlety, unlike any other work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, in fact unlike any work published in the last year.

A novel that takes place in the course of a single night, whilst our protagonist the musicologist Franz Ritter, fighting insomnia, relays his memories, the merging of the Orient and the Occident, and his desires for the unattainable Sarah.

I had slept like a log in a neat little inn in the heart of a village that had seemed to me (maybe because of the fatigue of the journey or the dense fog on the roads snaking between the hills coming from Graz) much more remote that the organizers had said, slept like a log, now’s the time to think of that, maybe now I should also find a way to tire myself out, a long train trip, a hike in the mountains or a visit to seedy bars to try and get my hands on a ball of opium, but in the Alsergrund it’s not very likely I’ll fall upon a band of Iranian teriyakis, opium-smokers: unfortunately Afghanistan, victim of the markets, exports mostly heroin, an even more terrifying substance than the pills prescribed by Dr Kraus, but I have high hopes, high hopes of finding sleep, and if not in time the sun will certainly get around to rising. (p 38)

Throughout there are borders everywhere, Europe to the Orient, the unrequited love Franz has for Sarah, Tehran, Damascus, Aleppo, Turkey and moving to the “far east”. All presented in the long rambling style readers of Enard’s first English published novel, “Zone” (also translated by Charlotte Mandell), would be familiar with. This time not a single sentence work, however an internalised monologue from a struggling man.

You have to be Heine to be able to outline in this way, in ten lines, the story of a defunct love; the fine, witty Henri Heine, as Théophile Gautier calls him, Heine who asks him, as the hashish-smoker is about to leave for Constantinople, in Paris at a concert of Liszt’s, with his German accent full of humour and mischievousness: ‘How will you manage to talk about the Orient when you’re actually there?’ A question that could have been put to all travellers to Istanbul, so much does the journey diffuse its object, disseminating and multiplying it in reflections and details until it loses its reality. (p88)

This complex, but thoroughly engaging work, is a journey into the seduction of the Orient; “The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.” A novel that contains stories within stories, as Franz reads old emails, research papers, dwells on moments of joy, sadness. The historical lessons, for example the revolution in Tehran, containing the players the Shah of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini, abound. The present-day war in Syria not far from the surface and referenced a number of times.

We remained travellers, closed in the self, capable, possibly, of transforming ourselves in contact with alterity, but certainly not of experiencing it profoundly. We are spies, we make the rapid, furtive contact of spies. (p 233)

Whilst thoroughly engaging throughout, this is not a book that can be easily reviewed, a mere reader like myself, falling deep in the shadows of Enard’s greatness and knowledge. One suggestion I do have, is to play the musical works referenced by the musicologist Franz Ritter as you are reading, publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions have put together a playlist at their blog  personally I simply searched each work as it was referenced and hit “play” (the joys of modern technology!) A novel that is very much of our times (although a retrospective journey of memory);

It’s strange to think that today in Europe one so easily places the label “Muslim’ on anyone who has a last name that’s Arabic or Turkish. The violence of imposed identities. (p 327)

The acknowledgements at the conclusion of the book, including “To the Syrian people”.

This night of insomnia, this search for the turning points in his life, the search for Orientalism becomes “A mystical search without any god or transcendence other than the depths of the self…” (p445). Very much like the referenced Proust this journey of Franz Ritter’s is one that will linger for a very long time, a love story, with a person, with a region, with a country, with a culture, this is a deep and significant contribution to literature in translation.

Personally, I think this is the standout work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, a book that will be remembered for many years to come. If they are rewarding literary merit then surely this should be a certainty to lift the prize, if they are looking at promoting literature in translation, then things become a little shakier, as it is not a simple read, a straightforward narratively driven book, but this is a book for our times. I could easily use the “Literary 100” quote and simply replace Proust with Enard, well maybe not the childhood part as much… “In Enard’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)


Mend The Living – Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

Today you’re going to come across something that happens very infrequently on this blog, a review of a book that I struggled to finish. Occasionally I come across a book I don’t like and more often than not I simply don’t review it. There are a number of reasons for this approach;

  • A writer has spent a significant amount of their life on bringing this work into being,
  • For the majority of books I read there is also the translator’s efforts to be taken into account, like the author they have dedicated a substantial amount of their time bringing this work to an English speaking audience,
  • Who am I to judge the relative merits of a book? What I may despise others may love! I’m a casual reader, not formally educated in “fine literature”, not officially qualified to be a stick in the mud, why does my opinion even matter? Then again, why would it matter for books I love too?
  • What value is there in caning a book? My insignificant view on the world stage will possibly impact the purchasing power by one or two copies.

As a Shadow Jury member for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize I am attempting to read and review all thirteen longlisted novels, and if I am being honest there is no way around giving my opinion on each of the books on the list.
Onto Maylis De Kerangal’s “Mend The Living”, a book that, although clunky in language style, actually starts out as an engaging and potentially compelling piece. The story opens with three mates, waking very early, unlike their usual teenage behaviour, so they can fulfil their insatiable surfing addiction. Amongst the three is Simon Limbeau, soon to be deceased.
It’s time. Beginning of the day when the shapeless takes shape: the elements gather, the sky separates from the sea, the horizon grows clear. The three boys get ready, methodical, following a precise order that is still a ritual: they wax their boards, check the leashes are attached, slip into thermal rash guards before pulling on their suits, contorting themselves in the parking lot – neoprene adheres to the skin, scrapes and even burns it sometimes – choreography of rubber puppets who ask each other for help, requiring that they touch and manipulate each other; and then the surf boots, the hood, the gloves, and they close the van. They walk down toward the ocean, surfboard under one arm, light, cross the beach in long strides, the beach where pebbles crash beneath their feet in an infernal racket, and once they’ve arrived at water’s edge, while everything grows clear before them, the chaos and the party, they each wrap a leash around an ankle, adjust their hoods, reduce the space of bare skin around their necks to nothing by grabbing the cords at their backs and pulling them up to the last notch of the zipper – it’s a matter of ensuring the best possible degree of waterproofness for their teenage-boy skin, skin that’s often studded with acne on the upper back, on the shoulder blades, where Simon Limbeau sports a Maori tattoo as a pauldron – and this movement, arm extended sharply, signifies that the session is starting, let’s go! And maybe now, hearts get worked up, maybe they shake themselves inside thoracic cages, maybe their mass and their volume augment and their kick intensifies, two distinct sequences in one same pulsing, two beats, always the same: terror and desire.
I’m not giving anything away by explaining that Simon dies soon after the novel commences, as a novel exploring the merits, pitfalls of organ transplants would require a character to die in order for their organs to be harvested.
Early on in the book, the post-accident helplessness, the grief of family members, the detachment of the hospital staff, is wonderfully rich and I was trusting that this theme would continue throughout:
She heads for the main door that opens slowly, far off; four figures cross the threshold and come toward her, figures that soon emerge from the blur cast by her myopic eyes: it’s the parents of the other two caballeros, Christophe and Johan, the four of them in a line, and again the winter coats that weigh shoulders down, the scarves rolled into neck braces to hold up falling heads, the gloves. They recognise her, slow down, and then one of the men quickens his step to break rank and when he reaches Marianne folds her in his arms, and then the other three hug her in turn. How is she? Chris’s father is the first to speak; the four of them look at her, she’s paralysed. Murmurs: he’s in a coma, we don’t know yet. She shrugs her shoulders and her mouth distorts: and you? the boys? Johan’s mother answers: Chris, fractured left hip and fibula; Johan, both wrists and clavicle fractured, also his ribcage, but none of his organs were pierced – she remains sober, of an outrageous sobriety, meant to show Marianne that the four of them are aware of how lucky they are, of their monster’s ball, because for them, it’s only breakage – their children were wearing seat belts, were protected from the shock, and if this woman minimises their anxiety to this extent, abstaining from any commentary, it’s also to show Marianne that they know about Simon, know that it’s serious, very serious even, a rumour that will have run from the I.CU. to the department of orthopaedic and trauma surgery where their sons are, and that she won’t have the indecency to add anything, and finally, there is this distress she feels, this guilt that holds her back, because the choice was between their two sons, for the seat belt – Chris had to drive, so it could just as easily have been Johan in the middle and then she would be the one in Marianne’s place at this instant, exactly in her place, swaying before the same terrible abyss, disfigured in just the same way, and she’s suddenly dizzy at the thought, her legs go weak and her eyes begin to roll back, and her husband moves closer, feeling her wavering, puts an arm under hers to steady her, and as Marianne sees this woman capsize, she, too, perceives the abyss between them, between herself and the rest of them, this chasm that separates them now, thank you, I have to go, we’ll keep you posted.
We have the same incident viewed though many lenses, as the characters begin to pile up, we have competing priorities, differing emotional reactions, different time pressures, then the self-interest starts to boil to the surface, as a reader who do we emotionally attach ourselves to? The mother, the father, the nurse, the surgeon….?
Sean and Marianne sit side by side on the couch, awkward, curious even though they’re shattered, and, on one of the vermilion chairs Thomas Remige sits down too, with Simon Limbeau’s medical folder in his hands. But even though these three share the same space, participate in the same time period, nothing on this planet could be further apart than these two beings in pain and this young man who sits before them with the goal – yes, the goal – of obtaining their consent to recover their child’s organs. On one side: a man and a woman caught in a wave of shock, at once swept off the ground and crashed down into a dislocated timeline – a continuity that Simon’s death had ruptured, but a continuity that, like a headless duck running in a farmyard, continued on – total madness – a timeline woven of pain, a man and a woman gathering all the sorrow of the world upon their two heads, and on the other side: this young man in a white lab coat – committed and cautious, prepared to conduct the meeting without skipping any steps, but who has set a timer in a corner of his brain, conscious that once brain death occurs, the body deteriorates rapidly, and that this has to be done quickly – caught in the same torsion.
However the further we get into the book, the more distracting the clunky language becomes, it is not only the melding of tenses, nor the rambling sentences, or the ridiculous word usage (more on that soon), but to me the never ending introduction of yet another bit player just became ridiculous, and adding some “fat” to their character was totally uncalled for (why have page after page describing France vs Italy in a soccer match? Oh that becomes slightly relevant once a new Italian surgeon is introduced, however Italy has NEVER beaten France 1-0 in Paris, and if you are going to have a fictitious football match then don’t name real players. Why a whole chapter dedicated to the purchase of a goldfinch? Is that just so there can be a corny reference to the rarity of its song? Why an imbalanced fiery actress lover? More pages? Who cares about the hovering nurse’s night before with an oft missing lover? More filler material?)
To explain the use of language, or more specifically word choice, here is a short quote about a (yet another) bit player who doesn’t not want to have dinner with her daughter:
…or maybe it’s the couple that frightens her, this couple that, in less than two years, has swallowed up her only daughter, disintegrated her into a sure, emollient conjugality, a balm after years of solitary nomadism: her spirited, polyglot daughter has become completely unrecognisable.
?????? And we have 100’s of examples of similar word choices throughout, not at all endearing, nor does this make for an enjoyable read when you need to stop each paragraph and decipher a word or two.
Here’s another example, this time, of unnecessary words, with the page references so you can see how often they are repeated (and I can assure you this is not an isolated example):
P 138 – One liver, two lungs, two kidneys. And a heart.
P 139 – Marthe Carrare enters all the medical data for Simon Limbeau’s heart, lungs, liver and kidneys into a web interface
P 142 – Responses for the liver, the kidney and the lungs come one after the other.
Given the majority of the story is given over to the “heart” wouldn’t “the other organs” suffice for “the liver, the kidney and the lungs”, given we then have a detailed explanation of who is going to receive each organ, further along page 142?
A book that has an interesting premise, this doesn’t lift beyond a poorly scripted version of an American television drama, with minor, irrelevant characters, clunky language, ridiculous word choices (wait until you get to the technical “harvesting” sections) and non-closure for so many of the “featured” players, this is an absolute mish-mash.
Sadly I was intrigued for about 70-80 pages and pushed through the language idiosyncrasies, I shouldn’t have bothered. One that left me completely flat, needless to say it won’t be featuring on my shortlist.

POSTSCRIPT – The Translator’s Note at the end of the novel, explains De Kerangal’s use of obscure words, she also explains the hidden references in the character’s names or the struggle with French language words having multiple meanings and not as easily translatable into similar English words. Whilst an insight into the struggle of the translator it doesn’t really change my mind as to the struggle I went through to finish this book. For people who have read this book, you may be interested in where I hit the wall, it was once Marthe Carrare the “short woman, around sixty, olive-skinned and round, auburn hair, voluminous breasts and abdomen stuffed inside a tight camel-coloured cardigan, spherical buttocks bobbing in brown wool trousers, and then a pair of rather skinny legs and tiny feet bulging inside flat loafers”, was introduced.

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Submission – Michel Houellebecq (translated by Lorin Stein)

In 1895 Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel “En Route” was published, it is the second novel to feature the character Durtal, and is a thinly veiled autobiographical piece.  As the Dedalus European Classics version on “En Route” explains on the back cover:
En Route continues the story of Durtal, a modern anti-hero; solitary, agonised and alienated. Robbed of religion and plunged into decadence by the pressures of modern life, Durtal discovers a new road to Rome. Art, architecture and music light his way back to God. For Durtal, God’s death is a temporary demise, and by the end of the novel, he is morally mended and spiritually healed.
At the turn of the twentieth century Huysmans earned the hostility of the Catholic Church as a result of this book and it was also condemned for obscenity. As an aside, it was also a work which was requested by Oscar Wilde during his incarceration, one would think earning further fame.
Why am I writing about Joris-Karl Huysmans as an introduction to Michel Houellebecq’s newest novel “Submission”? Besides the fact that the book contains an epigraph from En route, there are numerous parallels to our 2015 publication. Our narrator is a professor whose dissertation “Joris-Karl Huysmans: Out of the Tunnel” and is a world renowned expert in Huysmans work. Houellebecq’s novel contains numerous references to Huysmans novel and the theme of a character “plunged into decadence by the pressures of modern life” and discovering a new road via religion is central to our controversial book.
François, is our middle aged academic first person narrator, and he is alone, failed relationships with students, living alone, not bonding with any of the other university staff, our loner is estranged from his parents and his life is leading nowhere. Through exploring Huysmans in detail our narrator decides that a spiritual path may also lead him out of the wilderness.  However instead of a backdrop of surging Catholicism we are in 2022 and the Muslim Fraternity is all the rage:
The facts were plain: Europe had reached a point of such putrid decomposition that it could no longer save itself, any more than fifth-century Rome could have done. This wave of new immigrants, with their traditional culture – of natural hierarchies, the submission of women and respect for elders – offered a historic opportunity for the moral and familial rearmament of Europe. These immigrants held out the home of a new golden age for the old continent. Some were Christian; but there was no denying that the vast majority were Muslim.
As a background to our narrator’s journey of self-discovery, the French Presidential election for 2022 is fast approaching and the rise of Muhammed Ben Abbes of the Muslim Fraternity is polarising the nation. Ben Abbes is  a political genius, forming political alliances with mainstream parties who have lost their lustre and as a result he sweeps into power.
Our novel then explores the fears of the everyday population as Islamic law comes into force, the education system is changed to only provide Islamic teachings, the women are all veiled, skirts are replaced by pants, polygamy and teenage marriage is encouraged, and François suddenly needs to adapt.
Never one to shirk controversy Houellebecq was taken to court in 2002 for inciting racial hatred and has been criticised as obscene and misogynistic. This latest novel, again courts controversy, simply by addressing the white elephant in the room, the proliferation of Muslims in France. Again there are “vulgar” scenes, with detailed descriptions of our protagonist’s outings with escorts, again there is the questioning of religion, however this isn’t simply sensationalist trash in order to sell books, it is part homage to Huysmans, part mid-life crisis novel, part political debate.
François dates a Jewish girl, who in the lead up to the elections decides to retreat to Israel, the intelligencia are also vilified:
When I went in to teach my class, I finally felt that something might happen, that the political system I’d grown up with, which had been showing cracks for so long, might suddenly explode. I don’t know exactly where the feeling came from. Maybe it was the attitude of my postgrad students: even the most apathetic and apolitical looked tense, anxious. They were obviously searching their smartphones and tablets for any news they could find. Or at any rate, they were more checked out than ever. It may have also been the way the girls in burkas carried themselves. They moved slowly and with new confidence, walking down the very middle of the hallway, three by three, as if they were already in charge.
I was equally struck by my colleagues’ lack of concern. They seemed completely unworried, as if none of this had anything to do with them. It only confirmed what I’d always thought – that, for all their education, university professors can’t even imagine political developments having any effect on their careers: they consider themselves untouchable.

Previously I have reviewed Houellebecq’s “The Map And The Territory” winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2010, where the author himself is vilified, where Houellebecq is murdered. Whilst thyat work was clever, enjoyable and a reflection again on mid-life crisis and the image of ourselves, his latest book delves further into the “threat” of an “imposed” culture. Personally only having a scant knowledge of Huysmans’ works, Houellebecq’s “Submission” has forced me into purchasing “En Route” so the parallel’s between the two books can be explored further. Another work to add to the “to be read” pile, however as a stand alone book, “Submission” explores a range of fears and themes that are currently being avoided by the mainstream and to highlight the rise of Islam, aligning it to the rise of Europe and the domination of Christianity is a fine approach indeed. An enjoyable novel, a very readable book, one that leaves many questions unanswered, a melting pot of cultures.

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Little Jewel – Patrick Modiano (translated by Penny Hueston)

In September last year the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2014 was announced, Patrick Modiano was awarded the Prize “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destines and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”. With a very limited oeuvre translated into English, there was a flurry of activity in October, November as publishers scrambled to get English translations onto the shelves for the latest Nobel Laureate. Personally I avoided any early translated works, thinking speed may have triumphed over quality of production, however I didn’t think it would take me twelve months to read my first Modiano work.
“Little Jewel” opens with our first person narrator, Little Jewel, catching a glimpse of a yellow raincoat, whilst walking to the Metro train station, suddenly memories of her mother are evoked, in actual fact this woman in the yellow raincoat could be her mother, Little Jewel was told she had died whilst travelling in Morocco but there is no way of verifying this, so she decides to follow this woman, who appears so similar to Little Jewel’s memories and photographs, she follows her train journey, off the train and then to a phone-box:
In the phone box, she kept talking. She seemed to engrossed in the conversation that I drew nearer without her noticing me. I even pretended to be waiting for my turn to use the telephone. I thought I might catch a few words that would help me understand better what this woman in the yellow coat and slipper socks had become. But I couldn’t hear a thing through the glass. Perhaps she was calling one of the people in the address book, the only one she hadn’t lost contact with, or who hadn’t died. Often, there’s someone who remains a constant presence in your life, someone you can’t ever shake off, someone who got to know you in the good times but is still there beside you when you’re down and out, still supportive, the last true believer, with the blind faith of a simpleton. A no-hoper like you. A devoted friend. Forever the punching bag. I tried to imagine what this man or woman, at the other end of the line might look like.
This is a haunting novel, with fragments of events, memories slowly coming into focus, tossed together with an imaginary future, a predicted better time. Little Jewel, is a loner, and the “someone who remains a constant presence” in her life is non-existent. Without an education, wandering from small job to small job to survive, living in an old hotel (where she previously spent some time with her mother), we follow Little Jewel through her Paris wanderings, and attempting to glean more information about her now assumed mother.
She meets a man in a bookshop, in the thriller section, at closing time and they agree to meet at a cafe at a later date:
‘What exactly are you looking for in life?’ He seemed apologetic about asking such an abstract and earnest question. He stared at me with his bright eyes. I noticed that they were blue-grey. He olaso had beautiful hands.
‘What am I looking for in life…’ I took a deep breath. I absolutely had to say something. Someone like him, who spoke twenty languages, would not have understood if I said nothing.
‘I’m looking for…a human connection…’
As you turn each page you learn more of Little Jewel’s life, her daily journey into her well of memories, her fears, all of the anecdotes are a small piece in a jigsaw puzzle, slowly revealing a credible loner. At one stage she pays the mysterious woman in the yellow coat’s outstanding debt and the concierge releases a reminder letter about outstanding bills that has been held as security, she decides to deliver it in person :
I placed the envelope on the doormat. Then I scuttled down the stairs. At each landing, I felt lighter, as if I had dodged danger. In the courtyard, I was surprised to be able to breathe again. What a relief to be able to walk on firm ground, the security of the pavement…Just now, in front of that door, it would only have been a matter of a gesture, a step, and I would have been sucked down into the slime.
As the mist slowly rises from our character study, we learn about her childhood without affection, the fragments allow you to start to see a focused picture.
This is a mystical work, a blurry journey into the fears and unstable mind of a young girl who has been abandoned by her own mother, a person who has moulded into an immature adult, with no “human connection”, a girl who is screaming silently to simply be acknowledged to be held. The Nobel Prize press release, although amazingly short, captures the mood of this work, “the art of memory with which he (Modiano) has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies”.
A short book, that can easily be read in a single sitting, and given the mood it creates it is probably advisable to do such. This is another novel in translation that uses elusive memories and nostalgia to reveal an identity. An original voice and a decent introduction to Modiano’s work.

Copy courtesy of Text Publishing.

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Beside The Sea – Véronique Olmi (translated by Adriana Hunter)

As mentioned earlier in the week, this week I am going to review three works from Peirene Press as part of my female reading for “Women In Translation Month”. To date eight of Peirene Press’ eighteen published titles have been written by female writers, and in 2016 two of the three releases are written by women so 50/50 representation here, a great result when you look at some other publishers and their lack of female representation.
Next year they are releasing “Her Father’s Daughter” by French author Marie Sizun (translated by Adriana Hunter) and “The Empress and the Cake” by Austrian writer Linda Stift (translated by Jamie Bulloch). Translator Adriana Hunter translated Peirene Press’ first ever release, the work I look at today, Véronique Olmi’s “Beside The Sea”.
Don’t let the title fool you into thinking this is a nice seaside story, one of “sea change” tales of endless blue skies, soft sands, rolling waves, romance and finding one’s self in a new open environment. There are family seaside snacks, local fairs, sand castles and waves but not as you’d expect. For starters there is no sunshine; the weather is grim from the start, with incessant rain:
The next day was really bad luck, it was raining again. Apart from the dim morning light it was hard not getting day and night confused in that town. There wasn’t much room for the light, no one had arranged for it, you could tell that right away. I don’t know what the time was when I woke, but the kids were already up, there were by the window having a raindrop race: they each chose one at the top of the pane and the first to reach the bottom was the winner.
I wondered what they could see through the window, what the rain was hiding.
Our novella starts with a night-time bus trip, the last bus out of town, towards the sea, for our first person narrator and her two children Stan and Kevin. We know right from the start that this is their first, and last, ever trip, even including holidays.
A bleak scene slowly builds to be even bleaker as everything deteriorates, even the weather, and as a reader we learn more and more about our narrator, the evidence of a broken single mother starts to become compelling as we learn of simple things, like the children having to carry the bags “because ever since I broke my collar bone I’ve had trouble carrying stuff.”
As the dark undertones build your mind starts racing towards a horrendous conclusion, a predetermined reason why this will be the last ever trip by this family. Our narrator’s world is thoroughly BLACK, it is dark, it is doomed, every waking hour is a struggle, and how on earth can you let your own children loose into a place as desolate as her own world? When the only shining light in your day is your kids, how can you let them grow in a place that’s barren of warmth, love, affection?
That’s how I should have spent the rest of my days, in bed with my kids, we could have watched the world the way you watch telly: from a distance, without getting dirty, holding on to the remote, we’d have switched the world off as soon as it fucked up.
Our book captures the darkness of depression, the mark of “black-dog” the depths of despair for sufferers and does it in such a sympathetic tone, that as a reader you want to reach out and rescue this woman. The treatment meted out by strangers, the clinging to hope by the innocent children, forced to grow up too soon, the poverty and attempts at trying to instil some dignity all build and build until you hope the pre determined conclusion is not a reality. “Page turner” that’s what a short Amazon blurb should read!
It’s not often you come across sad works, depressing books that are at the same time engaging , the ones that come to mind generally include substance abuse as well for example “Even The Dogs” by Jon McGregor, but here we have a thoroughly wretched story that you can’t avoid reading.
If you want a portrait of a single mother suffering depression look no further, this is the one character study you should pick up, I promise you’ll be impacted.
As an aside, Peirene Press donate 50 pence from the cover price of £8.99 to the Maya Centre, an organisation who provides long term counselling and psychological support to some of the most vulnerable women in the British community, victims of domestic violence, childhood abuse, even war and conflict. They provide a service for women who do not have access to other options, free of charge. So even purchasing this book helps, in a small way, the realities that the work addresses.

Next up in my week of Peirene Press reviews, something completely different, the Finnish “Herra Darwinin puutarhuri” (‘Mr Darwin’s Gardener” by Kristina Carlson). 

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