“He that loves reading has everything within his reach.” (William Godwin)

Let’s ignore the sexism of the title quote and focus on the sentiment (especially as Godwin was married to Mary Wollstonecraft who I like to think told him off for any gender assumptions) 🙂  I was prompted to think along these lines a few weeks ago when I watched the moving and joyous BBC4 documentary B is for Book.

I don’t generally write about children’s or YA fiction, but I felt quite inspired by the documentary showing the jubilant discovery and magic of the written word.  My Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century Reading Challenge has some kids books on it, so this week I’m channelling my inner child (not that difficult, tbh)

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Firstly, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943), ranked number 4 on Le Monde’s list; it is the most translated French book and the fourth most translated book worldwide. And how is this for a CV: Wiki describes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  as “writer, poet, aristocrat, journalist, and pioneering aviator”. I feel so inadequate.

The Little Prince is narrated by an aviator who crashes in the desert, where he meets a visiting alien prince. The prince is from a planet where he lives alone, and which is so small that the sun is always setting:

“For as everyone knows, when it is noon in the United States the sun is setting over France. If you could get to France in a twinkling, you could watch the sunset right now. Unfortunately France is rather too far away. But on your tiny planet, little prince, you only had to move your chair a few steps. You could watch night fall whenever you liked.

‘One day,’ you said, ‘I watched the sunset forty-three times!’

And a little later you added:

‘You know, when one is that sad, one can get to love the sunset.’

‘Were you that sad, then, on the day of forty-three sunsets?’

But the prince made no answer.”

This melancholy tinge continues throughout the tale. The prince is a sad character and remains mysterious to the aviator.  It is a children’s book though, and has some lovely touches to stir the imagination:

“On the morning of his departure he set his planet in good order. He carefully swept out his active volcanoes. He had two active volcanoes – which were very useful for heating up breakfast in the morning.”

The prince describes his travels, in which he has met six adults, also living alone on isolated tiny planets: a king (who rules over no-one), a vain man, an alcoholic, a businessman (who wants to own the stars), a lamplighter (who constantly lights a lamp for no purpose) and a cartographer (who has never been anywhere). Thus the story is a critique of adults placing meaning in acquisition and status rather than in emotional connection and adventure. The aviator is an adult himself but does not hold adults in high regard:

“Grownups love figures. When you describe a new friend to them, they never ask about important things. They never say: ‘What’s his voice like? What are his favourite games? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much does his father earn?’ Only then do they feel he know him.”

The Little Prince is a sweet, sad tale, one which will appeal to children for the  adventure and imaginative leaps, but also has a great deal to offer adults, as a fable regarding a search for meaning in the world.

“You can only see things clearly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

It is also illustrated with gorgeous watercolours by the author (yet another string to his bow):

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Secondly, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf (1906–1907), number 68 on Le Monde’s list. This classic of Swedish literature has been immortalised on stamps, on currency, and Lagerlöf won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Nils is a self-centred, lazy, cruel ungrateful boy. Bunking off church to stay at home, he gets on the wrong side of an elf. Everyone knows you don’t mess with elves, Nils.  Of course the elf wreaks his revenge:

“For in the glass he saw plainly a little, little creature who was dressed in a hood and leather breeches.

“Why, that one is dressed exactly like me!” said the boy, clasping his hands in astonishment. And then he saw that the thing in the mirror did the same thing. Thereupon he began to pull his hair and pinch his arms and swing round; and instantly he did the same thing after him; he, who was seen in the mirror.

The boy ran around the glass several times, to see if there wasn’t a little man hidden behind it, but he found no one there, and then he began to shake with terror. For now he understood that the elf had bewitched him, and that the creature whose image he saw in the glass was – himself.”

Nils’ family goose, who has the excellent appellation of Morten Goosey-Gander, decides to follow a flock of wild geese on their migration to Lapland and Nils tags along, riding on Goosey-Gander’s back. As an elf, Nils finds he can understand animals’ speech, and learns to be kind rather than torture them.

“The wild geese challenged the white goosey-gander to take part in all kinds of sports. They had swimming races, running races, and flying races with him. The big tame one did his level best to hold his own, but the clever wild geese beat him every time. All the while, the boy sat on the goosey-gander’s back and encouraged him, and he had as much fun as the rest.”

Lagerlöf was commissioned to write this by the National Teachers Association, so in the course of reading about Nils’ journey, you learn about wildlife and Swedish geography: win/win.

“Just as the first spring showers pattered against the ground, there arose such shouts of joy from all the small birds in groves and pastures that the whole air rang with them, and the boy leaped high where he sat. ‘Now we’ll have rain. Rain gives us spring; spring gives us flowers and green leaves; green leaves and flowers give us worms and insects; worms and insects give us food; and plentiful, and good food is the best thing there is,’ sang the birds.”

He didn’t know exactly where on earth he was: if he was in Skåne, in Småland, or in Blekinge. But just before reaching the swamp, he had glimpsed a large village, and thither he directed his steps. Nor was it long before he discovered a road. Soon he was in the village street, which was long, and had trees on both sides, and was bordered with garden after garden. The boy had come to one of the big cathedral towns, which are so common on the uplands, but can hardly be seen at all down in the plain.”

Nils’ wonderful adventures also include seeing off his arch-nemesis Smirre Fox and learning to think of others rather than being such a deeply unpleasant person.  For a book with such a didactic purpose, it really doesn’t read as instructive and moralistic. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils is written with a real lightness of touch and is great fun.

To end, a taster of my favourite book from when I was a child:

The Tendrils of the Vine – Colette (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #59)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

When I first started this challenge, I thought it would never be complete as I have commitment issues Wikipedia told me that Tendrils of the Vine had never been translated.  Yesterday in my favourite charity bookshop (handily located across the road from my flat, so I don’t have to stagger far with my heavy loads/nightmarishly located across the road from my flat – if you had a problem with drug addiction you wouldn’t live opposite a crack den) I picked up a huge volume of The Collected Stories of Colette for £3.50, and was very excited to see Tendrils of the Vine translated within it (by Herma Briffault – and I see Wiki no longer makes its fallacious claim).

In fact , Tendrils of the Vine, proclaimed A Fable in the title, is only 1000 words long and I may have been able to struggle through with my appalling French.  The difficulty is, being only 1000 words long, I really can’t say too much about it without spoilers, so this will be an uncharacteristically short post from me 🙂

The story begins in typical fable fashion, describing how the nightingale got his song:

“While he slept, the vine’s gimlet feelers – those imperious and clinging tendrils whose sharp taste, like that of fresh sorrel, acts a stimulant and slakes the thirst, began to grow  so thickly during the night that the bird woke up to find himself bound fast, his feet hobbled in strong withes, his wings powerless…”

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The nightingale escapes, and sings relentlessly to keep himself awake through the Spring,  thereby avoiding the terrors of the vine.  I can’t say much more, except Colette then expands this into a truly creepy and oppressive tale. The fact that she does this in 1000 words within a pastoral fabulistic setting makes it like a short, sharp punch to the sternum. What a writer – I’m looking forward to reading the rest of my newly-acquired tome.

Colette, who when she wasn't writing, sat around being awesome

Colette, who when she wasn’t writing, sat around being awesome

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #12)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

I have to start a post about a work by Samuel Beckett with a picture of the author, as he has the most incredible face:

Samuel Beckett 1976

(Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/jun/09/samuel-beckett-manuscript-first-novel-on-display )

Who wouldn’t want to read a work written by that face?  Well, as it turns out, a lot of people.  I remember years ago listening to radio phone in programme that was nothing to do with Waiting for Godot, yet somehow it came into the conversation, and it seemed that every listener, and the DJ,  had been tortured with the text by their English teachers.  They all hated it.  And yet Le Monde’s readers have voted it the 12th greatest book of the century. It’s also remained a perennial favourite on the stage, a recent production with real-life friends Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic:

I think Godot is just one of those plays that divides people.  It is baffling, incomprehensible, hugely funny and relentlessly serious, tragic, absurd and profound.  It features two rough sleepers, Vladimir and Estragon.  The stage is almost bare, the only set being a tree and a mound.  This is the only scene in both acts.  As the characters wait for Godot, they have conversations that are oblique, filled with non-sequiturs, verge on nonsense, and yet address issues about existence, human nature, the meaning of it all.  Famously, very little happens, Godot never arrives. Vivian Mercier, theatre critic for the Irish Times in the 1950s, summed it up: “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” This is theatre at its most basic and its most complex, its most theatrical and its determinedly least dramatic.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

As before.

Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon.) So there you are again.

ESTRAGON: Am I?

VLADIMIR: I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.

ESTRAGON: Me too.

I think this is why it’s so beloved of English teachers and potentially so despised by students.  It can simultaneously seem to contain everything, and nothing.  Try to pin it down and it will slip away from you.  This is why there are so many interpretations as to its meaning.  When I discussed Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (#53) I suggested that if you liked it, you might like Godot.  There are many similarities, mainly the absurdist quality, but whereas Six Characters was theatre about theatre, Godot is how theatre as a visual medium can represent the internal, the rarely articulated:

ESTRAGON: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!

VLADIMIR: From a bough? (They go towards the tree.) I wouldn’t trust it.

ESTRAGON: We can always try.

VLADIMIR: Go ahead.

ESTRAGON: After you.

VLADIMIR: No no, you first.

ESTRAGON: Why me?

VLADIMIR: You’re lighter than I am.

ESTRAGON: Just so!

VLADIMIR: I don’t understand.

ESTRAGON: Use your intelligence, can’t you?

Vladimir uses his intelligence.

VLADIMIR: (finally). I remain in the dark.

And this is where the audience remains, literally and figuratively.  If you like your plays plot-driven and tied up neatly at the end, avoid this play at all costs. But if you want to be made to think about questions to which there are no easy answers, and entertained along the way, you might find Waiting for Godot not as torturous as generations of schoolkids have come to believe.

Sadly, Rik Mayall died this week, at the age of 56.  In 1991 he and comedy partner Ade Edmonson took on the roles of Vladimir and Estragon:

Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #41)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan is a short novel (108 pages in my edition, the Penguin translation by Irene Ash), published in 1954 when the author was 18.  Yes, 18.  Apparently she failed to pass her exams for the Sorbonne and so decided to write a novel instead. As you do. And it’s a modern classic. I’m pretty sure I hate this woman.  Rest assured it’s jealousy plain and simple, not xenophobia – there’s a lot of nonsense talked about British attitudes to our neighbours across Le Manche, but despite the fact that I would be at least 5kg lighter if France wasn’t there (je t’aime fromage bleu)I for one am a true Francophile.  They are a great nation that has provided the world with at least two things guaranteed to cause uncontrollable dribbling in this blogger:

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Almond croissants (or croissants aux amandes if you will) (Image from www.belleepooque.co.uk)

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Vincent Cassel (Image from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/277745501994347016/)

To those of you concerned that I am objectifying Mr Cassel, I would just like to reassure you that I’m objectifying the croissant so much more, believe me.

Now, where was I?  Oh yes, the extraordinary talent of Francoise Sagan.  While the protagonist is a precocious 17 year old, Cecile, (so far, so thinly disguised autobiography) the psychological insights into the characters are sophisticated and you don’t feel like you’re reading someone’s juvenilia.  Cecile is holidaying in the south of France with her father, an entirely vacuous widower whose temperament she shares:

“I soon noticed that he lived with a woman.  It took me rather longer to realise that it was a different one every six months.  But gradually his charm, my new easy life, and my own disposition led me to accept it.  He was a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and attractive to women.  It was easy to love him, for he was kind, generous, gay, and full of affection for me.  I cannot imagine a better or more amusing friend.”

And that is just the problem – he is a friend, not a parent.  He treats Cecile as a co-conspirator in life, buying her inappropriate dresses and taking her to casinos, talking to her as an equal:

 “He refused categorically all notions of fidelity and serious commitments.  He explained that they were arbitrary and sterile…I knew in his case they did not exclude either tenderness or devotion; feelings which came all the more easily to him since he was determined they should be transient…I was not at the age where fidelity was attractive.  I knew very little about love.”

Into this self-serving world comes Anne, a friend of Cecile’s dead mother.  She is cool and controlled:

“I think she rather despised us for our love of diversion and frivolity, as she despised all extremes.”

Yet, despite their differences, Cecile admires Anne and her father decides to marry this woman so different from himself.   The decision does not sit well with Cecile:

 “I thought of the lunch I had endured with clenched teeth, tortured by a feeling of resentment for which I despised and ridiculed myself.  Yes, it was for this I reproached Anne: she prevented me from liking myself.  I, who was so naturally meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced into a world of self-criticism and guilty conscience, where, unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost.”

I don’t want to seem ageist, but clearly I am, as this self-ironising tone was not what I expected from such a young author.  Cecile is spoilt and self-focused, and decides to split up her father and Anne so that her life can continue how she wants it to.  She constantly vacillates, changing her mind and feelings with each moment, but her machinations regarding Anne move inexorably forward. The consequences are dramatic and will force Cecile to leave her childhood behind forever:

“Then gradually I begin to think of something else. But I do not like to take refuge in forgetfulness and frivolity instead of facing my memories and fighting them.”

Bonjour Tristesse is a melancholic novel (the title means Hello Sadness) about the prices we pay for the things we think we want.  Francoise Sagan creates a memorable protagonist in Cecile and an affecting story within remarkably few words.

To end, the poster of the film adaptation made just four years after publication:

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(Image from: http://docublogger.typepad.com/seberg/page/2/ )

Six Characters in Search of an Author – Luigi Pirandello (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #53)

This is the first in a series of occasional posts where I’ll be looking at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing. I set myself the challenge in January and I’m only beginning to blog about it now; this does not bode well for my completing this challenge before I see in a century of my own…

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(Image from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/old-lady-reading-83754)

Six Characters in Search of an Author is a play by Luigi Pirandello, originally written in Italian and performed in 1921 (my copy translated by Frederick May, 1954).  It’s a play about itself, about the theatre, and although philosophical and reflective, it’s also very silly.

“Life is full of things that are infinitely absurd, things that, for all their impudent absurdity, have no need to masquerade as truth, because they are true”

“What the devil are you talking about?”

A producer is putting on a play with a group of actors, who are only identified by their roles: Leading Lady/Leading Man/Ingénue and so on.  As we are presented with what appears to be a rehearsal, there is a sense of the play being simultaneously constructed and deconstructed in front of us.  The ideas are complex and it’s definitely not a play to approach when you’re tired and/or in need of escapism, but Pirandello undercuts the potentially pretentious self-reflexive philosophising with a good dose of humour, having the Producer complain early on:

“We’re reduced to putting on plays by Pirandello? And if you understand his plays…you’re a better man than I am! He deliberately goes out of his way to annoy people, so that by the time the play’s through everybody’s fed up…actors, critics, audience, everybody!”

Well, you can’t say he didn’t warn us.  The rehearsal of the play by Pirandello is interrupted by the arrival of six characters – Father, Mother, Step-daughter, Son, Boy and Little Girl.  They want the Producer to help them, as “the author who created us as living beings, either couldn’t or wouldn’t put us materially into the world of art.” They start to tell their story while the actors look on, and the stage directions tell us: “The CHARACTERS should not, in fact, appear as phantasms, but as created realities, unchangeable creations of the imagination and, therefore, more real and more consistent than the ever-changing naturalness of the ACTORS.” As the actors and characters interact (and bitch at each other and argue about representation) the play presents complex philosophical questions about truth, reality and identity, and whether any of us really has any idea what on earth is going on:

“Each one of us has a whole world of things inside him… and each one of us has his own particular world. How can we understand each other if into the words I speak I put the sense and value of things as I understand them within myself… while at the same time whoever is listening to them inevitably assumes them to have  the sense and value that they have for him…. We think we understand each other… but we never really do understand!”

In this way, Pirandello admirably manages to interrogate the relationship of theatre to representation, reality to illusion, art to life.  There are lots of meta-moments (the whole play is really one big metatheatrical experience); my favourites were where he drew attention to the play’s own limitations, studiously ignoring the Producer’s directive that “When you’re here you have to respect the conventions of the theatre!” and a great moment where the Son walks off, refusing to act because “I’m a dramatically unrealised character”.

Six Characters in Search of an Author is a hugely complex work and at the same time a short, humorous play.  I really enjoyed it, but I also think I could re-read it and each time think that I understood nothing from my previous readings.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if someone entirely hated it, and they would not be alone: apparently the playwright had to leave the premiere performance through a side-exit to avoid the throng of haters.  If you’re a writer, actor, theatre-lover or philosophy enthusiast, you’ll find a lot to interest you in Six Characters in Search of an Author.  If you like Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, then this play could be for you.

Phew!  After all that deep reflection on the nature of theatre and our existence, I think it must be time for shark cat on a Roomba:

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens/Brown paper packages tied up with strings/These are a few of my favourite things” (Maria Rainer/Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music)

I write to you from within a fog of lemsip and cough syrup.  Yes, this week I’ve had a grotty cold.  Nothing major by any means, but just enough to make me feel grim and make the days a little greyer.  So I thought for this post I’d cheer myself up and be totally self-indulgent, by choosing two books that are thematically linked only in the fact that they are two of my favourites.

Firstly, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury, 2002).  This was McGregor’s first novel, longlisted for the Booker, and written when he was only twenty-six.  Choking down my jealousy, I am able to tell you that the accolades are highly deserved.  I think this is such a beautifully written, confident debut.  It tells the story of an ordinary street and its ordinary inhabitants, over the course of a day.

“The short girl with the painted toenails, next door, she says oh but did you see that guy on the balcony, he was nice, no he was special and she savours the word like a strawberry, you know she says, the one on the balcony, the one who was speeding and kept leaning right over, and they all know exactly who she means, he’s in the same place most weeks, pounding out the rhythm like a panelbeater, fists crashing down into the air, sweat splashing from his polished head.”

“In his kitchen, the old man measures out the tea-leaves, drops them into the pot, fills it with boiling water.  He sets out a tray, two cups, two saucers, a small jug of milk, a small pot of sugar, two teaspoons.  He breathes heavily as his hands struggle up to the high cupboards, fluttering like the wings of a caged bird.”

“She opens her front door, just a little, just enough, and she hops down her front steps, the young girl from number nineteen, glad to be out of the house and away from the noise of her brothers.  The television was boring and strange anyway, it was all people talking and she didn’t understand.  She taps her feet on the pavement, listening to the sound her shiny black shoes make against the stone…”

I hope these three examples give a good idea of why I love this novel so much.  McGregor is so skilled at finding the poetry in ordinary lives and how the self is expressed through seemingly innocuous actions.  Gradually the inhabitants of the street emerge as fully realised characters from the details of this one day.  This narrative is intertwined with a first person narrative, and you begin to realise that something significant, and tragic, took place on this ordinary day.  If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is a novel of startling sensitivity and lyricism.

If this has whetted your appetite for McGregor’s novels, I discuss his second novel, So Many Ways to Begin here.

Secondly, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov trans. George Bird (1996, English translation 2001, Harvill Press).  How to describe this novel?  It’s frankly a bit bonkers and one of those I think I understand, but maybe it’s about something else entirely.  It’s a great read though.  It tells the story of Viktor, an aspiring writer who gets a job writing obituaries, and his pet penguin Misha, who he took on when Kiev zoo gave all its animals away: “he had been feeling lonely. But Misha brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complimentary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than amity.”

The character of this depressed penguin is as vividly realised as any of the human characters, and you really start to feel for this bird who symbolises the existential crisis of his owner and others caught up in a post-Soviet world that they do not understand: “Sleeping lightly that night, Viktor heard an insomniac Misha roaming the flat, leaving doors open, occasionally stopping and heaving a deep sigh, like an old man weary of both life and himself.”

The fragile relationship between Viktor and Misha is tested to its limit by a series of surreal events.  Viktor’s friend Misha-Non-Penguin leaves his daughter Sonya with Viktor, and so he drifts into a family unit with this self-contained little girl and her nanny.  But meanwhile, someone is using his obituaries as a hit-list, and he is being followed by a mysterious stranger known only as the fat man…

“The Chief considered him through narrowed eyes.

“Your interest lies in not asking questions,” he said quietly.  But bear in mind this: the minute you’re told what the point of your work is, you’re dead. […] He smiled a sad smile.  “Still, I do, in fact, wish you well.  Believe me.””

Death and the Penguin is a surreal adventure story, a post-Soviet satire, an examination of the individual spirit up against forces that seek to control.  It’s funny and it’s sad, it has something to say, and it says it in a truly unique and engaging way.

Here are the novels with another of my favourite things, my psychotic cat (he looks calm in this photo, but trust me, he is hell-bent on world domination):

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