Showing posts with label French literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label French literature. Show all posts

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Maybe not the nice novel I need

I don't often read novels, and I'm not really looking for one at the present moment. Still, I thought it might be worthwhile glancing at a description of the novel that has just won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in Paris. Well, the author is Leïla Slimani. The theme of her novel Chanson douce [Sweet Song] sounds about as charming and soothing as a kick in the balls from a guy wearing football boots. She deals with the assassination of two children by their nurse. I'm sure I should read it... but I fear I won't. There's so much exciting news on the Internet and television about killings of all kinds.

Now kids, if you'll calm down, put your pyjamas on, and jump into bed, I'll read you a few pages of a nice story about children. And I'll give you a handful of cyanide lollies.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Ronsard in bloom

I wrote about this rose bush a year ago [display].

Its resurrection is amazing.

Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,

Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,

Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant :

« Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle ! »

Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,

Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,

Qui au bruit de Ronsard ne s’aille réveillant,

Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.

Je serai sous la terre, et, fantôme sans os,

Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos ;

Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.

Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :

Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.
Pierre de Ronsard, Sonnets pour Hélène, 1587

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Voltaire never said anything like this

Voltaire [1694-1778] said many marvelous things. But, contrary to what many English-speakers imagine, Voltaire never, in any circumstances, wrote or pronounced words of the following kind:
I wholly disapprove of what you say,
and will defend to the death your right to say it.
This sentence was imagined by the English scholar S G Tallentyre (whose real name was Evelyn Beatrice Hall) in her book entitled The Friends of Voltaire (1906), and later in another book, Voltaire in His Letters (1919). She was merely paraphrasing the attitude of Voltaire in the context of a certain affair, but her publisher erroneously placed the sentence in inverted commas, giving readers the mistaken impression that they are Voltaire's actual words.

I hope that my readers might be able to use this information, one of these days, to win some kind of trivia quiz, or to impress people at a dinner evening. [That last sentence is mine, not Voltaire's.]

Monday, January 4, 2010

Death of a writer

Half a century ago, on 4 January 1960, much of France was covered in snow... like today. A celebrated French writer, Albert Camus, was returning to Paris in a Facel Véga sports car driven by his editor, Michel Gallimard. On the rear seat of Gallimard's powerful automobile, his wife Janine and her daughter Anne were accompanied by their Skye terrier. They had left Lourmarin in Provence on the previous morning and stayed overnight in a small inn called the Chapon Fin at Thoissey, in the valley of the Saône, to the north of Villefranche. After Sens, the road was generally straight, and bordered by plane trees... like today, except that the road was narrower at that time, and there were trees on both sides.

Heading westward towards Fontainebleau on a damp road at about 150 km/hour, Michel Gallimard suddenly lost control of his automobile at a place called Petit-Villeblevin. It zigzagged, left the road and wrapped itself around a plane tree. Camus died instantly, and Michel Gallimard succumbed to his wounds six days later. The two women survived miraculously, but their dog Floc had disappeared.

The following three images of the wreckage have been extracted from a silent news film [display]:

At that time, I was a 19-year-old computer programmer with IBM in Sydney. I had read English translations of three or four books by Camus, including The Myth of Sisyphus (which I still have with me at Gamone), and I was totally under the charm of this writer... whom I imagined, fuzzily, as an existentialiste, like Jean-Paul Sartre. It's not an exaggeration to say that one of the principal motivations for my initial pilgrimage to France in 1962 was the lure of the spirit of Albert Camus.

Since then, of course, I have been able to carry on reading Camus in his native language... which is essential in the case of such an author.

In the carcass of the sports car, a black briefcase held the unfinished manuscript of Le premier homme, an autobiographical text that was not edited and published posthumously until 1994.

In France, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting up by chance, in quite separate circumstances, with two of the closest friends of Albert Camus, both of whom were illustrious authors, now deceased: Louis Guilloux (a friend of Christine in her home town of St-Brieuc in Brittany) and Emmanuel Roblès (one of whose novels was published by Seuil at the same time as my book about artificial intelligence). Meanwhile, Camus lies buried in a simple grave at Lourmarin.

If Nicolas Sarkozy has his way, the remains of the writer will soon be transferred to the Panthéon in Paris... which is surely one of the silliest ideas that the president has ever imagined.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Childhood challenges

I watch French TV regularly, since I often find it entertaining and enriching, indeed excellent. For me, the ultimate luxury is the possibility of being advised to watch a particular program through a positive review written by my daughter Emmanuelle, published in her Télérama weekly. Lately, an additional luxury has appeared: the thrill of watching the one-hour travel documentaries signed by my son François, moving around in exotic foreign environments on his moped. (He has just returned from Vietnam, and his forthcoming TV moped mission will be in Australia.)

Last night, I watched a splendid one-hour documentary about the 75-year-old French comedian Guy Bedos.

Inventing a play on words for this funny man whose personality and disposition are profoundly serious, Emmanuelle described Bedos as "the gayest of French melancomics". A childhood memory, at the age of two or three, consisted of seeing his mother striking his handicapped father with a hammer. On the surface, Guy might be describing a witch, rather than his physically-attractive and forceful mother... but there is no trace of hatred in his calm words, merely a constant and immense despondency. "I try not to shame the young man, indeed the child, that I once was. That's one of my golden rules: Never destroy that child that was once inside me." His method, as a stand-up comic, consists of creating humor out of sad stuff. Often, his words are violent, but he explains: "I only attack powerful individuals such as the pope, the president of the republic, or members of government who happen to be important, unpleasant and dangerous."

Yesterday, by chance, I also encountered the wonderful words of another Frenchman who evokes his childhood. I'm referring to a small autobiographical book by 69-year-old JMG Le Clézio (Nobel prize for literature in 2008), who describes his father. Just as Bedos was faced with a wall of misunderstanding on his mother's side, Le Clézio discovered comparable obstacles on the side of his father, who had developed a detestable armor-plated character through toiling for decades as a medical doctor in French colonial Africa.

Guy Bedos is a pure specimen of the Mediterranean, brought up in Algeria, and settled now in Corsica. As for JMG Le Clézio, he's often presented as a native of Nice, but his ancestral soul is pure Breton. Few observers would be tempted to evoke these two French celebrities (what a silly word!) in the same breath, as I am doing now, for there doesn't seem to be much in common between them. But what struck me yesterday, when I was confronted by both of them in the space of a few hours, was the way in which they appear to have exploited their artistry (another silly portmanteau term), not so much to seduce an audience, but rather to handle vast purely personal challenges that arose during their childhood. This corresponds to my own belief that many writers often work primarily, if not exclusively, for themselves.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Death of a great author

The great French writer Maurice Druon, senior member of the Académie Française, died yesterday at the age of 90. With his uncle, the novelist Joseph Kessel, Druon wrote the words of the Chant of the Partisans, with music by Anna Marly, which was rapidly adopted as the hymn of the French Résistance. It contains the memorable stanza:

Comrade, if you're killed,
Another comrade will emerge from the shadows to take your place.

I first heard this chant in extraordinary circumstances, on 19 December 1964, when the ashes of the Résistance hero Jean Moulin were transferred to the Panthéon. On that day, while catching sight of the president Charles De Gaulle, I listened to a moving speech by the minister of Culture André Malraux that would go down in literary history as one of the most celebrated French orations of the 20th century. Mysteriously, towards the end of Malraux's speech, the strains of the great Résistance hymn emerged—softly at first, then louder and louder—from a massed choir in front of the Panthéon.

Much later, Druon wrote a vast series of historical novels entitled Les Rois Maudits [The Accursed Kings] describing the troubled lives of French monarchs from Philip the Fair to John II. These stories were adapted to form a fabulous TV series, a few years ago, which I've already watched enthusiastically on two separate occasions.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Exceptional individuals

A few days ago, in my article entitled Dark excursion [display], I referred to tragic events on the Vercors plateau in July 1944, culminating in a massacre at Vassieux. I might have pointed out that I went on that excursion for practical reasons: namely, that I've been working on a movie script concerning the martyrs of the Vercors, and that I needed to examine various aspects of the Vassieux environment.

Although my movie project will be essentially a fictional thing, there are constant allusions to real people from that terrible epoch. Consequently, I'm researching various local heroes of the Résistance. Among them, Pierre Dalloz was an architect and mountaineering enthusiast. He's the individual who first imagined that the vast Vercors mountain range might be transformed into a natural fortress and a haven for maquisards. The basic idea of his so-called Plan Montagnards was that armed French fighters stationed in concealed camps on the seemingly invulnerable Vercors plateau could be brought into action after an Allied invasion of Provence (likely to take place shortly after the Normandy landings) with a view to encircling all the Nazis in the south of France. The project of Dalloz was brought to the attention of "Max", which was pseudonym of Jean Moulin, the courageous French prefect who had been placed by Charles de Gaulle at the head of the Résistance movement inside France. And "Max" was in total agreement with the Plan Montagnards.

Yesterday afternoon, I had the privilege of meeting up with Guillaume Dalloz, Pierre's only son (about my age)... who authorized me to take photos in the house where the Plan Montagnards was conceived by his father. [It also goes without saying—but I'll say it nevertheless—that information and images in the present blog article are being presented with the explicit assent of Guillaume Dalloz... who even invited me spontaneously to carry out future filming, if need be, at their estate.]

After I told him about my movie project, Guillaume spoke to me at length about two exceptional individuals in his father's entourage.

The writer Jean Prévost, who visited Grenoble regularly because of his ongoing research concerning the great novelist Stendhal, had become one of the closest friends of Pierre Dalloz. When the resistance movements swung into action in the Vercors, Prévost set aside his literary research and became a combatant. On 1 August 1944, as Jean Prévost was strolling down from the Vercors towards the Dalloz estate in Sassenage, he was mortally wounded by a Nazi sniper.

No doubt the closest family friend of Pierre Dalloz was the great aviator and writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry.

On the eve of his mysterious disappearance in the Mediterranean on 31 July 1944, Saint-Exupéry sent his final letter to Pierre Dalloz. Here is my translation of the final paragraph of this moving document:

Here I'm far removed from the swamps of hatred [reference to the Allied headquarters in Algiers], but in spite of the kindness of the squadron, it remains somewhat a place of human misery. There's never anybody with whom I can talk. It's already quite something to have people with whom I can live. But what spiritual solitude!

If I'm shot down, I'll regret absolutely nothing. The future termites' mound horrifies me. And I hate their robot-like virtue. As for me, I was made to be a gardener.

Wow, what a promising gardener: the man who wrote The Little Prince. It's weird to observe that the two great friends of Pierre Dalloz—Saint Exupéry and Prévost—were killed within a span of 24 hours.

Apparently Saint-Exupéry was an admirer of the wife of Pierre Dalloz: the painter Henriette Gröll. Guillaume Dalloz—who has published a book describing his mother's works of art—showed me a painting of a Camargues bull that Saint-Exupéry bought in a market and offered to Henriette Gröll while they were visiting Aigues-Mortes.

Sipping whiskey with Guillaume Dalloz in his magnificent house, and enchanted by trivial anecdotes of this kind, I felt light years away from the horrors of the events of 1944 in the Vercors. In fact, the writers and artists of the generation of Pierre Dalloz had fought, alongside the rural folk of the Vercors, to preserve a splendid lifestyle of traditions, culture and adventure that the Nazis were intent upon destroying. It might be said that the barbarians actually succeeded in devastating this generation, to a large extent, through the elimination of exceptional individuals such as Jean Prévost, Antoine de Saint Exupéry and countless courageous maquisards of the Vercors. But their sacrifice has made this corner of the world a wiser, more profound and sacred place.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Rimbaud, adolescent journalist

WARNING: In a comment attached to this post, my friend Corina has pointed out that the subject of the present article is possibly a literary fraud, perpetrated by a self-declared hoaxer. So, maybe I was naive in believing immediately what I read on the Internet. If so, mea culpa!

Literary historians were aware that the French poet Arthur Rimbaud [1854-1891] had thought of working as a journalist when he was an adolescent, but nobody had ever unearthed any specimens of such activity. This changed recently with the discovery of a short article signed Jean Baudry [a nom de plume employed by Rimbaud] in an ephemeral newspaper dated November 1870.

The article—a kind of mini prose poem—evokes a dream of France's enemy: the Prussian chief Bismarck.

Insofar as it's rare to come upon an unpublished text by a celebrated 19th-century author, I seize with joy this exceptional opportunity of translating Rimbaud's article into English.

Bismarck’s dream


It is nightfall. Beneath his tent, full of silence and reverie, Bismark is meditating, a finger on the map of France. A blue wisp escapes from his pipe.

Bismark is meditating. His tiny bent index finger traces a path on the fine paper, from the Rhine to the Moselle, and from there to the Seine. His finger nail scratches the paper imperceptibly around Strasbourg. He steers clear.

At Sarrebruck, Wissembourg, Woerth and Sedan, he trembles, along with his small hooked finger. He caresses Nancy, lacerates Bitche and Phalsbourg, obliterates Metz and draws short dashes along the frontier. Then he stops.

In triumph, Bismark has stamped his index finger upon Alsace and Lorraine! Ah, beneath his yellowy skull, what miserly joy! What delicious clouds of smoke spread out from his happy pipe! Bismark is meditating. Hey! A big black dot seems to halt his nervous index finger. It is Paris.

So, the nasty little finger nail scratches. It scratches the paper with rage, from one side to the other, then it halts. The finger remains there, half hooked and frozen.

Paris! Paris! Then the fellow has dreamed so much, without closing an eyelid, that somnolence overcomes him. His forehead leans towards the paper. The smoldering rage of his pipe, fallen from his lips, drops geometrically upon that nasty black dot...

Hi, povero*! Detached from his paltry head, his nose—the nose of Sir Otto de Bismarck—fell into the burning mass. Hi, povero! Va povero! Into the incandescent furnace of the pipe. Hi, povero! His index finger was posed upon Paris! His glorious dream was ended!

The nose of the aging first diplomat had been so splendid, so spiritual and so happy! Hide it, hide that nose! Well, my dear friend, when you return to the palace to partake of the royal sauerkraut...

[a couple of missing lines]

There you go! You shouldn’t have succumbed to dreaminess!

Jean Baudry

Italian: Hey, poor fellow! Maybe an evocation of Garibaldi.