Saturday, November 9, 2019

Il donnait des baffes à la bonne

  « C'est exactement, l'histoire du chimpanzé de ma mère. Quand elle l'a acheté, il était maigre, il puait la misère, mais je n 'ai jamais vu un singe aussi affectueux. On lui a donné des noix de coco, on l'a gavé de bananes, il est devenu fort comme un Turc, il donnait des baffes à la bonne. Il a fallu appeler les pompiers... »

Topaz / Marcel Pagnol

Monday, October 14, 2019


The famous literary canon compiled by Pierre Boncenne and presented by Bernard Pivot, boasted to list the 2500 best books worth reading in a lifetime. 

In the last pages of “La Bibliothèque Idéale”, the Nobel prize winners were listed according to their nationality.  As the “Bibliothèque” was printed in 1988, the last winner mentioned was the 1987 laureate Joseph Brodsky. 

I was curious to know how many of the future Nobel prize winners Boncenne could predict and till what year his foresight stretched.

I selected all winners since 1988 and checked their names in the glossary with surprising results :






1988: Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) listed in 1987 as one of the ten best writers from the Maghreb
1989: Camilo Cela (Spain) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers from Spain 
1990: Octavio Paz (Mexico) listed in 1987 as one of the ten best writers from Latin America 
1991: Nadine Gordimer (South Africa) missed !
1992: Derek Walcott (St Lucia) missed !
1993: Toni Morrison (USA) missed !
1994: Kenzaburo Oe (Japan) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers from Asia 
1995: Seamus Heaney (Ireland) missed !
1996: Wislawa Szymborska (Poland) missed !
1997: Dario Fo (Italy) missed !
1998: Jose Saramago (Portugal) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers from Portugal and Brasil 
1999: Gunther Grass (Germany) listed in 1987 as one of the twenty-five best writers from Germany 
2000: Gao Xingjian (China) missed!
2001: Vidiadhar Naipaul (India) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers from Asia 
2002: Imre Kertesz (Hungary) missed !
2003: John Coetzee (South Africa) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers from England ( British Commenwealth ) 
2004: Elfriede Jelinek (Austria) missed !
2005: Harold Pinter (Britain) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers for theater. 
2006: Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) missed !
2007: Doris Lessing (Britain) listed in 1987 as one of the twenty-five best writers from England 
2008: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio (France) in 1987 listed as one of the fifty best writers from France
2009: Herta Muller (Germany) missed !
2010: Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru) in 1987 listed as one of the ten best writers from Latin America
2011: Tomas Transtroemer (Sweden) missed !
2012: Mo Yan (China) missed !
2013: Alice Munro (Canada) missed !
2014: Patrick Modiano (France) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers from France 
2015: Svetlana Alexievich (Belarus) missed !
2016: Bob Dylan (USA) missed for obvious reason
2017: Kazuo Ishiguro (Britain) missed
2018: Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) missed !
2019: Peter Handke (Austria) missed !

This means that they predicted Modiano’s reputation 26 years in advance!
Most impressive is Mario Vargas Llosa’s record, of whom in 1987 it was already obvious that he was one of the greatest talents in the Spanish language but who received the price only 22 years later!

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas by Rick Harsch



I've had the pleasure to be an early reader of Rick Harsch's latest novel "The manifold destiny of Eddie Vegas”. It is a very entertaining book, exceptionally well written and with a theme that will certainly unsettle you with its terrible truths.

While “The Manifold Destiny” is written for the experienced reader of sophisticate taste, Rick Harsch, devoid of the usual authorial arrogance, respects and is kind to his audience. Even if his book is written in an elaborate language and artfully crafted sentences there is always sufficient “story" to pique your curiosity and enough entertaining things unfolding on the pages to keep you reading all along the 700 pages. That and the manageable length of each chapter is a relief from the doorstoppers which seem to be so fashionable nowadays! Unlike the Gaddises, the Wallaces and other Don Dellilo behemoths, Harsch's works come in an acceptable and digestible word - count format. 

In the "Manifold Destiny" two storylines develop parallel to each other. Both narrative arcs are separated by a few hundred years but merge towards each other as the narration reaches the end. One storyline develops in the present and follows two young men on their peregrinations between Europe and the USA, with the occasional flash-back to recent history: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Both men wrestle with father - issues at the same time their fathers struggle with their own toxic legacy.

The second storyline describes the adventures of the earlier forefathers of the main character, each of them a witness of, and a minor player in those bygone periods of heroic Americana myth: The Mountain Men, the Oregon trail, the Gold rush, the Indian wars, the Boot-legging...

Harsch debunks these historical and heroically chunks of Americana by reminding the reader that what drives these “heroic times” is nothing more than opportunism, greed, violence, racism, genocide and a continent-wide ecocide. The chapters playing out in the "present time" (Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam) do not need to be demythologized as they are remembered in our collective memory as violent moments causing enormous damages to indigenous populations. Still, here too, Harsch digs up lesser known horrific facts to avoid any possible tendency to describe war as heroic: Psychological warfare in Vietnam, Commercial competition of the private military militias in the Iraq, war crimes in Afghanistan and the blind terror of the all-seeing drones.

Harsch is at times funny, sad, angry or serious, but the total world view resulting from all this is bleak. The characters seem to move around on the whim and without clear goals. As already made clear in the witty title of the book, man’s destiny, (if destiny there is), or multiple destinies are largely dependent on the roll of the dice or the shuffle of the cards. 

The metaphor of poker, or gambling in general, is seeping through all chapters.  That one finds himself in an uncomfortable situation is often caused by a random chain of events.
"Fucking Keno" is after all the memorable first and damning opening sentence.

The feature of this novel, most likely to delight even the most blasé reader, is Rick Harsch exciting writing. Harsch is a true word - wizard, a sentence - crafter of rare talent. Cunningly and with a permanent twinkle in the eye he hand-picks words, kneads them to his liking and assemble them in elaborate phrases. His recounting of the history of the American West, using a vast array of highly sophisticated narrative technique has something highly eclectic and comic at the same time. Imagine James Joyce rephrasing the stories of Fennimore Cooper, De Lillo editing the action scenes written by Sebastian Junger or Gaddis correcting Raymond Chandler. Understandably, it is not an easy book, it is after all aimed at the more experienced readers.  Any confidence with the literary techniques of American Pomo or Modernism will help appreciate the skills deployed in the novel. Reading notes are the “rigeur" for those who intend to fully enjoy the read. 

And a great read it is. Harsch shows he is really a Master of the Word. At key moments of the novel, Harsch stops assembling sentences and offers the reader only words. Words in a series of lists; multiple page long lists of seemingly random words, you are likely to skim to proceed for further impatient reading. But these lists, which should be read attentively, preferably viva voce as in a religious litany, contain more than the eye first notices. 

The last list, when it’s terrible secret dawns on you, will certainly shock you.

Rick Harsch has with his "Manifold destiny of Eddy Vegas” written a Masterpiece and as far as I am concerned, as good a candidate for the “Great American Novel” as any other more celebrated book.

You might argue that Harsch is lesser known than his best-selling peers.

That’s my point: 

So was Melville in his days.

Highly recommended !

Monday, September 2, 2019

Lenz by Georg Büchner



In my earlier Danton review I already praised Georg Büchner’s masterful precocity. Deceased at 24, he still managed to write three and a half masterpieces: Dantons Tod, Leonce und Lena, Woyzeck and the unfinished Lenz. The works are considered landmarks in the history of German literature, early precursors of the Modern European roman. They were praised by Zweig, set to music by Alban Berg and burned on celluloid by no one less than Herzog.

I found an older copy of Lenz on the second-hand book market and without hesitation took it home for a quick read. And quick it was! Only 35 pages, but so fast-paced, so modern, so obsessively written that it leaves the reader panting: the story of Jacob Lenz (1751-1792), poet and theater-maker, one of the key representatives of the Sturm und Drang, slipping into insanity. 

Poor Jakob Lenz, delicate and small, the flipside of the Goethe persona, as good a writer as the famous “Wandrer” was, maybe even better, but lacking the stature, the charisma, the social intelligence and the romantic skills. When Lenz became insufferable and a danger to Goethe’s reputation and position, the Master got rid of him. Lenz was banned from the province after a mysterious incident, an unforgivable “foolishness” that happened on the 26 of November 1776.

Büchner’s novel make us follow the interdicted Lenz; his erratic wandering, his despair, his hopeless seeking of solace, his battling bouts of depression, his final tumble into a terrifying madness from which there is no return…

What a nightmare…

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Language as a net.

Iris Murdoch’s idea of language as a net cast over the mind, constraining our thoughts according to how its knots and threads land – wrinkled in some places, straight in others. Every language is a different throw of the net. Language sieves and strains reality but never imprisons it. There are always holes for the real world to escape.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Summer reading 2019

Summer holiday preparation...
What to read on this 14 day tour of the east of the Mekong Delta? I'll take only two books with me: "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren and "Voices after Evelyn" by the great Rick Harsch.
I promised Rick a review; maybe I'll have some time to mold the drafts and reading notes into a semblance of a readable text. Now that I think about it, I might pack Dicken's "a tale of two cities" with my budgie-smugglers and butt-flossies. It's a long flight home.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo




Legend has it that Marquez enjoyed Juan Rulfo’s book so much that on opening it for the first time, he read it twice without interruption. So did I, but simply for the reason that after the first reading I had no clue as to what it was all about. The second reading fortunately helped. As did the many blogs and webpages that offer a walkthru to the lazy reader. 

While the story, once you get it, is rather straightforward (as far as a Latin-American novel can ever be straightforward), the complexity is caused by a chopped - up and craftily rearranged narrative. A man has promised his dying mother to travel to Colima, her native village in the Mexican backcountry, and ask his and her due from Pedro Paramo, his natural father whom he has never seen.

Once there however, Colima, remembered as an agreeable agricultural community, appears to have turned into a dusty ghost town. And Pedro Paramo has been dead since many years. But the young man, who gets more and more uncomfortable in this abandoned pueblo, is not alone. Colima is haunted by numerous ghosts, who whisper and mumble snippets of the legend of Pedro Paramo to the worried traveler. Hence the complex structure of 68 parts, because the story does not develop chronologically but by the weird order of ghostly apparitions and narratives. 

The landowner - bully, Pedro Paramo, a Papa Karamazov kind of guy, turns out to be not only the reason of the downfall of Colima but also the malediction of its many ghosts. 

As for a recommendation, I can confirm that the novel Pedro Paramo is a bargain. The mere digestion of 140 or so pages of limpid prose, short and easy sections, surprising characters, an original setting and an introduction to Hacienda Horror, will give you bragging rights on having read one of the finest writers from Latin America. And this according to many sources. 

Susan Sontag even compared the quality of the storytelling in Pedro Paramo to Roth’s Radetzky March or von Kleist’s’ Kohlhaas . 

I wouldn’t go that far but you cannot be cheated on this one.

A great read.