Posts Tagged ‘Boris Vian’

Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

January 28, 2019

41PJk9rkWBL._AC_US218_What an extraordinary novel – a woman living in a hamlet in the mountains on the border between Poland and the Czech republic involved in a murder mystery as local people are killed, apparently by wild animals. She is very strange, obsessed with translating William Blake into Polish, endlessly watching the weather channel on TV, her world governed by astrological readings and interpretations.

Olga Tokarczuk takes us convincingly inside the head of this narrator and her bizarre perspective on the world, and we come to like her and empathise with her, even as she becomes ever stranger. Her personality very strongly and sympathetically and shapes the entire first person narrative. At various points I was reminded of the surrealism of Boris Vian’s novels, though our narrator’s world is populated by relatively ordinary folk and objects, and also some of the weirdness of the Ben Marcus novels I have read, except that again things aren’t quite so externally strange in this book.

Everything begins with the mysterious death of one of the other inhabitants of the village, yet rapidly, as events unfold through her perspective, we find ourselves wondering, ‘is this woman mad?’ as she proposes the theory that the man has been killed in revenge by the local wild deer whom he has been hunting…

In some ways it’s a challenging read, presenting the reader with uncomfortable moral truths about our relations with the animal world; what strikes more than anything is how these moral challenges are presented. From inside the narrator’s head, we read a rambling story: she is pleasant, even endearing through her crankiness and obsessions. As there’s an element of mystery and detection I won’t say too much about the plot. When she comes onto the mediaeval court cases that humans brought against various animals for crimes against people, her idea that the animal world might be capable of getting its own back no longer seems quite so weird.

It is an astonishingly good and utterly surreal tale, and several times I found myself admiring the translator’s work: Antonia Lloyd Jones has done a wonderful job making this such a flowing and accessible read. The novel’s title is (roughly) taken from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There is a superb twist at the end, which I had begun to suspect… if you want something really different to start your year with, this is a good one.

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French Literature – an eye-opener

September 17, 2015

I really enjoyed studying French literature at university, and the year in France that was part of the course enabled me to begin to understand the country, its culture and literature, as well as firming up my knowledge of and fluency with the language. Because I was studying two literatures (three, if I count American separately) I began to see links between the histories, cultures and literatures of nations, and this has stood me in good stead all through my reading life, as I’ve branched out further.

French Renaissance literature, apart from the joys of Rabelais (in the original, I might add), was unremittingly tedious, and after the free-flow of Elizabethan and Jacobean blank verse, the rhymed alexandrine of French drama palled very quickly. Moliere I really liked, and I began to be clearer about how coded messages and criticism might be concealed in an author’s work when open criticism was more than frowned on, but actually punishable, and I rate my introduction to Voltaire as a major life-changing moment: French literature seemed more challenging, more revolutionary, at a time when this teenage student was susceptible to, if not yearning for, such influences.

Their nineteenth century novels spoke more to me that the English ones: Stendhal, Flaubert and above all Zola were real discoveries; the freshness of the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud was welcome. And the twentieth century had even more to offer: the political novels of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism, surrealism, so much more. I think my major discoveries during my year abroad were firstly, their school philosophy textbooks (why couldn’t we do this in England? I asked myself. Answer came there none.) and secondly the surreal writings of Boris Vian, which I still love today. Surrealism and the absurd…turning the world upside down. I’d met one of Ionesco‘s plays at A level, and found myself reading most of the rest. Here were writers I could see playing with, and doing experimental things with their language; I admired them in the same ways as I admired English writers who did such things.

Some of the magic of French literature is obviously the being able to read it in the original. This was an absolute eye-opener; it sounds like a statement of the obvious, but there was something special about realising I could speak the language, be taken for a local in the country, I could read its newspapers and books as if it were my own language. And in a sense it was, because I had mastered it, and if you, dear reader, have reached this stage in your knowledge of another tongue than your native one, you will understand the epiphany, perhaps. Then you realise at the same time, just how different France is, with its own history, regions, Paris-centrism, wars, conquests and revolutions, and also how the language gives you access to a wider world of literature from the entire Francophone world…

Reading and enjoying French literature

August 31, 2015

I really enjoyed studying French literature at university, and the year in France that was part of my course enabled me to begin to understand the country, its culture and literature, as well as firming up my knowledge of and fluency in the language. Because I was studying two literatures (three, if I count American separately) I began to see links between the histories, cultures and literatures of nations and their influences on each other, and this has stood me in good stead all through my reading life, as I’ve branched out further.

French Renaissance literature, apart from the joys of Rabelais (in the original, I might add), was unremittingly tedious, and after the free-flow of Elizabethan and Jacobean blank verse, the rhymed alexandrine of French drama palled very quickly. Moliere I really liked, and I began to be clearer about how coded messages and criticism might be concealed in an author’s work when open criticism was more than frowned on, but actually punishable, and I rate my introduction to Voltaire as a major life-changing moment: French literature seemed more challenging, more revolutionary, at a time when this teenage student was susceptible to, if not yearning for, such influences.

Their nineteenth century novels spoke more to me that the English ones: Stendhal, Flaubert and above all Zola were real discoveries; the freshness of the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud was welcome. And the twentieth century had even more to offer: the political novels of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism, surrealism, so much more. I think my major discoveries during my year abroad were firstly, their school philosophy textbooks (why couldn’t we do this in England? I asked myself. Answer came there none.) and secondly the surreal writings of Boris Vian, which I still love today. Surrealism and the absurd…turning the world upside down. I’d met one of Ionesco‘s plays at A level, and found myself reading most of the rest. Here were writers I could see playing with, and doing experimental things with their language; I admired them in the same ways as I admired English writers who did such things.

Some of the magic of French literature is obviously the being able to read it in the original. This was an absolute eye-opener; it sounds like a statement of the obvious, but there was something special about realising I could speak the language, be taken for a local in the country, I could read its newspapers and books as if it were my own language. And in a sense it was, because I had mastered it, and if you, dear reader, have reached this stage in your knowledge of another tongue than your native one, you will understand the epiphany, perhaps. Then you realise at the same time, just how different France is, with its own history, regions, Paris-centredness, wars, conquests and revolutions, and also how the language gives you access to a wider world of literature from the entire Francophone world…

Boris Vian: Froth on the Daydream

April 7, 2015

9781846689444This is one of the oldest books in my library: I’ve had it since I was at school. I came back to it as a result of reading about the film Mood Indigo (which I have yet to see) and realising that the film came from Boris Vian‘s surrealist novel. I’m wondering how true to the book the film can be…

Apparently, there are three different translations into English of the novel: mine’s the earliest, and is very good, with all sorts of wordplay, jokes and other humour carefully preserved from the French, or suitable adapted so that they work in English.

I suppose it’s a tragic love story really, enhanced by the pathetic fallacy operative throughout: the characters’ physical environment mirrors their moods. It’s almost delightfully childish in tone at the start, with the beautiful people and their world and pastimes, carefree, privileged and full of happiness: only love is needed to complete it. All is accompanied by a light and airy jazz soundtrack.

Love, of course, is not so obedient to one’s moods and desires: one character is literally taken over by his obsessive collecting of books by a certain existentialist philosopher, and the books won’t share him with anyone else… while ominous notes creep into the love world of the hero and heroine even before the end of the bizarre wedding ceremony: she is eventually laid low by a mysterious waterlily growing in one of her lungs. The increasingly desperate search for a cure will not be successful, we can tell, as entropy increasingly takes over their world. The beautiful people realise they need to work to sustain their expensive lifestyles, and work is shown up for something unwanted, nasty, and obviously in the way of real life…

It’s very hard writing about a surrealist novel. It is an easy and enjoyable and quite short read, and it takes one completely out of our own grubby world – pure escapism, except that it isn’t, as even in a surreal world there are unpleasant truths to be faced. Some readers may wonder why I read it in English, given that it’s a French novel and I read French: I have the French original and have read it, but as I grew up with the English translation, it’s the one I naturally gravitate towards. I think I’ll read the French version soon and see how well they match up.

Bruno Schultz: The Street of Crocodiles

March 31, 2015

51ft9Cr66yL._AA160_I finally picked this up and read it for the first time (having bought it new in 1980!) because I learned from Gombrowiczdiary that the two knew each other, and Gombrowicz rated Schultz quite highly.

It’s a collection of linked short stories centred on Schultz’ hometown of Drohobycz, formerly in eastern Poland. The atmosphere is dreamlike, almost hallucinatory in places; there are echoes of Kafka‘s short story Metamorphosis as Schultz writes about his father, though the transformation is slower and more drawn out than that of Gregor Samsa.

Although they are divorced from reality, there is a hypnotic feel to the stories; the characters are also unreal: the closest comparison I could come up with as I thought about them was with Marquez and magic realism, that style which was to emerge much later on. The language is often beautiful, lyrical as we shift from semi-reality to fantasy. Echoes of some of Boris Vian, too. I often wonder which writers have read, heard of or comes across each other when I pick up on similar traits like this in different writers.

The two most accomplished stories are The Street of Crocodiles and Cinnamon Shops (this collection is sometimes given the name of that story as its title), both powerful and haunting visions of aspects of the town. When I read something like this, I find myself reading quite differently compared with how I interact with a more conventional novel or short story: here, I drift too, in a dreamlike state, through the almost poetic visions and imaginings of the writer, rather than absorbing words and thinking about them as I seek to take plot and character on board. Quite a magical experience.

Ben Marcus: The Flame Alphabet

January 4, 2014

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This is the second weirdest novel I’ve ever read; the prize for the first goes to The Age of Wire and String, by the same author. That one was weirder because more poetic in the way that the author (ab)uses language and concepts to confuse/ seduce/ amaze his readers; this one is a novel with a real plot which you can (attempt to) follow…

Surrealist is a word I might use here, although Marcus makes Boris Vian at his strangest seem quite mundane; nor does he bore me stupid like Robbe-Grillet in La Jalousie. In the same way that Marcus takes language to its limits, I’m finding it rather a challenge to write about his book… but here goes:

In a New York he imagines, human speech has become toxic: first, it’s the speech of children, then increasingly vocalisation of anything by anyone, causes a range of weird and appalling symptoms; eventually parents and their children can no longer inhabit the same towns, let alone houses; bands of feral children can terrorise and disable adults by shouting at them. The toxicity of words, reading and all kinds of symbols make life impossible, and the search for palliatives and cures involves all sorts of bizarre and unethical methods; the narrator is a member of a strange group of Forest Jews whose odd rituals alone in the woods may or may not be linked to a solution… the book is full of weird devices it’s almost impossible to visualise. Eventually, the residue of all human speech lies around as piles of salt…

In and among this, of course, is the human need for fellowship, companionship, love and sex, and the descriptions of what sex has become in this universe are most strange. The narrator loves his wife and daughter, and has to abandon or lose both in different ways.

Although all the ideas in this story are initially so alien, it bears reading and the plot urges you on, as you wonder where on earth it can go next, and I was left shocked and upset at the end. I’m sure I will read it again, because I can see there is a lot I will inevitably have missed first time around.

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