Book reviews Critiques littéraires Books recently published in english and french.

samedi 29 mai 2010

Louise Erdrich, The painted Drum, 2005

Erdrich is an American Indian who is with Sherman Alexis, a great voice of the recent Indian literature; her writing aims to revive or rediscover tribal memory and also the myths of a torn community, which in her case are the North Eastern Indians of New England who are tied to some tribes of the middle West, the Shawana and the Ashinanbego. She does not sound at all like an anthropologist thank God, since her characters are usually leading normal American lives in towns or suburbs , fully integrated and rarely living on reservations , but they are very special people.

You would never guess that Faye Travers , the narrator of this novel, is an Indian; she lives with her mother in a small town of New Hampshire and , sells and buys Antiques and describes her own social class rather ironically, as "'the intelligentsia" amongst the rough farmers and assorted red necks of her village,with whom she gets along but otherwise does not trust. Let me add that she lives on" Revival road " which is an evident sign of her destiny . So, while analyzing the effects of a local estate, she finds an Indian painted drum that she recognizes immediately as sacred object of a now defunct rite; on impulse she takes it home to show her mother and they decide to find through research and archives the Indian family which should possibly be owner of this drum. The story that Erdrich will tell is the voyage through time of this drum seen as a sort of famous Crucifix or relic holding great spiritual power. Now, it is neither a silly nor a boring tale, it is rather a painful descent in the sorrowful past of so many Indians who lost their culture and their identity in modern America , but it is also a revival of this recent past

Erdrich is like J.M.Le Clézio, the French Nobel Prize writer(2008) ,who is mainly inspired by the universe of non western cultures, where the beauty of the world and its rhythm is sought and the fear of the elements is shared. Wind and Light are important as are plants and animals ; the natural , so present in America as in Africa, is celebrated an a lyrical manner and men are seen as mere servants of this powerful universe. Erdrich is not an animist and is not an urban writer either ; she has a poetical streak and makes us enter this spiritual world of the Indian way of life which still existed at the turn of the century apparently and is still kept faithfully in family sagas. Ancient Indians resurrected in her tale are gardeners, hunters , gatherers, theyknow animals and mountains , follow the seasons and do not have a culture of the word.They reach a form of ecstasy borne out of contemplation like the Airicans of Le Clézio :the natural beauty of the world is theirs and this writer is their singer and a rare author in Ameican letters.



jeudi 20 mai 2010


This very popular american writer has written one very good novel," The Pilot's wife" in which she analyzed the secrets of a marriage and its eventual failure, and this seems indeed to be her main theme, but here the setting is in Kenya and not New England. Curiously, that is what made me read it, since Kenya is one of the most beautiful countries in Africa and also a very secretive society since the famous Mau Mau murderous rebellion led by the fearsome Kenyatta exposed to the horrified West the first tribal war on the African soil. Nobody ever forgot the Mau Mau massacres.

In this novel, the hierarchy of tribes with the Kikuyu running the country, the ex- colonial brits ,the expats and Asian Africans form a fascinating background for the story which paints a sorry picture of the hatred , resentment and aggression thrown at westerners working in Kenya, who see their personal lives torn down by fear and stress. An American couple joins a group of expats climbing Mount Kenya with guides and porters and during a glacier's crossing , one of the women falls into a vertiginous ravine and dies tragically in front of the horror stricken group.. The American wife, Margaret feels somewhat guilty of this horrible fall because the victim's husband had been courting her stupidly the night before, and this wrong interpretations is not deluded by her hapless husband, and thus a malaise is created between them and never really cleared. We have here the drama of the un-said and the un- explained at its worst between two persons too young and too un-experienced to understand the power of ambiguity and false guilt. Naturally things get worse with the appearance of two other potential seducers of both husband and wife who tread into their lives and give an alternative to marital disappointment. A banal and rather boring story really but Shreve is able to portray the subtle atmosphere of African threat all around them(lies, robberies, police interferences, horrendous poverty ) which render the plot exotic, menacing and dramatic , so that these characters become real enough.Their marriage will not survive probably.

All African novels written by western writers proceed in my mind from the utter fascination held by that continent on most of us: the hierarchy of these societies, their strict beliefs in ancestral rites which cannot be transcended,the great parks full of wonderful animals, the African deep distrust of their former masters and the overwhelming dominion of males, all these have an incredible impact especially on female writers. Think of Karen Blixen, of Nadine Gordimer or Doris Lessing , who all wrote epic novels as well as political ones where mere human lives are hardly able to survive . Shreve has an intuition of that impediment indeed; her latest book is worth reading and brings the flavor of unknown complexities absent in Boston, Massachusetts where her characters seem all to live.



jeudi 13 mai 2010

Elizabeth Strout,Olive Kitterigde,Random House,Pulitzer Prize, 2010

For once we have an heroine who is old, rather ugly,directive and irascible, a formidable woman feared and admired in her little town of coastal Maine, not only because she taught math to almost everyone in town but also because she towered over them with her keen intelligence ,somewhat like Eleanor Roosevelt of yore, a downright feminist who speaks her mind and heaps contempt on incompetents and idiots . She is a character of Dickensian proportions,new to my mind in American letters.. The novel is funny and immensely entertaining at first , until the tragic elements appear in the fabric of her life in this idyllic little harbor town .

The ineffectual husband Henry, is a good guy who wants everybody to be happy , he is nice and gets along with all; the only son Christopher,depressive and neurotic ,is unable to shake the overwhelming maternal presence and leaves town ,after a shot gun wedding to a control freak of a woman ; then, retirement looms tough and barren, and there are no grand kids to be expected anywhere … So, what to do with one's remaining life ? Few writers tackle that pressing problem in advanced societies as our own, especially keen when one's life companion disappears.

The problem of old age and its desert felt as a non- future, is posed here nakedly , horribly and with no ready solution: Olive is not Phillip Roth , she is not a cute old sex pot and she is not an elegant rich lady of leisure à la" Anita Brookner"… Oh no, she is unable and unwilling to please, she is cynical and never held any illusions, but she is deep and feels things in her heart. She is bereft and feeling lonely, abandoned ,broken when Henry has a stroke and die, loneliness grips her . She finds no solace anywhere but in lonely walks in the morning cold, and her flowers in the garden, like so many widows.

Strout is a great and powerful writer , as Tolstoy was who depicts the travails of an old isolated person, with the efforts and failings inherent to this stage of life and its relative failure . It is the unlikely son Christopher with a new wife flanked by awful kids, who remakes the family and repairs the broken thread, Olive herself finds an improbable male companion lying , fainted on a country road and helps save him… Nothing heroic, nothing new ever happens to old people who see everything around them collapse inevitably.
See the courage it takes to survive! It is this very life itself that destroys the past,ruins are part of the voyage , but those who manage to survive must be extraordinary…If they continue to live on , it is an admirable feat and this author aims to describe it faithfully . Yes, Elizabeth Strout, a young woman herself, is able to write this remarkable , beautiful and unforgettable epic : the story of a full human life as it is. No frills.No luxury.

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Brussels, Belgium
Née à Bruxelles, mère résistante et sculpteur, père homme d’affaires, études à l ’Université libre de Bruxelles ( Philosophie et Lettres ; arts primitifs), puis à Harvard ( anthropologie), Rutgers New Brunswick, Duke University .N.C. USA ( littérature comparée, Masters et Doctorat.) Thèse publiée (Ph.D) sur Valéry et Mallarmé. Enseignement universitaire aux USA, en France (Aix en Provence) et au Liban (comme coopérant) ,littérature et philosophie , en français ou anglais. Mariée en premières noces à un avocat américain G.Robert Wills et puis à un peintre et publiciste Français, Jean- Pierre Rhein (décédé). La plupart des publications sous le nom de Wills.Vit à Bruxelles.