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

lundi 26 juillet 2010

Jane Smiley, Private Life, Knopf , 2010

This remarkable novel spans the period of 1880 to 1947, in which the end of the civil war in still felt and the new century opens up a new amazing life to most Americans and especially modern women. Marriage in a sense was a must in those days.The heroine ,Margaret Mansfield is a Missouri girl of a good farming well to do family, who is raised to marry properly ,almost becomes an old maid but finally marries in the nick of time the genius of the town. Marriage and family was then the purpose of women's lives but few authors bother to analyse , except Virginia Woolf how a marriage survives over a long period of time , especially if there are no children . Smiley here observes at length how a smart , ordinary and well meaning woman married to to an eccentric brainy character , unlivable and highly neurotic ( here Captain Andrew Early) can survive in a modicum of satisfaction over 40 years of marriage. Because the name of the game is survival here , particularly when the wife is unable to fully understand what happened to her and how she is supposed to deal with raving paranoia. Margaret Mansfield is indeed a tragic woman and an exceptional fictional character; Smiley has drawn a very powerful figure who will strike an unforgettable note in many readers mind.

What happens in this difficult marriage? The first appearance of Andrew as a genius whiz kid in St Louis, although anti social ,awkward and afraid of women is deceptive ; everyone thinks that he a true scientific genius and he is certainly unusually bright, but already he seems an obnoxious ego maniac , despising everybody else. But no one sees that ,Margaret neither , but she is impressed by him , bows to his superiority and agrees to marry him. We know nothing of their sex life, which would be revealing but Smiley avoids that subject entirely. We simply learn that they move to California ,on an isle near San Francisco ,where Andrew works as an astronomer . A strange life of constant research ,writing innumerable articles and books starts, but soon shoddy research and plagiarism plague the Genius work and results naturally in heavy criticism and rejection by the scientific community. Recognition is not there, fury and depression sets in ,the hapless wife caught in the grip of a suffocating union with no life of her own , does not allow herself to question her husband's greatness with unfortunately no children to console her ( 2 babies die one after the other). Awful situation which today would evidently end up in a divorce, but then no wife walked out of a prison called marriage.even if the husband was psychotic . Margaret's life is a thus low descent in fear and desperation at first unconsciously, but she realizes eventually that her husband is paranoid, a dangerous ego maniac n and more and more aggressive . Nevertheless, she still is overwhelmed by his amazing capacity to manipulate and twist reality and his arguing talent . His constant presence up stairs in his study and his commanding voice terrify her literally and soon she can't stand him anymore and flees the house . She finally acknowledges to herself that she has married a sort of monster but she feels morally obliged to protect him from himself as well as from the scorn of others .This moral tale , full of pain and suffering , ends almost humorously , now that Andrew has become the weirdo of the town, living in the midst of his delusions, wandering around all of San Francisco and collaring strangers, she arranges with the police to watch over him and not arrest him… "L'idiot du village", the mate has become an object of matrimonial loyalty and pity .

A life of avoidance and separate lives is may be inevitable the outcome of long marriages where the individual seeks breathing space and a form of freedom? The question of freedom is crucial here, look at the difficulties of retired couples to live together harmoniously without the pretext of children and work load to attend to. The test of humanity and care is a fascinating theme, very rarely analysed in fiction, and the period in time does not matter really; the same issues face contemporary couples who choose as pilgrims , to progress together forward till the end.

Jane Smiley, Private Life , A .Knopf, 2010

samedi 24 juillet 2010

William Boyd, 0rdinary Thunderstorms, HarperCollins, 2009

This extraordinary intelligent British author always surprises one by his skill : he writes a thriller and a novel of manners at the same time, keeps a tight suspense and also piques your intellect with his keen cultural knowledge of the contemporary scene. His hero, Adam Kindred is certainly one of a kind, and also well named, judge for yourself. This man is a climatologist, an academic who studies clouds, nothing more impractical, who comes to London for a fancy job interview. What does he do? He goes to lunch and meets by chance an immunologist , Dr Wang, who leaves his file on the table upon departing … Adam goes to Wang's office to bring it vback and finds him brutally murdered on the floor…he flees horrified .From there, comes a series of accidents which ruin poor Adam's life in a whiff and throws him out of society as fast as a missile .What happens ? He flees in the city ,does'nt call the police ,wanting above all freedom ; naturally he is mugged and robbed , and practically naked hides in an small bushy isle in the middle of the Thames… It sounds incredible but it isn't, things like that happen all the time except sleeping on an inlet . Having been recently robbed in Athens of my papers and money, I can testify that being without identity is astounding : you are all of a sudden nobody and must prove that you are a citizen if you want to go home. The novel is thus an interesting study of Identity in the eyes of others as a major aspect of our personality ;it is impossible to live in the margins of society more than a few months ( as a game as it were )and your social self needs to exist even if it includes your financial self in the process. What can you do without money?

Boyd shows this very well , his hero invents a sort of derelict way of life by camping out, stealing a bit, begging, escaping a killer's hit (a giant pharmaceutical needs this witness of Wang's murder out of the way) and even joining a crazy pseudo church who feeds the poor.All the aspects of the homeless life in our modern cities are exposed and found absolutely tragic, full of fear, unbearable, sinister and without hope.. how can these poor people survive is a mystery, and Adam sees that , often wondering if his quest of freedom at all cost was worth it. This is what makes the novel fascinating, this quest which is fundamental to him : freedom to act .Otherwise it would be just a cultural thriller even a very good one.

As a moral tale," Ordinary Clouds " is pretty satisfying but a bit weak and scabrous : the villain is a disgusting and arrogant pharmaceutical giant, the hero is saved by having coldly usurped not only the identity of a dead homeless companion but by throwing over the bridge a repulsive black mailer… The new Adam simply kills a man without a back glance, this is what homeless life does to you : you become a sort of monster.At the end, Boyd makes a mistake in my mind: Adam saved from annihilation, so to speak , falls in love with a policewoman who has been more or less mixed up in his case and they plan a cosy little life with an adopted nitwit, in a cottage along the Thames… Can you believe it ? That is a bit Hollywoodish , a romantic twist that sounds like Leonardo di Caprio in an otherwise superb novel.


mardi 20 juillet 2010

Catherine Cusset, Un brillant Avenir, Gallimard, 2008, prix Goncourt des lycéens en 2010

Voici un intéressant roman d'une romancière française vivant à Manhattan, qui écrit beaucoup sur le couple, la sexualité, le désir, et aussi les conflits de la vie moderne déracinée. Ce dernier livre est son plus grand succès de librairie depuis « Le Problème avec Jane «  paru en 1999 qui aussi parlait des tribulations conjugales et professionnelles d'une prof de fac ( ce que Cusset fut longtemps elle-même à Yale),et se démarque par un rythme saccadé, heurté, presque frénétique causé par l'urgence de ces Roumains absolument résolus à quitter par tous les moyens leur terrible pays au temps de Ceausescu. On voit donc cette odyssée terrible se dérouler, les affres du départ, les vieux parents à quitter,le mari juif discriminé, le manque d'argent, l'attente des visas, la première émigration en Israël en pleine guerre comme d'habitude , la fuite d'Israël et finalement le départ aux USA , terre d'asile rêvée ou la vraie vie va commencer  pour des quarantenaires épuisés , ne parlant pas anglais… Comme si le paradis existait !

L'horreur vécue et le courage héroïque de ces trois vies, la triade initiale ( père, mère, fils) est exemplaire : ils vont qui atterrir en Amérique, dans cette culture extraordinaire pleine de promesses mais la plus dure sur terre ( à part la Chine peut etre ?) , dont ils ne connaissent rien. Récit ravageur et tuant . Lire ce roman est épuisant , écrit en chronologie alternative : un chapître maintenant en Amérique dans la vieillesse , un chapître dans le passé européen au milieu de la bataille pour la survie… sans répit, style saccadé, incisif, dialogues brefs et brutaux . Ce qui domine est l'affreuse présence castratrice de la mère, Elena, une hystérique infernale jamais satisfaite ,manipulatrice de première et qui pousse à la réussite coûte que coûte . Quelle femme terrible , quel portrait incroyable du monstre familial , le père en meurt avec un Alzheimer bien senti  et le fils se terre dans un mariage balançoire avec une française rétive et rebelle à cette belle mère terrifiante. Quelle lecture, j'en suis encore pétrifiée. Cusset a donné ici un roman- coup de point sensationnel.

Evidemment le fils, Alexandru, le héros malgré lui se trouve après un diplôme brillant décroché à Harvard, jeté dans la bataille du business life de Manhattan. Le pauvre n'est pas un tueur ni un dur ,il n'y arrive pas vraiment ; il ne fait que travailler, se tue à l'effort , ne trouve pas à se loger , ne devient pas du tout «  a big success »comme Elena l'avait rêvé . N'est pas un » American businessman « pur et dur qui veut, dans cette lutte des requins, dont les Européens n'ont aucune idée d'ailleurs et c'est bien le point le plus intéressant du livre : la vraie compétition existe et est absolument implacable et personne en Europe n'est en fait équipé pour y faire face : les codes sont à apprendre depuis l'enfance.La société dite « ultra libérale » , vous voulez rire, personne ne l'a jamais vue en Europe et encore moins en France .Voyez l'Odyssée de Steve Jobs à Apple , voilà un roman en soi, bien américain.


jeudi 1 juillet 2010

Don De Lillo, Point Omega, Scribner, 2010

The latest book of America's greatest metaphysical writer is difficult, challenging and voluntarily obscure since what we are attending in a sense, isthe last confession of a great mind towards the end of his life.Let us remind ourselves here that De lillo is also a political writer constantly aware of the impact of the main events in American life such as the assassination of Kennedy,the Cold war, Terrorism and Nine Eleven in Manhattan etc..The subject in this latest book is topical : a scholar and an academic outsider, named Elster ,who has definite theories about the obligations of being a great Power , has been contacted by the Government to be in the War room during the Irak War .Elster believes quite strongly that the earth has become a place of danger and anger,is a notable thinker and naturally , he fascinates a young film maker who plans to make a film on him. Elster eventually agrees to it, if the filmmaker Jim, will join him in the desert. So far, nothing insanely difficult, except that Jim is obsessed by the famous film" Psycho " by Hitchkock and views it incessantly at the Moma in New York ; we know that films and TV series fascinate de Lillo anyway ; I think that the point of this secondary plot is to insure us that reality is better apprehended by film than by any other means of perception since De Lillo constantly questions the relevance of our personal perceptions .

Now we are transported in a desert of the South West, in a remote and extraordinary wild landscape of mountains and strange noises, no cities, no villages,just an old house falling apart : a metaphysical non place.This fantatic landscape is of utmost importance . The monologue starts and focuses on reality,time, terror: " It is different here, time is enormous, that's what I feel here palpably…" says Elster , who blabbers on unaware of his listener. A third person arrives suddenly, Jessie, his adult daughter whom Elster adores; she is a shadow, gliding along the walls, eating and sleeping silently , even more remote than the old man, not quite autistic. Nothing happens much except that the Omega Point is mentioned and it is a metaphysical notion of Teilhard de Chardin,a French paleontologist and philosopher. The omega point a transcendental concept : the pole of convergence of evolution, where cosmic consciousness reigns.This is what this terribly remote desert has inspired to all thinkers throughout time and history : here thought can stop, cosmic consciousness takes over in a Heideggerian way.That is evidently the toughness of this book: the ultimate truth being alluded to in a fragmentary monologue with no counterpoint of any other speaker..

An awful tragedy however takes place in the tale : Jesse disappears, she cannot be found . She must have walked away silently in the desert. They look all over for her, call the state police and Rangers but in vain . Gone and lost, she has to be left behind ... An atrocious end who terrifies them both. The horrified Jim is obliged to take the poor haggard Elster away and escort him to New York to his ex Wife's care.. End of the main story,no conclusion offered; Jim returns to the MoMa to view another time with total strangers, the slow motion of "Psycho" with Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.Formal Movies like this one, are less dangerous than real people who live and suffer and want to die.Read

Katarina HAGENA , Le Gout des Pépins de Pomme,Köln, 2008

Ce premier roman d'une inconnue a fait un tabac en Allemagne, et on comprend immédiatement que l'histoire de trois générations de femmes dans une maison familiale dans une campagne traditionnelle ayant connu la guerre et le nazisme, frappe une corde très sensible dans ce pays. » Roman domestique » ou saga familiale, on y retrouve tous les ingrédients du roman populaire bien écrit, bucolique et un brin intellectuel, la narratrice étant une bibliothécaire universitaire qui a hérité de cette maison pleine de secrets avec un jardin plein de pommiers. L'ancêtre qu'on a enterrée s'appelle Bertha et était devenue amnésique oubliant sa propre identité , les tantes et les cousines ne parlent pas beaucoup , donc Iris va se souvenir avec l'aide de son jeune notaire de tous les événements marquants de sa famille, à savoir l'emprisonnement de grand père Nazi après la guerre, les adultères variés et la mort accidentelle , terrible d'une jeune fille. Et elle va faire un certain bilan

Ce genre de roman se lit avec plaisir et facilement car les problèmes et les drames ne se posent plus directement : ils ont déjà eu lieu et ont été résolus bien ou mal ; maintenant ils sont effacés et font partie d'une chronique historique acceptée et irréversible. D'une certaine manière, tout est déjà pardonné, ce qui est commode finalement pour tous et peut être particulièrement pour un lectorat allemand si sensible à son passé nazi.L'auteur est intelligente et analyse finement ce qu'une bibliothécaire, Iris dans le récit, peut faire de la vérité révélée par les textes : l'oublier ou l'intégrer dans une connaissances plus complète des faits et des gens . Car le grand père nazi Hinnerk, était aussi un poète, un autodidacte et un notable du village, qui aimait sa famille et lui était fidèle.

La vie urbaine contemporaine allemande est aussi dépeinte avec verve, à Brème, Hambourg et Freiburg où certaines de ces dames travaillent, mais c'est la campagne mythifiée aujourd'hui , qui compte vraiment. Aussi, c'est le passé de cette Allemagne morale, traditionnelle et puissante dans ses qualités familiales héritées du 19 e siècle si admiré , qui forme le terreau fortement lyrique de cette œuvre qui a soulevé l'enthousiasme de milliers de lecteurs outre Rhin. C'est un très beau roman qui chez nous aussi, touche la corde de l'origine paysanne et agricole de tellement de familles françaises , italiennes ou belges qui se rêvent en héritières de traditions anciennes et inattaquables car bonnes. La corruption est dans les villes, a très bien dit Rousseau. Les écologistes en savent quelque chose : mangez des pommes et crachez les pépins !

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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.