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

lundi 25 octobre 2010

Colm TOIBIN , The empty Family,Viking, 2010

Here is a volume of short stories, some of which are haunting , concise and absolutely perfect in evoking the sense of familial ties so alive at the time of a parent's death, of returing home ( in Ireland in this case ) or the view of a familiar neighborhood of one's childhood and of an empty house…..What makes these stories so great ?  Moments of Time gone by and lived intensely appear all of a sudden in a memory as precise as an engraving , shining and lingering in the narrator's mind , often bathed in nostalgia .Toibin is the master of nostalgia . At his mother's death bed he knows that it is no longer possible to spend more time with her during the summer's holidays, he feels guilty : » …May be, I was not as good a son as my brother and sister were « nd then « .. she was always so dignified and calm .. » There are no tears and no outporing of grief . Just these simple sentences with everyday words, unadorned, functional even, which are marvelously coined and arouse the reader's emotions  in an oblique manner.It is a rare gift .

Proust and James both could achieve a poetic atmosphere and a peak of emotions in the intimate realm but with an impressive syntactic baggage : interminable sentences,cohorts of periphrases and triplicate adjectives in subordonate phrases …all of this required effort and linguistic talent, and a great deal of patience .Toibin here is different, he achieves perfection, a sort of Hemingway lesson of brevity and austerity ,in these very personal short stories, some of which are incredibly short but inscribe themselves in our own memory.

The first stories such as « One minus One », « Silence » and « The Empty Family « are small gems , unique and perfect in a genre : the intimate moments which remain discrete, understated even, but intense. Other stories which deal with gay sexual experiments or even prowesses of adolescence are strange and surprising in their expliciteness and crude descriptions as if the author revelled in his own boldness. But there are exceptions in this vein .One marvelous and tragic story deals with an impossible suffering  : an homosexual love affair between two Pakistani immigrants , illegals, who work like slaves in a horribly repressive country where not a moment of human happiness or dignity is possible, everything happens in the dark and in hiding.  Toibin manages to create a painful suspense in the slow, secretive, mute manner of asiatic cultures, with almost no speech and gestures alone, a moment of human closeness and consolation that elevates this awful tale of woe to an examplary level .

Another story in a totally different domain descibes a wealthy marriage of convenience between an old illustrious titled man and a young poor woman in the London of 1900 ; this is amusing and not dramatic but marvelously studied : in fact it is a small novel of manners with Henry James as a character , appearing naturally as a dinner Guest  and marvelouly entertaining We have here a variety of talents , literary genres , tones of the Narrator's voice , a palette of human experiences and tales which show us what a remarkable and accomplished writer Colm Toibin has become.

mardi 19 octobre 2010

Ann Tyler, Noah's Compass,Vintage, 2010

The latest book of the Prolific Tyler, a novelist and also a gifted sociologist , takes place in Baltimore as usual,but tackles the problem of old age on the one hand and of resignation to one's life in the world , on the other hand. It is a very interesting and a very unusual book.
The theme of acceptance is present in Tyler's work but the wisedom of forming an essential life with no frills is new. The hero Liam is the well known Tyler quirky type,or unreliable eccentric ,but a basically decent older man who finds himself automatically retired when he is fired from his teaching job at age sixty. He is certainly an educated man,but unambitious, a push over, who never involved himself in anything strongly enough to fight for it. So, he had two marriages and three daughters,a sister , one or two friends, but now he finds himself essentially alone in a creepy appartment. Yet,when he is burgled and mugged the day he moves in, and finds himself in the hospital with amnesia, he finds all these people at his bed side caring for him.
So, it is not the theme of loneliness which interests Tyler but the presence in a given american suburban society,of a group of carers or helpers.They are there always. There is thus a strong solidarity which is not so evident in european novels, which are replete with truly lonely characters who live on their own helped by no one.
This desertion does not happen in Tyler's world and it is amazing to see her novelistic families rooted in one place, Baltimore in this case), ignoring globalization , job's uprooting and other disintegrating factors of the modern sphere.It allows for a structural force in her work,reminiscent of nineteenth century's literature but also providing a strong emotional texture and revealing dialogues where her power of observation are evident. No one describes every day life and quotidian conversation as she does in american literature.
When you are entering your sixties, it is better to understand that your romantic life is over and that other values take pre eminence; this is what Liam does .Now, it is rare to see a main character refuse an easy form of narcissism and rise to a level of moral choice. Yes, he can find another job and work again, make himself useful. He does not take pride in this choice but finds natural happiness in a basic american virtue : to live a useful life on one's own. Few European advanced societies can boast of such an achievement in the problem of obliged retirement and subsequent psychological self destruction. .

mercredi 13 octobre 2010

Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses,Picador, 2005

This Norwegian writer won several prizes in Scandinavia for this novel,which is both a memoir and an WWII epic , which curiously reminds one of The Odyssey by its lyrical evocation of an heroic and elusive father ,always gone away on a long voyage .. The narrator is an old man who, like an hermit, has retired in a cabin in the woods of northern Norway ; the unusual presence of a strange neighbor , who was the brother of his best childhood's friend brings to mind the last summer of his childhood. These summers with his father in the rough,happened during the German occupation , in the countryside of forest and lakes,up north , near the swedish border and they were unforgettable . The boy adored his father,who was an athletic, warm hearted, attractive heroic figure who taught him new skills everyday on horses, boats, forest survival etc and on top of that , led a mysterious erotic life with a neighbor blonde beauty . This summer life was also the antidote to the boy's city life in Oslo with his mother , who like Penelope was relegated in the domestic role, poor pathetic creature .But this paradise of Natural life was shattered by an accidental killing at the neighbor's family and also by the discovery of his father's dangerous activity of underground resistance to the Germans. He was nearly shot .

The narrator is like Telemachus who spent his youth looking for his formidable father always on the run,unseizable, unreachable as all heroes must be, who eventually returned home unannounced and left again probably .. in this case, the father at the end of this fatal summer, sent a final letter of adieux ,left the family in Oslo and disappeared for ever.. We surmise that life was hard and not easy nor glamorous for mother and kids in the city flat and we understand in a way the exile of an old man retiring in the woods looking for peace and simplicity , although we know nothing of his adult life.The tale is sober and unadorned

There are moments of capital importance in all human lives, which take place often in the early years and form our inner paradise : » Out stealing horses « meant riding in the rough the neighbor's horses who was a friend of his father , whom all admired in the small community of summer cabins ,in the gorgeous natural country .The boy was proud of his father and who does not wish really to have an heroic father , even if he abandons you ? Petterson knows however that the price to pay is the discovery of evil and the capacity of suffering brought along with what you could call call pseudo heroic deeds , even if they are immensely appealing. This is a wondeful book, a form of meditation on he power of the past .

samedi 9 octobre 2010

Marc Dugain,L’insomnie des Etoiles, Gallimard ,2010

Depuis «  La Chambre des Officiers »et surtout « La Malédiction d'Edgar » livre fascinant sur le chef du FBI pendant 50  ans Edgar Hoover, on attend de Fugain un roman de complots, de secrets et de perversité politique ou autre bien rôdée. Ce livre-ci ne déroge pas à ces attentes quoique le sujet soit un théme éculé et dont on a vraiment s tout révélé : le nazisme et ses camps d'extermination. Au début on ne se doute de rien et on lit l'histoire incroyable de cette fille Maria, de 15 ans sauvage, abandonnée dans un ferme vide en Allemagne occupée et découverte par un bataillon français,qui va la sortir de ce taudis , la nourrir et la ramener à la santé. Cette première partie évoque la souffrance et le dénuement absolu du peuple allemand en 1944 quand les bombardements incessants des alliés leur tombent sur la tete et la pitié vous saisit. Du gain peint aussi les hommes et officiers français qui périssent d'ennui et tournent en rond dans cette ville dévastée et sans activité . La vie de caserne est terrifiante et leur chef un capitaine Louyre se cherche une énigme à résoudre dans cette Allemagne muette qui, ne parle pas du Führer ni de la Gestapo ni des prisonniers..qu'est devenue la mère, malade mentale enfermée de la petite Maria, et surtout qu'est devenu l'Hôpital de la ville ?

Une enquête mène au médecin chef du fameux hôpital maintenant à la retraite et on découvre toute la théorie nazie de l'élimination des malades mentaux,des handicapés, prisonniers malades etc qu'ils appelaient pudiquement des « morts par faveur « , car tous ces malheureux n'avaient qu'un envie : mourir. Ils furent déportés par trains entiers , et personne ne s'y opposât. La narration est sobre, claire , ressemble à un documentaire et Dugain réussit l'exploit de faire revivre sans ennuyer les lecteurs qui connaissent ces évènements, un passé dont les allemands survivants n'ont ni honte ni remords . le maire et le médecin de la ville admirent encore leur Führer et pour eux, la grande Allemagne victorieuse ne peut avoir été battue par les Alliés . Non ils ne croient pas encore à leur défaite.Elle est impossible et leur psychose continue.

Récit terrifiant et sans fioritures, le capitaine Louyre, après ces découvertes macabres, demande à être démobilisé et quittera l'Allemagne, tout comme le lecteur déboussolé préfère penser au salut de Maria, orpheline abandonnée qui part en France avec le capitaine vers une vie plus humaine  et un pays moins dévasté que l'Allemagne.

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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.