“Style is not an end in itself: it is a result,” René Magritte.
A thinker, Magritte was in permanent revolution against banality and crass assumptions. He communicated his ideas through paintings, which he called “visible thoughts,” upending society’s conventions. He united the familiar in unexpected ways to create what is unfamiliar and often disturbing. Famous for playing with words and image, millions of people know his iconic painting of a pipe with the words beneath it, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“this is not a pipe“) — point being the image may be of a pipe, but the pipe is not representative of the image.
In this brave new world of twenty-first century “post-truth politics” in which image matters to an alarming degree, and words no longer need bear any relation to reality, how everyday language disguises thought; the vagueness and ambiguity of words; and the gap between words and seeing, are hot topics. Déjà vu? Magritte captured the essence of the relationship between words and image over half a century ago. The first-ever publication of his Selected Writings in English by Alma Books is long overdue, and timely.
Continue reading The BookBlast Review | Magritte for our time | Selected Writings
Once upon a time in the West, marriage was a strategic alliance between families, and it was often between first and second cousins. Polygamy was common until the Church prevailed and monogamy became the status quo, although men enjoyed extramarital affairs. Only in the 19th century did love get a look in; and in the 20th the idea of marriage being a partnership of equals took hold.
Divorce rates around the world have rocketed over the last few decades and in the UK more than a third of people are single, or have never married. Yet the happily married couple is still idealised. It is the domestic holy grail; the stuff of fantasy. ‘Brangelina’, ‘Kimye’, and ‘Billary’ are regular red-top fodder on to which we can transfer our dreams and desires, envy and self-righteous outrage, all depending . . . Image, image, image – but what really lies behind?
A happy marriage is a mirage, a miracle, or, according to Lucien d’Azay, a masterpiece. Two very different perspectives of marriage, desire and fantasy are offered to us, in his beautifully-written narratives, Sonia Stock and Ashley & Gilda. I just hope a canny British publisher picks them up and translates them into English, so that they can be savoured by readers on this side of the Channel.
Continue reading Lucien d’Azay | A French Man of Letters
“She had known from the start, before she could even speak or understand, that Malinka and her mother meant nothing to anyone, that this was how it was and there were no grounds for complaint, that they were lowly flowers, their existence unjustified, lowly flowers.”
Whatever reality is, it isn’t what it seems. Ndiaye goes through the looking-glass into a world of barren parent-child relationships, rootless limboland, and racial being and nothingness in this bewitching and unsettling novel. The eerily poetic prose is limpid yet has a blurred effect like reading with the wrong pair of glasses. Translator Jordan Stump has done a great job.
Three women − mother, daughter and granddaughter − form a cursed constellation; a yawning void between them. The banality of everyday life, and a desire for normality, are underpinned by a surreal, destabilising atmosphere.
Continue reading The BookBlast Review | Ladivine by Marie NDiaye
Manuel D’Exil − comment réussir son exil en trente cinq leçons (A Guide to Exile, or how to make a success of exile in 35 chapters) by Velibor Čolić
Both World War I and World War II originated in the Balkans. Central-Eastern Europe is a region that is terra incognita to most Brits. Prime Minister Chamberlain famously remarked about the Czechoslovak crisis in 1938: “How terrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” Dictator Marshal Tito held Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and others in a state of uneasy alliance until his death on 4 May, 1980. Ethnic tensions grew in Yugoslavia and war broke out in 1990.
The Balkans are once again the crucible of crisis – this time as the main refugee route to northern Europe. Thousands have become trapped in Greece after Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia closed their frontiers. Continue reading Found for Translation | Velibor Čolić
“La vie est belle, le destin s’en écarte
Personne ne joue avec les mêmes cartes
Le berceau lève le voile, multiples sont les routes qu’il dévoile
Tant pis, on n’est pas nés sous la même étoile.”
IAM – Nés sous la même étoile [Born Under the Same Star]
Although a thriller, Arab Jazz is really about muddled identities, lives destroyed by religious extremism, and dysfunctional families coexisting in fragile racial harmony in impoverished neighbourhoods. The narrative travels between the ungentrified 19ième arrondissement of north-east Paris, home of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killers, and Brooklyn, with its Sephardic and Hasidic synagogues and kosher diners. Karim Miské’s debut novel excellently translated by Sam Gordon is a good, very ‘real’ read.
Continue reading The BookBlast Review | Arab Jazz by Karim Miské
Dew Angels is one of the best young adult novels I have read in a long time. It’s not just Melanie Schwapp’s strong, lucid writing; believable, engaging characters; compelling plotlines; and snappy pace, but also how the reader sees the world through fourteen-year-old Nola’s eyes. My ‘inner teenager’ certainly identified with underlying aspects of the story: the need to be loved and to belong; the agonies of first love and heartbreak; the power of anger; to feel comfortable in my skin and at one with the roots of my identity; and, most of all, the need for self acceptance. These are concerns that never completely go away even when one is a so-called ‘adult’ who has – supposedly! – learned how to handle things.
At birth, Nola Chambers is ostracized by her family for having skin “black as a moonless night”, while her siblings have skin “as golden as the retreating sun”. She is obliged by the headmistress of her school to do homework with Dahlia whose mother runs Merlene’s Bar and Grill, known locally for being a den of evil. “There was music coming from the bar. The deep reggae bass seemed to spur on her racing heart as she walked past the red door. A woman in a tight orange mini skirt and tubed top leaned against the jamb, blowing streams of smoke from her nose as she drew on a cigarette.” The gambit works and Nola discovers the meaning of committment, friendship and fun. She also learns that gossip is malicious and fuels prejudice founded on ignorance, fear and envy.
Continue reading The BookBlast Review | Dew Angels
Henrietta Foster is a freelance journalist and TV producer for the BBC. Her latest film, Beyond The Grace Note, is about women orchestra conductors. She is writing a book about Hungarian Jews.
Alois Hotschnig sent me a copy of Ludwig’s Room about a year or so ago. Accompanying the book was a postcard of a fearsome blue dragon by Albrecht Dürer, and on the reverse was a greeting in pencil. I mentioned his gift to Tess Lewis, the translator of the book, and that I was very much looking forward to reading it. Quick as a flash an email came back saying that as I had just been through a bad emotional break up, I was not to read the novel under any circumstances – any circumstances whatsoever. It was not a book for the broken-hearted. A little taken aback I did, however, obey my wise and good friend.
A few weeks ago and with some trepidation, I decided that I was now sufficiently robust to read Ludwig’s Room. I was also curious to discover why it would have been so harmful for the recently dumped. Like Dürer’s dragon, it is a spiky, frightening, bleak and at times difficult book to read. But also like Dürer’s mythical beast, it is finely drawn and deceptively engaging. At times, it is very funny in a self-deprecating rather black-humoured way.
Continue reading Henrietta Foster reviews Ludwig’s Room by Alois Hotschnig trs. Tess Lewis
In his planning notes for Nana, the character of which was based on four notorious, pampered prostitutes, Zola describes his novel as being about “a whole society chasing after sex. A pack of hounds following a bitch . . . The poem of male desire.*” Nana rises from being a streetwalker to high-class cocotte; her golden tresses and “deadly smile of the man-eater” holding Le Tout Paris in thrall. Zola’s descriptions of her delirious expenditure, rising debts and magnificent, glitzy Hotel Particulier, “which seemed to have been built over an abyss that swallowed up men — along with their worldly possessions, their fortunes, their very names — without leaving even a handful of dust behind them,” foreshadow her vile death rotting in a state of stinking pustulence from smallpox during the last years of the French Second Empire. When it was published the novel was an instant hit, selling nearly 55,000 copies.
In his study of prostitution in Paris published in 1842 — Streetwalkers, Lorettes and Courtesans (Filles, Lorettes et Courtisanes) — Alexandre Dumas shows how going to work on the streets near La Bourse or rue Saint Honoré; on the Grands Boulevards; or in a brothel was more profitable for a lower-class girl than factory work, or shoplifting. Many sold themselves to support their families. Others were servants sacked by their employers, or arrived in the big city from the country having fallen pregnant.
Continue reading Sex in the nineteenth-century city | Paris, London and the demi-monde
“Morality is not offended by human truth. It needs to know the real world and to make vice itself a source of wisdom. A novel by Sir Walter Scott may well push a highly strung young girl into the arms of a lover; a sincere study of the passions will no doubt horrify a young girl, but at the same time it will teach her about life and give her moral strength.” So wrote Emile Zola in La Tribune on 9 August, 1868.
When Zola was a young employee at the Parisian publisher Hachette, he came across La Cause du Beau Guillaume (1862) by the novelist and art critic Louis Edmond Duranty, an advocate of the Realist, subsequently renamed Naturalist, cause. In the preface to the 1900 edition, Jean Vaudal writes: “In the gallery of ancestors which Zola gave to Naturalism, he placed the bust of Duranty on the second shelf, just beneath those of Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert. If but one of them were to be granted the Naturalist label, it would be the author of La Cause du Beau Guillaume.”
Edmond and Jules de Goncourt formulated the doctrine of Naturalism, in 1864: “The novel of today is composed from documents, received by word of mouth or taken direct from nature, just as history is composed from written documents. Historians write narratives of the past, novelists narratives of the present.” Continue reading The BookBlast Review | Zola vs. The Victorians by Eileen Horne
“Since my earliest childhood the notion of individual freedom had been deeply rooted in me. Everything I saw or felt as I was growing up turned into a passion — a passion I shared with millions of contemporary Frenchmen, although my own brand drew me toward a form of individualist anarchy while the others usually went toward practical communism or socialism. I resented and hated l’ésprit bourgeois in all its manifestations, but I also distrusted all forms of human association.” So writes Maurice Girodias in his introduction to The Olympia Reader, Grove Press, 1965.
Maurice Girodias, purveyor of some of the best erotic writing ever published which united the obscene and the beautiful, was the son of a French mother and Jewish father from Manchester, “a silver spoonfed infant and a very poor orphan.” Jack Kahane came to Paris in the 1930s and set up the Obelisk Press to publish books in English which, thanks to a loophole in French law, could not be printed in America or England because of censorship. He published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1934, Anais Nin, Cyril Connolly, a fragment of Joyce’s work in progress, Haveth Childers Everywhere, as a limited edition. The Young and the Evil (1933) by Charles Henri-Ford and Parker Tyler depicted gay life in Harlem and Greenwich and men earning their living there — Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein praised it to the skies. Continue reading Book Blasts from the past | Indie publishers remembered | Maurice Girodias & Olympia Press