Nouvelle Vague

Patrick Modiano, Winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature

To date, I have read five of Patrick Modiano’s novels and loved all of them. In order of publication, they are:

  • Missing Person (1980)
  • Young Once (1981)
  • After the Circus (1992)
  • Out of the Dark (1998)
  • In the Café of Lost Youth (2007)

With each of them, I felt I was back in the 1960s, in the world of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), the Paris of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless and Giani Esposito in Paris Nous Appartient. Relationships are quickly entered into, but turn into quicksand. In After the Circus, we are not altogether sure of the main characters’ names. Describing his roommate, “Lucien” writes:

He had something in common with my father: they both wore suits, ties, and shoes like everyone else. They spoke unaccented French, smoked cigarettes, drank espresso, and ate oysters. But when in their company, you were seized by doubt and you felt like touching them, the way you rub cloth between your fingers, to make sure they really existed.

Earlier, he writes, “But topographical details have a strange effect on me: instead of clarifying and sharpening images from the past, they give me a harrowing sensation of emptiness and severed relationships.” That’s a good summary of the feeling of the novel: emptiness and severed relationships. “Lucien” is never sure when he parts from his girlfriend “Gisèle” that she will not just disappear forever into the warren of streets without a word of warning.

Fortunately, Modiano is a prolific writer, and many if not most of his works have been translated into English. Of the five novels I have read, I prefer the three most recent ones.

No Longer a Gallophobe

Nobel Prize-Winning Author Patrick Modiano

It was not always that I was in love with French culture. Perhaps, when I was young, I was tired of being thought to be French just because my last name is Paris. (Actually, it’s pronounced PAH-rrhish with a slightly trilled “r”.) It reached a crescendo in 1976, when my Laker Airlines flight to London stopped for some cockamamie reason at Le Bourget in Paris when we were all subject to security checks. When a French border guard wanted me to open up the back of my Olympus OM-1 camera and expose half a roll of film, I refused and called the man a cochon. Fortunately, I got away with it, though I probably shouldn’t have.

Now I am a devoted Francophile. What happened? First of all, Martine is French; and I went to France with her twice, where I found the French to be not at all as I thought them to be. Even the Parisians were all right. I suspect they seemed better because I speak fairly decent French and I could communicate with them.

I am now co-moderator of the Yahoo! French Literature reading group. Although the group concentrates on French literature of the 19th century, I discovered many 20th century classics reading books with the group. I thought I would share the ten I liked best over the last few years, presented here in alphabetical order by author:

  1. Georges Bernanos: Diary of a Country Priest. Made into a wonderful film by Robert Bresson.
  2. Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Journey to the End of the Night. I had read this before, but liked it even more on re-reading it.
  3. J M G Le Clézio: The Prospector. Looking for pirate treasure in Mauritius.
  4. Albert Cohen: Belle du Seigneur. A great novel about obsessive love set in the period between the two world wars.
  5. Jean Giono: The Horseman on the Roof. A wonderful historical novel about plague in Southern France.
  6. Julien Gracq: The Opposing Shore. I had never heard of Gracq before, but this is a wonderful story about contacts between two civilizations that have drifted apart. Like the West and Islam.
  7. François Mauriac: Thérèse Desqueyroux. A profoundly Catholic novel about a murderess.
  8. Patrick Modiano: Out of the Dark. Recalls the world of the New Wave films of the 1950s and 1960s. I have since read several more of Modiano’s books and find he is one of my favorites.
  9. Marcel Pagnol: My Father’s Glory. A sentimental memoir of a childhood in Provence.
  10. Raymond Queneau: The Last Days. I just read this one a couple of weeks ago. A wonderful study of life in Paris circa 1920.

I have left out Marcel Proust, who means more to me than all of the above put together, and also Georges Simenon, who also is well known in the West.

“A Pile of Dead Leaves”

Raymond Queneau (1903-1976)

Raymond Queneau has been known to me for some time: I read We Always Treat Women Too Well (1947) twice. But now that I have finished The Last Days: A Novel (1936), I think I have discovered a major talent.

The Last Days is the story of what one might call a social cohort, a group of people of varying ages who know each other to varying degrees. Interestingly, there are only two women in the cohort, Suze and Fabie, and they enter in only insofar as they have relationships with the males. Some of the males are students who are trying to study for a diploma in philosophy from the École Normale Supérieure; one is an aging teacher of history; another is a con man; and there are other various hangers-on. The one truly superior figure is the waiter Albert, who has everything all figured out, as described by his co-worker, Louis:

He didn’t only know how to see the future. He was also a philosopher. A real one. He used to say to me: “You see, the customers, they’re like a pile of dead leaves.”

I asked him why. He answered. “Leaves, when they’re on the tree, if you didn’t know that autumn existed you might think they’d stay there forever. That’s like our customers. They come back every day as regular as clockwork: you think they’ll go on doing so forever. But then one day the wind blows as carries the leaves off to the gutters and the street sweepers make little piles of them on the edge of the pavements to await the dust-cart. Me too, every year I make my little pile when the autumn arrives, my little pile of dead souls.”

Albert’s one goal in life is to win back the money that his father lost at the races: No more, just enough to live a comfortable life in retirement, and not a sou more. And he actually manages to do this, returning to work at the café the next day.

The others, such as the student from Le Havre, Vincent Turquedenne, manage to lose their virginity, hang out with their friends, and even get their diploma. The history teacher—feeling he spent his whole life teaching geography while he himself never traveled—dies and has a magnificent funeral. The con man figures he would be immortal if he never laid down, because that’s what kills one, but then gets sick and is put to death and, of course, dies.

There is a simple beauty to this story that makes me want to read more of Queneau’s work. Fortunately, a lot of it is available.


Petroleuses and Communards

Nope, Not the French Revolution—Eighty Years Later

Nope, Not the French Revolution—Eighty Years Later

Most Americans know little about French history, particularly in the years after the French Revolution and Napoleon. I mean, aren’t they “surrender monkeys”?

Not quite. In 1870-1871, Germany invaded France and crushed the French forces at Sedan, as described by Émile Zola in his novel Le Débacle (The Débacle). The Emperor Napoleon III hurriedly decamped; and the Third Republic under Adolphe Thiers, headquartered at Versailles, took over and continued the war. The problem was the city of Paris. The lightly armed National Guard wanted no truck with either Thiers or the Prussians, whereupon the forces of both laid siege to Paris.

This is when the Paris Commune was formed, which ran the besieged city from March to May of 1871. There were stories (probably mythical) of Parisiennes called petroleuses (illustrated above) armed with bottles of inflammable fluids roving the streets, setting fire to buildings. Admittedly, Napoleon III’s Tuileries Palace was torched; but most of the fires were attributable to French and Prussian cannon fire. Still, women found hurrying home with bottles of cooking oil were frequently executed on the spot.

Altogether, the casualties of the siege were about ten times larger than the entire Reign of Terror under Robespierre: The invading forces usually did not take prisoners and instead went in for an early version of ethnic cleansing, targeting mainly the working poor.

It was during this siege that the Parisians first developed a taste for horsemeat, which they were forced into eating along with dogs, cats, and various vermin when food supplies became scarce.

When I was in Paris, I visited the Communards’ Wall at Père Lachaise cemetery, where several hundred men, women, and children were captured, lined up against the wall, shot by firing squads, and buried in a mass grave.

Not too many years later, Vladimir Lenin carefully studied the lessons of the Paris Commune and adopted them in the Bolshevik Revolution, which was much less bloody than the events of Paris in May 1871.

Re-Orienting Myself to Peru

Spanish Colonial Architecture in Peru

Spanish Colonial Architecture in Lima, Peru

Because I place such a high value on traveling with Martine, I thought nothing last December of ditching my plans in an instant to visit Peru so that we could go to France and Italy. At that point, nothing was firm yet—I planned to go in September or October. (I frequently plan in advance by so many months that all my friends think that I have already gone and returned.) But continuing problems with her back, especially where soft beds are concerned, induced her to cancel the European trip.

There is never any guarantee when staying at strange hotels that your bed will be firm or mushy. Fortunately, I can tolerate a fairly wide range; but Martine’s range of acceptability is much narrower. It’s a pity, because her half-sister Madeleine in St-Lô (near the D-Day Beaches of Normandie)  is ailing and cannot travel herself.

In the meantime, I am resuming my Peru reading program, which consists primarily of:

  • Novels by Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s only Nobel Prize winner in literature
  • Novels and poems by other Peruvian literary notables, such as César Vallejo
  • Histories of the Spanish conquest of the Incas
  • Other Peruvian histories on subjects including the War of the Pacific, which Peru lost to Chile in the late 19th century
  • A biography of Simon Bolivar and possibly José de San Martín, the two principal liberators of South America

I don’t know how much I can read before the departure date, which has not  been set yet, but I will do my best.

All this preparation is, for me, a kind of courtesy. I do not believe in visiting another country without knowing enough of its language, culture and history to be conversant with the locals. That has helped me considerably in Argentina and Iceland. Plus, it is a pure pleasure for me to prepare a trip far enough in advance—especially during tax season, when there is little else to forward to. I have little truck with those travelers who believe in being “spontaneous” at the cost of making their fellow Americans look like dunces.

Traveling Alone

It Looks As If I’ll Be on My Own

It Looks As If I’ll Be on My Own

Martine and I had decided that, if she felt well enough to travel, we’d go together to France and Italy. If she felt unable to travel, I would go by myself to Peru and possibly Bolivia. At the end of January, we took a little test trip to the Anza-Borrego Desert in San Diego County. Although we had a firm bed, it wasn’t firm enough for Martine’s back. Fortunately, we had an air mattress that was firmer, so Martine slept on the floor. This option would not work as well for overseas travel, as both of us travel light.

On the plus side, Martine is getting better slowly; but she still depends heavily on a super firm couch and a super firm mattress for her comfort. Without these, she would be awake most of the night for all the days of our trip. Understandably, under those circumstances she would prefer to remain behind in Los Angeles.

I, on the other hand, have this great yearning for travel. The pity of it is, I will be deprived of my favorite traveling companion. I am used to this, as I have been alone in Iceland twice (2001 and 2013) and in Argentina once (2006). We will probably travel together to Southern Arizona by car—with the firm air mattress—so that Martine doesn’t get a case of cabin fever.

In the meantime, I am continuing my Peru reading program in preparation for a three week vacation there in September and October. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem, “The Winners”:

Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.

Most memorably, in Josef von Sternberg’s film Morocco (1930), Marlene Dietrich, writes these lines with her lipstick on a hotel room mirror before ditching Adolphe Menjou.

So I will travel faster, but I’d rather not be alone.


Surrender Monkeys? Freedom Fries?

Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse

Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse

At some point in the recent past, Americans have decided that the French were “surrender monkeys” for their lack of interest in acceding to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Around the same time, French Fries were officially renamed Freedom Fries in the U.S. Congressional Cafeteria.

To me, this is very much a “But what have you done for me recently?” type of judgment. We seem to have forgotten that if it weren’t for French help during the American Revolution, we would be calling them Chips instead and revering the memory of King George III. Not only did we have the help of Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau, but a substantial French fleet headed up by Admiral de Grasse (shown above) precipitated Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.

When the French had their own revolution a few years later, they paid us the supreme compliment of imitating our Constitution.

In the years since those heady times, we have decided that the French don’t like us. In defense, we’ve decided not to like them. Most of our present attitude is a misconception based on the notion that the French pretend not to understand good plain American English and persist in their twonky little European language. (Far be from us to learn another language, especially since we are the world’s only legitimate certified superpower.)

Martine and I have visited France twice (actually, Martine was born there), and we’ve always met with courtesy, even in Paris. Of course, we both speak French after a fashion—ungrammatical, perhaps, but sufficiently clear. We’ve even been praised for our valiant attempts at speaking the language. I suspect the French know that Martine and I like them, and it shows in our demeanor.

I remember one visit to Paris when I decided to risk ordering a tripe dish. After I nibbled away at it for a bit, I simply mentioned to our waiter, “Monsieur, j’étais trop brave.” (“Sir, I was too brave.”) The waitstaff and surrounding diners broke out laughing, and I joined them. Another time, we were at a little brasserie in Montparnasse, and I found I didn’t have enough francs (that was before the euro) for a tip. Instead, I asked our waiter if he would accept Paris Metro tickets as a tip in lieu of cash—since we were headed out to the airport immediately afterwards. He gratefully accepted and wished us a safe journey back.

With the French, I suspect it’s simply a case of showing attitude and getting attitude in return. Best to leave our attitudes behind in the States and enjoy ourselves among an intelligent and courageous people.