My love of (unconventional) chronology

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The Egyptian chronology of death.

   To me the most fascinating thing in a book is time and chronology. I am obsessed with recording the years and days of a story, its time span, its historical scope. In storytelling it is a plural and multipolar phenomenon. It goes from the classical bildungsroman starting with the main character’s childhood, and tells his life, quite simply, as a life-long personal diary – Jane Eyre, for instance. Some family sagas, too, have this kind of style : to me the most blatant example is the 12 books long Poldark series. This is good for patient and committed readers, but the character has to be charismatic and iconoclastic, likable. It is easy to get bored, but when the author masters his project, it results in a river of adventures and experiences that the reader fully enjoys.

There are other books, my favorites, written by an old narrator, writing and commenting on his own past life. All of my favourite books are written this way. Sinuhé the Egyptian is an old and exiled man, and has nothing else to do than writing on papyrus the account of his fabulous yet bitter life. Fitzchivalry Farseer hesitates between two tasks : writing the Six Duchies chronicles, or  writing the life of a Farseer bastard. He ends up doing both – and a whole lot more. Both characters provide with a philosophical, sometimes poetic glance on their existence. It results in a very epic and prophetic tone, and allows the author to settle his work in realism and authenticity.

And there is the most complex and yet compelling type of chronology : the un-linear, un-ordered chronology. Scientific vocabulary call it prolepsis, and analepsis, and such beautiful sonorities enclose a literary gem. They are no mere adornment or fancy of an author that try to be original and to prove to his reader that he has a superior mind or sense of storytelling. They are actually committing the reader in the writing and creation process.

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Time Travel, Steve Hester

  One of the most famous prolepsis of all time is the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude :

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to       remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

  The narrator goes back to the roots of the story, that is to say the village of Buendía’s family, and it allows him to introduce it. It also creates an epic tension in the story, because war and death always overshadow it. It could have been a counter in-media-res beginning, because it may have been the action of firing the bullet, triggering the literary process. But it would have been the death of one of the characters. A book beginning with death is rarely a good omen. It also warns the reader : this book is not going to be an easy one. You will have to remember names and eras, because they are multiple, and evolve. Once Aureliano is a child with his father, and then, he is a warrior. So please, follow. Just saying. Many years later….

  Waterland by Graham Swift is also written as a broken puzzle, which creates a very addictive effect. You want to know what happened to cause such bitterness and violence. There are cobwebs you have to burn before reaching the center of the maze. But it is worth it, even though the final is particularly horrifying. Two 19th century novels inspired my love for chronology and structures in narratology : Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights. They  rely on different narrators, deferent times, letters, framed narratives… It creates such a depth that the story is thicker than the others, like, you can dive into it – my metaphors are very earthly and material… – that is generally reflected by geography. For example, Frankenstein is set between Ingolstadt and the North Pole, and Wuthering Heights between Thrushgross and…Wuthering Heights.

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Thanks to the person who did this !

Symmetry and plurality is key in this type of narrative, and nothing is here meaninglessly. Everything is calculated, as perfect as a globe. That is probably one of the reasons why they became classics…

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Unconventional chronology is even more unsettling when it comes to films. I recently watched Cloud Atlas (LOVED IT) which is an original and intricate piece of filmic art. It consists in six stories set in different eras, 2012 being the nearest to us. All the actors are  recycled in each story- sometimes through cross-dressing or heavy make-up – but their actions at one time has consequences in the past and the future. They all have birthmarks, shaped like a comet. Places also echo each other-the islands. It is actually a movie about uncanny, familiarisation, wrapping everything up. As each story is interrupted by sequences from the other stories, it may discourage many viewers. To the contrary, you may be completely caught up in the vortex of stories and actions. They all are very dark, but represent a noble fight : the abolition of slavery or the revelation of a genocide. Everything seems to be a door to another time. In some way the film advocates for reincarnation, and in the idea that we have several lives, that our anterior lives influence us, that the person we meet one day, we met before, and will meet later. But you will always fall in love with them – like Halle Berry and Tom Hanks in 1970 and 2321.

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Multifaceted Tim Hanks

  Cloud Atlas is a two hours and fifty minutes-long hypnotizing movie : there are incredible visual and musical qualities and a great piece of storytelling. It is what prolepsis and analepsis look like when they are filmed, with postmodern influences.

Chronology in art is a field that is still offering a great potential. I really like the fact that this notion can go beyond textuality. Past, present and future are no longer simple grammatical notions. Time is not just historical and physical. It is a playground … Who’s the next chronology breaker ?

 

Lucie Kelso

 

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French literature for beginners and curious minds

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When you learn a foreign language, you come to a point when you want to learn a bit more about its culture. In my opinion literature is one of first the places to start. In the Western world literature has a huge importance and can be a way to immerse oneself in both the history and the spirit of a country. It is also a way to discover new styles, subjects, preoccupations.

I studied Spanish and English at school. Concerning English, i came to a point in my life when I exclusively want to read books in original version – and I currently exclusively read English and American literature. I unfortunately am not as skilled in Spanish. I once tried to read a novella in Spanish (Crónica de una muerte anunciada, by Garcia-Marquez, i think) but it was very hard for me. However, I love Spanish-speaking world’s literature. I read many classical books from Latin America and Spain, translated into french, though.

I started reading books in pure English without any difficulty when I was 17 – I had read bilingual novels before (some Poe things, and Stevenson’s novels). I remember that at the beginning of the summer I ordered books on BookDepository and it was such an event for me. I picked up small books that I thought easy and good to start with : The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm and Jack London’s novellas. My first very big novel in English was Wuthering Heights, one year later, I think. Then I encountered Shakespeare’s original text… But that is another story.

So, if you are like me, and that you are always curious to read texts belonging to a foreign culture, whether it is in their original version or translated, there you will find a list of books that, according to me, are good to start with. They are generally studied in french literature classes in Secondary and High schools. They are some kind of french must-haves, because they launched a new movement, or had a very big impact culturally speaking, or simply because they are ranked among classical books. I like variety, hence I listed poetry, essays, and the inevitable 19th century novels. Let’s go.

 

L’Etranger/The Stranger by A. Camus (1942)

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It is a novella every French pupil has studied in high school. It is remarkable because of its plain and dry style. It is told by a rather indifferent, feelings-deprived like narrator. It is really disturbing, the type of narration is the key interest of the text. It is set in French-Algeria, when it was still a French colony, which is very important from the historical point of view. I would qualify it as an easy read in its original version.

 

Les Contes de Perrault/Charles Perrault’s Fairy Tales 

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Everything is in the title. After losing his job (it sounds very modern), Perrault simply decided to dedicate his time to his children and wrote tales for them. They were inspired by french legends and popular songs and myths. He basically wrote (not really invented, though) the most famous stories of Western culture, aka Cinderella, The  Sleeping beauty,  Little Red Riding Hood, Hop-o’-My-Thumb, and my personal favourite, Bluebeard. It is very simple to read since you already know the story. Tales are always great because they seem so simple at first sight yet they actually mean a great deal. It is always very interesting to go back to the roots of a cultural phenomenon.

 

Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes/Discourse on Inequality by JJ Rousseau (1755)

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This text is generally the first insight in philosophy and essay-writing French pupil have when they study the Enlightenment. It is a text of major importance both for European philosophy and French history. It is also one of the most misunderstood texts ever. It should not be taken literally. It is not a paleo diet manifesto, but rather a problematization on what is the nature of man. Rousseau’s argument is that human nature has changed, rather negatively, through evolution that resulted in the advent of society. As it is said in the title, it is also a reflection on inequality, and inequalities. It is a capital text everyone should read in y opinion, not as a political program, but as a fundamental reflection on modern society and the individual. It could be a bit difficult to follow if you are not completely bilingual, but it is easily findable online.

 

Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville/Addendum to the Journey of Bougainville by Denis Diderot (1796)

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It is a text that is generally studied with the Enlightenment as well. It deals with all the themes that were dear to this group of thinkers : the Church, Catholic faith, liberty, the nature of individuals, morals but above all, slavery and domination, or Colonisation. Some say that Diderot failed to overcome ethnocentric tendencies, but I think that the fact that he portrayed a native as the Enlightenment thoughts bearer is a strong plea for equality. This text had a great impact on me when I studied it in high school. It is not complicated to read I think, but it might be easily findable online as well.

 

L’Eau des Collines/The Water of the Hills by Marcel Pagnol (1963)

This is my favourite French story. It is set in early 20th century Provence. It is a story both gloomy and bright – sorry for the silly oxymoron. The first novel is about deception, leading to a tragedy, because of jealousy and pure evil. It is about the theft of water, which is the most precious and rare thing in the dry land of Southern France. The second book is all about unrequited love and revenge. I won’t write any summary because I don’t want to spoil anything. Appart from the fact that it is a very powerful story, Pagnol’s style is very poetic and authentic, and unique in French literature. When one reads Pagnol, one can hear the summer cicadas. One can smell thyme and feel the harsh sun on his skin… I swear it is true. It is for advanced French readers, but it has been translated into English in 1966.

 

Les Contemplations/The Contemplations – Book IV, Pauca Meae by Victor Hugo (1856)

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Victor Hugo is perhaps the most famous French author. I don’t really like his prose but his poetry is one of the most beautiful thing ever written. Les Contemplations is a collection of poetry divided into several books, each of them is highly autobiographical and represents a specific step in the poet’s life. He lost his daughter when she drowned in the Seine in 1843. This tragedy is described by the poet in book IV. Demain, dès l’aube or Tomorrow, At Dawn is a poem many students know by heart. It is very beautiful and emotionally charged, and it is a good insight in French poetry and in Hugo’s works.

 

Le Horla/The Horla by Guy de Maupassant (1887)

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Maupassant is my favourite french author. He wrote hundreds of short stories, and among them were horror stories. He is one of Lovecraft’s references. The narrator of Le Horla thinks he is haunted by an invisible man and it drives him mad. It is a very classical text, once again. I studied it in secondary school, and really enjoyed it. Maupassant has a very pleasant and compelling style. It is easy to read, and i hope it could encourage you to read more of his works.

 

Voilà ! I hope this article will entice you to read French literature. There are  obviously plenty of very good French books that await you – but if you are a beginner, don’t start with Proust or Zola, even if they are very attractive, they are not the easiest. I hope you will try one of the ones I mentioned.

“Poetry is a machine that manufactures love. Its other virtues escape me.” Jean Cocteau

 

L Kelso

 

My special books

 

Some books are particularly meaningful to us, because they are among our favourites, or because we read them at a special moment in our lives. They are books that you once re-read, that you will re-read years and years after the first time, and they will have that certain flavour for ever. It is comforting to know that some books you meet in your life are like old friends you are happy to see once in a while. They are the guardians of your book-collection, those who once entered this special sanctuary. And will never leave it. Those are my chosen few.

 

7-The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

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The story is set in Prague at the end of the 1960s, when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. There are several main characters, Tomas and his wife Teresa. He is an unfaithful husband and we follow her anguish. Sabina is Tomas’s mistress. Love is important in the novel, and relationships between lovers are complex and quite iconoclastically portrayed. What really left a mark on me were the philosophical passages, little paragraphes between events in the novel, that are pieces of sterling work.

“Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”

The story hinges on the ideas of lightness and heaviness. Life is only lightness because present is present, and things only happen once. But love is also something light, because  it is hazardous, contingent, even though it is something humans generally cling to, and place on top of the chain of values.

I loved this book because of the authenticity of its words, because it remains quite simple in his vocabulary and style, but it is one of the most powerful texts I have ever read (that’s why it’s on this list, obviously). I read it in french however,  it would be interesting to read it in English soon. It might be the first book I read that combined that nonfictional, philosophical powers and interesting narratorial value, and it really why I was hooked. It definitely was an important step in my reader-life.

6-One Hundred years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)

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It is said it is one of the most difficult book to read, and to be honest I can’t see why. I read it in one week. The reader is immediately caught up into a net, a tornado of characters, time, events, magic. It is the story of the founders of the village of Macondo, and the book chronicles the lives of men and women belonging to the Buendia family, and we see seven generations of them coming to life.

Garcia Marquez is the father of Magic Realism. The story takes place in the real world, some protagonists even meet historical characters and play a role in the history of Colombia. But supernatural phenomenons appear without people really being surprised. A girl eats mud as casually as one eats bread. A man literally takes roots when he decides to be chained to a tree in the middle of his house’s courtyard.

“Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”

It is sometimes a bit puzzling, because there are plenty of characters, prolepsis and analysis. The beginning is the end, the end is the reading of the entire novel… But It is worth concentrating and paying attention to each detail. It is ranked among the best novels of all time (+ Nobel Book Prize, just in case you were not convinced)… I am never objective concerning books, but I will say that it is one of the best all the same.

It was my first insight in non-french and non-english literature, and I think we do not talk about foreign literature enough. This book taught me to be always curious concerning literature, that is why I put it on my ‘specials’ list.

5-King Lear by William Shakespeare (1605)

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It is my favourite play by Shakespeare, just above The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. It is obviously because language is elevated to art and perfection, and also because it has a fascinating significance, especially to a freudian – like me. I will write an article about what Freud said about literature. He knew Shakespeare’s works very well, and used King Lear for one of his most brilliant yet short text – The Theme of the Three Caskets.  I am not going to make a summary of the story because everybody knows it. I love this particular play because it is the ultimate tragedy to me, not only because they all die at the end. It is actually stupid and infuriating. But the Fool. Lear’s Fool : he is the most witty and clever character ever. Act II scene 4… If you are afraid to read it, the film adaptation by Laurence Olivier is very good because it concentrates all the tension, violence and darkness of Shakespeare’s lines.

As an English literature student, I first encountered Shakespeare’s text and it left me quite skeptical and anguished, and I thought that I would never be able to understand a word at that time. I thought I would never like the Bard. I tamed that fear and grew interested in Shakespeare throughout the year. I read half of his plays, and finally decided I would choose Shakespeare for my master’s degree essay writing. Hence Shakespeare is one of my most special authors, because it is associated to a very important step in my life, my initiation to academic research and writing… King Lear is among my corpus for the essay. I know some passages by heart now, I even dream of King Lear. But that’s not really a problem.

 

4-Wuthering Heights  by Emily Brontë (1847)

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Wuthering Heights was my first insight in British literature when I was 12. It may be my oldest favourite. It is a very classical favourite, I think 3 readers out of 5 loved it and admit that it is one of the best thing they ever read. I don’t think I have very original tastes, I confess that I adore this book… because its author was such an hypnotizing spirit, and because it is incredible to think that a semi-recluse young girl wrote such a dark and powerful story.

I mean, every person who dreams to become writer would like his book to resemble Wuthering Heights… I actually belong to this group of people, I am very jealous of Emily Brontë… I also love books with a very intricate structure, like Frankenstein. Embeddedness, non-conventional chronology always make a book really engrossing.

 

3–Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)


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This is certainly the most important book in my life, the one I know the best. I watched nearly all the adaptations, I read plenty of critical books about it, and I know some passages by heart. There is absolutely no blemish, no error in this book. The dialogues are masterpieces. I relate to Jane so much. She certainly is the most likable character of all English literature. She is strong, modern, beautiful.

Appart from the fact that i love the story in itself for many personal reasons, I believe that the genius of Jane Eyre lies in its generic belongings, its intertextuality and commitments. It explores the Gothic stereotypes and Romanticism, as well as social aspects. The sense of fate, providence and election expressed in the story is very convincing, and not obtrusive. The Brontës are among those authors (women authors, like Emily Dickinson) raised in a very strict, puritan background, who managed to put aside their education, to overcome its narrowness. Christianity is  not totally repressed or rejected, but its presence is subtle, clever, and used in a very efficient way, since it builds a proto-feminist discourse. There is a Christian dimension in Jane’s first refusal to Rochester, but to me it is chiefly a way to assert her own freedom as a human being- as a woman.

Jane is a model to me, even in 2018, especially in 2018. She is my paper-sister and best friend. Yes I am crazy. And I am in love with Rochester (especially when he is portrayed by Michael Fassbender)

 

2-The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien (1937)

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Like one of my bestfriends said once I was raised with The Lord of The Rings, and that is not an understatement. My mother read it when she was 15 and when it was not adapted yet, and she was the biggest TLOR fan. I saw the films when i was 8 or 9. When we were kids, my friends and I, we would imagine ourselves as members of The Fellowship of the Ring, performing scenes from the films for hours. It was such a magical time, but I actually still do it in my head even if I am 21 now. I do it in a more ‘adult’ way : I listen to the soundtracks all the time, I pretend that I am a Hobbit (cheese and beer, you know)… Thomas and Antony, if you read this, you know what the Shire means.

To me Heroic and Epic fantasy are genres where literary creation is the purest, because everything is invented, imagined and crafted. JRR Tolkien not only served as a father for us all (us, fantasy worlds addicts), but he achieved to build the most complete and complex books of all time… He just created languages as a pastime activity. And he created Merry and Pippin.

To those who say that it is boring, that they only needed to summon the eagles to throw the ring into the fire…  What say you ? Fat Hobbit is always so polite. Fly you fools. Bye.

 

1-The Egyptian by Mika Waltari (1945)

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“I, SINUHE, the son of Senmut and of his wife Kipa, write this. I do not write it to the glory of the gods in the land of Kem, for I am weary of gods, nor to the glory of the Pharaohs, for I am weary of their deeds. I write neither from fear nor from any hope of the future but for myself alone. During my life I have seen, known, and lost too much to be the prey of vain dread; and, as for the hope of immortality, I am as weary of that as I am of gods and kings. For my own sake only I write this; and herein I differ from all other writers, past and to come.”

It is my favourite book of all time, as simple as that. In the excerpts I quoted just above you can see that it is a very special style, imitating ancient writers, with very solemn and poetic sentences. The book consists in the memoirs of an Egyptian physician with a remarkable and tragic fate. It is set in Ancient Egypt, mostly during the reign of Akhenaten of the 18th dynasty, who attempted to destroy traditional Egyptian pantheon to introduce a main God – Aten. It is evidently a purely fictional book, but the author was praised and renowned for his historical accuracy and preciseness.

Egyptian culture is a fascinating one, to which we owe many things. This book gives you the impression that you have time-travelled right in the middle of Ancient Thebes, and that you can drink water from the Nile. It is a very philosophical book as well as a very entertaining one. I don’t really know if it is still famous today, and if it can easily be found in libraries or in bookstores. It is such a gem. I will probably re-read it 100 times in my life, but it does not matter.

 

 

My list of special novels will probably evolve in the future, but I am sure those books will always be part of it, of me. What are you special books ?

 

Lucie K

January/February recap

 

February is coming to an end. It is time to cast a retrospective look on books read, films watched, things done.

1-In the cinema

I usually do not go often to the cinema, but I am surprised to see that I have been thrice since the beginning of 2018. 2 of them are American films that both gained a huge recognition. One is about a French writer. The following one really won my heart.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Martin McDonagh

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This is a harsh film with harsh characters and harsh emotions. And the power of this film springs from the incredible actors (Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell) on the one hand, and from its incessant dynamic between hatred and forgiveness. It starts with a death and a murder, but it is ultimately a film about life. It is not a film about the solving of the aforementioned murder, but a film about despair and healing. You can easily cry and laugh. It is the kind of American film that save American films, because it manages to respect the canons of the genre yet it is self-critical and it is able to go beyond manichaeism. Violence is sometimes unbearable, and humaneness becomes even more overwhelming. I absolutely loved every second of it.

 

La Douleur (Film adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ War : A Memoir) -Emmanuel Finkiel

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Mélanie Thierry is a very impressive and convincing Marguerite Duras. The filmic devices, soundtracks and rythme convey a very stifling atmosphere. The title, meaning basically ‘the pain’ is well exploited, because the whole impression the viewer has is that of a nagging pain. Several passages of the book are read aloud in the film. The only negative point I can give about this film, is that it tends to be a bit too long. One has to be mentally prepared to watch it, and it is somewhat depressing. But it is a very good film still.

 

The Shape of Water – Guillermo Del Toro

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This is the movie I loved the least. It is good, it is a nice love story with good visual qualities, but it is a bit manichaean. It is an American movie with a very mean guy and a ‘reflection’ on the acceptance of differences and different beings. Good intentions, yes. It gets really emotional sometimes, because the creature is cute and mistreated. It is a pleasant and pretty film but it is not a masterpiece, in my opinion.

 

2-Novels 

I read 8 novels in total :

The Poldark novels : 3rd to 6th by Winston Graham

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch

Silk by Alessandro Barrico

Waterland by Graham Swift.  Complete review here

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Complete review here 

A Room with a View by EM Forster

I enjoyed all the books, but I was slightly disappointed by The Unicorn. The 100 first pages are brilliant – among the best well-written, suspenseful, mysterious chapters I have ever read. But it tends to lose its substance and rythme towards the middle of the plot. Maybe it is part of the effect the author wanted to give : it does not become a boring book all of a sudden either, but it becomes strange and frustrating, and leaves you with a strong feeling of unease, hence ultimately Murdoch succeeded… I don’t know. Also I really, really liked Forster’s novel. It is a very nice, original and fresh story, and I really want to explore his works more in detail… and the adaptation by J Ivory… Loved it all.

 

 

3-Essays and Poetry

-Emily Dickinson’s poetry (not all of them, but something like 200 poems – which is actually a ridiculously small amount, since there are 1700 poems or more)

Maud by AL Tennyson

Writings on art and literature by S Freud

The Golden BoughThe Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings (Part 1) by JG Frazer

-Virginia Woolf’s essays on literature

The Golden Bough was mentioned by one of my teachers in the first semester and it caught my attention. Moreover it was one of Freud’s major references (For those who do not know, Sigmund Freud is my mentor). The author questions religious myths and there interconnections. It is sometimes very esoteric but a fascinating work still. I was also surprised to learn that I loved E Dickinson. I thought she was going to exasperate me when I saw that we had to study her poetry for the second semester. But she was such a brilliant spirit. Her words are alchemy, her personality is a complete gem. Very happy I have found a new poetess I really am interested in.

4-Images and sounds 

I sometimes have a quite morbid taste when dealing with paintings and works of pictural art. I loved Goya and Füssli this month.

I agree with you, it is terrifying and creepy, and a great deal confusing. But aesthetically baffling. Those faces, in between man an animal, and those lines, in between blurred, undefined and defined… And it is very dark. I love dark paintings, they are even more interesting, and in this case despite darkness we clearly see what it is all about.

Perhaps a coincidence, but today one of my favourite youtubers (Nerdwriter1) published a video about Goya’s Saturn Devouring his son. He is very good at describing the mechanisms behind works of art. I really recommend his reviews.

I have spent a major part of my evenings with Bayek of Siwa, Assassin’s Creed Origins‘ main character. The game basically is the best of the whole saga in my opinion. Beautiful. Well-written. Egypt. It is said I have played more than 80 hours on that game (according to my PS4)… I can’t confess it.

 

That’s all ! January and February were two very satisfying months in terms of culture.

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Jane Austen

LK

The Left Hand of Darkness : Utopia or Dystopia ?

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“The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion. … Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, unpredictable, inevitable — the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”

“That we shall die.”

“Yes, There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer. … The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

 

Foreword : I had planed to write this article when I created my blog. But a few days after I started “Make me thy lyre” I was immensely sad to hear that Ursula Le Guin had died. She was 88. The following text will be my personal tribute to her.

 

I have read a few science-fiction novels. It’s a genre that I was unfortunately obliged to neglect for the last couple of years. I was too involved with school classics, and the (French) academic world is science-fiction and heroic fantasy unfriendly.  Needless to say that I do not agree with that, especially when you know that such novels as The Left Hand of Darkness exist.

A title can clearly be the one key thing that will make me want to read a book. I was browsing through the Book Depository’s bargain shop once when I saw these words. I remember it kept resonating in me for days. Hence I bought it and read it in something like two days.

On the first edition cover, in 1969, the publisher wrote : “Once in a long while a whole new world is created for us. Such worlds are Middle Earth, Dune – and such a world is Winter.”

 

 

 

Winter is the planet where the novel is set. It is a frozen and forbidding land. Where human have no gender. The major protagonist of the novel, Genly Ai, is a Terran male anthropologist sent by the Ekumen (a sort of interplanetary UN) to study this planet (which is actually name Gethen in the native tongue of its people), and to entice the Gethenian governments to join the 83 planets that are members of this organisation. There are two rival nations on Gethen : Karhide and Orgoreyn.

So, the Gethenian humans have no gender. They do not understand what female or male means. Most of the time they are androgynes (and even that term is not that relevant in the novel’s logic). Once a month their sexual attributes appear, and they are fertile – this is called kemmer. During kemmer sexual organs become male or female, however Gethenians always call each other “he”.  It is a society without war or rape.  Relationships between siblings are not a problem (the word incest does not exist).

The novel starts with Genli Ai waiting for an audience with the King of Karhide, appointment he obtained thanks to Estraven, the prime minister who seems to believe in Genli’s visit’s purpose, and mission. The king refuses join the Ekumen, and Genli learns that his only ally, Estraven, has fallen from grace and is exiled.

Genli decides to travel through the country, and this part of the novel reveals more about the complex and foreign culture of Gethen, especially its religion and mysticism. That is where we see that the male-terran is seen as the true alien. He is seen as a monster because he is in a way forever blocked in his manhood, moreover, his preconceived ideas of virility prevent him from achieving good communication with Gethenians. As the author stated :

“A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated,    however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. [Here] one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

I will simply add that a very deep ‘love story’ happens between the two main characters, and I stop here with the plot summary.  This book is not that big, 300 pages or something. It is quick-paced, written in a simple, sometimes dry style, travel-diary like : Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist, as the major character. Some passages are told by the point of view of Estraven, which is essential to understand his personal story.

This is a strange book which leaves you in a strange state of mind. It is intellectually and physically challenging. You feel the cold, the unease, the estrangement. And you do not know if we are completely wrong about gender, femininity and virility, or if Gethenian ‘ambisexuality’ (the word appears in several articles about the book, I find it particularly fit)  is actually disturbing. In other words, you do not really know wether it is a dystopia or a utopia.

I guess I am simplifying things too much, and that this sort of book escapes manichaeism and labels. Genly is never able to completely overcome his own sexuality and to see Gethenians as equals (perhaps he can, but only with Estraven). Gethen is a society of humans without men or women. One could then imagine a completely free and tolerant society, because we are always influenced by our point of view and ou own expectations (a 2018 woman witnessing the progressive freedom, respect and acceptance of LGBT community) . In short, we are expecting from such synopsis an experimental vision of our society having achieved the debunking of gender and inequalities between the sexes. A society where individuals are individuals before men, women, or even sexual beings. Then we would easily call it a utopia, because we see it as a progress. Yet, Gethenians are not very tolerant with Ai, and their society, with its vision of betrayal and their mad king appears appalling and unwelcoming to us…

What this books seems to confirm, is that gender is a matter of representation and semiotics. Humanity is not a matter of sexuality, but a matter of language, culture, and power.

I am not sure ‘feminist fiction’ really is the good word to talk about this novel – feminism has no monopoly on gender reflection. But this novel was written in 1969, and it might have been an incredibly mind-blowing book at the time, because these questions were still very, very, new. Ursula Le Guin was a pioneer- Judith Butler first published in the 80s. Useless to say that I highly recommend this book, because it is imaginative and it resembles nothing else – and because it is a philosophical tale with spacecrafts and telepathy.

 

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LK

The French Lieutenant’s Woman and fiction’s artificiality

french lieutanant

”Thus it had come about that she had read far more fiction, and far more poetry, those two sanctuaries of the lonely, than most of her kind. They served as a substitute for experience. Without realizing it she judged people as much by the standards of Walter Scott and Jane Austen as by any empirically arrived at; seeing those around her as fictional characters, and making poetic judgements on them.”

Chapter 9

The French Lieutenant’s woman was published in 1969 and is labeled postmodern historical fiction. That is to say, it has everything of a Victorian novel (romance, social predicament, England) but with a narratology-essayish twist. The plot is somewhat very classical : a young and wealthy aristocrat, already engaged to a docile and pretty woman, falls in love with a mysterious dark-lady (nicknamed ‘Tragedy’). I am content with this kind of story, I won’t blame the plainness of it. However this novel is way more than a stereotypical nineteenth century love story. Here are five reasons why you need to read this novel :

  1. Because it is metafictional (yet the story is still pleasant to read). Chapter 13 seems to be the most commentary-friendly text I ever came across. Roughly, the narrator strikes a pause in the plot to state that he has imagined all this, that fiction is an illusion, and that it can be pointless to write this kind of story, being a contemporary of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Barthes and Genette. Okay then, in this case we should stop reading or writing stories. After chapter 13 the reader sees the epigraphs (at the beginning of each chapter), the strange intrusive remarks and footnotes under a new light. This novel is a complex yet very compelling double-reading : first, Victorian novel, then, a commentary and debunking of it. But it is not too much, since it is only punctually.  I enjoyed the characters, the landscape, because they are familiar (South of England is alway nice) and unsurprising in some aspects, yet it is very innovative and dynamic.
  2. Because Fowles is such an erudite. He quotes Hardy, Tennyson, Marx, and many others. He sprinkles a pinch of freudianism here and there. Perfect guy.  Perhaps it is because I like all his references, but I tended to trust and to agree with all his philosophical reflections. Thus, the story and subplots have a Shakespearian thing : Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to be the backdrop of all the scenes and meeting taking place in the woods, servants flirting reminded me of Twelfth night. I always like a good piece of intertextuality.
  3. Because of Sarah’s character. Not only is she a perfect character for a feminist manifesto, but she is as unusual, rebellious and ambiguous as a Catherine Earnshaw or a Bathsheba Everdeen. She has something of Emma Bovary too (but not too much, otherwise she would have exasperated me). The narrator does not help us or encourage us to sympathize with her, but I personally really appreciated the effort he made do depict this very complex character. The first description of Sarah could be : she is an undeserving outcast, passionate and very melancholy – even masochistic, in short : she is really likable. But, the second description could be : she is wicked, a liar, she is mad, wallows in her sadness and vanity. It is yours to decide.  But who likes featureless and bland women in novels ?
  4. Because you are free to choose in this reading. As I said before, you can choose wether you find Sarah a remarkable character or an obnoxious one. Even more interesting and dynamic, you can choose the end of the story. Mark my words : there are three endings in this novel : one conventional, the other romantic, the last one depressing. But each one is plausible, and gives you food for thoughts. I still don’t know which one I prefer.
  5. Because there is a very good film adaptation. Jeremy Irons  as Charles Smithson and screenplay by Harold Pinter. Sounds good, tastes good. Perfect movie for a Sunday afternoon. It nicely interprets the metafictional dimension of the literary work by staging a twofold filmic plot : the actors and the characters live an intertwined love affair. I found it payed justice to the fact that the novel is far more than just sentimental piece of literature, it really is a reflection on what it is to create according to trends and cannons.

The French Lieutenant's Woman 2.jpg

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To conclude, I really recommend this book as a holiday read, since it allows you to enjoy a good love story whilst revising  postmodern and narratology theories. But i’ll never be able to read my George Eliot as before from now on.

 

 

The French Lieutenant’s woman 18th feb-24th feb 2018.

LK

Waterland and New Historicism

waterland

 

‘‘It cannot be denied, children, that the great, so-called forward movements of civilisation, wether moral or technological, have invariably brought with them an accompanying regression. That the dissemination of Christian tenets over a supposedly barbarous world had been throughout the history of Europe -to say nothing of missionary zeal elsewhere- one of the prime causes of wars, butcheries, inquisitions and other forms of barbarity. That the discovery of the printing press led, likewise, as well as to the spreading of knowledge, to propaganda, mendacity, contention and strife. That the invention of the steaming engine led to the miseries of industrial exploitation and to little children working sixteen hours a day in coal mines. That the invention of the airplane led to the widespread destruction of European cities along with their civilian populations during the period 1939 to ’45 (…). And as for the splitting of the atom… And where history does not undermine and set traps for itself in such an openly perverse way, it creates this insidious longing to go backwards. It begets this bastard and pampered child, Nostalgia. How we yearn (…) to return to that time before history claimed us, before things went wrong.’’

Graham Swift, Waterland, Chapter 14, De la Révolution

‘‘Our work has always been about resistance as well as replication, friction as well as assimilation, subversion as well as orthodoxy. We are fascinated by the ways in which certain texts come to possess some limited immunity from the policing functions of their society, how they lay claim to special status, and how they contrive to move from one time period to another without losing all meaning. Accordingly, we mine what are sometimes called counter histories that make apparent the slippages, cracks, fault lines, and surprising absences in the monumental structures that dominated a more traditional historicism.’’

Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism (excerpt from the introduction)

 

My first February book was Waterland. It is one of those books I came across during my studies whose title I thoroughly labeled ‘to be read’. It is a rather intricate and original book, published in 1983. It is a first person narrative (my personal favorite), incessantly analeptic, which means that you have to be very, very concentrated and dedicated when reading the 50 first pages. Then, you get used to it, and you begin to enjoy it. The narrator is a fifty years old history teacher, Tom Crick, who stops his ‘‘traditional history classes’’ and begins to tell his own vision of history and life through an intertwined tale about his native land, the Fens, and his personal life.

 

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In this respect Waterland deals with the major elements of the English Novel tradition. It first reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s novels, because the land is described as one of the characters, with its influence, its role and purpose. Hardy’s Wessex is both a benevolent and treacherous land. The Fens’ inhabitants are ‘phlegmatic’(as if their blood was made of slime), and seem to live according to this ‘waterland’ : Tom Crick’s father is one of the masters of the water since he is a lock-keeper. The relationship with the land is ambiguous, at first one could believe that the novel is a love declaration to this part of England, but then it seems that nature is a merciless and superior force which sometimes overwhelms humans. Hardy’s Wessex works a bit like that too : the earth and sky make humans live, providing food and success : in Far From the Madding Crowd Bathsheba inherits an estate and wealth ensues. She is courted by men that are close to the land too (Oak and Boldwood : even in their names nature is omnipresent). But men and women are always threatened by the elements : the raging wind and tide, especially. It is in a forest shrouded by mist that Bathsheba meets Troy, the sea makes Troy disappear when he seemingly drowns. The sea spares him, but his death is only postponed, and finally Bathsheba marries a good shepherd. In Waterland the water is deadly too with the initial ‘‘accidental death’’ – or murder. The flatness of the Fens has something to do with the flatness of a stage – for a tragedy. The Fens seem to be a bleak territory, and its inhabitants have also bleak family-histories, full of madness and incest. One could say that it is the same thing everywhere, but the Fens are presented as a microcosm, an independent land, now claustrophobic, now fairytale like.

 

fens

 

It also reminded me of traditional and ‘chronological’ bildungsroman (the epigraph is taken from Great Expectations) because the scenes we see from the narrator’s childhood are essential to understand the denouement. In this book one should not miss or undermine any detail. I really appreciate those novels written with a clockwork precision, where nothing is superfluous. Moreover, one of the main themes of the novel is storytelling, hence, transmission : first by the narrator’s mother and father, then Tom becomes a teacher and eventually tells the story to his students. There is a sense of learning and growing up in the first part of the novel. The adult narrator has a philosophical, wise voice, an ability to be ironical and sarcastic. It gives a very unique tone to the whole, it is still a bildungsroman close to George Eliot and Dickens- yet in a 20th century way.

 

The history of the Fens has shaped the character’s selves and future, because past is omnipresent. The narrator states that human beings are what they are because they have history. Yet history and story are intertwined here, which clearly makes Waterland a novel related to New Historicism . New Historicism is a type of literary and historical criticism that emerged in the 2d half of the 20th century, which aim was to break with Formalism and Structuralism, in order to reinvestigate the margins, the subplots, the under-stories of history. When Swift mingles the history of Europe with the tiny-scaled history of the Fens (the Empire-building of the Atkinsons is paralleled with the groundbreaking political changes of the 19th century, especially in France), he behaves as a New Historicist. Those critiques believe in the existence of the ‘eye-period’ : what people produced, did, and how they behaved in a certain time is more relavant than the great historical facts and characters chosen, recorded by classical historians. It is also a reflection on History itself : its use, relevance, and above all its artificiality. It is still a work of fiction, but its philosophical value, its thought-provoking power makes it the kind of books I’m always eager to read. To conclude, it is clearly one of those books which keep resonating in you simply because of their strength.

 

Waterland : 28th Jan 2018-6th Feb 2018.