Archives de catégorie : What I have read

What I have read (Crime and punishment)

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (his best-known book). A book that goes well with short and dark  winter days in  the Antipodes (434 pages of very small print, bought at the annual book fair in  Nelson). The title Journey to the End of Conscience, Guilt and Remorse would also suit this book very well. The story revolves around the main character, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikoff, a student who coldly murders the money-lender with whom he has dealt, but is  gripped with remorse afterwards. The remainder of the book is an unparalleled introspection of the human mind that has not aged in any way since its publication in 1866. After a certain number of pages, I had the impression that he had said everything there had to say on the matter and was wondering what was to come next, and that's what impressed me the most, he uses a seemingly minor detail or character that he introduced previously to resume his thinking and continue the examination from all possible angles of guilt, remorse and conscience in 19th century Russia. If the depths of the human soul seem universal, certain aspects of the behavior of the characters, on the other hand, seemed very different to me, in particular the sense of honor or the way of interacting and of gauging (or judging) each other the others, which portrays better the century and the country of the author. A very good reading choice for those who want to read a classic, but avoid it  if you want something light. It took me several weeks to read it, because of the heaviness of the reflexion (and also because I read less quickly in English).

what I have read

I  have  discovered this year ( totally banal)  is that the impression I get from reading a few paragraphs of a book varies greatly depending on my state of mind. Until  recently, I thought that the variation in my reactions (often initially negative, then positive) came from the evolution of my literary tastes (which became more refined over time, or at least that is what I thought), but I realized that it is simply the state of mind I am in when I read a few paragraphs from a book (usually from an author I know little or nothing about).

Toni Morrison. The bluest eyes. The story of a young black girl  dreaming  of having blue eyes, but also the history of an entire community. Published in 1970, Morrison’s first novel is a masterpiece, which has not aged a bit. The way in which she controls the narrative makes it  hard to believe it’s a first novel, . Of note is the documentary on Netflix, about Morrison, who was also the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Just loved it !

Anne Enright. The Actress. Published in 2020, the Irish author’s latest book didn’t bring me as much joy as The Gathering  and The Green Road (winner of the Man Booker). In her latest book, she tells the story from the point of view of  an actress’ daughter, who is looking back at her flawed mother and the influence it had on her life. It is very well written and there are some moments of joy,  but I had a harder time getting interested in it. I usually find the Irish cultural context very interesting and, like many Irish authors, Enright  knows how to tell a story, but I prefer when she delves into family stories, where she is unbeatable.

Hilary Mantel. The Mirror and the Light. It is the third  installment of the trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, published in 2020.  I thought this book,  that impressed me even  more than the first two would not only be in the running for this year’s Booker, but would win for the third time (which would have been unprecedented), but it did not happen. I read her latest book after reading  Giving up the ghost (2003), Mantel’s memoir. Is it the reason I had  the impression I was reading about Cromwell through a medium ? Maybe, but  it really felt  like I was being taken inside Cromwell’s head, and that’s her greatest talent.  Anyway, a masterpiece  again. It was her writing that fascinated me this time, rather than the character. I must admit, however,  that there was a little too much torture towards the end, which nonetheless   did not spoil my pleasure.

Ian McEwan. Solar . This is McEwan’s second or third book that I read, the one I remember is  Atonement, which became a film starring Keira Knightley  and James  McAvoy  (not as good as the book, but my male friends tell me it doesn’t matter because Knightley is soooo beautiful {difficult to say otherwise}) and  Amsterdam  (which I vaguely remember). According to The Guardian, McEwan specializes in one-dimensional, often scientific, characters. In this book published in 2010, the British author puts himself in the shoes of a man who obtained a Nobel Prize in Physics at a young age, which serves as a pretext to do almost nothing for  the rest of his life, except womanising, drinking and eating at the expenses of others. McEwan seems to take pleasure in portraying an abject and grotesque personality, describing at length  his concerns about chips and alcohol, in short, this book did not particularly interest me, although McEwan convincingly demonstrates  his understanding of physics (not enough to grab my attention). Luckily I bought this book at the used book fair!

What I have read : Virginie Despentes

 Vernon Subutex
I have not read a lot in the last few months as  I’m finishing The Grey Country, my novel about language and identity and I do not have a lot of  time, but I wanted to go back to a book (actually two) from Virginie Despentes  I read last autumn.

Virginie Despentes made her debut as a writer with Fuck me , a book I did not read,  but saw its film version in Christchurch at the Film Festival many years ago (but I left before the end). This book tells the story of a girl raped by three men and her revenge (mostly). Virginie Despentes herself was a victim of rape in her youth (but instead of feeling victim, she  rather felt anger). She has been a prostitute for a while, was  a porn film reviewer, and identifies as a lesbian and a feminist.

Vernon Subutex (spoilers alert !!) was released in 2015 as a  part of a trilogy. I read the first volume in English (a good translation) and the second in French. This is the story of a record store owner who  becomes homeless (volume 1) then guru (more or less, in volume 2), as well as the story of  people around him. I wanted to read the first volume, because it was  talked a lot when it came out and polarised opinions.

In French,  reviewers  who liked the book focused on  her  style (which is sometimes compared to that of Balzac) and the authenticity of the voices. I quite agree with these critics. I rather liked reading the first volume. The pace is sharp and the characters compelling (except the final delirium of Vernon Subutex). I enjoyed it  enough to continue reading the second volume, where the density is lost, the characters are less convincing,  and the story drags. The episode of the girl who « tattoos » the man  she believes to be responsible for the death of her mother is a little too much like the scene from The Girl with a golden tatoo to convince me.

Those who did not like the book  found the thread of the story a little thin (I quite agree with them, but that was not the goal of Despentes, I think) and did not like the characters animated by hatred and power struggles (and I quite agree with them too), which is true but probably corresponds to a certain humanity, probably far from ideal but perhaps a more realistic one. English language reviewers seemed to  like it more, perhaps because, for once, they are presented with something other than the Parisian intelligentsia and a France, which perhaps corresponds more to the one they know. And perhaps for the same reason,   some Parisian intelligentsia did not like Despentes’s book. Or it depicts human beings who are rather ordinary, from the point of view of their character, who may look a little too much like we are : not always noble, sometimes mean, etc. This is probably not the book to read for those who need to regain confidence in humanity. The Irish Times particularly liked Vernon Subutex 1 and even goes so far as to say that Despentes leaves Houellebecq far behind, quite a compliment, given his international prestige. As for me, the second volume disappointed me enough not to make me want to read the third right now, but I may  come back to it one day or the other.

What I have read : Patrick Evans

Patrick Evans is a New Zealand writer born in 1944. He was a literature professor at the University of Canterbury until 2015, and also  a colleague I  occasionally met at work and with whom I  have rubbed shoulders in a few evenings. He is a specialist of Janet Frame (Owls do Cry), one of New Zealand’s best writers. He released The Back of His Head (his fourth novel) in 2015 just before he retired, which looks at the dichotomy  author / work. It is an interesting topic   because of the widespread belief  that the quality of a  given work is inversely proportional to the character of the author, who often has a questionable morality, an unstable or bizarre character, provoking reactions of all kinds among the readers, who sometimes do not want to read  stories written by someone they would not want to mingle with.  Evans therefore tackles a subject he has undoubtedly often addressed in his lectures  and which is certainly not new. He uses  the character of Raymond Lawrence, the fictional  first Nobel Prize for literature from New Zealand. 

Peter Orr, his adoptive son, one of Raymond’s mistresses, and two other artists are the executors responsible for preserving his heritage. Locating his characters in New Zealand allows Evans, in the first third of the book, to deal with the difficulty of being an artist in a small society. He’s not wrong. It is true that, all things being equal,  it is more difficult to be a Nobel prize winner  in New Zealand than in Great Britain or Italy. Expectations are higher, perhaps the artist is more likely to take himself  a little too seriously, or  to be put on a pedestal. Moreover, the legacy of such an author is more difficult to develop and preserve because of distance and financial means. So, when the excutors of Lawrence’s legacy must find money to repair the roof of his house/museum, we learn that the Steinway piano, which would be auctioned  for around $ 250,000 in Europe or North America, will only reach $ 50,000 in this part of the world. Evans also takes the opportunity to make fun of the executors’  pretensions to try and preserve the  literary heritage of the author, that  cannot live up to what is done  elsewhere. To better understand this first part of the book, we have  to remember that Patrick Evans is a specialist of Janet Frame, one of the best novelists of New Zealand, and that he dealt with her (she did not like him at all) as well as with her executors (who do not like him either, partly because he wrote an unauthorised biography of Frame). There is a lot of   bitterness floating  between the lines in this part of the book. It helps to know that born from English parents living in India, who came to New Zealand when Patrick was five years old, Evans  was a recalcitrant New Zealander (on his own admission) for a long time, which seems to have fed  his caustic humour,  often coming  through the voice of Raymond Lawrence. It is not so  surprising that his New Zealand identity may have been difficult to embrace when one knows that University of Canterbury, at the time when Patrick Evans started his career, was resisting the teaching of “local” literature.   In any case,  tired of his relentless caustic humour et on the point of leaving the book unfinished after a hundred pages or so,  I could see the narrative find a new breath and Evans  getting into the heart of the matter. The enigma of Raymond Lawrence, the monster, resolves little by little. Evans did not do things halfway. The question of what crime the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature did not commit is increasingly  at the forefront rather than the reverse. We learn that the rude man  despises his readership, his adopted son, and humanity in general. Affected by Parkinson’s disease, he continues to show his disdain for life (and especially that of  others) in his choice  of death. When it  becomes more and more evident that the great master has plagiarized a certain number of authors,  Evans makes the question ” to what extent can one forgive an exceptional being?” impossible to avoid. Evans mentions Ernest Hemingway, Lawrence Durrel and, in New Zealand, Maurice Shadbot, as possible inspirations to portray this literary “monster” (It personally reminded me of Picasso).

The best passages come through the  voice of Peter Orr, his adopted son, who admires him but can not help but ask himself if the horrible things described in his adopted father’s book happened for real, although he barely can face the answers.  In this part of the book,  Evans addresses the  themes that have undoubtedly preoccupied him throughout his life as an academic and as a writer, in particular the boundary between reality and fiction or the question of whether one can teach writing. The answer of Raymond Lawrence is unequivocal! Who speaks at this point, Lawrence or Evans ? It would be interesting to know  because the last restructuring of the University of Canterbury put increasingly    literary creation (or how to write a script, a play, a story for children) at the forefront of the department as it attracts more students (although of course nobody would never admit to it), whereas the classics are less and less entitled to mention. Shakespeare, for example, is no longer a full course at UC.

The book is well written, the dialogues well conducted (his experience in plays serves him well) and one can feel the shadow of Janet Frame hovering over numerous passages. The greatest weakness of the book lies in the first two pages, the moment he chooses to present us with an excerpt from the book of the Nobel Prize for Literature: totally boring. I find it very hard to believe that it is Evans’s conception of what a literature worthy of a Nobel Prize is.  Finally, his caustic, stripping, squeaky humour is sometimes too much (for me). But it’s probably a book that  deserves to go beyond the borders of New Zealand, although it is unlikely  to ever happen.