Holiday in France: the reporters memorial

A friend suggested I blog about this after it was almost all I talked about when summarising our holiday! It certainly made a big impression on me.

A Robert Capa Memorial des Reporters

It started with a small memorial outside a museum in Bayeux to Robert Capa, a photographer whose work Tim and I are familiar with and admire, so we were interested to see something about him but also curious what claim Bayeux had to him. We continued along the path in grounds opposite the Commonwealth war cemetery and next we came to two marble slabs that said they were the entrance to a memorial to “journalists killed all over the world since 1944”, a joint project between Bayeux and Reporters Without Borders. Which seemed like a very good idea, and I walked on expecting just a peaceful garden of some kind. I hadn’t read the text properly (I think I’d tried to understand the French rather than looking at the English) so I wasn’t prepared for what came next.

Too many names

A long, tree-sheltered footpath flanked on both sides by marble slabs listing the name of every journalist killed under the year of their death (the photo above shows only a small section). It’s simple and powerful and heartbreaking, because there are so many names, and the numbers seem to be increasing. So much so that a second path has been started.

I’m not sure why this moved me more than the thousands of graves of soldiers just over the road (which was also pretty disquieting), but somehow it did. I could argue that soldiers sign up for the possibility of death, but of course in World War Two most of them didn’t get a choice. In fact, reporters have more choice about whether or not to go to a war zone, but then not all of these deaths were in a war zone. For those who want more than a list of names, there is an online archive.

Untitled

I suppose I can relate to the reporters, to their decision to tell the truth about the world. Not that I in any way consider myself worthy to stand alongside the men and women who risk their lives to make corruption, injustice and other important news known to the world, but I admire them in a way I just can’t admire a soldier. I can be (and indeed am) sad about the massive loss of life during war, but it’s not the same thing.

I don’t understand war, how anyone could take a fight to the level of massive loss of human life, and it is only through writing, both journalism and fiction, that I can at least try to comprehend. For anyone interested in what it’s like to be a reporter on war zones and other dangerous regions, I highly recommend the work of Joe Sacco, who is honest about the draw and the thrill, as well as the need to tell the stories of the real people affected.

(Back to more cheerful things, and maybe another book review, soon I promise!)

Sunday Salon: En vacances

The Sunday Salon

This week we’ve been on holiday in Normandy with friends. Weather’s been, er, iffy but we managed to grab a couple of afternoons in the pool/on the trampoline (I love that the gîte has a trampoline!) in-between road trips. I have somehow read only half a book, despite plenty of suitable reading weather, but with 13 other people providing distractions I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised.

We figured we couldn’t come to Normandy without taking in some of the World War Two sites. We stopped by Omaha Beach and the war cemetery at Bayeux, which was on reflection a bit sad and serious for the hottest day of the week and I was near tears many times during the day, but I’m glad I went.

We also visited Fougères, which boasts the largest medieval castle in Europe and also has links to many famous writers. I really enjoyed the Circuit Litteraire. I’m not sure I enjoyed the climb to the top of the bell tower – the staircase was tall, steep and open so you could see how far there was to fall!

There have been plenty of other visits, plus barbecues, drinking, playing pool, playing in the pool and just generally having fun with friends we don’t get to see nearly enough of the rest of the year.

Also, yesterday Tim and I celebrated 12 years together. In many ways it felt appropriate to celebrate while on holiday with friends who have known us since the start of our relationship. I wonder where we’ll celebrate 24 years?

Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life

A Novel Bookstore

A Novel Bookstore
by Laurence Cossé
translated from French by Alison Anderson

Have you ever dreamed of opening a bookshop? Have you ever planned what it would be like, how it would be different from all those other bookshops? I can’t decide whether this book would encourage or discourage such an ambition but there’s definitely some wish-fulfilment going on.

The novel opens with a series of attacks on seemingly unconnected people. I don’t want to reveal too much, but the link is The Good Novel, a Paris bookshop opened by rich booklover Francesca and idealistic bookseller Ivan. They discover that they share the same dream of a bookshop that sells only great novels, and pour everything into making their dream a reality, but their shop strikes a nerve in French cultural circles and comes under increasingly severe attacks.

“If I spent my money restoring a Roman viaduct or any other masterwork of our heritage, everyone would think it was a very worthy cause. What we are doing is no different. We are investing our time and money to support and enrich our literary heritage, which is being threatened by forgetfulness and indifference, not to mention disarray in taste. Our cause is undeniable.”

I found that I couldn’t grasp the tone at first. And then just as I was getting the hang of it, there was an odd switch from crime drama to the idealistic story of setting up the dream bookshop. But it’s a surprisingly enjoyable read considering all the action is in the first three chapters.

At the core of the book is the debate between high and low culture. Francesca and Ivan have pinned their hopes on high culture: their choice of “great” novels is primarily classic or overlooked literary works. They opt out of the bestseller lists and new releases, which isn’t the most effective business model and isn’t entirely popular with publishers and other bookshops – it does admittedly smack of snobbery – but of course it’s the authors whose books aren’t chosen for sale at The Good Novel who express the most anger.

“The essential problem raised by the notion of literary value is that this value changes with time. A work that might have been hailed by its contemporaries seems trivial a hundred years later, perhaps even thirty years later. Inversely, another work that was judged unpleasant or uninteresting may now be praised to the skies.”

Personally, I’m torn which side I’m on. Not that I condone the attacks on The Good Novel. And I love heartfelt book recommendations, such as are at the core of Ivan’s bookselling style. But I think getting people reading is always a good thing, and those easy reads and bestsellers – they’re a big part of that process.

“Literature is a source of pleasure, he said, it is one of the rare inexhaustible joys in life, but it’s not only that. It must not be disassociated from reality…There are grown-ups who will say no, that literature is not life, that novels teach you nothing. They are wrong. Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life.”

This book is jam-packed with references to “great” books and you could make a very long recommended reading list from it, though how many of them would be available in English translation I don’t know. The other thing it has going for it is a sub-plot that’s a sweet realistic romance. I kept expecting darker things around the corner but this novel’s beauty is its simplicity.

“He had no more imaginary space, nowhere he could escape to, no more expectations, all he could do was make himself available to the present moment, to what was immeasurable, the terrible profusion of moments that make up a day.”

Au bon roman published 2009 by Editions Gallimard, Paris.
Translation published 2010 by Europa Editions.

Source: Won in a giveaway from Savidge Reads.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better

Swimming Home
by Deborah Levy

I had heard quite mixed reviews of this novel but it was on the staff picks shelf at the very lovely Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath so I took a chance. I can see why it has divided people. As the blurb says, “it wears its darkness lightly”.

The set-up is that familiar one of the middle-class English family holidaying in a villa on the French Riviera when a stranger intrudes. Or is it? There are clues throughout that things are not what they seem and to the last page I was not sure if all or any of the events recounted had actually happened.

“He leaned his head out of the window and felt the cold mountain air sting his lips…They knew the past lived in rocks and trees and they knew desire made them awkward, mad, mysterious, messed up…He asked her again to please, please, please drive him safely home to his wife and daughter.
“‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.'”

What it appears to be is the story of famous poet Joe Jacobs and his absent war correspondent wife Isabel, whose marriage is breaking down. But there’s also their teenage daughter Nina, childlike for her 14 years but trying to be one of the adults. And there’s family friends Laura and Mitchell, a couple who run a boutique shop in London and who never seem comfortable in this holiday setting. And then there’s Kitty Finch, the stranger who turns up floating naked in their outdoor swimming pool, unembarrassed by her nakedness or the apparent mix-up that has brought her there.

There are some plot threads that seem so inevitable that Levy has put their conclusions on the first page to save the reader wondering. Yes, we do have a philandering husband and a beautiful, strange young woman thrown in his path. Yes, we do have characters dealing with depression and thoughts of death. And if you take it all at face value then you might say that what happens is no more than the sum of these parts. But I think that the writing demands more of its reader.

There are two obfuscating themes: identity and fiction. Joe, we learn early on, is Jozef to his wife, JHJ to his readers. Everyone lies or withholds information or tells different versions of the truth. Not only is Joe a poet, but Kitty is an aspiring writer eager for his opinion of her work, and then later in a section told from Nina’s perspective there are short poems thrown into the narrative as if she, too, is a poet, an inventor of fictions. Characters seem to repeat each other’s words or actions as if the novel is being rewritten even as you read it.

“No one dared say they minded, because the war correspondent was controlling them all. Like she had the final word or was daring them to contradict her. The truth was her husband had the final word because he wrote words and then he put full stops at the end of them.”

Add to all this that two characters have a history of depression and related illnesses and a third character is constantly stoned, and you have yourself a thoroughly unreliable narrative. What seems like a quick, easy, fluid read becomes so much more than the sum of its parts.

Published 2011 by And Other Stories.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012.

The shock of growing up

Claudine in Paris
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

After thoroughly enjoying the first book in the Claudine series, I was glad to already have the second book waiting in my TBR. It was another wonderful, rollicking read and I’m now going to have to search out the other two.

These were the first novels written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, who was an absolutely fascinating literary figure. I visited her grave in Paris a few years ago and was moved in a way I hadn’t expected to be (especially considering that previous to this series her novels have failed to move me).

Ici repose Colette

In this volume, Claudine and her father have moved to Paris, so that he can further his studies of slugs. She discovers to her surprise that she suffers greatly from homesickness for her beloved countryside village. She also discovers, on exposure to a new male friend who is gay and an old female friend who has become a rich man’s mistress, that she is far more easily shocked than she would have expected of herself:

“Disgust, yes definitely! There I was, making myself completely sophisticated and disillusioned and shouting from the rooftops ‘Ha, ha! You can’t teach me anything. Ha, ha! I read everything! And I understand everything even though I am only seventeen!’ Precisely. And when it comes to a gentleman pinching my behind in the street or a little friend living what I’m in the habit of reading about, I’m knocked sideways…In your heart of hearts, Claudine, you’re nothing but a common everyday decent girl.”

Well, Claudine may have discovered that the big wide world isn’t as easily bluffed as her old schoolmates were, but she is still far from common or everyday. Claudine is hypersensitive enough to catch a fever when she gets anxious but she is also tomboyish enough to do exercises every morning and speak her mind almost thoughtlessly. She is still vain enough to admire herself in every window or mirror and look coquettishly at every man she sees, but is self-aware enough to know that she is silly and vain and inexperienced to boot. She catches herself feeling jealous of an old friend who is marrying a sensible, dull sort of man and presses her friend the kept woman for information about sex while all the while feeling scared and sickened by the whole business.

Most of all, Claudine is still a witty, entertaining narrator who lets you into her world with disarming honesty, beside the occasionally withheld nugget of interest. The main switch in this book is that Claudine appears to have left behind the lesbian intrigues of school, only revisiting them for the entertainment of her cousin Marcel, who is left hot under the collar by her accounts and begs for more detail. Claudine’s romantic interest now seems to be firmly aimed toward men and marriage.

For all its shocking content and its youthful, not as sophisticated as she’d like to be narrator, this book is extremely well written with a wonderful, colourful cast of characters and a clever humour that must have been a challenge to translate this deftly.

Claudine à Paris first published in 1901 by Paul Ollendorff, attributed to Willy (Colette’s first husband)
This translation first published 1958 by Secker and Warburg

The trials of being above the rest

Claudine at School
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

This was the first novel written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, the result of her entertaining her first husband with stories of her own schooldays. It is a thoroughly charming read that I was reluctant to put down yet wanted to linger over.

Perfect breakfast

Claudine is sassy, bitchy, talented, beautiful and entitled. She attends the local day school because she refused to be sent to a boarding school, with the result that she’s a rich girl surrounded by the daughters of farmers and shopkeepers. She doesn’t need to do well at school but she takes pleasure in achieving more than the other girls whose future livelihoods depend on their test scores. Really, she should be completely unlikeable. But she’s not. She also has a very sweet relationship with her doting but distracted father.

The book takes the form of Claudine’s diary. She confides her own bitchy actions, with the full awareness that she has acted badly. She also confides all the gossip she has learned and her own intimate thoughts. I mean, this isn’t Judy Blume, no-one’s going to learn how to deal with periods or ill-fitting bras from this book, but she does admit to her crushes and flirtations.

The thing that will stand out for a lot of people about this book is the lesbianism. It’s pretty rife. Claudine herself, as well as the headmistress of the school, know how to gain advantage from flirtation and suggestion with men but are only really interested in women. This is never stated outright, but gradually becomes apparent from the actions of both characters. It’s also never clear if this is accepted by the people around them (or indeed known in Claudine’s case). One character does come under criticism for her lesbian relationship but the criticism is based on the fact that she’s engaged to a man at the time. Which is a fair point.

Claudine is aged 16 and 17 in this novel and it feels like a very realistic portrait of being that age. She is confident and brassy around others but alone she experiences doubts and insecurities about her future, her looks and her love life. This may be partly because she has not fully acknowledged that she is gay, or at least bisexual. She talks vaguely about how one day she will do this, that or the other with a man, without any enthusiasm or interest. She does show great interest in her friend Claire’s string of boyfriends but she vacillates between admiration and disapproval of such an active (and yet virtuous) love life. She pretends to know better how to keep hold of a man, and yet admits to never having been in a situation to put her knowledge to the test.

Looking back, very little actually happens in this book. And in many ways that is the point. Claudine can be obsessively excited by, and then deeply bored by, the day-to-day minutiae of school life. Which is precisely how I remember school being. She views herself as worldly and cosmopolitan but actually lives in a small country village where very little happens. Which I suspect leads to all kinds of fun in the next book in the series, Claudine in Paris.

This book was so much fun. It’s the schoolgirl book I wish I had read when I was a teenager instead of all those sappy American ones. I’m so entranced I fully intend to read all of the Claudine sequels.

Claudine à l’école first published in 1900 by Paul Ollendorff, attributed to Willy (Colette’s first husband)
This translation first published 1956 by Secker and Warburg

Down time

All of two days back at work and it feels like we didn’t have a holiday at all, but the photos say otherwise! Here are a couple of snaps I took during our chilled not-quite-a-week in France. (I took more but mostly on film, which I will probably get developed in several months’ time.)

There were chilled walks in town,
Jumbled

and chilled walks in the country.
Mood lighting

Mostly, though, we sat around a log fire doing nothing much at all. That was great.