21 July 2011

Sevilla Sevilla Sevilla !

Just to let you all know that I'll be taking a little break from literary relish for a week or so while I take a short break with a friend in Spain. I watched Delicatessen last night as part of Paris in July and will be reviewing both that and Deborah Lawrenson's The Lantern when I get back - it's an absolute superb book which I'll hopefully finish today on the train :-)

I will also make sure to take pics of the statue of Carmen that stands outside the bullring in Sevilla and the old tobacco factory (now the university) where she 'worked' .. Ole !!

17 July 2011

Jean de Florette

I have been familiar with the character Jean de Florette since I was little girl, hearing about the original Marcel Pagnol novel and the extremely successful 1980s French films through my family whilst holidaying in the south of France. Consequently, this read (or at least the first half of the entire story of Les Bagnols, I still have Manon des Sources to dig into at some point in the future...) has been a long time coming...

Marcel Pagnol was born in Aubagne in the very south of France and the dramatic landscapes and earthy inhabitants of this part of the world really are the true stars of these novels.

At the beginning of the story we meet César 'le Papet' and Ugolin Soubeyran; an uncle and nephew who are central figures within the local village and who, with dreams of amounting riches for themselves, set their sights on owning a property down the valley that is ripe for cultivating, with a sizeable farmhouse and, more importantly, a spring that will allow Ugolin to grow thousands of carnations and sell them in the nearby town.

Following the untimely (and rather suspect) death of the recluse, Pique-Bouffigue, who owns the land, the Soubeyrans set to work protecting their interests and concealing the spring before relations arrive in the hills to claim their inheritance. Jean Cadoret, Pique-Bouffigue's nephew and a hunchback from out of town promptly arrives with his beautiful wife and daughter, intent on becoming a true peasant and making a home and business for himself and his family by tilling the land. Land that is now as dry as a bone. What then follows, unsurprisingly, is the painful downfall of this spirited, initially carefree man and the strong women who are there to support him; a decline that is uncomfortable both to watch (Jean is masterfully played by Gérard Depardieu in the 1986 film) and to read about.

**Apologies for those of you who don't understand any French - I can't find an appropriate clip with English subtitles but I think this trailer gets the feel of the film across quite well :-)**

I have to say, and hate to say, that I actually prefer the film in this case. Each and every character is brought to life, and indeed, rejuvenated somewhat by the brilliant performances by the likes of Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil and I really think that watching the film first and reading the book afterwards may be a more accessible way into this story, particularly if you aren't familiar with that region of the world. I have started this book twice before in the past and sadly never made it to the main part of the story until now. I suspect I simply have never been quite 'in the mood', and probably need to actually be down in France to fully immerse myself in the provençal spirit of it all. Although as a reader you are right behind Jean, trudging along those dusty tracks and cursing the peasants' relative disinterest in his plight, right up to the harrowing climax of the book...I did find it slow to get off the ground. Although I know my Mum (and probably Dad, Auntie and co) will no doubt passionately disagree with me, I did reach a stage where there one too many descriptions of planting chickpeas going on and I was desperate for something to happen.

That said, something did happen in the end and this is definitely worth picking up...just make sure you watch the film first.

15 July 2011


I have just realised with horror (mainly due to that sodding place called 'the office') that I have only managed four posts for Paris in July so far! What better day than Bastille Day (as you can see I actually began to write this post yesterday and still didn't manage it!) to make a mini-vow to improve my performance on the Frenchie front and review my latest read; Carmen by the brilliant ProspeMérimée, who wrote some of the best short stories/novellas I have ever read. (La Vénus d'Ille is superbly spine-tingling). 

Now, I know that this is, essentially, a teeerrribly Spanish story. The quintessential Spanish tale of blood, love and passion. However, Mérimée was born and bred in Paris and I want to extend my personal Paris in July to include France and French writers in general.

This novella was one of the few I read cover to cover during that heady-first year of university when it popped up on one of the reading lists for my French Literature course and, out of 30+ fairly bright students, not one of us realised that this fabulous story is a book first and foremost and inspired Bizet's world-famous opera. It is a real, true classic and I think how quickly I could whip through it in the original French really betrays how perfect Mérimée's writing is; no fluff, just purely fantastic storytelling.

We begin and end this tale with the author himself, as he recounts his travels across the wild, hot plains of Andalusia and his meeting with the mysterious fugitive Don José and his lover, Carmen. The book is split into four sections, with us travelling back in time in the third section to explore the birth and death of this passionate relationship, the story that Bizet wisely chose to focus on in his opera. 

Carmen makes this story come alive. She is a sassy, smart and terribly naughty woman (naughty may be quite an understatement I suppose) who drags Don José into the outer fringes of society, partially through his decision to mix with her and her band of gitanos and partially through the trouble he lands himself in as he is driven mad by his love for this exotic, intoxicating woman. It is so so important to sympathise with the main characters of the books you are reading (something I'm failing to do with my current read, but more of that later...) and I both sympathised with poor José and wanted to be Carmen. This timeless character, who has been the inspiration for countless dramatisations of this tale weaves her spell both over her lover and over the reader. This is a wonderful portrait of this part of the world and the people who, if you ignore the Irish pubs and tacky shops of the Costa del Sol, still do inhabit it and I loved it, even more so the second time around. Top marks Mérimée.

10 July 2011

The Flâneur

flâneur, euse - stroller (péj) idler, loafer 

The Flâneur; a stroll through the paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White is a book that Matt at A Guy's Moleskine Notebook reviewed in detail exactly a month ago and that I simply had to snap up in preparation for Paris in July, if only for the tantalizing title. I remember a French friend jokingly referring to the bf as a flâneur whilst we were living over there and, after hearing the word bounded around a few times afterwards, I decided to do a bit of digging into the meaning of the term and fell in love with the concept; of an aimlessly wandering, intensely curious, intellectual and stylish soul, a quintessential figure of any Parisian street scene.

Pleased as punch I was when this little gem landed on my doorstep. A handy, pocket-size guide that actually has no writing on the front, just a beautifully mysterious picture of the Tuileries garden in the snow, its characteristic chairs the only hint to the insider of where exactly in Paris this may be. This was a departure from my usual, almost purely fictional reads, and a joy to settle down with for this very reason. Edmund White is a veteran of wandering the streets of this wonderful city and his easy familiarity really reveals itself in the fascinating, almost random snippets he gives us from each arrondisement, yet random is indeed the order of the day for any genuine flâneur

This was indeed a very personal account of the streets of this fair city, and I enjoyed it all the more for this...it was nice not to have the feeling of reading fact after fact as you might do with a more conventional guidebook. There are some great portraits of artists from the nineteenth and early twentieth century (including a particularly vivid one of Colette which I relished after reading some of her work recently) and a clear focus on the life of more marginalised groups in France (e.g. Jewish, gay, black people, etc) which was just fascinating. One or two sections were very entertaining but, I have to say, a little too specific to be going on for 10+ pages - i.e. I can't really see myself getting 'on' the gay cruising scene when I next visit Paris quite as much as Edmund White may like to do, so I may be passing on some of his hints/tips onto my gay friends. Tee hee.

That said, all in all, jolly interesting, great guide. If you know Paris well then I'm sure you'll find this interesting, if not, read it while you're there and it will mean so much more...

8 July 2011

Être et avoir

To do his bit for Paris in July the bf (although he is reading a frightfully 'English' book at the moment - see 'Seed's reads' below) is trying to brush up and learn a little more of the langue d'amour. I therefore thought it the ideal moment to reacquaint ourselves with Jojo and the gang in the glorious French film/'documentary' Être et avoir (to be and to have). This film follows the daily lives of a group of children aged 4-12 and their beloved teacher Monsieur Lopez over an ordinary school year in rural France. As the director Nicholas Philibert explains in the interview included on the DVD, his interest before beginning this project lay in exploring the seemingly banal, utterly ordinary aspects of daily life and revealing the absolute beauty in those very things.

This film is shot beautifully and we are privileged enough to witness some of the most hilarious (particularly with the younger children) touching and significant moments in the children's development, led by a man who, being both a loving yet firm pedagogue to the children, really does credit to an all-to-often underrated profession.

Have you ever seen anything cuter?!

The only little dampener was, whilst reading up on the extraordinary and unexpected success of this little film (particularly at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2002) the discovery that, following the release of the film and despite making countless positive comments in the press, M. Lopez decided to take legal action against the film's producers, claiming that the aggressive marketing (and subsequent success of the documentary) was never discussed before filming and something that had an extremely negative affect on some of the children. Although I can see how elements of this story could be true, particularly the children's experience of the entire process, I have to say that I still feel rather skeptical about and disappointed in this seemingly 'humble' teacher. What were his motives, you may ask, for fighting for compensation?.. *Sigh* Perhaps I am far too cynical...

4 July 2011

13 rue Thérèse

Over the past few months I've noticed that some of my very favourite bloggers seem to lament having to write negative reviews when they have the misfortune to read something they haven't really enjoyed. I never really understood the dilemma and used to simply think 'aw, what sweet people they just don't want to cause offense' and really didn't see that I would have any problems when my time eventually came to criticise...

Oh how wrong I was.... I was really, really looking forward to reading this book and was, I'm sad to say, sorely disappointed. It does make me cringe to type something like that about a current writer's work as the mere fact that someone has put thought and time into writing a novel in the first place is something I have a great deal of admiration and respect for. That said, I will be as honest as I can bear to be here...

This initially sounded like such a good idea for a novel. As a young girl, Shapiro herself lived at 13 rue Thérèse; a quite little street off the rue de Richelieu in Paris that I know and love to stroll down myself. First big tick in the Lucy listofthingsthatIliketoread box. Whilst living there an elderly neighbour; Mme Louise Brunet, passed away, leaving no relatives but plenty of opportunists behind to pick up her personal effects, including a small box of keepsakes that Shapiro's mother thoughtfully salvaged from the clear-out. This book lays out the contents of that box and the remains of a life that was no doubt, judging by the love letters, photographs and others tokens left behind, full of excitement and intrigue....and here is where we take up our story. Examining the artifacts one by one our author makes a valiant attempt to fill in the gaps, sometimes realistically and sometimes with wild leaps of the imagination, creating a completely, well, unbelievable (not in a positive way) character who quite often sounded more like I do than I imagine your average 1920s Parisian housewife would have done.

Ahem. In order to add an extra level to the life she has conjured up for this woman, Shapiro creates a contemporary character; American academic Trevor (Trevor???!! A fine name but perhaps more honest Yorkshire farmer than dashing historian) who, upon finding the box in his desk drawer, embarks on a voyage of discovery where we are, I have to admit, treated to the occasional spine chilling moment where the barrier between the past and present seems to disappear entirely. This box has been left by Josianne, a secretary at the University, who, like our author, has made this discovery but, unlike Shapiro, seems to want to use it as a way to get to know Trevor more intimately. But don't get too excited, because we won't get to know these modern characters any better than this. Yawn.

1920s Paris makes for an exciting setting. Living between two World Wars, Louise's life is far from your stereotypical flapper girl as she paces up and down her apartment, grieving for the people she has lost, the children she feels she will never have and lusting for the man downstairs. (Another dashing academic called Xavier - a much sexier name, don't you think?) Although I found the dialogue/inner monologues, etc far too modern to be convincing, I did find certain little gems in this book that brought a smile to my face, such as the Louise's ways of relieving her chronic boredom - e.g. inventing luder and cruder tales to tell her Priest to see how far she can push him when she goes to confession every week. I also love a good mystery and used to work as an archivist, therefore the fact that she included copies of everything she finds in the box helped to enliven the story a little.

But, and this is a BIG but...I found the writing to be a little self-indulgent and pretty darn cheesy at times. Perhaps I'm far too cynical and English for this kind of thing but one to many star/heart/flesh motifs can make a girl want to gag. I'm wondering whether the style of this book could have been a little more palatable had it been written in French, a language that can often make the corniest of catchphrases sound like pure magic. Perhaps. But this book isn't written in French and I didn't like it. Sorry Elena Shapiro. I'm sure many people love your work but I'm far too much of a miserable git to appreciate it. 

NB. This might, again, be reading too much into things, but I was slightly perturbed that this anonymous, but very real woman, whose picture appears in this book, has a story that paints her in basically any light the writer wants. This light includes some rather questionable storylines and I felt a little uncomfortable with the idea that this was all being reflected onto a real-life individual who has no-one left alive to speak for her. If she is looking down from her cloud right now, what could she possibly be thinking I wonder?  

1 July 2011

The Cat

As promised, today I will be kicking off our Paris in July with the second, and far superior (in my opinion), half of Gigi and the Cat. Alain is a young man about to embark out into married life with the sexy yet rather vacuous Camille. However, to do so he must leave behind the family home and, much more disturbingly for him, the company of his beloved chartreuse cat, Saha. (I think I'm on a cat themed-roll at the moment, don't you?)

Moving into a small Parisian apartment to enjoy his newly married life, the separation of man and pet soon becomes unbearable for both of them and Saha is swiftly moved in to sun herself on their balcony and curl up on the laundry basket. Alain is a man struggling to move on with his life, struggling to grow up in many ways and the unendearing and rather shallow personality of his new wife certainly does not prove strong enough to break the bond between her new man and the one creature who truly does understand him. Some may link the breakdown of this relationship directly to the presence of this bewitching animal. However, Alain is a restless character from the start, never throwing himself with complete abandon into the arms of his lover; seeming most comfortable in his childhood bedroom, playing in his mother's garden in pyjamas that are far too small for him.

'"My little puma! Beloved cat! Creature of the tree-tops! How will you live if we're seperated?"...She listened to him, watching him with a tender, absent expression. But when the friendly voice began to tremble, she looked away.'
p. 77

I don't blame Alain for his apathy towards his new life, for his desire to hang on to the past and disinterest in uninteresting people. I, like him, would much rather spend my time with a cat. Like Paul Gallico, Colette describes Saha with great eloquence and subtlety, betraying an implicit knowledge and understanding of these animals.

Unlike Gigi, this story is the perfect length, it is pretty and profound and I loved it. I'd also highly recommend Chéri and The last of Chérie, which were my first Colette books and carry fond memories of reclining in the Parc Monceau with a slab of cheese, baguette and a bottle of red wine...aaah bliss.

À toute!