Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais: Hiroshima mon Amour – Book and Movie (1959/60) Literature and War Readalong July 2011

How do you talk about war? How to put it into words, into pictures? How to tell and show the unspeakable, the horror, the atrocity? How much can you know about something that you have not experienced? These are but a few questions Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais explore in the book and the movie.

Hiroshima Mon Amour is maybe the most difficult book of this readalong to write about. A summary wouldn’t do it justice. I was amazed once more how good it is, how profound and how the book and the movie seem like two different ways of exploring, with two different languages, the atrocity that we call war. What is fascinating is how they seem to converse with each other.

In 1959 a Japanese man and a French woman meet in Hiroshima. They are both a bit over thirty and happily married. They spend a night together. It is shortly before the woman’s return to France. She is an actress who has come to Hiroshima to play a nurse in a movie on peace. They make love and talk. First about Hiroshima, then about the past of the woman. They part for the day but he follows her and they spend another night together, stay awake, spend  time in a tea house. During the second night, the woman tells the man the whole story of her past in Nevers and her tragic first love. She hasn’t told anyone this story before because there was never anyone like her first lover after that until this day.

I’m glad I read the book again before watching the movie. It was interesting to see how different it is when we first imagine something and when we then see it as well.

During the initial part of the movie we hear a voice-over. The woman tells the man everything that she has seen in Hiroshima. In the news at the time, in the museum during her stay. When you read it, you see in your imagination what you have seen before in documentaries or on photos but the movie shows you how it really was and on the other hand you have the man’s voice telling you, that you have seen nothing, know nothing. There is no replacing the actual experience.

The first pictures show bodies, parts of bodies, first covered in what looks like fall out, then in sweat. This reminded me of Resnais’ documentary Night and Fog. It is the same visual language that tries to show us what violence does to the body, that tries to capture the devastation. Hiroshima Mon Amour seems also to say that war and love can be equally destructive. There is violence in aggression and in passion.

What struck me is that we do not know their names. At the end they give each other the name of the places in which their mutual tragedies happened. She calls him Hiroshima, he calls her Nevers.

One of the themes of the book and the movie is how the collective and the personal tragedies are linked. While Hiroshima and WWII stand for a collective tragedy, Nevers stands for a personal tragedy. This is one of the achievements of  Hiroshima Mon Amour. One approach in war stories or war movies is to pick one exemplary person and tell his/her story. We understand the individual far better, can identify far better with one person’s story but the large-scale of the collective should not be forgotten. Hiroshima Mon Amour is one of the rare movies/books who manages to show both and make clear that they are interdependent.

For those who have not read the book, I would say that it is a valuable addition and it is fascinating to see how they complement each other. First there is the script, including proposals by Marguerite Duras, then she adds information on what scenes Resnais finally chose, plus there is an annex in which Duras goes deeper, explores the woman’s story, gives it more density. I liked the appendix, that was mostly dedicated to the woman’s story, a lot.

There are many things that are worth discussing and I am looking forward to hear your thoughts. One question that has been on my mind since I re-watched the movie is the choice of the Japanese actor. He struck me as looking quite European. I had kept the appendix for last and was glad that Duras mentioned this choice, saying they had wanted to make a more universal statement with this. They didn’t want people to think “That’s an attractive Japanese” but “That’s an attractive man”. I was not completely happy about this. It’s a sad fact that whenever a person from another continent is casted in a European movie, the film directors think of the European taste and choose someone less typical. This is unfortunately exactly how exotism works. I think Resnais and Duras were honest in their attempt but I’m not sure it was ok.

Other reviews:

Emily (Evening All Afternoon)

Litlove (Tales from the Reading Room)

Richard (Caravana de recuerdos)


Hiroshima mon Amour was the seventh book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Elsa Morante’s History. Discussion starts on Friday August 26, 2011.

On Re-Reading Ambrose Bierce

Some classics are part of our childhood reading. There are many different writers that I haven’t re-read since I was quite young. Ambrose Bierce was one of them.

I remember sneaking off with a volume of his short stories and liking them very much when I was little. I knew nothing about the man, only much later when I read a lot of Latin American literature and came across Carlos Fuentes’ Gringo ViejoThe Old Gringo, that was also made into a movie, did I learn something about the man himself. Or rather the mystery of his ending. In 1913, at the age of 71, he rode off to Mexico and was never seen again. Fuentes’ exploration of his vanishing is a great book. I have also seen the movie but can’t remember if I liked it or not. It is believed that Bierce, who also fought in the Civil War, joined the forces of Pancho Villa.

But even without such a mysterious ending, Ambrose Bierce would be an interesting character. He was known for his satirical writings in which he used an acerbic and vitriolic tone. Some of his articles seem to have ruined more than one career of a new writer. He also wrote a lot of short stories and his famous The Devil’s Dictionary.

Since my time is limited these days, I’m much more inclined to read short stories and novellas besides my chunky August Readalong choice (Elsa Morante’s History – one of the great works of Italian literature ! – Yes, you can still join me).

Yesterday I decided to re-read some of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories. I wanted to see how I would like them as a grownup and how the knowledge of his disappearance would influence my reading. I read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Beyond the Wall, An Adventure at Brownville, The Damned Thing, One of the Missing and The Stranger. Most of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories can be found online here.

I really loved these stories. Bierce is a fantastic writer. Realistic, yet capable of creating an eerily haunting atmosphere. The Civil War, in which he served, is often a backdrop. The stories are either set in San Francisco or rural California, one takes place in an Arizona desert. The city as well as the country provide material for mysterious descriptions.

In my memory, Bierce’s stories had a certain resemblance with Edgar Allan Poe. It is also said that H.P. Lovecraft was influenced by him. Of the 90something short stories written by Bierce far over 50 have a supernatural, macabre or horror theme. What I had not realized when reading them before is the fact that he has a lot in common with Maupassant. The descriptions more than anything bear a strong resemblance with Maupassant’s short stories. Poe’s descriptions are different.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is one of his most famous stories. It is set during the Civil War and tells the story of a man who has been sentenced to be hanged. The story is, like so many others, quite surprising, it is non-linear and offers an unexpected ending. There isn’t anything supernatural in this one, just a touch of it.

Beyond the Wall is a ghost story set in San Francisco during a cold winter night.

The night of my visit to him was stormy. The Californian winter was on, and the incessant rain plashed in the deserted streets, or, lifted by irregular gusts of wind, was hurled against the houses with incredible fury.

An Adventure at Brownville is an atmospherical exploration of the mind’s faculties. It is a beautiful story with great descriptions.

As I leaned wearily against a branch of the gnarled old trunk the twilight deepened in the somber woods and the faint new moon began casting visible shadows and gliding the leaves of the trees with a tender but ghostly light.

The Damned Thing is the story that reminded me the most of Maupassant. It is a very subtle horror story in which two men go hunting.

One of the Missing is the longest story in the collection. It is a tragic story of the Civil War in which a soldier of General Sherman’s army is sent on a dangerous mission.

The Stranger is a ghost story in form of a Western. A party of men camping in the Arizona desert meets a mysterious stranger who tells them an uncanny tale.

If I think of the story of his life and compare its ending to his tales, I think, it is safe to say that Bierce loved mysteries. Maybe he didn’t want to return, maybe he got lost on the way or something occurred that was similar to what happened to the soldier in One of the Missing. One thing is certain, we will never know.

As I said, I enjoyed reading these stories a great deal and since we have autumn-like weather it was quite fitting. I sat on the balcony floor while reading them, it was raining and quite cool. One of the cats was lying on a table, the other one sitting with me under the woolen blanket I had draped around myself. There were a dozen ravens sitting on the huge maples in the back garden flapping their wet wings and cawing.

Frank Herbert: Dune (1965) Book III The Prophet

It is Saturday once again and time for the third and last Dune readalong post. I’m so glad I participated despite the initial feeling of “What have I gotten myself into?”. I can still not say, I loved Dune, that would be a lie but I can say I loved the readalong. It was a great experience, the dedication and the discussions were great and I’m looking forward to the next readalong. The readalong is hosted by Carl V from Stainless Steel Droppings,  The Little Red Reviewer and Grace from Books without any Pictures. This weeks questions have been sent by Grace. Here are the other links.

What is your reaction to finally learning the identity of Princess Irulan?  Do you think that her convention added to the story?

I wanted to “meet” her from the beginning and was very intrigued by her character. The parts quoted from her manuals and books stand out style wise. I was not surprised that she was the Emperor’s daughter but saddened about the plans they had for her. She strikes me as too special to be handled like some goods.

Were you satisfied with the ending?  For those reading for the first time, was it what you expected?

I still don’t think it feels like a standalone novel. For me the story is just about to start, I also think that this third part felt rushed. There were some fastworwarding moments that did not feel right to me. Comparing it to the first parts, there were much more things that were just mentioned but we did not see them happen.

On both Arrakis and Salusa Secundus, ecology plays a major role in shaping both characters and the story itself.  Was this convincing?  Do you think that Paul would have gone through with his threat to destroy the spice, knowing what it would mean for Arrakis?

I thought that it was very well done how ecology and characters of the different cultures were interwoven and for me this was the special appeal of Dune. I’m fascinated how surroundings influence and form cultures or how one thing that is meaningful because it is scare in one place, becomes unimportant in another to an extent that it isn’t even appreciated anymore.

There certainly is a possibility that Paul would destroy the spice but I’m sure he will find a solution not to do it. Someone who gets married to a woman for purely political reasons doesn’t strike me as someone who will give up a pricey resource.

Both Leto and Paul made their decisions on marriage for political reasons.  Do you agree with their choices?

This ties back to answer no. 1. I found this quite horrible, horrible for the concubine and, in Paul’s case. also for the future wife and I have also a feeling that this will not work and this is also why I thought the book ended at an awkward moment. I can’t imagine that Paul will use the Princess Irulan purely for breeding or, I hope, she will not let him do that to her.

What was your favorite part in this section of the book?

I enjoyed it when they rode the worms. I was fascinated by these creatures the whole time and thought it showed so well to what extent the Fremen are capable of mastering their hostile surroundings.

One of the things I noticed in the discussions last week was Herbert’s use of the word “jihad.”  What do you think of Herbert’s message about religion and politics?

I said it in the last posts and the discussion that I found the use of the word jihad problematic but I also found the use of the word messiah problematic and I can’t see Paul as a Messiah figure. He has some superior mental faculties but that isn’t enough for me to see a saviour figure in him. What Herbert does, is mix a lot of elements from all sorts of religions, it is a real religious hodgepodge what he offers.  I am not sure what he wants to tell us with this. That all religions are equal? That the elements are interchangeable? The religious world he created has no new elements, that’s for sure. Maybe the most striking is that he created a world in which everything is tied to politics and religion. And politics and religion are once more tied together, something the West has overcome. There is no laicism on Dune, their political system is far from secular which will always be problematic.

Writers in Paris – Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke (2008)

No city has attracted so much literary talent, launched so many illustrious careers, or produced such a wealth of enduring literature as Paris. From the 15th century through the 20th, poets, novelists, and playwrights, famed for both their work and their lives, were shaped by this enchanting place. From natives such as Molière, Genet, and Anaïs Nin to expats like Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, author David Burke follows hundreds of writers through Paris’ labyrinthine streets, inviting readers on his grand tour.

Writers in Paris may very well be one of the most enjoyable and interesting books I own, one that you can browse, open at random, read from beginning to end or backwards, it will always be great. I don’t even know where to begin to give you a good impression, it is so full of fantastic details.

Burke organised the book by “regions”, so to speak, “The Literary Left Bank”, “The River and Islands”, “The Literary Right Bank”…

What I like best is that you can either follow the traces of an author, be it a Parisian or an expat, or you can find information on books set in Paris, and read about the places described in novels. Each chapter is divided in sub chapters and Burke will indicate who lived in what street, quote excerpts of letters and diary entries, passages of novels and poems.

In the case of Rainer Maria Rilke, Burke, describes the streets and places where the writer lived

On a first stay in Paris during 1902 and 1903, Rainer Maria Rilke lived in a shabby student room at No. 11 rue Toullier, between rue Soufflot and rue Cujas. The house is still there, neat, cream-colored, with weathered shutters. The Prague-born poet was twenty-six years old when he arrived, unquestionably gifted, but emotionally and artistically immature. To him Paris was a sinister place.

But Burke also explores the streets evoked in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Or he describes, where Rilke found inspiration for one of his most famous poems, The Panther, namely at the Jardin des Plantes.

There are many authors mentioned in the book, some famous like Rilke, Balzac, Sartre, Orwell, Hemingway and others who are less well-known like Lautréamont (One sub chapter is called “Lautréamont and Maldoror on rue Vivienne”). Some writers are named repeatedly because they either moved about Paris quite a lot or because their books are set in different streets, different arrondissements.

One sub chapter is dedicated to “The Noble Houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain”. In this chapter you can find long paragraphs on Proust’s The Guermantes Way or on Edith Wharton’s stay in Paris. But also Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story is set here.

During two years I had an apartment at the Place de la Contrescarpe where Hemingway had his first home in Paris. He describes that stay in A Moveable Feast. I was curious to see who else had lived there at a certain point in time. It seems that François Villon roamed the premises in the 15th century, Mme Vauquer, one of Balzac’s characters, lives here, James Joyce and Valérie Larbaud had an apartment close by. The side streets of the rue Mouffetard, which leads to the Place de la Contrescarpe, are described in great detail in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I found this particularly interesting as Emma’s has recently reviewed it (here is the review) and I hadn’t even known before reading her review that Orwell also stayed in Paris for quite a long time.

The river Seine and the islands also play quite an important role in many a book like in Zola’s L‘Oeuvre.  Here is a scene in which the mad painter drags Christine to the river bank.

There he stopped again, his gaze fixed upon the island riding forever at anchor in the Seine, cradling the heart of Paris through which its blood has pulsed for centuries as its suburbs have gone on spreading themselves over the surrounding plain. His face lit up, as with an inward flame, and his eyes were aglow as, with a broad sweeping gesture, he said, “Look! Look at that!”

Other famous writers who have more than one entry are Colette, Proust, Céline, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, George Sand, Anaïs Nin and Arthur Miller.

Writers in Paris also contains quite a lot of black and white photos of writers and places, houses and streets.

Here is the homepage of the book with table of contents, lists of authors and some photos.

This is another contribution to  Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris in July.

Balzac: La Vendetta (1830)

I read La Vendetta as part of a mini-readalong together with Danielle and Emma. It was Danielle’s idea to read it for  Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris in July.

You can find different English versions of the novella or, if you read in French, you will find it in the collection La Maison du chat-qui-pelote or as a stand alone.

La Vendetta is one of Balzac’s earlier stories and part of the so-called Scènes de la vie privée. It is an interesting story for various reasons. On the one hand because it reflects some of the themes that were fashionable in the literature of the time but also because we can already see some of Balzac’s key themes emerge. I would say this novella is still rooted in romanticism with only a touch of realism.

The central story is the story of two families, the Piombos and the Portas,  who are connected by their mutual hatred. We learn at the beginning that after the Portas killed almost the whole family of the Piombos, the old Piombo killed the whole Porta family with the exception of a son, Luigi.

As Balzac tells us, the Corsicans are a fierce people and take revenge, or vendetta, as they call it, seriously. It is almost a religion for them. There will be no mercy or forgiveness ever. It’s a blood feud that can cost each and every member of a family his or her life.

After seeing their family so drastically decimated, Bartholoméo Piombo decides to leave Corsica and look for assistance by Bonaparte in Paris.  He has to learn an important lesson before being accepted in Paris. He must acknowledge that there will be no more vendetta. In Paris justice is not a personal matter but part of an official legal system.

After the first scene in which Bartholoméo is introduced the book fast forwards some ten years and focuses on the daughter of the family, Ginevra. The young woman is taking painting classes with a famous painter. She is quite skilled and produces many a good copy of existing pieces of art. The girls taking these calsses are a composite group. Some are of aristocratic background, some are nouveaux riches. There are many petty rivalries that are influenced by their families political orientation

Ginevra is a beautiful and cherished young woman. She is already 25 years old but has never fallen in love. She thinks that she will never leave her family and go on living a peaceful life at the side of her elderly parents. Destiny has other plans and one afternoon, while painting, she discovers a young soldier, who has been hidden by the painter. The young man is no other than Luigi Porta. It is a time of great turmoil, Napoléon has been overthrown for the second time and all those who followed him are in grave danger. Luigi has endured a lot, he was part of the Berezina campaign, he fought at Waterloo.

The two young people fall in love and Ginevra wants to get married but her father doesn’t want to accept this. His reasons go far beyond the fact that the young man is a Porta. He doesn’t want to lose his daughter. He doesn’t even care that this refusal might lead to a tragedy. When he finally realizes that he has made a mistake, it is too late.

I can’t really say I liked La Vendetta. Should you know Merimée’s Mateo Falcone, a novella on a similar theme, written just one year prior to La Vendetta, you will know why. Mérimée’s novella is accomplished and renders life and customs of Corsica without falling into the trap of stereotypes. Unfortunately this isn’t the case here. Balzac doesn’t do the Corsican people justice. He probably chose the theme because it was fashionable and I think what he really wanted to write about is the jealous possessiveness of a father. Bartholoméo Piombo isn’t the only selfish father in Balzac’s books. There are many others. This is why I could at least appreciate parts of the story. Another typical Balzac theme is the artist. Balzac was fascinated by painters and regularly evokes them in his stories. I found it sad that Ginevra who seems to have been very talented wasn’t encouraged to paint anything else but copies and in the end this speeded up the economical downfall of the young couple. This element is certainly realistic. There weren’t many accepted female painters in the early 19th century. Still it saddened me to see that young girls with talent had to paint mediocre works.

La Vendetta isn’t a bad novella but it isn’t Balzac at his most original. We see a few glimpses of the future master, but he isn’t there yet.

I’m curious to read what Emma and Danielle think.

Here are the links:

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Emma (Book Around the Corner)

Paris – A Movie by Cédric Klapisch (2008)

I watched this movie as part of Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris in July.

Paris is an absolutely charming movie and I’m sure it will appeal to many people because it combines a good story with interesting character portraits, wonderful pictures of Paris and a great cast (Juliette Binoche, Mélanie Laurent, Fabrice Luchini, Albert Dupontel and Romain Duris). I feel really homesick now.  All the places to which I used to go while I lived in Paris can be seen: La Place de La Sorbonne, the Jardin du Palais Royal, the Bibliothèque Nationale. But we also see Ménilmontant where I used to live briefly after I had finished school.

Paris tells one main story, different smaller side stories branch out from it. The people of the main and the side story are only connected because they live in the same town and their paths cross but they don’t get to know each other. Parallel storylines don’t always work well but in this movie they complete each other and the outcome is nicely rounded. The movie has really only one flaw, a brief “All-you-need-is-love”-moment towards the end of the film. Watching this short part was like biting on a lump of sugar in an otherwise tasty cake.

The central characters are Pierre (Romain Duris) and Élise (Juliette Binoche). Pierre is a professional dancer whose best friend is his older sister Élise, a fortysomething divorcée with two kids. At the beginning of the movie Pierre is diagnosed with a serious heart disease that means his career as a dancer has come to an end. He is condemned to stay in his apartment and watch life go by. This offers a great opportunity to have him observe people, one of them is the beautiful Laetitia (Mélanie Laurent). Whenever Pierre is alone, walking the streets of Paris, mourning his career, contemplating his possible death, his reflections are accompanied by the music of Erik Satie. I liked that touch a lot.

Élise doesn’t belive in love anymore. She has been disappointed, doesn’t want to risk falling in love. When she goes shopping for her brother to the street market, near where he lives, she meets one of the vendors (Albert Dupontel) and there seems, from the beginning, a possibility for something between them.

Roland Verneuil (Fabrice Luchini) is an elderly professor of history. His story was for me the most touching. We learn about it because he falls in love with one of his students, Laetitia who lives in an apartment vis-à-vis of Pierre’s flat and he watches her. Verneuil is insecure but at the same time there is a lot of passion in him that has been stored away for a long time. Falling in love with a student reawakens him and brings out a very different person. There is nothing sleazy in this older man falling in love with a young woman. Unfortunately the beautiful Laetitia is one of those good-looking women who enjoys not only to play with men but who also likes to inflict pain. A nasty piece of work.

I loved the melancholy end of the movie. We  know from the start that there isn’t a lot of hope for Pierre. He needs a transplant and he may or may not survive the surgery. The last scene shows him travel through Paris in a taxi, on his way to the hospital.

Paris is a beautiful and touching movie and a homage to a city. I liked it even better than Paris, Je t’aime which isn’t bad at all either.