Gabriel Chevallier: La Peur – Fear (1930) Literature and War Readalong June 2014


Most of the books we read for the Literature and War Readalong are historical novels, written by people who do not have any experience of war. But I always try to make sure to include at least one novel or memoir written by someone who had first-hand experience. Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear – La Peur is one of those. Like his narrator Jean Dartemont, Chevallier was a simple soldier during WWI. He served from 1914 to the end of the war. In 1915 he had a small break because he was wounded but was sent back to the front-line after his recovery. Reading his account it sounds like a miracle that anyone could survive this long under such circumstances. Given the title of this novel it may also come as a surprise that its author returned highly decorated. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.

Most of the time reading La Peur felt like reading a memoir and I suppose most of it is autobiographical. What drew me in from the beginning was the voice. I hope they were able to capture this unique and powerful voice in the English translation. A voice that mentions everything, denounces everything, and lets us get as close to the war in the trenches as possible without having been there.

The book hasn’t a plot as such, it’s more an episodic account of Dartemont’s experience of WWI and his thoughts. Not for one second does he think the war is noble, nor does he ever strive for glory. He sees right through most of the cowardly and sadistic officers and he speaks openly. Not always though. Sometimes he’s just too baffled to speak his mind like when an elderly man asks him on his leave whether they are having fun. Those at home think it’s all a great adventure, just like most of those who signed up early on.

Dartemont who was a student didn’t sign up for “gloire et patrie” (glory and homeland), he signed up because he wanted to see. He’s a very curious person, that’s probably why he never averts his eyes, no matter how scared he is. In the beginning he’s just like a participant observer. At first he’s far from the most intense fighting but once he’s seen his first battle, the first dead people and horribly wounded, fear is his constant companion.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this. Not for one second are we led to believe that going to war is heroic. It might very well be one of the most openly anti-war books I’ve ever read. Free of any sentimentality, free of any attempt to make us swallow the bitter pill by telling some touching story. It’s just one man’s account of the most horrible things one can experience.

The parts that shocked me the most are not the gruesome descriptions of the wounded and the dead but those that show how utterly ill prepared most of the attacks were. And how incapable and idiotic most of the high command was. How can you expect to win a battle when the enemy is dug in and your soldiers are just running into open fire? No wonder there were some battles in which there were 50,000 to a 100,000 dead and wounded within two hours. All this led to the mutinies of 1917. Of course it wasn’t much better on the British side. Unfortunately many officers were not only useless but petty and sadistic, mean-spirited and small-minded, and managed to turn even times of rest into nightmares.

Seeing how scared Dartemont was all through the war, and how long he stayed in the trenches, I was wondering why he wasn’t shell-shocked. I think he must have had an extremely strong character. Unlike so many, he never looks away, not even when he’s scared. He’s always aware that any moment could be his last, that he could end up maimed for life from one second to the other. This extreme awareness, paired with a strong character, seems to have helped him stay sane through the madness.

As awful and detailed as many of the description were, I liked reading this, because I liked the narrator’s voice so much. Staying this matter of fact in such mayhem is admirable.

I’m not surprised this book went out of print in France when WWII broke out. It’s as powerful as it is subversive. Chevallier rips off the masks of all those who pretend war is noble.


Other reviews

 Guy (His Futile Preoccupations)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)


Fear – La Peur is the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI novel The Lie by Helen Dunmore. Discussion starts on Monday 28 July, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Mary Hocking: The Very Dead of Winter (1993)

The Very Dead of Winter

I’m so glad I came upon Heavenali’s Mary Hocking Month and discovered the brittle beauty of the novel The Very Dead of Winter and its cast of eccentric characters.With her wry humor and sharp eye for social comedy Mary Hocking can be firmly placed in the tradition of British women writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Susan Townsend Warner, Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark.

Take a dysfunctional family, put them in a snowed in cottage at Christmas, with one of them slowly dying, and watch what will happen. I can guarantee you it will never be boring. The sisters Florence and Sophia used to spend their childhood holidays at the cottage. Now, in their sixties, they have come here for a special family reunion. Sophia is the owner of the cottage; Sophia’s sister Florence, her dying husband Konrad and their grown-up children Nicholas and Anita are guests.

What would be a testing moment for any family turns into a sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious adventure. With the exception of Sophia and Konrad, these are some of the most selfish, narcissistic people I’ve ever come across in a novel. Florence is a master manipulator but she’s not very subtle, which leads to hilarious moments. Anita, her daughter, a child psychologist who doesn’t like children, has been under her thumb her whole life. Being with her mother is like being on a battle field when both parties are too tired to strike. They say the nastiest things in the world to each other but they can’t really fight openly.

“My mother is too big for me: She dwarfs everyone around her – except my father,” Anita shouted in to the wind. “There’s never any peace where she is, nowhere I can feel I am me. All my childhood I had to stay clenched tight, ready to parry thrusts from my mother.”

Nicholas isn’t any less dysfunctional he just handles it differently and doesn’t really communicate with any of them.

The book offers wonderful character portraits and an abundance of scenes I’m not likely to forget. In one instance, Florence decides to go to church in the middle of the night, right through the snowed in forest. What would be challenging during the day in summer turns into a dangerous expedition. Anita, although she’s terribly annoyed with her mother, feels obliged to go with her. Of course, it’s far too exhausting and Florence collapses in the middle of the woods. She’s a heavy woman and slender Anita isn’t capable of carrying her. Luckily they stumble over a half-frozen pony, and because she has no means to guide the animal, Anita takes drastic measures. I’m not going to reveal what she does. It’s nothing tragic, just wildly crazy.

Florence is a great character, she’s scheming and manipulative, driven by fear of abandonment, which makes her do foolish things. She lives in constant disappointment with everyone around her, always expecting them to serve her narcissistic purposes. She’s only interested in what people can be or do for her, but takes no interest in their personalities. She has no idea for example who her husband is, where he came from – he is German – or what his dreams and hopes are. Once it’s obvious he will die, filled with the horror of future loneliness, she clumsily tries to capture a widower who lives near by. The ensuing scenes are some of the funniest. Desperate as she is, she even thinks she can manipulate her grown-up children to come back to live with her. One of her favourite techniques is finding her own faults in everyone else.

“Dear God,” Florence said. “What has happened to me?”

Standing there, in the center of the room, it was as if she had come on stage to find herself in an unfamiliar play. She was, above all else, a performer, and to find that she had got the performance wrong was deeply disquieting.

I really liked The Very Dead of Winter are great deal. Not only for its wry humour and psychological insight, but also for some lovely descriptions. It’s not a flawless novel, there are a few instances of shifty point of view, but that didn’t diminish the experience one bit. I’ll certainly read more of Mary Hocking, might even re-read The Very Dead of Winter.

I leave you with two final quotes, one from the beginning of the novel, the other can be found towards the end:

The beginning of the journey had been enchanting. Porcelain blue sky and the sparkling white canopy transformed dingy streets into fantasies of unimaginable purity and, passing out of town, they came to broad fields where sunlight reflected the trellis of branches like veins across the snow.

She stood there a long time while the shadows crept towards her, deeps of blue from which a tree stump rose like the funnel of a sunken steamer. On the other side of the hedge, and between the bars of the gate, the sharpness of outline blurred into a mist of pink and grey shot through here and there with a shee of palest turquoise.

Michael Cunningham: The Snow Queen (2014)

The Snow Queen

Michael Cunningham’s luminous, compassionate new novel begins with a vision.

It’s November 2004. Barrett Meeks, having lost love yet again, is walking through Central Park when he is suddenly and inexplicably inspired to look up at the sky, where he sees a pale, translucent light that seems to regard him in a distinctly godlike way. Although Barrett doesn’t believe in visions – or in god, for that matter – he can’t deny what he’s seen.

At the same time, in the not-quite-gentrified Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, Beth, who’s engaged to Barrett’s older brother ,Tyler, is dying of colon cancer. Beth, Tyler, and Barrett have cobbled together a more or less happy home. Tyler, a struggling musician with a drug problem, is trying and failing to write a wedding song for his wife-to-be – something that will be not merely a sentimental ballad but an enduring expression of eternal love.

Barrett, haunted by the light, turns unexpectedly to religion. Tyler grows increasingly convinced that only drugs can release his deepest creative powers. Beth tries to face mortality with as much courage and stoicism as she can summon.

One night, after having been dumped by his boyfriend via text message, Barrett is walking through Central Park when he sees a light. He’s pretty sure it’s of divine origin and looking down on him. He’s not the only one in his entourage who would benefit from divine intervention. He shares an apartment with his older bother Tyler, an unsuccessful musician with a drug problem, and his soon-to-be sister-in law Beth who has colon cancer. Both could do with some divine assistance.

The Snow Queen starts shortly before Christmas. It snows constantly and the images Cunningham creates are lovely and haunting. Tyler standing at the open window, while the snow swirls into the room full of old broken objects. Beth who wears only white and goes for a solitary walk. Liz and Andrew who do drugs until the early morning and stand on the top of the roof talking.

Barrett was once a wunderkind, someone who promised to be great one day. A scholar, a writer, someone who would leave a mark. Nowadays he’s happy to be a shop assistant in Beth’s and Liz’s vintage clothes shop. He doesn’t see himself as a failure when it comes to his career but he definitely sees himself as failure when it comes to love.

Tyler, the addict, struggles hard to write the perfect song for his wedding. He’s sure that a small bit of cocaine occasionally will help him. But occasionally is just an addict’s way of saying “I’ll stop soon”. And he always stops – until the next time, which comes invariably.

Liz is the oldest of the group of friends. She’s over fifty and still dating young men in their twenties. When they leave her for younger women she doesn’t care. It’s part of the plan, part of never settling.

We follow the four characters over the course of four years and see each of them come to terms with their life choices. They are drifters who have to learn that what they wanted in life might not have been the thing that would really make them happy.

I’m not sure what to think of this novel. I’ve read it in one sitting and some of the images are still vivid but it was also quite lame. I’ve read two of Cunningham’s novels A Home at the End of the World and The Hours. I loved both but this one left me puzzled. The writing is airy and precise, the images he creates are haunting but overall it’s so fluffy. And most of the time I felt like I’ve read something similar somewhere before. I even had a shock moment while working out, watching TV, and an episode of Sex and the City came on. A lot in this episode resembled The Snow Queen. I must say I like him better when he recycles Virginia Woolf. I also have no idea why he chose the title. Tyler get’s a snow splinter in his eye at the beginning but apart from that and the snow-heavy first chapters, there’s no link. Another possible inspiration might have been Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, with which it has more than one element in common.

With the exception of one critic most were raving about this book. I agree that the writing is lovely and the descriptions of addiction are extremely well done. Nonetheless, I need a bit more than a person seeing a light which is never explained and a couple of drifters accepting that life isn’t as grand as they thought it would be. Read it if you want to read an ode to resignation in a snowy setting.

Angela Carter Week June 2014 – Wrap-up

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This was such an exciting week. When Delia and I decided to host an Angela Carter Week we couldn’t foresee such a great success. So many fascinating posts and discussions. So many people who have either discovered a new favourite author or rediscovered her writing. What I liked best was the enthusiasm and the lively discussions and how all of our posts together are like one big tapestry, which mirrors and illustrates Angela Carter’s themes, the symbolism in her work, the topics.

It was great to see that some picked up a second book after finishing the first and certainly will go on reading her.

There were some critical comments as well. There should be, actually, after all, she’s a provocative writer and some of her topics are disturbing and can make a reader feel uncomfortable. I don’t think she ever wanted to please and that’s illustrated in some of our posts as well.

We’ve had 34 contributions, one of which from Russia. I had to use google translate to read it and wouldn’t have seen it if the writer of the post hadn’t linked to my post. Unfortunately I couldn’t leave a comment.


Thanks to everyone who joined us, to those who read Angela Carter’s books, wrote about them, discussed them and to those who read our thoughts on her work.

A very big thank you goes to Delia, my co-host.


Here are the links to all the participants’ posts.

1. Brona 14. Danielle @ A Work in Progress – Angela Carter’s Fairy Tales Part 1 27. Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat – American Ghosts and Old World Wonders
2. Melinda Jane Harrison 15. TJ @ MyBook Strings (Love) 28. Yasmine Rose – Love
3. Bluebeard (Dolce Bellezza) 16. Priya @ Tabula Rasa (American Ghosts and Old World Wonders) 29. Vishy (The Magic Toyshop)
4. TJ @ MyBook Strings (Love) 17. Helen @ She Reads Novels (The Bloody Chamber) 30. The Reading Life Angela Carter on Tales Versus Traditional Short Stories
5. Violet @ Still Life With Books // Love 18. Brona (The Bloody Chamber – the cat stories) 31. Brona (The Fall River Axe Murders)
6. The Reading Life (The Man Who Loved a Double Bass) 19. Jane @ Fleur in her World (The Magic Toyshop) 32. Book Notes – Кровавая &#
7. Candiss @ Read the Gamut (The Fall River Axe Murders) 20. Violet @ Still Life With Books // Heroes and Villains 33. Delia @ Postcards from Asia – Nights at the Circus
8. The Reading Life “ Black Venus” plus Rushdie picks 21. Helen @ a gallimaufry (Several Perceptions) 34. Danielle @ A Work in Progress – Angela Carter’s Fairy Tales Part 2
9. Delia @ Postcards from Asia – The Bloody Chamber 22. The Reading Life “ The Company of Wolves” 35. Yasmine Rose – Fireworks
10. Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat – The Magic Toyshop 23. Yasmine Rose – Bluebeard 36. Lit Nerd – Nights at the Circus
11. Violet @ Still Life With Books // The Magic Toyshop 24. Cathy 746 Books 37. TJ @ MyBookStrings – A Card From Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp
12. Brona (The Bloody Chamber) 25. Lindy Lit – Black Venus
13. The Reading Life “ Wolf Alice” 26. Brona (The Bloody Chamber – the rest!)
Angela Carter Week

Angela Carter: American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993)

American Ghosts

I’m sure we all read because we like a good story but aren’t we equally keen on writing which ignites our imagination? Writing that connects us with our subconscious, our emotions and dreams? Angela Carter knows how to tell a story but more than that, she inspires. She makes us think, explore, dream, fantasize, question. Sometimes it’s not even important to understand every aspect of her short fiction but just to read one of her wonderful sentences, discover one of her splendid images is enough.

The short story collection American Ghosts and Old World Wonders is such a treasure trunk. It’s full of retellings, deconstruction, parodies, reimagining of old myths, fables and fairy tales. It wasn’t always a breezy read. I had to hunt for a few academic papers in order to fully understand the one or the other of the pieces in this book. Like in all of her collections, there were a few stories that stood out and I’ve even found a new favourite.

In this collection Angela Carter mixes myths and elements of the American Dream and/or of America as the land of dreams, the country of  one of the biggest movie industries, the country of serial killers and westerns, of endless possibilities, and juxtaposes these elements with stories from the old world – fairy tales and history. The result is stunning.

The book is divided in two parts. I’d call the first the “American” part and the second the “Old World” part.

Part I

Lizzie’s Tiger is the second Lizzie Borden story she wrote. It shows us a young fearless Lizzie who discovers the magical world of a circus and a tiger who’s living in it. It’s as much an allusion to Blake’s famous poem as it is an imagination of a time when Lizzie was still small and had options to become someone else.

John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is a pretty tongue-in-cheek and cheeky piece. What if the film director John Ford made British playwright John Ford’s drama ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore into a movie? Well – read her story and you’ll find out what that would be like.

Gun for the Devil is another Western type story set near the Mexican border. Johnny get’s a gun and frees a girl. Sort of. The story contains an allusion to the movie Johnny Got His Gun.

The Merchant of Shadows is my favourite story in the book and has become one of my all-time favourites. A story of decay, exuberance, mystery, set in a decadent Hollywood setting, reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard (one of my favourite movies btw). A young academic comes to interview the widow of the famous film director von Mannheim (he seems inspired by von Sternheim). His widow was once a femme fatale but now she’s in a wheelchair, living with her sister who looks like a cowboy.

Here are is a sample of this deliciously lush and weird story, which contains a lot of Angela Carter’s magic, including metafiction, allusions, cultural references and a lot more:

A flight of rough-cut stone steps led up to a pool surrounded by clumps of sweet-smelling weeds; I recognised lavender. A tree or two dropped late summer leaves on scummy water and, when I saw that pool, I couldn’t help it, I started to shiver; I’ll tell you why in a minute. That untended pool, in which a pair of dark glasses with one cracked lense rested on an emerald carpet of algae, along with an empty gin bottle.

On the terrace a couple of rusty, white-enamelled chairs, a lopsided table. Then, fringed  by a clump of cryptomeria, the house von Mannheim caused to be erected for his bride.

That house made the Bauhaus look baroque. An austere cube of pure glass, it exhibited the geometry of transparency at its most severe. Yet, just at that moment, it took all the red light of the setting sun into itself and flashed like a ruby slipper. I knew the wall of the vast glittering lounge gaped open to admit me, and only me, but I thought, well, if nobody has any objections, I’ll just stick around on the terrace for a while, keep well away from that glass box that looks like nothing so much as the coffin for a classical modernist Snow White; let the lady come out to me.

No sound but the deep, distant bass of the sea; a gull or two; pines, hushing one another.

So I waited. And waited. And I found myself wondering just what it was the scent of jasmine reminded me of, in order to take my mind off what I knew damn well the swimming pool reminded me off – Sunset Boulevard, of course. And I knew damn well, of course I knew, that this was indeed the very pool in which my man Hank Mann succumbed back in 1940, so very long ago, when not even I nor my blessed mother, yet, was around to so much as piss upon the floor.

I waited until I found myself growing impatient. How does one invoke the Spirit of Cinema? Burn a little offering of popcorn and old fan magazines? Offer a libation of Jeyes’ Fluid mixed with Kia Ora orange?

This passage shows something else that strikes me every time when I read Angela Carter – how she is at the same time irreverent and full of admiration for her themes.

I liked the stories in part II a little less.

The Ghost Ships – A Chritsmas Story, I didn’t really get it but it had a few great moments. This opening for example:

‘Twas the night before Christmas. Silent night, holy night. The snow lay deep and crisp and even. Etc. etc. etc.; let these familiar words conjure up the traditional anticipatory magic of Christmas Eve, and then – forget it.

Then In Pantoland – a parody of the way fairy tales have become a pure commodity, robbed of their deeper meaning and sometimes violent aspects due to the way Disney has used them.

Ashputtle or The Mother’s Ghost contains three ways to deconstruct Ashputtle. Very different from Disnye’s Cinderalla.

Alice in Prague or The Curious Room is an homage to a Czech filmmaker. It combines Dr Dee and Alice in Wonderland. Edward Kelly is called Ned Kelly. I didn’t really understand what this figure of Australian history got to do in this text. I really love this passage:

Night was. Widow Night, an old woman in mourning, with big, black wings, came beating against the window; they kept her out with lamps and candles.

Impressions: The Wrightmans Magdalene is the reimagining of the story of Mary Magdalene. It references two artists’ representation: Georges de La Tour’s Mary Magdalene and Donatello’s Mary Magdalene. One a painting, the other a sculpture.

This collection was a wild ride, at times challenging, but mostly really captivating and enchanting.

This is the second review for Angela Carter week, co-hosted with Delia (Postcards from Asia).


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Angela Carter: The Magic Toyshop (1967)

The Magic Toyshop

I’m often tempted to skip the summary when reviewing a book, because, most of the time, the story as such doesn’t tell you a lot about a book. This is especially true in the case of Angela Carter. Her second novel The Magic Toyshop is no exception. It tells the story of a young girl, 15 year-old Melanie, who loses her parents the day after exploring the nightly parental garden in her mother’s wedding dress. She and her two siblings are then sent to her maternal Uncle Philip, a toy maker. At her uncle’s house she meets her Aunt Margaret and her aunt’s two brothers Finn and Francie. One is a painter, the other one a fiddler. It’s a very strange household. Creepy, joyless and fearful when her uncle is around; excentric and exuberant when he’s out. There’s a strange attraction between Finn and Melanie and one night, in the ruin of a magical garden, he kisses her. Melanie is confused by this because she doesn’t really fancy Finn. Additionally they have to hide their attraction because their uncle hates affection and emotions; he only lives for and through his toys and puppets. The grand finale is set in motion when Melanie has to play Leda in a cruel version of Leda and the Swan. Finn not only refuses to play along, but he takes revenge. Will the inhabitants of the sinister uncle’s house be able to free themselves or will they continue to be puppets in his hands?

A summary like this doesn’t tell you anything about the lush richness of the writing or what it feels like to enter an Angela Carter novel. Reading The Magic Toyshop is like entering an antiques shop or a shop with vintage clothes. You move from one beautiful garment to the next, from one arresting object to the following, only instead of objects and clothes you find sentences and images, allusions to fairy tales and myths, all woven into a shimmering tapestry. I felt like walking around in a stuffy room; in one corner I saw Bluebeard, in the next Red Riding Hood, and, over there, in a corridor, I spotted Dickens. Uncle Philip is like Bluebeard but he’s also a counter piece to the many bad stepmothers in fairy tales. He decidedly plays the role of a very bad step-father.  He’s an illustration of Carter’s play with gender clichés and tropes. Why does it always have to be the step mother who is vicious and vitriolic? In The Magic Toyshop the older women are positive, maternal figures. The older man is wicked and the younger are dreamy and wild.

The amazing thing in Carter’s writing is, that in spite of its complexity, it is very accessible and even entertaining. You can read The Magic Toyshop without being aware of the subtext, the allusions and references and still enjoy it. But, of course, she’s an author who makes you want to pick up books on her writing. It makes it so much richer, when you know what she is referring to or what she deconstructs.

Before I end this somewhat disjointed review (we have a heat wave currently and it’s hard to concentrate) I’d like to mention two more elements and maybe someone else can tell me how to interpret them:

Dirt – Dirt plays an important role in this novel. Melanie comes from a rich, elegant environment and everyone is clean at all times. Not so in Uncle Philip’s household where it’s hard to find warm water or soap and the people and their clothes are filthy. I remember from other stories that dirt is important but I’m not sure what meaning it has.

Incest – There’s open incest and incestuous moments in the novel. This is also a recurring theme.

The Magic Toyshop has been made into a movie which you can watch on YouTube. Angela Carter was fascinated by cinema and has twice contributed to the scripts of her own stories. This may be one of the reasons why anyone can enjoy her work – it’s always very visual.

This is my first review for Angela Carter week, co-hosted with Delia (Postcards from Asia).


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Welcome to Angela Carter Week

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Today marks the beginning of Angela Carter Week.  We have over twenty people who would like to participate. I saw quite a few intro posts, links and announcements. Thanks everyone for that. I’m really thrilled to see so much enthusiasm.

Delia has made a list of the participants and I’ve added everyone to my bloglovin account – still, it’s possible we might not see every contribution, therefore we’d be glad if you could use the Linky below.

It’s not as sophisticated as a blogspot Linky but it does work. You just have to click on the widget to see all the entries.

I’ll be visiting and posting all through the week. Next Sunday we’ll wrap up and hopefully we’ll be able to share a list with all the links.

I wish all the participants a great Angela Carter Week!