André de Richaud – The Author Who Inspired Camus to Become a Writer

Albert Camus said that André de Richaud’s novel La douleur  – The pain – inspired him to become a writer. When it came out in 1930, it created a scandal. The author was just twenty-three years old and had sent his manuscript to the Jury of the Prix du premier roman of the Revue Hebdomadaire. The jury was so shocked but impressed by the writing, that nobody won the price that year. While they considered La douleur too shocking for publication, it was clearly the best book. Despite the risk of a potential scandal, Bernard Grasset published the novel anyway that year, as he liked it so much.

Even though he entered the literary scene making such an impression and even though people like Camus and Cocteau praised him, de Richaud never got the fame or recognition he deserved. He went on to write more novels, short stories, plays, and poems but without any success. At the age of fifty-one, prematurely aged, he moved into a nursing home where he died of tuberculosis in 1968. He wrote his final work, the autobiographical novella Je ne suis pas mort – I am not dead, in 1965, after having found his own obituary that someone posted erroneously in a newspaper.

You’re certainly curious to find out now why La douleur was such a scandalous book. What was particularly scandalous was the combination of several themes that were taboo at the time. The love between French women and German prisoners of war, incest, and female sexuality.

La douleur is set during WWI, in the village of Althen-des-Paluds, in the Comtat region in the South of France, very far from the trenches. In the village, like in so many other French villages, there are only women, old men, and children, until the day when three German prisoners of war arrive.

Thérèse Delombre has lost her husband six months ago. Since then she’s been living alone with her small son. Thérèse Delombre suffers intensely. Not so much because she misses her husband, but because the loss leaves her sexually frustrated. She can’t think of anything else, can’t sleep. While it isn’t explicit, it’s obvious that her relationship with her son has an incestuous undertone. He sleeps in her bed, they touch constantly. She’s jealous whenever he makes a friend, especially a female friend. And when she catches the kids playing doctor’s games in the attic, she freaks out. This changes when she meets the German prisoner Otto and begins an affair with him. She neglects her son and throws herself into this love affair, unaware that people have noticed and disapprove.

Even for a contemporary reader some of the passages are very outspoken but not explicit. There isn’t any description of any of the sexual encounters, but the longing is described in an explicit way.

The book is courageous and interesting because of these themes but what made me really love it is the writing. De Richaud is a stunning writer. His descriptions are so lyrical I read many passages several times just because they were so beautiful. He also manages to give us a feeling of what it was like to be in one of those villages far from the trenches, but still so deeply affected by the war.

It’s tragic to know that the book is based on de Richaud’s own childhood. He was traumatised by his mother’s affair with an enemy.

What I find even more tragic is that de Richaud has hardly been translated. La douleur has been translated into German for the first time in 2019. I don’t think that an English translation of this exists. It’s a shame. People would love it and those interested in Camus would appreciate reading it even more.

This was such a haunting book. I will certainly read more of de Richaud’s work.

 

Elizabeth Taylor: The Soul of Kindness (1964)

Published in 1964, The Soul of Kindness is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s later novels. It’s the seventh novel by her that I’ve read and since I want to read everything she has written, it won’t be my last. I have to be honest though – if this had been my first, I might not have been so keen to carry on. While most other novels have one, or two central characters, this is more of an ensemble piece. It says in the foreword that it is one of three novels that don’t centre on a main character. The other two being In A Summer Season and The Wedding Group, both of which I haven’t read yet. This may sound as if I didn’t like it – that’s’ not the case but I think it works better when you know her writing already and read it as part of her oeuvre. If not, you might feel a bit let down by the lack of plot and its feeling a bit disjointed at times, especially since the blurb tells us this is Flora’s story. I suppose that was a marketing decision, as it isn’t her story, not in a traditional way that is. She’s more like the central figure among a group of people. But she’s definitely “the Soul of Kindness” the ironic title alludes to.

When the book opens, we see her as a shining bride, all eyes on her. She’s the belle of the ball. While people do admire her and many think highly of her, nobody does so as much as she does herself. Right away she is presented as attractive and nice, but also too fond of herself and a little ridiculous.

“Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.

Most of the central characters of this novel, are present at the wedding. Especially those whose lives Flora wants to improve. Among those unlucky ones are Meg, her best friend, Kit, Meg’s brother, and Percy and Ba, her father in law and his mistress. They are unlucky because Flora might be well meaning but she’s so self-centred, her attempts to help leads to smaller and bigger catastrophes. To help another person one has to be able to see them for what they are and that’s something Flora is incapable of.

While there isn’t really a plot, and after these initial scenes, not even a main character, the book still offers a lot. There are so many astutely observed character portraits, small vignettes, and scenes, some of which quite funny, that it’s a joy to read. I was particularly fond of Elizabeth Taylor’s use of atmospheric descriptions to convey a mood.

Here’s a very melancholic passage. We see Mrs Secretan, Flora’s mother, who was wishing so much for Flora to marry well, but never thought what it would mean for her, as a widow, that her daughter would move out.

The air smelt autumnal. In no time there would be thick evening mist coming up from the water, a complete silence from the towing-path, and the river rising; perhaps floods. And Flora would be settled in London and never to come here again, except as a guest.

I made all the plans, Mrs Secretan thought; down to the last detail. But I forgot this, I forgot myself and the future. I particularly overlooked this evening. She read the letter through again, telling herself that Flora had meant well, meant very well, poor girl. In fact she had always meant well. That intention had been seen clearly, lying behind some of her biggest mistakes.

This passage shows us, quite clearly that even her mother doesn’t think of Flora as kind and good, but merely as well-meaning with fatal consequences.

And here’s a funny passage in which Mrs Secretan, encouraged by her son-in-law, thinks about travelling. It captures both characters, of Flora and her mother so well.

To Flora’s astonishment she (her mother) was quite seriously weighing the pros and cons – of Hellenic tours (‘might be too scholarly’), India (‘but I dare say it is spoiled, now that it doesn’t belong to us’), the Holy Land for Christmas.

‘Yes, I might plump for the Holy Land for Christmas,’ she had told Flora, who had been deeply shocked. At Christmas! she had thought in dismay. So what shall we do? Christmas had always been a sacred time, with cherished customs, not one for taking oneself off to the Holy Land.

Flora is so oblivious of other people and their needs that she’s pretty much the only happy character in this novel. All the others strive for something or someone they can’t attain. Or, because of Flora, they start to strive for something that’s not attainable, risking their contentment for a mirage.

In The Soul of Kindness, like in all of her novels, Elizabeth Taylor excels at creating well-rounded, believable characters. Their relationships are complex and at times complicated. Nothing is as simple as Flora perceives it. Not even her own husband Richard. He’s very much in love with his wife, because of her beauty, but knows that she’s too self-centred to be clever. No wonder he’s attracted to his unhappy neighbour. This relationship triggers Flora’s jealousy and we see, she can be perceptive when she feels threatened.

In the foreword, Flora is called demonic, which I find a total exaggeration. I don’t think she’s as bad as we’re initially led to believe. Yes, she’s self-centred, oblivious, and puts in motion some things that go terribly wrong, but she’s the glue that holds all these people together. Without her, this particular group of people and their relationships wouldn’t exist. And that’s not a little thing. It’s a gift to attract interesting people and to bring them together. I would, if I had to judge her, call her very imperfect, but neither demonic nor mean. That’s why, ultimately, she’s liked and forgiven.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel but I don’t think it’s as good as others. I believe it doesn’t succeed at being the portrait of one central character like Angel for example, but that’s how the beginning reads. All the initial chapters place Flora at the centre but this cohesion eventually fizzles out. As if Elizabeth Taylor had realized too late that Flora wasn’t a big enough character to carry a whole story. I could be totally wrong, of course, as critics have called this one of her, if not her best book.

Since this is one of three “group stories” I hope I will like the other two In A Summer Season and The Marriage Group more.

Here’s another take on this novel by Jacqui. 

Best Books I Read in 2019

There hasn’t been a year since I started blogging in which I reviewed as little as in 2019. I also read less, or rather, I finished less books. I have two huge stacks of almost finished and half-finished books next to my bed. I’ve never done this before, given up on a book twenty to thirty pages before its ending but I did this year. Some of them will still be finished someday but many, I guess, won’t. Not sure why this happened. Did I make bad choices? Was I in a reading slump? A bit of both, I suppose.

That said, I have read some wonderful books this year.

And here they are, in no particular order.

Fiction

William Maxwell – They Came Like Swallows

Tragic and beautiful, Maxwell’s book is one of the few I reviewed. Here’s what I said:

I’m full of admiration for the craft and looking forward to reading The Château next. And I think it’s an outstanding portrayal of grief and the awkward ways people treat the bereaved. It also shows very well how devastating the influenza pandemic was.

Philippe Delerm Sundborn ou les jours de lumière

Anglophone readers might not be familiar with Philippe Delerm, but let me just tell you – it’s an absolute shame. He’s one of my favourite French writers. After having read Autumn, his book on the Pre-Raphaelites, I chose to read Sundborn last year. Sundborn focusses on the Scandinavian artists surrounding Swedish painter Carl Larsson. Delerm is outstanding at capturing colours, landscapes moods, and this book is no exception. Anyone who loves Carl Larsson or Soren Kroyer would love this book. It needs to be translated.

Carl Larsson

Soren Kroyer

Barbara Pym – Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle

No need to introduce Barbara Pym to the readers of this blog. She’s a favourite of many. These were two excellent, witty, sharp, and at times amusing books. I couldn’t say which one l liked better. Possibly, Some Tame Gazelle, as it is a bit gentler. I’m a bit mad at myself for not reviewing them but when I read them, I was still in too much back pain to sit at my desk.

E.F. Benson Mapp and Lucia

While I didn’t review Barbara Pym, I did write a post on E. F. Benson’s famous Mapp and Lucia. What a delightful book. One that left me with a serious “book hangover”. It took weeks until I was able to move on and properly enjoy something else.

Here’s a bit from the review:

And there’s life at Tilling. A carefree life that’s so different from most of our lives nowadays. Not only because it’s set before WWII, but because it’s set among the British upper middleclass. Nobody works in this book. All the main characters own beautiful houses. All they think about is where they will dine next, who gives the best tea party. Gossip and petty quarrels aside, it’s a peaceful world. The conflicts are entirely the character’s own making. Nothing dramatic ever comes from outside. At least not until the end. After a while, I found spending time in this world very comforting. And funny. It’s a terrific social comedy. Lucia’s pretence to know Italian is hilarious and so is the way they constantly try to outsmart each other.

Joseph Roth Der Radetzkymarsch

Death, dying, and the end of an era are all themes in this marvellous novel. Sometimes you wonder why a book is a classic. Not in this case.

Vigdis Hjorth Will and Testament

This novel by Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth was so good and I did review it.  Here’s a bit from the review:

Will and Testament was a huge success in Norway, and I can see why. It’s highly literary but nonetheless as captivating as a thriller. The plot is moving back and forth in time, slowly revealing the dark secrets at the heart of the dysfunctional family depicted in the novel.

Willa Cather – The Professor’s House

Since I’ve started blogging, almost tens year go, I came across so many raving reviews of Willa Cather’s work. Every year I said the same – I need to read her but then I didn’t. Last year, finally, I read my first Willa Cather and the only thing I regret is that I didn’t review it. What a wonderful book. One could say it’s almost two books in one, something I’m usually not keen on but it really worked. First we have the more interior parts, told from the point of view of Professor St. Peter. Anyone who has ever tried to carve out some time for her/himself, will know how hard it can be to work either creatively or do research when there are many demands from friends, family,  . . . Professor St. Peter tries very hard and succeeds and the time he spends on his own turns into a trip down memory lane. He thinks about his former student and friend, Tom Outland, who died in the Great war. His death brought great wealth to St. Peter’s family but also complexity and animosity. The second book inside of the book is Tom Outland’s story. And in that part we see what Willa Cather was so famous for – her landscape descriptions. It’s quite magical.

Crime

Simenon – Maigret et l’Homme tout seul – Maigret and the Loner

It’s been a while since I’ve last read a Maigret. They are a bit hit or miss, but this one was fabulous. A homeless man has been killed and it seems so absurd. He kept to himself, had no possessions. What could anyone gain from killing him? Maigret’s in the dark for a long time. The end is surprising.

Sarah Vaughan Anatomy of a Scandal

This is embarrassing. I read this last January, didn’t review it and have practically forgotten everything about it. I just remember I LOVED it.

Carlo Lucarelli Almost Blue

I love a good noir. The mood, the atmosphere. This has all that and more. It’s a rare beast as it’s a genre blend. A serial killer noir. Don’t let that put you off. It really is good.

Nonfiction

Amy Liptrot – The Outrun

Another one of the very few I’ve reviewed. Such an amazing memoir about the way nature can help us heal.

Here’s a bit from the review:

I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s an amazing insight into someone’s addiction and recovery and a fabulous account of life on Orkney. I could see the many migratory birds, feel the icy cold of the water, the force of the gales, and the beauty of the constellations in the night sky.

In defiance of this dissatisfaction, I’m conducting my own form of therapy through long walks, cold swims and methodically reading old journals. I’m learning to identify and savour freedom: freedom of place, freedom of damaging compulsion. I’m filling the void with new knowledge and moments of beauty. (p.180)

Elizabeth Tova Bailey – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

If I had to pick one favourite of all the books I’ve read, I’d say it was this one. It’s beautiful and fascinating. Elizabeth Tova Bailey contracts a mysterious viral or bacterial infection that leaves her tied to her bed for years. During an especially bad phase, a friend gifts her a terrarium with a tiny forest snail in it. This tiny being becomes her companion. She’s so fascinated by it that she begins to read up on gastropods. The world she discovers is amazing. (Did you know snails have between 1’000 and 12’000 teeth?). The result of her research is an absolute gift to the reader. But the tiny snail does more than fascinate. It gives her comfort and solace.