Delphine de Vigan: Underground Time aka Les Heures souterraines (2009)

Everyday Mathilde takes the Metro, then the commuter train to the office of a large multi-national where she works in the marketing department. Everyday, the same routine, the same trains. But something happened a while ago – she dared to voice a different opinion from her moody boss, Jacques. Bit by bit she finds herself frozen out of everything, with no work to do. Thibault is a paramedic. Everyday he drives to the addresses he receives from his controller. The city spares him no grief: traffic jams, elusive parking spaces, delivery trucks blocking his route. He is well aware that he may be the only human being many of the people he visits will see for the entire day and is well acquainted with the symptomatic illnesses, the major disasters, the hustle and bustle and, of course, the immense, pervading loneliness of the city. Before one day in May, Mathilde and Thibault had never met. They were just two anonymous figures in a crowd, pushed and shoved and pressured continuously by the loveless, urban world. “Underground Time” is a novel of quiet violence – the violence of office-bullying, the violence of the brutality of the city – in which our two characters move towards an inevitable meeting. ‘Two solitary existences cross paths in this poignant chronicle, a new testimony to de Vigan’s superb eloquence’ 

I read a review of  Delphine de Vigan’s book on Bookaroundthecorner’s Blog and really liked the tone of it. I ‘m glad I read it. It is far from cheerful but it is an important book on an important topic.

Les Heures souterraines or Underground Time is a chillingly good novel and shockingly topical. It’s accurate in its depiction of life in a corporate setting and of  life in a big city. It’s a very timely book, a book that doesn’t shy away to speak about the ugly side of  “normal lives”.
Reading the novel feels as if we secretly observed the two main protagonists, Mathilde and Thibault, at their most intimate. We follow them during the course of one day of their life. Mathilde is a single widow with three children, Thibault lives alone as well. We seem to watch them from a bird’s eye perspective and see them roam through Paris and through their lives.

Thibault is a doctor without a practice, one who makes house calls and goes from door to door where he sees a lot of misery and distress. He just left his lover and is heart-broken. He had to admit to himself that he was the one in love, she only took advantage of him.

Mathilde works for a big corporate company. She used to like her job but a few months ago she made a tiny mistake during a meeting. She dared contradict her boss and has since then become his target.  Bit by bit he wears her down, leaves her out systematically, withdraws every important project from her. He doesn’t inform her of important meetings, sets traps in order to provoke mistakes. Mathilde is at the end of her rope. She who used to be a strong person, who survived her beloved husband’s death, who raises her children on her own, who used to be a happy and succesful woman, she is about to crack, to break down. She can’t slepp anymore, she is afraid to go to work, she thinks she suffocates.

These two people should meet, they could meet, their paths cross more than once on this day.

There are many scenes I liked a lot. One of Mathilde’s little boys knows she needs all her strength and he offer’s her one of the most coveted cards of the World of Warcraft game. I liked this because World of Warcraft is a symbol for our times. It has become so important in so many people’s lives, it is a refuge, a haven to which they can escape, where they can find solace,  another life, become another person, where they feel happier than in the “real world”.

Another scene is equally good, it is the opening of the book when we are told that Mathilde went to see a psychic. The fortune-teller tells her that she will meet someone on the 20th of May, the day on which we follow her. Both scenes show us how utterly vulnerable Mathilde is. She doesn’t know how to get out of this mess.

How is this day going to end? Is Mathilde going to overcome her difficulties? How will Thibault handle all the disasters and sadness he has to face on this day? Will they meet?

I’m afraid, if you want to find out, you will have to read this novel. Don’t hesitate, it is excellent. It was nominated for the Prix Goncourt and would have been a worthy winner. It talks about things we’d rather not talk about. The loneliness in big cities, the isolation, the struggle of modern life, the hassle to commute, the abuse of power in the work place, mobbing, the inhumanity in big companies. The novel also shows that one of the most important elements is to talk about your problems, to address them, to seek help. And you have to go to the right place. Your colleagues will not help, they are afraid, the Human Resources won’t help, they follow their own agenda. The book sadly also shows that it can be too late. People can get so tired and worn out, they simply cannot fight anymore, they despair, feel terribly ashamed and give up.

It was good to read such a well written book about things that many of us have to struggle with on a daily basis.

I’d like to add one more thing on abuse of power and mobbing. The big difference is that abuse of power is a top-down thing, while mobbing is something that is done on the same level. Both are harmful and if anyone should be ashamed, it’s the people who do it. If you want to fight it, both are equally hard to handle but I think it would be a bit easier to get help if you are a mobbing victim. Nowadays big companies have special services who deal with this kind of stuff.

On Philippe Delerm’s Blogger Novel “Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby” (2009)

« est pris d’assaut. Beaucoup de compliments, qu’Arnold a d’abord trouvés
outranciers, mais on s’habitue vite. Ces enthousiasmes sont souvent signés d’un prénom féminin
accompagné d’une adresse e-mail, mais M Spitzweg s’est promis de ne pas répondre. Certaines
correspondantes comprennent cette attitude : “Ne perdez pas votre temps. Continuez seulement à
cueillir le meilleur des jours.” Cueillir le meilleur des jours pour des Stéphanie, des Valérie, des
Sophie ou des Leila, voilà qui n’est pas sans flatter l’ego d’Arnold, même s’il cueille davantage
encore pour des Huguette ou des Denise ». Arnold Spitzweg crée son blog : l’employé de bureau discret jusqu’à l’effacement cède à la modernité mais sans renier ses principes. Sur la toile, à contre-courant du discours ambiant, il fait l’éloge de la lenteur. Ses écrits intimes séduisent des milliers d’internautes…. Comment vivra-t-il cette subite notoriété ?

I have read a few novels by Philippe Delerm and especially Autumn, his historical novel on the life of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his muse Lizzie Siddal, is an absolute favourite of mine. As a matter of fact I liked it so much that I keep his second novel on the life of another famous painter (Carl Larsson), Sundborn, unread on my TBR pile. Unfortunately only one of his books, La première gorgée de bière aka The Small Pleasures of Life has been translated into English. It’s a series of impressions and descriptions of life’s little pleasures. I did like it but not as much as his other books, some of which are novels, others are a combination of little sketches and photos (Paris l’instant).

Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby tells the story of Arnold Spitzweg, an invisible little clerk who is working for La Poste in Paris. Originally from the Alsace region he still loves Paris as much as when he first arrived. He lives an uneventful life, dreams of a unlived love affair, has an occasional lover, but all in all he likes to be left alone and just watch life pass. When someone tells him about a new phenomenon called “blogging” his curiosity is piqued. After a few inquiries he immediately starts his own blog in which he notes in minute details all the little things he observes around him, explains his way of seeing life, of enjoying the simple things and staying outside of it all as a pure observer.

It doesn’t take long and his blog has the first comments. After a while there are more and more until he is a real celebrity, even mentioned on the radio. While at first he wrote exactly what he wanted to write, fame makes him self-conscious and he starts to censor himself. When he realises that he doesn’t write for his pure pleasure anymore, he simply stops blogging.

Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby takes place during one hot summer in Paris. While everyone is gone on holidays, Mr Spitzweg, walks all over Paris, discovers and rediscovers streets, places and little corners and enjoys the city to the fullest. Since I love and miss Paris, I enjoyed all these details. They are well captured. And the parts on blogging are really interesting. From the start Spitzweg doesn’t answer comments or only rarely. He wants to be read but he doesn’t want to get in contact with his readers. I have noticed that there are quite a few bloggers like that out there. I often wonder what is in it for them. The reasons for blogging are probably as numerous as the bloggers who write the blogs. On the other hand I know from my own experience that a blog that gets many comments doesn’t necessarily have many readers, and you may have numerous readers but hardly any comments. I know that I wouldn’t want too many comments as I want to respond to each and every one. The more, the harder. It’s as simple as that. I’m not a crowd person and the people I call “friends” are well-chosen. The same goes for my blog, I suppose. I “know” those who leave comments on my blog. It’s not a crowd of strangers that I cannot place.

I could really understand Mr Spitzweg when he started to feel self-conscious. It did happen to me a few times. Fortunately I got rid of it but occasionally (on my German blog) I have thoughts like “Who is going to want to read this?” or “Oh my, what are they going to think?”.

And what about Bartleby? In the novel Arnold Spitzweg thinks that we are all a little bit like Bartleby and since he emphasized this so much I thought I need to read Melville’s novella. The review will follow tomorrow.

I’m not sure whether what I wrote made it obvious or not but I really liked this little novel. It isn’t one of his best but it contains everything I like in Delerm and I liked his character Spitzweg a lot. He is a very gentle and atypical man who gets picked on quite a lot. Especially by other men. There is also a little bit of gender discussion hidden underneath it all.

Delerm’s novel is not the first blogging novel I saw. I think Joanne Harris has written one and I vaguely remember another one. Has anyone read a novel about blogging?

Stéphane Hessel: Indignez-Vous! /Time for Outrage!/Empört Euch!



Bookaroundthecorner reviewed this tiny little booklet a few days ago and since I had bought it last October when it came out and am one of the happy few to own a first edition, I thought I might as well read it. Besides it is only 13 pages long + an additional 14 of introduction and afterword.

Since the French original came out the essay has been translated into many different languages and is a success pretty much everywhere. There is always a very good indicator whether a book is spoken of in Germany when you look at the number of reviews and the number of comments the reviews get on amazon and whether there are articles and TV programs on Swiss TV as well.

Reviews of Indignez-vous! generated up to 200 comments on One could say that Stéphane Hessel hit a nerve.

In France alone it sold far over 600’000 copies, in Germany I think it hit the 1’000’000 mark a while back already.

Hessel, a German Jew,  is a charismatic man and  looks back on a life story that isn’t shared by many. Hero of the Resistance, member of de Gaulle’s Free French organisation in London, he was captured upon returning to France in 1944, tortured and sent to two different concentration camps which he both escaped. He helped to draft the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and became a famous French advocate for Human Rights.

With this background and credibility it isn’t surprising that he would make people listen.

Time for Outrage!

Time for Outrage!

Hessel wants to incite a sense of outrage in his readers. Outrage is the fuel for resistance and the only way to stop things as he says. Our world is drifting away from democratic principles with the supremacy of money over everything else.

The worst attitude facing social injustice and exploitation is indifference. There are numerous things that outrage Hessel, one of the most important ones – and source of a lot of controversy – is his take on the situation in Palestine and his statements against the Israeli government. Despite being of Jewish origins he was promptly accused of anti-Semitism. Silly, really as there is a long tradition of Jewish intellectuals,  starting with Hannah Arendt, who criticized Israel.

Empört Euch!

Empört Euch!

It may come as a surprise but his answer to all the problems and conflicts is non-violence. Be outraged, do not stay indifferent and change things in a nonviolent way, is his core message.

That this book is such a success in France where the current politics give a lot of reason for outrage isn’t surprising. That it is an equal success in Germany isn’t any more astonishing. You cannot write anything and name Jews, Resistance, Nazism, concentration camps and Israel and not be read in Germany. To overlook this book would seem to many a German intellectual almost a sign of anti-Semitism. But there is more to it. His call for non-violence is something that strikes a chord in Germany more than anywhere else. The last time people were really outraged, they ended up killing people (RAF) and this cannot be a solution.

Still, why is it such a success? I think because it is so unflinching. There isn’t any superfluous word in this slim book, no adornment, no digression.

It is short and to the point and tells you without any ambiguities what his author considers to be right and wrong.

I am one of those who is against all sorts of relativism that seems to me just a means to avoid clear thinking and taking responsibility. The most outrageous things are just explained away by people who do not want to take position. There isn’t an excuse for everything, no matter how much some would like this. I particularly abhor cultural relativism and can still remember how I was ostracized as a young student because I dared criticizing the practice of female genital mutilation practiced in many African countries. One female fellow student dared telling me that I was “showing all the sings of the deluded belief of Western and Judeo-Christian supremacy” in criticising an African custom. Now I may be naive but I think whenever something harms someone it can not be right, whether this may be rooted in someone’s culture or not.

Another point in which I agree with Hessel is when he makes clear that outrage that leads to terror is not a solution.

Hessel would like to reach young people but I have my doubts whether his essay is read by the very young. I think those under 30 are getting more and more apolitical. I’m not even sure that growing insecurity will wake them up. Still, one should always try.

Hessel is a “phenomenon” that our world needs. A world that tends to pay attention to the young and good-looking rather than to the elderly. Although strong in numbers they seem to be treated more and more like a minority.  We need positive role models in every age group. Hessel demonstartes that you can be 93 years old and your thinking can still be fresh, your engagement intense and your ideas important enough to create an interest in a lot of people.

I attached a great interview for German-speaking readers.

Balzac: Le Colonel Chabert aka Colonel Chabert (1832/1844)

Balzac’s radiant story recounts the history of Colonel Chabert, a disenfranchised hero of the Napoleonic wars. Left for dead on the battlefield of Eylau, Chabert has spent years as an amnesiac in an asylum. The novel begins with his return to the life he left behind: only to discover that in his absence, his entire life – family, society, identity – has changed. With Napoleon deposed, France’s aristocracy has returned to power ‘as if the Revolution never occurred’. With Chabert supposedly dead, his wife is now married to a Count. Sickened by his wife’s pretence not to recognise him, and the titled society which spurns his former meritorious deeds, Chabert vows to recover his money, his reputation and his name.

A few years back I went through an intense Balzac phase reading one of his novels after the other. Still there are so many left I haven’t read and one of them was Le Colonel Chabert (or Colonel Chabert in English). I always thought it was much longer, probably because the edition I have contains other books as well. Or because of its notoriety. I think it is one of the most famous of his works.

Le Colonel Chabert is one of the books from the Scènes de la vie privée. Those who are familiar with Balzac know that the vast canvas of his work which he called La Comédie Humaine is organized in groups depending on the setting or themes.

Balzac has written an impressive amount of books. Some were serialized and written for the newspaper, like Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, and the writing is not subtle at all. As wonderful as his plots, characters and topics usually are, his style is occasionally lacking. I was pleased to see that Le Colonel Chabert is, from a purely literary point of view, one of his best. It was published twice, first in 1832 under the name La transaction and then again in 1844.

Colonel Chabert is one of Balzac’s most tragic figures, a man who had everything and lost it all. To a certain extent the figure of Colonel Chabert whose fate is tied to that of Napoléon, also mirrors the emperor’s fate. Like Napoléon himself, he knew fame and glory and lost it all.

The novel opens on a scene of lively banter among several clerks who work for a young and promising lawyer. This scene is Balzac at his very best. With a few words he captures mediocrity. Into this setting enters a man who looks like a ghost. An old and broken man, poorly dressed, weak and ailing. When he asks to see Derville, the young lawyer, they make fun of him. And even more so when he tells them that he is the Colonel Chabert. Everybody knows that this cannot be as the Colonel has died in the battle of Eylau. His much deplored death has even been confirmed by Napoléon himself. His wife has remarried and born two children to a new husband. His fortune has been divided. The man standing in front of them cannot be the dashing looking colonel. This is an old man who seems to have seen nothing but poverty and misery.

The clerks who do not believe the old man send him away and tell him to return at one in the morning, the only hour during which the lawyer receives his clients.

When Chabert returns Derville is gruff at first but he is not only an ambitious young man, he is also very intelligent and kind-hearted. He pities the poor man and allows him to tell his story.

The Colonel who has shown Derville the deep scar on his skull, tells him how he was mortally wounded by a sabre, who almost split his skull in two. Buried under his horse who had been killed, he wasn’t trampled by the fleeing army but left unconscious. When they finally discovered him, they declared him dead and buried him. He regained consciousness later in the grave and managed to dig himself out from underneath corpses, earth and snow. This is a truly creepy scene that reminded me of an Edgar Allan Poe story.

Illustration de Le Colonel Chabert

(La bataille d’Eylau by Antoine-Jean Gros)

Ten years have passed since that episode. Ten years of suffering and erring during which the Colonel wrote to his wife a few times. Hoping to make a better marriage she pretends not to believe that he is alive. Chabert finally decides to ask for help and wants the young lawyer’s assistance in claiming back his wife and his considerable fortune.

His former wife, now the Countess Ferraud, is one of the ugliest characters of Balzac whose novels are full of greedy, vile people.

I will stop my summary here and just tell you that the outcome isn’t exactly what we expect.

I am not sure if it would be ideal to start reading Balzac with Le Colonel Chabert. I usually recommend Le père Goriot or La cousine Bette. Once you are more familiar with Balzac’s themes and characters you will realize how unique this book is. It is very short but extremely complex and a lot of allusions to French history are almost crammed into it. To fully comprehend the story it is good to know something about French history.

I’m looking forward to watch the movie one of these days as it seems to be very good as Guy Savage writes in his review of the book.

My favourite Balzac is Les illusions perdues aka Lost illusions, followed by La cousine Bette aka Cousin Bette. Which one do you like?

Colonel Chabert (Hesperus Classics)