The Calligraphers’ Night – La nuit des calligraphes by Yasmine Ghata – A French/Turkish Novel – A Post a Day in May

Yasmine Ghata was born in France to a Turkish father and a Lebanese mother, the famous poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Yasmine Ghata studied Islamic Art. The Calligraphers’ Night – La nuit des calligraphes was her first novel. It was published in French in 2004, the Hesperus edition is from 2007. It’s currently sold out but used copies can be found very easily.

The Calligraphers’ Night tells a very poetic version of the story of Yasmine Ghata’s grandmother, the first female Turkish master calligrapher Rikkat Kunt. The book is told in first person, from the point of view of Rikkat. Rikkat Kunt was born in 1903 in Istanbul, where she also died in 1986. She was always drawn to calligraphy, the art that captures Allah’s breath, but at first she was married to a man she didn’t love. It wasn’t easy being a calligrapher for a woman but especially difficult at the time because calligraphy was on the way to extinction. Calligraphy and book illustrations were predominately Islamic art forms. But in 1928, attempting to modernize Turkey, Atatürk abolished the use of the Arabic alphabet in favour of a new Europeanized alphabet. The calligrapher’s work was threatened not only because it would lose meaning but also because Atatürk was not in favour of Islam.

Caught between a loveless marriage and those radical changes, Rikkat Kunt had to fight hard to pursue her calling. She finally got a divorce and worked as a calligraphy teacher at a university. Later, she met another man and another unhappy marriage followed. The son of that marriage would be the father of the author of this book.

This is such a beautiful book. The way it’s told is poetic. We really get a sense for this beautiful art and a better understanding for the religion. Everything has meaning in this art. Not only the finished product but the act of drawing the words or decorative borders of the books. The narrator explains, for example that the time the ink needs to dry, less than a minute in winter, several seconds in summer, corresponds to the presence of God.

Calligraphy is not only described as art but as magic. It is holy and without religion meaningless. Later however, Rikkat Kunt, too, began to modernize her calligraphy and strayed from the path of religion.

I mentioned before that Rikkat Kunt is the narrator, but I also need to mention that she begins her story after her death. The pages are populated with the ghosts of her predecessors. The ghosts of famous calligraphers are always presents and guide her. I think this symbolizes the tradition of this art. They all contribute to praise Allah and his prophet and one influences the next.

I loved this book so much. Not only is the writing beautiful and the story fascinating, but I feel like I learned so much about Turkish culture, language, history, and religion. The way this is presented is informative but never dry and fits into the story seamlessly. And I’ve always been fascinated by calligraphy. I also find Arabic so beautiful to look at that I wanted to learn it once.

Because being a calligrapher was so unusual for a women and because women at the time didn’t have a lot of freedom, the book is also about the role and position of women in Turkish culture.

I’ve been to Turkey but not to Istanbul. I always wanted to see it, now more so than ever.

A Simple Heart (Un coeur simple) by Gustave Flaubert – Classic French Novella – A Post a Day in May

Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart  Un Coeur Simple was published in 1877 in the collection Trois Contes, the last book that was published in his lifetime. It’s the first novella or short story, depending a bit on how you define novella.

A Simple Heart tells the story of Félicité, the fifty-year-old maid of Mme Aubain, a formerly rich widow. Félicité who is an orphan, has known heartache in her life. She once was in  love but the man abandoned her for another. She then moved and found occupation with Mme Aubain. Mme Aubain’s acquaintances often envy her because of Félicité’s dedication and loyalty. The maid has no life outside of this family. She’s particularly devoted to the daughter of the family. Mme Aubain has two children, Paul, the older, and Virginie the younger child. Because Félicité accompanies Virginie to catechism, she is introduced to religion. This will kindle in her a new love, a more mystical love.

Virginie isn’t the only one Félicité is dedicated too. There is also a nephew who takes advantage of her. When both children die, it affects Félicité deeply. But then there’s hope. Mme Aubain is gifted a parakeet, Loulou, and because Félicité is so fascinated, so mesmerized by the bird, her mistress finally gives Loulou to her. They live together in Félicité’s small room under the roof. A room that is filled with memorabilia and things that the family didn’t want anymore.

Loulou is Félicité’s everything. The biggest love of her life. She even sees a representation of the Holy Spirit in him. But since this is a tragic story, the bird, too, will bring heartache.

A Simple Heart is a sad story. It describes the kind of life that many poor, uneducated, single women must have led in the 19th century. Félicité is deprived of almost everything – family, education, companionship, love. Her loneliness runs deep. Her love desperately seeks to find an outlet, whether through someone else’s child, a relative, an animal, or religion.

A Simple Heart is not easy to read because it is quite depressing and a bit icky – I can’t reveal why because I don’t want to spoil the story.

It’s not the first time I’ve read this. I read it before because it’s a story that is famous for the way Flaubert handles time. It’s masterful. In sixty pages, he manages to tell the story of a whole life, alternating between fast-forwarding and slowing down. At the end, we almost think, we’ve read a novel because, thanks to his writing style and technique, there’s so much to find in this novella.

People often ask, when it comes to classic authors, which book would be a good starting point. While there’s no doubt that Madame Bovary is a masterpiece, this short story would make a perfect introduction to Flaubert.

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux – French Life Writing – A Post a Day in May

I own everything Annie Ernaux has written up to The Years but have only read a few of her books. Since her books are so short, she seemed an excellent choice for my May project.

Annie Ernaux is divisive. Some people adore what she does, others are put off. Those who love her, praise her honesty, those who don’t, find her indecent. I go back and forth between these two reactions. Sometimes I find it a bit too much, as well. At other times, I’m just so fascinated.

What helped me get along with her better, was to see her oeuvre as a whole. Sure, you can read single books, but you will get so much more out of reading her, when you read more or all of her. It’s never just about the story or the topics of a book with her, it’s always about the process of writing and giving meaning. Writing about a woman’s life, her body, and often, her sexuality.

Several books have been rewritten Simple Passion, her account of her love affair with a Russian diplomat, is one of those. She wrote another book about her affair many years later – Se perdre (To lose oneself – not translated, I think). Aa a reader, you often wonder – Why does she write about this? Why does she have to reveal herself like this and so does she. You’re always part of the writing process as well, part of the thought processes behind the writing.

In Simple Passion (Passion Simple), Annie Ernaux analyses a love affair she had with a married man, the previous year. The affair lasted over a year and was all-consuming. She couldn’t think of anything else but him. Couldn’t find interest in anything else or anyone else, unless they somehow reminded her of him or had something in common with him. She sat whole days next to the telephone, waiting for his call. Spent whole afternoons preparing for his arrival; shopping new clothes, painting her nails, applying new make-up.

The absence of a call is agony. A call is bliss. She’s completely dependent on this man and doesn’t exist outside of their meetings. It’s never as apparent as when she goes on a holiday to Florence. She doesn’t even want to look at anything. Just wants to think of him, imagine how he would see the place.

The book describes everything. Her weakness, her dependence, her desire, her obsession. It’s like reading the account of a drug addict. She’s aware of that herself but there isn’t anything she can do. She wonders sometimes, if he feels the same, but she has no idea. Conversation isn’t exactly part of the whole affair. Sex is important, everything else, not so much. But that is also because of the language barrier. It’s not said in this book that he’s Russian, but in a later book it is revealed. She doesn’t speak Russian, and his French, while good, is not always accurate. He has difficulties to translate deeper meaning.

Since he’s a diplomat, it’s always clear, the affair will end. When it does, she’s shattered. And she takes note of the world around her again. And writes about her affair. It takes her five months during which the Berlin wall falls and the Ceaușescus are executed.

After having finished to write about her affair, she suddenly feels shame. A shame she never felt during the affair, a shame that comes from the idea to publish.

I found the way she described this affair interesting. Most of it rang so true. Haven’t we all waited next to a phone before? Spent afternoons getting ready or endlessly talking and thinking about our love interest? I never found it problematic, that she’s honest. I found it problematic that she never questions having an affair with a married man. Not once. It’s all about her and her feelings. He’s only interesting as far as he’s the object of her desire. And the other woman? It’s as if she doesn’t exist. Obviously, this shows how honest she is, as it doesn’t really make her look good.

People were shocked when this came out in the 90s. Also, because it was a departure from her earlier work and because it’s so explicit about female desire and sexuality. It was certainly courageous to write and publish this at the time. Nowadays, I find it a bit sordid. Not because of the descriptions – it’s never very explicit anyway – but, as I mentioned, because there’s another woman. If it’s a feminist act to live our passions, isn’t it also a feminist act to think of the other woman? I’m not judging that it happened, that would be naive, these things do happen, but that she’s never thinking or writing about it.

After the translation of The Years, Annie Ernaux received a lot of attention outside of France. She’s interesting, well worth exploring, but I’d say, this isn’t the best entry point to her work.

If you’d like to read another review – here’s on I wrote on A Woman’s Life. I liked that one a great deal.

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.

 

Pascal Quignard: Villa Amalia (2006)

I’ve heard so many good things about Pascal Quignard that I finally had to read him. I had two of his books on my piles, Tous les matins du mondeAll the World’s Monrnings and Villa Amalia, which will be published in English later this month. I finally decided to read Villa Amalia because I wasn’t in the mood for historical fiction.

At the beginning of the novel, the musician and composer Ann Hidden follows her boyfriend because she suspects he’s being unfaithful. She’s right and it hurts her terribly. While she does confront him, she’s not really interested in hearing what he has to say. Her mind is made up, she will leave her house, and everything else behind. She sells her house and all of her belongings, telling nobody but an old childhood friend who helps her to disappear. At first, she wants to tell her mother when she visits her in Brittany but their relationship is so tense, she only tells her she will travel.

Even though her childhood friend Georges knows what she’s doing, she also lies to him about her voyage. He thinks she’s in Africa, but she’s actually travelling first to Switzerland, where she stays in the Alps for a while, and then settles on the seaside in Southern Italy, on the island of Ischia. Here, she takes long baths and walks and begins to compose again. Ann has long abandoned giving concerts, she now dedicates her time solely to her own music and the transcription and reinterpretation of old masters, whose music she simplifies.

One day, on one of her walks, she sees a house high up on a hill and falls in love with the place. It’s a love and a longing so intense it seems strange that she feels this for a place and not a person. Villa Amalia has been abandoned for years and it’s not easy to track down the owners. She finds them eventually and is allowed to rent the house and renovate it. For the first time in her life, Ann Hidden is not only happy but has a sense of belonging somewhere. Later, she finds friends, a lover, and lives with a woman and a small child in great harmony until something terrible happens and she begins her wanderings again.

Villa Amalia is an astonishingly beautiful book. Ann Hidden is unlike any character I’ve come across in any book recently. If anything, she reminded me a bit of the one or the other character in Japanese fiction. She’s cold and distant but with a depth of feeling and a sense of beauty that makes her appealing. She carries wounds from her childhood that run very deep and explain why she’s cold and why she abandoned everything to try to find freedom.

The book beautifully explores several themes. The most obvious is how we deal with loss and abandonment. Another theme is life outside of what is considered conventional/normal. Ann finds nontraditional ways to interact and live with people. Every choice Ann makes is surprising because it’s a free choice. Most of us do or have to consider consequences, other people’s feelings, the future etc. Ann never does. She chooses the way that feels right to her at a given time. Another theme that is extremely important is creation. Or, more precisely, the creation of music. Where does music come from? Ann is a taciturn person who loves silence, yet she seems to have a well in her from which one melody after the other pours out.

I liked this book very much but it took me ages to finally review it because it’s so difficult to put into words why this is so beautiful or why I liked it so much. It’s a bit like with an elusive scent. It’s hard to describe it to someone else and explain why you like it.

I would have liked to share quotes but I’ve read this in French and the translation will only be out at the end of the month. I always find it a bit futile to do my own translations, when there is or will be an English version available.

Like All the World’s Mornings, Villa Amalia has been made into a movie starring Isabelle Huppert and one of my favourite actors Jean-Hughes Anglade. I hope to watch it soon.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française (2004) Literature and War Readalong October 2017

Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously published novel was written in 1942, rediscovered in 1998 and published in 2004. Originally it was planned as a sequence of five novels, but Némirovksy was deported and murdered in Auschwitz before she could complete it.

The two novels included in Suite FrançaiseTempête en juin and Dolce – can be read individually. There are a few characters that are mentioned in both but that does not affect the plot. Judging from the notes Némirovsky left, part three, would have reintroduced a number of the characters from the first books. We can assume, that all five books together would have worked a bit like Balzac’s Comédie Humaine.

Part one, Tempête en juin, which is much more episodic than part two, begins in Paris, in 1941 when the Germans arrive. Thousands of people flee in panic. The book follows several groups of people who all flee the town. Gabriel Corte, a famous writer, flees with his mistress. Some members of the Péricand family flee to Nîmes, where they have family. One of the sons is in the army, another one runs aways to join the army and a third, a priest, is guiding orphans out of the town. Charles Langelet, an aesthete and collector of art and porcelain, flees in a car. The Michaud’s, two bank employees, try to join the staff of the bank in Troyes. Their son Jean-Marie, who has been wounded, is recovering in Bussy.

The narrative moves back and forth between these people, yet the result is anything but disjointed because the tone is so similar and the descriptions so astute. At times it feels like a documentary. The reader is there all the time. We can see, hear and smell the chaos, the fear, the panic. But we also see people at their worst. Most of those Némirovsky chose to describe, with the exception of the Michauds, are rich people. Rich people with a lot of possessions that they don’t want to lose and cling to. People who think that even under dire circumstances, when there’s no food, no shelter, they should still be able to get what they want because they can pay for it. Most of these people are shown as materialistic, ruthless and selfish. They cling to their things in a way that’s absurd. The best example for this is the collector Langelet. He tricks a young couple and steals their petrol, just to save himself and his possessions. In the end, he has nowhere to go and returns to Paris. We see him unwrapping his collection, dine in expensive restaurants and return to his life as a socialite, until he has the most absurd accident.

Part one ends with the armistice and the Germans occupying large parts of France.

Part two begins right after the armistice and is set in the province, in Bussy. It shows how the French dealt with the German occupation and ends when Germany begins the invasion of Russia and the troops stationed in Bussy are sent to the Eastern Front.

Part two has two main story lines. One centers on Lucile Angellier whose husband is a prisoner of war. The Angelliers are one of the richest families of Bussy that’s why a Oberleutnant of the Wehrmacht is billeted at their house. Lucile and the Oberleutnant both seem unhappy in their respective marriages. After long shared walks and endless discussions about music and art, they fall in love but don’t engage in an affair.

The second story line follows a French farmer who was a prisoner of war and escaped. He’s one of those who has the hardest time accepting the new masters. While things look peaceful, under the surface it’s boiling. The French resent the Germans, resent that they eat their food, flirt with their women, live in their houses and make the rules. Who disobeys is shot.

Both parts are very good but I loved the first one more. The descriptions, the choice of details, the characterisations were so captivating that I could hardly put it down. I could also relate to it far more as my father’s family was among those who fled Paris when the Germans arrived. Nobody spoke about it. My dad had just been born, so he didn’t experience it and other members of the family didn’t talk about it. I know they fled to Brittany where my grandmother was from. Brittany was among the parts occupied by the Germans and they spoke about that. Just like in Dolce, they described the Germans as mostly very polite and even kind, but, like in Dolce, they found that even harder to take. Psychologically, an occupation is an extremely difficult experience. So many conflicting emotions play into it. Irène Némirovsky excels at describing this.

Obviously, this novel spoke to me because it shed light on some questions I had about my family’s history, but even without that, I would have loved this book for its minute details and because it focused on  aspects of the war that are often just briefly mentioned. I can’t think of any other novel that focuses on the invasion of Paris and the early occupation. Most other books either focus on the fighting or on the resistance. I also liked how critical she seems of human behaviour. All too often historical WWII novels or period movies choose to show how people grow under the circumstances, how they overcome their pettiness and selfishness, turn into heroes. The shared tragedy brings out the best in them. While I’m sure, this is true for some, for many it isn’t. Since Némirovsky experienced what she described, I’m pretty sure, her description is more realistic than the idealized versions we usually see. In her book, the Michauds are the only people who seem to grow morally under the circumstances.

One could write endlessly about this book. I only scratched the surface. Suite Française is more than just an outstanding novel, it’s an invaluable document. What a terrible shame it wasn’t finished. That said, it doesn’t feel unfinished.

Other Review

TJ (My Book Strings)

 

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Suite Française is the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the German pre-war novel The Oppermanns  – Die Geschwister Oppermann by Lion Feuchtwanger. Discussion starts on Wednesday, November 29, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Literature and War Readalong October 2017: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

 

Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously published book Suite Française has been on my pile for ages. I bought the French edition when it came out in 2004. The book consists of two fifths of a novel that was planned to have five parts. Irène Némirovsky wasn’t able to finish her work.  The author, who was of Ukrainian Jewish origin, was deported by the Nazis and killed in 1942.

Usually I start my readalong books later in the month but given that this one is over 500 pages long, I started early. That’s why I can do something, I usually can’t do— urge you to pick this up. I haven’t finished yet but I can already tell – this is fantastic and will make my end of year list.

Most WWII novels we’ve read for the readalong were written either with hindsight or as contemporary historical novels. Not this one. It was written while things happened, which gives it a poignancy, many other books lack. In that it reminds me of Duras’ La douleur.

Here are the first sentences:

Hot, thought the Parisians. The warm air of spring. It was night, they were at war and there was an air raid. But dawn was near and the war far away. The first to hear the hum of the siren were those who couldn’t sleep—the ill and bedridden, mothers with sons at the front, women crying for the men they loved. To them it began as a long breath, like air being forced into a deep sigh. It wasn’t long before its wailing filled the sky. It came from afar, from beyond the horizon, slowly, almost lazily. Those still asleep dreamt of waves breaking over pebbles, a March storm whipping the woods, a herd of cows trampling the ground with their hooves, until finally sleep was shaken off and they struggled to open their eyes, murmuring. “Is it an air raid?”

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Suite Française by Irène Nemirovsky, 432 pages, France 1942, WWII

Set during the year that France fell to the Nazis, Suite Française falls into two parts. The first is a brilliant depiction of a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion; the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community under occupation. Suite Française is a novel that teems with wonderful characters struggling with the new regime. However, amidst the mess of defeat, and all the hypocrisy and compromise, there is hope. True nobility and love exist, but often in surprising places.

Irène Némirovsky began writing Suite Française in 1940, but her death in Auschwitz prevented her from seeing the day, sixty-five years later, that the novel would be discovered by her daughter and hailed worldwide as a masterpiece.

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 October 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.