Posts Tagged ‘French’
Some books shouldn’t be rushed. Although Total Chaos is a slim book, written in short, punchy sentences, it is like a rich ragout, brimming with flavours, pungent, concentrated, sensual and intense. It should be savoured slowly. There is a lifetime of experience distilled into it.
At first I struggled. The names of people and places were strange to me. I was reading the English translation but it was an English I couldn’t understand. I had no idea who the characters were or what kind of lives they led. Although each sentence meant something in isolation, together they made my head spin and I became confused.
But Jean-Claude Izzo gives you everything you need to know in this novel. It’s not his fault if you don’t get it. He immerses you in Marseilles, his city. It is a fully realised Marseilles, though not the city the tourists know. He takes you to places tourists have never seen and shows you things you will want to forget.
In a few paragraphs he can sketch out whole lives. He blends and blurs the colours on his canvas like an impressionist painter. A fear-filled teenage scuffle is inseparable from the eroticism of the touch of a woman’s breast. Neapolitan songs mingle with Ray Charles and the sounds of old men playing belote. Tomatoes, basil, bay, meatballs, garlic and red wine merge with the scent of the sea as it crashes against the rocks, recalling the stories of Homer and Conrad peddled by an anarchist bookseller on Cours Julien.
This is very specific writing. The plot is dense but fully explained. I understood it finally but I didn’t enjoy it until I read the book a second time. Then I fell in love with it.
This is not a thriller. It is a celebration. It is a poem. It is a classic French crime novel. Mediterranean Noir. Making beauty out of chaos.
This book offers an excellent lesson in how to escape censorship but is otherwise rather dull.
For those of you who don’t know, Paypal is currently trying to clean up the internet by refusing to do business with any site that offers for sale works of a lewd and depraved nature (as defined by Paypal.) Justine is one of the dirtiest, most depraved, most wicked books you will ever come across but has nevertheless managed to elude Paypal’s obsessive team of censors by adopting the following ingenious ploys.
1. The author has chosen for a pen-name something that sounds vaguely aristocratic. Americans revere titles. For the Marquis de Sade, they are a matter of contempt (“forged by the impertinence that seeks, and sustained by the credulity that bestows them.”)
2. The novel is disguised as a work of philosophical literature. You can depict any act, no matter how bestial or disgusting, so long as your tale has a scholarly imprint. On the back of my paperback copy of this book the label “Literature” is stamped in the top-left and in the bottom-right corners, where even the most stupid of censors can’t miss it.
3. It is written in French. Most Americans can’t understand French and those who can know that French, being the language of love and having been kept implicitly pure down the centuries by the French Academy appointed for that purpose, permits everything. That said, my scholarly translation was produced in America by American scholars. It is always a good idea to enlist the aid of scholars in editing your work if you can because most of them are sexually repressed and therefore see nearly any kinky fantasy as normal.
4. The author employs circumlocution. Okay, this ruse can backfire but it keeps all but the most intelligent of readers off your back. (And censors, by definition are not intelligent readers.) So, for example, when Justine is stripped naked and softened up prior to being gang-raped by four hardened criminals, the author finds ingenious ways to stimulate the imagination by using language that is deliberately imprecise:
“… as soon as I was as he [one of the gang members] desired me to be, [i.e. naked] having made me crouch down on all fours so that I resembled a beast, Dubois [the female gang leader] took in hand a very monstrous object and led it to the peristyles of first one and then the other of Nature’s altars, and under her guidance the blows it delivered to me here and there were like those of a battering ram thundering at the gates of a besieged town in the olden days.”
This pretty simile, by the way, reminds me of one of my favourite Chinese books, Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu. The title is based on a French proverb:
Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.
There is much more to be said about this extraordinary novel but as it is nearly all of an intellectual and moralistic nature I suspect it will have little interest for my friends, acquaintances and readers, so, with a heavy heart, I will give this book two stars for effort and move on.
These two novellas are nice and short. They are very beautifully written. You might not like the narrator but she knows what she’s about. Bonjour Tristesse is deservedly very famous but its immediate impact on French society was because of its immorality. Actually I think the book has depth. The introduction to this edition by Rachel Cusk is very illuminating and sensitive. But, I don’t know, I think there is still more to this book than Rachel Cusk allows. It has a certain sensual quality that makes it really live in your imagination. It’s not just a story. You are there in the narrator’s world. That’s why I give it 5 stars.