Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Summer of France: Based on a True Story

 


Rounding out my Summer of France is Delphine de Vigan’s “metafictional thriller,” Based on a True Story. This French bestseller is the story of “a friendship gone terrifyingly toxic.” There was a film adaptation in 2017, directed by Roman Polanski, which was not well-reviewed. I may watch it anyway.

In the novel, a writer (also named Delphine) is finishing up the book events related to her most recent publication, an autobiographical novel which enjoyed great success. She’s exhausted and lacking inspiration for her next book. She begins to receive unpleasant letters accusing of her of being opportunistic and untruthful about some facts from her childhood. Of course, her novel was just that—a novel, and Delphine (the author in this novel) grows tired of always fielding questions about whether the fictional events and people she wrote about have solid basis in “reality.”

Around this same time, she meets L., a mysterious person from her past (or is she?)—someone from her school days who has read everything Delphine has written, and who begins to wiggle her way into all aspects of Delphine’s life. She’s Delphine’s biggest fan and her most ardent critic. She tries to show Delphine the way out of her writing slump. But is it the right way?

If this setup rings vaguely familiar, you may be recalling Stephen King’s Misery and in fact, de Vigan uses quotes from King’s novels at the beginning of each of the book’s three sections. And the similarities are there; L. is a fan in the way Annie Wilkes was a fan: both have particular expectations for future work by their favorite authors, both walk a tightrope between sanity and insanity. But where King’s novel descends fairly rapidly into horror, Based on a True Story treads more cerebral ground. And I loved it for that.

This is a page-turner for writers. As their relationship evolves, L. and Delphine have many conversations about fiction and the process of creating it. When we use autobiography, what are the difficulties and obligations? Is there anything that could truly be called fiction? What do we owe readers? Ourselves? I may have written about this very topic myself, here. The women attend films together, they discuss other books they’ve read, they talk about Barthes—all the while contemplating Delphine’s next novel.

(L.) “’Yes, you talked about a trajectory that passed through different points and said it would be hard to go back to fiction now. I read your last book with that in mind, the idea it had within it another, more important, more dangerous one.’

(Delphine) I was starting to feel hot.

I explained to L. that I’d been wrong. I’d done that interview in early August, several weeks before the book came out. I’d had no idea what would happen, what the book would stir up. I thought I’d foreseen its consequences, but I was wide of the mark. I didn’t have broad enough shoulders for it. I wasn’t up to it—it was as simple as that. That was why I now wanted to go back to fiction, to tell a story, invest in characters, owe no debt to reality.”

As the novel proceeds, readers are left to piece together Delphine’s reality (and L.’s). There are insinuations of childhood trauma and psychiatric difficulties. There’s a divorce and children leaving for college. And of course, there is Delphine’s oeuvre (fittingly enough, a French word for work) and her current inability to produce new writing and how that affects and depletes a writer.

Meanwhile, L. becomes more and more suspect—as a friend to Delphine, as a character—as she becomes more important to Delphine. She expands into Delphine’s life, taking up space and as a reader, we aren’t sure how to read her. Or Delphine, for that matter.

(Delphine) “If you don’t grasp the little grain of madness in someone, you cannot love them. If you don’t grasp their point of craziness, you miss out. Someone’s point of craziness is the source of their charm.

I immediately thought of L.

I thought of L., who had perceived my point of craziness, and vice versa.

Perhaps that is what any encounter is, whether lovers or friends: two forms of craziness that recognize and captivate each other."

So, yes, this novel has many mysteries but mostly, it’s a deep exploration of the act of creating fiction. How it isolates us while we strive for connection, how we violate ourselves in the quest for understanding, how we come out the other side as if emerging from a fever dream. It’s a novel I’d be inclined to read again because at the end, I felt I was just beginning to understand.

“But you know, I’m not sure that the real is enough. The real, insofar as it exists at all, for it to be possible to recreate it, the real, as you put it, needs to be incarnated, transformed, interpreted. Without perspective or a viewpoint, at best, it’s boring as hell, and at worst it’s completely anxiety-producing. And that work, whatever the raw material, is always a form of fiction.”

Monday, July 27, 2020

Summer of France: Film Interlude




Soirée Cinéma -

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been busy with other reading obligations and so, I give you some French film suggestions, in keeping with my summer theme.


The Intouchables (2012) – if you saw the 2017 American film, The Upside, with Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, this is the original version. Just like the remake, it’s funny, sentimental, and entertaining.

The Gays' Gaze: A Kristen Stewart Public Service Announcement
The Clouds of Sils Maria (2015) – I would watch Juliette Binoche in anything, and she’s great in this. Two actresses are cast as lovers in a film. One is middle-aged and struggling with a waning career, the other is younger and infinitely intriguing. Sparks fly, and complications ensue with the arrival of the older actress’s assistant. Also stars Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz. All are wonderful.

Amélie (2002) – if you haven’t seen Amélie, I don’t know what to tell you. Other than to watch it. It’s a quirky and entirely original love story. I had planned to re-watch it for this post (and still plan to), but got diverted by the next film.

Caché (2005) – I was distracted to watch this film instead because it's one I hadn't seen with Juliette Binoche, who, as mentioned, I would watch in anything. The film is billed as a psychological thriller but it’s a slow burn—sometimes, painfully slow. A couple begins receiving disturbing videos and messages, and tries to figure out what’s happening. I will say, the end left me puzzling over some aspects of the plot—but in a good way.

Michael Haneke's 'Amour,' With Jean-Louis Trintignant - The New ...
Amour (2012) – This movie about an elderly couple and their love will tear your heart out of your chest. It’s truly one of the most beautiful representations of devotion I’ve ever seen depicted.

The Artist (2012) – For recovery after viewing Amour, I recommend this fun, silent film about an aging star who falls for a younger actress. It’s light and nostalgic.
‎Les Misérables (2019) directed by Ladj Ly • Reviews, film + cast ... 
On my list to view:

Les Misérables (2019) – this is not the one based on the Broadway show, but a film from last year about tensions between police and citizens in Montfermeil—many, immigrants struggling to thrive.

Slack Bay (2017) – a mystery about the disappearance of a wealthy family. Reviews call it “dark,” “funny,” and “delightfully strange.” A mystery that maybe, isn’t really a mystery. I’m in.



Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Summer of France: Bonjour Tristesse



From the opening pages of this slim novel, the voice of its young narrator takes center stage. It’s an assured voice, with poetic strains—observant, pensive, strangely aloof. When the book was published in 1954, the author, Françoise Sagan, was only eighteen, particularly poised to write from the perspective of her 17-year-old protagonist, Cécile. The setting: the French Riviera, where Cécile and her playboy father are vacationing with his mistress du jour, Elsa. Cécile has been in her father’s full-time care for two years, after leaving convent school; they live a life of parties and indulgences. Her mother died when she was quite young. Of her father, she says:

“He was a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and very attractive to women. It was easy for me to love him, for he was kind, generous, gay and fond of me. I cannot imagine a better or a more amusing companion.”

As for Elsa, she’s agreeable as well, and the three are enjoying a harmonious vacation until Cécile’s father receives notice that another guest will be arriving—Anne Larson, an old friend of her mother’s and a serious, practical woman who has taken Cécile under her wing at times. Cécile points out to her father the disharmony this arrangement would possibly create:

“She’s too intelligent and has too much self-respect. And what about Elsa? Have you thought of her? Can you imagine what Elsa and Anne can talk about? I can’t!”…
He laughed softly and rubbed the back of my neck. I turned to look at him. His dark eyes gleamed; funny little wrinkles marked their edges; his mouth was turned up slightly. He looked like a faun. I laughed with him as I always did when he created complications for himself.”

Cécile begins to fear that Anne will wreck the carefree lifestyle she’s been living with her father and begins to plot against the older woman. This is the setup for the novel—a beautiful, Mediterranean setting, a triangle (or quadrangle) of sorts emerging. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot because if you are looking for a quick, summer read that will distract you from the real world and transport you despite a lack of actual, physical travel, this is your book. Oh, I almost forgot. Cécile has a love interest as well:

“On the sixth day I saw Cyril for the first time. He was hugging the coast in a small sailboat and capsized in front of our cove. I had a wonderful time helping him to rescue his things, during which he told me his name, that he was studying law, and was spending his vacation with his mother in a neighboring villa. He had a typically Latin face—very dark and very frank.”

And to give you more ideas about 17-year-old Cécile:

“Usually I avoided college students, whom I considered brutal, wrapped up in themselves, particularly in their youth, in which they found material for drama, or an excuse for their own boredom. I did not care for young people; I much preferred my father’s friends, men of forty, who spoke to me courteously and tenderly—treated me with the gentleness of a father—or a lover.”

Because, you see, Françoise Sagan caused quite a scandal with the publication of this book, which quickly became a bestseller. Cécile runs with adults and begins an affair with Cyril. And despite her detached voice and steady gaze (and Anne’s determined interference), we begin to see the chinks in Cécile’s armour. This is no old-fashioned novel of manners; matters of sexuality and love are addressed frankly and often, strangely dispassionately, through Cécile's lens. She's a character I won’t forget for a long time.

I finished the novel in two sittings and immediately watched the film version, which came out in 1958 and starred the perfectly cast Jean Seberg as Cécile and Deborah Kerr looking as beautiful as she ever was as Anne. David Niven is Cécile's dandy father. You know, the film was okay, but it took the subtleties of the novel and made them painfully overt, through voice-overs, dialogue and song. There was lots of singing and music, in fact. It worked well from time to time, but it didn’t really feel like the vibe of the novel, at least to me. I think in hindsight, I would have rather given myself more time to digest and enjoy the book before watching this adaptation. I recommend Bonjour Tristesse, the novel, very highly. It was an entertaining, surprising and nuanced read, a breathe of fresh air in my summer reading.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Summer of France: Poems of Paris


Knopf’s Poems of Paris, from the publisher’s Everyman’s Library Pocket Series, was a nice companion to Mantel’s sometimes-overwhelming, dense, historical novel. It’s a lovely little book, in a pleasing size. Some other titles from the collection are “Christmas Poems,” “Love Songs and Sonnets,” “Persian Poets,” “Poems of Mourning,” etc., so you can see there is quite a range. Find the pocket series at everymanslibrary.com.

As for this collection of poems inspired by Paris, it was separated into the following sections: The City of Light, The Sights, The Streets, Parisians, The City of Love, Expatriates, Tourists, Food and Drink, The Arts, Homage to the Poet, Revolution, and War, Occupation, Resistance. This method worked well, and enriched the experience, I thought. And now, because talking of poetry is never as good as reading poetry, I’ll share a few of my favorites so that you, too, can have a taste of Paris.


Spring Evening on the Boulevards

Sitting on a bench one evening in spring on the great boulevards, near the Variétés. A café streaming with gas. A prostitute dressed all in red going from beer to beer. On the second floor, a room quite somber and quiet with a few lamps and tables over which heads were bent, a little study. On the third floor, adazzle with gas, all the windows open, flowers, perfumes, a dance in progress. One can’t hear the music for the din of the street swarming with cabs and people, with the corridors devouring and vomiting people incessantly, and the hawking of programs in from of the Variétés … But one can see, gliding past in front of these ten windows, men in black tails with white shirt fronts, revolving to the music, holding ladies, blue, pink, lilac, white, holding them ever so lightly, so correctly, one can see them pass, repass with serious, unsmiling faces (but one can’t hear the music they follow). Several pimps wander by; one says to the other: “She made ten francs, old boy…” From the Variétés a crowd swarms out during intermission; and the hell of the boulevard continues, the cabs, the cafés, the gas, the shopwindows, more and more pedestrians—more prostitutes filing by under the harsh lights of the café … Near me a newspaper stall and two women chatting; one says: “She certainly won’t last the night, that one, and my kid caught it from hers.” Busses filled with members of both sexes, each with his or her own feelings, troubles, vices.
                And above it all, the gentle, eternal stars.

Jules Laforgue (1860-87); translated by William Jay Smith


Bastille Day

The first time I saw Paris
I went to see where the Bastille
had been, and though
I saw the column there
I was too aware that
the Bastille was not there:
I did not know how
to see the emptiness.
People go to see
the missing Twin Towers
and seem to like feeling
the lack of something.
I do not like knowing
that my mother no longer
exists, or the feeling
of knowing. Excuse me
for comparing my mother
to large buildings. Also
for talking about absence.
The red and gray sky
above the rooftops
is darkening and the inhabitants
are hastening home for dinner.
I hope to see you later.

Ron Padgett (1942-)


In Memoriam

Today is Sunday.
I fear the crowd of my fellows with such faces of stone.
From my glass tower filled with headaches and
                Impatient Ancestors,
I contemplate the roofs and hilltops in the mist.
In the stillness—somber, naked chimneys.
Below them my dead are asleep and my dreams turn
                to ashes.
All my dreams, blood running freely down the streets
And mixing with blood from the butcher shops.
From this observatory like the outskirts of town
I contemplate my dreams lost along the streets,
Crouched at the foot of the hills like the guides of my
                race
On the rivers of the Gambia and the Saloum
And now on the Seine at the foot of these hills.
Let me remember my dead!
Yesterday was All Saints’ Day, the solemn anniversary
                of the Sun,
And I had no dead to honor in any cemetery.
O Forefathers! You who have always refused to die,
Who knew how to resist Death from the Sine to the
                Seine,
And now in the fragile veins of my indomitable blood,
Guard my dreams as you did your thin-legged
                migrant sons!
O Ancestors! Defend the roofs of Paris in this
                dominical fog,
The roofs that protect my dead.
Let me leave this tower so dangerously secure
And descend to the streets, joining my brothers
Who have blue eyes and hard hands.

Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001); translated by Melvin Dixon



January in Paris

                Poems are never completed—they are
                only abandoned.  –Paul Valéry

That winter I had nothing to do
but tend the kettle in my shuttered room
on the top floor of a pensione near a cemetery,

but I would sometimes descend the stairs,
unlock my bicycle, and pedal along the cold city
                streets
often turning from a wide boulevard
down a narrow side street
bearing the name of an obscure patriot.

I followed a few private rules,
never crossing a bridge without stopping
mid-point to lean my bike on the railing
and observe the flow of the river below
as I tried to better understand the French.

In my pale coat and my Basque cap
I pedaled past the windows of a patisserie
or sat up tall in the seat, arms folded,
and clicked downhill filling my nose with winter air.

I would see beggars and street cleaners
in their bright uniforms, and sometimes
I would see the poems of Valéry,
the ones he never finished but abandoned,
wandering the streets of the city half-clothed.

Most of them needed only a final line
or two, a little verbal flourish at the end,
but whenever I approached,
they would retreat from their makeshift fires
into the shadows—thin specters of incompletion,

forsaken for so many long decades
how could they ever trust another man with a pen?

I came across the one I wanted to tell you about
sitting with a glass of rosé at a café table—
beautiful, emaciated, unfinished,
cruelly abandoned with a flick of panache.

by Monsieur Paul Valéry himself,
big fish in the school of Symbolism
and for a long time, president of the Committee of Arts
                and Letters
of the League of Nations if you please.

Never mind how I got her out of the café,
past the concierge and up the flight of stairs—
remember that Paris is the capital of public kissing.

And never mind the holding and the pressing.
It is enough to know that I moved my pen
in such a way as to bring her to completion,

a simple, final stanza, which ended,
as this poem will, with the image
of a gorgeous orphan lying on a rumpled bed,
her large eyes closed,
a painting of cows in a valley over her head,

and off to the side, me in a window seat
blowing smoke from a cigarette at dawn.

Billy Collins (1941-)


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka