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

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
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
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
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-)

Monday, June 29, 2020

Summer of France: Heroes and Tragedy

Here’s a thing that happens to me when I read historical fiction. If the characters are well-written, I get invested, maybe even develop feelings. Because really, in general, character is my jam when it comes to fiction. So I’ll be reading along, forgetting that maybe the book is set during a tumultuous or even tragic time, and hoping for a good outcome for all involved. And when bad things start to happen to the characters, I’m always shocked and somewhat disappointed, even though—Hello! It’s the French Revolution, and I should have seen it coming.

I won’t be spoiling things too much, I think, if I tell you that some of the revolutionaries in A Place of Greater Safety don’t make it out alive. Maybe you are more astute and guessed this already. But I was taken by surprise at times, and was disappointed to say goodbye to several of the characters, whether it was because the pages ran out or because they couldn’t outrun a noose or guillotine. I’ll never tell. You’ll have to read this sprawling but controlled epic of a novel that speeds along like a train, car after car; even if you don’t see clearly into each one, it’s a mesmerizing effect and you can’t look away. Mantel’s writing is witty, crackling, and always smart, and what she’s accomplished here with such a wide range of characters and complicated subject is awe-inspiring. I gave a flavor of the prose and an overview last week: Summer of France: Reading Update 1.

If you recall from my first post, this historical fiction novel highlights three main characters: Maximilien Robispierre, George-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. For me, another character was also a standout: Lucile Desmoulins. Clever and brave, she determined to marry Camille Desmoulins as a girl and was a unique player among the groups of revolutionaries. The story of their courtship and partnership was intriguing, and after I finished the novel, I looked them up in the real world. Google, that is.

Camille was originally an admirer of Lucile’s mother. Mantel represents their relationship as fairly long and chaste, until a fateful kiss witnessed by Lucile and her sister. Ten years Camille’s junior, Lucile falls in love with him during his many visits with her mother. Later, when he proposes to Lucile (Mantel’s book suggests in retaliation for her mother’s refusal), Lucile would like to accept but her father won’t allow it because he thinks Camille’s profession in journalism is an unreliable one. Eventually, he relents, and the couple marries in 1790. Robespierre was one of the witnesses. Their only child, Horace Camille, is born in 1792.

After Horace is orphaned (I won’t spoil how!), he is raised by Lucile’s mother and sister. Later, he was pensioned by the French government and migrated to Haiti to set up a coffee trading business. He and his wife Zoe Villefranche had four children: Adolphe, who died young, Marie-Therese-Camille, Lucile, and Horace-Camille. The elder Horace died from fever, aged 33 years old, on June 29, 1825; some sources list his date of death as the same day his son, Horace-Camille, was born. Which would be quite a coincidence and another particular tragedy. June 29th! Also my first-born son's birthday, but that's beside the point.

The painting of the original family was done in 1792 by Jacques-Louis David. Next post: the Paris poems.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Summer of France, Reading Update 1

Hilary Mantel’s historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety, takes place during the French Revolution, and it tells the sweeping story through the close perspective of three main characters: George-Jacques Danton, a driven, charismatic idealist whose face was famously scarred, Maximilien Robespierre, a controlled and formidable visionary, and Camille Desmoulins, the creative and beloved writer of pamphlets who battles a stutter. But there are many, many other characters. Hundreds of characters, in fact, who are listed in the six-page Cast of Characters at the beginning of the book. And the effect of the novel reminded me very much of the way we take in information today, in 2020, because it pivots between public events and private moments, between grand gestures and bloody actions, and the parlor conversations that take place simultaneously. Characters come in and out of focus; events rush by and much like a play, actors enter and exit the stage at what is sometimes a breathtaking pace. My reading strategy from the beginning has been to cling to those three main characters, and to try not to worry too much about keeping everyone else straight.

Mantel traces each of the main characters—all young lawyers—from their childhoods in rural areas through their migrations to Paris. The writing is always engaging, and so, for me, there’s a weird experience of not always knowing exactly what’s going on but being thorough entertained anyway. The setting: 1780s France, when unpopular taxes, a decline in harvests, and monarchical abuses of power have caused a civil unrest fueled, also, by watching the revolution across the Atlantic in America. The instigating circumstances, aims and events of the growing French Revolution are brought to life through the characters and their everyday interactions:

The voters didn’t go home; they stood in groups outside the Cordeliers’ church, gossiping and making predictions. Fabre didn’t have a vote because he didn’t pay enough taxes; the fact was making him spiteful. “Why couldn’t we have the same franchise as the provinces?” he demanded. “I’ll tell you what it is, they regard Paris as a dangerous city, they’re afraid of what would happen if we all had votes.” He engaged in seditious conversation with the truculent Marquis de Saint-Huruge. Louise Robert closed the shop and came out on Francois’s arm, wearing rouge and a frock left over from better days.

“Think what would happen if women had votes,” she said. She looked up at d’Anton. “Maitre d’Anton believes women have a lot to contribute to political life, don’t you?”

“I do not,” he said mildly.


M Reveillon remarked that the price of bread was too high. There was a murmur of agreement and a little sycophantic applause: as if the observation were original. If the price of bread were to come down, M. Reveillon said, employers could cut wages; this would lead to a reduction in the price of manufactured articles. Otherwise, M. Reveillon said, where would it all end? Prices up, wages up, prices up, wages up…

And with these glimpses around the city, we understand the situation, politically and economically, and we feel the dissatisfaction amongst the citizenry. None of it was completely unfamiliar, I must say: the disenfranchising of a group of voters, the disparity between rich and poor, the frustration and lack of agency leaving lower classes to feel they have to fight for their most basic needs. When Robespierre begins to address the crowd, there’s a feeling of a storm being unleashed:

Those few steps seemed like a field, and he was walking uphill in the mud, shouting “No, no,” his voice carried off by the wind. His heart seemed to have jumped up and hardened into his throat, the exact size of the piece of black bread the archbishop held in his hand. He turned, saw below him hundreds of white, blank, upturned faces, and heard his voice in the sudden hush, blistering and coherent:

“Let them sell their carriages, and give the money to the poor.”

The characterizations are vivid and creatively drawn, from Camille’s bisexuality and playful spirit, to the famous figure of Jean-Paul Marat represented mostly through word-of-mouth, to the depiction of the book's surprising heroine, Camille’s wife, Lucile, whom he has come to marry after an affair with her mother sputters out. Events are often rendered in surprising ways; it’s through Lucile that we get our first glimpse of the Storming of the Bastille:

“All this was planned,” she said. “I know there are reinforcements, but they have to cross the river.” She walked to the window. “Look. No moon tonight. How long will it take them to cross in the dark, with their commanders falling out amongst themselves? They only know how to fight on battlefields, they don’t know how to fight in the streets. By tomorrow morning—if they can be held now at the Place Louis XV—the troops will be cleared out of the city center. And the Paris Electors will have their militia on the streets; they can ask for arms from City Hall. There are guns at the Invalides, forty thousand muskets—”

“Battlefield?” Claud said. “Reinforcements? How to you know all this? Where did you learn it?”

“Where do you suppose?” she said coolly.

“Electors? Militia? Muskets? Do you happen to know,” he asked, with hysterical sarcasm, “where they will get the powder and shot?”

“Oh yes,” Lucile said. “At the Bastille.”

These moments of parlor discussion are punctuated, often startlingly, with images of the bloody acts that took place. The overall effect of Mantel’s methods is that you’re left with the feeling that reading her novel mimics what it must have felt like to live through these events—things escalating at a rapid pace from various directions, players leaping into view, the whole thing moving forward with a force of its own.

At the same time, Foulon’s son-in-law Berthier, the Intendant of Paris, had been arrested in Compiegne and conveyed, glassy-eyed with terror, to City Hall. He was bundled inside, through a crowd that peppered him with crusts of sour black bread. Shortly afterwards he was bundled out again, on his way to the Abbaye prison; shortly after that, he was bundled to his death—strangled perhaps, or finished with a musketball, for who knew the moment? And perhaps he was not dead either when a sword began to hack at his neck.

Again, Mantel's retelling mimicking the revolution itself: cause and effect are not always clear, but what is clear is that things are moving forward, the movement is growing, gaining strength and becoming much, much more serious. Reading this during the recent protests in our country certainly made some aspects more relatable. How can you break down the exact order of events for something like that? How can you say, for certain, where the first spark appeared?

I shared several passages from the book, because I think the style of writing speaks for itself in ways I can’t describe. As I said, it’s a completely engaging read, despite its difficulty. I’m reading it much more quickly than I thought I would; I’m over the half-way through the 748 pages. And I’ve started to poke around in the book of Paris poems, too, and will share something from that soon.  

“The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.” Maximilien Robespierre.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Summer Reading Project, 2020

(photo credit: quarantine paint-by-number, Satchel White, Mary White)

Let’s face it. We’ve all been locked down and dreaming of travel. Or is it just me? I keep asking people where they would go if they could go anywhere, and I get all sorts of answers from the mundane—the nail salon!—to the exotic—Mozambique! Okay, no one actually said Mozambique, but I would like to go there.

Faithful followers of this blog know I like to choose a summer reading project based on some theme. Last year, I read books that had something to say about trees; in 2018, I read only books by Michael Chabon. I often use this time to pick up a big book I haven’t had the gumption to attempt during the other months of the year.

And so, this year’s summer reading project was sparked when a friend loaned me a big book written by an author we both like; certainly a sense of wanderlust only served to cement the direction of my reading aims. Without further ado, this year’s summer reading project will include books on the theme of…FRANCE. Books set in France, inspired by France, or simply books by a French author.

That big, loaned book is Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. At 748 pages, it is my greatest challenge and the novel I'll start with. A work of historical fiction originally published in 1992, it involves the events of the French Revolution, as told through the lives of three provincials: Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre. According to The Seattle Times, a work of “brilliant, edgy historical fiction that captures the whiplash flux of the French Revolution.” Can’t wait. 

Sidenote: Some other summer, I read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two novels in Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. With the third, The Mirror & The Light, recently released, this would be a stellar summer project, if you’re looking for one yourself.

Anticipating that I may need breaks now and then from Mantel’s vigorous prose, I chose this lovely Everyman’s Library series from Knopf: Poems from Paris. I will probably read this alongside the historical novel, to accentuate the French mood and setting.

Next is a classic in French literature, published originally in 1954 but still widely read today. Bonjour Tristesse (translation: Hello Sadness) was an overnight sensation written by an 18-year-old author, Francoise Sagan. It’s the story of a precocious teenager who spends her summer in a villa on the French Riviera. Talk about feeding the wanderlust. This novel is a coming-of-age story often categorized as young adult for modern audiences.

Lastly, I chose the psychological thriller, Based on A True Story by Delphine De Vigan. Published in 2017, this international hit sold tons of copies, won awards, and is based on a true story “about a friendship gone terrifyingly toxic and the nature of reality.” This is actually a fairly lengthy read at 384 pages and will round out my summer of French-themed reading.

Total pages: 1,511. Probably overzealous, but I'll give it my best shot. Drop me a note if you'd like to read along at any point. I'll post periodic updates here on my progress.


À vaillant coeur rien d’impossible. -Jacques Cœur

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Adventures in Memoir

A couple of weeks ago, I finished the first draft of a YA book I didn’t intend to write and so, it comes as no surprise to me that the next project vying for (and currently winning) my attention might be some sort of memoir, another unexpected project. One of the things people often tell us when they find out we’re writers is that they, too, have an idea for a book. Frequently, this idea involves telling—in full or part—the story of their lives. Why? Because this life—its successes and failures, joys and heartaches, fateful events and surprises—is all we have, really. And when things happen to us, they seem full of meaning because they are, right? Or at least, isn’t that why we’re alive, to find meaning in the things that happen to us?

Reader, I have no answers! Only questions.

  • I’ve been thinking about the roles we play in life, and how they change from season to season, year to year. I’ve been thinking about the different phases that sometimes, go along with these roles. Sometimes, not.
  • I’ve been thinking about how these chapters of life line up, shoulder to shoulder, hyper-aware of each other.
  • I’ve been thinking about family and how it’s defined by intent, sentiment, and presence. And the strongest of these is presence (literal and imagined), which proves the other two.
  • Related: I’ve been thinking about DNA, the imprints in our very machinery.
  • I’ve been thinking about reportage as a way to honor yourself (myself!).
  • And...I’m interested in finding ways memories can be translated into words. How can we relay our experiences in a form that feels like life?

Lately, I’ve been reading more in the memoir lane: traditional memoirs and other books that don’t look and sound like traditional memoir, and yet... I share some of them with you here.

The Glen Rock Book of the Dead by Marion Wink (2008)

Shoutout to Prof. Danger for pointing me towards this book. Basically, Wink writes short pieces about people she knew who died; in these snapshots, an autobiography of sorts emerges. I keep thinking about this book, and thinking about it…

The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy (2018)

The author writes about her life, post-divorce, touching on universal themes relevant to all women: the conflict between nurturing your creative self and others, feminism's goals and failures, the death of parents. From the Guardian review: “Instead, what Levy gives us is an account of her internal world, a shape-shifting space where past and present coexist, where buildings are not so much bricks and mortar as extended metaphors and where identity is in a radical flux of unraveling and remaking.” Yep, this book hit close to home in topic and in method, was probably the turning point from which I had no choice about writing something memoir-ish.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (2018)

I wrote about these powerful essays in my Favorite Reads of 2019 post.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell (2018)

The author recalls seventeen occasions in her life that brought her near death. I found some of these quite poignant, others less so. I’m not sure the book had the cohesiveness I would have liked, but the form and intent were interesting.

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro (2019)

One of the traditional memoirs I’ve read recently. Shapiro was in her mid-fifties when her DNA test pointed out a startling truth about her family. I also heard the author speak about the experience, and her story is personal and moving but also raises all sorts of ethical questions for our times.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung (2018)

Another story of biological family lost and found. When Chung was pregnant with her first child, she began a search for her Korean birth parents. This memoir explores ideas of family, identity and culture.

In the works for 2020 reading:

And more:

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019)
Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinead Gleeson (2020)
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl (2019)

I’d love to hear your ideas for memoirs, especially the non-traditional sort. By all means, point me in the right direction as I begin this journey.

"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