Sooner or later words force one into a choice, a narrowing down, at some point the lustrous density of all the unexpressed possibilities must be attacked, pulverized, melted down, dissolved.
In the 1970 of the novel, that banner would have been proudly flown from the ramparts, an unapologetic rallying cry ... For the new fiction that would encircle and annihilate, revamp the norms-- essentially, meta would be the new orthodoxy. But what the author of "Arriving In Avignon" has done is very nearly the opposite.
The reader of this relatively short [150pp] work is thrown into a whirling blender of associations, implications, wild conjecture floating on a seething ocean of historical factoids ... In which the Flemish Old Masters, Thomas Aquinas, the Anti-Popes of the 11th through 13th century, the Demoiselles d'Avignon of Picasso .. all must figure. Nothing is melted down or dissolved.
Avignon is a walled medieval city that has twelve gates, Roman bridges, and the occasional knockout blonde girl; for Mr Robberechts, this is a metaphysical toss-up that cannot resolve itself. Not for want of trying, though-- an expanse of colonnaded classical stonework, or a pair of suntanned legs on a student --may indicate an immediate change of plan, and an abrupt change in the narrative as well.
But all this makes it sound like a lot of fun, which I have to confess that it wasn't; there is a lot to get through in this little book, much of it in the tedious what's-it-all-worth-really category, and I have to say somewhere in the middle the author almost lost me. Lost me as in closing the book only halfway there. But there is something ...
...what finally drives him to Avignon in the end is the feeling that he must be the last man on earth who refrains, regretfully, from sexual misconduct... He has forgotten now whether it's coincidental that he enters the narrow Rue Aubanel and Rue Bancasse, whether he goes just to enjoy the exciting propositions of the prostitutes; but both streets are empty, obviously the whores have left town along with the tourists. And the solitary shivering woman enveloped in a fur coat who in response to his--helpless? lecherous? crazed?--look slows down and smiles at him? At first he almost thinks her a fragment of his frantic, morbid desires; but then words and numbers are pronounced that remove all doubt: he has accosted the last whore in Avignon. It's with a kind of dull resignation that he follows her to a hotel, with a kind of fear of seeming impolite otherwise, ungrateful for the the fact that she has--after all--guessed at his misery.
There is something undeniably plaintive and lost about this solitary, immature voice, that keeps you on the tracks. He's really at risk of losing the big picture at most turns in the book. And you can't quite bring yourself to just leave him there.
She knew, or thought she knew, that Frenchwomen were hideously ugly, but with an ugliness redeemed by great vivacity and perfect taste in dress... So...more She knew, or thought she knew, that Frenchwomen were hideously ugly, but with an ugliness redeemed by great vivacity and perfect taste in dress... So all in all she was unprepared for the scene that met her eyes on entering...
This is Mitford's unapologetic memoir of her own romance with a charming but decidedly not monogamist Frenchman, and really, with the idea of France itself. What works here is the casual seduction of a really independent Englishwoman by the whole of French culture; maybe something that viewed in macro might also be about the unbreakable quality of French cultivation and polish, remarkably unbowed by the world wars.
The observations of the Narrator are what makes this book fly, always reasonable if not practical, and never too deeply indebted to settling scores or rooting for any specific side. What doesn't work is the daily-diary kind of structure, which relies too heavily on what happened on a given day. If you have a very unpremeditated, free-wheeling narrator telling the tale, it feels as if there must be, at a minimum, some backstage logic to tie things up.
Not to be to focused on this lack though, the book very nearly makes it along the casual lines of this structure-- which does good things for the pacing and drive-- until one of the set-pieces fails along the way. (And then the "oh, do have a look, darling" perspective goes wobbly. In my reading the central Famous Children Ball thrown by Mme. Marel goes flat, and sinks the arc of the book in so doing. Shame, really, since a Mitford-trademark wicked-humourous blowout there would have carried the whole thing).
Uneven, but still well worth the read, as the sacred-cow-puncturing and biting euphemism always manage to cover any soul-baring that might have been imminent; we are English here, after all. Having rushed back to London after one too many infidelities courtesy le husband, our Narrator expects a comforting wave of the home country to wash away all of that Continental nonsense; somehow, though, after France the English seem ridiculous too, not just stodgy but loopy and shallow. We watch as Mitford's vision clears, and the larger picture comes into focus.
In the Vintage edition's introduction to The Blessing, Caryn James mentions that Mitford had originally been commissioned by producer Alexander Korda to write this in screenplay form; as it happened the production never began, and Mitford rescued the material as a Novel. This reinvention may have something to do with the uneven structure and occasional lapses I found; what may have seemed impossible to sacrifice from the screen version, like the Children's Ball, might have been reconsidered one too many times. Other aspects, like the central positioning of Sigismond, (who is in fact the Blessing of the title) are neatly bundled and tied up at the end -- as if ready for the shooting script of the movie. Who knows, this probably could have been done a half a dozen different ways, and this, as we all must agree, is one of them. (less)
"... there is, in the ocean of generations, an Aphrodisian current whence every such Venus is born, all daughters of the same salt wave..."
Can't say I'll be reading a long list of Balzac titles in my near-future. There is a longstanding tradition of the French bedroom farce out there, and while this is a close relation, that's not quite what it is. What's here, (and at some length), is a kind of mirthless, hectoring plot-loop, cautionary tales that vary little as they repeat, set in Paris, circa 1840. How exactly you take adulterous deception, multiple scandals, artists, nobles and courtesans-- and make them boring-- is beyond me, and kind of beyond my need to investigate.
Dearest to Honore de'Balzac's heart, and pen, is the enflamed descriptive passage outlining the merits of some bewitching, newly encountered femme, whether enfant, fatale, or somewhere in between. They are undeniably intriguing, and there are a string of them in this novel. Each beguiling ingenue outdoes the previous, which begins to pale a bit. So much so, that for me, the only real life in the 'character' column came with an unexpected Medusa, who turns up as a kind of archetype of vengeance, fifty pages before the end ... one Madame Nourrisson :
Victorin felt a sort of internal chill at the sight of this dreadful old woman. Though handsomely dressed, she was terrible to look upon, for her flat, colourless, strongly-marked face, furrowed with wrinkles, expressed a sort of cold malignity. Marat, as a woman of that age, might have been like this creature, a living embodiment of the Reign of Terror. "My dear sir," she began, with a patronising air...
Giving Balzac his due, this predates Madame DeFarge and so may be a truly original construction, this ghost of vengeance past & future. Giving him the rest of his due, this book is an obese excercise in listening to yourself talk; hardly a run-of-the-mill inheritance-absconding or cuckholding goes by, without our windbag author injecting some age-old wisdom he has just devised for the occasion. He's not a scold; he just wants to be the voice of wisdom. And given that those topics are basically the sum total of the book, that's a lot of lecture time, before and after each go-round.
A suitable antidote to this is the altogether more inventive Dangerous Liasons, better in every aspect, with characters who the reader learns with, and cares for, written well prior to this by Choderlos de Laclos. The astonishing thing, to this reader, is that M. Balzac has the nerve to name-check that very novel, here in Cousin Bette. As if to give the nod or wink that we're in very similar hands. When in fact, we are in generally absent-minded and uninspired hands.
Balzac's main character here, the Baron Hulot, is a shell of a man who has a fatal addiction to new mistresses and falls into every trap they set, which of course is pretty much the same trap every time. He's a kind of fold-out Quixote, who can only face up to a failure with another feckless stab at relevance. At the very end, when he and his Baroness are reunited once again, the accumulated deja vu made me wish they'd get hit by a bus on their way out. But they persevere, as does our author, who has got more lecturing to do before he lets us go.
Overall, this has its moments, but not enough of them to stick out the four hundred pages of long-form libertinism. The value is in the occasional moment such as this excerpt, another mind-numbingly beautiful nymph from the brow of he-who-lectures-us ....
At noon next day, after a capital breakfast, Hulot saw the arrival of one of those living masterpieces which Paris alone, of all the cities of the world, can produce, by means of the constant concubinage of luxury and poverty, of vice and decent honesty, of suppressed desire and renewed temptation, which makes the French capital the daughter of Nineveh, of Babylon, and of Imperial Rome. Mademoiselle Olympe Bijou, a child of sixteen, had the exquisite face which Raphael drew for his virgins; eyes of pathetic innocence, weary with overwork--black eyes, with long lashes, their moisture parched with the heat of laborious nights, and darkened with fatigue; a complexion like porcelain, almost too delicate; a mouth like a partly opened pomegranate; a heaving bosom, a full figure, pretty hands, the whitest teeth, and a mass of black hair; and the whole, meagerly set off by a cotton frock at seventy-five centimes the meter, leather shoes without heels, and the cheapest gloves... The Baron, gripped again by the clutch of profligacy, felt all his life concentrated in his eyes. He forgot everything on beholding this delightful creature. He was like a sportsman in sight of the game...
One gets the idea that there is a lot of Monsieur Balzac in these impressions, in particular these kind of feverish lines that render the object of desire. If only he could gather up the descriptions and make us care what happens to such beautiful mannequins, by making them human.
Apollinaire, Satie, Rousseau and Jarry. Never the central figures, not Picassos or Cezannes perhaps, but more reliable practitioners cannot be found....moreApollinaire, Satie, Rousseau and Jarry. Never the central figures, not Picassos or Cezannes perhaps, but more reliable practitioners cannot be found. I don't think you get to Duchamp without these industrious kiddies setting the tone ...
A mad-hatter's tea-party, an atheist's rosy cross, a flaming arrow in the forehead of the status quo. Visit, for the logical dissonance, but stay for the majestic squalor.
Four absolute madmen and their relentless pursuit of the avant in all the itchiest, most wine-dark and vomit-crusted arrondissements of the City Of Light. Ooh la la.
Sometimes the stars method of rating books doesn't quite make sense. As described by hovering the mouse, they are classifications that describe variou...moreSometimes the stars method of rating books doesn't quite make sense. As described by hovering the mouse, they are classifications that describe various levels of 'like'. Did, didn't, really did, did a lot. Sometimes that is the most important thing about a book, and we'd 'like' to think that if we approved, that the book must ergo be a good book. Sometimes though, verifiably good is more valuable than liked-- there are gaps between good and liked.
Modigliani, What I See There is no significant light source in a Modigliani portrait. There are no beams or motes of dust caught in shafts from window or lamp or the heavens; this is not to say there is no light. Similarly, there is no significant meaning-- no overriding event or drama that shapes the content or execution, because it is nearly always the same content, and similar execution. Elegant line-drawings render well-massed re-imaginings of the human figure, generally relying on simplification, elongation, and some variation on the age-old beauty of the 'S' curve in their composition. Palette is amber-red and gold against green-grays and touches of delfty blues, and the tube of Umber must have always been squeezed out first.
Deceptively simple, and to be honest, never any real challenge to the Cezannes, Matisses or Picassos that were the front line of the School Of Paris of his day.
Not for Modi the wild reinvention of conception that Painting would undergo in these years; his subject was a tranquil, unsmiling, pared-down head-and-shoulder portrait, each and every one a sibling, another constant in his life's unvarying work. Male or female, a quiet sitter in an artist's studio, background just out of focus. Never would there be a Guernica, and Modi was a student of his contemporaries, as well as a big admirer of Picasso.
Rather, there is a taste and discretion that captures the small tensions and sometimes the turmoil of his subject; and there is the beautifully somber palette and graceful line that describe things that are innermost secrets, yet face the world every day.
There are small abstractions, the twists and gentle contortions of mass, the conscious allusion to masks, the reluctance to go too deeply into the eyes (sometimes abstracted to blank orbs). The anxiety in the hands, the rake of the shoulders, the turmoil in the glance remove the need for a storyline. There is the quiet moodiness in the illumination, contrasty and yet soft; there is the gentle palette of the surroundings, never featured but always a modifier. There is the Italianate sensuality of the forms and the line, rather than the furious French modernism of the day.
Modigliani's worst can sometimes seem like outdoor café-table caricaturing given the finearts razzle; there's no reason to dispute that, since quite often that was the beginning of one of his compositions. But his best, and most of it is his best, is single-mindedly sure, a purist vision of the human comedy --painted in the middle of a cyclone of the obstreperous modernism to be seen eating it's own tail for breakfast, daily, in Paris.
How The Book Sees It I don't think author Seacrest would disagree very much with the way I see the work, and yet, as biographer, she has an agenda to keep, dragons to slay.
Amedeo Modigliani is often portrayed as one --a ringleader, even-- of the unstable, unwashed, absinthe-soaked madmen that terrorized Montmartre in the name of Art. Modern Art. Great serial-womanizing egotists leading lives of impropriety, scandal and worse. Ms Secrest wants to emphasize that as a lifelong tubercular, Modi had no choice but to kill the pain with drink and drugs, and thus his Legend is misleading. Fine; this is one of those distinctions that always surround a Maestro; was Mozart such a genius because he wrote under the gun in poverty, or because he could write under the gun... was Shakespeare influenced by others or was he ... does it shift the work any ? If it can't be established, is it not a wild goose chase ? Once a controversy or inconsistency is mentioned, it's covered; but Secrest labors on.
There's no real need to deny any of the biographical facts, and certainly no real way to pin particulars of the artist's work on any given aspect. Don Modigliani may have been a grand old padrone with a huge family back in Livorno Italy if he hadn't had tuberculosis; he might have lived to the age of a hundred. But he didn't, his life was short, a supernova, the very grail of Paris School mad artist, and his paintings are exquisite.
Kenneth Wayne's Modigliani And The Artists Of Montparnasse structures itself that way, and still doesn't miss the point of the artist himself. I think it's the better way to approach things, since it ties together so much of the spirit of the place and time.
Secrest's book does fairly well by the Parisian underground it depicts; the lofts and lavoirs are the kind where you hang your bicycle from the ceiling, so the rats don't eat the tires. Still, it wants to downplay the absurdist modernist madman theme whenever possible, and if the paintings were the only evidence, she'd have a fair point; unfortunately, we know way too much about him and his world to call an entire subculture accidental. Her book is very well populated with family and descendants who wish the madman legend was not so. But. Modigliani was both genius and self-destructive madman, very likely willfully so in the face of the death sentence of tuberculosis. Unfortunate that there always has to be a new wrinkle to validate any new biography.
Very well reviewed, lots of 'indescribable' 'nouveau-detective' ! buzz, but fails to support the hype.
Two major things going on here, and both subjec...moreVery well reviewed, lots of 'indescribable' 'nouveau-detective' ! buzz, but fails to support the hype.
Two major things going on here, and both subject to all of the issues that threaten any translated fiction.
First is that the cast of characters here is pretty large and largely ill-defined. You've got the moody, iconoclast investigator, his diverse stable of foxy femmes, and the good & bad guys in the a) police force and b) mob. Business as usual there. But the large array of loosely-connected political / business / organized-crime associations gets bewildering after a while, and makes me think that maybe the reader is expected to know something of the territory as general knowledge. So maybe the lack of exposition has to do with this being an obvious roman a clef for anyone familiar with Marseilles ... but a question mark for anyone else.
Second is that moody and iconoclastic investigator guy. At first it's okay to put up with his tedious lists of cuisine, wines, music and meandering lovelorn thoughts, and then it gets to be not so okay. Yeah, okay, french-- yeah, so-tough-but-intuitively-sensitive, yeah, cherchez-la-femme, yeah yeah, sure. But when you get the distinct impression that the entire narrative structure is being framed to put Monsieur Le Moode in a perfect situation or posture to embody the sheer gallic weight and depth of all that, well, hmmpf.
The detail and atmosphere of Marseilles is constructed with precision and feeling, very nicely; the story is nothing unusual but serviceable; the way the plot wanders around and patronizes certain characters or groups -- is a problem, though. Once our investigator arrives and strikes a pose on the verge of all that, it really only gets worse. Perilously close to the yawning, ambivalent void of ... le dumpster. (less)
"Before him on the table was an ITT protable radio receiver with a long, inclined antenna. A desert plate did service as an ashtray. Gerfaut held a Gi...more"Before him on the table was an ITT protable radio receiver with a long, inclined antenna. A desert plate did service as an ashtray. Gerfaut held a Gitane filter. The radio was playing jazz, a Johnny Guarnieri piano solo, part of a program from France Musique. Not long after her first visit, Alphonsine had sent Gerfaut a money order to cover a month’s salary. He had immediately gone and bought the radio, the pants, Gitane filters, and a plastic miniature chess set which was now on the bedroom floor with its pieces set up in the final position of a Vasyukov-Polugayewski match at the USSR championships of 1965 (White resigned after the thirty-second move). “Georges!” said Alphonsine as she broke the seal on a bottle of Isle Of Jura whisky. “What a horrible first name!” “Everybody can’t be called Alphonsine..."
This rolls into the station as a dull little drama of the self-conscious bourgeoisie, where possessions and brand names actually matter enough to be noted in the exposition... A bland setup, certainly, considering what will be the rest of the ride.
At a certain point a vicious undertow takes hold of the main character, and we're in a life and death struggle for the rest of the novel.
(We get the feeling too that the early chapters may be a reach for the translator, whereas the direct scenes later on are simpler to convey ...)
Once this takes off, Manchette is able to hold a kind of dual tension, balancing the existential anxiety of the lead character with the impetus of the suspense elements that keep the pace driving to the end of the book. Everything that was grounded in the everyday begins to shear apart, and we get a kind of Simenon-meets-Chester-Himes hybrid ...
"… On the radio Johnny Guarnieri was superseded by a warm masculine voice retailing structuralist and leftist rubbish, then Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray began to play. “Wardell Gray—not this tenor, the other one,” said Gerfaut, pointing uselessly at the receiver, “was found shot dead in a vacant lot. And Albert Ayler’s body was fished out of the East River... Things like that exist! They really happen!”
“When I was nineteen,” said Alphonsine absently, “I married a surgeon. He was crazily in love with me, the moron. It was only a civil marriage. We were divorced after five years, and I took him for every penny I could get. What do you mean, ‘Things like that exist’? …” (less)
Zola seems to have borrowed a kind of effect, from poetry, with this effort: there are large technicolor blocks of description here, monumental scenic...more Zola seems to have borrowed a kind of effect, from poetry, with this effort: there are large technicolor blocks of description here, monumental scenic prose-backdrops, illustrated right down to the feel of the grit on the sidewalk. Sense of place is everything here. There is barely room to wedge the particulars of character and story into the gaps between atmosphere & scene... And like the painters of his era, he's also intrigued at the gradations wrought by time of day and weather change; at the way the Light rewrites the story, every bit as much as a plot change will. Take the fish market of Les Halles, for example :
“…..When the baskets had been set out, it looked to Florent as if a shoal of fish had run aground on the pavement, still quivering, in pearly pink, milky white, and bloody coral, all the soft, sheeny hues of the sea.
The seaweed that lies on the ocean bed where the mysteries of the deep lie sleeping had jumbled everything into the sweep of the net: cod, haddock, flounder, plaice, dabs, and other sorts of common fish in dirty grey spotted with white; conger eels, huge snake-like creatures with small, black eyes and muddy bluish skins, so slimy that they seemed to be still alive and gliding along; broad flat skate, their pale underbellies edged with a soft red, their superb backs, bumpy with vertebrae, marbled to the very tips of the bones in their fins, in sulphur-red patches cut across by stripes of Florentine bronze, a somber assortment of colours from filthy toad to poisonous flower; dogfish, with hideous round heads, gaping mouths like Chinese idols, and short fins like bats’ wings, monsters who doubtless kept guard over the treasures of the ocean grottoes. Then there were the finer fish, displayed individually on wicker trays: salmon, gleaming like chased silver, whose very scale seemed to have been exquisitely chiseled on highly polished metal; mullet, with larger scales and coarser markings; huge turbot and brill, their scales pure white and closely knit like curdled milk; tuna fish, smooth and glossy, like bags of black leather; and rounded bass, with gaping mouths, as if some outsize spirit, at the moment of death, had forced its way out of the surprised creatures’ bodies. Everywhere there were soles, grey or pale yellow, heaped in pairs; sand eels, thin and stiff, like shavings of pewter; herrings, slightly twisted, with bleeding gills showing on their silver-worked skins; fat bream, tinged with crimson; golden mackerel, their backs stained with greenish brown markings, their sides shimmering like mother-of-pearl; and pink gurnet with white bellies, placed with their heads together in the middle of the baskets and their tails fanned out, so that they seemed like strange flowers, in a bloom of pearly white and brilliant scarlet." ..... Emile Zola 1873
Only one installment of Zola's grand project Les Rougon-Macquart, "The Belly Of Paris" is a walk-thru history in lots of ways. And a strikingly visceral presentation of Les Halles in Paris in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century, pulsing with tradition but lunging toward the Modern with every day that passes.
[A footnote here is the film Le Sang des Bêtes which cinematically renders much the same territory some seventy-five years later; it is impossible to believe that director Georges Franju was not channeling Zola when he filmed this record in 1949. A must-see, on the level of L'Age d'Or or Entr'acte, in this viewer's opinion.]
Do both-- see The Blood Of The Beasts and read the Zola ... bon appetit.
Short but factually-loaded history of the explosive years between the wars when Harlem Jazz bloomed in the boîtes of Montmartre. Thoroughly researched...moreShort but factually-loaded history of the explosive years between the wars when Harlem Jazz bloomed in the boîtes of Montmartre. Thoroughly researched but drifts into personnel lists, itineraries and schedules a little too often.
A longer book might have delved more into the evocation of place and time, which are sketched here, but kept to a documentary minimum. Of particular interest is the zazou movement, which was a wildly radical group of musicians and jazz music fans who spared no effort keeping jazz alive under the Occupation. For a further discussion of the zazou, Wikipedia's page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zazou is good. See also "Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend" by Michael Dregni.
Jazz in Paris in the twenty years between the great wars deserves a larger, full-blown exploration in the Gary Giddins vein, and hopefully someone is at work on that right now. Wonderfully rich cross-section of thematic material, and Paris in the Twenties & Thirties as a stage. William Shack's Harlem In Montmartre only hints at the possibilities of a larger work.
Thought more of the collection itself than of the obligatory essays in the front section. But what a time, what images, what a direct affront--- to th...moreThought more of the collection itself than of the obligatory essays in the front section. But what a time, what images, what a direct affront--- to the established Ecole des Beaux Arts.
Dadaists, Post-Impressionists, Cubists, Futurists, Fauves, Primitifs, Vorticists, even Surrealists all came to the bar during these years; and something just exploded.
Duchamp, Mondrian, de Chirico, Picasso, Cocteau, Arp, Matisse, Man Ray, Apollinaire, booze, dope, broads. Not to mention le Douanier, Henri Rousseau, in the autumn of his years. They were making it all up on the fly. The squares didn't get it. THIS was the Avant Garde.
Modigliani lived fast and died young, leaving an astounding catalog, drawings, sculpture and paintings. Influences as divergent as Khmer figures and African masks found their Western ambassador in Paris. Montparnasse in the war years must have hummed with seething cool.
With the ur-text of Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years, "Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse" conveys the wildly improvisatory but profound sea-change that would become the Modern. (less)
Hm, let's see here .... a greedy overbearing western power embarks on an unprovoked, voluntary war against an ancient middle-eastern culture it knows...moreHm, let's see here .... a greedy overbearing western power embarks on an unprovoked, voluntary war against an ancient middle-eastern culture it knows next to nothing about. And the decider-in-chief is an unfailingly arrogant, self-absorbed little man whose vanity knows no bounds. Sure, a little familiar, maybe, but it probably looked like a slam-dunk ..... at the Ministry Of War in Paris.
M. Bonaparte would later regret the outcome of his excellent Egyptian adventure of the summer of 1798. Regret it to the extent of having to anonymously slip out of the country a year later and, once back in France, having inveigled the title of Napoleon I --- ordering the official state papers pertaining to the Free French Republic Of Egypt destroyed. It's not at all unlikely that the sorry, blood-soaked affairs of the Egyptian occupation were a kind of learning curve for Bonaparte. Several problems that resulted in the disaster :
The Sharifs Didn't Like It. Nor did the sheikhs, beys, bedouin, mamluks, clerics, emirs, sufi, jihadis, sultans or the eventual mujahadeen that arrived from Syria, Arabia, and all over the Ottoman Empire to extract the French from Egypt.
The British Didn't Like It. The worldclass British fleet managed a brilliant en-passant victory over the French by avoiding a head-on conflagration in the Mediterannean, as the massive French Expeditionary forces made their way to Egypt. Rather than suffer the inevitable attrition of a direct attack, the British under Nelson executed a fade-away and waited till Napoleon was well up the Nile toward Cairo -- before burning his standing fleet to the waterline as it stood in the port of Alexandria. Napoleon thus had his exits barred, supply-lines cut, and had to create his occupation from what little he found on the ground. The British kept up a naval embargo at the mouth of the Nile for the entire time the French were in-country, a very dangerous flank for Bonaparte.
The French Didn't Like It. The inherent contradictions of a revolutionary 'Rights Of Man' entity like the early French Republic carrying on a bloody occupation of a sovereign nation might have been enough, but there was worse. Unfamiliarity with language and custom, and the divided loyalties and shifting allegiances of a diverse middle-eastern country took their inevitable toll. Conspiracy was in season that summer, and there is some substance to the author's assertion that frenchmen just don't do very well in countries that can't produce wine.
Nobody Expects The Bubonic Plague. Conditions in the now-very-profitable red-light quarters of the Egyptian cities led to an outbreak of the Plague in several places, putting further pressure on the occupying force to take itself away from the sources of contagion.
The French in Egypt under Bonaparte provide a perfect object-lesson in how to wear out any welcome there might have been. An example : "As early as the twenty-seventh of July, Bonaparte first asked some associates for ideas on reforming Egypt. How best to administer civil and criminal law, for instance ? Not waiting for an answer, he issued orders about provincial administration that same day... Bonaparte's technique throughout his military career was to make the conquered pay for their conquest and to terrify them into submission..."
In every page of Mr. Cole's book on this strikingly ill-fated imperial misadventure there is the constant echo of the current United States occupation of Mesopotamia. It is to his credit that he neatly organizes and tells the tale without blatantly noting those obvious similarities. He's confident enough of the message--- and it's a sorry one--- that he lets the reader draw the ethical, cultural and moral conclusions for himself. (less)
There is something about a big, weighty book of fiction. If it's not a predetermined classic, you go thru agonies in the first few hundred pages decid...moreThere is something about a big, weighty book of fiction. If it's not a predetermined classic, you go thru agonies in the first few hundred pages deciding whether to dedicate numerous reading-weeks, maybe a month of your life, to getting thru it. In the case of Underground City, there were red flags galore in the first couple of hundred pages.
Try this : "Sit down, Lieutenant, while I look at this." "Sugar, sir ?" "No, thank you. I like it black as sin and strong as the Lord's right arm.".
Honest. Not even in jest. Eek. But what kept me at it was the slightly weird and hazy biography of Mr. Humes, which you'll have to find in cyberspace if you're intrigued. Seems he had been involved in the underground that the book portrays... so there was always that to allay the doubts about the finesse of the storytelling.
Let me say, though, that the narrative goes from EXTENDED STANDSTILL for two hundred pages to something more lively, and that only by page #203. It's not a pointless wait, though.
The hype on this book is that it's something that encompasses, maybe even epitomizes, the shift from the 'Big Worldwar Two Novel' that every soldier wanted to write, to the uncertain and more complex world of the coldwar geopolitical novel. And it does, sort of.
It's about the Resistance in France (and collaborationists), and the Aftermath of the largest conflict in which the world had jointly participated by '58, when this book was published. There's a lot of room to be elaborate in the 755 pages that Humes dedicates to this book, so a lot of this complex history is parsed & re-parsed, lots of characters are brought to the page, and lots of time is spent in leisurely contemplation of the moment.
Good or bad ? Well, both, really. We do get intimations of the present (future for them) in this kind of passage :
"We marvel at the folly of the Romans, the Calvinists, the Inquisition-- they all burned human beings alive for the greater glory of God, some for the love of gentle Christ. We wonder how men could become so sick in their souls as to commit murder in the name of God, and yet will it be much different looking back a millenium from now ?" "Georges, why are you lecturing me like a schoolboy ?" "One half of the world is ready to fight for freedom, privacy, and justice for all mankind; the other half is ready to fight for an end to econonomic enslavement of all mankind. The first half finds it increasingly necessary to repress freedom, privacy and justice-- in the name of freedom, privacy, and justice. The other half finds it necessary to employ slave labor to put an end to economic enslavement. And if nothing else will do, there is still one issue that the whole world is ready to fight for --peace. Ha !...."
Fairly prescient in what is overall, well, still and only a big wwII novel. Yes, it's got it's suspense and covert espionage aspects, but it's still somebody's big war book. And the truth of it is that by 1958, Messrs Ambler, Greene and Fleming had already been at the task, even though it was not till '61 that Le Carre entered.
Without going too far into any specifics, this is intermittently very rewarding and then here & there a bit tedious. But it's got the scale of the 'big book' at least. And Humes' evocations of postwar Paris are really pretty exquisite, by any measure. The twilight tour of the sewers is good, and the boozy Bloom In Night Town sequence at the end of the book very much worth it. In the city that fostered Surrealism, it's good to know our author isn't immune to it's charms.... Let's have an examp.
As the start to the night-town narrative, our protagonist has met the denizens of an odd bar called Cafe Monumentale, so called because it is sited next to the many large graves at the Montparnasse cemetery. Here's our hostess :
"Do you know what I'd do if I had his money ? I'd start a funeral parlor. Always a steady business, a changing clientele. You don't even have to smile at them once they're in the box, and they never come back to plague you with their troubles. I tell you it's not easy being a woman in this business." She knocked her knuckles on the counter top to show what business she meant. "Does your son help you with it ?" Stone asked innocently. "Him ? Ha! He's got too much of his father in him. He can't even help himself yet." Then she softened. "But he's a good boy. He writes poetry but he's honest, always keeps track of his debts." She shook her head ruefully. "If he didn't look so much like his father, I'd have thrown him out long ago." "I imagine it's hard to make a living writing poetry," Stone offered. She smiled a wry smile. "That's why I'm trying to teach him to play billiards." Then she shrugged resignedly. "At least he likes girls. Thank God for that." Stone laughed politely. "Only you should see the girls. They all look like orphans. Thin like sticks. Straight black hair. Turtle-neck sweaters. Existentialists. I don't know where he finds them, but each one's like all the rest...."
Don't skip the Dickens or Dostoyevsky to go on this trip, but if you've got the time, an interesting & under-the-radar ride. (less)