L’anomalie de Hervé Le Tellier

L’anomalie de Hervé Le Tellier, « un Goncourt » qui se lit avec plaisir. Voilà qui suffirait amplement comme chronique de lecture mais je vois d’ici votre déception si je m’arrêtais là …

Qu’est-ce que ça fait du bien quand-même une histoire bien ficelée, enfin des histoires bien ficelées ! Dès le départ, on se doute facilement que les onze mises en scène des personnages principaux, qui ouvrent le roman, vont faire une (très belle) intrigue, même si on a échappé au tapage médiatique autour de ce livre. Et pour ma part, je n’ai pas été déçue.

Mes lectures en parallèle (comment ça, il y a des gens qui lisent des livres sagement, les uns après les autres ?) comprenaient une romance publiée par une amie, un deuxième roman bizarroïde que je n’ai pas encore fini de lire et un roman historico-féministe. C’est dire que j’ai vu pas mal de personnages me passer devant les yeux en peu de temps, au fil des pages et des clics sur ma liseuse. Après une absence de quelques jours, je replongeais allègrement dans l’histoire de Joanna par exemple, sur un mode « qui c’était déjà, j’ai déjà oublié, c’est pas grave [quelques paragraphes plus loin], ah oui, c’est l’avocate ».

Au lieu de vous livrer quelque chose de construit, voici quelques pépites qui m’ont fait particulièrement plaisir.

Où il est question de modélisation de catastrophes et de Betty la grenouille

Ma carrière scientifique s’est arrêtée après le bac mais une bonne vingtaine d’années plus tard, je me suis retrouvée devant le portail d’un haut lieu de la recherche fondamentale et ce fut une belle aventure de sept ans. L’IHES, propulsé à ses débuts par le génie d’Alexander Grothendieck, accueille Mikhael Gromov depuis 1982, désormais en tant que professeur honoraire. Ces deux grands, géomètre algébriste pour l’un et géomètre d’un peu tout y compris du vivant pour l’autre, figurent dans ce livre qui décidément se consomme sans faim. J’ignore pourquoi Cédric Villani n’y est pas nommé alors qu’il est décrit minutieusement, existe-t-il une règle qui interdirait la présence d’un député dans les pages d’un roman à succès ? En tout cas, les portraits d’Adrian et Meredith sont tout bonnement parfaits, je confirme notamment la réalité des « vieux T-shirts troués d’algébriste » (et je m’empresse d’ajouter que, de ce que j’ai vu et entendu, les joueur·ses de mathématiques, qui peuvent certes laisser le commun des mortels perplexes, est très sympathique.) Mais ici, pas de bons points particuliers à distribuer à Le Tellier : l’auteur est mathématicien de formation.

Et en ce qui concerne les aspects scientifiques proprement dits, non je ne vais pas évaluer ni même évoquer les différentes manières possibles de gérer l’événement incroyable-et-pourtant (c’est à dire le cœur de l’intrigue), y compris le protocole 42. Je compte utiliser cette référence, et celle du Lego, pour essayer de persuader mon mari de lire ce bouquin – nos goûts de lecture ne sont pas tout à fait les mêmes d’habitude…

Par contre, cette lecture m’a incitée à suivre une démarche scientifique concernant l’aventure de Betty, la grenouille de Sophia.

  1. Hypothèse : l’auteur n’a pas inventé ce petit miracle de toutes pièces, trop malin.
  2. Démarche : consultation de Google pendant environ sept minutes.
  3. Vérification : pas le temps, pas grave.
  4. Démonstration : la nature est merveilleuse.

Élégie du temps qui passe

Ah, André, ce cher sexagénaire en pleine crise d’adolescence retardée… A priori, cet homme-là, ce serait un beau parti en deuxièmes noces, pour emprunter un vocabulaire d’un autre temps (mais si vous préférez une référence à Tinder, ne vous gênez pas). Eh beh non, parce que, son problème, c’est que « Ses amis vieillissent avec lui, mais pas les femmes qu’il aime. » Et bien sûr une flamme rend beaucoup plus douloureuse la réalisation de la vieillesse qui avance doucement et sûrement. Même quand on fait une carrière fulgurante, qu’on appartient à l’intelligentsia parisienne, qu’on a un ami haut placé au quai d’Orsay. Eh oui.  Le Tellier est de 1957 (merci qui ? merci Wiki) et il nous offre une bien savoureuse description de ses congénères en mode-autodérision.

De Camus et de Stephen Colbert

L’humour, ça fait du bien. Tant mieux parce que j’ai éclaté de rire quand le chef de l’état a cité du Camus (sur Hiroshima, en soi pas très drôle mais) pour exhorter ses compatriotes à considérer la situation dont il est question ici, semblable au « long confinement contre la pandémie » et à se ménager du « temps pour penser … trouver la paix …car « c’est en soi et en soi seul que chacun trouvera des réponses. Je vous remercie. Vive la République, vive la France.»

Et puis, j’aime bien Stephen Colbert, j’aime suffisamment des aspects de la culture américaine, comme Bruce Springsteen au hasard, (je ne dis pas anglo-saxonne parce que cette notion n’a jamais voulu dire grand-chose et je souhaite préciser que je suis anglaise par ma mère – britannique ne voulant pas dire grand chose non plus à l’ère post-Brexit – et je n’ai rien contre les étatsuniens, hein) pour l’ apprécier. Pour les quelques personnes qui n’en auraient jamais entendu parler, Stephen Colbert est un « good guy » qui, avant, jouait au « bad guy » pour faire rire et qui plus récemment a endossé le rôle du confident et copain de toujours des désespérés du trumpisme. Mais je suis aussi suffisamment française (par mon père mais si on va par-là, un peu irlandaise aussi, ah, je vous lasse avec ma généalogie ? désolée, j’arrête) pour avoir trouvé hilarantes les déconvenues de Stephen Colbert. Le Tellier réalise ici une scène rocambolesque comme on les aime.

Le monde de la littérature

Encore un domaine que Le Tellier doit bien connaître. J’ai adoré la Société des amis de Victør Miesel qui se constitue après le succès du roman, avec Ilena Leskov en cheffe de file. Il s’agit d’une vague parente du romancier russe que Victor traduit en marge de son activité d’écrivain, une «  jeune enseignante de russe aux Langues O’ qui l’a quitté après un an de relations orageuses ». À la question qu’on lui pose lors d’une conférence de presse : « Quels sont vos rapports avec Ilena Leskov ? » Il répond « Actuellement, inexistants. Disons qu’au mieux il sont anthumes. » Et, bourré de bromazépam il enchaîne quantité de mauvais jeux de mots, au grand désarroi de son éditrice qui, quelques pages plus loin, va se sentir un peu dépassée par les événements.

Victor est devenu intouchable. « Il sait qu’il suffira qu’une de ses phrases soit plus intelligente que lui pour que ce miracle fasse de lui un écrivain » (une de ces phrases délicieusement prétentieuse, expressément écrite pour qu’on se moque d’elle). Et puis il aperçoit parmi les journalistes « la jeune femme des Assises d’Arles [Assises de la traduction littéraire], qui s’intéressait à l’humour chez Gontcharov », une belle histoire qui commence peut-être ?

Bon, ce sera ma seule critique, mais voilà encore une fois une présentation de la traduction comme activité qu’on exerce faute de mieux, si on ne peut pas vivre de sa « vraie » plume… Heu non, en fait, j’ai une deuxième critique : je me serais bien passée du personnage atteint d’un cancer dans un livre délicieusement léger.  De mon point de vue, il y a une faute de ton : pas de problème avec le serial killer, mais le désarroi autour de la maladie, j’ai du mal. D’autres auront des sensibilités différentes, je donne mon avis.

Enfin, je n’oublie pas qu’Hervé Le Tellier est oulipien et que la scène de la conférence de presse est une mise en abyme, un roman dans un roman en mode science-fiction. Quant aux derniers mots, je les déchiffre encore, les deux derniers sont faciles à reconstituer, mais il faut que je creuse un peu pour les autres !

My Struggle by Karl ove knausgÅrd

I’m finally doing this, I’m writing up what I thought of the multi-volume My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgård, translated from Norwegian into English by Don Bartlett (mostly) and Martin Aitken, even though I haven’t finished reading volume 6 and it’s likely I never will. I really thought I was going to be one of those readers who would plough through all the thousands of pages, eagerly waiting for the translation of every single volume. The reason I gave up in the end was that although the first two books bowled me over and blew my mind, the magic slowly became diluted over the following books. There, that was the short version of my take on My Struggle.

Here is the longer version, with the positives first.

To me, books 1 and 2 were magical, page-turners to beat all page-tuners and I read them in quick succession. In fact, so keen was I to zip through them that I can’t remember there being an actual break between the first two parts of this mammoth literary undertaking, a pompous but accurate description I feel.

Even in the first few pages, I got the sense that I was embarking on a new reading experience with this book, combining many autobiographical elements and general musings on life, literature and relationships. Stated like that, you might think, well yes, it’s a novel, plenty of novels (most of them probably) draw on the author’s life and experiences and expound on profound topics along the way. However, what became quickly apparent on reading this extraordinary, weighty opus was the quality of precision in the narration – every single action, word and thought is transcribed in exhaustive detail, with the result that in many cases, I felt I was not so much reading as engaging in an act of voyeurism.

As a reader, I was constantly looking over Knausgård’s shoulder as he filmed/recorded/transcribed scene after scene of his relationship with his father, especially in the early volumes, and with his wife and their children, brother, friends etc. I’m sure that the searing depiction of a conversation with his grandmother towards the end of book 1 has been etched in the memory of many readers, not just mine. The mastery displayed there was, I felt, breath-taking. I just couldn’t get enough of it (Zadie Smith put it this way: “I need the next volume like crack”.) My husband commented that I had never spoken so much about any other book I had read. Yes, I was a KOK junkie.

There are many such brilliant scenes and although I wouldn’t place humour as the most characteristic feature of his writing here, I did laugh out loud at the description of the music-for-toddlers session that his wife asked him to take his young daughter to. Karl Ove, one of the three dads in the midst of mums, hates everything about the session and endures agonies of resentment and humiliation, from his tall size (“Everything was gentle and friendly and nice, all the movements were tiny, and I sat huddled on a cushion”) to the fact he would in other circumstances happily have shagged the teacher. (She asks his name: “The attractive young woman looked at me and sent me a smile of encouragement.-Karl Ove, I said sombrely. -Then let’s start with our welcome song.”) You can see the teacher’s bright smile so clearly, the seriously involved parents and the little ones being little ones, the whole thing reeking of a middle class lifestyle.

More typical are idle thoughts, in the most prosaic situations, that shine a light on discomforting truths about our perceptions, the judgments we make and the embarrassment we often experience when we acknowledge their truth. Take this shopping situation, where the author is pondering the best way to pay for an item of small value. “But this time I had no change on me, and it was ridiculous to use my card for such a small sum. On the other hand, did it matter what she thought about me? She was so fat.”

And just as cuttingly, and I would be the sort of person who is being judged here, this is what Knausgård says about “a nice place (…) full of plants with a fountain, where you could sit in the summer (…) The only downside was the clientele, which for the most part consisted in cultured women in their fifties and sixties”.

It’s the strangest of things: the books compel readers to devour them … and readers to squirm (well me, at least).

It’s obviously a very fine balancing act but at what point does squirming and feeling voyeuristic turn you off a book? I mean, when you’re reading about a young teenager who disastrously misunderstands or chooses to ignore the obvious (obvious to anyone else of course) “I like you” signals from a nice girl prepared “to take things further” with him, that makes for realistic but in a way quite sweet tale. However, recalling how he voted for himself to be class delegate, didn’t engage with a parent at the school he was teaching to help the “odd one out” student, not to mention his struggles with premature ejaculation, all these incidents hit the too-much-cringe-inducing-information barrier for me. Of course, everyone will have their own threshold and I guess the point is that Knausgård chose to set all these self-inflicted humiliations out. Fair enough. (And of course, he is writer, so he may have simply chosen to write out these incidents, real or not. This might be even more weird, but it could be so. Also, we should always remember that people, and in this case, protagonists in the books, remember trivial and important events in very different ways…)

I admit that reading these books has shaped/warped my view of Scandinavia somewhat. I say Scandinavia because in my mind I lazily lump them and Denmark, Finland and Iceland together on this. Probably because I don’t know these countries… Anyway, two things struck me particularly.

First was the accent placed on the quantities of alcohol consumed and the damage it inflicts, a fact faced unflinchingly through the stories of various characters, including the author’s. I knew of course that alcoholism, together with high rates of suicides and divorce were meant to be particularly prevalent in places where light is absent for a long period of time, although I’m not so sure that more southern places fare better to be honest, (but I’m not going to check right now, I would probably have to sift through far too many statistics). However, the seeming inevitability of the need for drunkenness does seem to mark many characters. Alcohol is also a key character in these narratives.

Second was the weirdest teacher training programme ever. I thought Scandinavians had the most enlightened education systems barring none but here is Karl Ove sent off to a middle school in the north of the country to teach teenagers barely older than himself (he is 18), with no experience whatsoever and what reads like rudimentary mentoring. I remember discussing this with a Norwegian lady I met once, who agreed with me when I reminded her of the episodes in book 4  (It turns out she knew Knausgård from school but hadn’t kept in touch.)

Now for the negatives.

I’ve not given book 6 a chance, despite the very nicely worded “reading guide” by Penguin (a nice change when I think how many blurbs are badly written/give away too much, and don’t get me started on “Questions for a book club discussion” at the end of books – shudders) encouraging me to do so. And I do allow myself to not finish a book, or in this case a sixth book. But pretty much from the start, I thought “the publishers haven’t dared to touch this sacred cow”. Even if that were the case, the publishers may have decided that they were owed nothing at this point. In any case, the author had free rein to lengthily describe the effect his books had on his family, especially his uncle and his first wife and also the impact it had on him, as some of the Knausgårds reacted very negatively. Once again, the shame and the angst are dwelt upon.

But fundamentally, perhaps there was just too much of a wait between the last two volumes. The huge acclaim of the earlier books certainly added another dimension to the series and without a doubt contributed to the delay in publishing the last, huge book. In other words, for me, “le soufflé était tombé” (loose translation: the magic had fizzled out). Of course, if I do read the final volume, I may change my mind and if so, I will make amends in an addendum to this blog.

Also, I can’t help myself, I’m going to say something negative about a living person. I find Karl Ove Knausgård, as depicted in these five and a bit books and several long articles by him that I have read, an intensely irritating person.

In one article published in the New York Times, where he describes the loss then recovery of his backpack, complete with laptop, he explains that “when you lose things, it means you’re not on your guard, you’re not trying to control everything, you’re not being so anal all the time — and if you aren’t, but allow yourself to be open to the world instead, then anything at all might come to you.” Even if he does add “I know that’s true, but at the same time I also know that the reason I say it is to turn all my faults and weaknesses into strengths (…) That means I’m a writer, I think I’m not so focused on worldly matters, which in turn means that some day I just might write a masterpiece.” I want to scream. I want to yell that being a good writer is not synonymous with being useless about looking after stuff! Likewise in book 1, where he notes that he sees “families who successfully organize themselves in this way. The children are clean, their clothes nice (…) They go on weekend trips, rent cottages in Normandy, and their fridges are never empty. They work in banks and hospitals, in IT companies or on the local council (…) Why should the fact that I am a writer exclude me from that world?”

Er, well Karl Ove, it doesn’t necessarily, you know, so tell me, why do you think it should exactly? The irony of course, is that all these families do “turn up at the nursery with crazed eyes and a face stiffened into a mask of frustration” every now and then too. And your work life is a thundering success, so…

Still, it’s easy to observe others, harder to observe oneself, unless you write about you in over 3,500 pages perhaps?

Eleven years of Kindle

Eleven years ago (Christmas 2009), I was given a Kindle and instantly loved it. I still have a Kindle and I still love it to bits … but there are some buts.  I actually want to get this post – and a few others – written and published in a reasonable space of time, hence a list of points rather than carefully crafted prose. The chronology of events is based on my memory, so possibly not entirely accurate. Here goes:

  • I have a Kindle, woop, woop! I can read lots of books, lots and lots of books, on one book-sized device, not much heavier than a book.
  • The screen is one I’ve never seen before and is SO much easier on the eye (on my eye anyway) than a computer screen.
  • The battery lasts for ages and ages, unlike other devices I could mention…
  • I can download samples for free, an absolute stroke of genius! Sample sizes are generous for books written in English, and sometimes ridiculously stingy for books written in French (I speak and read both languages).
  • Some of the classics are free or cost very little. The quality of e-reader/Kindle-friendly version varies quite widely…
  • One annoying problem is solved quite quickly: previously, when you downloaded a sample and then bought the book, the sample stayed in your library AND you had to find the page where the sample left off. No longer!
  • I can send pdfs to my Kindle. That is truly brilliant.
  • I get a new Kindle from my all-things-electronic dealer (R.) every two years or so (whereas I keep a phone for as long as I dare – thereby slightly interrupting the flow of the not-quite latest version of the Apple phones from R. to the other members of the family: our two daughters and me) and there are more tiddly bits each time.
  • I’ll rephrase that: lots of functions are added in, like highlights and bookmarks and collections.
  • The user manual/instructions get a bit more complicated.
  • As I approach my 50th birthday, I truly appreciate being able to change the font size…
  • Over the years, I get to learn that if I want a wide range of Kindle books in French AND English, my best bet is to use my UK address and a .co.uk account. (Here’s hoping Brexit doesn’t change all that). It does mean, however, that I can’t have my beloved J D Salinger books (Especially Nine Stories) on my Kindle. Of course, Amazon is not entirely responsible for the conspicuous failure that is intellectual property regulation in the 21st century. Surely, surely there is a sensible way to reward creators fairly for their work, while letting consumers read/watch/listen to what they want, wherever they happen to reside and in whatever language? Anyway…
  • The settings have changed, they’re organised differently, takes a little getting used to. The buttons have changed to but they are entirely intuitive, whichever way you hold your Kindle.
  • I find that I can’t work out how to send pdfs to my Kindle anymore. The size of the user manual and the number and hierarchy of the settings puts me off trying to work out how to do it. No more pdfs to my Kindle.
  • There are rumours that “Amazon authors” are encouraged to write longer books, that’s terrible if true.
  • This is no rumour: I am encouraged to monitor (=spy on) the amount my children read. They’re too old now anyway but I would NEVER have used this function. How to put someone off reading for life!
  • As a translator, I investigate the Amazon Crossing system thoroughly and even hang around the Amazon stand at the Salon du livre in Paris. After a bit, I conclude that this is not for me.
  • The only way I can lend  Kindle books, which is one of the two fundamental drawbacks of a Kindle, is by subscribing to Kindle Unlimited. The last time I looked, the range of books available wasn’t what I wanted at all. If I can lend Kindle books any other way, please let me know!
  • Whispersync for Voice activated. Wow!! Wow wow wow. I’ve loved audio books for ever and being able to switch from reading it to listening to it is just amazing.
  • Slight gripe: the Whispersync actors are very good and professional but other audio books, including Audible have stellar actors for unabridged narrations.
  • Slight gripe N°2: the Whispersync … doesn’t sync very often
  • Slight gripe N°3: since I’ve activated Whispersync for Voice, the battery runs out far more quickly.
  • The second major drawback of a Kindle is that you can not show off all your books in your library. But wait! If you have an R. in your life who finds a hack to display the covers of all your Kindle books and then cycle through them in slide show mode on one of those terribly noughties electronic photo frames, you can!

In summary, if I had to choose between a smart phone OR a Kindle (not a Kindle Fire obviously) and a non-smart phone, I would definitely go for the latter. And yes it’s absolutely crazy but it is highly unlikely that I will ever have to make this choice, given that probably much more damage will have to be inflicted on the planet before we have to give up gadgets (and in my defence, we drive a single electric car and I use solid shampoo, so there).

Season’s greetings to all Kindle readers!

Ce blog cause surtout de livres, en français parfois.