Generally, as someone who's interested in French literature and culture, I'm pretty happy to live in Paris. But today I wish very much to be back in New York, for today begins the Festival of New French Writing at NYU. Over the next three days, New Yorkers will be able to attend a series of panels which match up French writers with American writers in conversation about their craft, moderated by an impressive group of French and American critics and writers.
People talk about how French literature has stalled over the last decade or so, and it is said (by François Busnel, editor-in-chief of Lire magazine, among other people, citing the recent Goncourt prizes awarded to Jonathan Littell and Atiq Rahimi) that its best hope lies in the blending of the French language with the experiences of other cultures, with writers from other contexts than metropolitan France. It would seem, then, that contemporary French literature can only benefit from such conversations, although the main practitioners of the two plagues of the present literary scene in France– naval-gazing and nihilism– are absent from this list. (Feel free to get catty in the comments about who I might be referring to…)
I have been completely laid out by one of those strange French strains of a cold they call a rhinopharyngite. But today I feel a bit more lucid than I have, just in time to take a look around and see what's been going on.
Here in France, the teachers' strike continues, and the manifestations are getting more and more original. On Friday, in honor of Valentine's Day, a group of people stood outside Valérie Pécresse's office holding red and white balloons, which they then released. Yesterday a group of people read La Princesse de Clèves out loud (see here for video, starts around 43 seconds in) in front of the Pantheon. (They did this because Sarkozy has a weird little fixation with this book that I don't entirely understand.) And tomorrow there will be a "flashmob" at 12 noon exactly at Place St Michel. Here's what to do:
"1. Bring your favorite book (or any book) 2. Show up at Place St Michel at noon on the dot, Wednesday February 18th 3. When the whistle blows, begin reading aloud from your book as loud as you can 4. When the second whistle blows, scatter!"
The whole thing will last precisely 5 minutes.
* I was very shocked to learn via Caroline Weber that it was apparently Grégoire Bouillier who sent Sophie Calle the infamous "Prenez soin de vous" [Take Care of yourself] text message, the one that inspired a hundred creative interpretations, a Biennale exhibit, and many deconstructions of whether or not it is still appropriate to vousvoyer someone you're sleeping with. What's even more shocking is the cavalier way Weber tosses off this information– as if everyone knew about it. Did everyone know about it? I knew she was a central figure in his memoir L'invité mystère [The Mystery Guest], but didn't know they were ever involved. It makes me think he did that just so she would turn it into one of her projects. Does that make him more or less of a cad? I can't decide.
* Earlier this month was the 100th anniversary of the Nouvelle Revue Française. For the anniversary issue, Jonathan Littell provided an appreciation of Maurice Blanchot, which This Space is currently featuring, in a translation by Charlotte Mandell. An excerpt:
Writing does not describe, does not relate, does not signify, it does
not represent a thing, existing in the world of men or even only in the
world of the imagination; it is neither more nor less than "the test of
its own experience" (Blanchot again, I forget where, unless it's
Bataille – so indistinguishable is their thinking on this point), the
faithful account of what happened at that moment, the moment
when the one who, seized by the desire to write, sat down in front of a
blank piece of paper and began putting language onto it. It's not that
the text that results from this experience – poem, story, novel – is
deprived of meaning, is not shot through with elements referring to the
reality of life; rather it's that these elements function (to use a
comparison that Blanchot would no doubt have discreetly avoided) like
what Freud called the manifest content of dreams: the rags of reality
they cloak themselves with so as both to manifest and veil their truth,
their very reality. Thus, if writing is related to truth – and it
certainly is, it has to be, or else not be at all, or in any case fall
outside of the realm we designate by that mysterious word, literature
– it is not by way of knowledge. Literary writing does not explain,
does not teach: it simply offers the presence of its own mystery, its
own experience, in its absence of explanation, thus inviting not some
illusory "understanding" ("Reading either falls short of understanding
or overshoots it," writes Blanchot), but precisely a reading.
[UPDATE: Charlotte writes in to let us know the original French is here, and there's lots more on Blanchot at Pierre Joris's blog. Thanks!]
* Finally, Wyatt Mason gives a very patient explanation of the differences between reading as a reader and as a writer, and what this means for ltierary criticism.
I am tempted not to post today, as I'm immersed in finishing the first chapter of my dissertation, which looks at the narrative strategies Elizabeth Bowen employs in her 1930s novels to deal with the paradoxical situation of women in that period– politically and sexually emancipated (more or less), and still socially imprisoned.
Then I saw an essay by Victoria Glendinning (who once wrote a biography of Bowen) on the newly released letters of Bowen to Charles Ritchie, the Canadian diplomat with whom she had an affair which began in the 1940s (therefore, outside the period of my consideration, but ok) and lasted 32 years. I haven't read this collection (entitled Love's Civil War, and which also contains Ritchie's diaries from the period, edited by Glendinning herself), but it certainly sounds as though I ought to:
For Bowen, whose fiction hinges on arrivals and departures, this
fractured life provided the intensity she needed. She told a former
lover that she was "a writer before she was a woman". Throughout the
long years, recreating on the page the beauty of Bowen's Court and
their magic times there, and the rapture of snatched meetings in
favourite bars all over the world, finding the words and phrases about
him and their unbreakable love in order to bind Charles to her, she is
most brilliantly Elizabeth Bowen.
The letters to Ritchie are
Bowen's "writing" in the same way as her books and stories are. Readers
of her fiction will find echoes and resonances. She told him with great
freedom about how she writes, when she writes, what it feels like to be
writing. When, late in life, she started on The Little Girls, she
shared the process of creation with him as never before – even though
The Heat of the Day, about love and betrayal in London during the war,
is dedicated "To Charles Ritchie".
Since I'm on a roll, I'll share my favorite part in the Glendinning bio:
"[Elizabeth Bowen's] short sight was partially responsible for the 'impressionistic' quality of her writings. What she saw and responded to was the general effect of light, color and form; and she fully focused only on nearby detail, which thus acquired a disproportionate significance. She preferred not to wear her glasses, whatever the inconvenience. In middle life, walking in the garden at dusk at Angus Wilson's house in Suffolk, she walked straight into a hedge, talking hard, and unconcernedly backed out, 'like a bus' (according to Stuart Hampshire), still talking hard" (35).
I just adore her. I wish I'd known her. Smart, in the British sense. Sharply, sharply funny. And yet deeply melancholy. The period of time when I was immersed in reading Bowen, this past fall, was very gloomy; I was reading (and re-reading, and re-re-reading) intense amounts of To the North, The House in Paris, and The Death of the Heart, and while I fervently recommend each of these novels to you, I caution you that a too-close reading may result in sadness and despair. But maybe that's just me. Another time I'll tell you more about these novels, but for now, I have to finish this chapter. Love's Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Letters and
Diaries 1941-1973, edited by Victoria Glendinning with Judith
Robertson, is published this week by Simon & Schuster (£14.99).
…Heard Simone de Beauvoir talk on the novel (is it still possible) last night at the Sorbonne (with Jaffe). She is lean and tense and black-haired and very good-looking for her age, but her voice is unpleasant, something about the high pitch and the nervous speed with which she talks…
Last Thursday we were out in the streets protesting again; this one was even better than the last! This time there was chanting, singing, and even a little dancing. The energy was high, the press was everywhere, and everyone seemed to be having a grand old time– all the while completely serious about our cause, but happy to be out marching on such a beautiful day.
We began the march at Jussieu, walked past the Jardin des Plantes, down to Censier, up rue Claude Bernard, hung a right on rue d’Ulm, continued past ENS, up to the Pantheon, where the march came to a halt. We were supposed to finish in front of the Education Minister’s compound, but since the protests had turned ugly that morning in Strasbourg (where the Minister, Valérie Pécresse, had inaugurated a new university), the police had blocked off all the streets leading to the ministry. So the cortège continued up rue Victor Cousin (“A la Sorbooooooooonne!” cried the leaders), left on the rue des Ecoles, right on Boulevard St Michel– and here things got out of hand. Half of the marchers took off leftward on the Blvd St Germain, walking right into traffic, between the cars, who stopped in their tracks and began honking to show their support for the demonstrators. The other half stayed on Blvd St Michel, where the demonstration ended about a half hour later.
This week, in honor of the university strike here in France: Samuel Johnson's The Scholar's Life, from The Vanity of Human Wishes.
first the College Rolls receive his Name,
The young Enthusiast quits his Ease for Fame;
Resistless burns the Fever of Renown,
Caught from the strong Contagion of the Gown;
O'er Bodley's Dome his future Labours spread,
And Bacon's Mansion trembles o'er his Head;
Are these thy Views? proceed, illustrious Youth,
And Virtue guard the to the Throne of Truth,
Yet should thy Soul indulge the gen'rous Heat,
Till captive Science yields her last Retreat;
Should Reason guide thee with her brightest Ray,
And pour on misty Doubts resistless Day;
Should no false Kindness lure to loose Delight,
Nor praise relax, nor Difficulty fright;
Should tempting Novelty thy cell refrain,
And Sloth's bland Opiates shed their Fumes in vain;
Should Beauty blunt on Fops her fatal Dart,
Nor claim the Triumph of a letter'd Heart;
Should no Disease thy torpid Veins invade,
Nor Melancholy's Phantoms haunt thy Shade;
Yet hope not Life from Grief or Danger free,
Nor think the Doom of Man revers'd for thee:
Deign on the passing World to turne thine Eyes,
And pause awhile from Learning to be wise;
There mark what Ills the Scholar's Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret, and the Jail.
See Nations slowly wise, and meanly just,
To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.
If Dreams yet flatter, once again attend,
Hear Lydiat's Life, and Galileo's End.
when Learning her lost Prize bestows
The glitt'ring Eminence exempt from Foes;
See when the Vulgar 'scap'd, despis'd or aw'd,
Rebellion's vengeful Talons seize on Laud.
From meaner Minds, tho' smaller Fines content
The plunder'd Palace or sequester'd Rent;
Mark'd out by dangerous Parts he meets the Shock,
And fatal Learning leads him to the Block:
Around his Tomb let Art and Genius weep,
But hear his Death, ye Blockheads, hear and sleep.
Woke up this morning to find Maud Newton had posted a video of Simone de Beauvoir discussing her book La vieillesse (translated as The Coming of Age), and had asked for a translation of its contents. Ever one to oblige, and procrastinate, I got right to it. Questions, comments, and critiques of my translation welcome.
Q: Simone de Beauvoir, what does "aging" mean to you?
SdB: Many things at once. I wrote a 600 page book to explain, I can't answer you in 60 seconds. Ok, we can say first of all that to age is an organic phenomenon. The organs evolve, which leads to a slowing down and even the disappearance of the principal biological functions. This is connected to social and economic conditions. Because an older man no longer has the same ability to [deal with] fatigue and work, he is retired or he retires, he stops working. Which is good for some people, because it allows them to have some more free time, but which is a [terrible?] thing for most people, because not having a job generally signifies a large decline in the quality of life, which is terrifying, and the pensions they receive are insufficient.
Q: You wrote this essay on aging, Simone de Beauvoir, to fight against a society that sees the elderly as pariahs, is that the case?
SdB: Yes. For the most part, we don't say it, but we treat them as pariahs. Unlike in myths and stories where they appear as wise, full of experience, someone venerable and respectable, but when we retire them we prevent them from working, it would be good to give them a decent amount of money on which to live. But we give them nothing, and there is a considerable number of eldery people who are paupers in France and the US.
Q: You say that Western society treats the elderly as pariahs, but is this not the case in Socialist nations, like Soviety Russia?
SdB: IT's not exactly the same thing. In Soviet Russia there is the slightest difference between the salary of a worker and the pension he receives after he has been retired [sa mise à la retraite]. There are also retirement homes, which are, if not more comfortable, more enjoyable, because the residents have the chance to get together, play games, take part in discussions. We do this too, but there is a much smaller quantity of hospices and retirement homes in which the residents can enjoy their free time. [truncated, she gets repetitive]
Q: Do you consider that intellectuals like yourself, like most writers, grow older in a privileged fashion?
SdB: Absolutely. On one hand, we generally belong to a privileged social and economic class, which means we have more money, we don't suffer from the same privations. But on the other hand, as has remarked [many a?] gerontologist, the more engaged intellectually the aging person is, the more slowly their faculties decline. If you have a good memory, if you exercise your memory, you will continue to keep it. And then you are someone who is curious, you know how to keep your mind occupied, which is very important, because, sadly, many elderly people, it's tragic for them, they literally die of boredom.
Q: But for you personally, Simone de Beauvoir, does it seem terrible to you to age?
SdB: No; it seemed terrible to me at one time, I said to myself "I'm going to get older," and there is a stage in my life, which is now, to get over. This happened around age 50-55. I think we think of it as a kind of obstacle you have to get past [ligne à franchir]; everyone feels it, male or female, at a certain point in their life.It can come very late, at 70 or 75 years old, or very early, there are people who are old by around 40 years old, it depends on one's health, economic conditions, their job status, on their circumstances. At this time, I feel there is a line I have just passed, there are some things I can no longer do, or no longer want to, like walking [around the city], which I did a lot in my youth. But that's it, I'm not going to spend my time saying this line has been passed, I'm alive and I do my work and I look around me and don't think about what's over, I think I have this time to live, and I prefer to put it to the best possible use.
Q: Do you not think it's more difficult for a woman to age than for a man?
Q: Because it's terrible to no longer please.
SdB: That's a widespread idea, but the moment a woman thinks her life as a woman is over actually comes much earlier, they experience a terrible crisis at the moment of their menopause. They can no longer have children, they imagine that they are no longer desirable– it's very often at this particular moment [that the crisis takes place]. 50, 55 years old, that's not really old age. But generally after this passes, they are more serene than they were, now that they no longer have to fight to stay in the category of 'young women', when they were disadvantaged in this category.
Q: So how old is "old age"?
SdB: I can't give an exact number. Socially, we place it at 65 years old, because that's the average age of retirement. It's at that age that we think men should stop working. So we say that old age begins for everyone at 65 years old. But chronological old age is not the same things as biological old age, nor is it the same for everyone. You have some people who at 55 years old are terribly used-up, who have the body of an 85 year old, and you have 85 year olds who are extremely vigorous, who can keep up with someone aged 50. So there is an enormous difference, and we cannot say that old age arrives at one age or another.
Q: In fact, Simone de Beauvoir, this essay on aging is important because it is a comprehensive work, the consummate text on aging. Do you think it will do for the elderly what The Second Sex did for women?
SdB: Yes, that's what I had envisioned. I wanted to think about [the subject of ] aging in all of its aspects the way I did [the subject of ] woman. From a biological, anthropological, historical, social perspective– that is, how it exists in our society today; and then on the other hand I wanted to treat the "being in the world" [l'etre dans le monde] of the elderly person, a little like what I did for women, the lived experience, that is to say, look at how he reacts in different situations, his relationship to his body, his self-image, his sexuality, his relationship to time, to what is past and what is to come, his activities, his plans, and his daily relationships with other people, his loved ones, everything that has to do with money…
Q: You say that society condemns the elderly. But according to your historical analysis, every society has always condemned them.
SdB: That is to say, there have been periods when there were only privileged old people, where we didn't speak of old age; in France in the Middle Ages your life was over at 35 years old. So in this case we can't say that the elderly were mistreated, since men didn't live to see their old age. And the rare privileged ones, as in Greek and Roman times, since they were rich and had property, since they were at the head of the family, they were respected, not because of their age, but because of the role they played in society. Except in feudal times, because the vassals, when they had to defend their earnings, by the sword at times, the father would step aside [s'éffacer] in favor of his son.
Which is what we see, for example, in [Corneille's tragedy] Le Cid.
Q: Do you think your book could have an effect on the situation of elderly people in our society?
SdB: Unfortunately, I don't think so. Books are never enough. It can have echoes in revolts, in movements of public opinion, so it seems to be efficacious, but in itself The SEcond Sex didn't change anything about the female condition. It only helped certain women to become aware of their condition. I know it helped them a lot because I've received many letters. So I think this book will help, on one hand, adults and young people, to see the elderly from a different perspective, to treat them in another way. And perhaps it will help the elderly as well to understand the reasons why they live the way they do. But for the mass of [elderly] people for whom this is a material and economic problem, who really have nothing to eat or to heat themselves with in the winter, it is obvious that this book won't change anything.
A new book argues that women prefer to “devote hours to planning a pumpkin patch excursion or to scrapbooking our most recent family vacation” to going out and working for a living. Ladies and gentleman, this is post-feminism! What a relief! I can stop pretending to care about my career!
I mean, sure. Who wouldn't rather stay home and watch Oprah than go to work? But suggesting that women are secretly devoid of professional ambition is preposterous. And suggesting that staying home and raising children is somehow opting out and relaxing is equally preposterous.
Galleycat rounds up 6 stellar blogs by publishing companies.
Daniel Mendelsohn is thinking of moving to Paris for a year, reports Pierre Assouline. Daniel. Call me. We'll do lunch. [FR]
Professors here in France are officially on strike now, unlimited and endlessly renewable, until the Minister of Education, Valérie Pécresse, takes back the reforms she proposed to the status of enseignants-chercheurs, to the concours, and the obligatory "masterization" of future professors. Basically all the universities in Paris are closed, and many more around France, except for those scabs in Toulouse and Montpellier. [FR]
I'm newly obsessed with a blog called Wuthering Expectations, whose mysterious author left me a comment last week, and who is super good at talking about 19th century literature. Well worth the detour. Even if s/he hasn't read Middlemarch.