Magyd Cherfi ‘Ma Part de Gaulois’

—Try to imagine the day when you find yourself in your history lesson face to face with a drawing representing Charles Martel who has just beaten the Arabs at Poitier!img_1051
He, Charles sat bolt upright, proud, blond, straight haired, and his horse majestically arched crushing the ragged looking Arabs, yelling, curly haired, mouths wide open and all at once we said “that’s us!”

Magyd Cherfi, The lead singer of The group Zebda, brings us in this book from 2016 the story of his life up to the point where he leaves home and his “Cité” in the north of Toulouse in the early 1980s where he lived in a poor neighbourhood of mostly first generation North African immigrants and their children.

In this lively well told story of a young adolescent torn between his home life, mostly unchanged from the way life had been in the Kabyle mountain areas of North Africa and his school life that did not recognise the immigrants as being anything but French sharing a deep rooted history over many thousands of years (Gaulois). We can imagine their confusion from the opening quote where they start to understand how they are painted in the imagination of the people that live around them.

I will sum up the book here through three excerpts from the book, first of all the everyday violence to keep the women in their place, Magyd with some friends has set up a structure to offer after school support to the younger kids in the neighbourhood, particularly in French and a theatre group, allowing the young girls their only hope of spending time out of their homes, this first quote concerns a lively and independent minded girl Bahia whom Magyd had given Zweig’s Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman to read, she bursts into the theatre group:

—Her face was carnage. Her two lips were split, literally detached from her mouth and all that was left of her nose was a purple mess. Her cheeks looked as though they had been sliced with sharp stones and blood flowed from her two eyebrows into her eyes.
—Later in her hospital bed she would tell us that they pounced on her simply because she was reading a book. Her father and brother had torn her to pieces for a book.

The second episode in the book concerns the French presidential elections of 1980 where a socialist would win for the first time, in the build up to this There was a general excitement amongst the intellectuals, the working classes and the poor and so Magyd did not understand the reaction to this possibility in his neighbourhood:

—They say Mitterrand is going to win.
—Mouhel (Misfortune) he said involuntarily…..
—We’ll be deported like dogs, we should have expected it, said my mother, we should have left of our own accord, that way we would have avoided another humiliation….

Magyd then discusses this reaction with his friend and left wing activist Samir And all becomes crystal clear:

—Mitterrand? But he hates Arabs
—How can you claim such things? I don’t understand ….
Everywhere people were getting out maps, memorising secondary routes to Rabat, Alger, Tunis….
—It’s not the left that scares them, it’s Mitterrand!
—You need to understand the basics, for them he’s still the minister for the Algerian war, brother…..he legitimised torture in the name of the Republic…..
—Yep! For the old uns, the criminals aren’t the army, the orders came from Mitterrand, he was the one that kept the guillotine running….oh yes, from 54 to 57 listen to this, he refused to pardon any of the FLN militants condemned to death.
—But he wants to abolish the death penalty!
—And that absolves him of his crimes?

Magyd takes us through his difficult adolescence towards his mother’s dream of him obtaining his baccalaureate (end of school exam giving access to universities in France), where he would be the first person in his cité to reach this educational milestone which he manages. His description of how this is received in his home and in his neighbourhood is well worth the read and as anyone coming from an immigrant background will know, with an education you can become an engineer or a doctor! But as we know, he becomes the lead singer in Zebda.

First published in French as ‘Ma Part de Gaulois’ by Actes Sud in 2016

Siri Hustvedt ‘The Blazing World’

Harriet Burden, the artist. Her last words to her granddaughter summed up her life,image “fight for yourself, don’t let anybody push you around.”

This book is from my as yet  unpublished 2016 English reading list

This book is about the struggle of Harriet, ‘Harry’ Burden to be recognised as an artist.

Harriet had exposed her work as a young artist in New York many years ago but without real recognition, she then married the rich and famous art dealer Felix Lord and had two children Maizie and Ethan putting their lives before hers and when Felix dies suddenly  the book and Harriet’s story really begin.

The book is built up from numerous interviews of people close to Harriet or influential in the flow of the story and from Harriet’s many notebooks about her life. Harriet places her struggle to be taken seriously as an artist as that of a woman’s struggle, she had noticed that Felix in all his years had only ever represented two women And success and failure in the art world is not decided on talent or on the work produced but by rich men, as Rachel Griessman, Harriet’s childhood friend says:

Men with money make the art world go round, men with money decide who wins and who loses what’s good and what’s bad I offered the comment that this was changing, slowly perhaps but changing nevertheless that more and more women were getting their due I just read something about it, Harry’s expression turned bitter. Even the most famous woman artist is a bargain when compared to the most famous man dirt cheap in comparison look at the divine Louise Bourgeois what does that tell you? Harry’s voice cracked, money talks it tells you about what is valued, what matters it sure as hell isn’t women.

As we learn from a letter from Richard Brickman (Harriet herself), Harriet’s project was to present her own work, which was never taken seriously, through male artists by organising three separate one off exhibitions of her work through three different male artists at three different galleries and through three successes prove her point, at the same time exacting revenge on the New York art world.

In 1998 her first protégé was a young unsuccessful artist called Anton Tisch, whom she schooled and trained with her wide art knowledge over a year, and the public loved this new young artist with such wide knowledge, as her second protégé Phileas T Eldridge put it:

The boy had learned a lot during his tutelage with Harry I couldn’t help but think that their story was an interesting reconfiguration Of the Pygmalion myth with the roles reversed.

Harriet felt vindicated but angry at the truth revealed, whereas Tisch could not handle the sudden success.

What did it mean that an amorphous ‘They’ had celebrated her work when it arrived in a 34 year old body with a cock, to borrow Harry’s words, what were the enthusiasts actually seeing I asked, her work or just Anton, the portrait of the artist as a young hunk

As the story moves on in a jerky non linear fashion made possible by the interview and notebook extract form of the book, we become close to Harriet’s multi-faceted character, her wide reading and we, as she, become aware that Felix, ‘Felix (who) knew how to excite collectors how to flatter them how to make them imagine that they were the ones that had truly seen and understood the work of art in front of them.’ had lead a double life fuelled by desire which began to tear apart Harriet with doubts and suspicions she could not control ‘Once there is a secret you can fill up the hole with suspicion.’

Her second exhibition was with Phileas T Eldridge, a black homosexual artist proved once again to be a success, Harriet taking great pains to ensure that no one could trace her back to the work.

The last of her three exhibitions, in 2003, crowning her project as a whole to be known as Masking was to be with the artist known only as Roon, but from here on things do not go as planned, who is Roon actually? Are there flaws in Harriet’s plan as she decides to transform herself into a man through Roon?

In a moment of lucidity Harriet realises that she:

will just have to keep working, the studio is burgeoning with the unseen works, the myriad monstrosities of someone named Harriet Burden maybe when the revelation comes the proverbial scales will fall from their eyes maybe when I’m dead some wandering art critic will come to the building where the goods are stored and look, really look, because the person, me, will finally be missing.

This was a novel that kept me busy, head down for many a day but what a work, pushing everything to one side, a compulsive, complete, somewhat intellectual read. I had read good things about this book beforehand, In the presence of such writing I feel that my feeble write up, which only managed to touch the surface, just cannot do it justice.

First published in English as The Blazing World by Sceptre in 2014
Translated into French by Christine Le Bœuf as Un Monde Flamboyant and published by Actes Sud in 2014

Michael Köhlmeier ‘Two Gentlemen on the Beach’

Michael Köhlmeier artfully mixes fact and fiction in this comparative life of Churchill and Chaplin, tying them together by their dark secret, depression.image

Two Gentlemen on the Beach is my last post for the fifth German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

Chaplin and Churchill meet at a party given in California and Churchill immediately recognises the depressed state of Chaplin and proposes to him that they walk a little along the beach where they discover a strong empathy toward each other and discover amongst other things that

“they shared Nietzche’s opinion that the very idea of suicide was a strong comforter which helped them over many a difficult night”.***

Chaplin explains during this walk that

“I suddenly saw myself as a man moving forward as best as I could over the last twenty eight years launching thousands of projects just not to hang myself from the first tree or jump from the nearest bridge or even buy a revolver”***

Churchill in turn explains that when Samuel Johnson described his own illness which he called the Black Dog, Churchill recognised himself in the description. There and then they agree that wherever they are or whenever they are called they will hurry to the other to save him from the Black Dog. So begins the book.

Köhlmeier uses the correspondence between the narrators father and William Knott a “« very private Private Secretary to a very prime Prime Minister » ” as his source of material for the book. The narrators father had met Chaplin as a child when Chaplin had visited his town’s school for clowns and later wondered if the man accompanying him for the visit was not Churchill who had been in Germany on a family holiday at the time.

The story takes us through key events for each of the protagonists at the time leading to meetings in L.A., New York, London and Biarritz, events such as the first talking movie and Churchill’s being run over in New York. The story naturally funnels towards the war years with an initial discovery

“Chaplin relates that an English statesman had told him that at the beginning of the 1930’s, a friend of Hitler’s had told him that Hitler had been tempted to commit suicide when he was six years old. Chaplin then answered his friend – I quote : “Winston, unfortunately we can’t choose the members of our club.””***

Both Churchill and Chaplin had to struggle to be able to fight against Hitler with their respective arms,

“Charlie playing two roles, that was the idea of genius behind the film –Charlie as the ridiculous dictator and, at the same time, as the Jewish barber, that was the blow dealt to the monster. One man hit back as hard, but not with the weapons of a clown: Winston Churchill.”***

Finally we learn the true role of William Knott, but I will leave that to you!

First published in German as Zwei  Herren an Strand by Hanser Verlag in 2014
Translated into French by Stéphanie Lux as Deux Messieurs sur la Plage and published by Actes Sud in 2015
Translated into English by Ruth Martin as Two Gentlemen on the Beach and to be published by Haus Publishing in 2016
*** my translation

Raphael Jerusalmy ‘The Brotherhood of book hunters’

Initially, searching through audio books at my local lending library it was the cover of this book that caught my attention, I had not heard of the author.
After graduating from the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Sorbonne, and then working with Israeli military intelligence, the atypical Raphaël Jerusalmy is now a trader in antique books and an author.

After Jean Teulé in 2006, Jerusalmy basis his book around the medieval poet François Villon, who as well as being ‘the first poet of the modern era’ was also a brigand and a thief who after being condemned to death by strangling then hanging is pardoned but banned from Paris, soon after he disappears for ever. As Jerusalmy says ‘how could he resist such an invitation’.

Jerusalmy’s ‘Brotherhood of book hunters’ is a medieval conspiracy thriller which plays between Paris, Florence, Jerusalem and Rome. These are troubled times, Gutenberg is one of many printers operating in Germany, the inquisition is losing its battle outside of Italy and Spain, the powers of the Medicis in Florence challenges that of the pope in Rome, the king of France’s power is challenged by his brother and knowledge and writings are controlled by bigots. Against this background Villon is sent on a number of missions by the bishop of Paris which lead him on a quest to find writings from ancient civilisations which have been rescued and saved over the years by the brotherhood, a Jewish organisation who are slowly disseminating these works which could rock the very foundations of Christianity.

Shades of Dan Brown if you will, I found this an entertaining read.

First published in French as ‘La Confrérie des chasseurs de Livres’ by Actes Sud in 2013
Translated into English by Howard Curtis and published as ‘The Brotherhood of Book Hunters’ in 2014 by Europa Editions

Daniel Kehlmann “Fame”

This is a novel in nine stories and as Leo, a famous author says “Stories within stories within stories. You never  know where one ends and the the next starts! To tell the truth they all blend together, they’re only ever really separated in books”.***


Kehlmann strings together for us nine seemingly weakly intertwined novels, using varying writing styles, I thought I recognised a similarity to The Book Of Dave in chapter 7.

The link between the chapters seems to me to be role play and disappearance:

From the man whose telephone number is given to someone else and who thus effectively disappears, to the man later in the book who has the responsibility for editing new phone numbers and who, caught up in relationships with two different women, asks himself “If I was mad?….in which labyrinth I was lost? I’d advanced step by step, none of them seemed large or difficult, but without realising it I’d advanced so far that I could no longer see the way out…..but during the daytime, when I got up and took on each of my roles as if they were the only one, everything seemed to me once again to be easy and almost normal”***

From the woman writer who replaces Leo on a book tour in an eastern country and who was not expected, (she wasn’t Leo) and who steadily disappears, to the writer of this book who appears in a veiled manner taking on roles in the book and who eventually disappears.

I enjoyed this book and was not tempted to pause between the distinct chapters.

First published if German as Ruhm in 2009 by Rowohlt Verlag
Translated into French by Juliette Aubert and published by Actes Sud in 2009
Translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway and published by Quercus in 2011

***Book read in French, my translation with excuses to Carol Brown Janeway

José Carlos Llop ‘The Stein Report’

Having entered Spanish Literature into my WordPress reader, I came across the Spanish Lit month 2015. In for a Peseta in for a Pound I thought so here we go.
I chose the Stein Report, this medium length book drew me in so that I read it through in one go!


Read On

Daniel Kehlmann ‘Measuring the World’

My knowledge of current day German authors and their works needs some freshing up, so as I was
thinking about Julie Zeh’s novel  Decompression, I was looking at German authors and thought of Daniel Kehlmann,  a literary phenomenon in the German speaking world, his novel ‘Measuring the World’  has been translated into more than 40 languages and has sold 3 million copies in Germany alone. I decided, then, to read this work next.

The cover shown here is from the French edition.

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