What Do Margaret Wise Brown & Georges Perec Have In Common?

At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Title:  An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris

Author:  Georges Perec

Translator:  Marc Lowenthal

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2010)

ISBN:  978 0 9841155 2 5

 

WakefieldExhausting4At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon has been a bedtime staple for decades.  If you didn’t have it read to you as a child then you have almost certainly read it as an adult to a child in your life.  I’ve yet to attend a baby shower where there wasn’t at least one copy – if not multiples – unwrapped.  Adults discovering or rediscovering Goodnight Moon often express surprise at the sophistication of this little book.  The rhythm of the prose, the way the room in the illustrations grows darker as the pages are turned, and the insertion of “Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush” (a surreal moment if there ever was one) – these things speak of an author who was interested in non-linear narrative and experimental literature.

For this all to make sense it’s important to understand that there’s more to Margaret Wise Brown and her books than meets the eye.  She was a product of the modernist period in art and literature.*  In the early 1930’s she worked as a teacher at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City.  At that time this cutting edge school’s focus was on early childhood education & development. She studied how children used rhymes to develop language. Sometimes, as in the case of her “Noisy Book” series, she would use the children as a kind of focus group and adjust some of the words based on their reactions & suggestions.  Toddlers would be shown picture book illustrations and teachers would time how long the pictures held their attention.  The Bank Street School was the epicenter of what became known as the golden age of children’s literature. And most of the ideas in Margaret Wise Brown’s books can be traced back to what she learned there.

 Goodnight Moon tells no story, per se.  There are no character arcs.  No morals explained. No dialogue. At the most basic level Goodnight Moon is a catalog of the items in a single room. And, yet, lovers of the book are as  familiar with the contents of that room as they are of any room in their own home.

What no one ever really discusses (and why should they? This is a children’s book we’re talking about) is the quiet, haunting quality of Brown’s writing.  There is none of the joyful silliness or made up rhymes you find in Dr. Seuss.  Or the reassuring sentimentalism found in many stories written for the very young. Goodnight Moon is poetry – childish, simplistic, naive – but poetry nonetheless.

…goodnight to the old lady

whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere

 

In words a small child can understand Brown describes the line between consciousness and sleep.  The gradual loss of consciousness.  Eyes open in the dark, even after the moon disappears behind the clouds, you can still see the stars. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breathing. Then sleep and then silence. This sixty-one page children’s book has been many a child’s first experience with a concrete representation of the forward passage of time, even if the passage spans only 15 minutes.

The charms of Georges Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris are not so far removed from Goodnight Moon as one would think. It is a catalog of the things that the author sees and hears while sitting in place Saint-Sulpice. People and dogs passing, flocks of pigeons, the sound of church bells, changing of streetlights and the endless waves of city buses. It should be boring. There’s no story to speak of. No sense of narrative progression. No dialogue or ideas.  None of the things we are told make literature. And yet, somehow, Perec’s writing moves beyond a catalog of people, animals and things to capture the rhythms of life and time.  When he recognizes the writer Jean-Paul Aron (translated to John-Paul, which seems a bit over-zealous) walking by and then, later, walking by again, you perk up.  Because a name has been assigned to one of the many pedestrians passing by your window.  The buses begin to lose their anonymity – they become the 96, the 87 and the 63 – their appearance jumping out from the text.  And as the day draws to an end the sun sets and the lights in the buildings grow brighter.

The light is beginning to fade, even if this is still barely noticeable; the red of the stoplights is increasingly visible.

Lights come on in the cafe.

Two buses, Cityrama and Paris-VIsion, are unable to get by each other. The Cityrama eventually takes rue Bonaparte, the Paris-Vision would like to take rue du Vieux-Colombier. Policeman no. 5976 (“Michel Lonsdale”), at first confused, eventually grabs his whistle and intervenes – effectively, in fact.

A man walks by with his nose in the air, followed by another man who is looking at the ground.

A man with a can of Ribolin goes by.

people people cars

An old lady with a very beautiful Sherlock Holmes-style waterproof fitted coat

The crowd is dense, almost no more lulls

A woman with two baguettes under her arm

It is four thirty

 

As I said: there is no story in An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. In place of narrative Perec offers experience. Evokes a sense of place. We inhabit his senses – a brief possession. A windy, rainy day. Fading light. The world waking up on Sunday morning. As I write these things down I can’t help wondering how accurately he described what he saw. How much editing and revising happened afterwards.  Or whether accuracy even matters. Perec accomplished a far more difficult task than simply cataloging a place in Paris. On these pages he captured the relentless, forward progression of time and transformed it into poetry.

 

*In 1936 Méret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Tea Cup was a part of the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Brown’s book, Little Fur Family was published ten years later.  The first edition was covered in real rabbit fur.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain, translated from the original French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain is another playful offering from Gallic Press, whose The Suicide Shop I reviewed just last month.

As he picked up his second oyster he glanced discreetly to his left. The President had put on his glasses and was reading the menu.  Daniel took in the famous noble profile, seen in magazines, on television and every New Year’s Eve for the past five years.  Now he was seeing that profile in the flesh.  He could have put out his hand and touched François Mitterrand.

The waiter returned and the President ordered a dozen oysters, and the salmon.  The large man chose mushroom pâté and a rare steak, while Roland Dumas followed the President’s lead with oysters and fish.  A few minutes later, the wine waiter appeared with a silver ice bucket on a stand containing another bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé bathed in ice.  He uncorked the bottle smoothly and poured a little into the presidential glass.  François Mitterrand tasted it, approving it with a brief nod.

Daniel poured himself another glass of wine, and drank it down almost in on, before taking a teaspoon of the red shallot vinegar and dressing an oyster.

‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week…’ Daniel heard François Mitterrand say as he ate his oyster.  Never again, he told himself, would he be able to eat oysters with vinegar without hearing the words: ‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week’.

The premise is relatively simple:  The French President François Mitterrand loses his hat in a Parisian brasserie.  Well, technically, Daniel steals it after dining next to the President and his party.  Through the course of the book the hat continues to change hands and transforms the lives of the four characters who wear it.  The prose is straightforward.  The story sweet.  Like The Suicide ShopThe President’s Hat has the slapstick quality of a French comedy.  It is not particularly complicated or challenging, but very engaging.  The relaxed, gentle tone in how it is told reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series – slightly more whimsical.

Which reminds me of a friend of mine who went to a book-signing by Alexander McCall Smith at Barnes & Noble.  She came back completely charmed.  The author relayed an anecdote in which someone asked him why there were no car chases in his novels.  He laughingly replied that he felt it would be irresponsible of him to include a car chase in one of his books.  That his readers might not be able to handle that level of excitement.  But, as a compromise, he had included a shopping cart chase in the new novel he was there to sign.  It received a huge laugh and a smattering of applause from the crowd.  They knew it to be true.

There’s always been a readership for quiet books in which very little happens.  Several examples come to mind. The types of stories found in Ladies Journals were very popular when Ladies Journals were in their heyday. Today, the Persephone Press seems to thrive on catering to the  quiet reader with re-prints of books by women authors from the first half of the 20th-century.  And while planning this post I kept thinking back on some of my favorite books/authors from when I was younger: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jack & Jill, Under the Lilacs and Eight Cousins were read multiple times; and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series.  Those books had more in common with McCall Smith novels than what I read now.

So I’m wary of being too hard on or of dismissing The President’s Hat simply because I don’t have much to say about it.  I did read it in one sitting, cover to cover, and enjoyed it (particularly the little twist at the end).  I loved each of the characters who found the hat and became completely wrapped up in their individual stories.  This may be the perfect book for a quiet evening at home.  Antoine Laurain appears to have no aspirations other than to amuse his readers with a tale well told… which he does.  At least this reader was amused.  And I’m sure my friend who reads Alexander McCall Smith will love it.  In fact, I just sent her the recommendation on GoodReads.

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 908313 47 8

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Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Audio)

It may seem redundant to post a review after taking part in The Readers Summer Book Club discussion of Half-Blood Blues, but I decided to do just that.  Mainly to share my *spoiler free* thoughts on Esi Edugyan’s novel with readers who still haven’t read the book and needed a bit of a nudge.   If you enjoy history and are looking for a good beach read – one with more depth than your average Summer paperback –  then this is probably the novel for you.

Half-Blood Blues initially interested me because of the setting and subject matter.  It’s a Jazz novel set in 1940’s Berlin & Paris. Sid, the narrator of Half-Blood Blues was the bass player for the jazz band The Hot-Time Swingers.  A combo made up of Americans and Germans, they took Berlin by storm in the 30’s.  Sid and his best friend Chip – a drummer who will later rise to stardom as one of the foremost jazz musicians of his generation – have been playing music together since their shared childhood in Baltimore.  Their relationship is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel.  While neither man is a saint, their commitment to each other and longtime friendship puts a likeable polish on both characters. (I’d go so far to say that the most sympathetic component of each man is his relationship with the other).

When the book opens Chip, now in his 80’s, is trying to convince Sid to attend a festival celebrating their late friend and band mate Hieronymus ‘Hero’ Falk.  Falk was a gifted, Afro-German trumpet player whose reputation (in the vein of  Robert Johnson’s) rests on just a few recordings.  Both Chip & Sid were interviewed for a documentary on Falk’s life.  Both men were a part of the legendary recording of Half-Blood Blues, a disc which only survived because Sid snuck it out of their recording session before it was destroyed. Both men escaped Hitler’s Berlin and Nazi occupied Paris, while Hero did not.  Sid develops into a tragic character who may or may not have committed a despicable act and then compounded it with a terrible lie.  Chip stays reassuringly consistent throughout, a boy who Sid’s mother once described as having “no light” in his eyes.

Edugyan alternates timelines – jumping forward to Sid & Chip’s modern day pilgrimage to Berlin for the festival and then back to the events of 1940.  Sid narrates, by turns brutally honest and suspiciously unreliable. His story is full of red herrings, shocking reveals, suspense, betrayal, nail-digging-ly slow pacing and one of the most beautifully written endings I’ve ever encountered.  It’s written in a voice laden with slang and Southern dialectic tics that reminded me of the work of Zora Neale Hurston.  On almost all levels Half-Blood Blues is an engaging and satisfying Summer read – falling somewhere between the categories of literary and genre fiction.

It’s not without its flaws.  Among the disappointments of this Booker nominated novel is  Edugyan’s decisions regarding how far to take the historical component.  To my mind not far enough.  The Hot-Time Swingers consisted of an Aryan German, a Jewish piano player, the African-Americans Chip and Sid (we’re told Sid could ‘pass’ for white & Chip could not) and Hero – an Afro German.   Keep in mind that the jazz scene in Berlin and Paris was HUGE prior to the Nazi crackdown (Check out the album Hot Club de France which collects some of the best recordings of that period).  The band’s manager is a member of the German elite, from a family of Fascists, a young man who turned his back on his family’s values and sacrificed everything for the love of jazz.  While their stories are here to greater and lesser extent, the sense of time and place wasn’t strong enough for me.  I never felt immersed in either city – Berlin or Paris.  Other critics have expressed that they’d like to have seen the history of Afro Germans more fully explored.  I agree.  The reasons I believe readers come to this novel – the history & the music – take a back seat in the book’s middle where Edugyan focuses on a strange and frustratingly juvenile love triangle which develops between Sid, Hero and a woman named Delilah (Louis Armstrong’s protegé and singer).

While I enjoyed Esi Edugyan writing, I’m not as enthusiastic about her plotting.  Without revealing spoilers I’ll just say that the two pivotal plot points – the ones on which the entire novel’s motivations are based – are inauthentic.  They don’t make sense.  It was as if they were inserted as a matter of convenience.  As a means for the writer to get to where she wanted to go, rather than carefully placed components of a well thought out narrative.  As I’ve already said:  I still enjoyed Half-Blood Blues and would recommend it for an entertaining Summer read.  But it fell short of the expectations I have for a novel that’s been shortlisted for an award as prestigious as the Man Booker (regardless how quirky the year’s list).

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (2012)
Time:  11 hours, 12 minutes

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A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé (translated from the original French by Alison Anderson)

Biblio-porn is a category of books specifically targeting bibliophiles – the true reading fanatics. It caters to the fetishists among us by focusing on all things literary:  books, bookshops,  readers, etc. Biblio-porn revels in the written word. 

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé and translated by Alison Anderson is undoubtedly biblio-porn.

An heiress offers a bookshop manager the opportunity to join her in opening the shop of their (and our) dreams.  It will contain only good novels… the very finest novels ever written.  And to ensure that this is so a committee of eight anonymous authors will provide the list of titles which the shop will stock.  Every year the committee members will add to their lists – with the proprietors of The Good Novel determining and filling in any omissions.

We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise. We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer’s block, the author’s panic at the thought that he might be lost: his discouragement, his courage, his anguish, his stubbornness, the risk of failure that he has taken. We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels.

The shop is located on the rue Dupuytren, Paris and it’s an immediate success.  Like the eerie, disembodied voice tells us:  “Build it and they will come”.  Discriminating readers hail the shop as a temple of literature.  Others, though, attack it as elitist.  Of course the bibliophile immediately understands the critics are among those Philistines who make their living from the proliferation of less than great literature.  A war of taste is waged…. until the stakes are raised when three members of the secret committee are physically assaulted by a shadowy enemy.

Cossé fills page after page with cerebral discussions of novels, literature and publishing.  Along with scenes of people reading and buying books.  A Novel Bookstore is conversational in its tone, but it is a conversation containing multiple participants.  Voices weave in and out, interrupting and interjecting, dissecting events and creating a seamless, rhythmic narrative. The translator has done an excellent job in capturing the author’s spirit. By the book’s end you’ll have a list of must-read authors – as well as an almost spiritual yearning to visit this amazing bookshop and interact with the characters who congregate there.

“By the way,” asked Ivan, “have you come up with your pen name?”

Tailleberne gave a childlike smile.

“The Red,” he said.

“I see,” said Francesca.  “The name of your ancestor Erik.”

Van mentioned Ada, whose characters have coded names, in the spirit of the one chosen by Tailleberne, a sort of schoolboy reference to historical figures or the heroes of novels.  Tailleberne seemed delighted: “On my list, you find every novel by Nabokov.”

“You see!” said Francesca.  “When you agreed to be on the committee, I reread all your novels.  They made me think of a certain tone, a certain author, and I couldn’t remember who.  Of course, Nabokov.  It’s the way you write that has echoes of his style, the sad, cruel irony, the virtuosity, the charm.”

Tailleberne was bright red:  “You have made me very happy saying that.”

Two hours later, the three of them were still talking.

I can’t imagine A Novel Bookstore being set anywhere other than in Paris.  If it is nothing else, this book is very French.  What do I mean?  Take, for example, the two main protagonists: Francesca and Ivan.  Francesca is tall, elegant and tragic. Her eyes are, of course, sad and magnificent.

Her eyes were full of tears – her magnificent blue eyes, which were so fascinating that you could only look away after she had revealed herself to you, and then, when you thought of her, that is what you saw – her extraordinarily brilliant eyes, like the sapphires used for irises on certain statues.

Ivan is middle-aged, charming, handsome in that slightly rumpled and approachable way (think Gerard Depardieu or Jean Dujardin) characteristic of Frenchmen.  These two communicate to each other in earnest, philosophical tangents.  They are soul mates.  They secretly suffer, but even their suffering is attractive.

A Novel Bookstore is brilliant, smart and fun; beautifully written and impossible to put down. Interestingly, the mystery never really takes off.  Even the author seems to lose interest in it three-quarters of the way through.  This is not a thriller – and I’m not sure why it pretends to be.  The true subject of A Novel Bookstore is the love of literature and the physical manifestation of that love:  the bookstore called The Good Novel. The question of who is mounting the attacks is just a ruse – a hook – to draw us in.  It works, but it is not the reason we keep reading.

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 933 37282 2

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