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Penguin Moderns 31 and 32 – gigolos and conmen…

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Having got back into my stride with the reading of the Penguin Moderns books, I think I will try to at least read one pair every month – if I can stick to that, I will eventually get to the end! 😀 The most recent duo of bookettes comes from two very different authors: one new to me and one I’ve read before, and both turned out to be most enjoyable.

Penguin Modern 31 – the Gigolo by Francois Sagan

Sagan is the author I’ve read before, and I confess to having had mixed experiences with her writing. I loved getting lost in the atmosphere of “Bonjour Tristesse“; I enjoyed “A Certain Smile” though perhaps warmed to it less; and I found “The Heart-Keeper” very odd indeed… However, the short stories collected here were excellent reading and I have had my faith in Sagan restored!

The four stories are the title one, “The Unknown Visitor“, “The Lake of Loneliness” and “In Extremis“. All, in one way or another, deal with matters of the heart; whether looking at the complexities of the relationship between an older woman and a much younger man, or the discovery that your husband is not what you thought he was, or when dealing with feelings of suicide or incipient death. The title story was particularly powerful, with echoes of Colette’s older protagonists creeping in. And “The Unknown Visitor” was very, very clever at showing how a whole life can be built on a lie which is only revealed in a pivotal moment when the scales fall from someone’s eyes.

Sagan’s writing is excellent and atmospheric, and she captures much in the compressed form of the short story. It’s not a form I was aware she wrote in, and on the strength of these examples I reckon I could be searching out more! 😀

Penguin Modern 32 – Glittering City by Cyprian Ekwensi

The second Modern is an author and a setting (1960s Lagos) new to me, and I was very keen to explore both! Ekwensi was a Nigerian author and as far as I can see, he wrote in English. The author of novels, short stories and children’s books, he had a long and distinguished career; and this Penguin Modern contains just one story; at 51 pages of small type, it’s actually nudging close to novella territory.

Glittering City” tells the story of Fussy Joe, a musician and wide boy of the highest order. A womaniser, a con man and a completely untrustworthy charmer, he blags his way through life with a deal here, a trick there and women to take care of him in several boltholes. As the story opens, he’s hitting on Essi, a young woman just arrived in the big city; she’ll bookend his tale, appearing at the end of the adventure when we find out what happens to Joe. And plenty does, much of which he deserves…

It’s a fascinating story, if problematic at times for me. Joe is not a character you can like – at least, I didn’t from the very start. He exploits and takes from the women in his life with no regard for their feelings; he’s completely amoral; and to be frank it’s hard to find a single redeeming factor, so that there were many times during the story I was wanting some kind of retribution to catch up with him. And the author presents his story as is, so I didn’t get a sense of whether Joe was someone we were meant to be admiring or despising – I guess I know which side of the line I come down on!

Despite this, the book is an interesting and atmospheric read, and once I got into the second, more action-filled half, I did really enjoy reading it. Ekwensi captured his time and place beautifully, and the story built nicely to an exciting ending. So a satisfying read, and one I most likely wouldn’t have come across if it wasn’t for the Penguin Moderns!

*****

PMs 31 and 32 really were very disparate – almost opposing, in some ways, with women preying on men in one and the reverse in the other! But both made fascinating reading, and I’m definitely inspired to keep going with the Penguin Moderns – after all, I’m nearly two thirds of the way through!! ;D

Continuing with the Novellas – curiouser and curiouser….

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The Heart-Keeper by Francoise Sagan

When Kirsty at The Literary Sisters kindly offered to pass on to me a Francoise Sagan book she’d finished with, I was naturally delighted! She’d mentioned “The Heart-Keeper” on one of the videos (have a look at her YouTube channel here) and I must admit I was intrigued. This is a later Sagan and one I’d not heard of, so when it arrived I was keen to read it. What I didn’t anticipate was quite how odd I would find it…

THK is set outside of what I would consider normal Sagan territory in that it takes place in Hollywood of the 1960s. The narrator is Dorothy Seymour, a scriptwriter in her mid 40s. Driving home one night with current boyfriend Paul, they nearly run over a young man who runs in front of their car. They take the young man, Lewis, back to Dorothy’s house and somehow, after several weeks, he is still there. That one act of unprovoked kindness brings him into Dorothy’s life, not to be removed.

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There are of course the usual rumours about a young man living with an older woman. But the relationship is entirely platonic and Lewis seems devoted in a son like way. Nevertheless Dorothy is a little unnerved and tries to find him a career in the movies. He seems to have a natural acting talent, and Dorothy thinks she may have found a way to get him out of her life so she can marry Paul and carry on with a normal existence. However, things start going a little awry when her previous husband apparently commits suicide; then other deaths follow; and Dorothy begins to wonder quite what is going on around her…

This book was not at all what I expected, and I actually find it really hard to write about because I can’t quite work out what it’s intended to be! My first thought was that it was trying to be a kind of black comedy, rather like Waugh’s “The Loved One” – but there doesn’t seem to be any humour! Then I wondered if it was some kind of comment on Hollywood, but in all honesty the Hollywood side of things doesn’t seem to be that prominent, with just a sketchy, clichéd portrayal of the place as superficial and bitchy; so apart from the fact that Lewis is very good at hiding behind a mask, the show business side is really irrelevant. Is it about love, Sagan’s usual subject? Well, yes, I think it probably is. Lewis loves Dorothy obsessively, as she seems to be the first person to show him an unselfish act of kindness, and from this springs his devotion. However, accepting that this is what Sagan is trying to say, I think the book unfortunately doesn’t cohere.

If Sagan is trying to make a serious point, there are too many inconsistencies – it isn’t credible that Lewis would get away with behaving as he does; Dorothy’s behaviour is also not tenable as I find it impossible to believe she would simply accept the killings; and Paul’s acceptance of the third person in his relationship with Dorothy, in the form of Lewis, simply doesn’t work. He’s jealous and critical of Lewis at the start and although Lewis saves him from drowning at one point, that doesn’t seem enough to warrant his total acceptance of Lewis in their lives.

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Lewis is described as almost too handsome, and everyone he meets wants something physical from him – something it’s hinted he’s incapable of giving. This seems to be the crux of the matter and why he responds so strongly to Dorothy’s disinterest – she never sees him as a potential sexual partner and this inspires his devotion. The book is short, but it’s quite possible in a work of this length to develop characters that are strong and real; however Sagan unfortunately resorts to stereotypes (drunken Hollywood director, voracious female star with a ridiculous name) and the book suffers because of this.

Basically, I found myself totally flummoxed by this book! At just over 100 pages, it seems to struggle to get its point across and really I still don’t know what it’s trying to be after thinking about it for several days. I haven’t found a lot about it online and it may be that it either sunk like a trace after its publication or other readers are as confused as I was! Anyway, thank you Kirsty for a very intriguing read – and I’d be interested to hear what others who’ve read it have thought!

#WomenInTranslation Month – The Cruelty of Youth

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A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan

Francois Sagan caused quite a sensation on the publication of her first novel, “Bonjour Tristesse“, in 1954 when she was just 18. Her second book, “A Certain Smile” followed in 1956 and was equally controversial. My copies of the stories are in one lovely World Books volume and WIT month seemed like a good time to pick it up.

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“A Certain Smile” is narrated by Dominique, a young woman studying law in Paris at the Sorbonne. It is the 1950s and she spends much of her time with her lover Bertrand in what is recognisably a cafe society. The couple jog along, but there is a sense that Dominique is somewhat detached from life and love, and her relationship with Bertrand doesn’t strike the reader as having great passion. However, when she meets Bertrand’s uncle Luc and Luc’s wife Francoise, things change dramatically.

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Dominique and the older Luc are obviously instantly mutually attracted, but Dominique is unsure of herself and unwilling to take things any further because of her liking of Francoise. However, after much angst and soul-searching, the pair become lovers, eventually spending two week in Cannes, and declaring that they will not fall in love. Alas, things are not that simple – Dominique is younger and less experienced at affairs, and not as in control of her emotions as she thought…

Sometimes in exasperation I wanted to say to him: “Why can’t you love me? It would be so much more restful for me.” But I knew this was impossible. Ours was more an affinity than a passion, and neither of us could ever bear to be dominated by the other. Luc had neither the opportunity, the strength, nor the desire for a closer relationship.”

On the surface, then, this is a seemingly straightforward novel about a younger woman having an affair with an older man. However, there are undercurrents. Dominique is a complicated character, seemingly indifferent to much around her and driven by a kind of existentialist ennui. In fact, boredom seems to be the strongest motivating force – neither Dominique nor Luc can bear to be bored, and this is what attracts them to each other and eventually unites them.

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And Bertrand is, frankly, boring. Even though he’s young and good-looking, the older, uglier Luc is more attractive – perhaps because of his air of worldly weariness, perhaps just because Dominique recognises a kindred soul. Her behaviour could seem callous; after all, she’s betraying Francoise, who’s become very attached to her, as well as Bertrand. But Luc has had affairs before, and probably will continue to do so; whereas Dominique is ready to fall in love, and is tormented because she knows Luc cannot and will not love her, and there’s no question of him leaving his wife. Inevitably, Bertrand and Dominique split. The affair with Luc comes out, and then ends, and Dominique is left to pick up the threads of her life again.

Happiness is like a flat plain without landmarks. That is why I have no precise memory of my stay in Cannes except those few unhappy moments, Luc’s laughter, and the pathetic scent of fading mimosa in our room at night. Perhaps, for people like myself, happiness signifies a bolder attitude towards the tedium of everyday existence.

“A Certain Smile” is an absorbing novel, lifted above realms of just romantic fiction by Sagan’s writing, her evocation of place and time, and the dimension she allows her characters. All are well-developed and believable, all struggling with the business of living, and the story is entirely convincing. Her understanding of the problem that boredom with life can be is striking; something of a first-world problem, maybe, but a very real one. If I have any reservations it would be that there’s a distance here somewhere, a slight coldness in the book that kept me from feeling a real warmth and sympathy towards Dominique, but I haven’t quite worked out where that comes from. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed my sojourn in 1950s France and I’m sure I’ll be returning to the other Sagans I have!

… in which I am reminded why I love library sales!

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And also the local charity shops, of course. I *have* been diligently taking books to donate every week I can recently, as many as I can carry (and this week’s pile was particularly heavy). However, that hasn’t stopped the incoming volumes, and I suspect the ratio of out to in is only keeping the amount of books in the house static 😦

Nevertheless, this week’s finds were particularly lovely! The first came from the Samaritans Book Cave, where I mostly donate:

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I used to read a *lot* of sci-fi/fantasy in my youth, but have tended to drift away from it. But it’s been rather calling to me, and I never did read McCaffrey, so I thought I would give this a whirl. I think it’s one of her more famous titles, plus it has a lovely vintage cover! 🙂

Next up was a call into the Oxfam, who were having a buy one, get one half price promotion on all their fiction:

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Another Nigel Williams title – yay! And no, I don’t know why Wildwood was shelved with fiction either, but I came home with these two for less than £3 which has to be good. Roger Deakin seems to get plaudits everywhere so I’m looking forward to this.

And finally I had to return a library book, so it would have been rude not to check out their summer book sale, especially as this nice Hesperus volume screamed at me while I passed:

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And it cost – 20p…..

I now have three lovely Francoise Sagan volumes, all different editions and all lovely in their own way@

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I reviewed Bonjour Tristesse here a while back, and I recently read A Certain Smile, which I will eventually get round to reviewing. Sagan’s an intriguing writer, capturing very much her time and her age in the first two books I’ve read – I’ll be interested to see what her other works bring!

So some nice (and very reasonably priced!) finds! It’s a shame libraries can’t hold on to all their stock, but it does work to my advantage sometimes… 😉

 

The Heat of Summer in the South of France

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Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Odd that I should be reading a summer book just as that season starts to come to a close and the nippier days of autumn draw nearer – though I confess that spring and autumn *are* my favourite seasons, so I’m not really complaining! However, as if there needed to be proof that I am a fickle, easily swayed reader, this is it. I was happily plodding through review books and OuLiPo playfulness and murder mysteries when HeavenAli happened to mention “Bonjour Tristesse”, which has been sitting on Mount TBR for some time, since I discovered this lovely little World Books edition in a charity shop. And a change of reading scene is never a bad thing…. 🙂

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Francoise Sagan was something of an early wild child, and Wikipedia says: Françoise Sagan (21 June 1935 – 24 September 2004) – real name Françoise Quoirez – was a French playwright, novelist, and screenwriter. Hailed as “a charming little monster” by François Mauriac on the front page of Le Figaro, Sagan was known for works with strong romantic themes involving wealthy and disillusioned bourgeois characters. Her best-known novel was her first – Bonjour Tristesse (1954) – which was written when she was a teenager. It also says she took her pseudonym from Proust – however, this is a much slimmer work, and quite stunning, bearing in mind it was written when she was so young.

BT is narrated by Cecile, a 17 year old spending the summer with her father Raymond on the Mediterranean. Raymond has been a widower for 15 years (which I guess means Cecile has been missing a mother for most of her existence), and lives a playboy life with a succession of young mistresses, the current being Elsa. Both father and daughter are what we would now call very laid-back, living a relaxed, disorderly and somewhat structureless life, doing as they please. For some reason, Raymond invites an old friend to join them; Anne Larsen, who had been a friend of Cecile’s mother, and had taken the girl in hand when she left school at 15, dressing her and giving her some French poise. However, Anne’s temperament is very, very different to that of Cecile and her father, and the teenager is concerned about the effect this will have on their summer.

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And she’s not wrong to be concerned. Anne is one of those efficient, capable women, the very epitome of French elegance, and although much older than Elsa she soon manages to displace her in Raymond’s affections. It’s not long before Cecile’s father is announcing that he and Anne are getting married, which shocks the teenager as it means an end to their relaxed way of life. Her fears soon become realised as Anne organises their lives, insists she works for exams and generally takes control. She also is much more restrictive with Cecile, stopping her from seeing Cyril, another visitor to the sea who is smitten with her.

So Cecile decides that enough is enough, and she’s going to stop the marriage going ahead – with the help, oddly enough, of Elsa. As her plan slowly comes to fruition, we watch her agonised teenage state of mind – but will things work out as she expects them, or has she drastically misread the situation and the people involved?

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BT is a strikingly assured work for an 18-year-old, and really gets inside the mind of a teenager. It was hard for me as a reader to know who to sympathise with more – Anne, the older woman, is nearer my age than Cecile, but I couldn’t help but see her through the younger woman’s eyes and resent her interference and attempts to change other people’s lives. Nevertheless, had I been Anne I daresay I would have wanted to try to bring some order into the chaotic lives I saw!

It’s heady stuff, and I found myself pondering the book’s reputation and also the blurb which states that it’s jealousy that motivates Cecile to take the action she does. I didn’t read it quite like that, I have to say. Although there’s a slight subtext that hints at incest (if there is such a thing as non-sexual incest – certainly the father and daughter are very close!), it seemed to me to be more the interference that Cecile was objecting to, the changing of their lifestyle rather than the fact that her father was marrying Anne. After all, she was used to him having a succession of mistresses, but the fear here seemed to be that Anne would try to change Raymond and the way they lived – and Cecile was not prepared to accept this.

The battle is played out between the older and younger woman, and very wonderfully drawn. The characters, none of whom are particularly likeable, are very strongly portrayed, as is the hot and dreamy atmosphere of the South of France before the commercialism really took over. I really enjoyed getting lost in this book – thanks for the nudge, Ali! 🙂

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