Here’s what I have been reading during the period we have been locked down due to Covid-19.
The Man In The Red Coat
What a gorgeous cover. I was really looking forward to finding out more about the very handsome subject; Dr Samuel Jean Pozzi. Actually, writing this I realise the cover should have alerted me to what I found so frustrating about the book – it’s only a partial rendering of the painting Dr Pozzi at home by John Singer Sargent(1881). It leaves out the best bit – the doctor’s very handsome face.
And so it is with the book. Digression after digression, musings about this person, this fictional character based on this person, this event, this place. Had it been marketed differently perhaps, as a snapshot of the Bélle Époque I might have viewed it differently. There’s bits of transcript from Oscar Wilde’s famous trial, appearances from Proust and Charles Ephrussi who I know from The Hare With Amber Eyes. But really nothing of any consequence about any of them.
I was very interested in Dr Pozzi who sounds like a very interesting individual. A progressive doctor revolutionising gynaecology, surgery and overall hospital standards in France, devotee of Wagner’s operas and regular patron at Bayreuth, intrepid traveller, initially a devoted but later a distant husband, lover, first idolised and then loathed by his daughter. You get small bits about him scattered throughout but it is all padded around with rubbish about characters you couldn’t care less about – at least I couldn’t.
Somewhere towards the end he lists a series of questions about Dr Pozzi – what went wrong in his marriage? who did he go to bed with? whether he would have preferred his son to be an atheist rather than a Catholic? if Gaston Calmette’s (the disgruntled patient who killed him) life could have been saved? what caused his wife to insist on a legal separation in 1909? All these matters could, of course be solved in a novel, he says smugly. A post modern biography perhaps. Very disappointing. I loaned it to a friend who loved it. I didn’t.
Greek To Me
I enjoyed Adventures of The Comma Queen very much and loved this second book by Mary Norris. She is a lovely writer, easy to read but every sentence imparts information – every sentence matters. And she imparts a lot of information very economically. This includes lots about the Greek language which may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it also includes lots about herself; some of it very personal. About her childhood, how she thought about herself, who her role models were – her mother and the nuns weren’t up to scratch. Later she adopts Athena as a suitable model while recognising others in mythology: bitch, huntress, Amazon, maenad. About her relationship with her mother she is quietly but bracingly honest; she’s hard on her but there is a quite moving section where, in Greece on one of her excursions, she comes to terms with her mother; here at Elefsina, where I’d hoped to have some kind of spring fling, I realized that I had my mother in me after all and I was glad of it. Women are the continuum.
She talks about her medical experiences including a gynaecologist and psychotherapist. She has a good feminist take on the role of women. There’s not so much about her work life but little snippets that are quite revealing; a nice little story about sharing a lift with William Shawn, another about the stress she felt dealing with some of the more flamboyant characters in the office. We get to see quite a bit of her life in New York outside of the office. She participates in a couple of theatre productions – in the chorus in a production of Electra but her tragedienne career peaked when she was given the lead in The Trojan Women. She is nicely self deprecating; I was cast in the role of the hag while the part of the ingénue went to a slinky undergraduate.
There’s lots in this book about her travels in Greece interspersed with references to Homer and the Odyssey and Iliad, the Greek Gods, Sophocles and Antigone and other classics. She wants to read Homer in the original. She travels along the routes taken by Odysseus and other historical places. It’s very beautifully done, often very humorous and very economical. She travels alone and talks about what that means for a single woman – as you’d expect she is accosted by blokes everywhere. She deals with them all with equanimity – at least in this book. She either shrugs them off or as she says of an able-bodied seaman who showed her his cabin there ended- at least for me- a dry spell.
To my delight she ends up at Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house in Kardamyli on the Mani peninsular about which I have read a lot. She ends up swimming naked in the sea where Patrick swam – and being joined by a young man who did the same! I thought of the myths of mortals stumbling onto Aremis or Aphrodite bating in the woods. The only nude art I resembled was a portrait by Lucian Freud…. (but) Nobody cared that I sat naked on a beach in the Peloponnese. On Patrick Leigh Fermor’s beach I was allowed. Beautiful. There might be too much about the origins of words for some people but I enjoyed it all.
I enjoyed this book, the first I have read of Annie Ernaux who is a well known French feminist author. It’s an impersonal memoir – if there can be such a thing. She takes photographs from her past and describes the girl in them – herself. Throughout the whole book she, the author, describes herself in the third person; that is, as she. It works very well.
She was born in 1940 and the first photo is of A fat baby with a full, pouty lower lip and brown hair pulled up into a big curl. It’s by a professional photographer. She describes a couple of others in these early years up to when she is four (circa 1944). The writing is poetic; after the war, amidst the interminable slowness of meals, it appeared out of nowhere and took shape, the time already begun, the one which the parents seemed to be staring at, eyes unfocused, when they forgot to answer us, the time where we were not and never would be, the time before. Then she describes what the adults talk about – the winter of ’42, looted shops, arrival of the Germans, Propaganda, the Boches fleeing; as she says – all told in the we voice and with impersonal pronouns. You can picture the family scene, parents and aunts and uncles, neighbours sitting around the table talking while the kids scoot in an out over-hearing bits and pieces. Beautifully done.
Thereafter she describes a photo from every decade, now including the place and date written on the back. For instance of her in black and white, in a swimsuit, August 1949, Sotteville-sur-Mer. She describes what she remembers from that time including what she was thinking about as well as the concrete things she remembers about the time. With this one she remembers incidents and people from her first three years at school. With this photo she notes: There is probably nothing on her mind that has to do with political events, crimes, random news items and all that will later be acknowledged to have shaped the landscape of her childhood – a set of things known and “in the air”.
But this is what comes with later photographs and so it is more than a personal memoir; in fact a short history of France over her lifetime which includes a snapshot of the public, political things that impacted on her over the years.
It’s a fantastic achievement to set this out so succinctly. It ends with her at age 66, which is my age now. We go through her later school years, university, career, marriage and children and later divorce and lovers before what seems to be a comfortable retirement.
All the while having her personal situation, thoughts, desires set alongside what is happening in her outer world. We get her personal reactions to the elections over that period – de Gaulle (despised), Pompidou who died in office, d’Estaing (greeted with disbelief) Mitterand (great hopes dashed), Chirac (despised), Sarkozy (unbelievable). This is a leftist family – at least she is, and her husband. They watch the events of 1968 from afar with great hopes which are then dashed. She looks back often at that time of hope. They participate in demonstrations – some of the same ones I participated in over here in Australia like Allende’s overthrow in Chile. There are references to the Vietnam war – interesting from a French perspective, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break up of the Soviet Union. It’s all very familiar.
It’s all written from a feminist perspective but her feminism is lightly drawn. Her world is seen from a woman’s point of view. In one photo she notes she is worried that her period is late. I discovered later that one of her other books was a no holds barred description of a backyard abortion – this before abortion was legalised. The reforms that impact on women’s lives come and go and she notes their impact on her choices as opposed to her mother’s generation.
There are passing references to cultural icons like Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre and Camus. Along with others that will have more resonance in France than here; I looked up a few. It doesn’t matter if they are unknown. Nor does it matter that you don’t get the popular cultural references – television shows and trademarks for goods and retail chains. You get the picture she paints.
It’s hard to tell why but I expected the divorce. She doesn’t talk much about her husband, and nothing at all in a negative way. Nor does she say much about her two sons. They are only described when they come up in photographs. There are intimations that she is struggling with the traditional role of wife and mother. Anyway it’s no surprise when it comes. And she is very discreet talking about her love life afterwards. As I said – an impersonal memoir. But a memoir just the same.
It’s taken a long while to get to English readers. Here’s an interview with the author at 79. She’s terrific.
It was great. Strongly recommended.