New year, and news could be better from France. Over 600 small businesses have been destroyed or damaged in Paris alone since the yellow vests protests at the end of last year. President Macron’s open letter to French citizens seems to have done little to quell dissent; ditto for his tour of the regions in an attempt to get Mayors and their communities to share what’s on their mind. The EU’s political landscape is set to change after the elections in May 2019. Thank goodness for books, films and music offering an essential breath of fresh air!
Where were you born, and where did you grow up? In suburban North London near the end of the Northern Line, in a small maternity home at the top of Hampstead Heath which later became a NHS nurses’ residence.
What sorts of books were in your family home? What did you read as a child? Plenty, and an eclectic mix, but not entire walls or rooms of them. Always a fresh haul from the local library. My mother’s shelves had one of the very first Penguins: André Maurois’ Ariel (about Shelley). My father’s included rows of Pevsner’s Buildings of England, which always accompanied us on country walks and holidays. He knew German, went to German conversation classes until the end of life, so there was also some German literature in the original. I vacuumed up the contents of the library (my first was Friern Barnet, not long ago saved from closure by a community campaign). I was a scattergun bookworm although I did early on develop a taste for classic science fiction (Verne to Bradbury). Also piles of books about cricket (again, always from the library). Somehow I fell in love with a collection picked up for a few pence from a jumble sale: Best Modern American Humour, in effect an anthology of the great New Yorker wits: Parker, Thurber, Benchley etc. I loved them then. Still love them now.Continue reading Interview | Boyd Tonkin | Author of the Week
“Since the ages of Enlightenment and Romanticism, the champions of translation – such as Goethe and Madame de Staël – have urged its necessity, if only as an inferior substitute for the true polyglot’s command of several tongues. That case still needs to be made, especially in English, whose position as a planet-spanning lingua franca may trick native speakers into the delusion that their language, or any language, may encompass the whole world of thought and art.” – from the Introduction
Great novels help us to understand what makes people tick and offer glimpses into the human psyche; they are as illuminating as psychology books. Translated fiction gives a whole added dimension, opening windows on to other worlds and ways of being and perceiving, which is ever more important now that Britain is being forced to re-evaluate its place in the world.
In 2001 when he was literary editor of The Independent, Boyd Tonkin revived the Independent Foreign Fiction Award – first won in 1990 by Orhan Pamuk for The White Castle (trs. Victoria Holbrook). He was one of the five co-judges until 2015 when it merged with the Man Booker International Prize. The prize has not only been a huge boost for quality translations and translators, but has also paved the way for other prizes – the TA’s translation prizes which recognize outstanding translations from works in Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish; the TA’s first translation prize; and the Warwick prize for women in translation. Continue reading Review | The 100 Best Novels in Translation, Boyd Tonkin | Book of the Week
During a recent trip to Paris I indulged my compulsive book browsing and buying by visiting some of my favourite bookshops. They are plentiful and varied since France enjoys a fixed minimum price agreement unlike the UK where the Net Book Agreement was abolished in 1997 leading to the closure of over 500 independent bookshops, along with chains such as Dillons, Borders and Books etc. The success or failure of a book now largely lies in the hands of supermarkets, Waterstones and Amazon. Here are a few finds for the Francophile literary flâneurs among you. @AuDiableVauvert @ediSens_edition @EditionsdelAube @Diacritik @Gallimard @GlenatBD @_WProject_
Shredded: Life After Terror by Philippe Lançon (Gallimard)
“My book is not a narrative about Islamism or the state of the health service —subjects about which I am not sufficiently well-informed — it is a personal and intimate narrative. It is the story of a man who was the victim of a terrorist attack, who spent nine months in hospital, and who recounts as accurately as possible, and I hope with a lightness of touch, how this attack and his hospital stay changed his life and the lives of those around him; his feelings, his sensations, his memory, his body and his somatic perceptions, his relationship to music, painting, how he breathes and writes.” — Philippe LançonContinue reading BookBlast® France | Top 5 French Reads June, 2018
“Chilli bean paste was big business, had been for Gran’s family for four or five generations. Sichuan peppers, on the other hand, were the sort of thing any small trader could sell. All they needed was a place to set up their stall. But, humble though the trade was, the Sichuan pepper was as essential as chilli bean paste at all Pingle Town dinner tables [. . .] Dad had kicked around the chilli bean paste factory for over twenty years, learning the ins and outs of his trade under the tutelage of his shifu, Chen, and if it had taught him one thing, it was that people were born to sweat. You ate chilli bean paste, and Sichuan peppers, and ma-la spicy hotpot, to work up a good sweat, and screwing a girl made you sweat even more. The more you sweated, the happier you felt, Dad reckoned. He remembered the fiery heat that the sweat-soaked bed-sheets in Baby Girl’s house gave off.”
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is essentially a rags-to-riches tale about a small-town Chinese family’s survival following on from China’s rapid industrial revolution during Mao Zedong’s rule, and the later economic turmoil of the 1990s. Economic growth entailed a rise in social corruption in all areas of life along with social alienation and a breakdown in moral values.
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is in the tradition of the neighbourhood novel – a kind of literary soap. The big three authors of the genre are Naguib Mahfouz, William Faulkner and Vasco Pratolini (who did for Florence in the 1940s what Elena Ferrante has done for Naples today; Pratolini became a screenwriter, collaborating in films such as Paisà by Roberto Rossellini, Rocco e i suoi fratelli by Luchino Visconti and Le quattro giornate di Napoli by Nanni Loy.)
A Loving Family
Widowed matriarch, May Xue, is the archetypal grandmother of olden times who loves her family with steely resolve, an overriding concern with social status, and much meddling. She is the owner of the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory which is run by her youngest son, Shengqiang. His clever, handsome older brother, Duan Zhiming, is away at university being a brilliant Professor while his sister Coral Xue – the family peace-maker – lives in the big city with her family and is a successful TV news presenter. Narrated by Xingxing, the daughter of Shengqiang and Anqin, the tone is warm, sharp-eyed and irreverent.
Shengqiang endured a harsh apprenticeship in the factory stirring the vat of chilli bean paste while his brother went off to university, but now in his forties he is very successful. Money is everything to him – as are regular sex, food and getting drunk with his friends since they make him feel good about himself. His wife is “the only woman in Pingle Town who is fortunate enough to have found a husband as rich and as generous as Dad.” Anqin plays mah-jong, reads novels, goes shopping using her husband’s credit cards and turns a blind eye to his succession of mistresses, until one falls pregnant . . .
Shengqiang was close to his older brother Zhiming when growing up, since “he got good marks, he could play snooker and he could pull the girls, [. . .] and was the coolest dude in Pingle Town.” But after Zhiming screwed Baby Girl in the notorious red light district, an intense rivalry had developed and intensified over time.
As Gran’s eightieth birthday approaches, the family comes together to plan a great celebration for her. Zhiming takes over organising of the event, reminding his brother Shengqiang that, “We’re the Duan-Xue family. It’s got to be grand, and really classy, but it mustn’t be tacky. The Prince’s Mansion Hotel or whatever, that’s fine, but getting signers along is just a way of throwing money around! The Duan-Xue family’s not like other families. Pingle townsfolk are really uneducated, right? . . . They just do things so-so . . . We’re going to make this a very grand occasion indeed.”
Secrets and Lies
Since Grandad’s death, Shengqiang has been the head of the family, a role which he fills with alcohol-and-nicotine-fuelled capability and underlying irritation. He sets up his mistress Jasmine in an apartment in the same block as his mother, and helps out his brother in law, Liu, when he gets a mistress on the quiet. “That day, like a proper head of the family, he got out the keys and gave them to Uncle Liu. ‘I’ve paid six months’ rent in advance,’ he told him. ‘Now it’s down to you’.” Shengqiang does this despite his action being a betrayal of his sister; he realises that “this was the worst thing he had done to a woman in his whole life.”
Debilitating secrets gradually emerge as preparations are made to hold Gran’s birthday celebration in the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory yard; programming all manner of festivities entails the involvement of various locals. As tensions build, Shengqiang feels increasingly put upon. His internal monologue comprising lurid thoughts and rude comments – indicative of his emotional immaturity – is both hilarious and bordering on the tragic since on the surface he continues to be the usual compliant son and brother. His frustration boils up to a fever pitch.
It turns out that Gran’s ruthlessness in furthering the family fortunes meant that she forced arranged marriages on her children. As skeletons rattle out of the closet, even she is not immune to the embarrassment of past misdemeanours coming to light.
Gentrification – Chinese-style
The dynamic tension of the Duan-Zue clan mirrors China as it enters the modern era. The fictional protagonists navigate the distinct social and economic peregrinations of where they live; with the neighbourhood playing a central role. The narrative is littered with references to limousines, hostesses, brothels, the County Party Committee, new apartment blocks, the single-child policy, Chinese Mandarin vs. Sichuan dialect, and other tidbits affording insights into Chinese life – as well as food glorious food! I felt increasingly hungry as I read: Sichuan cuisine is delicious, hot and spicy.
“There were no dirt roads left in Pingle Town, and you didn’t see many telegraph poles either. In 2000, or 2001, the powers-that-be got some mad idea into their heads that the town needed a facelift. Up went the stepladders, and the buckets of paint, and all the buildings on, and off; the four main roads were covered in white paint. They looked like they’d been plastered with stage make-up. After that, the stalls and pushcarts were driven out: the purveyors of cold dressed rabbit, chilli turnips and spring rolls, Sichuan eggy pancakes, riceflour shortbread and griddled buns filled with brown sugar, even the scissor-menders and knife-grinders, were all swept ruthlessly from the face of the town. All those old faces so familiar from his childhood just vanished. The few souls that remained retreated into their shells like tortoises and made do with shopfronts as narrow as the gap between your front teeth.”
A curse of capitalism the world over is the homogenising effect of gentrification: towns and neighbourhoods that are cleaned up means that the eccentrics, creatives and impoverished misfits are swept away out of sight and out of mind. This is a global phenomenon: from Ladbroke Grove W10 to The Marais in Paris and the Lower East Side in Manhattan – as in a small town near Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, Money makes the world go around . . .
Nicky Harman’s dignified, pacey, idiomatic translation featuring colloquialisms and colourful insults radiates erudite energy, drawing the reader into a world of muddle and intrigue, blending farce and nostalgia.
Yan Ge was a Chinese literary sensation age seventeen, and has twelve young adult books to her name. She is one of the most exciting writers to emerge from contemporary China. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is one of a trilogy of adult fiction: what will happen next in Pingle Town, Sichuan Province?
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, translated by Nicky Harman | Balestser Press 13.99GBP 18.99 USD trade paperback 270pp | ISBN 978 1 911221227 | Winner English PEN award
Cafés, books and debate are a mainstay of French culture in a uniquely seductive way, so to savour some French flair, head to the Institut français in London this week for the second Beyond Words Festival. Forty writers, translators, actors, musicians and journalists are taking part in talks and live performances, presenting iconic films, and engaging the broader public, not just Francophiles.
How Paris changed the world
Baudelaire looked at what being a bohemian meant and invented the word “modern”; Hemingway made Paris an obligatory destination for aspiring young American writers on their European Grand Tour; the French capital was home to Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco; and Nabokov was published there.
May 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of May 1968 when French workers joined student protesters in Paris with a one-day general strike. Although the government was not overthrown, the protests ushered in a cultural revolution.
Préfacé et présenté par Georgia de Chamberet | Traduit de l’anglais par Lucien d’Azay
Écrivain et voyageuse, fascinée par l’Orient, Lesley Blanch est restée célèbre en Angleterre pour Vers les rives sauvages de l’amour, un quartet biographique où elle raconte la vie d’aventurières extravagantes, à son image. Après une enfance dans une famille bourgeoise de Londres à l’époque édouardienne, cette Anglaise spirituelle et raffinée mena une vie passablement nomade; elle était décoratrice de théâtre et rédactrice de l’édition britannique de Vogue quand elle épousa Romain Gary pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. La carrière diplomatique de celui-ci les conduisit à Paris, à Sofia, à New York, en Bolivie et enfin à Hollywood où Lesley Blanch côtoya quantité de stars et travailla avec George Cukor.
“I noticed that the pigeons have completely lost their faith in people. It is impossible to get nearer than five metres to any one of them.” [p. 38]
Because of the war in Syria, an estimated 12.5 million people are displaced, and refugees seeking asylum in Europe invariably develop depression, anxiety and PTSD. The world is facing the highest levels of displacement ever in history, with 65.3 million people forced from their homes by war, internal conflicts, drought or poor economies. The walking traumatised are becoming a major challenge of the twenty-first century, requiring a global plan.
The Bosnian war of 1992-95 resulted in some of the worst atrocities seen in Europe since the Nazi era. More than 100,000 people were killed and, according to a recent report by Al Jazeera, twenty years on many survivors suffering from trauma are not getting the help they need.
“I am solitary and depressed. A man with no one to look after him . . .” The narrator has spent nine months and three days in bed after his wife walked out on their five-year marriage. It is 7 March 2005, it is snowing, and he is coming back into life. He plays the Rolling Stones and watches the world outside his window. Continue reading Review | Seven Terrors, Selvedin Avdić | Book of the Week
Intellectuals have never had a more important contribution to make to culture and to democracy than now, in our age of post truth politics, trumpery and newspeak. We need to recreate a public sphere in which intellectuals and the general public can talk to each other in more profound ways than tweeting soundbites.
Intellectuals are a rare breed however there have been a number of sightings in past months. Some of these controversial individuals are likely to be found in South Kensington next Tuesday 20 March at 6.30pm since Pascal Bacqué will be at Librairie La Page, 7 Harrington Road, London, SW7 discussing his epic and hallucinatory novel just published by Massot éditions.
Of War, Mankind and Planet Earth is a madly ambitious, hypnotic 440 page novel; the first of five volumes. Fifteen years of research and five very different drafts took Pascal Bacqué on a journey through his life and that of the world. Taking in 6000 years of history, he travels through the centuries to create a pot pourri of people, places and events, telling the never-ending story of war through the ages.
« You can get totally immersed in this book, play mind games, dream, admire and disagree . . . It is a book to be read aloud, a book on which to meditate, to be listened to with the third ear, to be read in one sitting, backwards, fast, or on edge of your chair . . . It is an extraordinary book, an addictive narrative which cannot be put down and which, once read, possesses you. » Bernard-Henri Lévy
World War Two and the Holocaust take centre stage. 1945: the end game is being played out. Ian Bute and Tolkien travel East with Churchill, and as they do so the secrets of ancient, millennial, old Europe emerge from the rubble. On their journey they encounter seventy archetypal men from through the ages, and rub shoulders with all the major world figures of literature, music and politics. A parallel narrative gives an added Tolkienesque dimension to this odyssey from West to East, culminating in a dramatic showdown in a clash of empires.
The event at Librairie La Page has been arranged in collaboration with the Hexagon Society, a centre for French and English cross-cultural exchange that facilitates encounters between thinkers and artists and the general public.
@EditionsMassot @BHL @LIBRAIRIELAPAGE
Pascal Bacqué is a poet, a writer, and artistic collaborator and a devotee of the Talmud. He has worked as director of the collection « Libelles » for L’âge d’Homme, as a member of the editorial board of the magazine La Règle du Jeu, and as director of the French Talmudic College with René Lévy. His works include Imperium (L’âge d’Homme, 2007), The Legend of Elijah (L’âge d’Homme, 2011), Ode to Armageddon (L’âge d’Homme, 2014).