Book recommendation: “La montagne magique” by Thomas Mann

An absolute classic, about which I am a bit intimidated to write. But I am moved by how close I felt to the people and events related in the book. I read it in French and I found the language and form very pleasant, elegantly aged. I wonder how it feels to read it in the original version, and in the many translations.

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I remember the impact with the first pages of the book. Even more than with Barkskins, I started at my standard reading speed (a reading trot!), but, as soon as Hans Castorp arrives at the sanatorium, the rhythm of the narration slows down so abruptly that I felt like falling in a metre of soft snow. I was stuck for a couple paragraphs, then found out how to wade forward by reading much slower, paying attention to every word, stopping sometimes to think about a line.

It has been a deeply fascinating read. I felt a lot of affinity with Hans Castorp’s thoughts and discussions about the world and the meaning of life, and I suppose this is because I am, like him, currently sitting away from the world’s continuous, sometimes frenetic, activities. I sympathise with his unheroic stance, his trembling look up to the higher truths that stand white and tall like sublime but also dangerous mountain peaks. This novel is an incredibly detailed soul journey. I hope that my heartfelt review will encourage you to give a look at this book 🙂 – and as usual, let me know your impressions in the comments!

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Book recommendation: “Memoirs of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar, “Dieser Mensch war ich” by Christiane zu Salm

I read Dieser Mensch war ich (this person was me) many years after Memoirs of Hadrian,  but I wish to review them together, as they share common themes, and have woken similar emotions in me during reading.

Source: randomhouse.de
Source: bookdepository.de

Marguerite Yourcenar wrote a first-person novel about the life of emperor Hadrian, examining various events of his long life with the wisdom of his last moments. I felt that Hadrian showed an uncommon serenity towards the end of his life. Christiane zu Salm collected one- or two-page summaries of hospice patients in her care (she is Sterbebeglieiterin – assisting people approaching death), who agreed to be published in her book. These people are much closer to us than Hadrian: they were mechanics, shopkeepers, teachers, unemployed, with children, with complicated families, married, alone, sad, ready, desperate; it is easier to relate to their words and their feelings, because we share common experiences. Still, I see that the approach of the end of their lives made them all (Hadrian included) think of the same questions, and made them all simply human. I appreciated the somber, elegant lyrism of Hadrian’s long monologue, but I didn’t feel that zu Salm’s patients were less interesting or important because they used ordinary words. Presentation in this case is not relevant to me, and I hope I’m not alone thinking that.

I wish to end with the thought that these are stories of people’s lives. Death is of course very present in both books, but as a future event, as the end, rather than a fact in itself. I felt that their message was to appreciate every moment of life, and they made me think about what makes my life meaningful right now.

French books in my local libraries

I want to dedicate a post to a few French books I found in the libraries in my corner of Berlin, as I have been able to find both books that I knew already, and to discover books at random, and being very happy with it. Thanks to the librarians who have picked up such a valid array of books from an immense pool, to populate the handful of shelves dedicated to foreign language literature!

I start with AmĂ©lie Nothomb’s Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam (that I already reviewed here), and Stupeur et tremblements:

Didier Daenickx’s L’espoir en contrebande, a series of black novels which won the Prix Goncourt in 2012. I loved the atmosphere, not so much the plots (spoiler: murders!):

Erik Orsenna’s La chanson de Charles Quint – I had read his novel Madame BĂą a few years ago, and I found his emotional, philosophical and almost myth-like prose again:

And last, Marie Sabine Roger’s La tĂȘte en friche – the story of a young man who discovers, step by step, a way of thinking that he thought unattainable and even unuseful. I like her tact in letting the protagonist explore friendship and affections under a new light, with his words, and with all serenity he is capable of.

Stay tuned for more book reviews, and feel free to send me your suggestions!

Book recommendation: “Ce n’est pas toi que j’attendais” by Fabien ToulmĂ©

I read this comic yesterday at the library, in its German translation.

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I have been moved by the story of this father and his family, who discover that their newborn baby has Down syndrome. Fabien ToulmĂ© includes the hard moments as well as the happy ones, his doubts, his difficulty in accepting his daughter, the various degrees of help he receives from doctors, colleagues, family and friends. He doesn’t hide that it took him weeks to take his daughter in his arms. He tells how his wife and older daughter reacted, and how they all took care of the newborn baby.

I found that this story portraits ordinary people, not heroes, facing difficulty, and overcoming it with their own forces and with the medical support available to them. I have thought myself what would happen if I become the mother of a special child, and I felt so unprepared. I wonder how many people feel this too. I am glad that Fabien shared their journey so honestly, and especially happy that he did it in a comic: emotions and feelings pop out of the pages more strongly than printed text would do. I recommend this book to everyone, not only future parents: knowing a bit better what journey it is to raise a special child would hopefully increase empathy and support.

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Multilingual birthday!

Today is my birthday! I wish to share three funny birthday songs I am fond of, one in Italian, one in French and one in Berlinese. First, Elio’s “Al mercato di Bonn”, about the unlikely discovery of “Happy Birthday”‘s verses, written no less than by Beethoven:

The second is “l’Anniversaire”, from a group of musicians from Toulouse, the Fabulous Trobadors:

and last, “Jeburtstach”, in Berlin dialect, from Rotz’n’roll Radio:

Happy birthday to me! 😀

Ma fenĂȘtre sur la francophonie dans le monde – my window on French spoken around the world

[This is a double-language post, that starts with French.]

New-Map-Francophone World

J’ai rarement l’occasion de parler français Ă  Berlin, non par manque de compatriotes, ni d’Ă©vĂšnements en français, mais plutĂŽt par une sorte de timiditĂ©. Mon français Ă©crit se porte encore assez bien, mais je parle avec un accent belge/italien assez fort, et il m’arrive de chercher mes mots un peu trop souvent. J’ai pensĂ© de rafraĂźchir mon oreille en Ă©coutant de la radio par Internet, en forme de podcasts. La beautĂ© du français est sa grande diffusion dans le monde, ce qui m’expose Ă  diffĂ©rentes cultures et accents. Je partage ici ma petite liste de podcasts (que les Canadiens appellent joliment baladodiffusion):

J’aime Ă©couter les voix de Radio Canada, car elles me permettent d’imaginer mieux la vie de ce pays pour moi lointain, mais Ă©galement si proche grĂące Ă  la langue commune. Les problĂšmes sociaux et politiques ont des racines propres, complexes, que j’apprends Ă  voir en superposant les rĂ©cits des invitĂ©s comme les couches de peinture d’un immense tableau. Le mĂȘme m’arrive en Ă©coutant les histoires de PolynĂ©sie, terre de rĂȘve et de conquĂȘte pour qui vient de loin comme moi, mais terre des ancĂȘtres et de vie quotidienne pour ses habitants.

Écouter est mon Ă©cole de respect et d’attention. La radio est comme un livre vivant, oĂč les mots se suivent sans mon intervention. Ma tĂąche est de le suivre et de comprendre, sans pouvoir les arrĂȘter pour poser une question. La magie me prend quand je me sens comme un bout de bois dans le courant d’un fleuve, je vois ce que le fleuve voit, Ă  sa vitesse.


I have little chance to speak French in Berlin, not for lack of fellow speakers nor of events, but for some sort of shyness. My written French is still quite good, but when I speak I have this strong Belgian/Italian accent, and I have to stop a bit too often to search words. Therefore I decided to keep my ear trained by listening to French podcasts from around the world, in order to experience different cultures and accents. I share here my list of podcasts (that French Canadians nicely call baladodiffusion):

I like to listen to Radio Canada voices, because they allow me to better figure out how is life in that country, so remote for me, but also so near thanks to the common language. Social and political problems have their own complex roots, that I learn to see from the combination of the guests’ stories, that become combined like the pencil strokes of a massive painting. The same happens when I listen to stories from Polynesia, the land of dreams and conquest for someone who comes from far away like me, but the land of elders and of everyday life for its inhabitants.

Listening is my practice of respect and attention. The radio is like a live book, where words flow without my intervention. My task is to follow them and try to understand, without the chance to stop for a question. Magic grabs me when I feel like a log in a river’s current, I see what the river sees, at its same speed.

Music recommendation: “La Guerre” by Janequin

I would like to present you a chanson from ClĂ©ment Janequin, a famous French Renaissance composer. He was one of the first composers who added noises and effects to songs – bird chirps in Le chant des oiseaux; market sellers’ advertising their goods in Les cris de Paris; cannons, trumpets, horses and shouts in La Guerre:

On ChoralWiki you can find the French text and its English translation.

I listened to this piece many times, discovering its many layers: at first I was captivated and amused by the sounds that animate the battle, then amazed by the musical skills of these singers, then by their joy in singing this piece, and then  by the sound of Renaissance French and its nowadays odd pronunciation. It is nice to note that modern Canadian French contains visible traces of Old French – and that makes this song look so unbelievably Canadian to me, especially the last part where the singers shout: Victoire! that they pronounce: VictouĂ©re! – it makes me smile, but also think of the centuries that have slowly passed and shaped French language, as a river digs a canyon. I feel connected with the mind of Janequin through the centuries, thanks to the countless people who kept this piece of music alive. Enjoy!