After a long hiatus I read a new book, found at the give&take shelf in my city.
I have read some of the diaries and summaries of both expeditions, so there was no suspense for me, but I was interested in this book just the same. Holt took first-hand reports of both expeditions and made a side-by-side narration that felt credible and that did create an almost cinematic suspense.
I started the book with a vague worry that it would sound heroic and epic, which would have told more about the narrator than the expeditions themselves. The first chapter dispersed that worry right away, painting a portrait of Amundsen that was not exclusively about his courage, determination, and other necessary qualities for the expedition in that absolutely inhospitable continent. Somehow it managed to make statements that didn’t feel like bringing arguments for a specific point, and that was helpful for me, because it made me feel allowed to keep all information in focus. The following chapter about Scott was similarly somehow mixed. The whole book kept that non-filter / non-focus in a way that made it sound credible – in a way that I will not be able to double-check though, so I will not say that it is an accurate depiction.
As a difference from my other reads about both expeditions, this book is definitely shorter, so there had to be some selection from the full range of sources. Though, as for the portraits of the expeditions’ leaders, there was an overall impression of concreteness, down to the ugliest details – not the dangers and disagreements, but the difficulty in traveling by sea on overloaded ships, getting water for drinking when out on the ice, keeping themselves clean and dry (as good as impossible), on top of the most mundane logistic/transport/food issues.
I got slower and slower in reading the book, as it narrated the slow walk to death of Scott’s polar team. Even Amundsen’s return and celebration was rendered as a mix of feelings, reactions, details. I needed a couple days to emerge from the intense feelings woken up by the book.
I have read this book last week, and I must say I struggled to finish it, still finding many interesting points along the story. The book has been adapted to a film and has been a big success in France. Still, I found that the characters shared many thought processes and action patterns, and it made them unrealistically similar in my eyes, despite being women, men, of different origins and living in different contexts. I found that some of the scenes were resolved too quickly for my needs, with a spectacular, film-like action, but that left me with open questions. I liked the ending the most, and some non obvious plot developments.
I am more puzzled by my reaction to the book, rather than by the actual content. I haven’t read a novel since a long time, and it felt odd to be in a story generated by the mind of another person. I feel that my review is harsh and that I missed the many inspiring points, but at the moment they are not accessible to me. That’s why I wish to recommend the book anyway and welcome you to write your impressions in the comments!
Yesterday I finished reading “D’autres vies que la mienne” and took a moment to let the feelings sink. It was a moving book, that I read page by page as if I were listening to someone, letting their words decide the speed of narration. Carrère talks about the stories of members of his close family and of dear friends, as he wanted to portrait “other lives but his” in a direct and simple style. While reading, I felt taken very close to the people in the book, as if they were old friends. Carrère has a way of describing facts and perceptions that made me feel respectful while learning of very personal, often tragic, life events.
When I talked about the book to a friend, I realised that my feelings while reading looked much like the ones I had when reading “Kobane calling”, a comic book about Zerocalcare’s non-reportages in Rojava. Despite the apparent lightness of the chosen medium, the stories of the people he meets are portrayed as life-like as possible, hard and uncertain.
I felt that both authors opened me a direct connection to other people, in a way that these very people were the centre of attention – not the authors, nor me the reader. It would have been easy to bend these lives to make them more cinema-like, more appealing to my reader’s eyes; or to let the author show off their drawing/writing skills, or even to make use of the facts to squeeze out some general morals; I felt none of that. Both authors wanted to mention that their point of view was unescapably partial, and that they were humans as much as the people they portray in their narrations. I felt, together with them, the most sincere respect and admiration for people who bravely and modestly deal with the difficulties of their lives.
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.
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!
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 Amélie 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 Bâ a few years ago, and I found his emotional, philosophical and almost myth-like prose again:
And last, Marie Sabine Roger’s La tête 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!
I just finished reading this monumental book and I’d like to write its review while the characters and the atmosphere are still hovering in my mind.
This book was mentioned in one of BBC Radio 4 “Open Book” episodes. I had the good chance of finding it in the small English section of my local library. I confess I was initially intimidated by its page count (700+ pages, plus two family trees (!) in appendix), and was not especially thrilled by the first few chapters. The setting remembered me of other books that I cherish, so the inevitable comparison made it hard to follow her way of describing those places and times. But I went on.
My perseverance was well rewarded! It is a magnificent tapestry of human destinies that the reader is guided to discover, one life at a time. I used to dislike when a whole group of people, century or country are condensed in the story of a few characters, but this time I saw it more as way of presenting several points of view, rather than making up a parable through simplification. I laughed so much at the tiniest details that made the whole picture come alive: noises, smells in particular. I find that Annie Proulx created a symphony. I am no writer, and when I do it’s more doodling than prosing; there has to be some different skillset in action when putting together such a book. It could compare to the difference between the training for a sprint and a marathon (also for the reader, when I think about it). I noticed that I had to read slower than usual if I wanted to understand what the book was about. It seemed to me like starting a week-long hike by properly warming up instead of running to the next landmark. The initial chapters have been able to slow down my pace and tune it to the speed I needed to complete the read. I like to think that it was intentional; either way, I am grateful for this little lesson.
For who is looking for the summary and comments on this book, I simply redirect you to the Internet and your trusted fellow readers/librarians. I didn’t search this book for the contents, but for the style; and my review is purposely focused on it.
(I want to make an experiment and write this post in two versions, one in French and one in English.)
Je viens de terminer la lecture de ce roman qui m’a doucement émue. Il m’est rarement arrivé de me reconnaître autant dans les pensées de quelqu’un d’autre et d’avoir reçu l’inspiration et la calme pour avancer dans ma propre partie d’échecs. Durant ces dernières années, j’ai cherché ce genre de modèle avec une frénesie croissante, n’en trouvant que de très partiels. Le récit de ce début de vie m’a si simplement fait comprendre que je peux renoncer aux développements sociaux classiques (travail, mariage, maison, enfants, chien etc.) sans forcément détruire mon futur ou me sentir coupable pour toujours. J’ai grand besoin d’histoires de survécus. J’ai besoin de savoir qui il y a d’autres histoires où un non n’engendre pas de rage, de bile, de résistance.
De plus, l’autrice est d’origine belge comme moi. Ceci pourrait n’être qu’un mot sur un document officiel, mais c’est ce qui m’a fait dire “Oh, moi aussi!” en lisant les quelques phrases du roman où l’autrice parle des nuages gris de la Belgique avec une affection simple et profonde. Moi aussi, j’aime le temps couvert de la Belgique. Il a été la lumière estompée d’autant de bonnes mémoires.
Je remercie Amélie Nothomb d’avoir réussi un livre aussi sincère et puissant.
I just finished the last pages of this novel and I feel so moved. It rarely happened to me to identify myself so easily with the thoughts of someone else, and to receive inspiration and serenity to keep playing my own chess game. I have been looking for such models with increasing frenzy, as I only found very partial ones. This story made me understand that I can give the usual social upgrades up (good job, marriage, house, children, dog, etc…) without automatically condemn my future or feel guilty forever. I need survivor stories so badly. I need to know that there are other stories where a “no” does not generate rage, acrimony, opposition.
Moreover, the autor is Belgian like me. This could be a dry word on an official document, but it is what made me say: “Me too!” when reading the few sentences in which the author writes with simple and deep affection about the dull grey clouds that are so typical of Belgium. I love the overcast skies of Belgium too. They have been the background and the diffuse light of so many good memories.
I would like to thank Amélie Nothomb for her sincere and powerful book.
Today I started reading a new novel that I picked from the French section of my local library – “Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam“, by Amélie Nothomb. After reading several books in English and Italian, mostly in the efficient and clean, almost steel-like prose of technical explanations, I met a rich, singing, poetic French first-person narrative. It gave me more joy than usual, as if I came back home – and I attempted to find out why.
In general, I particularly like reading novels in French because I find that this language can convey so many nuances of expression, it seems to possess such a vast colour palette. When I read in Italian, I can’t find the same depth, not because Italian doesn’t allow it, but because I don’t feel that Italian and French (nor German or English) are completely interchangeable on all topics. I consider them like musical instruments, with their own structure and voice, that makes them especially able to convey the sense and emotions of a piece of music written specifically for them, or their equivalents. You can spot that when you compare Paganini’s Caprices with their piano “translation” written by Franz Liszt:
It also made me compare the musicality of a language in a given text with the movement of an animal. There are texts who move around swiftly and graciously like leopards, without any noise from their steps. Some texts sound exact and articulate like insect legs, moved with precision, almost mechanical in their appearance. Some other texts move around with the cute awkwardness of a foal, that tries hard not to trip, but that shows the seed of its future elegance. I like to pick up a random book from the library and discover, page after page, which kind of movement it has chosen to embody. The topic doesn’t matter much, because I am reading to discover how other people decided to express their thoughts, and this alone fulfills my curiosity.
To finish, here is the step-by-step (literally!) analysis of horse walk, because it matches with how I sometimes feel when I read a book: it is not about the destination of that walk, nor about the context, but it is my analysis of its components one by one, even if they don’t make sense alone – but when I get out of this “analysis mode” and I go back to the full picture, at the expected reading speed, I spot so many more details. Enjoy!