Tartarin of Tarascon – Alphonse Daudet

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Unusually for books on my shelves I have no memory of acquiring this one, it was printed by the Folio Society in 1968 and I suspect I purchased it with others in a mixed lot of Folio Society volumes when I really wanted some of the others in the collection. It does mean that now that I have come to take it down off the shelves I realise that I have no idea who Alphonse Daudet was and no concept as to what the book will be about. I don’t even know when the book was originally written as the only date inside is that of the translation by J M Cohen which is the same year as publication suggesting that this was an early translation for the Folio Society who up to this time tended to rely on reprinting already translated works.

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For reasons that will be explained later this novel took far longer to read than such a short book should have. It was written in 1872 and is clearly set at the same time and the first section takes places in the Provençal town of Tarascon, Daudet was a French novelist and writer of short stories, although his literary output was relatively modest in comparison to his English contemporary Charles Dickens, he has numerous schools and colleges named after him around France which attest to his popularity in his time. Tarascon is depicted in the book as populated by such dedicated hunters that there is no wildlife left in the area and the men of the town go out each week with their guns and shoot their caps which are thrown into the air for the purpose as there is nothing else to fire on. The one who most destroys his cap hangs the remnants on the end of his rifle and leads the parade back into town, this is apparently usually Tartarin. The consequence of this cap shooting makes the most profitable shop in town the hat shop.

Tartarin is, or believes he is, the greatest at all things in the town and as can be seen in the picture above lives surrounded by weaponry of all sorts. He is also convinced that there are secret assassins everywhere and always goes out armed and take circuitous routes to the club in the evening to shake them off. There are other apparent peculiarities regarding the residents of Tarascon such as each family having their own song which they sing each evening and it is unheard of for any other family to sing any others song at any time, apart that is for Tartarin who will join in with all the others at the drop of a hat, or probably the remains of one. The trigger for the plot of the novel is the arrival of a circus with a lion, here at last was an animal worthy of hunting and Tartarin declares in his usual boastful way that he will go to Africa on behalf of the town to hunt.

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So far so good, a short comic novel about a real town that Daudet has populated with ridiculous characters doing ridiculous things and initially it appears that the trip to Algeria that Tartarin is eventually shamed into doing after spending months hoping that his boast will be forgotten will be a satire of French colonial attitudes in that country, which it is, but only occasionally. The illustration above shows Tartarin in the outfit he chose for the journey, a very much stereotypical ‘Turk’ costume which he believes would be what everyone in Algeria would be wearing only to be very surprised when he is the only one. But this is where the book starts to fall apart, the clothing choice is clearly a dig at parochial attitudes in provincial France but once the action is in Algeria Daudet allows his racist and specifically anti-Semitic beliefs to come through although also makes comments regarding the colonial status quo. There are several derogatory statements about Jews the milder of which I can repeat below as it illustrates my earlier statement, others I wouldn’t include

Just ask the Arabs. Hark to how they explain the French colonial organisation. ‘On the top,’ they say, ‘is Mossoo, the Governor, with a heavy club to rap the staff; the staff, for revenge, canes the soldier; the soldier clubs the settler, and he hammers the Arab; the Arab smites the Negro, the Negro beats the Jew, and he takes it out of the donkey. The poor bourriquot having nobody to belabour, arches up his back and bears it all.’

Another comment about the Algerians which is also a valid point on colonialism is

A wild and corrupted people whom we are civilising by teaching them our vices

There is also the issue of Tartarin himself, surely nobody could be that naive as he falls for all the cons perpetrated on him but also just where did he get all his money? He is in Algeria for at least four months and is conned out of a significant amount of money on top of the huge amount spent before he leaves France on guns and equipment, but at the end of the book still has

his pocket-book, a good-sized one, full of precious papers and bank-notes

well until it finally gets stolen anyway. He just isn’t believable.

In summary I started off enjoying the story but gradually got more irritated by it and reading got slower as I progressed. If I wasn’t going to write about the novel I would probably have given up before the end.

Maigret Travels South – Georges Simenon

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This book arrived in the post yesterday having taken almost fifty days to get here from the USA and it occurred to me that I have never actually read anything by Simenon. I wanted it as this is the first edition of the first Maigret book published by Penguin and came from the New York operation set up by Allen Lane and Ian Ballantine during WWII when transatlantic exports were not possible.  It was published in September 1945 whilst the UK parent company didn’t get to Maigret until January 1950 and this title would eventually appear in the UK in January 1952 printed along with nine others as part of the Simenon Million (10 books each in an edition of 100,000 published simultaneously).

Simenon’s novels are quite short so Penguin, along with other publishers, have normally put two together in one volume and this contains ‘Liberty Bar’ along with ‘The Madman of Bergerac’ and even then the book is only 250 pages. Both stories were translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury who translated several of the early Maigret novels printed by Penguin. As they are separate novels only linked by Maigret not being in his regular Paris haunts but much further south I will review them separately.

Liberty Bar

The seventeenth Maigret novel sees the great detective sent off on a murder investigation which apparently requires great tact, something he keeps repeating to himself whenever he gets frustrated by the progress of the case. It’s set in Cannes and Antibes and you can tell straight away that Maigret is not comfortable here. He makes no concession to the location wearing his black coat and bowler hat regardless of the heat and so dramatically stands out where presumably in Paris he would be much like anyone else in the capital. William Brown has been murdered is another mantra he keeps repeating, but his first problem is who was William Brown? Because without understanding that there is no way to work out what had actually happened and why.

My first surprise was nothing to do with the plot but how much alcohol is consumed right from Maigret’s arrival and introduction to the local detective whom immediately suggests going to a bar. Every time we see Boutigues he is either drinking or about to open a bottle and Maigret gets through plenty in his own right especially when he finds Liberty Bar. The characters we are introduced to are wonderfully drawn by Simenon, the four women in particular, the mistress, her mother, the alcoholic bar owner and the prostitute and the time when they finally meet at the funeral, which is engineered by Maigret whist he claims to not know anything about it, is poignant but also funny as they manoeuvre for precedence.

Right up until almost the end I had no idea who had done it and you are cleverly pointed into various dead end possible solutions. My first Maigret story was an absolute delight.

The Madman of Bergerac (Le Fou de Bergerac)

To my surprise the next novel included in this book was written earlier, being number fifteen in the Maigret series, but just emphasised that you really can read any of the seventy five novels plus numerous short stories pretty well in any order. If anything it was also a better story with Maigret solving the murders and the mysterious past of some of the most important characters in Bergerac all from his bed after being shot. I’m not really giving anything away here as that happens very early on in the novel and provides a reason for the Inspector not being able to see for himself what is going on but having to piece everything together from conversations in his room at the hotel where he goes to convalesce.  This plot device is fascinating as Simenon tells the reader Maigret’s thought processes as he slowly unravels the tangled web of lies and half truths surrounding the people he suspects.

The novel starts with Maigret having to go to Bordeaux just to tidy up some loose ends on another case and he takes the overnight train. However the upper bunk of the couchette he ends up in is occupied by a restless man whom in the middle of the night sits up, nervously pulls his patent leather boots over knitted grey wool socks, climbs down the ladder, slips out of the compartment leaving the door open and after waiting for the train to slow down jumps from the carriage. This wait had alerted Maigret as he hadn’t closed the door behind him so he saw him about to jump and got up and followed him being shot by the stranger when he realised he was being pursued.

Who was the mysterious man in grey socks? Why did he jump from the train? And is he anything to do with the murders of women who are strangled and then a long needle inserted in their hearts that has so rattled the town of Bergerac? All this Maigret solves from his bed in one of the best murder mysteries I have read for a long time.

One thing is certain I need to read more Maigret.

Wind, Sand and Stars – Saint-Exupéry

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I think most people come across Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger de Saint-Exupéry, to give him his full name, via his massively popular novel The Little Prince which is one of the most translated books ever written, only beaten by The Bible and, depending on where you look, Pinocchio. Once you have heard of his work then quite often you discover that he was a French pioneer aviator, flying mail planes from 1926 and that he died in mysterious circumstances during WWII whilst on a reconnaissance flight looking for German troop movements in mid 1944. This lovely Folio Society edition concerns some of his flying experiences from a student through the 1930’s. He was to write another book covering his wartime flying called Flight to Arras and having finished this book I now need to get hold of a copy of that.

I’m not sure what I expected from this book, tales of daring do, a man against the elements in what was still very primitive machinery perhaps, what I had not allowed for was how much the philosopher and poet would shine through. Indeed near the beginning in the chapter called ‘The Elements’ which describes being caught in a storm in the Andes Saint-Exupéry makes it quite clear that my first thoughts are not to be realised

And so, in beginning my story of a revolt of the elements which I myself lived through I have no feeling that I shall write something which you will find dramatic.

In reality the story that follows is dramatic, but not because of excitable reportage which may have been the style selected by a lesser writer, but for the calm descriptions of each problem thrown at the pilot as the storm winds batter his plane around the sky. The various chapters whilst maintaining an internal consistent time-frame are not placed chronologically in the book. Chapter one does cover his days as a student pilot, or at least the preparations for his first flight as the pilot on a mail plane rather than his student days and as the book progresses you find him in South America and later the Sahara although in reality his three years as a desert pilot preceded his time across the Atlantic.

There is surprising little flying in the book at all, the longest chapter ‘Prisoner of the Sand’ starts out with a proposed flight from Paris to Saigon in December 1935 and does indeed have Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic in the air for several pages until the inevitable crash presaged by the chapter title has them down in an unknown part of the desert. The main part of the chapter concerns their attempts to attract rescue and treks away from the plane wreckage to seek water and nourishment almost all of which had been lost in the crash. But even here Saint-Exupéry deflates the tension pointing out early on that he is writing the story so they must have eventually found help, even  though it was at the last possible chance as they were almost dying from lack of water. This for me is the best chapter of the book, closely followed by ‘Men of the Desert’ which again is chiefly not concerned with flying but rather the people on the ground that he comes into contact with and almost half the chapter regards the freeing of a slave held by desert nomads and returning him to Marrakesh.

The final chapter, entitled ‘Barcelona and Madrid (1936)’ covers some of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. His involvement in this conflict was never as a participant unlike George Orwell whose time there led to his book Homage to Catalonia. In fact it is not clear exactly what he is doing there as he manages to be on both fronts and is vitriolic regarding the futility of the conflict.

There was not much to choose between Barcelona and its enemy, Saragossa; both were composed of the same swarm of communists, anarchists and fascists. The very men who collected on the same side were perhaps more different from one another than from their enemies. In civil war the enemy is inward; one as good as fights oneself. What else can explain the particular horror of this war in which firing-squads count for more that soldiers of the line?

and a little later

Here in Spain a man is simply stood up against a wall and he gives up his entrails to the stones of the courtyard. You have been captured. You are shot. Reason: your ideas were not our ideas.

Here again Saint-Exupéry is dealing with mankind as his subject, the title of the book is probably a little misleading, you expect Biggles but you get Descartes.

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On the 23rd July 1944 Saint-Exupéry’s most famous work The Little Prince was published for the first time. Eight days later he set off on a routine reconnaissance flight in a P-38 Lightning looking for German troops and was never seen again. Indeed no trace of his plane was to be found for over fifty years, first a bracelet was discovered in the nets of a Marseilles fisherman and that led to the discovery of a wrecked P-38 off the coast. Checking a recovered serial number proved the wreck to be his plane but there was no body. Near the end of The Little Prince the eponymous hero has to return to his own planet and amongst his last words are

I shall look as if I were dead; and that will not be true…

For over fifty years fans of Saint-Exupéry wanted that to be true of him also…

 

Boule de Suif and other stories – Guy de Maupassant

I have six volumes of short stories by Maupassant, three of which include his most famous tale Boule de Suif (literally ball of suet), and I have to admit that I haven’t read any of them. So in an effort to at least partly make amends I have picked one of the collections including Boule de Suif to read this week. The book I have chosen was the second title in the long running Penguin Classics publications and the fact that he was the second author chosen in this series, after Homer, suggests that the series editors regarded Maupassant highly. My copy is the first edition printed in 1946.

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There are seventeen short stories in this collection, but in total the book is only 218 pages long. Given that Boule de Suif is easily the longest at 45 pages on its own it is clear that some of the tales are extremely short and this for me is where Maupassant is at his best. Most, like ‘The Minuet’, are beautifully written character sketches where in just a handful of pages you feel you understand the sadness of the retired ballet master and his wife whose only solace is the park where he can dance uninterrupted and he believes unseen early in the morning. Others, such as ‘The Model’ are considerably less sympathetic to the protagonists, in fact rarely is Maupassant in tune with his female characters although some like Boule de Suif herself are beautifully drawn.

So lets get back to the title story, Boule de Suif as implied above is the less than flattering nickname given to an somewhat overweight prostitute who manages to get herself on a coach leaving Rouen trying to escape the occupation during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. The description of her in this translation is as follows:

The woman, one of those usually called “gay”, was famous for her youthful stoutness, which had earned her the nickname of Boule de Suif, the Dumpling. She was short and rotund, as fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints, like strings of miniature sausages: In spite of her shiny tightly stretched skin, and an enormous bust, which stuck out under her dress, she was nevertheless desirable, and was in fact much sought after, so attractive was her freshness. Her face was like a red apple, or a peony bud about to burst into flower. She had magnificent dark eyes, shaded by long thick lashes, and below a fascinating little mouth, moist to kiss, with tiny white teeth.

She was said moreover to possess many other attractions not visible to the eye.

Well you can certainly picture her from this sketch but I don’t think that she would have been very happy with the depiction. The story is very difficult to review without giving away too much but basically she is one of ten people on the coach in heavy snow which forces them into far closer proximity over a couple of days than any of them would like. Six are made up of two prosperous merchants along with the Comte de Bréville and their wives who regard themselves as far superior to all the others, there is also an idealist democrat who boasts of setting traps for the advancing Prussians but who would clearly rather escape than do anything risky now they are actually in his town. The party is completed by two nuns who take little part in the actual main story line. Suffice to say that Elisabeth Rousset aka Boule de Suif is treated shamefully by the rest of the characters and is frankly the only one to emerge with any credit at the end.

‘The Capture of Walter Schnapps’ is also set during the Franco-Prussian war and is about the only genuinely funny story in this collection, ‘The Deal’ is written to be funny but is too heavy handed in it’s telling to really succeed although it is possibly down to the translation rather than in the original French where it falls down. Back to Walter Schnapps though, he is an unhappy Prussian conscript who finds himself separated from his compatriots and resolves to become a prisoner of war to avoid further fighting and, more importantly for him, to get get better food than he is receiving. The problem is how to achieve this without getting shot in the process? The humour initially comes from his cowardice but towards the end it becomes a send up of wartime propaganda and all within nine pages.

I will just pick out two more of the tales included in this collection and these are both amongst the longest. ‘The Olive Grove’ is a dark story of a violent and arrogant past catching up with man who believes he has escaped it and does not end well for anyone. It is totally unlike all the other stories in this book and the contrast made it all the more striking. My final choice is also the final selection in the book ‘Madame Teller’s Establishment’, this was an absolute joy to read. Everyone in the story is so well described you feel you could have been with them on their trip. The story regards Madame Teller and her staff at her establishment which consists of five prostitutes and a waiter cum bouncer who looked after the rougher side of the house. She is invited to the confirmation of her niece and as she does not think that she can leave the business running in her absence, as she will need to be away overnight, she decides to take the five girls and the waiter with her to the little town where her brother lives. The resulting impact this has not only on her brothers town and the confirmation service but also back in her home where suddenly this well respected and frequented establishment closes without notice was beautifully told.

Well as I said at the beginning I have other collections of Maupassant and these will definitely be read soon after years of being neglected on my shelves and I heartily recommend him to you. There may be the occasional not very good story but they are all so short and surrounded by excellent alternatives that this hardly matters.