In which I have a “noir” nightmare



Last night I had a nightmare.

Well, to be truthful, it was both a dream and a nightmare. Part of it was pleasant -very pleasant. Part of of it was uncomfortable and embarrassing. And when I awoke, I felt the whole thing unpleasant.

I dreamt I had come back to Paris and was back at my School. I was without the Little Family. Free, carefree again. A girl with a life of her own ahead of her, happy, full of projects and ambitions, learning to get her diplomas, “agrégation”, then thesis and “doctorat”. I covered a whole span of life in this dream. I saw myself getting older. I became a young woman, sure of herself, not only having ambitions but being ambitious, and ready to grasp every wisp of straw to get what she wanted.

My life was full of books, of course. And I was not looking for the straightforward diplomatic career that had been my aim before, or any career where I would be trying either to teach and help young people learn to learn or do some useful job in the administration – not very well paid but serving the State and the people. No: I was looking for fame and money and trying to get both by any means. I was imbued with Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, its tactics, strategies, ploys and contrivances.

Nicolo Machiavelli

I discovered very soon that I would have to gather material and read, read, and read, while working ahead about my future career. I had to be pleasant, to forge networks, to ingratiate myself near the high and mighty in my field, and to work at the same time. Being charming takes time. Anticipating the future is time-consuming. All this did not leave me much time to devote to my scholarly work. I needed primary sources read and checked and I had no time left for this. But I knew I was a past master in synthesis. Therefore I had to think.

That was quite easy: I created another network … on the internet.

I started by coming into reading groups online. What was read was moderately interesting in itself but the readers were analysing with more or less success books that I just had to read along with them. One or two clever comments showing the way I wanted to be followed, compliments bordering on flattery, and I was well launched in multiple reading groups, well chosen for their obscure topic, and, of course, devoid of other scholars.

Then I decided to blog. I read other obscure books that I called “neglected” – unjustly neglected – in the footpath of scholars who had recently cleared the way and given me the idea of my thesis. And I wrote reviews with double meaning: one of them was very simple to be understood by all and sundry, the other went deeper and was dedicated to these said scholars who had written before me: I wanted to be recognised as their peer and at the same time did not wish to be cut from my working ants.

When this was well established, I created my own reading group online. Nonetheless, I did not do it alone. I had understood by now that I should move maked, behind a motherly figure that would reassure, scourge, banish, encourage, and do the administatrative job required.

These three activities worked together perfectly.

So I started courting publishing little, starting, obscure, unknown publishing houses, as well as some families of “unduly neglected” authors who had disappeared less than a century before. I had access to attics and uninteresting first drafts, papers of all kind from laundry bills to diaries. Soon I was sent books to review from the publishing houses – obscure or well-known alike -, only too gratified to be recognised, and was almost ready to write biographical elements about my “neglected” writers with the blessing of the families who could see their property rights increasing. I generously gave the name of my reading group buddies who were blogging as well by now, and they equally received their share of the booty from the publishing houses; some of them made friends with the most enterprising members of families also keen on recognition and dividends.

After three or fours years of efforts (time is blurred in dreams), I was ready to write a synthesis of all these elements and therefore ready to write my thesis. By that time, I had become the pet of some elderly ladies, a source of income for publishing houses, and a hope for the families of forgotten authors who had become the precious milestones of social history and interdisciplinary theories.

In my dream, I was crowned with laurels in La Sorbonne, “summum cum laudaed“, congratulated, celebrated.

Grand amphithéâtre de la Sorbonne

I was on my way to success and to be the new Jean Paulhan at Gallimard NRF, the big and renowned Paris publishing house. There was a vacant job to which I applied. And my dream became nightmare: I was not accepted. I had forgotten there was a world between the internet and the blogosphere, and the publishing industry when it comes to old and successful houses.

What could I do? Licking my hurt pride, I came back to the internet and decided that it was one of the only means of communication for the future. And after a while, with my most clever and most devoted followers I created a magazine online. And planned a come back to the real industry.

Jean Paulhan

Rue Sébastien Bottin

I needed more material, more intellectual skills and results to display. This is why I multiplied my creativity and ingenious ideas. Reading groups were not enough.

I created readalongs, readathons, events, podcasts, and slaved and pandered and  flattered. I knew that one day I would occupy one of these grand offices of the rue Sébastien Bottin or another such or I would create something different but as well known. I would be in the limelight as I was in the limelight of the blogosphere where I was thanked by groupies who were discovering … evident books they could have discovered by themselves with a little ingenuity and curiosity.

My dream had become so vehement, passionate and intense that I awoke with a jerk. I had a sour taste in my mouth, a feeling of being someone else. Had I escaped this swirl of “arrivisme” by accepting to tend to the needs of the Little Family and by living in the country without the temptations of great Schools and “élitisme“?

Julien Sorel et Madame de Rênal

Fabrice Del Dongo

Of course not. What I had dreamt was a “noir nightmare” but could never happen in real life. I had read too much Balzac and had come to sleep the night before while listening to a conference about the heroes of Stendhal: Julien Sorel, Lucien Leuwen, and Fabrice Del Dongo. All these restless young men were mourning the upstart generals of the Revolution and Bonaparte himself. They were searching for glory and laurels. Who would do that today for money and acknowlegement? And moreover through the internet and blogs? Who could be so Machiavellian and so naive at the same time? Not I and no one else surely.

And yet… To end the dream with a proper ending, I sat down in bed and, opening my computer, I shouted with Rastignac at the end of “Father Goriot“, defying Paris – and with even more ambition: “A nous deux, le monde!”

Eugène de Rastignac: “A nous deux, le monde!”

In which I take my crate to Speakers’ Corner

Having written about “good books bloggers” and found that I do not belong to this category; having written about the E.M. Forster Syndrome of which  I suffer; I have looked at me and wondered what I could do with myself. But as I am not a nombrilist, I looked also at other bloggers and read the news of the week.

There were the “good book reviews” focused on the one book that had been read, not rambling and diverging or divagating. There were proposals for read-alongs of one writer for a year or less, with blogs reports. There were proposals of “challenges”: read as many books as you can within a thematic group.There was even a proposal for a readathon where you read as many books as possible in  a twenty-four hours span and report in a blog (or various blog entries – but this is less of an overview and less impressive).

And I thought about these blogs reports.

And my own blog entries.

And pondered. As usual.

Why do we blog?

We blog to share our own experiences with others. Fundamentally, we go to foray in the world around us, and then return home to tell the others what we have been doing and making and seeing and listening and reading and writing and thinking. This is for the one book review, for instance, but may cover knitting, sewing, cooking, going to a concert or an exhibition, etc.

Then we blog to share our own experiences with others within the same communal event. In the read-along , the challenge or the readathon, for example, people are invited to share what they have and thought of the books they have read in the frame of the “event”.

All right.

But questions: how do we share? Do we share?

There is what I shall call “the display” of the reading, which is the blog entry itself. Then there is the invitation for comments. But are there comments? Sometimes, yes; sometimes, no. When we are lucky there is almost a wealth of long comments to which it is a pleasure to answer – even if they disagree with our statements or opinions. They are a kind of communication and discussion, mostly a tête à tête between the blogger and one reader at a time, but there might happen, with luck, that another reader takes up the ball and the duo becomes a trio, less often a quatuor.

Most bloggers incite and invite comments by publishing on Facebook or Google or other social media in order to increase their readership. But the answering remains what I have described for the blog entry.

When really lucky, the blogger is  mentioned in other blogs or on others’ Facebook pages or social media communications.

I know of one communal effort: three, four or five bloggers unite to define a theme they will carry on during one week, and that each will treat as she/he will like most. But apart from the common theme, the “display” and answers remain the same as described before.

Of course, all this remains most of the time in a little world well circumscribed in what is called the “Blogosphere”. Unless the blogger benefits from a wider range of means to reach a broader readership: reading groups, friends, and, if pushy, a dazzled network of bloggers plus publishers who will work hand in hand with him/her to promote their products.

Therefore the blog and the act of blogging are mainly solitary pursuits. We try to reach the others across the void of distance and time, as some of us do have archives extended on several years. But we never know if we have reached them really and, most of all, there is no real communication. Are we friends or foes? Neither. We are entities with or without a voice (some bloggers have no recognazible voices), with or without a history and an environment. Sometimes then we are half human beings, sometimes just “bloggers” without a personality.

But each of us takes his box and regularly tries pathetically to reach out towards the external world like the speakers at Hyde Park in Speakers’ Corner.

This is what I have done right now, standing up on my upturned soap crate, trying to make my voice heard among others while you were passing by us, passing by me, stopping to listen for a while. Thank you to have remained until the end of my speech. And please, do comment!

In which I discover that I suffer from the E.M. Forster Syndrome

After writing about “book bloggers” last week, I truly wondered about my mental process with books: this inability to review the one book at a time, as most do.

In fact, I suffer from the E.M. Forster’s Syndrome, mostly known under the phrase: “Only connect”.

Everybody knows that these are the famous two words, Morgan Forster did put as epigraph to his novel “Howards End”. While I am rambling and digressing, I may well say that this is one of my favourite books, one I have in various copies, and without which around, I feel lost.

“Only connect” leads me to tools.

I don’t know if there is an objective world but I know that there is a world, which is mine, in which I live, and that each of us has her or his own world. Our perceptions are different and so we differ in our views of “the” world. What we do then is try to understand what our own world can be, grasp straws, bits, flotsam and jetsam, to broaden it, as well as we try and understand others’ worlds. For all these operations or actions, we need tools.

There are our five senses of course. But there is the weight of our civilisation, of our culture and of our training. We are able to change (slightly) or at least move these and to modify our training by more acquisitions during our lifetime. And we acquire new perceptiveness and kowledge with tools like … books of course, but also music, arts, sciences, crafts, etc. – not to talk of feelings.

I propose myself to talk only of books here, subject of course that it is a limited and deliberate choice that can be widened at any time.

Books are among my favourite tools and I use them even when I keep amused by them. They have shaped me and they still shape me.

They lead me through spaces I may never know, or that I have visited but did not understand in the same way as the authors, or that I may visit later.

They lead me through times I will never be able to know because they are passed, or will exist later when I shall be no more, or that are lived elsewhere at this same moment.

But these tools and the world they each make me discover, connect among them. Like with a jigsaw puzzle, I have to adjust or try to adjust pieces together. Like with a kaleidoscope, I have to move the pieces to see other more complete worlds.

 Therefore, as much as I need the analysis of one book, I need even  more the synthesis of several, and my own world remains a shifting one – one that is never settled forever, but around some “bones”, which are defined by my situation in time and space.

And this is why I shall read “Gone With the Wind” and connect it with “The Leopard” – itself easily connected with “I Viceré” – itself connected with “Au Plaisir de Dieu” and “La Gloire de l’Empire” – all of which will connect with the Antonines, Marguerite Yourcenar, Mrs Angela Thirkell and Mrs. D.E. Stevenson.

 So that I am unable to read and review “Celia’s House” or “The Brandons” by themselves. By a complex and personal web (cobweb, perhaps?) of very thin threads, I shall link them to the Roman Empire, to an historically based French novel, to the pre-WWII era in England, the unification of Italy and the American Civil War, as well as my recurrent leit-motiv of neglected under-valued women fiction, and the Götterdammerung. And I shall not forget costume dramas and my own memories as a little girl.

Add paintings or illustrations, music, cooking, trains and cars, colonialism, agriculture, weapons, churches and religion, and, and, and…



In which I discover I am not a good book blogger

Two book bloggers I know (and you may know) have started a read-along called the 1924 Club. The idea is very simple: 1924 was a year particularly rich in good published books. Why not find them? Review them? Or search among your archives which ones you have reviewed? Then publish on your blog and send the collection to the founders of the club. Having collated the reviews,

 “ we’ll have a great overview of the year. It should be really fascinating, to get a wide and varied sense of what was going on in publishing throughout one year.”

These are the words of one of the founders of said club.

I was enthusiastic. I roamed through my shelves, the shelves of the library of the house, my stacks, and found lots of material. Happy! I told the second founder of the Club that I would join. Happy to belong to a group. Happy!

And then, little by little, I discovered


I wonder a lot. I ask myself questions. I see issues where there are none. I broaden my interest from the book to a period or to a literary genre. I go across borders and look at what happens or does not happen in other countries. I probe and probe myself and others or gently try to push others to probe themselves about the book and the impact it may have upon them – I mean upon my life and upon theirs.

A good book blogger writes a review and a critique of a book – usually one book at a time and  gives an opinion upon THIS book. She or he does not go rambling upon possible links between this and that.

A good book blogger is focused upon his object. She or he may open the topic at the end of the review in order to stimulate the discussion but she or he does not roam genres, time and space, her or his soul and mind and the others. Very indiscreet, indeed.

I am not decent. I am not fair. I am not a book blogger.

Therefore what am I?

I have tried to make a selection of the books I found at home that were published in 1924. Some are in English, some are in their original language. Some have been translated in another language and I tried to choose the English translation when we had more than one.

Here they are:

Everybody knows Kafka and “The Castle”

And everybody knows Galsworthy and the Forsyte Saga

but what is the meaning of reading the first volume of the

second trilogy alone?

A French novel inspired from the “Princesse de Clèves”

a classic of the 17th century revisited by a young writer who died very young and wrote but novels

Everybody knows E.M. Forster

But does everybody know Ivo Andric?

Everybody knows Pablo Neruda and his poems

And everybody knows Winnie the Pooh

Who has read Paul Valéry who is one of the most important poets

of the last century?

Martin Heidegger may perhaps be less read

But O Douglas is known by the  bloggers of this communal reading

What about André Breton

and the French “surréalisme”?

Though German, Thomas Mann may be read

and is known

As will be Arthur Schnitzler – I expect

Richmal Crompton will be more familiar to English readers

But what about the Austrian Robert Musil?

F.M. Mayor

will be also known

I  have left several more books aside: Russian (Trotsky), Japanese, Arabic, Northern American (either from the US or from Canada), from Central Europe, even from Western Europe (Northern and Southern) and the UK and France – my two “first” languages”. These books have all in common to have been published in 1924, and one may say, as Virginia Woolf did with 1910, that this was a year of changes or a great year for publishing. But is there another link between them? I don’t think so.

And that’s the rub for me.

Some are written by women and belong to gender studies; some come under the newer study of “under-valued and neglected writers” (mostly women), some go under the label of “middle”brow”, others of children literature, others are poetry, some are political, other philosophy, others again full length novels and others parts of “sagas” – rather meaningless as stand alone – others are novellas or short story collections. 

All have a year in common but I find this fact more coincidental than anything. A longer period might have proven more interesting to see what was happening at the time. Otherwise, we find here the diversity of space and genres. 

It is a good idea to collect the example of one year of publishing but only “to get a wide and varied sense of what was going on in publishing throughout one year,” as said the co-founder of the club. And only for a short segment of the publishing.

As such, they do not have a real interest for me and I am unable to make a good blog or a good review. I can dismantle a book to show its themes and its structure, and the psychology of its characters, if it is a novel. I am able to analyse the ideas of a philosopher or study the rhythm and images of a poet.

But I cannot forget that these books are keys (or doors) to worlds that go further and grow broader than one year of publishing. And these worlds are more important for moulding one’s personality. For why do we read, even unconsciously, if not to learn and project ourselves as upstanding and upright human beings?