“The books in my ideal library are the imaginary countries of a lifetime of travel on planet literature. The train pulls out of Flaubertia, then rolls through Durassia, Mishimia, and Bowlia, skirts Conradia and Mahfouzia, crosses Gordimeria, cruises through Chirinskya and Lembeyia, lingering at leisure in Shakespearia.
Follow me on my journey…”
“I came into literature through the portal of Art, in a family in which culture was the day-to-day common currency, and in which the word ‘Greece’ brought to mind not ‘Grexit’, but ‘love of classical antiquity’. I first felt the thrill of literature in the recesses of my father’s study, with Edgar Allen Poe’s Extraordinary Tales. They spurred my imagination, and I soon came to understand the meaning of the word ‘tale‘. The study opened into a hall. There I delightedly plunged myself into other really short tales, the “stop press” news items in the newspapers. Then, having been duly initiated into tales, I moved up to real life and onto real books.”
MADAME BOVARY BY GUSTAVE FLAUBERT (1856)
The journey starts with an author to whom French schools credit the start of modernity in literature: Gustave Flaubert (1821 in Rouen – 1880 in Croisset).
The son of a Rouen surgeon, Flaubert went off to study law in Paris – to keep his father happy. But there he ran into literature. Fate delivered an ironic twist: his father died suddenly and left him enough money to devote himself to his art. Flaubert was 25 years old.
Madame Bovary – the subtitle of which is Provincial Manners – was first published in 1856 in instalments in La Revue de Paris, as was usual in those days, and then published by a publishing house.
It immediately caused an outcry. He was taken to court on the grounds of “outrage to public and religious morals and to good behaviour”. The persons accused were “Mr Flaubert, the book’s author, Mr Pichat, (the manager of the review), and Mr Pillet (the printer)”. Madame Bovary paints an accommodating portrait of a woman without morals. The fact is, though, that the purpose of art is to educate the spirit rather than to depict human frailty. That is what the debate on realism is all about.
Flaubert was finally to be acquitted, which earned him the famous words:
“There are no nice subjects or nasty subjects – style just by itself is an absolute way of seeing things.”
Flaubert was a style devotee, he wrote, he rewrote, he read out loud, so as to perfect the musicality. In this way, carefully applying meticulously chosen words, he sets scenes, conjures up images, expressions and characters to bring to life this world of another age. He was a painter and musician, certainly, and a filmmaker before films were invented.
After Flaubertia, Norman, modern and realist, Durassia – Indochinese, elliptical and passionate.
THE RAVISHING OF LOL V. STEIN BY MARGUERITE DURAS (1964)
We remember Marguerite Duras (1914 in Saigon – 1996 in Paris) as a lady with short hair and enormous black rimmed spectacles. Her birth and childhood in French Indochina gave rise to two long novels, The Sailor from Gibraltar and The Sea Wall, and then later The Lover, which Jean-Jacques Annaud made into a film (1992). Then, as her trademark, her style became more pronounced as the 20th century went by. She published much shorter novels, Moderato Cantabile (1958) and The Vice-Consul (1966). She adapted her novels for the theatre, wrote film scripts and produced films, including The Truck with Gérard Depardieu (1977).
I studied The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein when preparing for college exams. It is a circular novel, like water flowing at the speed of light: on the T. Beach Casino dance floor, Lol V. Stein enters into the eye of passion and never comes back out. With the style very characteristic of Duras – short, tightly controlled sequences, statements measured out between “he saids”, “she saids” – only the truth reported.
After Flaubertia, Norman, modern and realistic and Durassia, Indochinese, elliptical and passionate, comes Mishimia, Japanese, sublime and tragic.
THE TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN PAVILION BY YUKIO MISHIMA (1956)
Mishima (1925 in Shinjuku, Tokyo – 1970 in Shinjuku) had a childhood remarkable for out-of-the-ordinary adults. His paternal grandmother Natsu brought him up until he was 12 years old. She read French and German, loved Kabuki theatre, made him massage her because of her sciatica, and prohibited him from going out in the sun and playing with other boys. When he went back to his family, his mother encouraged him to write. His father, however, had a military background and forbade him to do so. He made him undergo all sorts of physical ordeals – such as standing really close to a train passing at high speed. He forced him to study German law at Tokyo University. He ended up accepting his son’s vocation. Mishima was to marry and have two children. He staged his own death by hara-kiri.
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion arose from another of those “stop press” events. He sharply delineates the problems of our relationship with beauty and how closely it is intertwined with our destructive urges. Since his childhood, a stammering and asocial young monk has seen the famous and splendid “Golden Temple” etched on the skyline. As his life as a monk progresses, he persuades himself that his mission is to destroy the “Golden Temple”.
The journey continues in Bowlia, a touch of Tangier, a touch of the desert, a rite of passage – the benefit of literature is that it projects us to the far ends of the earth, needing only imagination as its means of transport.
THE SHELTERING SKY (FRENCH TITLE : TEA IN THE SAHARA) BY PAUL BOWLES (1949)
I met Paul Bowles (1910 in New York – 1999 in Tangier) in 1991 in the Itesa apartment block where he lived. This man of quite some age came out to greet me from the midst of piles of books and manuscripts like a fisherman from amongst his nets, sitting in front of his writing desk sagging under the weight of paper. The narrow window glistened with light. Through it, the sea off Raz Zebib, flecked with white caps, hid his face in the shadows. His sky-blue gaze turned towards me. “Do you want mint tea? – No, I want a tea in the Sahara.”
Bertolucci had just brought out the film Tea in the Sahara based on the novel (1990). Bowles appeared in person at the beginning of the film as the narrator of the story. He told me to what extent the book was autobiographical.
Until he arrived in Tangier, Bowles was a musical composer and the music critic of the Herald Tribune. He led a very full intellectual life in New York, with his wife Jane Bowles, a writer and playwright. Paul moved to Tangier in 1947, and Jane joined him in 1949. They led a Bohemian intellectual life, with Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Allen Ginsberg paying them visits. From the moment he set foot in Morocco, Paul became a writer. Following a stroke in 1957, Jane could no longer write. She sunk into alcoholism and died in Malaga in 1973.
In the decline and fall of Kit and Port, a couple who land in Tangier and cross the Sahara through to the final tragedy, we cannot help but see an avatar of Jane and Paul.
A sentence at the beginning of the novel wonderfully sums up the meaning of my travels:
“Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.”
Travelling, always travelling, but crossing a land of spells and magic: Conradia, seafaring, introspective and inspired.
THE HEART OF DARKNESS (1899) AND LORD JIM (1900) BY JOSEPH CONRAD
Joseph Conrad (1857 in Ukraine – 1924 in Kent) spent twenty years of his life as a sailor, from the age of 17 to the age of 37, then came back to shore and devoted himself to writing.
Conrad was born to a Polish noble family, swept away by political upheavals. The Korzeniowski family was forced into exile. Conrad was orphaned at the age of 12, and went to live in Krakow with his maternal uncle. At 17 he left for Marseille and boarded a sailing ship as a seaman. (Conrad spoke Polish, German, English, and French with a Marseille accent). In 1878, he joined the British merchant marine. In 1886, at 29 years of age, he became a deep sea captain and took British nationality. He then took ship on the Vidar bound for Borneo, the sailing ship Otago, a steamer on the Congo River, the clipper Torres to Australia, and the steamship Adowa to Canada.
In 1894, at 37, he ended his seafaring career, got married in England and devoted himself to writing.
The Heart of Darkness was published in 1899 along with Lord Jim, serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine.
There are no illusions with Conrad; sailing is neither a delight nor a dream.
“He made many voyages; he experienced the magical monotony of an existence somewhere between water and sky – because there is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea.” Lord Jim
Sailing – going on a voyage from one place to another – lays bare the human soul.
In a dense and complex narrative structure that works like the concentric rings of an onion, the novel unfolds: a 1,400 ton steamer loaded with pilgrims crossing the Indian Ocean on a calm night lit by a sliver of moon. Conrad musters a network of narrators and witnesses to parade the reasons that made Lord Jim abandon his ship.
The Heart of Darkness takes us into a tropical jungle: the sailor and adventurer, Marlow, tells us of his journey up the Congo River for a Belgian ivory company. The journey transforms into a mysterious quest for a certain Kurtz who has undergone an alarming change.
Francis Ford Coppola drew much inspiration from Conrad’s novel in Apocalypse Now but did not see fit to mention it in the credits.
The train travels on to Mahfouzia, Egyptian, private and sensitive.
THE MIRAGE BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ (1948)
Naguib Mahfouz (1911 in Cairo – 2006 in Cairo) was born in the very ordinary district of Gamaliya into a lower-middle-class Cairo family. Egypt was then a British Protectorate. He studied philosophy at the Cairo Fouad 1st University. Egypt then became a monarchy. He married and secured a post in the civil service. He wrote some fifty novels over fifty years, all in Arabic, in the grand tradition of the Balzac or Tolstoy novel. In 1953, Egypt became an Arab Republic, first with Nasser then with Sadat. In 1959, Children of the Alley unleashed a furore because the novel denounced the authoritarian abuses of the Nasser regime. In 1988, he won the Nobel Prize for literature, the first in that category for an author writing in Arabic. In 1994, he was the victim of a terrorist attack by a religious fundamentalist who admitted during the trial that he had never read his works. He came out of it with a paralysed right hand, and afterwards could write only by dictating.
He was very attached to his city and to his district of Gamaliya, and he hated travelling – his two daughters had to go to collect his Nobel Prize. He led a life as regular as clockwork, moving between his family apartment, his office in the ministry, and his favourite bistro, from which he observed Cairo society. My book, L’Olivier Bleu is dedicated to him, as a tribute to this giant of Arabic writing.
The Mirage tells the story, in the first person – reminding us, of course of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion – of a man who asks himself why, suddenly, he feels the need to write.
“I’m not writing for anyone else. After all, it isn’t in the nature of those afflicted with timidity to bare their souls to another human being. I write for myself, for the good of my own soul, a soul whose murmurings I have long tried to silence to the point of losing its essence.”
Then he draws us into the life of a hero in one of the downmarket districts of Cairo, which was the setting for most of his novels.
The voyage continues. We are travelling through Gordimeria, South-African, impressionistic and social.
MY SON’S STORY BY NADINE GORDIMER (1990)
Nadine Gordimer (1923 in Springs – 2014 in Johannesburg) was born into a well-to-do bourgeois background. Her father was a Lithuanian Jew and her mother was English. Her fragile health drove her to take refuge in books. At 9 years old, after the police raided the bedroom of the black maid, she wrote her first short story. Her destiny was to be bound up with that of South Africa. She was 25 years old in 1949 when the National Party won the elections and brought in apartheid. In 1958, her novel A World of Strangers was banned. She became a member of the ANC, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. In 1960, after the Sharpeville massacre, the ANC was banned and the United Nations officially condemned apartheid. In 1963, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for terrorism. In 1974, at the age of 50, she won the Booker Prize. In 1990, Frederik de Klerk legalised the ANC, and Mandela was released from prison. In 1990, My Son’s Story came out and in 1991 she won the Nobel Prize for literature. At the first multiracial elections on 27 April 1994, Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president. Her last novel No Time Like the Present (2012) expresses a certain amount of disappointment compared to the South Africa of which she dreamed.
My Son’s Story plunges us into the South Africa of apartheid. With a succession of small touches, Nadine Gordimer lets us experience the intimate details of a subtly fragmented society, in which slight differences in a person’s racial mix gave rise to a whole swathe of narrowly-defined rights and prohibitions, creating a social hierarchy jealously guarding its privileges even though it was sadly lacking them. The hero’s father stands midway between black and white in his racial mix. In his life as a schoolmaster, this gives him certain privileges. When the story starts, it is the son who is speaking, at a time when apartheid has already been abolished. The son starts writing – and becomes a writer – after a “stop press” event; at the cinema he runs across his father with his white mistress. He needs to speak to his father to justify this and try to understand it. We are then led into the father’s history, at a time when this privileged mixed-race person adopts the cause of all those suffering under the rules of apartheid.
The train explores the valley of words. Chirinskya is Slavic and North African, sentimental and radiant.
THE FINAL STOP: A RUSSIAN EXILE’S CENTURY IN BIZERTE BY ANASTASIA MANSTEIN-CHIRINSKY (2000)
I remember looking for Anastasia Manstein-Chirinsky in Bizerte’s bright streets, not remembering if I bought her book first or who told me about her. The one thing for sure is that I was looking for Anastasia – because of my affinity with everything that spoke to me of Russia, and also of the sea. That was in 2004. My ship had arrived in Tunisia a few months earlier with my husband, children, dogs and cat and was moored at the port of Bizerte. I finally found the slightly dilapidated white house, and in the midst of art nouveau furniture laden with papers from her desk, this thin old lady with lively blue eyes behind thick lenses hugged me in her skinny arms. She had heard of me, too!
We were both sailors for different reasons, and both of us had arrived in Bizerte in ships. So Anastasia’s dedication in her book The Final Stop really took on its full meaning: “Although the sea may sunder lands, at the same time it brings men together.” And women, too, obviously!
Anastasia Manstein-Chirinsky (1912 in Lysychansk, Ukraine – 2009 in Bizerte) was born on the family estate of Rubezhnoe in Ukraine. Her father was a naval officer. On 12 November 1920, in the middle of winter, when she was eight years old, her mother, her two sisters and Boussia, the little toy-terrier, were evacuated along with 150,000 other people onto 120 units in Sevastopol, in the Black Sea. After sailing for over a month on a journey interspersed with storms and unlikely stopovers, the squadron commanded by her father, of 35 units and over 6,000 people, women, children and military personnel, were allowed to land at Bizerte – Tunisia, a French Protectorate at that time. For four years, the families lived “Russian-style” on the torpedo boat Jarki and then on the battleship George the Victorious. They always hoped to go back to Russia. That was until 28 November 1924, when France officially recognised the USSR. Russia no longer existed. They had to leave their ships. “On the same day at 17:25, they saw the St Andrews Cross flag lowered for the last time.” The Russian community then dispersed throughout Europe.
Anastasia became a respected and well-known teacher of mathematics in a secondary school in Bizerte.
Her testimony is that of all the exiles caught up in the toils of history, forced forever to leave the land of their heart and their spirit, and make some new land their home. It’s a tribute to their dignity and courage.
The voyage, in this space with no boundaries and no visible geographical or psychological sequence, continues. The train is now rolling through Lembeyia, psychoanalytical, iconoclastic and innovative.
NOUS SOMMES TOUS DÉPENDANTS (WE ARE ALL DEPENDENT), 2001, BY PIERRE LEMBEYE (1945 on Biarritz - 2018 in Paris)
The title tells you everything you need to know. Seeing the world in bipolar mode – the good, the bad, the nice people, the nasty people, the dependents, the non-dependents – is a widespread way of looking at the world that the author wants to bring to an end, so as to observe it more clearly and change it.
Pierre Lembeye (1945 in Biarritz) is a trained doctor-psychiatrist. Towards the end of the 1960s, he went to live in Paris for his psychoanalytical “test” with Lacan. Writing has always gone hand-in-hand with his therapeutic work. He first published in scientific reviews. We Are All Dependent, his first work on addiction was to be followed by other works on themes challenging 21st century humanity and people in positions of power – dreams, disabilities, the obsession with healthcare. He has produced a more private and autobiographical work, Il était une fois Belza [He was once Belza]. In Au commencement le symptôme [At the outset, the symptom], with the philosopher Anne Christine Fournier, he explains the current workings of our society.
In We Are All Dependent, Pierre Lembeye questions our own dependencies by looking at diagnosed drug addicts, and suggests a humane and humanising approach to those who govern us.
We end our journey by exploring Shakespearia, Elizabethan, spiritual and passionate.
ROMEO AND JULIET BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (1597)
William Shakespeare (1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon – 1616 in Stratford-upon-Avon, who died in the same year as Cervantes) is a “record-breaking” playwright, with 4,281 translations of several dozen plays. The son of a glover and leather goods merchant dealing in hides and wool, a Stratford worthy who later became mayor, and of a local aristocratic woman, Mary Arden. William was the eldest of a family of three boys. At 18, he married Anne Hathaway who was seven years older than him, who gave him three children, including one boy who died at the age of 11.
At around 30 years of age, he left and moved to London where he produced works for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He often performed in the plays himself. The scripts of his plays were written with the specific intention of being performed.
Romeo and Juliet is deeply rooted in the grand tradition of tragic love stories, from Ovid to Xenophon of Ephesus – in which potions bring sleep and perhaps thoughts of death. Shakespeare’s play is specifically based on an Italian short story translated into English in 1562. The extreme physical beauty of adolescence and its overwhelming desire, one of the themes of my book L’Olivier Bleu, give rise to perfect, admirable and divine passions, embodied in Franco Zeffirelli’s film of 1978.
On coming to an end of my journey through the lands of literature – from Latin “litteratura”, meaning “writing, teaching letters” – the litterator was a teacher of reading, writing and grammar – panic overwhelms me: What about Faulkner’s These Thirteen! And Melville’s Benito Cereno! And Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands! And Don Quixote by Cervantes! – read from start to finish, with the same narrative structure as my first unpublished novel.
This is not a comprehensive list; you can’t say everything or talk about everything. The main thing is always to journey through the land of literature, which tracks the world’s history like a comet that stays just out of reach, nourishing its soul for fear of losing its “essence”.