Friday, October 9, 2009

The big black chair and the little white book

I wanted to write about this book I was reading, I've been wanting to write about it for a while now. Today was the day but first I had to find a place to sit. You'd think in a house there would be a place to sit. But in my own house, in which there are, among other things, a kitchen, a bedroom, a lovely large office all my own, and the world's most enormous living room, I don't have a place I'm so happy to sit because my big black chair has been moved out of the living room for no reason other than its unintentional crime of being unsightly. Poor big black chair, and even more so, given that the big black chair really has no feelings: poor me!

For several weeks, the chair was positioned in my office in such a way that I couldn't really lean back in it, defeating 9/10ths of its purpose. About a week ago, I did reposition it to lean back, and I can see out both windows now (green turning to yellow, reflected overhead light in the one windowpane, wonderful snatches of cold silver cloud-sky dancing/peeking through the shifting leaf canopy, dripping wetness residue) - but it's just very hemmed-in feeling, compared to sitting in this chair as if on a throne surveying the endless landscape, the way I used to in the living room. So I'm in mourning for my previous seating. And maybe I'll manage to get it restored.

In the meantime: The elegance of the hedgehog! Or, perhaps more pertinently: L'élégance du hérisson. Because I think probably at least 9/10ths (there's that same fraction again! a pattern in the universe?) of the pleasure I had in reading it was because I was reading it in French. After my year in Berlin immersed in German (when I wasn't, in fact, around English speakers, and you can guess what fraction of the time *that* was!), what a pleasure to find I can easily read a novel in French (depending on the novel, not so easy in German - I might know all the individual words but it's unconscionable the order they put the darn things in, so twisty-turny it takes forever to read).

Book group is this Sunday and I'll compare notes with my friends who have read it in English. I already know, because hubby read it in English and got stuck on page 100, and I myself peeked at the English sometimes when I got stuck on a word in the French (which I did frequently, more about that later), that the English is a little stiff and wooden.

And the weird thing is: for all I know, the French might be too! I somehow don't think so, but it's not like I read in French that often and so it's hard to compare. It was just so much fun to sit here and read. There were things that brought me up short - OK, right about now I guess I need to say what the deal is with this story.

There's a concierge who lives in a big building of rich people, and the concierge herself, though poor, is tremendously intelligent and very very well-read, but she feels she has to hide that from the other people in the house. (This was the first thing that brought me up short: that seemed very unmotivated, the fact that she had to hide her intelligence and erudition. But it turned out that was an important thing that got explained later.) Meanwhile, upstairs, there lives a little rich girl, 12 years old, who is also tremendously smart, and lives with her smart family but they're all smart in the wrong way or about the wrong things and don't understand her nor she them, and she feels there is no meaning and she's just going to grow up to live an idiotic life, so she has decided to kill herself on her 13th birthday.

That's the premise. There you go.

And I read it very happily.

The thing is that I was brought up short on every single page with long complicated or just unfamiliar words I didn't understand at all, or at least didn't undersand at first.

I tried gliding past them.
I tried looking them up.
I tried rereading the passage, sometimes many times over, to make it out and understand the troublesome words from context.
I tried, later on, going to read the same passage in the English translation (as I said: kind of wooden - really made me feel like going back and attempting my own translation, or at least my own edit of the English - but realistically - is that going to happen?)

All of the above worked at various times, and I got more and more hooked. Weirdly, this book has a smallish element of people who are into Anna Karenina and name animals after characters - and we just read Anna Karenina last month in book group.

After I'd read a few pages, I decided to go back and write down some of the things I'd had a hard time with. Here they are, just from the very first pages:

éructation
que par hoquets propres et sans vices
un diable qui s'appelle CGT
je marmonne (I wrote: "murmure"? - that turned out to be right)
scindé (I wrote: "probably 'divided' ")
grassouillette
les oignons aux pieds
auto-incommodants
rouages ("gears"? I wondered)
revêches ("something negative")
velléitaires
ces relents plébéiens
mon cabas à filet (I figured out: "string shopping bag")

Finally, all of the above I either, as I said, looked up, figured out, or glided past - and now I have forgotten again what at least half of them mean but I got enough of the meaning in the moment to keep moving through.

Funnily, sometimes when I went to look at the matching English sentence or passage, which I did towards the end of the book more, the English often used a word I didn't know either! So it wasn't my French exactly.

I do want to try to say why I enjoyed reading this book so much and I feel like I'm not quite getting at it. It's understated. I think I liked that. It didn't feel like it was working too hard to please me, and the pleasures it afforded were really in the individual sentences, and the characters I ended up caring about somewhat and the plot that unfolded kind of came on me unawares while I was untangling the sentences - not at all how I usually read.

So that's pretty much it. Now I'm reading the book she wrote before this one (sorry, I didn't say who "she" is: Muriel Barbery). The book before this one is called Une gourmandise and the two are connected - Une gourmandise is all about the rich snobby food critic who lives upstairs in the concierge's building and actually, in the central turning point of L'élégance du hérisson, dies, in order to make possible new and interesting changes in people's lives and relationships. In Une gourmandise the death is also the central event but the whole book I guess is about the 24 hours leading up to the death (I've only just started the book).

So here I am sitting in my big black chair with my striped blue toe socks on, feet in the air in front of me, both of the little white books now next to me (because I just went and got Une gourmandise a moment ago to remind myself of the exact name) and as I intimated before, it's a wet day out, but the threatened floods have not quite hit us yet, so I will get a little editorial work done.

Ladies' walking continues to be a wonderful anchor, this morning four of us, in shifting groups of three, eventually found each other in the neighborhood in spite of the threatening rain. Yesterday a Rumanian German author got the Nobel literature prize and this morning Barack Obama got the Nobel peace prize, so there's all of that to think about and sort through, and indeed so much more.

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