Book Review, Fiction, French, Gay Lit, GLBT

Review: Le Livre Blanc by Jean Cocteau

Le Livre Blanc by Jean Cocteau
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 35


Le Livre Blanc was first published anonymously in 1928.  Many people immediately attributed the work to Cocteau, based on its themes, style, and presence of characters from other Cocteau works; however, Cocteau remained coy about whether or not the work was his, even going so far as to pretend to accept unearned credit for it.  Margaret Crosland tells us that Cocteau, in a letter regarding authorship of the book, says: “. . . be not uneasy if you find it in you to attribute this book to me.  I’d not be in the least bit ashamed of it.  And I simply beg the unknown author’s forgiveness for thus taking unfair usurping advantage of his anonymity.”  Of course, Cocteau is doing what he does in his stories, which is to blend a certain amount of fact with a necessary amount of fiction.  His works are not autobiographical, but they certainly draw from his real life experiences.  Similarly, he would have taken credit for this book if he could have, but it was too dangerous.  The book describes the life of a homosexual, freely and in no uncertain terms, including various sexual escapades.  It also makes a passionate plea, in the end, not just for “tolerance” of homosexuals, but for free, un-arguable acceptance.  The topic, today, is still touchy for many people, but in 1928 it could have been suicidal and career-damaging to put one’s name to such thoughts. 

The term “Le Livre Blanc” is used in France to describe official legal (parliamentary) documents; it is the same (“White Paper”) term used for the same types of documents in England.  So, though the conclusion of the story is an emotional crying-out for social and political change, in regards to how this certain group of people are viewed and treated, the majority of the text itself is presented not in emotional terms, but as pure fact.  This lends itself well to that final passage because the point or moral, if you will, is that “we people just happen to exist.”  It is almost a sociological documentary in print, particularly after the inclusion of the semi-erotic (although, in my opinion, they are not so much erotic as they are explicit, which could also be said of this story) ink drawings included in the later editions of the book. 

There is not much to be said about characterization, since it is rather limited.  This is acceptable, however, because the story is not so much about the narrator’s personal journey or the growth/development of any one person within the tale; rather, it is about the presence, acknowledgment and acceptance of an entire group of people as members of the human community and as typical people experiencing the human condition as anyone else would.  The descriptions are sparse but raw and to the point, mirroring the uncomplicated, direct prose and the simple style.  Cocteau does not want to complicate his message with tricky construction or complicated language, which turns out to be not only the appropriate choice, but the most effective one.   

Ultimately, the book works as both a descriptive narrative which one can enjoy and also as a historically significant and socially important case study on homosexual culture.  It presents the existence of gay men and women as being a fact of life, then takes us on a journey with a young man who travels the ups-and-downs of life and love, as we all do.  He tries and fails at relationships and love; he tries and fails at discovering and rediscovering himself.  At one point, he seeks out a place in the Abbey, grasping onto religion with both hands, in hopes that this new focus would cure him and allow him to re-enter the world as a “pure” and renewed (normal) man.  This, of course, does not work, and the final pages reflect a truer self-realization for the narrator which coincides with the authors wish that he and this group of people be viewed as simply people.   For readers interested in the history of gay literature, this book is a necessity. 


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: HS+
Interest:  Homosexuality, Cultural Studies, GLBT History, Art and Literature,  France.


Notable Quotes:

“I will not agree to be tolerated.  This damages my love of love and of liberty.”

“The world accepts dangerous experiments in the realm of art because it does not take art seriously; but it condemns them in life.”

“In exiling myself I am not exiling a monster, but a man whom society will not allow to live, since it considers one of the mysterious cogs in God’s masterpiece to be a mistake.”

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1001 Books, Book Review, Classics Club, Emile Zola, Fiction, French, Literature, Victorian, Victorian Celebration

Review: Germinal by Emile Zola

Germinal by Emile Zola

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 23


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

If you ever want to read a book about miners, or a book about family, or a book about unions, or a book about poverty, or a book about the whole wide-world and how awful and wonderful, hopeful and disappointing, romantic and coldly real it is – if you ever want to read a book about humanity and everything that it means, Germinal is that book. The book is one in Zola’s famous twenty-book series, Les Rougan-Macquart.  It is considered to be the best of the series and also Zola’s crowning achievement – a masterpiece. Its purpose is to expose and lament the horrendous and inhumane working and living conditions of miners in rural France during the 1860s.  Germinal vilifies the excesses and indulgencies of the bourgeoisie, while lauding Socialism and Darwinism.  Etienne Lantier, the main character (who first appears in Zola’s L’Assommoir), is an outsider – a wandering mechanic who is searching for employment.  His rise to leadership in the mining community is almost accidental and highly unlikely, in that he never intended to become a worker, nor did he plan to stay in the community.  Yet, as he spends time with these poor creatures, he realizes that someone must force a change – soon, after hours of study and correspondence with strike leaders in Paris- he unites the miners and leads a revolt, with heartbreaking consequences.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Germinal has a host of characters, primarily Etienne and the Maheude family, with whom he lives after his decision to stay at the mining colony.  There are mining women and mining men, managers and invalids, wealthy owners, Parisian visitors, and revolutionaries of all types (including simple strikers and also full anarchists).  There are bar owners, retirees, abusive husbands, whorish daughters, and every imaginable person in-between.  While Zola certainly creates a great and diverse community, with nearly every conceivable character, few of them truly stand out on their own.  Chaval, in his animalistic brutality is one, as is Etienne as the primary focus.  La Maheude, the sensible mother and ultimately one of the most tragedy-stricken of the cast, is interesting particularly in contrast to the other female-mother figures of the village (in that she, for the most part, seems more responsible, less prone to impulse, and, on the whole, a genuine person).  Still, the downfall to such a large cast of characters is that not much time is spent developing many of them, even the major ones.  Etienne certainly has a journey and he changes somewhat over time – but, in the end, it is the community itself, as a whole, which is being characterized.  The community is what is alive – what is awakened.  The miners, as a group, are the story – it is their journey, their oppression, their battle, their failure, which constitutes the growth and development, here.  Their larger story is more interesting to witness than any single story within it.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

For the longest time, I was nervous about reading Zola.  I find French literature to be either extraordinarily appealing (Victor Hugo) or almost impossible to bear (Marcel Proust).  Fortunately, Zola reads to me similarly to the greatest Russian writers – like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. It is simultaneously beautiful, self-reflective, and transporting.  The language of Germinal is warm and real, it allows you to feel enveloped, but never loses sight of the fact that it is the means to an end – its purpose is to guide the reader through an instructive, meaningful story.  There are moments, such as in the description of the miners’ final revolt, where all sense of restraint has been cast off, when the story seems to press onward with a fierce intensity, like a tidal wave rolling mightily onward, unstoppable – dangerous.  And there are moments of pure tenderness, as when Etienne and Catherine come together after being held apart for so long.  The dialogue is well-crafted and the voices of the bourgeoisie and the managers are distinctly different from that of the miners.  The story itself is powerful, but the prose takes it to a transcendent level.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

When Emile Zola passed away, his funeral was attended by masses of people.  At the ceremony, they began to chant: “Germinal! Germinal!”  It is telling that the crowd would call out the name of this one book, even though the author had been such a prolific writer – it is telling and it is understandable.  Germinal, similar to its peers (such as Les Miserables, War and Peace, and The Grapes of Wrath) is an epic tale about “the people.”  It’s a story of desire and passion, working life, family, friendships, and community.  The nature of humanity, from its most noble capacities to its darkest, most dangerous possibilities, is explored in microscopic detail, painful and wondrous to witness. It is, quite literally, a tale about germination – the planting of a seed, an idea, and the birth and growth of a movement.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School/Adult
Interest: France, Labor, Working Class, Mining Life, Revolution, Sexual Desire, Politics, Philosophy, Class Studies.

Notable Quotes:

“Coal transmits sound over great distances with the clarity of crystal.”

“He went away calmly like an exterminating angel, headed for anywhere that he could find dynamite to blow up cities and the men who live in them.”

“There’s no pleasure in life when you’ve lost your hope.”

“You’re better off on your own, there’s nobody to disagree with.”

“When the men and the girl came back from the pit, they’d have to eat again; for nobody had yet discovered how to live without eating, unfortunately.”

“If people can just love each other a little bit, they can be so happy.”

“Blow the candle out, I don’t need to see what my thoughts look like.”


–Germinal is book #121 completed for the 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” Challenge.

–Germinal is Book #4 completed for the Victorian Celebration.

Germinal is Book #4 completed for The Classics Club.

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Existentialism, Fiction, French, Gay Lit, Jean Genet

Review: Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet


Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 25
Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Our Lady of the Flowers is existentialism for gay French drag queens. Seriously.  The story is narrated by one of its characters, who is retelling the story of his life from prison, except that he is creating the characters and situations in his head (for the most part), and then transplanting personalities he meets in prison to recreate people from his own life.  The reader doesn’t really know who the narrator is, except that he’s interacted with these less-than-laudable characters in incredibly intimate ways and possibly his connection to those people is what landed him behind bars. There is a very real pain and longing in this narrator, which comes across in the way he tells his story and by his choice of characters (recreating his mother, for instance, or retelling the story of his first “love”).  It was difficult for me to understand the purpose, though, other than a stark portrait of the life of French homosexuals in the 1940s which aided the narrator in adding a certain “spice” to his dull time in prison – much of what he is writing seems to be for his own purpose, to entertain him and to “assist” him.  Jean-Paul Sartre called this an “epic of masturbation” for good reason.  It is, of course, also about transgression as means to freedom and trans-valuation of morals as means for expression.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

Darling Daintyfoot, a masculine gay pimp.  Divine, his drag queen lover.  Our Lady of the Flowers, a thief and murderer.  This makes up the core trio of Genet’s story.  There is also, of course, the book’s narrator (who does refer to himself as Jean – so we are to assume that the book is at least semi-autobiographical).  The reader spends the greatest amount of time with Jean in prison, as he writes his story and comments on the things happening around him, and with Divine – as he (she) seems to be playing the party of betrayed/scorned lover.  The two have clear similarities, including doubts about self-image and sensitivity to jealousies.  Darling and Our Lady of the Flowers (A.K.A. Danie, A.K.A. Maurice) have distinct personalities as well.  Darling is clearly self-absorbed and a bit oblivious.  Our Lady is naïve but dangerous.  They both seem to be incredible lovers, so though Divine wants to leave their little ménage-a-troise, he (she) can’t seem to pull herself away.  Of course, if Jean’s descriptions of the characters, their physical beauties and prowess, and their actions are realistic in anyway, it’s almost hard to blame poor, silly little Divine.

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

The language and prose were perhaps the strongest elements of the book.  There is an oxymoronic beauty to this story – it is a rather crude, bare tale, but it is told so beautifully, so ethereally, that you almost forget about what exactly it is you’re reading, because it reads so well.  That being said, the style leaves a bit to be desired.  Although the language is gorgeous and though Genet has a clear mastery of prose, the loftiness (“floweriness”) of it, coupled with the fact that there are no chapter breaks whatsoever, often made it feel as if I were swimming through Jell-O, rather than water.  There was fluidity, but also a thickness that became almost oppressive at times and forced me to take many breaks.

 
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

This “inside-look” at the periphery of French society was certainly interesting and ground-breaking.  Never, before this book, had there been such a blatant presentation of gay culture and lifestyle in literature (and thereby, in society).  What Genet does with inversion of principals (death as erotic; betrayal a virtue; murder as sexual virility and attraction) is interesting in and of itself, but particularly as a means to an end, the end being liberation and freedom for gays and lesbians.  There is a deep fear and sadness woven through this story, spoken softly at times but more often only implied – a fear for one’s physical safety, sadness over one’s lack of legal right.  Much of what Genet writes in this book, much of what the French homosexual population was battling in the 1940s is what American culture struggles with now, so for a modern reader it certainly rings true and remains current and effective.

 
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Literature, French Literature, GLBT Lit

Notable Quotes:
“My heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught.”

“The despondency that follows makes me feel somewhat like a shipwrecked man who spies a sail, sees himself saved, and suddenly remembers that the lens of his spyglass has a flaw, a blurred spot — the sail he has seen.” 

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Book Review, Fairy Tale, Fantasy, Fiction, French, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Literature, Mathias Malzieu, Monthly Review, Phantasmagoria, Postmodernism, Steampunk

Review: The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu

The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 53

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

Malzieu’s The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a fantastical tale of one boy’s struggle to love “normally” and not “crookedly.”  The reader meets the boy, Jack, at birth, where a strange confluence of events results in his infant heart being fused with a cuckoo-clock, in what would be a 19th Century makeshift-pacemaker.  We ride along with him to witness his first encounter with Miss Acacia and his discovery of the idea of love (or perhaps, more correctly and eerily, a ten-year old boy’s discovery of “lust”) and how that love grows, painfully and tragically, over time.  The story is told in the style of, perhaps, the Brothers Grimm or Lewis Carroll, a phantasmagorical-type whimsy which shares an innate fatalism as the likes of Hans Christian Andersen.  The tale certainly bears more relationship to the original story of The Little Mermaid than it does to the Disney version, which means there is no happy ending – so do not be expecting one.  When I say the prose was believable, I am not being literal in any sense. The story on its surface is completely bizarre, imperfect and, at times, hard to follow.  Still, it is magical in the old-school sense of literary-wizardry.  There is something of Cormier’s I am the Cheese in the looped and revelatory ending, coupled with the almost scary fantasy of Spenser’s epic tale, The Fairie Queene (referring largely to the employment of allegory and symbolism, and not to imply that this book is written in verse).  The reader is led to believe, right up to the end, that Jack may finally get the girl and learn to live with his new heart but, alas, only one of these realities may come to pass.  There is something truly great and real about this, though, and though we learn some disturbing things about Dr. Madeline, the witch-doctor who places that cuckoo-clock in Jack’s chest, we also can understand and appreciate her sad motivation.  

Characterization:
2 – Characters slightly developed.

The novel’s only downfall, for me, is the characterization and character development, or lack thereof.  We do see Jack grow and learn from his mistakes, though he goes off repeatedly on the same doomed journey but, other than this, we do not learn much about any of the characters and what we do know remains static throughout.  The story is strengthened in this regard due to the fact that it is, really, a fairy tale and not a traditional novel, so not as much time or attention needs to be paid to its characters, since the importance is meant to be placed on the story itself and its delivery (which is extraordinary).  Fairy tales are often didactic or morality tales, and they are meant to be told in a beautiful way, but without much depth.  This is certainly the case for The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart as, somehow, the reader is meant to believe that this boy could fall so head-over-heels in love and lust for a girl at the age of ten, and then to pursue her across the continent, repeatedly, even journeying after her again when he has just come out of a months-long coma. The character relationships are weak and are not really meant to be trusted, but this is because the real story is the action of Jack’s growing up – putting aside his old, wooden clock of fantasy and accepting his new, logical clock, which keeps him more firmly grounded in reality.  Still, had the author managed to somehow maintain this creepy, fantastical tale and also incorporate deeper, more realistic or at least rounded characters, the beautiful fairy tale could, perhaps, have become a great novel.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

From the first sentence of the first page, Malzieu’s characteristically-French prose (translated into English quite masterfully) drew me in completely.  It is clear that the author spent much time on the style and prose, so as to allow his story to unfold in the disturbingly magical way that it does – a feat that would not have been accomplished in most circumstances.  Many reviews find the novel’s prose to be the only redeeming quality for the book, and I can understand this sentiment, as it far outshines the characterization and the plot itself, the former being weak and the latter being simply bizarre.  Still, Malzieu certainly understands that his story is strange and extraordinary – it is the mark of a true artist that he managed to deliver the unusual story with a unique and effective prose and style, equal to the peculiarity of the fairy tale.  There are some confusing historical references, such as the comments on the Tour de France which, as far as I know, was not happening in the late-1800s, but it is possible to accept these as confusion from a narrator who is reflecting on the story of his boyhood while writing as an older man or to accept them as flaws in the story and move on (as I did).  Also, some of the sexual references can be odd, particularly when coming from a ten year old, but upon reflection and discussion with others about when (and how) boys begin to fantasize, I believe these burgeoning sexual feelings are acceptable, if not completely comfortable.  There is something very similar in style to Shane Jones’s Light Boxes, which begins to make me wonder if we are on the cusp of a new literary movement.  How exciting!

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
The Boy with the Cuckoo-clock Heart is a terrifying marriage of Peter Pan and Pinocchio.  We have, here, the fantasy-boy, whose life and self-image is largely designed by a lonely, childless elder, similar to Pinocchios Geppetto, and we have the boy’s struggle with maturity and growth – the Peter Pan who never wants to grow up, or who just cannot figure out how to do it.  The story is a dark and cynical fairy tale which, admittedly, will not be for everyone; in fact, I would be reluctant to recommend the book to anyone, as it is rather sad, confusing, and bizarre.  That being said, the overall sentiment is the dangerous power of love – unwelcome, unrequited, unrealized, or unknown.  It is one of the most fascinating and ever-present themes in literature and in life.  Malzieu delivers his version of this never-ending story in an eccentric way, but it is outlandishly beautiful and poignant, despite the failures in characterization and the not-so-happy ending.  

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Literary
Interest: Postmodernism,  French Literature, Coming-of-Age,  Phantasmagoria, Fairy Tale

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Book Review, Classics, Fiction, French, Historical, Victor Hugo

Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s achievement with Les Miserables is in stunning and breath-taking. Not only is the story superb, realistic, and moving, but it is complemented by aspects of French philosophy, history, and politics. When beginning this novel, I had no idea that I would be exposed to, and learn so much about, French history and culture. Napoleon Bonaparte, Waterloo, Louis VIII, the Guillotine, European relations, the gamins, prisons, crime and punishment, religion, morality – all of this is examined with a literary microscope; meanwhile, love, poetry, song, revolution, family, and society are all exposed to the scrutiny of an expelled patriot. The story of Jean Valjean is heartbreaking and vindicating. Cosette and Marius, lovers despite the odds. Javert, the intensely dutiful (to a fault) inspector, and his tragic revelations. Gavroche, the beautiful underprivileged. Fantine, the lost and compromised woman, taken advantage of while trying to care for her daughter. Eponine, Fauchelevent, the Nuns, the Gillenormands, all minor but telling characters – described incredibly and delicately by Hugo. What most impressed me is how Hugo described the history and purpose of each detail, to demonstrate it’s importance. Chapters of the novel are devoted to explaining seemingly insignificant points of detail, such as the prisons, the chain gangs, the slang language – all of which come into play during the story, but become active and live characters on their own merits, because of Hugo’s attention to them. I cannot say enough about this novel – it is truly a masterpiece and I can’t wait to see the musical.

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