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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

May Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

The American Fiancée by Éric Dupont

This 2012 fourth novel by French-Canadian writer Éric Dupont is the sweeping, multi-generational story of the Lamontagne family, spanning from the early 20th century to the present, leaping from Quebec to New York City to Berlin to Rome. Son of the original “American fiancée,” Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne is an ex-strongman, veteran, and passionate storyteller who begins the novel recounting his old adventures to his three children, tales that span from county carnivals in the states to the violent days in Europe fighting in WWII. His daughter Madeleine, an ambitious and mathematically-gifted child, will grow up to run a successful restaurant enterprise with her childhood friend Solange. Madeleine’s two sons, Gabriel and Michel, will grow into two very different individuals: Gabriel, the ladies’ man taking after his grandfather falls in love with a woman and follows her to Berlin where he befriends a quirky, unapologetic, mysterious old lady named Magda; Michel, following his musical dreams, becomes a famous opera singer, whose talents bring him to Rome to star in a film adaptation of Puccini’s Tosca. Each one of these wavering timelines, these differing trajectories, lives seemingly disparate and far-distanced, will coalesce and connect, as the characters will discover, in unimaginable yet beautiful ways which will evoke the cosmic and even religious interconnectedness of time and humanity.

Dupont’s novel was shortlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was also a finalist for the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award. And the praise is deserved. This almost-700-page novel is a masterful work of panoramic dimensions, incredible detail, and bewildering imagination. Over the span of a week, I read this one, glued to each page, falling deep into each chapter which were individuals novels within themselves. It is a magnificent family saga of Dickensian proportions filled with as much hilarity and good-times as heartache and sorrow. Dupont paints the inner and outer lives of a great number of wildly unique individuals as they experience a world shaped by the time, place, and society in which they find themselves. It is the work of a genius, a piece of literature that dives into art, music, history, philosophy, and religion, all the while ruminating of the relationships that define the trajectory of our lives. It was truly a remarkable read, one that made me laugh and cry and get swept away in the unpredictable twists and turns and revelations that punctuate such an entertaining entanglement of tales. This novel is an unspoken gem that more people should get acquainted with. Cannot wait to read more of his work.

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson

This 2017 eighth novel by French writer Philippe Besson is the moving story of two teenage students and their blossoming romantic affair. Philippe is a soft-spoken, book-reading, seventeen-year-old, the son of a school principal; Thomas, a little older than Philippe, is a daring, good-looking, mysterious son of a farmer with a propensity for danger. It is their senior year at a strict private school in the picturesque village of Barbezieux, southwest of Paris, France and the two, having eyed each other clandestinely from across fields, hallways, and classrooms, begin a hidden and dangerous love affair. Keeping the normal façade of daily live, the two steal time to meet in secret, in the refuge of abandoned buildings, empty sheds, even vacant locker rooms, where they can live, exist, thrive in the sanctity of an intense young love. But as their tiny word grows and flourishes, the outside one threatens to impede upon theirs, and what ensues is a heartbreaking, moving, beautiful portrait of a complicated, and doubtlessly passionate love story.

The novel won the 2017 Maison de la Presse prize and is often compared to Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. Indeed there are hints of Aciman’s protagonist Elio in Besson’s Philippe, however, more striking are the questions raised about the veracity of Lie With Me, how the story itself is rather a memoir than a piece of fiction. The short novel, sometimes even considered a novella, contains three chapters, each comprised of short vignettes, almost like confessions or diary entries. Each passage meanders into the next, spilling the thoughts, emotions, musings, everyday details of a complicated, intelligent teenager. And that the novel is formed in a frame narrative harkens, too, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a novel which strives to capture the similar complexities of a taboo teenage affair. And yet, despite the comparisons, Besson’s novel is unique, a tale unlike the others, one which stands alone. His characters are individuals, their relationship unique, incomparable, and realistic. It is a portrait of an intricate bond, one which defies reason, understanding, and simultaneously evokes the attributes that define what it means to be human. It is a short, fantastic novel; I read it cover to cover.

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

This 1938 debut novel by French existentialist philosopher is the story of Antoine Roquentin, a despondent and dejected historian who begins to believe that instances, events, strangers, and even objects contain a force which threatens his ability to perceive the world and himself, resulting in an increasingly frequent feeling of nausea. Antoine used to be outgoing, gregarious, even adventurous, often seizing opportunities and taking risks; but over the years, he has become estranged from his family and friends, more introverted, and often seeks solace in his historical studies and near-daily perambulations around the city of Paris. He frequents cafes and pubs and eavesdrops on others’ conversations, fabricates scenarios, and ruminates on ideas that further distance himself from others, his surroundings, and the world at large, eventually fomenting an existential crisis and descent into insanity.

I picked this one up–finally after many months owning a copy and wanting to read it–because I was tired of finding the plenteous allusions to it in other famous works of literature. Sartre is a famous name, and his ideas pervade 20th century literature and criticism, so much so that I knew every time I came across the word ‘nausea’ there was likely a subtle hint to the French philosopher. The novel was an interesting experience, not nearly as gratifying and entertaining as I thought it might be, but I wonder if that is due at least in part to my limited familiarity with existentialism. Most interesting, I found, was Sartre’s treatment of the city– both Paris and the fictional ‘Bouville’ –almost like characters rather than a setting. Roquentin’s relationship with the city is two-fold and contradictory: he is infatuated with the city, its inhabitants, and he is dependent upon the city, yet he is also disgusted by it, terrified of it, and often loses himself among the streets and buildings. A ‘city novel’ like this one reminded me of Hamsun’s Hunger which I read a while back and will have to revisit sometime soon, though I doubt I’ll reread this one again any time soon.

The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen

The Copenhagen Trilogy by Danish poet and author Tove Ditlevsen consists of three short autobiographical novels. The first volume, Childhood, published in 1967, depicts Tove’s childhood growing up in Copenhagen during the 1920’s. Set in poor, working class neighborhood, Tove is a young girl, an aspiring poet drawn to the beauty and mystery words, yet she is awkward, shy, and fearful, but after she befriends the rebellious Ruth, she begins to embark on many a mischievous adventure and slowly starts to come into her own. This first volume is a vivid snapshot of childhood with all its ups and downs, complexities and conundrums, and at once a searing depiction of the importance of female friendship and family.

The second volume, Youth, also published in 1967, depicts Ditlevsen’s adolescence and burgeoning adulthood during the late 1920’s and early ‘30’s just as Europe falls into war. After being forced to leave school early, Tove is thrust into the adult world, taking on a series of low-paying, blue-collar jobs–from nannying to housekeeping–and having to fend for herself against shady bosses, tyrannical landlords, and misogynistic men. And yet amid the challenges, Tove finds her poetic voice and achieves her first successes in the publishing industry, what will inevitably inspire a lifelong career as a poet.

The third and final volume, Dependency, published in 1971, captures Ditlevsen’s tumultuous, harrowing struggle with opioid addiction. She has just entered her twenties, a famous, published poet with a prospering career, already married and a mother, with the world at her fingertips, when she slips into a vicious addiction after a surgical procedure. It is an addiction that leads her down a road paved with unspeakable hardships–affairs, unwanted pregnancies, artistic failures, familial strain, depression, and so much more. And as she falls deeper and deeper into despair, slowly succumbing to the deadly dependency, it is her enduring love for writing, the flittering flame in her heart, that keeps her holding on.

I read these three books over the course of two weeks, unable to put them down, unable to stop thinking about them. Ditlevsen has captured a world in these three works, one shadowed with hardship and loss, with heartache and despondency, trial and error, and unspeakable pain; and yet, it is also a world brightened with ambition, resilience, and love; it is her incredible life. Tove Ditlevsen became one of the most famous Danish poets of her time, but her life, her experiences which paved the way to her fame, was not one of glamor and extraordinariness, but of authenticity, humanness, and in her elegant prose, it is this honesty and empathy which pours and permeates the text in wondrous abundance. There is an intimacy in these works, an encapsulation of emotion, intelligence, a personal vibrance which overtakes the reader and pulls them into her world, her mind, her art. This trilogy was more moving that I could have anticipated, and more enthralling, invigorating, and fascinating that I could have foreseen. These are works that shed light unto the dark corners of life, revealing the unanswerable questions at the heart of humanity and illuminating the invisible tethers which bind one another together, the essence of being human. Absolutely incredible.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik

This 1997 third novel by Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik is two stories interwoven into one. Set in northern Norway, Vibeke is a single mother and it is the day before her son Jon’s ninth birthday. Caught in a frenzy of a snowstorm and impending festivities, the two embark on two very different yet eerily similar journeys. In what begins as an effort to plan for the celebration, Vibeke winds up at a local library, from there perambulating the local fair wherein she meets a mysteriously attractive festival worker with whom she finds herself strangely enamored, whom she finds she is unable to draw herself away from. Concurrently, Jon sets out to sell lottery tickets for some short cash before embarking on a winter-land adventure, playing with the local children in the snow, trekking to the neighbors’ houses, and even taking rides from strangers. Their respective trajectories entwine with a sense of longing, suspense, and dread, as well as a love that pushes common understanding of the term.

This was a very interesting read. Ørstavik’s prose is sparse, swift, efficient, and yet evocative, picturesque, and intimate. She writes with fluid movement and a keen eye for subtlety. However, most interesting about this short novel is that the two separate stories, the two distant narratives are depicted simultaneously, not just interwoven and entwined, but superimposed onto one another in a seamless sequence of description. Each short section flows from the previous, each sentence pouring into the next, leaping from one perspective to the other, which demands attention and interpretation from the reader. It is easy to fall prey to her beautiful streams of description and meticulous detail, but deciphering which narrative to follow spurs the engagement in Ørstavik’s writing. It is beautifully, imaginatively constructed; an evocative portrait of two complicated individuals and the emotional relationships that lash them to the world and each other.

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

This 2009 second book by Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin is a collection of twenty genre-bending, darkly comedic, and completely bizarre short stories, all of which defy categorization and thwart accurate depiction. Trapped travelers attempt to escape a ghostly train station; a divorced couple struggles with their daughter who eats live birds; a man faces a series of dangerous tests as part an obscure interview process; two restaurant customers are surprised by an accident in the kitchen; a troubled woman befriends a merman; a painter with a violent past struggles to socialize; a local toy shop takes on a new helper with a colorful talent; an enigmatic miner regales painful past tales to a patron at a bar; a murder becomes an unlikely art exhibition; and many more. These are stories which confront, subvert, and obliterate social expectations and reveal a depraved side of humanity which remains in the shadows, in the corners of the seedy underground inhabited by those who indulge their most based instincts without remorse nor relent.

On her collection, author J.M. Coatzee wrote: “The Grimm Brothers and Franz Kafka pay a visit to Argentina in Samanta Schweblin’s darkly humorous tales of people who have slipped through cracks or fallen down holes into alternate realities” which I think is an apt description to say the least. Schweblin’s tales are beyond weird, beyond uncanny, beyond wild, so much so that with each line read, my face fell deeper and deeper into a bewildered grimace, one which settled and remained until the bitter end. These tales capture an imagination unlike any I have ever come across. And her writing is as elegant as it is efficient; terse, fluid, descriptive, encapsulating. Aside from the graphic depictions of violence, interesting, too, were the various repeating images–trains, dogs, birds, holes–and other underlying themes which hinted at certain philosophical nuances and coaxed interpretation with a multitude of ways. There is so much contained in these twenty short stories, each in itself like a Twilight Zone episode that leaves the audience in puzzlement, shock, and awe. It was absolutely brilliant, and I cannot wait to revisit this collection time after time again.

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

This 1994 seventh novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy is the second installment in The Border Trilogy. Set in the 1930’s at the southern border of Arizona, the story begins with sixteen-year-old Billy Parham and his little brother Boyd tracking down a she-wolf which has been marauding his family’s range and neighbors’. Unsuccessful, Billy, determined and fearless, sets out across the plain alone and manages to track and trap the animal and intends to return it to its home across the Mexican border into the mountains. On his perilous journey, Billy encounters ruthless cowboys, robbers, and a myriad of obstacles that span from the natural elements to the cruelty of mankind. Returning home, Billy is beset by horrific tragedy, and he and his brother are suddenly thrust into the harsh world, forced to survive on their wits, will, and spirit which are forever challenged out on the great plains.

Like all of his works that I’ve read, this one absolutely consumed me. McCarthy’s style and imagination is truly uncontested, incomparable, and this novel, like his others, is a product of unparalleled genius. What begins seemingly as a story of determination, willpower, conflict against the elements of the natural and animal world quickly transforms into a something completely unexpected–a meandering, bleak, violent, picaresque novel that sheds light unto the indiscriminate cruelty of humanity. Painted in his signature prose–simultaneously sparse and detailed, terse and grandiloquent, and fluctuating from English to Spanish–with senseless and graphic violence, McCarthy explores the grotesque, the inhuman, and the intersections of religion and philosophy, morality and immorality, life and death, fate and freewill. The artistic, intellectual, and psychological breadth of this novel cannot be understated. It is easily one of the greatest works I’ve ever read; an experience truly unlike any I’ve had, and one that I cannot wait to reexperience time and time over again.

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