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Review: “A Very French Christmas: The Greatest French Holiday Stories of All Time” #FranceBT

8 Aug

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My Review

A Very French Christmas: The Greatest French Holiday Stories of All Time is a joy to hold and page through, as it is beautifully produced–not surprising since it comes from New Vessel Press. This collection of fourteen stories derives primarily from the late nineteenth century, the heyday of Christmas stories, one might say, given the popularity of annual Christmas tales from Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and others. But A Very French Christmas feels very French, and also very fresh, owing to the inclusion of a long story by twentieth-century writer Irène Némirovsky and new stories by contemporary writers Jean-Philippe Blondel and Dominique Fabre, commissioned expressly for this book. Although these stories can be sentimental and heartwarming at times, many of them have a bracing quality, taking an ironic view of holiday celebrations, and exploring the way people’s desires and expectations for the season can be confounded.  This is equally true of the older stories.

Jean-Philippe_Blondel-Festival_international_de_géographie_2011_(2)

The collection opens with a new story, “The Gift,” by Jean-Philippe Blondel, who is known for his recent, well-received novel, The 6:41 to Paris.  Like that novel, this story presents another unexpected meeting between a man and woman, this time at a Christmas luncheon. Thomas, age 79 and divorced, is inwardly lamenting his feeling of abstraction from his family, gathered for their annual holiday meal at his son’s restaurant. They don’t really know him, he believes, but have erected a new identity for him as “grandpa.” Perhaps he doesn’t truly know them either, fitting each of them into his own pigeonholes.  While he is musing in this rather self-absorbed way, he is brought back to life by spotting a woman he knows seated at another table.

It’s at this moment she turns her head slightly toward me and our eyes meet.

I hear a faint explosion far away. It’s like a summer storm in the middle of winter, or the start of fireworks whose noise is muffled by the distance. I can’t take myself away from her gaze. My memory has turned into a crazy machine, searching all my internal libraries for the relevant novel, and in this heap of cards and photographs that we store inside ourselves, the information that I need is right there. Because I know her.

I’m sure I know her.

His reaction is nearly physical panic–blushing, heart palpitations, that feeling that one might die from the intensity of the moment–the reactions of a much younger man, and he is thrown back in memory to four decades ago when he made her intimate acquaintance. She was a co-worker in his company, but one night she became more than that to him. And here they are meeting again. Was it chance? The answer is surprising in this well-crafted story.

PaulArene

After this fine start, we move back a century and a half to “St. Anthony and His Pig” (1880) by Paul Arène. But in reality, the story takes us back to the early centuries of the Christian era when St. Anthony lived alone in the Egyptian desert, fighting the battle for sanctity, with his only company being the devils who tormented him and his faithful pig Barrabas. Flaubert had recently written his novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), so it was an opportune time for a Christmas story about the great saint’s trials. In Arène’s story, Anthony has just had six months respite from his regular temptations and prickings by a host of insidious devils. It was near Christmas, when who should visit him but a peddler of spits to roast pigs! The sly man suggests to Anthony how succulent Barrabas would be for Christmas dinner. O the torment! The mind’s imaginings are the greatest temptations, as the life of Saint Anthony abundantly proves. It is well worth following Arène’s delectable tale to the end to see what happens.

Portrait_of_Mr_Francois_CoppeeThere are three stories by François Coppée, all of the heartwarming variety and very pleasing. My favorite was “The Lost Child,” which begins with a portrait of its main character, a “millionaire banker” named M. Godefroy:

On that morning, which was the morning before Christmas, two important events happened simultaneously–the sun rose, and so did M. Jean-Baptiste Godefroy.

… And whatever opinion the sun may have about himself, he certainly has not a higher opinion than M. Jean-Baptiste Godefroy has of himself.

As director of a large bank and administrator of assorted companies, he also enjoyed the possession of many honors, including the Légion d’Honneur. This prosperous, important fellow had one son, Raoul, and no wife, because Raoul’s mother had died in childbirth. Each day, M. Godefroy devoted 15 minutes of his precious business day to a visit with his son, who spent the rest of the day with servants. Nevertheless, he loved his son and looked forward to this time with him. On this Christmas Eve morning, the son used his audience with the great man to ask, “will Father Christmas put anything in my shoe tonight?” His father answered, “Yes, if you are a good child.

After his business concluded for the day, he remembered his son’s words, and went to a toy dealer, where he bought a passel of costly presents, including a rocking horse and a box of leaden toy soldiers. But when he arrived home, the house was in an uproar and the boy’s governess was in tears because Raoul had gone missing. The story unfolds from there in a manner worthy of Dickens, and while M. Godefroy is not as miserly as Scrooge, events of this night will effect a Scrooge-like awakening.

Guy_de_Maupassant_fotograferad_av_Félix_Nadar_1888Two stories by the short story master, Guy de Maupassant, are both definitely of the confounding type, describing rather bizarre Christmas happenings. In “Christmas Eve,” a man explains to his friends his horror of Christmas Eve suppers. He recalled a night two years earlier when he went searching on the streets of Paris for a lady companion to share his supper. He preferred women with plenty of curves “a female colossus,” if possible, and he settled on a very curvaceous young woman who caught his eye. (Inevitably, this reminded me of de Maupassant’s famous story “Boule de Suif,” likewise concerning the misfortunes of a young lady of ample figure, and published just two years before this one.) By the end of the evening, the bewildered man would get a great surprise, and his reaction didn’t say much for his character! The other selection by de Maupassant, “A Miracle,” is a Christmas horror story about a strange blizzard and a woman’s possession by an evil spirit.

Anatole_France_young_yearsIn “The Juggler of Notre Dame,” by 1921’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Anatole France, an itinerant juggler named Barnabé was blessed with enough talent at his art to earn a shower of coins from the locals wherever he performed, but this was still insufficient to live on, and he often went to sleep hungry.

One night he met a monk on the road and they fell to talking and comparing their respective work. Barnabé was grateful for what he had, and declared, “I am a juggler by trade. It would be the best trade in the world if only one had something to eat every day.” The monk gently but firmly disagreed, warning his new friend to take care, asserting instead that being a monk was the most beautiful thing in the world, “for he celebrates the praises of God, the Virgin, and the saints, and religious life is a perpetual song to the Lord.”

Barnabé was a humble man and quickly confessed his mistake. Furthermore, he said that although he liked being a juggler, he would like nothing better than to the sing the daily office, especially to the Blessed Virgin, to whom he was specially devoted. The monk held the office of Prior at his monastery and he took the former juggler under his wing. In this way, Barnabé became a monk. His only regret was his lack of education and skills such as the other monks had, because he wanted to offer worthy service to the Holy Virgin.

The biography of Anatole France at the end of this collection compares this tale to “The Little Drummer Boy.” It reminded me of “A Simple Heart” in Gustave Flaubert’s Trois Contes. Both Flaubert’s story and this tale portray the emergence of unlikely saints.

The collection ends with a long story by Irène Némirovsky, who died in Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of 39. Her major fiction Suite Française was not published until 2004. “Noël,” the story included here, is written as a screenplay, giving directions for an opening montage of photographs, “the most conventional and unsophisticated images that accompany the idea of the Christmas holidays“–heavy snow, holly and mistletoe, a yule log, bright lights, voices of children, dinner parties. Snatches of song lyrics suggest the atmosphere: “Childhood…Innocence…Dawn of the world…Dawn of love…The most wonderful days...”

Although the older generation of parents is introduced, it soon becomes clear that the story will be about two sisters, Claudine and Marie-Laure, and the men pursuing them, or discarding them, at a Christmas party. A Christmas of love affairs and heartbreak and, as improbable as it might seem in this gathering of bright young things, perhaps real love? The modernity of Némirovsky’s approach sets this story apart from the tales of the previous century.

I have described so many stories, because they were all so fascinating, just as the book’s subtitle promises.  The Christmas themes are treated with a refreshing originality and variety, and I can imagine returning to reread this collection for many Christmases to come.

Stories discussed in this review:

“The Gift” (2017) by Jean-Philippe Blondel.

“St. Anthony and His Pig” (1880) by Paul Arène (trans. by J. M. Lancaster).

“The Lost Child” (1892) by François Coppée (trans. by J. Matthewman).

“Christmas Eve” (1882) by Guy de Maupassant (trans. by Frederick Caesar de Sumichrast).

“A Miracle” (1882) by Guy de Maupassant (translator unknown).

“The Juggler of Notre Dame” (1892) by Anatole France (trans. by Anna C. Brackett).

“Noël” (1932) by Irène Némirovsky (trans. by Sandra Smith, 2017).

******

A Very French Christmas:
The Greatest French Holiday Stories
of All Time

on Tour

August 8-14

***

Very French Christmas Cover

A Very French Christmas:
The Greatest French Holiday Stories
of All Time

(short story collection)

Release date: October 10, 2017
at New Vessel Press

ISBN: 978-1939931504
142 pages

Website
Goodreads

SYNOPSIS

A continuation of the very popular Very Christmas Series from New Vessel Press, this collection brings together the best French Christmas stories of all time in an elegant and vibrant collection featuring classics by Guy de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet, plus stories by the esteemed twentieth century author Irène Némirovsky and contemporary writers Dominique Fabre and Jean-Philippe Blondel.

With a holiday spirit conveyed through sparkling Paris streets, opulent feasts, wandering orphans, kindly monks, homesick soldiers, oysters, crayfish, ham, bonbons, flickering desire, and more than a little wine, this collection encapsulates the holiday spirit and proves that the French have mastered Christmas. This is Christmas à la française—delicious, intense and unexpected, proving that nobody does Christmas like the French.

THE AUTHORS

Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, Anatole France
Irène Némirovsky, Jean-Philippe Blondel, Dominique Fabre,
Paul Arene, Francois Coppee, Antoine Gustave Droz, Anatole La Braz

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“Intimations of Austen” by Jane Greensmith: A Review

5 May

 

Intimationsofausten

 
The most successful fictional characters have a way of persuading new writers to tell, retell, and reshape their stories. Such a writer is Jane Greensmith, a prodigious reader and insightful literary blogger who has chosen to let some of Jane Austen’s characters fashion untold and alternate histories for themselves in her story collection, Intimations of Austen. These stories succeed, to my mind, because, like Jane Austen, Jane Greensmith has a distinctive narrative voice that I am delighted to meet again and again.

That is not to say that her stories are all alike–not at all! They present a fascinating range of themes, emotions, and fresh points of view, all handled with clarity and command of authentic detail. Whether she chooses to speak as Mrs. Bennet, Fanny Price, Fitzwilliam Darcy, or Henry Tilney, her writing shows a particular sensitivity for the tone and texture of a marriage after the momentous dénouement of a proposal–the arc of relationship between husband and wife, or between lovers separated by circumstance or misunderstanding, sometimes over many years. And she can conjure this depth of feeling in just a few pages, with a few fraught exchanges or revelations.

In “Three Sisters” Greensmith transforms the uncertainties of the marriage market in Austen’s world into a crisp and cautionary fairy tale. The character of each sister is deftly revealed through the desires of her heart and the suitor she chooses.  In “The Last Baby” Mrs. Bennet unburdens her heart which aches for an infant son who died and for the unrealized communion of minds she wished to have with her husband. Perhaps all of Austen’s readers have paused a moment to sympathize with her plight of five marriageable daughters having little or no dowry, but Greensmith  makes us look deeper into the marriage when it was just husband and wife, before the children came and after they were grown. In “All I Do,” the longest story, we enter an alternate universe of Pride and Prejudice, where the ending we know was derailed and delayed by decades.

Bird-of-paradise

My favorite story is “Bird of Paradise,” in which newlywed Fanny Price returns with her husband Edmund to a home run by housekeeper Mrs. Danvers from Daphne duMaurier’s Rebecca! A brilliant narrative combination, which reveals something profound about a bride’s finding her happiness only insofar as she finds her true self.

I recommend these stories very highly for the pleasures they offer and for the “Intimations” they give of Jane Greensmith as a talented new fiction writer.

“Phantom Heart” and “Maat” by Annie Q Syed: Two Stories with a Deep Connection

26 Feb

A few nights ago I read Phantom Heart and Maat, two stories from the luminous writings of Annie Q Syed. They are both part of her short-story series Tuesday’s Torrent, and I happened to read these two together. At the time, they seemed very different kinds of stories–which they are. “Maat” springs from the rich, fertile soil of Egyptian myth and psychological archetype, with many possible nuances of symbolism and meaning. It tells the story of a 12-year-old girl, named Thais, who dreams about a tree and a woman named Maat. Her recurring dreams set in motion a longing to understand this powerful intimation of the great lineage of mothers. Hovering just beyond view in the lives of the girl, her mother, and the Bedouin prophetess she meets is the Egyptian Goddess Maat, or Ma’at, who was said to participate in the weighing of souls after death. By contrast, “Phantom Heart” feels like a very “modern” story, a medical case-study almost, from the annals of neuropsychology (its manifestations are described very well). A man begins to think that his wife, Petka, is not his wife, that she has been replaced by an impostor. His daughter, Litiya, must try to make sense of his father’s delusional dissociation and her mother’s pain. Even with this clinical impetus, rather than the mythic underpinnings brought to the foreground in “Maat,” “Phantom Heart” likewise feels full of nuance and possibilities of meaning just out of view.

The next morning, it became very clear to me that these stories, rather disparate in content and tone, are actually deeply united by the heart as the seat of memory. For Litiya’s father, in “Phantom Heart,” his disorder of the memory is also a disorder of the heart–it “weighs less” without access to the true memory of his wife united to his experience of her now. He is suffering from a phantom heart. Yet, remarkably, this missing part of his heart is still beating in his dreams. That revelation took my breath away, as it did for Litiya in the story. I am still working out all the implications for Petka’s identity, and her faith in her husband’s love, however fragmented in memory. Even the boats that set the scene for the story suggest an Egyptian connection to me. In this life, Litiya’s father takes two boats out, but refuses to take with him the wife he no longer recognizes. Yet reading the story gives me the strong presentiment that their boats will cross together again in the afterlife.

If I were going to map out the underlying connection with words and arrows, then I shouldn’t be surprised that these two stories seem to inform each other–at least for me. The connections might go something like this:

(Phantom Heart) neuropsychology<–>psychology<—>dreams-<–>psyche<—>soul<—>psyche<–>archetype and myth<–>dreams<–>prophecy (Maat)

I was so excited by these connections, I wanted to learn more about Maat, so I pulled out the volume in the University of Chicago’s Mythologies series on Greek and Eyptian Mythologies.I found two very relevant articles by Philippe Derchaine, professor at the University of Cologne: “Egyptian Anthropology” (trans. by David White) and “Egyptian Rituals” (trans. by Gerald Honigsblum). What I got from these articles was how closely Maat is linked with memory, as the seat or sustainer of memory, and with creative imagination.
Another aspect of personality is the heart, which men as well as gods possess. According to the stela of Shabaka, which preserves a curious cosmogony, the heart is the seat of creative power–the imagination, in a sense–which becomes reality throught the mediation of language, as language transforms thought into word and thus into action. But the heart also functions as memory and in this way serves to characterize the person even in the hereafter, where hearts are weighed against Ma’at, the notion of social and cosmic order in which an equilibrium must be maintained. The heart thus occupies a central place in the conception of the judgment of the dead … But the heart does not play the role of conscience in this confrontations, as has sometimes been said, but simply plays the role of a witness, which assures us that its function was indeed that of being the seat of memory. (Philippe Derchain, “Egyptian Anthropology,” p. 221)
Not only in the judgment of the dead, but in this life, the offering of Ma’at was an essential part of Egyptian ritual and a duty of the king in his partnership to sustain the Gods, as they sustained Creation.
The culmination of the ritual was logically the offering of the symbol of Ma’at, the guarantor of both cosmic and social order in her capacity as guiding force of the universe. The ritual was usually performed deep inside the shrine as the final act of the celebrant in his progress toward the meeting with the god…. For if Ma’at were abstractly guaranteed by the gods whom she nourished, it was necessary for men, led by their king, to act daily in accordance with this order, each one himself and according to his rank, so that the gods could draw from this well-ordered reality the energy needed to sustain the process of creation. (Philippe Derchain, “Egyptian Rituals,” p. 231)
On p. 232 of this article there is an illustration of the offering of Ma’at on a relief from the temple of King Sethi I at Abydos. Photos of this tomb by Robert J Rothenflug show this detail very well

Maathypos2-small
Derchain remarks in a footnote that “there are numerous examples of the offering of Ma’at since the New Empire” (p. 234). Here is another example: The photo below by Su Bayfield shows the king offering Ma’at and two vases to Osiris in a double scene at the Tomb of Seti II.

Sety2-4-small

To me all of this information about the meaning and associations of Maat is very suggestive for dreams, identity, and the story of a life.  As with all of Annie Syed’s stories (all the ones I’ve read so far!), there is so much there, so much that could be developed even further. Yet they do stand alone as short, energetic frissons to shake up the mind, emotions, and senses out of their usual ruts. I love that about them. Webster’s defines frisson as a shudder that is disquieting but thrilling. Yes, indeed.

I am still meditating on one crucial aspect of  “Maat”–the connection to trees. Like many people, I have long felt a deep connection to trees, a friendship even. I was fascinated, therefore, to find that the friendship of young girls with trees figures in several important variants I had encountered in my research on the story of Cinderella. In “The Cat Cinderella” by Giambattista Basile (Il Pentamerone, 1634-36), the unscrupulous heroine, named Zezolla, kills her stepmother in order to install her seemingly friendly governess as her father’s new wife. The woman double-crosses Zezolla, however, and sends her to work in the kitchen in typical Cinderella fashion. Zezolla enlists help from a wish-fulfilling fairy housed in a date tree. In the Brothers’ Grimm’s “Aschenputtel” (1812), the much-abused Ash-girl, like Zezolla, found consolation from nature: She planted a hazel tree, watered it with her tears, and then caught a gold and silver dress thrown down by a white bird perched on one of its branches. She snuck off to the king’s festival and lost a shoe there. In each case, the tree stands in as a substitute for the girl’s natural mother or benevolent mother-figure. One other mother figure I’ll mention comes from “Yeh-Hsien,” the founding Ur-story of the Cinderella character from 9th-century China. Yeh-hsien (or Sheh Hsien) was a chief’s daughter, but she suffered under an evil stepmother who made her wear rags and do heavy housework. Worst of all, she killed the girl’s beloved pet fish, but Yeh-hsien buried the bones and learned that she could wish upon them. She obtained gold dresses from the bones’ magic, enabling her to attend a festival, where she lost one shoe. (The fact that tiny feet were prized in ancient China has continued to reverberate in the Cinderella tale ever since.) Both the trees and the buried bones are creative maternal symbols–bestowing gifts for the daughter and helping her realize her dreams. The deep roots of these stories also make me shudder: with the love of mothers and daughters, their connection in spirit beyond death, and the ways that help seems to arise when it looks impossible.

As a mother goddess, Maat is rooted in these things, as she embodies order and guards Truth through memory. As Annie Syed says so beautifully in her story, “Maat was a direct descendant of those who drank the sap of the most ancient tree.” Thais’s beautiful (but disturbing to her) dream of a tree and a woman named Maat seems to spring from the same source as these fairytale and mythic elements, but blended into a new whole. Thais has many mother figures around her: her mother who is present, the mother who wisely waits; the Bedouin woman who sees the future; and Maat, the mother who comes in her dreams, rooted in the wholeness of a Tree. This is echoed in the words of the Bedouin seer to Thais, to sustain her for the time of mourning ahead: “All those who carry any part of the Truth are mothers. You will find your mother again, even if she doesn’t look like how you remember her now.” Yet, Thais wasn’t ready for this and had to “spend years forgetting only to later search to remember.” Maat would be her guardian during all that time, holding her memories, keeping her heart whole for her, even when it felt like a phantom of itself. Similarly, in “Phantom Heart,” there is the hope that Litiya’s father, who cannot recognize his wife and connect her to his memories, will find his wife again in the future, and find himself restored.As seer of the future, the Bedouin woman is also Maat. Derchaine discusses how Maat is related to a God, Sia,  knowledge: her knowledge of Truth relates both memory of the past to creative imagination, reaching toward the future:
If we now attempt to find a connection between these two functions of the heart–creative imagination and memory–I believe it will suffice to recall that the heart is the seat of the god Sia, whose name simply means “knowledge.” Knowledge of the past is obviously “memory,” while the creative imagination is necessarily related to the future. (“Egyptian Anthropology,” p. 221, with a footnote crediting G. Wirz’s thesis for his discussion of the function of memory)
The story of Thais’s dream in “Maat” seems to me to resemble a true account of a flash of mystical experience, the kind that sets one on a path of searching and remembering for the duration of one’s life. Linda Johnson describes her own experience along these lines in her books on yoga and meditation, and says her whole life has been an attempt to understand, if possible to reproduce and sustain, that unexpected appearance of the Divine in her life. Sometimes dreams, or prophetic dreams, are the portal–to insight, to memory, to creativity. Both of these stories I have discussed, perhaps with some speculative license, ring with authenticity and show how determinedly such a dream wants to be understood and mined for usable meaning. It begs to transform the dreamer.

References

Annie Q Syed, “Phantom Heart” (Tuesday’s Torrent, No. 1 in the series Da Vinci’s Dreams), Feb. 22, 2011. http://annieqsyed.com/2011/02/phantom-heart/

Annie Q Syed, “Maat” (Tuesday’s Torrent No. 12), Sept. 21, 2010. http://annieqsyed.com/2010/09/maat/

Philippe Derchain, “Egyptian Anthropology” (trans. by David White), pp. 219-224, in Yves Bonnefoy, Ed., Greek and Egyptian Mythologies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Philippe Derchain, “Egyptian Rituals” (trans. by Gerald Honigsblum), pp. 230-235, in Yves Bonnefoy, Ed., Greek and Egyptian Mythologies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

For Cinderella, see my chapter in The Fictional 100 and:

Alan Dundes (Ed.), Cinderella: A Folklore Casebook (New York: Garland, 1982).

Neil Philip, The Cinderella Story (London: Penguin, 1989). [Includes a version of “Yeh-Hsien,” trans. by Arthur Waley]

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