All posts by reflectionsonjapanesecultureblog

Raised in rural southern Minnesota, schooled at James Madison College, University of Arizona, University of Toronto, and Berkeley. Resident on Potrero Hill in San Francisco since 1982. Author or coauthor of 20+ books, including Looking Through Taiwan, Angkor Life, and An Introduction to African Cinema. The site with my postings is japaneseculturereflectionsblog. I would delete this empty site if I knew how!

What I’ve Been Reading and Watching During my Last Month

I haven’t had the stamina to write full reviews of what I’ve been reading and watching before my physician-assisted suicide, following the fatilure of ever-harsher chemotherapy regimens for large B-cell lymohomal Some notes about them I’ve e-jotted.

I’ve been watching (in horror) “When They See Us.” The first episode of police bullying is really hard to watch. The second one showing the prosecutor and jury ignoring many reasonable doubts in the conflicting coerced confessions and the total lack of physical evidence is somewhat easier to watch, since I have seen many miscarriages of justice on tv. The third episode is confusing, because I don’t know when it takes place. One to go. I’ve already watched Oprah interview the actors and the Exonerated Five (formerly “The Central Park Rapists” whom Donald Trump advocated executing)

I enjoyed Scorsese’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” (he had nothing to do with the shooting in 1975-76), partly because Dylan actually tried to answer questions, and because “Hurricane” Eliot, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky (I’d never heard Orlovsky before) are brought back to life, but for the songs Dylan performs (including much of “A Hard Rain’s A’gonna Fall,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” and “Hurricane”). As for his Nobel Prize ceremony, Patti Smith leads off. It never occurred to me that Dylan has blue eyes (“Hard Rain” is addressed to a “blue-eyed son,” but… Sharon Stone is a surprise addition (she joined the tour, as did Joni Mitchell; I think Joan Baez dropped out), as is Ronee Blakeley (who was a backup singer). Electronic violinist Scarlet Rivera is prominent onstage and has a quirky interview segment. Dylan frequently drove the tour bus and painted his face white. They went to the prison where “Hurricane” was being held, and to the Tuscarora reservation.

I also enjoyed the Netflix reboot of “Tales of the City,” bringing back Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis. I don’t like the out-of-the-past blackmail (the whole 9th episode is a flashback to 1966, culminating in the Compton Café riot) of Anna, but she dies with dignity, surrounded by love, buoyed up by mass support in the last episode, shortly after her 90th birthday (Dukakis is 88 btw). I was underwhelmed by Ellen Page’s Shawna, annoyed by the twins, slow to warm to Murray Bartlett’s Michael (formerly “Mouse”), though I liked his young boyfriend Ben (as embodied by Charlie Bennett), García’s FTM Jake Rodriquez, and Paul Gross’s Brian Hawkins (one of my favorite characters going back to the first book). I failed to recognize a number of locations, though Coit Tower remained visible from 18 Barbary Lane. Episode 9 is the highest rated one on IMDB! Some of it was filmed in Yonkers and some in NYC.

And I enjoyed Sue Roe’s The Private Life of the Impressionists. Though charting the frequently changing residences (in Paris and in villages around it), the major liaisons, and the struggle to eke out survival with the aid of gifts and purchases by Gustave Caillebotte, Édouard Manet, and Paul Durand-Ruel, there is quite a bit of macro-history (the Prussian War, the Commune, and various stock market crashes). Roe pays considerable attention to Cezanne, Degas, Manet, Monet, and Pissaro, but also to Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot — who posed at length for Manet, as well as exhibiting paintings with the “lunatics” labeled “impressionists,” a term of abuse in 1874, a favored sales device now. The plates include two pictures (one by Manet, the other a photograph) of Morisot, but none of her paintings (there is one that I don’t particularly like by Cassatt, and some of the greatest hits/scandals of Manet et al., nothing by Frédéric Bazille, who was a casualty of the Prussian war).

I have yet to try to write about My Father, Renoir, which I thought had too many digressions about minor characters, but which increased my regard for Renoir as dedicated to art (only some of which I like).

My favorite impressionist, Alfred Sisley, is a shadowy figure in Roe, once affluent, later struggling to feed his family. She increased my regard for Caillebotte, Degas, Manet, and Pissaro (as people; much of the art of Degas and Pissaro leaves me lukewarm), presents Monet as a cadging cad. I also learned that Gustave Courbet was sentenced to be executed for his part in the Commune, though he slipped away to Switzerland. I didn’t realize his life overlapped that of the early impressionist (après la letter) painters He died in exile on the last day of 1877, having been born in 1819. He was painted in 1865-55 by Monet and painted Baudelaire in 1848.

I didn’t know that Pissaro sponsored/mentored Gauguin as well as Cezanne and was open to the influence of Seraut and Signac. (Or that Courbet was considered by some as the grandfather of cubism, as Pissaro was regarded as the father of impressionism.)

I am astonished that Degas was criticized for not being able to draw. I don’t like Berthe Morisot’s brushstrokes, at least in her pictures of people (she did few landscapes that I mostly like).

We’re also watching the first season of “The Good Fight” and the third of “Rita.” Both have strong women in the central roles.


I watched the hast episode of “When They See Us.” The first half (plus) is harrowing, though I know it does not show anything close to the full horror, only beatings, not rape. The end is triumphant, though people say that the exoneration and settlement could not restore the lost years and never-ending wrong of what police and prosecutors (shown unrepentant and holding to blaming the exonerated five despite the DNA evidence and fit of the confession with the crime scene) did to boys from apparently loving homes. The original attack is upsetting, all the more so knowing that the perpetrator was going to rape and murder after the boys were framed.

“The Pleasure of Love in Iran” is a six-minute out-take from Agnès Varda’s 1977 “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (L’une chante l’autre pas). It mostly shows tiles and architectural detail from Isfahan, Iran. Native-to-Isfahan Darius (Ali Raffie, himself an Isfahan native) is showing his visiting French girlfriend, “Apple” (the one who sings, played by Valérie Mairesse) around. She sees the cupolas as being breast-like and the minarets phallic, he translates some poetry for her, and she writes one (on toilet paper). Only the title and a glimpse of “Pleasure” made it into “One Sings,” which clocks in at just over two hours without it. Darius is a character, the major male character I’d say, in “One Sings.”

Varda supplied voiceover narration and also wrote the lyrics for the songs “Apple” and company perform. Also, her own daughter, Rosalia Varga-Demy, plays Maria, Suzanne’s daughter (and Varda’s then four-year-old son Matthieu also had a role as Zorro).

I’m not quite convinced that such very different women would be friends for life, but Suzanne quietly goes about getting from being a 22-year-old helpless mother of two forced to return to something akin to slave labor on her parents’ farm into a professional working in a family planning clinic (where Apple comes to have her second child, the one she is going to keep, having let Darious take their son back to Iran, where he was conceived but not born). Apple is more impulsive and rebellious and something of an artist (songwriter), one with more success that Jérôme, the photographer-father of Suzanne’s two children and of the one she has aborted with funds scammed from her own parents by Pauline (before she becomes “Pomme”). Varda said she was thinking of Modigliani’s common-law wife desperately trying to subsist and to support an artist with few to no sales. Jérôme, not a womanizer like Modigliani, had a wife. The viewer does not know if he had had children with her, too.


The Criterion edition also includes the more in-your-face 1975 “Réponse de femmes” with more full-frontal female nudity, and a superb documentary, “Women Are Naturally Creative,” about Varda the film-maker (and mother) made by Katja Raganelli. It includes shooting of the last scene of “One Sings” and interviews in her home office and kitchen, plus a dinner in which she finally talks about the independence from each other in the film-making by her husband Jaques Démy and herself. Though she had the same short-in-back hair with bangs in front, and comes across as genial, she came across as less pixieish than in her late documentaries. I thought she looked more Greek, too.


I enjoyed Varda’s 1967 documentary about looking up a Greek uncle (actually a first-cousin once-removed) on his houseboat in Sausalito, “Uncle Yanco.” The next year, she shot “Free Huey demonstrations and some interviews of black Oaklanders. Both have interest as time capsules. There is no real analysis of the Panther program. Huey sort of stammers, but does not have the high-pitched voice others have derided. There is also a speech by Stokley Carmichael, an interview with Eldridge Cleaver, and a scene of Kathleen Cleaver working those in a queue, explainging what the Panthers were about


The restoration of all these films was backed by Martin Scorsese. There’s another California Varda (on eclipse), “Lions Love (…and Lies” I have yet to see.


I found Darius attractive with long hair, Marie’s boyfriend Théodore even more attractive, with longer hair. There is full-frontal female nudity, but no sex scenes. The scenes of Darius and Apple in bed are shot very discreetly with the sheets up nearly to their chins.




From the Devil’s Dictionary: “history, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”


Roy Morris Jr.s biography of Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company is very good on his Civil War experiences, and opts for the interpretation that Bierce killed himself in the Grand Canyon. I find it difficult to believe that an old man could get anywhere there that no one has gotten to in the last century. If he killed himself, I’d guess it was in Chihuahua mountains.


Morris provided a comparison with Hemingway that seems apt to me:

For both men, the fear of cowardice seems to have been rooted in a less-than-satisfying relationship with their fathers, men who rightly or wrongly were perceived by their sons as being weak and cowardly. Hemingway’s father is ruthlessly depicted in his son’s fiction as a wife-dominated ditherer; Bierce’s father, to the extent that he is depicted at all, is usually seen as a distant authoritarian whose more forceful wife seems to have had the upper hand in their relationship. Not incidentally, both Hemingway and Bierce detested their mothers and the homophobic tone (explicit in Hemingway, less obvious in Bierce) may perhaps be traced to a lingering fear of female—that is, maternal—domination. 204-05



I think that Morris’s Gertrude Stein Has Arrived lifted all the good lines from Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography, which, for some reason, I am reading (she’s already being fêted in America). She must have had some charm/charisma in person, but I tire of her frequent proclamation of being a genius, the only literary one of the century, in the company of Picasso and Einstein. Morris also tells the stories better without Stein’s doubling back for repetitions (little is developed, either in anecdotes or in support of bald assertions about French and American essences).


10 July 2019


I finished Everybody’s Autobiography, though only after being bored by the selected poetry of Jaques Éluard—which I first heard quoted in “Alphaville.” A more passing mention in “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” finally prompted me to get the book from the library. I liked the narration (read by Delphine Syrig) in Varda’s “Documenteur” (1981) more. It has full-frontal male as well as full-frontal female nudity, two unrevealing sex scenes, and charming performances by her son, the then nine-year-old Mathieu Demy and Sabine Mamou (the editor of Mur Murs) as his single mother, gleaning furniture for their LA (Venice?) apartment. There are more murals, the focus of Varda’s documentary “Mur, Murs” from the year before. 105 minutes is an awkward length. It could have been longer or shorter,


Everybody’s Autobiography definitely would have been better shorter, with fewer repetitions, a fact-checker, and while fantasizing, why not tighter organization removing the cycling back to repeat what she had already written? It’s not gibberish, though many of the assertions are very dubious, and the generalizations based on very, very little.


She was high on Francis Picabia at the time and averse to the poetry Picasso wrote. She was enthusiastic about flying, driving, and everywhere in the US she went, especially Chicago and Texas. Alice B. Toklas seemed to enjoy the return to northern California more than Stein, whose “There’s no there there” has no connection to things having changed (mostly, 13th Avenue in Oakland had the same houses, though the one she lived in had been demolished).


She claimed that “the spoken language is no longer interesting, and so gradually the written language says something and says something differently than the spoken language” (13; her choice of verb interests me—isn’t “say” about spoken language?)


“Any life you look at seems unhappy but any life lived is fairly cheerful” (104)


“Their [French people’s] lives are their own it is not a secret but one does not tell it” (106—she never used semicolons and stinted on commas)


“Modigliani combines Italian art with Negro art and both these arts are admired by every one” (323, so why did he nearly starve; and it was African art that intrigued and influenced him, at least his sculptures)




Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, published in Arabic in 2013, translated by Jonathan Wright and published in English in 2018, is, I guess “fantasy fiction,” verging on science fiction, as was Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The original Dr. Frankenstein was a scientist filled with hubris. Hadi, the maker of the creature in Baghdad with warring Sunni and Shi’ite militias and the American garrison in the Green Zone, is not trying to bring his amalgam of body parts to life, or to study what makes “life,” but only to assemble a corpse that can be buried.


The hideous-looking creature shows no signs of life to Hadi, but rises while the junk-dealer is sleeping , leaves, and starts killing people. He does not slay just anyone who comes along, rather this amalgamated body seeks revenge on those who killed the parts that have been sewed together to make his body. The soul of the new creature was a hotel guard, Hasib Mohamned Jaafar, who was blown up by a suicide bomber. The explosion results in scattered body parts that Hamid gathered and assembled into a corpse. Hasib’s soul needed a body to inhabit and moved into the one Hamid has put together.


For me, a major problem with the novel is that, the creature, variously called Whatitsname and Daniel does not have a particular personality and seems far too articulate to be Hasib Mohamned Jaafar. I am (perhaps oddly) more willing to suspend disbelief about reanimating a corpse. The reaction of the neighbors (terror) and the authority (determination to capture and eliminate a serial killer whose motivation none of them images) and even of the old Assyrian Syric Christian widow Elishiva who has prayed (to St. George as well as to God) for the return of her son Daniel, who went off to the Iraq-Iran war of the early 1980s imaging that he has returned, not least in that Whatitsname dons clothese that once belonged to Daniel and of the journalists who see a juicy, terrifying story to draw readers, are readily understandable.


Though there is very little character development, Saadawi sketches a number of character in post-Saddam post formal US occupation Baghdad, and shows the devolution of Iraq caused by greed and ambition as well as by sectarian (Sunni/Shia) fanaticism. The US forces are as sinister and to be avoided if possible as is the new Iraq government with many old (formerly Baathis) functionaries, most prominently within the book, Brigadier Majid, head of the Tracking and Pursuit Department (within the Secret Police). Hamid, Faraj, Abu Anmar et al. are trying to make a living amidst the decaying buildings of Bataween, a neighborhood which was Jewish or had a substantial Jewish population in earlier times (i.e., before Israel existed and ethnic cleansing swept majority Muslim countries).


Composed of diverse body parts, the amalgam that is killing those responsible for the killings that provided his body parts (new ones are needed as the old parts fall off when vengeance has ended the lives of those immediately responsible for their death and dismemberment) is an Iraqi rather than the member of a tribe or a religious community.


As his murders cause him the need for replacement body parts, there is no end in sight for his reign of terror, and he realizes that he has body parts from killers as well as from victims. Dwight Garner applied the concept “mission creep” to this, though I think Whatitsname continues to do the same thing: kill killers. Even within that vocation, it puzzles me that he does not go after those who send out suicide bombers and/or concocted the rationales for the violence. No clerics, no Americans, are killed in Whatitsname’s reign of terror that no one else understand is a program of administering lethal justice. Like Shelly’s menacing and hideous-to-look-at creature, Whatitsname feels misunderstood. His attempt to explain himself (on tape for a magazine editor who often seems to be the protagonist of the book (though Mahmoud al-Sawi is one of the least interesting of the novel’s characters), but what he said was sensationally garbled to maintain the reading public’s fear and loathing of an inexplicable serial killer…


The concept is interesting, and Saadwi juggles various plots with some skill (it is good that the book begins with a character list, since many names sound like other ones). As I’ve said, there is no character development (particularly in the case of Mahmoud al-Sawi, who seems unfazed by what he encounters of official terrorizing or from receiving the self-explanation of Whatitsname). There is a lot of violence, though other than narrating the results of explosions, the violence is not graphic. (That is the vengeance killings are not recorded in detail.) The book is not going to make anyone want to visit Baghdad. Most of the characters want to get out and away from it.


The novel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the first Iraqi one to do so, and was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. In an interview connected to the latter, Saadawi, who was born in 1973, listed his influences other than Arab traditions as Borges, Calvino, and Kundera, plus Jules Verne and H.G. Welles).


Besides publishing his letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (Dear Sammy, 1977), their protégé, Samuel M. Steward (1909-93) also portrayed their relationship somewhat peripherally in Parisian Life (1984), which is primarily a fictional version of another of their protégés British painter Sir Francis Rose, and centrally in two mysteries in which the pair together figure out murders. I read the second one, The Caravaggio Smile (1989),set in Paris, first, then read the first one, with the Steinian but not altogether accurate title Murder Is Murder Is Murder (1985), set in their summer house at Biligin in Ain province.

Having just read Stein’s exceedingly narcissistic Everybody’s Autobiography, I can say that Steward’s novel, set around the time she was writing that book (1938; the book was published the year before) fits almost perfectly with what Stein wrote about her life at the time. The one exception is that she only played the white keys on the piano, and Steward inexplicable has her only playing the black keys.

He portrays the dogs (the large poodle Basket and the chihuaha Pepe), the daily routine, and some elaborate breakfasts Toklas prepared for Stein and, in the middle of the book, Steward’s character whom he named Johnny Actaeon McAndrews, aided the investigation, which included splitting up the businesses in the village of Belly to inquire about what their neighbor Grand Paul bought the morning that he disappeared. “Jump-Up” Johnny does less leg work for the amateur sleuths than in Shawl, but beds a hunky policeman in both. In Murder, he also beds the couple’s Chinese houseboy, but none of the local peasants.

The deaf-mute Petit Paul, who is larger than his father, very muscular, and often semi-nude working in the Stein-Toklas under Alice’s directions attracts Johnny, but he knows better than to try to seduce him. A drunken Petit Paul was raped by their despised neighbor Debat, which enraged Grand Paul.

Alice spotted Grand Paul approaching Debat at the end of a field bordering a woods. Knowing that Gertrude would enjoy watching a confrontation, Alice puts down her telescope and calls Gertrude to come with her binoculars. By the time the partially deaf, large and sluggish older woman lumbers down to join Alice, only Debat is visible, however, so Alice is the only one who saw Grand Paul


After waiting two days for Grand Paul to return, the women go to the local police and suggest there has been a murder. Johnny, Gertrued and Pepe find the bag with most of Grand Paul’s purchases. They infer that he ate the bread and butter he bought and put some other things into his pockets rather than his bag.


The police arrest Debat, but are about to release him when the women return the next April and solve the case, not only determining who committed the crime of murder but who instigated it.


Some mystery mavens have found the whodunit predictable. My view is that the book is not a whodunit. As in Simenon’s Maigret novels, the whydunit is more important than the whodunit. Both are subordinate to invoking what life was like in the Toklas household. In both mysteries, Toklas is the prime mover of detection and the dominant force in the relationship (whatever their roles in sex may have been). There’s even a comic touch of S&M.




Going the other way, I liked Agnès Varda’s 1980 “Mur Murs.” After a project on police brutality fell through, she started filming murals in Venice and continued as far as East LA, sometimes with the painters, sometimes with the models, at least once with both. I was disappointed that there was graffiti on many of the murals even back then, astounded by the Culver City DMV’s murals, and interested in the many murals, however varying the artistic talent involved. The documentary looks forward to “Faces Places” in putting images on buildings, but Varda does not appear on camera in it.


In contrast, I found her 1969 “Lions Love (&…Lies” horrendously boring. Though Warhol “superstar” Viva and the creators of “Hair” James Rado and Gerome Ragni are naked quite a bit, there is no full-frontal nudity, in contrast to many other Varda films. There is a long, boring scene of Viva naked lying on an air mattress in the pool with both of them in the water touching her or her air mattress. The use of tv coverage of RFK’s assassination and funeral seems obscene to me, though far more interesting than anything the three or visiting (clothed) filmmaker Shirley Clark. The most interesting scene not second-hand tv footage is a brief one in which Clark says she is not an actress and Varda briefly takes her place. The movie ends with Viva saying how tired she is of having to improvise lines, be naked, or speak to the camera. The camera stays on her wordless face in closeup another two minutes. Come to think of it, this is better than the opening sequence of a play on stage with talentless actors in Old West garb. I’m not sure Viva could act (I had not seen any other movie with her, though I think I saw her being interviewed by Dick Cavett back in the day), but I’m pretty sure she could have done better than the stage actors in “The Beard” did. Even her entrance to that theater with the two beaux was better than what was going on onstage.


There are also badly shot meetings of suits discussing final cut authority, but without a female director onscreen. (Clarke’s agent takes the meetings.)




Though generally very predictable, the Asian-American (Chinese-Korean) rom-com “Always Be My Maybe, co-written coproduced, and costarring Randall Park with stand-up comedian cowriter Ali Wong looks good, moves along, and has a surprise extended appearance by Keanu Reeves as an arrogant movie star. I also liked Michell Buteau as Wong’s assistant and James Saito as Park’s father.


I didn’t like the second half of Paul Eluard’s Selected Works any more than I liked the first. It seems that the anti-Nazi poems only began after they had been driven out. One 1944 couplet not set as verse spoke to one of my interests, though:

“not to punish the guilty, they maltreated prostitutes. They even went so far as to shave their heads.”

Prostitutes and mistresses rather than officials…




The title of Nigerian-born Chiwetel Ejiofo’s directorial debut “The Boy who Harnessed the Wind” is a plot spoiler. The famine in a Chichewa village in Malawi looks plenty dire and the fields entirely parched before the windmill connected to a pump (drawing from a well, which seems pretty finite a supplier to me) goes up. It is very jerry-built with parts of the boy’s father’s bicycle, something the father was very reluctant to sacrifice to his son’s book-learning (plus savvy). Ejiofo’s has great dignity, Maxwell Simba as the son (William Kamikwamba) great yeanring along with respect, persistence, and the mechanical and intellectual wherewithal to save his family and village with technology he read about in the school’s small library.


Tony again recalled that my mother cooked a beef roast and served sugar plum ice cream for dessert when he stayed over a Friday night when we were in 7th grade, then went to piano lessons with a Mrs. Walter Enger (not the teacher/coach who lived half a block away earlier) at 12th and Galbreath. And Terry remembers my sister’s excitement of searching for a head that was severed by a car rear-ending a truck out in the countryside. I don’t recall that, only the dyeing the peas crying jag one time when Mike Markman stayed for dinner.


Albanian Kosovo-born (1990) Pajtím Statovsi’s second novel, Crossing, lacks the humor and magical realism of My Cat Yugoslavia. I disliked both the endings, i.e., the endings to two narrative streams in the book). Even less a “gay novel,” though “queer” in multiple senses. The narrator is from Kosovo rather than Albania, living in Vienna, Sarajevo, Rome, NYC, and Helsinki. (The book was written in Finnish.)




The first half of Jean Giono’s 1941 Melville bears some connection to Melville. The visitation of the Irish Adeline is Giono’s to a self less sensitive than Melville’s.

Ivo Andric(h)’s constantly spiraling back to repeat itself Omer Pasha Latas annoyed me. Thee are characterizations of Ottoman official (marshal, born Austrian, empowered to crush Bosnian rebellions) and painter with no plot. NYRB edition nowhere reveals when it was written or first published (posthumously).

Alfonso Bioy Casares’s (1972) Asleep in the Sun also seems to spiral often, though there is more humor than in the other two NYRB classics. I didn’t realize that psychotherapy was so big in Argentina. I guess I purchased some BC stuff for MSU in the Borges collection.

Richard Thorpe’s “Malaya” (1949) doesn’t really spiral, though Valentina Cortea’s torch singer (Blue Moon) seems to. Remarkably, the two leading men (James Stewart and Spencer Tracy) both are killed, though the rubber gets out to American hands, and the Japanese lead (Maui-born, Chinese-ancestry Richard Loo) also is shot. Back in the US, John Hodiak and Lionel Barrymore continue to operate. Sydney Greenstreet manages to survive in Malaya, Gilbert Roland doesn’t. Atmospheric B&W cinematography by 13-time Oscar nominee George J. Folsey.


I don’t know why Anita Brookner pressed Simeon’s Chez Krull/ Krull’s House (1939) on Julian Barnes as Simenon’s best. It seems one of the becalmed books set around WWII I hsve been reading (this one not freshly translated and prepublished by NRYB. It has the same circulating rather than progressing movement. The reader eventually learns who strangles the pale, naked, violated girl fished out of the canal at the start, and why the foreigners (Krulls) continue to appear different to their hostile (Catholic) neighbors in a canalfront town near the Belgian border on the eve on Nazi invasion (not that the Krulls or Nazis or have any “politics” (like those tacitly colluding the Trump and his white suprematicst supporters).

There is a more assimilated German-born family, the Schoofs, who seem present more for contrast with the Krulls than to advance any plot. The Schoofs speak Dutch at home and are not really German. (The supposed Krull money has made it only as far from Germany as Belgium.) Cousin Hans ‘blatantly and deliberately offends against the first law of the immigrant: do not draw attention to yourself. And by drawing attention to himself, Hans Krull also draws attention to those ‘impure’ relatives of his who live beside the canal where the town runs out. Simenon lays out with ruthless exactitude the way selfish, conscience-free greed exploits modest, hospitable decency” (Barnes).


(3 years and 85 pounds ago)

I’ve enjoyed reading Wu Ming-Yi’s (2011) The Man with Compound Eyes. (blurbed by the late Ursula K. Le Guin).It encompasses a thoroughly imagined Taiwanese aboriginal culture (on an island east of Taiwan called Wayo Wayo) interethnic relations, the Pacific garbage vortex, earthquakes (““An earthquake does not have to kill you to induce mortal terror; it is enough that it can take away something dear to you”) and a tsunami, some romances, and the turn of Roald Amundsen against seal pup bludgeoning in Canada. (Not the 1928 “Red Tent” disappearance searching for Umberto Nobile and the crew of the Italia of more common record.) I’m also reading Henry Green’s Nothing, which also has a prominent cat character. Yi (born in Taoyuan in 1971) is among other things, an expert on the butterflies of Taiwan, though moths figure more prominently in the novel (his fourth, but the first to be translated into English; his sixth, the 2015 The Stolen Bicycle has now also been; there is a 2019 collection of stories and lyrical nature writing borrowing Mary Austin’s title, The Land of Little Rain).


“Only human beings can, through writing experience something separately together” (281), though I don’t understand or accept that “memory and imagination have to be archived separately.” (Does Wu believe this? I believe that he thinks loneliness is what produces culture and the willingness to relate stories to strangers [64])


“The islanders did not have writing, nor did they think that the world had to be remembered in written form” (36—how could they?)


If I were going to live longer, I’d read more of Wu and László Krasznahorkai’s (1954-) Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, just offered me by Vine (but it’s very long! And it’s the fourth part of a tetraology.)




It took us two nights to get through “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Neither the film nor the music are as good as “Once Upon a Time in the West.” There are lots of closeups, but few as super-tight as those in “West.” Plusa lot of sadism—more, I think than in “Once Upon a Time in the West.”


I think Eli Wallach is very funny, though also very sadistic. The Union captain is the talkiest role. Wallach has a lot more lines (has or improvised a lot more).


I don’t much like Morricone’s main theme for the movie. I barren Spanish desert standing in for northern New Mexico have their stark beauty.


And it is way too long, with some protracted scenes, not least the bridge battles. The DVD version is 14-16 minutes longer than the theatrical release (and still has a separate deleted scenes, including more torture of Turco). I can understand why Charles Champlin suggested the alternative title, “The Bad, The Dull, and the Interminable.” (The original tite was “Two Magnificent Tramps.” Van Cleef has less screen time than Eastwood and Wallach, who are a team in scamming bounties for Wallach before pursuing the loot in opposition to each other and to Van Cleef.)




I don’t know whether I’d read Pushkins The Captain’s Daughter before (definitely had seen GBU!). It has a romance, a villain (Shvabrin), and a lot of plot drawn from P’s research on the Pugachev peasant/Cossack rebellion against Catherine the Great. If it is a parody of Sir Walter Scott, I have read too little Scott for it to connect. A parody of the memoirs of a romantic young officer (Grinyov), I can see.


And Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, which is mostly tedious. I’m not even sure what “Style: all that is not technique” (35) means. The interdiction of psychology, “all that only discovers what it can explain” and the rejection of acting are more comprehensible to me.

IRead a book about some characters my own age, Henry Green’s novel Nothing (talk about spiraling!).

I’m not sure what to make of Ulrich Plenzdorf’s The New Sorrows of Young W. or Iván Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse. Too little W, too little Attila in the Pushkin Press novellas, a typical smothering German mother.

Kate Mayfield’s The Undertaker’s Daughter turns increasingly dark, but is very funny and touching as she discovers her father Frank’s flaws, her older sister Evelyn’s narcissim, and their Kentucky hometown’s many pathologies.

I feel that via Isherwood memoirs (and Prater Violet) I was already a member to the Salka and Berthold Viertel circle (admiring many of those whom those they admired). They managed to come out alive from Nazi Europe, a very major accomplishment. Garbo urged Salka to write her memoir The Kindness of Strangers.

Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein (more narcissism, less humor than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas). I also read the rural Stein/Toklas mystery, Murder Is Murder Is Murder (a misleading title btw). It is a whydunit, like many Simenon Maigrets and rather politicaly incorrect by current standards. Stewar’s Toklas was an entertaining, if somewhat timid, character.

Edwin Barnhart’s great Great Courses series, Ancient Civiliiztions of North America, has taught me a lot that will soon be expunged when I’m cremated.


©2019, Stephen O. Murray



Sharon Stone in a spaghetti western with Russell Crowe, Leonardo di Caprio, and Gene Hackman

Rating: 3.6/5]

Pros: cast, look

Cons: other than having Sharon Stone in a Clint Eastwood role, pretty conventional

I knew that the 1956 paint-by-numbers western starring Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood (one of their several pairings) “Burning Hills” derived from one of the many formulaic western novels by Louis L’Amour. It has a formulaic romance, one interesting character (the “halfbreed” tracker played by Eduard Franz) and a twist of using a Comache raiding party. Skip Homeier played the ruthless robber baron/formulaic villain.

I knew that “The Quick and the Dead” (1995) was directed by Sam Raimi (after “The Evil Dead,” before Spiderman I,II, and III) and starred Sharon Stone, but didn’t notice the name Louis L’Amour in the credits.

The title is the sorting in the Final Judgement, and the town into which The Lady (Stone as the Woman with No Name) rides to participate in a gunfighting elimination match is named Redemption, run by a smiling ruthless gunfighter named John Herod (played with relish by Gene Hackman). It only gradually becomes apparent what The Lady seeks to redeem. (It involves Gary Sinise.)

A young (pre-Titanic, post Gilbert Grape) Leonardo diCaprio struts about and insists on registering for the contest, to the dismay of his father (Hackman). Cort, a very fast-drawing former part of Herod’s outlaw enterprises, played by Russell Crowe, has renounced violence and taken up preaching. Herod is determined to smash Cort’s commitment to nonviolence.



There’s not really a romance between The Lady and Cort (in contrast, she wakes up very hungover with The Kid), but they become allies of sorts against Herod.

There are a series of shoot-outs, well filmed by cinematographer Dante Spinotti (who worked with Crowe filming “LA Confidential” and “The Insider” as well as “Heat” and “Wonder Boys”).

Nothing profound, nothing unusual other than having a female gunslinger protagonist and a powerhouse cast (including John Ford repertory member Woody Strode as a coffin maker; Strode also appeared in “Once Upon a Time in the West” which Q&D sometimes seems to be parodying with trademark Sergio Leone closeups of eyes), but I found it entertaining. Hackman, who is probably a nice guy, was so good at playing these nasty roles and I also miss Pat Hingle, who played the saloonkeeper and mc of the duels.

“The Quick and the Dead” cost 35 million dollars and only drew eighteen and a half million dollars at the box office… which may be why I was unfamiliar with the movie. (Sony was unfamiliar with and dubious about both Russell Crowe and Leonardo diCaprio: in effect Stone cast them).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray



Aldrich’s Desert Plane Crash Suvival Picture


Pros: cast, desert

Cons: musical overkill

I saw Robert Aldrich’s 1965 plane crash in the (Tunisian) desert movie “The Flight of the Phoenix” when it was newish and I was fifteen. Since then, my attention span has lessened and watching it again, I thought its 149-minute running-time excessive and the makeup (blistered faces) risible, BUT the conflicts among its all male characters and, in some cases grudging their co-operation to build an airplane from the wreckage as envisioned by an arrogant German (played by Hardy Krüger (who was so diffident in “Sundays and Cybèle”) remains absorbing. The captain (James Stewart in his flawed and bitter tough guy persona rather than the aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart) blames himself for flying into a sandstorm in a plane without a functioning radio. That defect relates to his alcoholic navigator/steward, played by Richard Attenborough. Their relationship seems lifted from a Howard Hawks movie with Attenborough playing something like the part Walter Brennan played in “To Have and Have Not” (or Thomas Mitchell back further in “Only Angels Have Wings” and Stewart more fallible than Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant in those two Hawks movies.

Of course, Aldrich made a number of movies focused on male-male rivalries mixed with ambivalent co-operation, including “Vera Cruz,” “Attack!,”,” “The Longest Yard,” “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” and “The Dirty Dozen” (which would be his next movie, released in 1967, with an overlap of three actors who were in “Phoenix”: Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Gabriele Tinti; Borgnine was more memorable as the extremely nasty scourge in Aldrich’s great but underrated “Emperor of the North Pole” in 1973, and had also returned (with Peter Finch and Gabriele Tinti) in Aldrich’s (1968) “The Legend of Lylah Clare”).

In addition to the flight crew (Stewart and Attenborough) chafing against the self-confident expert (Kruger), there is an insubordinate sergeant (Ronald Fraser) attached to an oblivious, hidebound officer, Captain Harris (Peter Finch), a wacked-out Ernest Borgnine eager to follow Harris “marching” across the Sahara (even while Sgt. Watson fakes being unable to walk), a cast-against-type milquetoast Dan Duryea, a heroic physician (Christian Marquand), and a badly wounded handsome Latin martyr (Gabriele Tinti). Inexplicably to me, the one who garnered an Oscar nomination was Ian Bannen (whom I thought was better in “The Hill”). (Krüger or Attenborough would have been better choices IMO. Krüger refused a Golden Glob nomination and the Academy voters probably took the hint.)


The estimable Joseph F. BIroc (who had lensed Stewart’s most beloved movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and would do more memorable desert work in “Blazing Saddles” (1974) (not to mention “Airplane!”, “Towering Inferno,” and Aldrich’s “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” and “The Longest Yard”, “Ulzana’s Raid,” etc.) shot the Arizona and California desert locations and the motley cast. Frank DeVol provided too much overwrought music (musical minimalism had not been invented yet, though Robert Bresson for one made movies with minimal musical underlinings). Aldirch’s usual (15-time) editor Michael Luciano (Oscar nominated for this and three other Aldrich movies, for two of which he won his own guild’s award) was deft with the action sequences, but could have cut more IMO.


©2019, Stephen O/ Murray

Tenuous positions of Jews in the Ukraine before WWI and in Paris before Nazi occupation: The Dogs and the Wolves


Pros: atmosphere, plot, Ada

Cons: Ben’s character is underdeveloped

I know that Les Chiens et les loups (The Dogs and the Wolves: in that it is difficult to distinguish dogs from wolves in fading light, this is a French metaphor for dusk) was published in the spring of 1940, before Paris fell to the Nazis (and its author, Irène Némirovsky (1903-42) fled south, as represented in the two parts of  Suite Française that were found by her elder daughter (Denise), published in French in 2004 and in English in 2006. In 30-some languages, by 2008 it had sold more than two and a half million copies, and the interest has led to publication of another novel left in manuscript, Chaleur du sang (Fire in the Blood) and to publication in translation of her novels written in French, including The Dogs and the Wolves. (Némirovsky wrote a lot between fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 and being killed in Auschwitz by the Nazis in 1942.)

Whereas Fire in the Blood is about French peasants and seemingly written for a French audience that did not want to read about the troubles of Jews, most of the characters in The Dogs and the Wolves (I’d only sort one of the main characters, Ben, into the “wolf” category, though Harry’s uncles, the aged financiers, also fit it) are Jews, first in a city in the Ukraine (imagined smaller than Kiev, where the author was born), then in Paris (having relocated before World War I and the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution and protracted Civil War in the Ukraine—earlier than Némirovsky had).


There are a number of jumps of two years within the novel, but its starting point is unclear — some time early in the 20th century in an unspecified city on a river (presumably the Dnieper) in the Ukraine in which the Jews were literally stratified (the elevation of their houses correlating with their poverty/wealth):

“The Jews who lived in the lower town [along the riverfront] were religious and fanatically attached to their customs; the Jews in the wealthy areas were strict observers of tradition. To the poor Jews, their religion was so completely engrained in them that it would have been just as impossible to extricate themselves from it as to live without their beating hearts. To the rich Jews, loyalty to the rites of their forefathers seemed in good taste, dignified, morally honourable, as much as — perhaps more than — true belief. Between these two classes, each observant in their own fashion, the lower middle class lived in yet another way. They called upon God to bless their business dealing, heal a relative, a spouse, a child, then forgot about Him straight away, or if they did think about Him, it was with a mixture of superstitious fear and contained resentment: God never fully granted anything that was asked oh Him.”

The novel’s protagonist, Ada, is from that intermediate stratum. Her mother is dead, and her father (who is named Israel Sinner) takes in his widowed sister-in-law Raissa and her two children, Lilla and Ben. Ada and Ben are very close, not least when they flee a pogrom to the gates of the mansion of a cousin, also named Sinner, whose delicate only child, Harry, fascinates Ada. Especially since Ben is in love with Ada, he despises Harry…

And will continue to do so in Paris. Aunt Raissa convinced Israel to send her and the children there to be polished (educated, not so much). After the Revolution cuts off remittances from Israel (who disappears in the conflagration), Ada works for Aunt Raissa as a seamstress, and paints when she can. It takes years for Harry to notice two of her paintings of home and to fulfill her longstanding desire to be with him. Harry has married a blonde Gentile and has a son, but is never comfortable except with Ada.

Ben has been intriguing with Harry’s uncles and has to flee again before a scandal breaks. Alas, when Ada’s residence permit is revoked, she moves East instead of to South America, though before the dismembering of Poland, the Fall of France, Nazi Occupation, and French authorities’ proactive rounding up of foreign Jews (and, later, also French Jews), this was not as obvious as it is to readers now. The final optimism of the new mother is necessarily more tragic to readers of the English translation in the third millennium (C.E.) than to whatever readers of the first French edition there were in early 1940.

Though the novel is a trifle schematic, and my allegiance to incest taboos is stronger than seems operative for French (at least in books and movies), I think the book is a compelling tale of two strata of Jews in the Ukraine and in Paris. lts existence certainly belies the charge some made when only Suite Française was available in English that Némirovsky avoided writing about Jews.

There is not a harpie mother as in some other Némirovsky work, though the aunt partakes of some of the duplicity Némirovsky abhorred in her mother. As in Fire in the Blood, the female characters are well developed. The male ones seem more types than rounded characters to me and I especially wish Ben (who disappears from the narrative for quite a considerable space/time) were more fully developed. Still, Némirovsky was a very skilled and insightful writer, and in The Dogs and the Wolves, I have found a book for Women’s History Month that I can recomend as a good read, not just a historical phenomenon of fiction written in the past by a woman writer.

©2015 Stephen O. Murray



Modiano, Modiano, Modiano

A few years back (before winning the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature and the French publication of So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood), Patrick Modiano said “I have the impression of writing the same book for 45 years.” Besides being very repetitious from novella to novella, Modiano’s plots are wispy without any counterweight of character development: that is, his novels are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. Indeed, I’d say they lack narrative drive. They have a protagonist life experiences match Modiano’s, one who is curious about people with whom he interacted (I can’t say that “he knew”) as a child or as a young man or (though not in this case) with whom his petty gangster father interacted at some time in the past. The protagonist, almost always a writer, is definitely not a professional investigator or researcher: he gives an additional meaning to the “private” in “private investigator”!


As usual, in “Lost” the writer (given a name other than Patrick for a change: Jean Daragne) never attempts to investigate the police records involving the adults whose relationships with each other were mysterious to him when he was a child left by his mother with shady friends, one of whom was murdered.

When he finds someone who might know something about those about whom he is recollecting and speculating, Modiano’s investigator is too diffident to talk to them and ask any questions.. This one asks a physician across the street in the Parisian suburb where Jean was stored for a time as a child some questions, but his absurd cover story prevents him from asking much of what he really wants to know. Similarly, though he has a cache of old papers in a suitcase, he has lost the key and is unwilling to break it open to try to ground his feeble memories and extremely limited analytical abilities.

And, as usual in Modiano novels, at the end of the wispy book, the investigator does not know why the subject of his investigation did what they did decades earlier (let alone who the murderer was!). Even what Jean has blocked from his memory is something readers of Modiano’s Prix Goncourt-winning Missing Persons will already know.

The novel begins with someone else, an inveterate gambler, interested in writing about the murder of Colette Laurent and the girlfriend of the gambler. These two characters are MacGuffins (to borrow Alfred Hitchcock’s term) and disappear from the book fairly early on.

Modiano is hyper-specific about place names (mostly, but not only Parisian ones), often noting both what once stood at an address and what is there now. Perhaps these details covey more to readers who have lived there whole lives in Paris than they do to me, but can that substitute for plots and characterizations, even for native Parisians?

I don’t know what the writer of the cover cop could mean by “psychological insight” in the novel, and I think the Swedish Academy made another mistake in awarding the Nobel Prize to a very bad mystery writer of very limited scope. (Joseph Kanon, who provides solutions to the murder mysteries in his novels that also have developed characters and diverse settings, seems to me a better choice, though my first choice for the Nobel Prize is Michael Ondaatje.)

(My Amazon Vine review of the forthcoming translation recycles a lot from what I wrote about earlier Modiano novellas earlier this year, I know! And in responding to comments:)


I have read variants of Modiano’s story in multiple volumes and have yet to notice much in the way of gifts, at least any that make it across translation. “Lost purpose since 1945” (not 1940?) is wooly, but Modiano’s picking at the wounds of his youth (especially his gangster Nazi-collaborator father) are far, far, far less grandiose. And in the present instance, keeping the same number of years back to last meetings with childhood caregivers from 2012 makes no sense.

As I wrote, his novels lack character development (his characters are barely even wispy and definitely boneless), plot development, ideas (about anything, macro or micro), or any serious attempt to solve/resolve even the minor mysteries that slightly pique his characters’ (variants of himself) interest. Simenon’s non-Maigret novels (of which there are a great many) don’t provide the “solutions” you demean (Agatha Christie wrap-ups). Moreover, I think Simenon’s Dirty Snow, the Simenon novel focused on occupation/collaboration, is far superior to any Modiano novel.

It seems to me that Modiano (and his autobiographical protagonists) are treading water that is not very deep: if they stretched their legs, they could find they could walk. And to press my analogy, the man flailing in the water has his eyes closed speculating about how far from shore he is and if he opened them could see it is not very far.


©2015, Stephen O. Murray


Staying in the fog with Patrick Modiano: Suspended Sentences


Pros: Afterimage

Cons: Flower of Ruins

When the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature going to Patrick Modiano  was announced, I was not aghast (as with awards to Daniel Fo, Mo Yan, and Herta Muller). Admiring two films about the Occupation of France (Lacombe, Lucien; Bon voyage), I gave the Swedish Academy the benefit of the doubt. Having now read four novels by Modiano (Out of the Dark and the three that were originally published separately that were recently bundled by Yale University Press as Suspended Sentences), my doubts have become acute.

It seems (not just from my sample but from what I have read about others) that Modiano’s plots are wispy without any counterweight of character development: that is, his novels are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. Indeed, I’d say they are not driven at all. They have a protagonist whose age and life experiences match Modiano’s who is curious about people with whom he interacted (I can’t say that “he knew”) or with whom his father interacted at some time in the past. The protagonist is definitely a professional investigator or researcher: he gives an additional meaning to the “private” in “private investigator”!

Not least in that Modiano frequently calls this man haunted by and speculating about the past “Patrick,” I will, too. Patrick turns up some material in old newspapers and magazine, but never attempts to investigate the police records of Paris. When he finds someone who might know something about those about whom he is recollecting and speculating, he is too diffident to talk to them and ask any questions.

Those who interest him, particularly those who were adults during the Occupation, were furtive and elusive, both then and later. Patrick’s father, Albert (1912-77) was a low-level black-market operator who kept his Jewish ancestry secret from the Nazis with whom he got along. He defied the legal requirement to wear the yellow Star of David that marked Jews. Though Albert was, nonetheless, rounded up and stored in Drancy, a transit camp for Jews being shipped to Auschwitz, he was mysteriously sprung by a collaborationist racketeer, Eddy Pagnon, about whom Patrick would like to know more (but not at the cost of having to ask anyone about the man who seemingly saved his father from a Nazi death camp).

The same story, or, rather, the part of the story Patrick/Modiano knows recurs—without elaboration. Author and narrator fail even to try to imagine details to fill in the very sketchy historical record.

Modiano’s fictions are extremely specific about objects in vanished rooms, often in buildings that no longer exist, and Modiano is hyper-specific about place names (mostly, but not only Parisian ones) where he was in the 1960s (or, less often, the previous and the following decades), often noting both what once stood at an address and what is there now. Perhaps these details covey more to readers who have lived there whole lives in Paris than they do me, but can that substitute for plots and characterizations, even for native Parisians?

Reading Suspended Sentences (in which the three novellas are not placed in chronological order of publication or in chronological order of the part of the narrator’s past that is the blurry focus of the work), I grew more impatient and critical with each doomed attempt to understand someone from the past. Perhaps my dismay was cumulative, though I liked “Afterimage” (1993, a rendition in English from the untranslatable idiom of its French title Chien de printemps, which means literally “dog of spring”).

Patrick is recalling when he was a 19-year-old university dropout who volunteered to catalog the archive of Francis Jansen, a MAGNUM photographer (and friend of the legendary Robert Capa), who is getting ready to leave Paris for Mexico (disappearing like Ambrose Bierce) and evading a mistress who intrigues Patrick. Jansen was, perhaps, trying to teach Patrick to “train his gaze on something very specific to avoid thinking about anything else,” as Patrick thinks Jansen did.

The second novella, “Suspended Sentences” (from the 1988 Remisse de peine, a phrase with different connotations in French: remission of pain would be a literal and cognate translation) is more obsessive and even more fragmented. Patrick (often called the affectionate/diminutive “Patrice,” but also “blissful idiot) recalls a year or so during which he and his younger brother Rudy (who was to die at the age of ten and has haunted Modiano as much as his father’s nefarious past) were housed with Annie, a possibly lesbian possible prostitute who wore a black leather jacket and jeans when no other women did). Her circle included some swindlers and other sorts of criminals Modiano père probably knew. The fragments of memory and suggestions of romantic malefactors do not add up to anything. At the end the police have arrived at the house where the young Modianos have been staying, but though her car remains parked out front, Annie has vanished forever (at least from Patrick’s view).

In the longest of the three, “Flowers of Ruin” (a literal translation of Fleurs de ruine, 1991), a desultory investigation into what happened before a young couple, Urbain and Gisèle T., committed suicide in 1933, shifts to trying to sort out the trajectory of a waiter who had served the Ts at a night club, seemingly lied that they were there alone, and much later (late-1940) took on the identity of a Peruvian(-father)/Italian(-mother) called Pacheco, a collaborationist, Philippe de Bellune, who disappeared after WWII (the “Liberation”). It is the failure to develop any of the characters (including Patrick’s) or even a tentative solution to the mysteries of the suicides, the disappeared ex-waiter or the ersatz nobleman (and collaborationist sought by the postwar French authorities) that irritated me more than the open-ended other three Modiano novels I’d read.

Bottom line: I think the Nobel committee should have chosen Michael Ondaatje, a great writer in diverse media and very varied settings, rather than Modiano. For a French writer, I think they should have chosen Michel Tournier (1924-) (before either Modiano or their previous pick, J[ean]. M[arie]. G[ustave].Le Clézio, and I regret that they did not anoint Modiano’s original patron, Raymond Queneau (1902-76)… or Marcel Proust (1871-1922).


Honeymoon: Another private and inconclusive investigation from Patrick Modiano [Rating:2/5]

Pros: ? (geographical specificity? but that only highlights lack of specificity about other, more important matters)

Cons: mystery is not even illuminated, let alone resolved; neither character-driven nor plot-driven

Patrick Modiano, who won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, has frequently said “I have the impression of writing the same book for 45 years.” Honeymoon, originally published in French in 1990 as Voyage de noces, is very like the other (four) short Modiano novels I’ve read with characters who disappear themselves (against a background of the roundup by French police of Jews to send to death camps).

The narrator, Jean B., has just disappeared himself, having stayed in Paris when he was scheduled to go to Brazil to work on a documentary film. He is tired of that line of work and is working desultorily on a biography of Ingrid, a woman who once (1950s? 60s?) picked him up hitch-hiking in the South of France (trying to get to Saint-Tropez). With her somewhat older husband, Pigaud, she took him in for a few days (he had been robbed and had no money). Later, she committed suicide in Milan.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read other Modiano novels that by the end of his investigations, Jean has no more idea of why she killed herself than he does at the start of the novel. Modiano’s protagonists give a whole new, additional meaning to “private” in “private investigator.” Jean speaks to the man who has been caretaker of Pigaud’s Paris apartment, where Pigaud has not been in more than a decade (usually the narrator is named Patrick and is too diffident to speak to anyone who knew the person whose life and disappearance intrigues him).

As usual, there is no character development and only wisps of a plot. The honeymoon was in 1942 with Pigaud having whisked the presumably Jewish Ingrid out of occupied Paris. They stay in a villa on the Côte d’azure owned by an American as nominal caretakers (and having at first claimed to be on their honeymoon, actually get married).

As vague as Modiano(‘s narrator) is about what happened both in his own past and in that of persons with whom he briefly interacted, he is typically hyper-specific in unreeling place names: the narrator moves into a hotel or apartment on a specific street in a specific arrondissement , visits bars or nightclubs on other specific streets in another specific arrondissement often with specified Métro lines and stations. That is, readers intimately familiar with Paris will know where the inconclusive narrative is at every point while rarely learning why they (the reader and the narrator) the geography is so specific and what happened to the characters of interest to the narrator remain so wispy. (Pacheco, from Suspended Sentences makes a brief appearance that also clarifies nothing about his character or fate.) And, as usual for Modiano, there is no marking of shifts from one past time to another past time to the present.


I hoped, but did not expect, that Missing Person (Rue de Boutiques Obscures), which won the 1978 Prix Goncourt, might be better than the other wispy Patrick Modiano novels I have read, but it is another inconclusive inquiry with hyper-precise Paris geography into the murky late-1930s and the time of the Occupation, culminating in the amnesiac narrator remembering being separated from his female companion trying to sneak into Switzerland. So what? In addition to extensive specification of Parisian street addresses, there are meticulous inventories of objects, as in the nouveau roman and an uninterest in psychology (motivation). As usual, I have difficulty crediting amnesia, and even more the way the detective(‘s assistant) initially called Guy Roland recovers memories (though generally not recognizing himself in the stories he elicits from a large group of interviewees, many of whom give him mementos they have preserved (for? It’s unclear when the novel’s present is). As in my favorite Modiano fiction, “Afterimage,” the character I find most interesting is a mentor/spiritual father who leaves Paris early in the narrative/inquest, in this case the detective who has employed him, Hutte, who relocates to Nice but continues to communicate (unlike the painter Francis Jansen in “Afterimage”) and whose contacts supply the narrator with many a dossier specifying the successions of addresses of persons of interest to him.


©2015, Stephen O. Murray

A young French sphinx


Pros: cast, look, sound

Cons: opacity of motivation

François Ozon has made some movies I like (8 Women, Time to Leave, Potiche, the 2012 “In the House”) and some I loathe (Criminal Lovers, Water Drops on Burning Rocks). I sort of liked “Jeune & jolie” (Young & Beautiful), structured with a song for each of the episodes set in consecutive seasons and the coming of sybilline (that is, enigmatic) age of Isabelle (Marine Vacth), who is 16 years old and a virgin being spied on as she sunbathes topless by her younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat, the voyeuristic incarnation of the film-maker, I think), in the first scene. Before the family vacation is over, she has disencumbered herself of her virginity to a German boy named Felix (Lucas Prisor) she judges too stupid to be introduced to her parents. What’s love got to do with it? Not a thing!

With an alternative cellphone chip she undertakes casual prostitution, making substantial sums mostly from jones (jeans?) who don’t make heavy demands on her. When an old man ((Johan Leysen) has a fatal heart attack (Nelson Rockefeller style) while insider her, she panics and flees, and security cameras enable the police to find her, and they inform her mother, Sylvie (a very sympathetically frustrated Géraldine Pailhas), who forces her to undertake seeing a therapist. (Her stepfather, played by a wry Frédéric Pierrot, leaves childrearing to Sylvie.


What she feels remains opaque to the viewer and to the other characters, and I think to Isabelle herself. The usual French aversion to providing motivation as well as Anglo discomfort about whether young people can consent to sex with old ones, for money or otherwise make it uncomfortable viewing for me. (Knowing that the actress was 22 rather than 16-17 lessens if not removing some of the discomfort.) Pascal Marti’s cinematography is quite pretty, however, and I like the songs (delivered by Françoise Hardy). And I like the opaque final encounter, too.


©2015, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

Lasting psychic wounds of counterinsurgency and torturing

[Rating: 4.8/5]

Pros: searing

Cons: searing

Laurent Mauvignier’s 2009 Des Hommes (Some Men, translated by David and Nicole Ball as The Wound) is a haunted and haunting novel. Mauvignier was born in 1967, after France gave up compelling Algeria to remain a subordinate part of the country (in the Evian Accords of 1962).


The novel open in rural France ca. 2002 at the retirement party of Solange, Her derelict/drunkard (but not homeless) brother Bertrand, a veteran of the French army in the Algerian conflict, now generally called “Feu-de-Bois” (wood smoke) embarrasses her and outrages his other siblings by giving her an expensive jeweled brooch. Family dynamics (dysfunctions) will be revealed over the course of the four parts (afternoon, evening, night, morning) of the novel—with the longest part (night) heavy on flashbacks. The narrator, who was also drafted and sent to Algeria, Rabut, is Bertrand’s cousin and not lacking in a guilty conscience and PTSD sleep disturbances.

Rabut wishes he was not related to Bertrand, and, still more, was unfamiliar with the atrocities committed by and against the French in Algeria. What emerges with Faulknerian indirection (if in simpler syntax) is a searing portrayal of racism, torture, and the insecurities of counter-insurgency (with an invisible enemy easily mistaken for visible noncombatants), along with an awareness that occupation of France (by Germany) was resented and feared much as the French counterinsurgency in Algeria was.

Rabut has a cache of photographs he took in Algeria (he has taken no photos since his return), just as Mauvignier’s father (who served 28 months in Algeria did). Mauvignier told Julian Bisson (in an interview published in France Today): “My mother used to show me pictures my father took in Algeria, where he was stationed for 28 months. In these photos there was no sign of war, or of the violence my mother would talk about. They were almost like holiday pictures, with smiling kids, nice landscapes, sun, the city of Oran. But when my father committed suicide, the question began to gnaw at me: Did the Algerian war have something to do with it? If so, who will speak about what has been silenced? What is it that has been silenced?”

It does not take much imagination to transfer the story from rural France and Algeria to the rural US and Iraq (and only a bit more to the rural US and Vietnam). Rabut and, even more so, Bertrand fail to suppress memories of atrocities (committed by both sides) in which they were involved and knowledge of France’s abandonment of the Arabs and Berbers who fought in the ranks of the colonial army (I would especially like to forget knowing of one form of retaliation against “collaborators” that Rabut recalls!).

The book is not a very easy read, not because of its syntax, but because the reader must put the pieces of what happened (and is happening in the 24-hours of the present day) together. Nick Flynn (who worked in a Boston homeless shelter into which his father came: recalled in a memoir filmed at “Being Flynn” and in the memoir of the making of the movie, “The Reenactments”) has some insightful things to say in his foreword. I don’t agree with him that “the books that come the closest to The Wound’s energies are J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Albert Camus’s The Stranger.” The murder of an Arab in Camus’s native Algeria of the latter has some similarities, but not the tone or structure; the one of Coetzee’s novel is more similar, with torture figuring centrally, and a similarly open ending. In awarding Coetzee the Nobel Prize for Literature, the prize committee categorised Waiting for the Barbarians “a political thriller in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, in which the idealist’s naiveté opens the gates to horror.” Though Conrad’s narrators were more detached from the stories they related, Conrad is plausible a forerunner of Mauvignier in my view.

I’ve already opined that its indirect revelation of traumas reminds me of Faulkner (and his famous statement “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” applies to the aftereffects of the Algerian counterinsurgency as well as to slavery, the US Civil War, and Jim Crow). The novel has reminded others of the movie “The Deer Hunter” (with Bertrand having a despair similar to the character played by Christopher Walken, Rabut more of a survivor, like the character played by Robert DeNiro).

Les Hommes won the Prix Virlo and the Prix de librariries, and the English translation was aided by French Voices.

©2015, 2019, Stephen O. Murray


An early and Murky Simenon Novel favorted by Brits

I don’t know why Anita Brookner pressed Simeon’s Chez Krull/ Krull’s House (1939) on Julian Barnes. It seems one of the becalmed books set around WWII I hsve been reading (this one not freshly translated and prepublished by NRYB. It has the same circulating rather than progressing movement. The reader eventually learns who strangles the pale, naked, violated girl fished out of the canal at the start, and why the foreigners (Krulls) continue to appear different to their hostile (Catholic) neighbors in a canalfront town near the Belgian border on the eve on Nazi invasion (not that the Krulls or Nazis or have any “politics” (like those tacitly colluding the Trump and his white suprematicst supporters).


There is a more assimilated German-born family, the Schoofs, who seem present more for contrast with the Krulls than to advance any plot. The Schoofs speak Dutch at home and are not really German. (The supposed Krull money has made it only as far from Germany as Belgium.) Cousin Hans ‘blatantly and deliberately offends against the first law of the immigrant: do not draw attention to yourself. And by drawing attention to himself, Hans Krull also draws attention to those ‘impure’ relatives of his who live beside the canal where the town runs out. Simenon lays out with ruthless exactitude the way selfish, conscience-free greed exploits modest, hospitable decency” (Barnes).


Not one of my favorite Simenon romans durs, but I’m not British, and ethnic chauvinism is definitely again all too topical.

©2019, Stephen O. Murray







Ill-met by sunlight: Meursault Investigation


Pros: first chapter and implicit critique of post-independence Algeria

Cons: rambling and disingenuous

In the Meursault Investigation, Algerian Muslim Kamel Daoud provides something of a counter-narrative the Albert Camus’s 1942 novel L’étranger (The Stranger in the US, The Outsider in the UK and Commonwealth), elaborating on a peripheral character, the Arab never given a name in the account of a pied noir (Algerian-born man of French descent) clerk Meursault, as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea did on the madwoman locked upstairs in Jane Eyre. At least the first chapter (excerpted and easily standing alone as a story published in the New Yorker) somewhat fills in the character of the heretofore-nameless Arab who was shot on the beach. The first chapter of The Meursault Investigation is a memoir by Harun (the Arabic form of Aaron), who was seven in 1942 when Meursault shot his brother Musa (the Arabic form of Moses) on an Algiers beach.

The murder of Musa haunts the rest of the aged Harun’s rambling memoir (which is more like Camus’s La Chute/The Fall than it is like L’étranger). Harun exacted a delayed and displaced revenge on the Algerian French by shooting one, Joseph Larquais, just after the independence of Algeria in 1962. Although the Algerian police were annoyed that this murder occurred after independence, Harun was not tried (whereas Meursault was tried and executed). Harun is affectless, like Meursault.

Harun treats L’étranger as testimony not as fiction (while Daoud has faulted his Islamist critics for failing to distinguish his fiction from factual narration). Harun/Daoud occlude a rather important fact from Camus’s (Meursault’s) book: Harun’s knife. Earlier in his last day of life, Harun (according to Meursault) was one of three Arabs who attacked and knifed Meursault’s friend, Raymond. According to Meursault’s account, later, on the beach, Meursault saw the Arab alone on the beach. After the man took out his knife, Meursault shot him. That is, it was not just the disorientation of near-sunstroke, but a semblance of “self-defense” that resulted in the death of the unnamed Arab now named Musa. It may have been unjustified, but it was not entirely gratuitous, as Harun/Daoud claim.

Leaving aside the implausibility of Camus’s plot in the colonial court system in which a pied noir is sentenced to death for killing an armed Arab who had already knifed another pied noir (Raymond), there is a significant asymmetry between Meursalt’s murder and Harun’s. In my reading of the two novels, neither killing was premeditated, nor philosophical, though Harun’s was more cold-blooded—and illuminated by the moon in Oran rather than the mid-day sun on an Algiers beach.


Both killers are haunted by their mothers for whom they cannot muster proper filial piety: Meursalt’s died shortly before he killed the Arab; Musa’s not only egged him on but (very implausibly) is still alive seventy years after her elder son’s death. Musa himself recognizes that he “was practically the murderer’s [Meursault’s] double.” (with a name resonating both with the author (Camus) and the murderer (Meursalt, who is denied a first name).

An imam of the Islamist Awakening Front proclaimed a fatwa against Daoud for his fictional character (Harun’s) apostasy. Harun does not question that there is one god, or even that Muhammad was his prophet (the two essential beliefs in determining whether someone is a Muslim), although Harun finds it implausible that God would speak to only one person (though he also suggests, “Friday? It’s not a day when God rested, it’s a day when he decided to run away and never come back.” Daoud was not even born in 1962, and no more committed murder in 1962 than Camus did in 1942. (I suspect the characters’ disdain for religion reflects that of both authors, however).

That Daoud is in danger from a fatwa does not make his novel a good novel, nor does the awards the novel won in France (the Prix François Mauriac,  the Prix des cinq continents de la Franophonie, and the Prix Goncourt for first novel). I think that the opening chapter about Musa is a bracing protest against the denial of a name to the man killed in Camus’s novel, but that the rest is ill-structured and sometimes tedious, as Harun increasingly becomes like a garrulous Camus character (and Musa remains a shadowy figure even if he now has a name).

©2017, 2019, Stephen O. Murray