30 November 2012

Rimbaud and Verlaine in Camden Town: London #43

'THE FRENCH POETS
PAUL VERLAINE
AND
ARTHUR RIMBAUD
LIVED HERE
MAY–JULY 1873'
 
A simple plaque on 8 Royal College Street, Camden Town, records the brief stay here of the self-destructive lovers. Unfortunately I took a photo of the adjoining house instead of this, so I'll have to include a shot of the actual one next time I pass this way.
 
Below are two previous posts I made:

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Arthur Rimbaud and the Vilains bonhommes
Verlaine's Grave

29 November 2012

James Prior (1851–1922) in Bingham

Finally, I located the grave of the novelist James Prior, most noted for Forest Folk* (1901), in Bingham Cemetery, Nottinghamshire.


'IN LOVING MEMORY OF
JAMES PRIOR KIRK
 BETTER KNOWN AS JAMES PRIOR
DIED DEC 17TH 1922 AGED 71
ALSO HIS WIFE LILY
DIED MAR 9TH 1914 AGED 48
ALSO OF THEIR SONS
WALTER
DIED OF WOUNDS IN FRANCE
AUG 17TH
1918 AGED 26
AND HAROLD
DIED APR 25TH  1931 AGED 23'
 
2001 not only marked the centenary of Forest Folk, but also 150 years since the birth of James Prior. To my knowledge there was not a single mention of this from Nottinghamshire County Council, Bingham Town Council, or any local history societies. When I found Prior's grave yesterday I had to spend some time cleaning it up: I am as yet (29 November 2012) aware of no other photo of Prior's grave.

James Prior, with the exception of early D. H. Lawrence, is probably the only regional writer from Nottinghamshire in the early 20th century, and yet not even his adopted home of Bingham seems to appreciate his achievements. There is an organization called Bingham Heritage Trails Association, but virtually the only (extremely limited) information it gives on Prior on its website is from a Nottinghamshire County Council webpage.

Lushai Cottage in Fisher Lane is where the Kirk family lived at the beginning of their stay in Bingham in 1891. This photo is one I took for my book Hidden Nottinghamshire (Wilmslow: Sigma Leisure, 1998), an example of my, er, juvenilia.

My MA of 2000 contains a little previously unpublished biographical material on James Prior and is viewable in full on this blog: it was posted in consecutive chapters in October 2012 and is the only long study ever made of Prior's work, although almost all of it concentrates on Forest Folk. It may still contain a number of minor typos as I had to re-type it and remember a few lost pages.


(Walter Kirk was in fact buried in Huon Military Cemetery, Le Treport, Seine-Maritime (76), France.)


* The pub The Forest Folk in Blidworth, named after the novel, was built in 1927 and was demolished some years ago. The entrance room had a small area (including a window) commemorating James Prior.

In August 2011, it was announced that a planter and plaque would be placed at 'Forest Folk Corner' to mark the site. Well, it's not exactly a plaque but it's at least something.

A commemorative plaque in Bingham (where James Prior lived for over 30 years) would be recognition of the important part that the man played in the county's literary history.

The links below are to the posts I've made on James Prior:

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James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Introduction
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Chapter One
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Chapter Two
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Chapter Three
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Conclusion
The Grave of James Prior (1851–1922) in Bingham
James Prior's Parents' Grave, Nottingham
James Prior: Three Shots from a Popgun (1880)

27 November 2012

George Orwell in Kentish Town: London #42

 
'GEORGE
ORWELL
1903–1950
Novelist and
Political Essayist
lived here'
 
For a few months in the second half of 1935 George Orwell, either at the suggestion of A. R. Orage (according to Michael Sayers) or Mabel Fierz (according to Michael Shelden) moved into the top part of 50 Lawford Road, Kentish Town, with Sayers and Rayner Heppenstall.* Orwell had the largest bedroom because he paid the largest part of the rent. He got on well with Sayers, but on one occasion Heppenstall – who could be a rather difficult character, Fierz later claimed – came in very drunk and provoked Orwell to thump him on the nose and attack him with a shooting stick. The following morning Orwell (in whose name the property was let) ordered that Heppenstall pack and go. Although the two made good their differences a year later later, Heppenstall had the last word five years after Orwell's death by writing an article called 'The Shooting Stick'.

*Gordon Bowker, 'Michael Sayers: Writer Whose Career Never Recovered from Being Blacklisted in the United States', Independent, 22 July 2010; Michael Shelden, Orwell: The Authorised Biography (London: Heinemann, 1991).

26 November 2012

Elizabeth Bowen in Regents Park: London #41


'ELIZABETH
BOWEN
1899–1973
Writer
lived here
1935–1952'
 
This blue plaque was unveiled as recently as March 2012, at 2 Clarence Terrace, Regents Park. The Anglo-Irish novelist wrote The Death of the Heart (1938) and The Heat of the Day (1949) here.

Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes: London #40

 
'221b
SHERLOCK
HOLMES
CONSULTING DETECTIVE
1881–1904'
 
221b Baker Street is the address of the fictional Sherlock Holmes and Watson, created by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930). The building was built in 1815 and is listed.
 
In the stories, Mrs Hudson is the landlady of 221b. The restaurant is next door to the museum.
 
A huge copy of the 2009 UK first class postage stamp commemorating the 150-year anniversary of Conan Doyle's birth.
 
And around the corner on Marylebone Road, in the shadow of the dome of a much larger London attraction just visible on the bottom left, is the statue of Sherlock Holmes. It was commissioned by the Sherlock Holmes Society of London in 1999, and sponsored by Abbey National plc to commemorate its 150-year existence.
 
I didn't join the museum queue, but a link to a rather dramatic nine-minute video clip is below:

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The Sherlock Holmes Museum

Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Barrett Browning: London #39

 
 
'WILLIAM
WILKIE
COLLINS
1824–1889
NOVELIST
lived here'
 
Wilkie Collins lived at 90 Gloucester Place (now 65) from 1867 to 1888. Michael Sadleir unveiled this plaque in 1951. Along with many other authors he is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery (although his grave continues to elude me).
 
'ELIZABETH BARRETT
BROWNING
(1806–1861)
– POET –
LIVED HERE'
 
Barrett Browning lived at 99 Gloucester Place from 1835 to 1838, before moving to 50 Wimpole Street, which her father had bought. She was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Fenner Brockway in Islington: London #38

 
'FENNER
BROCKWAY
(LORD BROCKWAY)
1888 ~
LIVED HERE
1908 ~ 1910'
 
60 Myddelton Square, Islington. Brockway (who died in 1988 just five months before his 100th birthday) is well known for his pacifist activities and imprisonment for these views during World War I, and for his role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, although he supported the fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War.
 
He was also a Labour Party MP (notably for Eton and Slough in the 1950s and early 1960s) and wrote a number of political books. A statue of him stands in Red Lion Square near Theobalds Road.

25 November 2012

Ruth Bryan (1805–1860)

'IN
LOVING MEMORY OF
RUTH BRYAN,
WRITER OF
"DIARY" AND "LETTERS",
WHO FELL ASLEEP IN JESUS
JULY 27th 1860,
AGED 55 YEARS.
 
"THE MEMORY OF
THE JUST IS BLESSED" PROV. 10:7.'
 
While I was on my way to find Sarah Ann Agnes Turk's grave in Nottingham General Cemetery I came across the grave of Ruth Bryan (1805–1860), and would have passed it by if it hadn't mentioned that she was a writer. There's still a lot a mud on it but there was a great deal more before I used tissues and wipes to make it at least legible. I knew nothing of Ruth Bryan and didn't honestly expect to find much information, but I was in for quite a surprise.
 
I suspect that very few people in Nottingham, in the UK even, have heard of this writer, although her works are in the British Library. But the Library of Congress gives no mention of her, and yet virtually all of the information about her seems to come from 'Grace Gems', a puritan website based in Wenatchee, Washington state. 'Grace Gems' was founded and is edited by Matt Blair, who includes a number of religious writers' works on the site, from the internationally known John Bunyan to the much more obscure Ruth Bryan, whom he calls the sites's 'Best Female Author'. Bryan's letters are there, excerpts from her diary, and several audio recordings have been made of her 'meditations'.
 
There's also a little biographical information about Bryan: she was born in London, her father was in business but the family left when her father became a minister in Nottingham. And the diary – begun when she was seventeen and maintained until the year of her death – charts her spiritual progress and struggles, the journeys she made in England, her relationship with God, and her long struggle with illness.
 
There is a link to 'Grace Gems' below, and also a link to a later post I made.
 
––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
The Works of Ruth Bryan
Ruth Bryan (continued)

Writers and literary associations in Nottingham General Cemetery:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Robert Goodacre (1777–1835)
Sarah Ann Agnes Turk (1859–1927)
Annie Matheson (1853–1924)
Josiah Gilbert (1814–1892)
Anthony Hervey (c. 1796–1850)
Charles Bell Taylor (1829–1909)
James Prior's Parents
Ann Taylor (1782–1866)
Robert Millhouse (1788-1839)
Henry Hogg (1831-74)

24 November 2012

Sarah Ann Agnes Turk / Sheila Agnes Turk (1859–1927)

Sarah Ann Agnes Turk (1859–1927) was a Catholic writer and is buried in Nottingham General Cemetery. Little biographical information seems to be readily available about her, although I am grateful to Rowena Edlin-White for telling me about the existence of her grave, and also for informing me that she'd discovered from Turk's obituary in the Guardian Journal of 24 April that 'she had a Requiem Mass at St Barnabas' Cathedral and her literary work had the blessing of two Popes!'
 
'Authoress'. The use of such a demeaning suffix seems unimaginable today. How about Carol Ann Duffy as 'poetess laureate'? I meander. Several of Turk's book are in the British Library, although under the pseudonym 'Sheila Agnes Turk':
 
The Star of Bethlehem: or, Seeking the King: A Sacred Drama in Three Acts (Cork: Sacred Heart College, 1916)

The Secret of Carickferneagh Castle: An Irish Romance (London: R. & T. Washbourne, [1914])

The Marriage of Enid Ruthven (London: Salesian Press, 1927)

Sacred drama: Joan of Arc (Barnet: St. Andrew's Press: [1909?])

Nemesis: And Other Short Stories (London: R. & T. Washbourne, 1908)
 
And, with Jeannie Turk (relation unknown):
 
The Marriage Bond only Death Can Sunder (London: Henry J. Drane, [1912]).


Writers and literary associations in Nottingham General Cemetery:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Robert Goodacre (1777–1835)
Ruth Bryan (1805–1860)
Annie Matheson (1853–1924)
Josiah Gilbert (1814–1892)
Anthony Hervey (c. 1796–1850)
Charles Bell Taylor (1829–1909)
James Prior's Parents
Ann Taylor (1782–1866)
Robert Millhouse (1788-1839)
Henry Hogg (1831-74)

19 November 2012

Jake Bugg, Nottingham, and the Singer-Songwriter

On the cover of the current issue of the NME (17 November 2012) is Jake Bugg, an 18-year-old singer-songwriter from Nottingham, and there are six pages about him inside, followed by four pages about singer-songwriters through the decades. What's going on?

Bugg comes from Clifton, Nottingham, a working-class estate to the south-west of a city not especially noted for its musical talent. But last month Jake Bugg's first album made it to the top of the UK album charts, and he looks set for much bigger things.

His musical influences are eclectic, and he mentions Don McLean, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Artic Monkeys, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Nirvana, The La's, Nick Drake, even Jean-Michel Jarre, and he's well aware of popular music's roots: he's looking forward to visiting the South because of such Mississippi Delta musicians as Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House (his knowledge of the man probably not just via Jack White), etc. Self-consciously – and already (in)famously – he sees his aim as 'keep[ing] that X Factor shit off the top of the charts', which is of course a short way of stating that his interests lie in the authenticity of the music, not in the commercial engineering of taste so prevalent today. To say just a few words about Bugg's fresh, melodic songs:

'Trouble Town' is about life in a drab place, tower blocks, unemployment benefit, the only refuge coming through the popping of hemp seeds. It begins and ends with:

'Stuck in speed bump city
Where the only thing that's pretty
Is the thought of getting out'.


I'm sure many Nottinghamians – young and old – must have the same feelings, but not too many people have the wherewithal to physically transcend their environment: Jake Bugg's exit ticket was bought with no ordinary talent, sheer hard work and dedication, and (for an 18-year-old in particular) considerable musical literacy.

The 'Two Fingers' video is set against grim Nottingham buildings and the title is an indication of the content, and incidentally a reminder that the middle finger of dismissal or contempt isn't yet used throughout England. The track mentions returning to Clifton to see old friends, to 'skin up a fat one', hide from 'the Feds' and drink White Lightning (a strong English cider which I believe has been discontinued). The final line of this track is 'I left it behind', and physically he may have.

The singer-songwriter article takes the reader on a whistlestop tour: from Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, through Tracy Chapman, Tori Amos, and Elliott Smith, to the virtually barren noughties, perhaps to a more promising future.

(However, I'm very surprised that the NME mentions Cat Stevens, especially his, er, 'breezy, smart folk-pop': this is the man who supported the Rushdie fatwa and later very unconvincingly tried to deny it. Conversely, why no word of singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant (who disowned her cover version of Stevens' 'Peace Train'?). And what, NME, are you doing bothering to name Billy Bragg, a singer who wrote a few good songs in the Kinnock days but since about 1997 (when he voted for Tony Blair) seems to have been mired in considerable political confusion.)


There's hope for the future: I love the way Lucy Rose's 'Bikes' video (her idea) turns gender 'round and round and up and down', for instance, but I think Jake Bugg is the main guy to watch: he has great talent, and he shows great promise. So many writers have just that first novel in them, so many singers just that first album in them, but I think he could well last, and hope he doesn't yield to the temptation to hoover his talent away up his nose.

Which reminds me: the NME cover shows Bugg drinking what looks like coke (and there's certainly no alcohol in it as it's against the law under the age of 21 in the US) in Nick's Famous Coney Island, which – rather misleadingly – is not in Coney Island, Brooklyn, but the other side of the country in Portland, Oregon.

Just an afterthought: Jake Bugg's music is by no means all government housing gloom and spliffs: check out the beautiful acoustic 'Country Song':

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
'Country Song' – Jake Bugg

18 November 2012

Annie Matheson (1853–1924) in Nottingham

I'm grateful to Rowena Edlin-White for the above image of Annie Matheson, and for the paragraphs below that she sent me:
 
'Annie Matheson was born in Blackheath, London in 1853, moving to Nottingham at the age of three when her father became Minister of Friar Lane Chapel (he took over from Joseph Gilbert), where he stayed until his death in 1878. Annie was the oldest of 11 children. She wrote for publication from a young age, including hymns for children, several collections of poetry, essays and biographies of Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry and Joan of Arc. She also wrote new prefaces to novels by George Eliot and Mrs Craik.

'Matheson's poetry reflects her concern for social issues, particularly those affecting women and children. Her poem, 'A Song for Women' about sweated labour, was issued as a leaflet by the Women's Protective and Provident League (the first trade union for women).

'In the 1880s the Matheson family moved back to London, Annie finally settling at Maybury Hill, Woking, where she is believed to have been involved as a non-combatant in the women's suffrage movement  Her collection of essays and poems, Leaves of Prose (1912) express her wide variety of interests, and can be found as a free read on the web.

'Annie died in London in 1924 and her ashes were returned to Nottingham to be buried with her parents and sister Mabel in the General Cemetery.'
 

 
Among the books written by Annie Matheson are these: 

Love's Music, and Other Poems (Sampson Low, 1894)
Selected Poems, Old and New (H. Frowde, 1899)
Love Triumphant, and Other New Poems (A. D. Innes, 1898)
Leaves of Prose (Stephen Swift, 1912)
Florence Nightingale: A Biography (Nelson, [1913])
'The Religion of Humanity' and Other Poems (Percival, 1890).

Writers and literary associations in Nottingham General Cemetery:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Robert Goodacre (1777–1835)
Ruth Bryan (1805–1860)
Sarah Ann Agnes Turk (1859–1927)
Josiah Gilbert (1814–1892)
Anthony Hervey (c. 1796–1850)
Charles Bell Taylor (1829–1909)
James Prior's Parents
Ann Taylor (1782–1866)
Robert Millhouse (1788-1839)
Henry Hogg (1831-74)

Josiah Gilbert (1814–1892) in Nottingham

 
 
'1814–1892
JOSIAH GILBERT ARTIST, TRAVELLER & MAN OF LETTERS'
 
An inscription on the marble pillar in Nottingham General Cemetery states 'JOSIAH GILBERT 1814–1892 DIED AT MARDEN ASH | ELDEST SON OF THE REV. JOSEPH GILBERT AND ANN TAYLOR HIS WIFE OF ONGAR'. Gilbert wrote Cadore, or Titian's Country (London: Longmans, Green, 1869), Landscape in Art before Claude and Salvator (London: Murray, 1885), and edited The Autobiography and Other Memorials of Mrs Gilbert, Formerly Ann Taylor (London: Henry S. King, 1874). Many thanks to Rowena Edlin-White for drawing my attention to this grave.

A sketch of Pieve di Cadore, with Mount Marmarolo in the background, from Gilbert's Cadore.

Next to Josiah Gilbert's grave is a much earlier one: that of his wife Susan. Josiah had dedicated Cadore to her: 'To the dear companion of the journey of life, as of each Alpine ramble'. He wrote the Preface to the book on 1 May 1869, and in less than two years she was dead. 
 
There are links below to the full texts of two of these books:

 –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Cadore, or Titian's Country (1869)
The Autobiography and Other Memorials of Mrs Gilbert, Formerly Ann Taylor (1874)
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Writers and literary associations in Nottingham General Cemetery:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Robert Goodacre (1777–1835)
Ruth Bryan (1805–1860)
Sarah Ann Agnes Turk (1859–1927)
Annie Matheson (1853–1924)
Anthony Hervey (c. 1796–1850)
Charles Bell Taylor (1829–1909)
James Prior's Parents
Ann Taylor (1782–1866)
Robert Millhouse (1788-1839)
Henry Hogg (1831-74)

Richard Daft in Radcliffe on Trent, Nottinghamshire

The cricketer Richard Daft (1835–1900) is buried in the cemetery at Radcliffe on Trent, Nottinghamshire, although when I took this photo several years ago the grave was in a rather sorry state, with the cross lying on the ground.
 
Daft was one of the major batsmen of his day, with a career that continued until 1891. He married Mary Parr, the daughter of Butler Parr, a maltster (and former cricketer) whose business he took over on his death in 1872. This was The Brewery in Radcliffe, and a few years after that Daft opened a large sports business in Lister Gate, Nottingham. He went bankrupt in 1897.
 
Daft wrote Kings of Cricket: Reminiscences and Anecdotes with Hints on the Game (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, [1893]), which had illustrations and an introduction by Andrew Lang. And a posthumous publication was A Cricketer's Yarns: To Which have Been Added a Few Genealogical Tables of Nottinghamshire Cricketing Families, ed. by F. S. Ashley-Cooper (London: Chapman & Hall, 1926).

14 November 2012

Matthew 'Monk' Lewis: 'The Isle of Devils'

Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818) was a novelist and dramatist frequently named 'Monk' Lewis as a result of his highly popular gothic novel The Monk (1796), which he wrote before he was twenty and which took him just ten weeks. Benita Eisner states that Byron called Lewis 'a good man, a clever man, but a bore [socially]', and that Hobhouse also called him (again socially) 'an egotistical bore'.*

However, it's the name 'Irza' mentioned in the post below that continues to interest me, which is the name of the protagonist in Lewis's extraordinary twenty-page poem 'The Isle of Devils', which was published posthumously in Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834), which takes place on an unnamed island off the African coast and concerns, among many other things, the rape of Irza in her sleep by a demon and the subsequent birth of a monster.

'The Isle of Devils' has an epigraph from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Could it be that Lionel Britton's maternal grandmother Marie-Antoinette Thomas read this poem and foresaw that her daughter would give birth to a Caliban? No, of course not.

* Benita Eisler, Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Time (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1999), pp. 530 and 579.

There doesn't seem to be a copy of the poem online, but the link to this scholarly article in Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, May 2008, is really interesting.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
'Monk' Lewis' 'The Isle of Devils' and the Perils of Colonialism, by Lisa Nevárez

13 November 2012

Cesare Bossi's Irza (1804)

Irza is an unusual forename, but she was the writer Lionel Britton's mother, and until now there's never been any indication of where the name came from. However, Robert Hughes has discovered this ballet: Irza by C. Bossi. Cesare Bossi, or Bosi, was born in Italy, perhaps in 1760, and died in a London prison (probably for debt) perhaps in 1802, or 1807. Not too many things about him are certain, although he wrote ballet music, was popular in England, and it was probably after this particular ballet that Marie Antoinette named her daughter Irza.

12 November 2012

L. S. Lowry and Harry Rutherford in Tameside



The bronze statue of the painter L. S. Lowry, installed in 2005 at Jollys Corner at the junction of Hyde Road and Stalybridge Road, Mottram in Longdendale, Tameside.

At the side is a pictorial map of Mottram.

One of the pictures is a Lowryesque representation of Lowry's former house round the corner at 23 Stalybridge Road.


'LAWRENCE STEPHEN LOWRY 1887–1976
The famous North Country artist L. S. Lowry
lived here from 1948 until his death in 1976.
The paintings of Lowry document the lives
of ordinary people in the industrial
communities of the North West.'

And the house itself. Lowry was buried in his parents' grave in Southern Cemetery, Chorlton, which has been made famous of course through The Smiths' song 'Cemetry Gates' [sic], although when I went there I didn't realize Lowry was buried there.

Lowry's house was named 'The Elms', and the inscription is just about legible on either side of the door here.

And just three miles to the west of the Lowry statue, at the side of the entrance to Hyde Town Hall, is a slightly ambiguous plaque dedicated to another 'Northern School' painter.

'HARRY RUTHERFORD 1903–1985
The artist Harry Rutherford lived here, keeping
a studio next door. Rutherford liked to paint
popular entertainments – music halls, theatres,
pubs, the circus and the cinema and sketched
for his own television programmes
in the 1930s and 1950s'

'This blue plaque to Harry Rutherford is a replica.
The original may be seen at his former home at
17 Nelson Street, Hyde.

The plaque was unveiled on 20th November 1993
by Sir George Kenyon, DL, BSc, LLD,
a close friend of the artist.'

And here is the plaque at Nelson Street, shadowed by scaffolding from the house next door to it.


A previous blog post I made about Lowry's work is linked below.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
L. S. Lowry in Nottingham, England

8 November 2012

Linda Lê: Les Évangiles du crime (1992)

Linda Lê has disowned her first three publications – Un si tendre vampire (1986), Fuir (1987), and Solo (1988) – although she recognizes Les Évangiles du crime (1992) as her first serious work. It's probably best to see this book as a collection of four short stories rather than a novel, although all sections are thematically related.

And although not all of the stories have the same themes, almost all of them involve alienation, madness, doubles, mirrors, suicide, (sado-)masochism, parents as monsters, violence, victimhood, reading and writing as therapy, etc. Lê's is also an essentially anonymous world, and forenames plus surnames don't exist: in this book at least, it's just forename and initial of surname, or an eccentric nickname.

The first story is 'Reeves C.', which revolves around events indirectly linked to Southern writer Carson McCullers's relationship with Reeves, the man she married twice, and who killed himself in the Hôtel de Château-Frontenac, 54 rue Pierre-Charron, Paris, in November 1953.

'Reeves C.' is told entirely in the first person, although (a little confusingly) the first person in the introductory section is a woman later called – by the, er, second and subsequent narrator – 'Douleur Muette' (or 'Mute Pain' if I really must translate it literally). Douleur Muette first briefly encounters the second narrator as he forges a path past her down the street urgently informing her that he has to reclaim his taste for living, and disappearing across the road with little regard for his own safety.

Douleur Muette dreams that night that she asks a cab driver to take her to rue Pierre-Charron, although the driver refuses. She makes her own way there next morning and finds the man who has to refind his taste for living, who tells her that a friend of his killed himself in the Hôtel de Château-Frontenac.

There follows a strange sado-masochistic relationship by means of a series of telephone calls that the man makes to Douleur Muette, in which only the man speaks, and the woman makes notes. An analogy is established between the writers Carson McCullers and the woman, and Reeves and the man, who both in the end kill themselves.

In the second story, 'Professor T.', there are three narratives: the words from the notebook of Professor T., who has killed himself in his cellar after his son has killed himself and his wife has gone mad; the words from papers in between the notebook written by 'Plus-dure-sera-la-chute' ('The Harder They Fall'), who is Professor T's alter ego; and the notes from the investigator.

The professor is an austere bully obsessed with morality, whereas Plus-dure-sera-la-chute is concerned more with sex, hates the professor, and has existed since the professor was twelve: he makes his appearances at times of crisis. Plus-dure-sera-la-chute sees an analogy with the Kurosawa film Rashômon (1950) – a son who kills himself and a wife who goes mad – but he also brings in Moritz Schreber (1808–61). Schreber was a physician who invented contraptions for city children to release excess energy, and devices to prevent masturbation: child psychologist Alice Miller (1923–2004) called him a proponent of 'poisonous pedagogy'. Schreber's son, Daniel Paul Schreber, wrote a rather different book: Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (Memoirs of My Nervous Illness) (1903) – negative inheritance is important in Lê's vision.

This is another story of mutual destruction. In the end, the fascinated investigator doesn't know if the professor has killed himself, killed the other man in him, or allowed the other man to kill him. Maddened in a similar fashion, the investigator looks for his alter ego and wants a cellar.

'Klara V.' begins the story at the end, where a young woman has killed herself by jumping from La Defense. Again, there is a reference to the cinema: Billy Wilder's Fedora (1978), in which Fedora throws herself from a train at the beginning, and – yet another double – Marthe Keller plays Fedora as well as Fedora's daughter Antonia.

Klara's mother is clearly mad, abuses her daughter as a young child, pretends to be sick and has her daughter wait on her. At 17 Klara uglifies herself by wearing thick glasses and drab-coloured, shapeless clothes: a kind of identification with the aggressor this may in a sense be, but it's also a defence, as (interestingly) is the shoring up of books as a bulwark against the madness.


When Klara is 19 the mother ruins her relationships by writing letters to her daughter's lovers, slandering her. Even when she's 23, her mother visits her and searches her drawers to she can discover the details of her latest lover in order to write poison about her. Her mother dead, Klara continues to write similar letters to her lovers: sadism is followed by masochism. In 'A Vietnamese Voice in the Dark', (Francophone Post-Colonial Cultures: Critical Studies (Lexington Books: Lanham, MD, 2003)), ed. by Kamal Salhi, Emily Vaughan Roberts says: 'Klara denies herself a sense of belonging or stability through her continuing compusive dialogue with the past – a predicament that often affects an exile.' Alienation is self-perpetuating.

The final story is 'Vinh L.', which begins with a narrator who is in a sense the double of the main narrator Vinh L., as he's a writer who plagiarizes, which is perceived as a form of cannibalism. And cannibalism is the main subject, as Vinh L. has been one of the boat people escaping from Vietnam, and is torn apart by guilt because he was forced to kill in order to eat human flesh (one body being transformed into another) to survive the journey.

Vinh's narrative is in ten letters, and in the fifth there's another kind of double, as he mentions reading an article about a murdered Italian author in which the epigraph reads 'I have killed my father. I have eaten human flesh and I am trembling with joy', and I'm aware of these as sentences in the film Porcile (Pigsty) by the (murdered) director Pasolini. The cinema seems to play a big part in Linda Lê's life: I've mentioned earlier that when she dies she wants to be watching Fritz Lang's Moonfleet. But Vinh L. doesn't die: he returns to Vietnam for a kind of redemption.


Linda Lê's work makes for an enthralling, if exhausting, read.

There are links to my other Linda Lê book posts below.

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Linda Lê: Voix: une crise (1998)
Linda Lê: A l'enfant que je n'aurai pas (2011)

Linda Lê: Lame de fond
Linda Lê: Lettre morte
Linda Lê: Personne

6 November 2012

Linda Lê: A l'enfant que je n'aurai pas (2011)

The 'Les Affranchis' series was thought up by Claire Debru, with the simple instruction: 'Write the letter you have never written', and Linda Lê's A l'enfant que je n'aurai pas ('To the Child I Shall Not Have') is one of the series. It contains sixty-five pages, is short on paragraphs and often has very long sentences, often with lists of things that the narrator would or wouldn't have done if she's had the child that she has resolutely determined not to have.

The letter is also short on names, the narrator simply calling her boyfriend 'S', her mother the pointedly Orwellian 'Big Mother', and the only other name in the letter, apart from dead authors, is the stillborn Emmanuel, son of a psychiatric patient. And although there are several authors mentioned, the most obvious one – Simone de Beauvoir – is not.

But although the remarkable Le Deuxième Sexe is often understood as a reference point for Beauvoir's work, I'm thinking more of Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée and Beauvoir's insufferable mother, although Big Mother is far worse than her. The four daughters receive no parental warmth – the déclassé father merely shrinking into insignificance and alcoholism – and Big Mother lives by ferociously strict puritanical codes and uses corporal punishment to enforce them.

Essentially, A l'enfant que je n'aurai pas is – as readers of Linda Lê's earlier work might expect – an outsider scream, and of course the outsider's chief problem is conformity. The narrator is a woman, and society decrees that as such her principal function in life is to have children, but this letter lists many reasons why she has chosen not to have any. S. does everything in his power to convince her that she must have children because, well, a man isn't a man without proving himself in the procreation stakes, etc.

Towards the end of the letter the narrator speaks slightly comically in a sick, grim sort of way, of locking the hypothetical child up until he's learned by heart 'the most remarkable of Nietszche's pages' and 'assimilated at least one Socratic dialogue', but this comes shortly after the mention of her suicide attempt, and shortly before the paranoia increases, where she makes another suicide attempt, followed by incarceration in a psychiatric hospital.

This brief text is just an indication of why Linda Lê is a such a major French language writer.

Below are links to other posts I've made about Linda Lê's books. Prix Goncourt tomorrow for Lame de fond? Well, let's hope.


ADDENDUM: Oh, Jérôme Ferrari got it with Le Sermon sur la chute de Rome. Huh.

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Linda Lê: Voix: une crise (1998)
Linda Lê: Les Évangiles du crime (1992)
Linda Lê: Lame de fond
Linda Lê: Lettre morte
Linda Lê: Personne