Monday 28 May 2018

Les Misérables Silent Stalkers in the Dark/À chasse noire, meute muette V2B5

One of the very few advantages of being more than 100 pages behind in the #LesMisReadalong is that I can, indeed I must, read more than one chapter a day at the moment. Sometimes that can be a bit difficult with a book like this, deep in the more technical aspects of Waterloo for instance, but sometimes it can really pay off.

And V2B5 is one of those times. As the name would suggest Silent Stalkers in the Dark is quite an exciting read. Jean Valjean has realised that someone is onto him, and that he and Cosette must move from the Gorbeau Tenement. A thrilling late night chase ensues.
Sure enough, not three minutes had gone by before the men appeared. There were four of them now, all of them tall, dressed in long brown frock-coats, with round hats, and big truncheons in their hands. They were no less alarming for their tall stature and huge fists than for the sinister way they skulked in the shadows. They looked like four spectres disguised as respectable citizens. 
Crossing from the left bank and the Jardin des Plantes to the right bank, via the Pont Austerlitz and Jean Valjean comes to the (sadly) fictional Petit-Picpus. A very quick google showed me the sad facts, on a great Les Mis site I don't think I've seen before. Of course I was already making plans to visit on my next trip to Paris.
Petit-Picpus, which in fact scarcely existed and was never more than a roughly defined area, had the almost monastic appearance of a Spanish town. The roads were rarely paved, the streets not much built up. Apart from the two or three streets we area going to talk about, it was all blank walls and desolation. Not one shop, not one vehicle, only the occasional lighted candle here and there at the window, and all light extinguished after ten o'clock. Gardens, convents, yards, allotments, the odd low-built house, and solid walls as high as the houses. 
Of course Jean Valjean prevails and finds safe harbour, but not before using his superhuman strengths to climb a wall of eighteen feet, and narrowly escape Javert.
It was a characteristic of Jean Valjean that he might have been said to carry two bags: in one he kept his saintly thoughts, in the other the formidable talents of a convict. He dug into one or the other, depending on circumstances. 
Jean Valjean's bond with Cosette deepens as he watches her sleep with her head on a stone. 
He clearly perceived this truth, the bedrock of his life from now on, that so long as she was there, so long as he had her by him, he would have no need of anything but for her sake, more fear of anything except on her account. He was not even aware of being very cold, having taken off his coat to cover her with it. 
Every so often Victor Hugo inserts his unnamed narrator into the text. I had wondered initially if it was himself, or some character that we hadn't met as yet. Hugo does this again at the beginning of Silent Stalkers in the Dark, clearly referring to his own exile from France. 
Reluctantly obliged to speak of himself, the author of this book has not been in Paris for many years now. Since he left it, Paris has been transformed. 
Victor Hugo lived in exile from France from 1852 to 1870 during the time of the Napoleon III/Baron Haussman transformation of Paris. Hugo wrote Les Miserables while living at Hauteville House in Guernsey, where he lived for the majority of his exile. Hautville House is currently in need of renovation, the full price of which has just been recently donated by a billionaire benefactor. 

All quotes are from the 2013 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, translated by Christine Donougher. 

Sunday 27 May 2018

Moby Dick Big Read - The First Half

I happened along the Moby Dick Big Read on twitter last October. Moby Dick is a huge chunkster, and  certainly not a book I'm ever likely to pick up with the hope of completing reading it, but the audiobook seemed possible. I'd recently taken up listening to audiobooks whilst out walking the dogs. With all my post Steptember walking the dogs are getting quite a bit of exercise and it's nice to listen to something on the way. I don't do it all the time, sometimes I won't listen to anything, sometimes to walking music, and now podcasts have taken over my life... But I've found it a great way to get some more reading done. I've already listened to The Family Law and very much enjoyed the experience. So in no time at all I'd downloaded the podcast of the Moby Dick Big Read onto my phone and was stepping out.

I was really taken aback by how much I enjoyed the early chapters. It's all quite poetic and quite Dickensian really, which isn't surprising I guess as Moby Dick was published in 1851. Dickens had toured America in the 1840s and 1851 was in the midst of his hey day, between David Copperfield and Bleak House.  Which is not to suggest that Herman Melville was influenced by Dickens particularly, just that they are contemporaneous, Victorian, and sound similarly descriptive to my modern ear.

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.
I was a bit familiar with the broad sweep of story as I think most people are- a mad sea captain chasing a white whale. I've tried to watch movie or TV versions over the years figuring that I'd never read the book, but usually I haven't made it through much of it. Not even that series with Patrick Stewart got me through it all. I was a bit surprised that Captain Ahab isn't even mentioned until Chapter 16, and even after that he only appears from time to time. I presume that he will come back closer to the end. 

Is the whaling ship really the "true mother" of (white) Australia?
That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the whaleman. After its first blunder-born discovery by a Dutchman, all other ships long shunned those shores as pestiferously barbarous; but the whale-ship touched there. The whale-ship is the true mother of that now mighty colony. Moreover, in the infancy of the first Australian settlement, the emigrants were several times saved from starvation by the benevolent biscuit of the whale-ship luckily dropping an anchor in their waters. 
Naturally I don't think so, but there is more whaling in the very early days of white settlement than I had realised. Colony rode to wealth on whale's back. Start of whalingLater there is a full chapters of diversion into the classification and nomenclature of whales. (Chapter 32 Cetology)

After the most exciting action chapter yet (Chapter 54 The Town-Ho's Story, a rather complete diversion of an incident on another boat entirely, The Town-Ho, but which provides us with a fatal encounter with Moby Dick) comes a full 3 chapters of digression into the depiction of whales in art. I do love these Victorian era digressions, they provide extra information and background to the story, almost like the author is providing their own annotated version of their story- although they completely killed the enjoyment of Anna Karenina for me, and I never did manage to finish it. 

Melville is dismissive of the depiction of whales in most cultures and antiquity (probably rightly so)

which functions to tell us of the dangers inherent in knowing what a whale actually looks like. 

So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.
Melville's highest praise is for the work of Ambroise Louis Garneray.

Picture Source

There is a pervasive racism throughout, which I suppose was typical of the time. Much is made of the savages, generally meaning the Pacific sailors and harpooneers, but I still wasn't quite ready for racism to be applied to rope!
Of late years the Manilla rope has in the American fishery almost entirely superseded hemp as a material for whale-lines; for, though not so durable as hemp, it is stronger, and far more soft and elastic; and I will add (since there is an aesthetics in all things), is much more handsome and becoming to the boat, than hemp. Hemp is a dusky, dark fellow, a sort of Indian; but Manilla is as a golden-haired Circassian to behold.
Although Melville did manage to make a whole chapter (60) on how the ropes used in the hunt (the whale line) was made, how it was coiled in barrels (a process which is particularly hazardous it seems).

During the several months of my listening so far I have made frequent use of the online Annotated Moby DickIt is very handy for all the historic and biblical references that are rather obscure for me, and also some words that have slipped out of common usage, such as puissant.

How comes all this, if there be not something puissant in whaling?
I did take some breaks from Moby Dick from time to time. I've been listening to podcasts and sometimes I would get hooked on a series and want to listen to it (Alone), or sometimes I just wanted to listen to more of Chat 10 Looks 3. Sometimes you need a break from things. A few of the readers had exciting whale chasing passages and it's not really relaxing walking the dogs with increasingly fervent yelling in your ears about maritime disasters and the relentless persecution of these behemoths of the deep.

The audio quality and production values of Moby Dick Big Read varies wildly. At times it was quite distracting. One chapter had a metronome quite audible in the background, others page turnings, others a hollowness. A few were fully produced with wave and seagull sound effects. The voice quality of the various readers also fluctuates considerably, but then you have unknown volunteer narrators mixing it with the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry, Simon Callow (who quite naturally delivers the sermon), and even David Cameron and Sir David Attenborough. It was rather inspired to have Rick Stein read Chapter 64, Stubb's Supper and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to read Chapter 65- The Whale as a Dish. 

It seems only fitting that this post has become my longest. Moby Dick is one of the longest works that I've ever taken on. Although I have read half of Bleak House (twice), and am undertaking a year long read along of Les Misérables this year. 

I've decided to close this post off here and as I am at the half way point that seems reasonable. I'm 67 chapters in (of 136), and still can't quite believe that I've made it this far. 

Thursday 24 May 2018

The Latecomer

I happened upon this delightful little book when I was browsing in my favourite Basement Books recently. It's tiny (139 pages) and it had the look of a book in translation and so curious I picked it up. Indeed it is a book in translation. Dimitri Verhulst is Belgian, and writes in Dutch. I'd never heard of him, or this book before. 

So, I opened it up and read the first paragraph standing there in the aisle. 
Although it's completely deliberate, night after night, I loathe shitting in bed. Debasing myself like this is the most difficult consequence of the insane path that I've taken late in life. But holding back in my sleep could only arouse the suspicions of my carers. If I want to continue to play the role of a senile old man, I have no choice but to regularly soil my nappies. Because that's what this is: a role. I am nowhere near as demented as those around me believe!
Right. Someone is faking dementia. I'm in. I turned the page, and snorted to myself while reading the second page. It's in the basket. Yes I need a basket when I shop at Basement Books...

I've probably only read a handful of Dutch books, or books written in Dutch, in my life. So it's kind of funny that the last two have been the first person point of view by old men in a Dutch nursing home! That can't be a genre can it? And I loved both of them. I remember The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen 83 1/4 Years Old very fondly (see my review), can it really be two years ago already? Both are first person narrations by somewhat curmudgeonly old men. 

Here Désiré Cordier is in his early 70s when he starts faking dementia. He lives with his wife Moniek and they have two adult children. 
People my age don't have Facebook or other sociable computer whatnots to cheat loneliness; no, we bump into each other in real life with gruesome frequency a funerals, the most natural occasion for us to maintain contact with our diminishing outside world. 
He has a lot to say about ageing, dementia, older people, and the care in nursing homes.
Recently my most faithful companion has been, somewhat surprisingly, a dog. Pablo by name, even though many of the residents address him with the name of the dog that played a role in their own past and has been buried for decades in the vegetable garden of a residence that will soon be divvied up between relatives who are united only by their mutual loathing. 
Désiré saves even more of his scorn for his wife and marriage. And religion comes in for a good swipe too. 
But a person - and I'm talking about myself here - who grew up in a society in which religion went unquestioned and considers his agnosticism an achievement, the product of deep and courageous thought, can only feel ridiculed by having the label 'Catholic' stuck to his forehead. I felt philosophically swindled by my lawfully wedded wife and regretted not being able to step out of character for a minute to point this gruesome misrepresentation out to Winterlight's nursing staff. It annoyed me immensely, being henceforth noted down on death's waiting list as a believer. The first rattle in my throat or tiniest bit of coughed-up blood will have a priest scurrying to my bedside with a breviary and an aspergillum. 
There were a couple of minor medical errors that other readers possibly wouldn't notice, but my joy was compounded when Désiré was taking a Mini Mental State Exam as part of his diagnosis. 
My final score was 17 out of 30. 
'See! He's passed' 
I am most intrigued to read more of Dimitri Verhulst. Thankfully my library has two of his other books. Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill and The Misfortunates, which seem to be his most famous books. And both are under 200 pages. Perfect. 

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Les Misérables The Gorbeau Tenement/La masure Gorbeau V2B4

Oh how have I got myself into such a sorry state of affairs? I've kind of stopped reading over the past month or two. Well I am reading, but just a little bit, one book every few weeks, and then I'm not blogging them. I'm not quite sure why, or how, this has happened, but it has. I guess I'm slumped. Which when I read at a snail's pace at the best of times is more than a little bit dispiriting. Especially as it relates to #LesMisReadalong. 

I thought I was behind when I got back from Cambodia in March, but that was just a minor disruption compared to now. I'm too scared to look at how far I'm behind at this stage. I just need to get back on the reading, and blogging, horse and get on with it. 

The Gorbeau Tenement is quite a short book. It's predominantly scene setting as Jean Valjean and Cosette arrive in Paris. They take up residence in a rundown tenement at one of the very edges of Paris. "Like birds of the wild, he had chosen the most deserted spot in which to build his nest."
It was an inhabited place where there was nobody, it was a deserted place where there was somebody. This was one of the city's boulevards, one of the streets of Paris, a greater wilderness at night than any forest, bleaker by day than any cemetery. 
But naturally there are flashes of Hugo's humour and insight along the way. 
The building as a whole is no more than a hundred years old. A hundred years is young for a church and old for a house. It is as though a man's house is, like himself, short-lived, and God's house shares his eternity. 
We do get some more insights into Jean Valjean, and his relationship with Cosette in Chapter 3 Happiness in Shared Misfortune. 
Jean Valjean had never loved anything. For twenty-five years he had been alone in the world. He had never been father, lover, husband, or friend. In prison he was ill-natured, sullen, celibate, ignorant and unsociable. 
And yet "he felt stirred to the roots of his being" when he rescued Cosette.
This was the second vision of whiteness he had experienced. The bishop had brought the dawn of virtue to his horizon. Cosette brought the dawn of love.  
Cosette of course benefits from her rescue and begins to change. She has become cold-hearted by the age of eight, and no wonder. 
She was so young when her mother left her, she could not remember her any more. Like all children, resembling the tendrils of the vine that cling to everything, she had tried to love. It had done her no good. Everyone had rejected her, the Thénardiers, their children, other children. She loved the dog, which died. 
But I was most surprised when I came upon this sentence:
At times he imagined with a kind of gladness that she would be ugly. 
I initially read that as saying that Jean Valjean saw Cosette as ugly, but now I think that's wrong. He's hoping that Cosette would not grow up to be a beauty, to protect her and keep her with him.

Monday 14 May 2018

The Trauma Cleaner

The Trauma Cleaner is having a moment just now. It's doing very well in sales, has a 4.07 Goodreads rating, and has won or been shortlisted for many major awards already. I saw author Sarah Krasnostein at the Sydney Writers Festival recently, so I picked up the book in the week before. Of course I didn't finish it til the week after, but I was glad that I'd made a start on it before our early morning session. 

Biography isn't a genre that I take on all that often, I find memoir more appealing I guess. But Sandra Pankhurst, the trauma cleaner of the title, is a particularly fascinating biographical subject. She was born a boy called Peter and adopted into an abusive family. Peter married young and fathered two children before leaving his family behind, coming out as gay, and later becoming one of the first gender reassignment patients in Australia and marrying again in later life as a woman.

Those family factors alone are interesting enough without the jobs that Peter and then Sandra worked along the way. Including drag queen, prostitue, funeral director, hardware shop owner before becoming a specialised trauma cleaner dealing with the houses of hoarders and crime scenes. It all seems like enough to fill more than one life. 

As a biographer Sarah Krasnostein had her work cut out for though, as Sandra is a very unreliable historian.
She is in her early sixties and simply not old enough for that to be the reason why she is so bad with the basic sequence of her life, particularly her early life. Many facts of Sandra's past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality. she is open about the fact that drugs have impacted her memory. ('I don't know, I can't remember. The lesson to be learnt is: Do not take drugs, it fucks your brain.') It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced. 
Of course cognitive impairment can happen in your sixties, but it is not just minor details that have slipped from Sandra's memory. She can't remember "the year of her marriage or whether she had a wedding reception or the births of her children or the details of her divorce or the year of her sex reassignment surgery." Major, major life events. In fact, the major events of a life. Sarah writes a very sympathetic version of Sandra's life.
Using words as disinfectants, we are trauma cleaning. Word by word, sentence by sentence, we are reuniting fragments scattered by chaos to create heat and light. 
But nothing here is sugar coated. Not Sandra's life, or her work. The named chapters relating Sandra's work with horders are particularly interesting. The description of the mess, the chaos, the smell. 
I hang back, sapped for a moment by the smell. Hanging over everything is one of two smells (the other being death) that I will discover and come to know during the time I spend watching Sandra at work: human dirt at close quarters over time. We have no single word for it, this smell. We have no adjective to describe how profoundly repulsive and unsettling it is. It's not just human effluence or rot, nor is it a simple matter of filth or grime or feculence of unwashedness. 
Sarah goes on to wonder if we used to have a word for it in "less hygienic times". I found these passages on smell particularly relatable as I know that smell. I really know it. I have come across that smell in my line of work many times. It is indescribable, but distinctive. It was revelatory to consider it "equally the ineffable smell of defeat, of isolation, of self-hate. Or, more simply, it is the smell of pain."

As a young adult I found Peter both courageous and cowardly. Courageous, or foolhardy, perhaps, to wear makeup to work in a flour mill in the early 1970s (even now I should think), but cowardly to lead a secret life while married to his young wife. Leaving her at home with the kids while he went out to gay nightclubs, taking drugs and being repeatedly unfaithful to his wife. My sympathies lay much more with his wife Linda during these sections. Peter is acting as if he doesn't have a family, and he eventually leaves Linda with nothing, and two children to raise. 

There is a chapter detailing a horrific rape that Sandra suffered at work that was particularly difficult reading. I've never read such a graphic account of a sexual assault- that term alone seems inadequate to cover the brutality of this attack, and almost sounds sanitised. Rape is a much more honest term for what happened to her. 

The Trauma Cleaner is mostly told in alternating chapters. Numbered chapters dealing more strictly with Sandra's story and named chapters showing Sandra at work with hoarders (Sarah wasn't allowed to report on the crime scenes). Sandra show tremendous compassion and empathy with her clients, both as a way to get the job done, but also just in the understanding way she treats people. At times I got a bit lost stylistically, but that was relatively minor and didn't effect my overall enjoyment of this rather unique book. 

The Trauma Cleaner book trailer:

A short SBS profile on Sandra Pankhurst: