I know I said I wouldn’t cheat beyond having three shelves (85 books) to pick from for my 20 Books of Summer this year! But circumstances change, and I’m swapping a few books in. OK? I’d totally forgotten it was Spanish Lit Month as hosted by Stu this July – so I’ve picked The Manual of Darkness by Enriqué de Hériz from my TBR where I’ve had it since it was published, and I’ve added Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch as it’s due to finally go back to the library after I borrowed it all those months ago, and was actually sitting on my bedside bookcase where the 85 reside. So, with my Edward St Aubyn binge going strong, I’m currently reading my 10th and 11th book. Who knows, I may make it if August is a good reading month. Meanwhile here are thoughts on books #5-6 for you.
The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé
Translated by Sophie Lewis
My third French read for ‘Paris in July’ (hosted by Thyme for Tea) is a book of short stories by celebrated French author Marcel Aymé. The title story of this collection was originally published in 1943, as Le Passe-muraille. It’s not clear whether the nine other stories were published alongside it, but fair to assume they are at least of around the same vintage. The translations by Sophie Lewis are recent, from 2012.
The stories in this book are wonderful and share two overarching themes (as well as being written during wartime) – firstly a surreal absurdity, and secondly a strong anti-bureaucratic streak. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are anarchic though, Aymé’s tales are about ordinary people experiencing extraordinary events, there’s a subtlety at work in them which shows the many facets of human nature – not always good ones! Let me share my two favourites with you.
Obviously, the title story ‘The Man Who Walked Through Walls‘ is a gem. A mild-mannered clerk arrives home during a power cut, and fumbling for the door passes through the wall. Disturbed by this, he goes to the doctor who is ‘persuaded’ that Mr Dutilleul has a condition…
“… a helicoid hardening of the strangulary wall in the thyroid gland. He prescribed sustained over-exertion and a twice-yearly dose of one powdered tetravalent pirette pill, a mixture of rice flour and centaur hormones.”
Having taken the first pill, Dutilleul put the medicine away in a drawer and forgot about it.
He thinks nothing more of it, uses doors as normal, until he has a spat with his boss about his natural verbosity in his communications. He terrorises the poor chap by repeatedly interrupting him by sticking his head through the wall. This leads to Dutilleul needing more from life, and using his ability to do nefarious things becoming a reality. As you might anticipate, there will be a mightly sting in the tail to this story.
My favourite was ‘Tickets on Time’ which is told in diary format. The authorities have declared that unproductive citizens will be assessed and only allowed to ‘live’ for a number of days per month. They will be issued tickets for the days they can live, and will temporarily die for the rest of each month. Our narrator, writing his diary, is a writer and is deemed moderately unproductive, so will have to cease to live on March 16th, until April 1st! No sooner than the scheme begins, than people start to take advantage of it, trading tickets, or hosting parties:
Refused an invitation for this evening from the Carterets, who asked me to be so kind as to be present at their ‘agonies’. It’s a fashion that hip types have started – fathering parties of friends on the occasion of their temporary deaths. Sometimes, I am told, these gatherings give way to orgiastic debauchery. It’s disgusting.“
Life carries on, and Jules manages to meet the love of his life and have a family, trading for extra tickets when he can. However, the scheme is unravelling, because the extra tickets acquired don’t give you real extra days in real time, just extra days during the same time you’re living. So eventually the authorities have to account for these extra days – and just add 17 years onto his life:
In Paris, I found myself once again in an apartment that I knew, but into which I might have been stepping for the first time. During the infamous seventeen years, it seemed I had moved home, exchanging Montmartre for a place in the suburb of Auteuil. […]
And gently pushing forward Louis and Juliette, aged respectively eight and six, she added:
“Let me introduce your latest two children, whom you’ve not had the pleasure of knowing.”
Jules was as confused as I was at this last discovery. Eventually time becomes so mangled that the authorities must do something – how will it end?
From the story of a woman who is able to repeatedly clone herself to have myriad lovers in ‘Sabine Women’ in a kind of inversion of the Roman legend of the rape of the Sabine women, to a conscientious bailiff who is trying to get into heaven when he dies in ‘The Bailiff’, and putting the proverb Slow and steady wins the race into action in ‘The Proverb’, these stories are perfect in miniature. They are thought-provoking as well as immensely entertaining – and when they’re as good as these, I really should read more short stories. (9/10)
See also what Kaggsy thought about this book HERE.
The Less Deceived by Philip Larkin
It’s good to be able to include some poetry in my 20 books, and after reading Clive James’ excellent writings on Larkin, Somewhere Becoming Rain, I was keen to explore Larkin further. Although many of the poems in this volume had been privately published in pamphlet form, this was Larkin’s first formal collection, coming out in 1955 and dedicated to Monica Jones, his companion at the time.
Most of the poems are quite formal in structure, in rhyme, meter and line order. His eternal preoccupations with death and decay are already there, but there’s also the nostalgia for past loves – or is it lust? – as in ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’, the first poem in the book which has some fine rhymes:
“From every side you strike at my control, / Not least through these disquieting chaps who loll / At ease about your earlier days;”
I was slightly disturbed by the short poem ‘Myxomatosis’ which seems out of place butting into the rest perhaps. That was followed by ‘Toads’ which metaphor equates to ‘work’ as the monkey on everyone’s back to pay for living, although he seems to admire those who don’t have a toad on their backs:
Lots of folk live on their wits: / Lecturers, lispers, / Losels, loblolly-men, louts – / They don’t end as paupers;
Lots of folk live up lanes / With fires in a bucket, / Eat windfualls and tinned sardines – / They seem to like it.
Their nippers have got bare feet / Their unspeakable wives / Are skinny as whippets – and yet / No one actually starves.
Ah, were I courageous enough / To shout Stuff Your Pension! / But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff / That dreams are made on.
I will savour these poems again for sure, alongside his later collections The Whitsun Wedding and High Windows.