Throughout the month I come across a fair number of articles, blogs, images, books, or videos that I’d like to share with readers, but they don’t necessarily work into my typical format. So, I’ve decided to create a monthly post that briefly highlights some of the Internet gems that have caught my eye in recent weeks. In many cases, I provide a link that you can follow to the original source for further details.
C’est Vrai, It’s True
You may know that at the beginning of November, France entered into a new 4-week lockdown to slow the growing rate of COVID infections. As part of this program, people must fill out a certificate before leaving their homes, stating their reason for leaving and the length of time they expect to be away. While out, they may be stopped by police and asked to show their certificate. That’s what happened to one man who was spotted crouching behind a parked car in the Breton town of Lannion.
In examining his certificate, police saw that the form was completed as required. It showed the man’s name and the time at which he’d left his home. His reason for leaving, however, was less than acceptable. In general, police expect to see reasons like “heading to work”, “buying groceries”, “walking the dog”, “taking food to an elderly friend”, and so on. In this case, the man, who was obviously drunk, had written “péter la gueule à un mec“. Rough translation, “beat the crap out of a guy”.
Needless to say, police fined the rascal 135 euros for an invalid certificate and 150 euros for drunken and disorderly conduct. Although, in a public statement, they credited him for having properly filled out the necessary paperwork.
A Rather Embarrassing Gaffe
In case you’re not familiar with it, Radio France International, is akin to National Public Radio here in the U.S. In general, it’s a great source of news with a variety of programs, articles, and podcasts to choose from. However, they recently experienced a bit of a glitch when they ran the obituaries of a hundred people who hadn’t yet died. Included in the list were Queen Elizabeth II, Brigitte Bardot, the Brazilian soccer player Pélé, Jimmy Carter, Yoko Ono, Clint Eastwood, Raul Castro, Roman Polanski, Pierre Cardin, and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—all of whom are in their 80s and 90s.
Queen Elizabeth’s obituary read:
« L’Angleterre perd sa reine […] infectée par le virus, la reine Elizabeth II, âgée de 93 ans, n’a pas survécu »
“England loses its queen […] infected by coronavirus, Queen Elizabeth II, age 93, did not survive.”
Like most news organizations, RFI keeps several pre-written obits “dans le frigo” in case a celebrity suddenly dies. However, details regarding the cause of death seem a bit premature. RFI quickly pulled the announcements (not before Google could index them) and issued an apology, explaining that the error was due to a bug. I’d hate to be the programmer who introduced that defect. One of the non-dead was French businessman and former government minister Bernard Tapie. This was the third time Tapie’s death has been prematurely announced—luckily or unluckily for him depending on how you look at it.
Bookstores in Peril
Since the new lockdown measures went into effect, many in France have complained about forced closures of bookstores, museums, theaters, and other cultural sources. One such venue is a Parisian bookstore located on the banks of the Seine. This literary tourist stop was on the verge of bankruptcy until benefactors from around the world rushed to its aid.
In 1951, an enterprising GI named George Whitman opened a bookstore across the river from the cathedral of Notre Dame. He only carried anglophone literature and eventually named his store, Shakespeare and Company. Whitman had borrowed the name from a then defunct Parisian bookstore that was known as the gathering place for many great writers, including Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Joyce. Over the years, Whitman continued the tradition of supporting ex-pat writers trying to make a go of it in Paris. He would allow them to sleep in his store and even provided desk space where they could write. In return, they helped out by performing simples chores needed to run the place.
The building has a storied history of guests including James Baldwin, Julio Cortázar, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, and Richard Wright. It’s a fun place to visit and I recommend you stop in if you travel to Paris. Anyway, times are tough for bookstores these days, even without the threat of indefinite closure. Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia, now operates the celebrated haven. With sales coming in at a rate of roughly 20% of the normal volume, she set up a membership program to help keep the bookstore afloat. The plan seems to be working. Shortly after emailing regular customers, the store received 5,000 online orders in one week. Over the years, Shakespeare and Company has allowed “30,000 people to sleep in the bookshop”. It’s nice to know some of their remarkable goodwill is being repaid.
Amandine Aguilar, a talented ballet teacher living in southwestern France, created a video commentary expressing her frustration with the lockdown. Filmed on a cellphone, the video shows Aguilar dancing in the aisles of a large department store to a mixup of Swan Lake and In My Blood, by The Piano Guys. Affixed to her tutu is a sign reading, “I am not essential”. In part, the gifted instructor wanted to emphasize the importance of the arts while at the same time criticizing the random nature of deciding which products and services are considered essential. Take a minute to watch her artistry below.
Novellas in November
Earlier this month, I wrote about a popular reading challenge titled Novellas in November and my undistinguished attempt to join in the fun. This challenge goes back to at least 2009 when a prominent book blogger realized he would not be able to meet his year-end reading goals unless he started reading shorter books. Book bloggers 746books and Bookish Beck are the hosts for this year’s #NovNov challenge.
One of the novellas that I read and wrote about was the 4th book in a collection of stories by Elsa Triolet called Le Premier accroc coûte deux cents francs. It was good enough that I didn’t want to stop there. After perusing the comments on Goodreads, it seemed that many reviewers picked the second story, La Vie privée du Alexis Slavsky, as their favorite. Having finished reading this morning, I don’t consider it better than Le Premier accroc, but it was equally as good. Both were page
Again, the action takes place in the south of France in the midst of WWII. Triolet tells the tale of a Jewish artist, Alexis Slavsky, who manages to flee Paris before occupying German forces can discover him. His wife, Henriette, is key to his survival. The two end up in the city of Lyon where they keep a low profile, living off residuals from Alexis’ artwork. (If you know Lyon, you’ll recognize many of the locations that are named in these chapters. If you plan to visit Lyon, this would be a great piece of historical fiction to read during your stay.) When food gradually becomes scarce in the city, Henriette and Alexis relocate to a small village. There, access to local farm goods saves them from starvation.
As with the 4th novella in her series, Triolet brings to life the strain and uncertainty that accompanied that time period. While reading, I couldn’t help but think about the stressful constraints and unknown resolution of the coronavirus pandemic. Unwittingly, Triolet makes it clear that our current predicament is far less dire than what many have had to live through. Triolet, herself, was a member of the resistance living in southern France during the war. So, the woman knew of what she wrote. Her portrayals of everyday life bear scrutiny and made her the first female to win France’s highest literary prize, Le Prix Goncourt.
If you’re interested, you’ll find both the English and original French versions for free on Kindle.
A Final Half Note
I’ll close with this spine-tingling video of 14-year old Giulia Falcone, singing SOS d’un terrien en détresse, by French singer/songwriter Daniel Balavoine. Enjoy.