Astérix et la Grande Campagne de Pub

If you’ve been in Paris this week, it will have been hard to miss the fact that a new Astérix album Astérix chez les Pictes, has been released. As far as publishing events in France go, you don’t get much bigger than this. There are posters in every métro station.

Jules Joffrin


Gare de l’Est


Paul Murray’s “Skippy Dies”

There is no mystery regarding the fate of the main character in Paul Murray’s second novel, Skippy Dies. Skippy (Daniel Juster to his parents), is a 14 year-old dreamer, MMRPG addict and boarder at Seabrook College for Boys, a private Catholic boarding school in Dublin. Inside the first 5 pages of the book, Skippy, er, dies.

Having first described (in lurid, technicolor detail) the death scene of the young teenager, the rest of Skippy Dies is structured around the back-story and consequences of Skippy’s spectacular demise.

For a 600+ page post-modern comic novel, which leaps between multiple narrators and encompasses multiverse theory, early 20th century esotericism, video games, the Decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland, teenage love, the 2008 financial crisis and the poetry of Robert Graves, Skippy Dies hangs together remarkably well.

I found it, by moments, deeply funny, and despite the disjointed narrative, you grow to deeply care for the characters.

Ruprecht van Doren, for example, is a true 21st Century original: Skippy’s obese room-mate and Seabrook’s resident genius, he spends his days munching through doughnuts, building devices in the school basement for multi-dimensional travel and dreaming of the day when he will be taken up unto Stanford to work alongside the World-Famous Physicist Hideo Tamashi.

Father Green, the school’s French teacher, is in search of some kind of redemption for past sins – despite his formidable classroom reputation – while Howard, (the principal adult voice in the novel), is a failed stockbroker who tries to teach history to uninterested adolescents while struggling with his own twentysomething mid-life crisis.

Paul Murray deserves particular respect for finding authentic voices for his teenage characters. He manages to illustrate their worldview – distracted, hormonal and video-and-internet-infused – without ever slipping up. The dialogue is never overwritten. His teenagers are by turns cruel, confused and cocksure, and never sound fake.

Likewise, the occasional transition into second-person narrative – a risky device at the best of times – feels natural and unforced, and works well to expresses that certain self-centredness that is perhaps a necessary part of adolescence.

Skippy Dies is Irish, ironic, immensely good fun, and contains the Best High School Halloween Disco Scene in the History of Literature. A novel on this scale could have easily choked on its own pink frosting, but this book works well. Really, really well.

Highly recommended are Edward Champion’s two podcast interviews with Paul Murray on the Bat Segundo Show:

Paul Murray Part I

Paul Murray Part II

Story Time

Spending some time recently cleaning out my hard drive, I rediscovered a short story I wrote a few years ago. It’s entitled How We Destroyed Panama, and anyone who is interested can pick it up in PDF format here (5,800 words, 11 pages).

Reading over it again with a few year’s hindsight, there’s very little story, and what story there is, has very little to do with Panama. The writing is uneven, but I figure as I’m giving away the story for free, nobody really can complain too much.

(The usual disclaimers apply regarding coincidental resemblance to real people and events.)

De cape et de crocs

If anyone asks me why a foreigner should learn French, I think I’ve found the definitive answer. “You must learn French so you can enjoy De cape de crocs“.  I must thank klari for the revelation, since she lent me the first 8 volumes of this masterpiece….

Don Lope de Villalobos y Sangrin and Armand Raynal de Maupertuis: at your service

This series of bandes dessinées, (the title of which translates roughly as “Capes and Fangs”), recount the adventures of two swashbuckling gentlemen of fortune, a Spanish wolf and French fox, who (along with a rabbit), chase treasure, fortune and beautiful princesses from Renaissance Venice to the ends of the Earth… and beyond.

Along the way, they meet pirates, Turkish galley captains, sultry Spanish maidens, murderous armies of mimes, a mad German scientist, the King of the Moon, a dastardly conquistador, roaming herds of bagpipes, horrible sea monsters… oh, and did I mention beautiful princesses?

If you think you’ve read some of the storyline before, you probably have, and the intertextuality of the adventure is one of its joys: mixing Alexandre Dumas with Jules Verne and Cyrano de Bergerac, the stories leap from one famous theme to the next, and back again, sprinkled with swordfights, sea battles, high-speed chases, and all threaded together by Alain Ayroles’ writing, swinging between silly wordplay (Posez ce lapin!) and the language of Molière.

The quality of the storyline (and particularly Jean-Luc Masbou’s art) may mean that one day De cape et de crocs is translated into English, but the transition will be difficult. For one thing, much of the dialogue (and duels) is rendered in alexandrins, the meter of much poetry of the French Renaissance. The only way to truly enjoy these passages is to read them aloud:

Dix gens de ta farine en deux vers je terrasse! Sens-tu sous mes soufflets ton rictus qui s’éfface?

Fasseyant va le foc de ton discours fumeux, quand sur la mer des mots voile au vent je me meus!*

Anthea Bell may have done a fairly good job with transferring the humour of Astérix into English, but good luck to the translator given the job of turning all this into witty, rhyming couplets!

As a mere anglo-saxon, there are probably many hundreds of jokes and references I don’t “get”, but even for a semi-literate foreigner, De cape et de crocs demonstrates once again what a powerful and inventive form the bande dessinée can be.


*Tome 7, p. 5

From a distant shore

Quand on arrive en Nouvelle-Zélande, on se sent forcément loin de chez soi.
“Arriving in New Zealand, you inevitably feel a long way from home.”

Charles Juliet – Auckland, août 2003

On the recommendation of a Twitter buddy, I’ve been reading Charles Juliet‘s Au pays du long nuage blanc: his journal of six months in New Zealand in 2003 while on a writer’s fellowship in Wellington.

Like all New Zealanders who are by nature slightly insecure about their nation’s reputation abroad, I was initially interested to see what an eminent French author thought of our country. Indeed, Juliet picks up on many of the usual kiwi tropes: the friendliness and informality of people, the centrality of rugby to the national narrative and the lack of insulation and heating in our houses.

The journal oscillates between observations of some of the remarkable aspects of life in New Zealand and reflections on Juliet’s own craft as a writer and poet. Descriptions of the weather constantly intervene, as one might expect given that Juliet spent a winter in Wellington!

Wellington, NZ – May 2008

Juliet spends much of his time exchanging with some of New Zealand’s notable intellectuals: Vincent O’Sullivan, Dame Fiona Kidman and Gordon Stewart among others. In particular he describes long lunchtime conversations with Chris Laidlaw, (broadcaster, diplomat, politician, academic and former All Black). Juliet also devotes many pages reflecting on his long-time admiration for Katherine Mansfield.

Juliet’s journal provided a personal connection too: when Juliet visits Auckland, it is at the invitation Professor Raylene Ramsay at Auckland University, who supervised my Honours dissertation! It was a curious experience to have the name of a personal acquaintance dropped into the middle of a book bought at FNAC Montparnasse.

Charles Juliet (Image: Léa Crespi, Télérama)

Despite the obvious pleasure Charles Juliet derives from his time in New Zealand, the journal is haunted by his awareness of the great distance that separates him from his homeland, France. And when Juliet finally leaves New Zealand in January 2004, he acknowledges that he will never return to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Au pays du long nuage blanc is an easy read (I finished it in just 2 days), and would be of interest to anyone who wants to explore strands of the relationship between France and New Zealand. It’s published by Gallimard in Folio for EUR5.60.

Finies ces longues errances
sous des ciels éteints
Finis ces combats truqués
Où j’étais toujours vaincu
Fini ce temps installé
Dans la misère du non
J’ai déposé le poids mort
qui obscurcissait ma vie
Long a été le chemin
qui m’a permis
de quitter mon enfance

Charles Juliet – Wellington, décembre 2003

Wyuna Bay, Coromandel Peninsula, NZ – June 2008

Tu parles, Charles

Even at the best of times, Charles de Gaulle is a historical figure that one can’t avoid in France. More than 3000 towns and villages across the country honour him with a street name. When Paris built the world’s most impossible international airport, there was only one name they could give it. And inevitably, France’s nuclear aircraft carrier bears the name of the man his military school classmates called “The Great Asparagus“.

This week France marks the 70th anniversary of “The Appeal of 18th June 1940“, and so Charles de Gaulle is even more omnipresent than usual – on TV, in newly-minted books, and on metro walls.

A few years ago, I visited the (now closed) Charles de Gaulle Museum in Bayeux, Normandy, and described the exhibitions as “creepy and obsessive”. Now, having lived in France a little while, I’ve come to understand a little better the influence that “le connétable” still exerts over the French nation and its sense of itself.  The obsession is certainly there, but perhaps it’s less creepy than simply necessary…

Whether you like it or not, many aspects of Charles de Gaulle’s “conception of France” form the backbone of the French nation as it enters the 21st Century: strongly centralised government, broad state involvement in the economy and French exceptionalism in foreign policy. For better or worse, every French President that followed him has  had to work within a political system largely conceived by de Gaulle when he founded the 5th Republic in extremis in 1958.

The event being commemorated this week, De Gaulle’s Appeal of the 18th of June, arguably marked the birth of modern France. The speech made by de Gaulle on the BBC that day in 1940 effectively created the Free French forces, and asserted that the legitimate power of the republic now lay with those resisting occupation, rather than with the collaborationist government headed by Pétain.

But in terms of re-establishing the French nation-state, de Gaulle’s stubborness in the face of his British and American allies was just as important as his fight against the Nazis.

Churchill and Roosevelt were constantly annoyed and bemused by de Gaulle’s insistence that France sit at the table of “great powers”, and Anglo-Saxon incomprehension of the monomaniac de Gaulle continued well after the war. In 1964, the General was famously portrayed as a Dalek in a cartoon in the Daily Mail.

Key to de Gaulle’s plan for the recuperation of post-war France was his insistence on establishing a national legend of  Resistance.  This week I visited Mont Valérien on the outskirts of Paris, site of the monument built by de Gaulle to the heroes of WW2, the Mémorial de la France Combattante. It was extraordinary to me to see how a monument that commemorates France’s triumph over fascism could look so, well, fascist…

But while De Gaulle still inspires awe, argument and occasionally derision in France today, there are some who are not scared to paint the Great Leader in a satirical light. Jean-Yves Ferri’s De Gaulle à la Plage imagines a cartoon Charles de Gaulle and his family on holiday at the beach in 1956, illustrated in hilarious and affectionate detail.

In some ways, de Gaulle has become immortal like Abraham Lincoln or Oliver Cromwell, a character who has become historical shorthand for a certain time period and a certain view of the world. Whether speaking on the radio from wartime London, cryptically addressing Algerian colonists with his Je vous ai compris speech, or lying under a sun umbrella on a beach in Brittany, Charles de Gaulle is going to be haunting imaginations for a long time yet.

Tristes Tropiques

When I did my undergraduate degree, anthropology accidentally became my minor – there were a couple of interesting ethnomusicology papers I wanted to take, and somehow this interest metastisized into several extra courses in social anthropology. It’s not until recently that I’ve begun to appreciate how this introduction to social science has influenced the way I look at the world.

Being in Paris has allowed me to locate some of the source texts from my anthropology courses in their original language. Recently, my book for commuting has been Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology. Written in 1954, Tristes Tropiques recounts how Lévi-Strauss became an ethnographer, in particular describing his expeditions into the interior of Brazil while working as a sociology lecturer in Sao Paulo in the 1930s.

Lévi-Strauss in the Amazon in 1935. The baby monkey clinging to his leg accompanied him for months.

It’s an extraordinary book that maintains coherence depite enveloping in one single volume a large helping of biography, philosophical musings on the nature of civilisation and detailed descriptions of the kinship structures of Amazonian clans.

The stories of Lévi-Strauss’s travels in the Mato Grosso and Amazonia are amazing in their own right – real Indiana Jones stuff. In 1935, the Mato Grosso was still so impenetrable it was necessary to take an expedition of 20 men, 40 bullocks and sufficient guns and ammunition to fend off jaguars, snakes and hostile Indians. Half the bullocks died en route.

It’s the little details that are most fascinating: in preparing to travel to meet the Bororo, Lévi-Strauss spent time at the St Ouen flea-market near Paris buying buttons, thread and trinkets to use for trading with a people whose previous contact with Europeans were Jesuit missionaries 50 years earlier.

Threaded into his tale of crossing hundreds of miles of jungle are two parallel narratives – Lévi-Strauss’s fortuitous escape from Vichy France in 1940 (he was Jewish, but managed to get a ticket on a steamer from Marseille to Martinique), and a voyage to newly independent India and Pakistan in 1950, which culminates in a long comparative analysis of the structural features of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.

Lévi-Strauss has been criticised by some for spending very little time doing real “field research” – his contact with peoples such as the Tupi, the Nambikwara and the Bororo may not have lasted more than a few weeks in each case, and language difficulties may well have hindered Lévi-Strauss’s comprehension of certain aspects of their societies.

Nevertheless, the work that Lévi-Strauss produced based on this research in Brazil provided the foundation for some of the most important social science work of the century: analyses of human societies based on the shared underlying structures, and his intellecual epic 4-volume Mythologies.

Nambikwara dancer

Elected to the Académie Française in 1973, Lévi-Strauss died in October last year at the age of 100. Tristes Tropiques (also available in English) is a very readable introduction to the writing and ideas of a formidable 20th century intellectual. 50 years on, in an overpopulated world wracked by inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict, Lévi-Strauss’s ideas on the relationships between civilisations, people and their belief systems seem more relevant than ever.

Traveller, there is no road

Chaque homme porte en lui un monde composé de tout ce qu’il a vu et aimé, et où il rentre sans cesse, alors même qu’il parcourt et semble habiter un monde étranger.

“Every man carries within him a world made up of everything he has seen and loved, and to which he returns constantly, even though he travels and seems to inhabit a foreign world.”

Chateaubriand, Voyages en Italie (texte intégral disponible ici)

Baudelaire en poche

Seen in Châtelet metro station today*:

A guy dressed in complete gangster outfit – fluourescent puffer jacket, baggy jeans, baseball cap twisted sideways – with a paperback copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal sticking out of his back pocket.


Image: Thomas Claveirole (Creative Commons)

(*Sorry klari, I was in town for just 6 hours for a meeting – not a good time for coffee. Next time, let’s hope!)

The Silent Traveller in Oxford

In Oxford last week, I spent time browsing second-hand books on the third floor of Blackwells. The rest of the store is slick and modern, but the top level of Blackwells, with views onto the quads of Trinity College, has a creaky wooden floor and that hint of dust and mildew that makes it somehow an isolated eyrie of an older Oxonian age.

Lapwings Over Merton Field – Chiang Yee

One book immediately caught my eye – a 1946 edition of The Silent Traveller in Oxford. It was written by the Chinese artist and author Chiang Yee in 1942 while he was living in Oxford, after his flat in the East End of London was destroyed in the Blitz. As a registered “alien”, Chiang Yee couldn’t leave Britain in wartime, and so took rooms in Southmoor Road in Jericho.

First published in 1944, Chiang Yee’s account of 1940s Oxford is particularly interesting for me. My father was born in Oxford during the war: my grandparents worked for the Food Ministry, and had their London offices relocated to Oxford, out of harms way. So thanks to Goering’s bombers, Dad was born an Oxonian.

(Oxford was not targeted by the Luftwaffe during WW2 for a number of possibly apocryphal reasons. The one I like best recounts that many high-ranking Luftwaffe officers were German aristocrats who had studied at Oxford and could not bear the idea of bombs raining down on the Turf Tavern.)

From a Railway Bridge Near Lake Street – Chiang Yee

Chiang Yee was (a little like me) an accidental expatriate in Oxford. The “foreign-ness” of his eye is reflected in his colour plates and ink sketches that accompany the text. The landmarks and characters are all in place, but somehow Chiang’s Chinese art transforms familiar views of the city into something more ancient and timeless.

The blackout curtains and ration-books are gone, but today’s Oxford seems little different to the city described by Chiang Yee 65 years ago . In the 21st Century, peacocks still strut on the roof of the Trout Inn, crowds still line Magdalen Bridge on May Morning, and the 8.05 “down train” to Paddington is still full of be-suited commuters and the occasional tweedy academic departing for an errand in London.

Despite the hardship and tension of the period, Chiang’s Oxford is a harbour of peace and reflection. The war is barely mentioned – the undergraduate population is depleted by conscription, a bomber wheels lazily over Port Meadow, and the Cockney accents of Blitz evacuees mix with shopkeepers’ Oxfordshire burr on Cornmarket. But Chiang’s attention is drawn more to the landscape, nature and cityscape.

Chiang’s eye for detail and contemplation is quite disarming. His writing captures perfectly the shift of seasons against the colleges’ grey stone. Several paragraphs are spent describing the facial expressions of a duck and the delicate dance of crocuses in the wind. Verses from Li P’o, Longfellow and Shelley enter his consciousness while wandering up the banks of the Isis towards The Perch.

Peacocks at Trout Inn – Chiang Yee

I have read many excellent books about Oxford (Jan Morris’ Oxford is still the essential primer). But Chiang Yee’s is definitely the most charming: it’s available in a 2003 reprint, but I think the 1940s Methuen  editions (“printed in complete confirmity with the authorized economy standards” as stated the frontispiece) are quite hard to come by now. This was a lucky find!