Thursday, September 07, 2017

Sylvie Germain: 'Night of Amber' (1987, 2000)

Sylvie Germain, Night of Amber. Translated from the French by Christine Donougher. Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, 2000; originally published as Nuit-d’ambre in 1987.

Here’s a dense and difficult novel that covers the orbit of a strange French family between the end of the Second World War and sometime well after the 1968 uprisings (right into the mid-1980s). If you took a heavy William Faulkner work and blended it with Catholic mysticism and liked the result, this might be for you. Several of the characters are tortured souls, and though there are others that are more delightful, it’s the damaged ones that Germain focuses on the most. Can they gain redemption? Grace? Salvation? Despite vile acts?

Here are some samples of things that drew my attention.

“Music and wind: two naked impulses that give rise to a wandering urge.” (page 81).

“But the time of war was not at all over. In fact it had never ceased. In its impatience and intemperance, the time of war had simply changed location. It liked to carry its fury elsewhere, always elsewhere, that is to say, more or less everywhere.” (page 96).

There’s a fair amount of consideration of the Guerre d'Algérie / Révolution algérienne (1954-1962) and its atrocities, including massacres in Algeria and a deadly police assault against peaceful protesters in Paris at the Pont St.-Michel on October 17, 1961. (The head of the National Police had been a pro-Nazi Vichy official during World War II and was later tried for war crimes dating to that time): «Nobody knows anything about that. No one knows or wants to know.» (page 131). «I saw that crowd marching quietly and peacefully. I saw how the police suddenly charged, encouraged motorists to drive straight into them.» (page 133).
In Paris, the main character (originally from the country) wonders around, observing «stations . . . vast waiting halls filled with movement . . . huge bazaars of people pacing up and down. He never tired of haunting them; he liked to identify the rogues among the crowd . . . There were also the race courses, markets, stadiums, airports, department stores, swimming pools. He had to go wherever it was crowded. He had to get lost in every throng, the better to detach himself from it, to rally himself in his proud, fierce solitude . . . » (page 141).

«Alphabet, keys, and nails: all these formed a strange whirl in Night-of-amber-Wind-of-fire’s eyes, and his gaze up the street and toward the square was that of a diver suddenly rising from the deep.» (page 155).

Back in the country : «The smell of freshly cut hay filled the air, pervading the land and the houses. Even pervading their bodies, a sweetish, heady smell, combining pepper and sugar.» (pages 242-243).
At the Strasbourg Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg), an American traveler quips: «You Catholics are a little nuts! Dormition . . . a pretty crazy word, really . . . »  (page 248).

«He was born of a wound. A war wound. That was a long time ago. But war wounds, like the wounds of love, never completely heal.» (page 269).

«This place, like every place in the world, was nowhere.» (page 281).

«Every place, be it empire or hamlet, is but a place of passage. But people passing through places are engaged in a constant relay, taking over and handing on.» (page 285).

«Every place is nowhere, but wherever [a person?] decides to settle acquires enormous power.» (page 300).

«A heart always to be deciphered, footsteps always to be enumerated.» (page 304).

Sylvie Germain (born January 8, 1954) worked for several years in Prague, where I'm intending to visit next year, so I'll pick up more of her books, particularly the ones set there.

Today's Rune: Breakthrough.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds like a worthy work but I don't know if I'll read it. So many good books out there to read.