Raymond Queneau: Exercises in Style

No, this isn’t the Kama Sutra: But it can be, if you enjoy the art of making love with words and trying out different positions with them. 

A more conservative comparison: If classical music has Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, literature has Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

The truth: I had no idea who Queneau was. I’ve come across NYRBs with his name on them, but I only grabbed this book because I’ve enjoyed the works of both Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. (It must mean something when two outstanding Italians endorse the work of a Frenchman!) The former wrote the foreword and this edition features an essay by the latter, with a prescient first line directed to me, “Who is Raymond Queneau?”

Well, now I know Raymond Queneau: The first man who has managed to make me chuckle all the way while reading an entire book! This was just delightful! It is a retelling of the same short story in different styles that simply renders some books on writing and reading irrelevant — while making the reader laugh.

To those who love to read and write a bit, or write a lot: If this isn’t on your shelf yet, there’s an empty spot where Exercises in Style is supposed be. 😘

Mathias Énard: Compass

Mira, keep this close to Luis Sagasti’s A Musical Offering, close to Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights.

It is, after all, a musical offering — golden threads of western music’s entwining with the orient, of Liszt’s recitals in Constantinople, of how Nietzsche wanted to Mediterraneanize music, of the narrator’s replica of Beethoven’s compass that insisted on pointing east, but most of all because it reminds you beautifully that “music is a fine refuge against the imperfection of the world,” one that describes music as “time thought out, time circumscribed and transformed into sound… time domesticated, reproducible time, time shaped,” and cautions that “life is like a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps…” but also that “this feeling of the passing of time is the definition of melancholy, an awareness of finitude from which there is no refuge.” Take note of how there is a metronome on the cover instead of a compass. Perhaps because a metronome goes back and forth between directions whilst keeping the music in time. 

It is about flights. A hypnotic trip across east and west, tick tock, east, west, art, love, time, self, other, literature, until they have intermingled and are present in each other, an adventure with Being — of traveling to the lands of your dreams and to your favorite cities, about crossing the borders of genres, art forms, literary forms, and geographical borders, but also flights from sanity, and traversing through memory, history, and dreams, suggesting that “our dreams might be more knowledgable than we.” Flights of flavors, an exotic dish not everyone will love; disturbing at times, an acquired taste with a scent of opium.

But keep this book close to Luis Sagasti’s A Musical Offering, close to Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, close to your heart. Only you know how much this book means to you. Don’t forget you were constantly wide-eyed with wonder when you read it and you agreed with the following lines. How much you were in need of reading that last sentence!

“Sometimes I feel as if night has fallen, that western darkness has invaded the Orient of enlightenment. The spirit and learning, the pleasures of the spirit and learning, of Khayyam’s and Pessoa’s wine, have not been able to stand up to the twentieth century; I feel that the global construction of the world is no longer carried out by the interchange of love and ideas, but by violence and manufactured objects… You have to have… energy to constantly reconstruct yourself, always look mourning and illness in the face, have the perseverance to continue searching through the sadness of the world to draw beauty or knowledge from it.”

Thad Carhart: The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

Not the West Bank this time, just the Left Bank. The thing about my Silk Route | Fertile Crescent reading project is that — despite being a source of enlightenment through discovering underrated but astounding literature — novels from this route in question are usually emotionally taxing.

Although I have sensed that I am drawn to writings from places of conflict for the reason that they have a sensitivity to beauty commensurate with their heightened awareness of the fragility of life; once in a while, I need a breather, and that’s when I turn to books related to other interests. In this case, not merely an interest, but a love.

But as love would have it, we oftentimes become accustomed to a beloved’s presence and we slowly take its magic for granted. 

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier refreshed me about the intricate workings of a piano; of how extraordinary this instrument is; of the alchemy and difficulty involved in piano-making and music-making; and how beautiful tone production relies so much on the precision of piano makers, the skill of piano technicians, and the heart and hands of a pianist. This rekindled a fire that led me straight to the piano after turning the last page.

But this book is not just about pianos and trivia from the music world. (Although, while we’re at it: Did you know that when the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889, the first thing to be hauled to the rooms at the top was a piano?) It is also about the Paris that is inaccessible to the tourist. In fact, this would make a lovely pair to Mercer’s Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.

Surely, these books did not intend to rival Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or the aching poignancy of Truong’s Book of Salt, but at times, lesser-known books are beautiful for the simplicity that they lead us to find something that draws out music from within.

Mathias Énard: Zone

Tell them of battles, kings, and elephants,

without the elegance, without the elephants,

only battles, cruel kings, and pawns,

“Comrade, one last handshake before the end

of the world,” says a madman

at the station in Milan,

Francis Servain Mirković is burdened

by the remark, burdened

by the contents

of his suitcase, by the contents

of his mind,

as the train steers to Rome,

it is not scenery that flash by,

it is his life; no home,

Balkan conscript, a spy,

dysfunctional lover, son,

former informer

in the Zone, epicenter

of my literary quakes,

“the Zone, land of the wrathful savage

gods who have been clashing


since the Bronze Age,” but he is

convinced that tomorrow he will

be a new man, as the train moves


is a threnody

of the guilt of nations,

of the sins of the world,

of over a century’s worth

of savagery,

a brutal montage

of conflict, training our eyes to truths 

that we prefer to turn away from, a book

to make our consciences flinch, no one

is ever prepared

for official truth

says our antihero, this man,

a product of a history

of violence,

a tragic aspect

of a portrait

of a man

of our time.

Némirovsky: Fire in the Blood | Gille: The Mirador

Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

Because I arrange my books based on geography, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vasily Grossman, and Irène Némirovsky among a few others share a spot on my shelf. They were all born in Ukraine while it was still under the Russian Empire.

Fire in the Blood was thought to be unfinished when Némirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942. It was only through subsequent research years later that the rest of the manuscript was found and published posthumously.

She wrote this around the time she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, but there is no pain of epic proportions in this book. There are none of Gogol’s ghosts, none of Bulgakov’s political caricatures, and none of Grossman’s wars.

At the beginning I was so convinced that this was simply a charming picture of rural life in an idyllic French village. She makes the reader believe that, until one surprising revelation after another piles up towards the end, and it reveals its own unique depth.

“Are we not all somewhat like these branches burning in my fireplace, buckling beneath the power of the flames?”

Fire in the Blood, the fire of youth contrasted with the sobriety of old age through the introspection of Sylvio and the lives of those around him leaves the reader with a subtle sting that leads to a silent contemplation on, or the questioning of, passion, love and life.

There may have been none of Gogol’s dark humor, none of Bulgakov’s satire, and none of Grossman’s reportage on tragedy, but perhaps Némirovsky deserves her place alongside these men as someone who lays bare the human heart.

 “No, it wasn’t that simple. The flesh is easy to satisfy. It’s the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire… That was what we wanted. To burn, to be consumed, to devour our days just as fire devours the forest.”

The Mirador by Élisabeth Gille

Don’t you love it when an underexposed book surprises and transcends expectations? I had not anticipated The Mirador to contain this much beauty!

Having read nothing by Élisabeth Gille prior to this, I approached it as someone who was simply curious about her famous mother, Irène Némirovsky.

From her mother’s journals, letters, unpublished notes, “dreamed memories”, and with the help of her elder sister’s own memories and research, Gille recreates a striking portrayal of the mother they lost to Auschwitz when they were mere children.

Regardless of the applause that her novels garnered and despite her tragic fate, it was for her indifference and lack of political sense that Némirovsky was criticized. Gille, however, does not justify her mother’s shortcomings. She allows a beautiful irony to unfold through the pages and writes a lyrical and clearsighted grasp of her forebears, literature, history, and the political arena that surrounded Némirovsky from her early childhood in Kyiv, growing up in St. Petersburg, fleeing to Finland in the wake of the Russian Revolution, and building a life and a successful writing career in France until the German Occupation.

I must admit that I personally prefer the daughter’s writing over the mother’s, and it was saddening to learn that Gille died from cancer in 1996, only four years after The Mirador was published. But I beam at the thought that Némirovsky would have been so proud.

How cathartic it must have been for a daughter to write this! It makes one wonder at the mysterious power of writing — how it can liberate the writer and the subject at the same time, how it can be a simultaneous act of holding on and letting go.

Annie Ernaux: Exteriors

Reading this reminded me of a trip to the National Museum of the Philippines. I went there for the masterpieces, but found myself spending more time, and being most delighted, in a room full of practice sketches by Amorsolo.

Exteriors are sketches, little fragments of writing that feel like ingredients for a larger canvas; and Annie Ernaux is the great artist who guides readers to become keener observers of people, of gestures, of the world beyond the intimacy of the self, of exteriors.

Peruse the sketches more carefully and find priceless lessons on writing and observing. Once in a while, we need an  artist to lead us to details we should pay attention to. Once in a while, we need an Annie Ernaux to take our hand.

Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

It is not for nothing that Rodin sculpted a dramatic monument of this writer; not for nothing that a statue of him with a lion stands imposingly in the gardens of Villa Borghese in Rome; and not for nothing that I chose this as my 100th book this year.

Because there are authors we outgrow, there are those we resonate with during a particular stage in life, there are those who deliver exciting information to the mind but barely leave imprints on the soul, and then there are those timeless ones like Victor Hugo who, throughout the years, endure to disclose beauty and depth commensurate with a reader’s growth.

Everyone probably knows by now that the novel is degrees darker, more tragic, and ends nothing like the Disney film. Although it tells of love that transforms, contemplations on fate, there is also lust, obsession, loss, betrayal, death — but had I known the original French title beforehand, Notre-Dame de Paris, perhaps I would have realized sooner that this is, in fact, a gigantic novel about architecture.

After its publication 190 years ago, it launched a movement to preserve French Gothic architecture. A first-time reader of the preface will focus on that fateful Greek word engraved on the wall upon which Hugo stumbled in one of Notre Dame’s towers, and which would inspire him to write the novel. But listening more keenly will reveal that even on the first page of the preface, there are lines that already set the tone for his architectural odes and intentions.

Of the structures from the Middle Ages, he writes in passing, “Mutilations come to them from every quarter, from within as well as from without… What has time, what have men done with these marvels?” But a few dozen pages deeper, he elegantly declares, “Time has bestowed upon the church perhaps more than it has taken away, for it is time which has spread over the facade that sombre hue of the centuries which makes the old age of monuments the period of their beauty. Who has brutally swept them away? It is not time… time’s share would be the least, the share of men the most.”

“On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior (time is a devourer; man, more so); which I should be glad to translate thus: time is blind, man is stupid.”

By the time I read a quarter of the book, I was convinced that this is more about Notre Dame than it is about the Hunchback. “Each face, each stone of the venerable monument, is a page not only of the history of the country, but of the history of science and art as well.”

There are chapters and chapters devoted to detailed descriptions and beautiful thoughts on architecture. He believes architecture to be “the great handwriting of the human race” and how, throughout the ages, it is “developed in proportion to human thought”.

Of the great edifices he writes, “They make one feel to what a degree architecture is a primitive thing, by demonstrating that the greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society…the deposit left by a whole people… the residue of successive evaporations of human society… Each individual brings his stone. Thus do the beavers, thus do the bees, thus do men. The great symbol of architecture, Babel, is a hive.”

However, I have also recently learned that some architects strongly disagree with a particular chapter where Hugo holds that architecture was dethroned and ceased to be the sovereign art upon the arrival of Gutenberg and the flourishing of literature. He laments this “death”— “no longer the social art, the collective art, the dominating art.” 

Perhaps it is the fact that I am not an architect that I did not react so disapprovingly towards the passage (even though the architect with whom I shared some beautiful lines the moment I read them prove the statement wrong with the work that he’s been involved in for the past several years), and perhaps it is because I considered the historical context in which Hugo wrote.

But I am absolutely certain that those who immediately oppose the disputed chapter did not finish reading this giant. On a closing note in this edition, Hugo clearly expresses that he hopes to be put in the wrong about this exact view!

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you craft the most beautiful architectural challenge ever written.

It is not for nothing.

Ismail Kadare: The Palace of Dreams

AUGUST 17, 2021

There are books, and then there are literary giants. The thing about the latter is that they do not announce their importance, their work speaks for them and you simply know you are in the presence of one. 

This does not fall in the beautiful category. This one takes its place alongside Orwell’s 𝟭𝟵𝟴𝟰 and Bradbury’s 𝘍𝘢𝘩𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘵 𝟰𝟱𝟭.

Someone told me in jest that maybe I should take a break from my reading repertoire because what is happening in certain parts of the world of late uncannily intersects with it. Veering westward only found a disquieting relevance in this Ismail Kadare dystopian masterpiece.

𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘗𝘢𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘋𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘮𝘴 is not what the title might immediately imply, but at the same time, it is exactly what the name implies: “The task of our Palace of Dreams, which was created directly by the reigning Sultan, is to classify and examine not the isolated dreams of certain individuals… but the ‘Tabir’ as a whole: in other words, all the dreams of all citizens without exception…

…the Padishah decreed that no dream, not even one dreamed in the remotest part of the empire on the most ordinary day by the most godforsaken creature, must fail to be examined by the Tabir Sarrail.”

Beware the authorities and the institutions that take away even the freedom of your dreams. They exist in the real world. 

Andree Chedid: The Return to Beirut

Discovering a wonderful but obscure writer adds to my happiness these days. Although obscure only in my part of the world, at least… for after all, there is a public library in Paris named after Andrée Chedid!

Having shelves largely organized by geography, I had trouble categorizing an author of Lebanese descent, born in Cairo but resided in Paris and wrote in French, and has won French literary awards including the Albert Camus Prize and the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie in 2002.

Matters of roots often spring up in the novel. “𝘏𝘰𝘸 𝘵𝘰 𝘱𝘶𝘭𝘭 𝘶𝘱 𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘴𝘦 𝘳𝘰𝘰𝘵𝘴 𝘸𝘩𝘪𝘤𝘩 𝘴𝘦𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘥𝘪𝘷𝘪𝘥𝘦 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘦𝘯𝘳𝘪𝘤𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘰𝘯𝘨 𝘰𝘧 𝘮𝘢𝘯, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘦𝘹𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘴𝘰𝘶𝘭, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘣𝘪𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘩𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘵? 𝘉𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘩 𝘴𝘰 𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘺 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘥𝘴, 𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘴, 𝘭𝘢𝘺𝘦𝘳𝘴, 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘥𝘰𝘦𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘧𝘦 𝘣𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘩𝘦?”

But for the time being, I will keep her in my Lebanon section, because although she writes with the elegance of the French (there is even one sentence that is Proustian in length and spans an entire page), this book has the structure of a Lebanese novel — unconventional and unpredictable, and it is very much a reflection of Lebanon.

It ends as the civil war begins. Centered on the lives of a grandmother and granddaughter, we see their mirrored lives unfold while an unusual and refined suspense that drones throughout the delightful passages suddenly grips your whole being towards the end.

Andrée Chedid is a literary gem! I am wondering at the scarcity of her works in our bookshops!

Yasmina Reza: Art

October 14, 2021

A book you can read in the span of two cups of coffee, but one that has more insightful layers than some thicker tomes. I soon discovered that the play has been a recipient of theatre’s most prestigious awards! And it is about art, and friendship, and dissimilar aesthetic opinions.

– – –

Three best friends and their opinions about art and of each other are exposed when Serge purchases an art piece for two hundred thousand francs. It is a white canvas with fine diagonal scars.

Marc thinks it’s ridiculous, Serge takes offense, Yvan attempts to pacify both sides, and in return gets accused of being unable to take a stand.

What is hilarious and entertaining is how the reader can resonate with each character in different parts of their argument. 

Is it a real friendship if we keep our thoughts to ourselves to maintain good relations? Should we allow difference of opinion to imperil friendships?

As the scenes play out, we ultimately learn from the dialogue that offense is given and taken not entirely by the contrasting beliefs but mainly through the approach and manner in which they are presented.