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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Jules Et Jim - Henri Pierre Roch Jules (short, German, philosophical) and Jim (tall, French, romantic) meet in 1907 and immediately become best friends. People wonder if they're gay, but they're not: they just really like each other. They always seem to end up dating the same women, and live a wild and complicated life. After a while, they both fall for beautiful German Kathe, who's the original psycho bitch from hell. She hangs out with each of them in turn, has children with them, falls into fits of jealous rage and abandons them for third parties, forgives them and then does even crazier things.

Many of the reviewers here seem to be appalled by Kathe's behavior, and even more by the fact that the two guys put up with it. With all due respect, I think this is to miss the point, which is all in the extremely unusual style. The author, a luminary of the French art scene who probably appears briefly in Midnight in Paris at some point, based the novel partly on his own life. He started writing it when he was 64, and took nearly ten years to get it right; he wanted to make it as simple and unaffected as possible and just tell the story. He succeeds very well. The fact that he has nearly succeeded in removing anger and heartbreak from the narrative voice doesn't mean that the characters weren't angry and heartbroken at the time. Quite the contrary. But he isn't angry any more. He's viewing it all from a vast distance, and the dominant emotion is nostalgia.

I was reminded of the scene near the end of The Unbearable Lightness of Being where she finds the old photographs tucked away at the back of the drawer. At the time, there was all that pain and jealousy, but now she thinks back on it and wonders how they could have failed to understand how happy they were. Or, another association that occurred to me, I imagine Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine telling the story to Abigail Breslin, his beloved granddaughter:

- So what did she do then, Grandpa?

- She went off without a word and spent the night with her old flame Harold, sweetheart.

- Weren't you mad at her?

- I certainly was! But she came back next morning.

- And what did she say?

- She said she'd had fun, but it was all a mistake.

- Did you forgive her?

- Sweetheart, I always forgave Kathe. She was a very special lady, God rest her soul.

- I love hearing stories about you and Kathe, Grandpa.

- Just promise me one thing, sweetheart. Don't be like her when you grow up. I'm not sure the world can handle another Kathe.

- I promise, Grandpa.

- That's my girl.

Readers who are currently involved with psycho bitches of either sex may find Henri-Pierre Roché's novel comforting. If you're lucky, you'll feel this way about your psycho bitch when you've had enough time to think about it properly.


We just watched the Truffaut movie of Deux Anglaises Et Le Continent, Roché's second and last book, and that does throw an unexpected new light on Jules et Jim. The basic story is similar: the central character, male, toys callously with the affections of two English sisters and things end up with one of them dead. Towards the end of the movie, the guy writes a novel called Julien et Jerôme, which he says explicitly is their story with the genders reversed.

So, the implication is that Deux Anglaises Et Le Continent is the true story, and Roché himself is the psycho bitch. Or maybe he's just messing with our minds the second time round, since the received wisdom appears to be that Jules et Jim IS in fact the autobiographical novel.

Can a better informed person tell me what's going on here? It seems to be a moderately interesting literary mystery.