Saturday, March 19, 2011

Napoleon on trial

Part of Thursday morning's class was devoted to a mock trial of Napoleon, ably played by Swiss student Kaspar, pictured above. Charges against the former Emperor were (1) reckless endangerment of the homeland ("la patrie") and (2) crimes against humanity.

A vigorous, though ultimately not entirely effective, case was mounted by the prosecutorial team of Jenny from British Columbia, and Nathalie, an Israeli lawyer in real life.

In the picture shown above, Kaspar-Napoleon huddles with his defense team - the calm, unflappable Laura (also Swiss), and the slightly megalomaniac Jean-Baptiste, a retired psychiatrist from Milan.
It is safe to say that the ramblings of Jean-Baptiste did his client no good whatsoever. Fortunately, Kaspar had had ample access to Wikipedia and was perfectly able to mount his own defence.

Jury members, and a defence lawyer, pay close attention.

Remaining jury members needed little time to deliberate. Napoleon was acquitted of both charges. However, the jury's verdict on the second count ('crimes against humanity') was subsequently unanimously overruled by the panel of three judges (including moi).

The whole thing was more fun than the proverbial barrel o' monkeys.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Book review : that annoying, ubiquitous, book by Elif Batuman

There are flashes of charm in this book, counterbalanced by some very tedious patches indeed. Elif Batuman is apparently well-connected enough to have Roz Chast do the artwork for the book cover. She also seems to have a remarkable talent for self-promotion. This book has generated a considerable amount of buzz, and some near-hagiographic reviews.

I don't quite understand why. If one wanted to view things uncharitably, Ms Batuman spent seven somewhat aimless years as a graduate student in comparative literature at Stanford without ever really figuring out why she was there. She did prove quite adept at ferreting out travel grant money, which she used to make various trips to Russia and other former Soviet republics. This book is essentially a travel memoir - the record of those trips. Like most travel memoirs, it is interesting only in spots. Two of the book's seven chapters are quite well-written and manage to sustain the reader's interest (the author's attendance at a conference about Tolstoy held at the Tolstoy estate, a trip to Saint Petersburg to visit a reconstruction of an ice palace first built in the reign of Catherine the great).

But that's as good as it gets. Ms Batuman once spent a dismal summer visiting Samarkand. Inexplicably, she insists on telling us all about it. In excruciating detail, spread over three chapters. It takes up almost half of the book and is indescribably tedious. As a general rule, other people's travel memoirs are most interesting when things go wrong, but Ms Batuman's account of her summer in Samarkand almost made me stick pencils in my eyes, just to make it stop. Fortunately, the Kindle has an off switch. Two other chapters, the author's ruminations on Dostoyevsky prompted by a trip to Venice and an account of a conference devoted to Isaac Babel that she helped organize at Stanford, were readable, but not particularly interesting. Ms Batuman, or her editor, should have realized that departmental gossip, though it might be catnip for graduate students, is of almost no interest to anyone else.

One point needs to be addressed. Elif Batuman does not want you to think of this book as just a collection of travel pieces. Seven years in graduate school have apparently given her higher aspirations. So she places this really bizarre section at the end of her introductory chapter, in which she essentially seems to be claiming profundity by association. This kind of thing:

What if you read "Lost Illusions" and ... you went to Balzac's house and Madame Hanska's estate, read every word he ever wrote, dug up every last thing you could about him - and then started writing?
That is the idea behind this book.

Say what now? Is Ms Batuman suggesting that simply attending a conference on Tolstoy held at the Tolstoy estate will provide deep insight into his work, or magically improve the quality of one's writing about Tolstoy? This seems charmingly naive, not to say stupid. Or is she just trying to assign some kind of retrospective meaning to her seven years at graduate school?

At any rate, the book is studded throughout with Batuman's assorted drive-by thoughts about various authors, most of them Russian. These are largely innocuous, with the exception of her "analysis" of Dostoyevsky's "The Possessed", which is an embarrassment from start to finish. A plodding, blow-by-blow summary that stretches for pages is followed by a summary of what her Stanford professor told the class about it, leading in to her infatuation with charismatic classmate Matej, a smouldering Croatian cliche straight from central casting whose "narrow glinting eyes and high cheekbones" cause her to lose control altogether:

"a long-limbed, perfectly proportioned physical elegance, such that his body always looked at once extravagantly casual and flawlessly composed".

Matej alternates between smoldering and brooding, reducing his classmates (male and female) to a state of drooling concupiscence, eventually triggering some kind of epiphanic advance in Batuman's understanding of "The Possessed" (was the trigger his two-pack-a-day habit, the discovery that his great-uncle was a cardinal, or just the shock of finally landing him in bed?) It's to Batuman's credit that her discussion of "The Possessed" avoids the usual mind-numbing academic jargon -- an unfortunate side effect is that its utter banality becomes impossible to conceal.

I cannot agree with those more enthusiastic reviewers who suggest that Batuman offers particularly keen insights. She clearly enjoys reading, but is not especially adept at engaging the reader's enthusiasm. Unless you have a particular interest in obscure Uzbek poets, or the tedium of life in the former Soviet Union, this much-hyped book is likely to disappoint you.

(It seems only fair to add that a recent New Yorker article by Ms Batuman, about Turkish soccer fans, was everything this book was not - interesting, tightly written, and great fun to read)

Flights for 50p!

My sister forwarded me this link, which is too funny not to share:

Be sure to play it all the way to the end.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Ides of March

It might not have been the best of days for Caesar, but, for me, today was like a gift. One of those wonderful, extraordinary days that life hands one from time to time. It's amazing what a night's sleep can accomplish. Having been left almost catatonic by only 4 hours of class yesterday, I went to bed quite apprehensive about my 7-hour class schedule today. Tossed and turned all night, with wakeful fits, interspersed by really odd dreams.

But the brain is a mysterious thing, possessed of remarkable recuperative powers. Somehow, when the alarm went off at 7:30, I leaped out of bed, ready to face whatever the day might bring. And it turned out to be truly awesome. Four hours of conversation in the morning, followed by a 3-hour grammar review in the afternoon -- an experience that managed to be both exhausting and invigorating. I love the school, I love my classmates, I love the city. Shopping for groceries in a supermarket that would make my foodie friends (you know who you are) weep with envy, getting to indulge my modest stationery fetish while choosing just the right notebooks and pens - when you do it in a different country, everything is more fun!

Even the TV -- normally an insidious time-suck -- seems more like a benevolent presence as it drones on in the background, subliminally imprinting correct grammatical structures in my brain, even as I type. God bless 'em, French talking heads do like to talk. But they speak such excellent French -- how could I bar them entry?

It's late. Time for bed, and a few more chapters of "Jane Eyre". I admire her spirit enormously. Those Bronte sisters were quite a trio.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Exhausted, but in a good way

Today was the first day of school. I have been placed at level B2.2, which corresponds roughly to advanced intermediate. This is a bit of a stretch, which may explain my catatonic state when I got home. Nothing that can't be cured by food and a good night's sleep, I hope.

I like the school a lot, and my classmates seem like a dynamic, interesting bunch. Promising, once I can summon up the energy to hang out and socialize. Which really wasn't an option today, I was so exhausted. But it's early days.

French TV is terrific, and will be very helpful, I think. As a blogger, one is always in search of that "only in..." moment, the one that one imagines providing a greater insight into the culture at large. With that thought in mind, I'm still unsure of what to make of yesterday's broadcast, bracketed at beginning and end by appeals to help those Japanese people affected by the terrible earthquake. Surely someone in charge of programming might have figured that it really wasn't the best timing to broadcast a documentary, no matter how historically valuable, on "the Rape of Nanking". The juxtaposition was startling, to say the least.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Food porn (1)

It seems horribly predictable (not to mention slightly obnoxious) for a blog about Paris to degenerate into lip-licking descriptions of spectacular meals eaten, so I will try, as a rule, to keep this kind of post to a minimum. Nonetheless, readers will allow me the occasional tribute to the local cuisine. Besides which, certain readers (you know who you are) actively encourage me.

Take this evening's dinner, for instance. A classic example of simple ingredients done to perfection. I chose the nearest bistro, the slightly offbeat Cafe Le Temple. Located right there by the metro stop of the same name. Its most striking feature is the decor, which some might find alarming. (I found it an oddly appropriate backdrop for reading "Jane Eyre" on my trusty Kindle). Think animal prints. Bold animal prints - the skins of leopards, cheetahs, lions, and tigers, all competing to assail one's eye, in far closer proximity than would ever be the case in real life. Add to this vibrant backdrop a kind of sixties hippie vibe, scarves draped across lamps, the occasional lava lamp. Then complete with more than a soupcon of Marilyn. My final coffee was in a tasteful Marilyn demitasse, on a complementary Marilyn saucer, all carefully centered on a large circular Marilyn tray. My waitress, a charming soubrette d'une certaine age, bravely attempted to carry off the Marilyn hairstyle, but the overall effect was marred somewhat by the hig-hugging leopardskin tights. The look was memorable, nonetheless.

I chose the "assiette du Temple"*, from the salad section of the menu. The basic ingredients - duck liver pate on toast, bacon with goat's cheese on brown bread, lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, scallions, were brought to a height of perfection by the inclusion of a sprig of about 30 spectacular red currants. A kir to begin, an accompaniment of mineral water, and an espresso to finish - the whole experience was sublime. And those of you who know me know that I am not the kind of person who is moved to use words like "sublime" where food is concerned. In general, I detest food snobbery and the kind of semi-pornographic writing it elicits.

It seems that I may be forced to re-examine certain long-held attitudes during my time here in Paris. Which is, of course, exactly the point.

*: until further notice, which I hope will come sooner rather than later, no guarantees are offered regarding the correctness of any and all French expressions appearing in this blog. So, caveat lector, and all that good stuff.

OK - just one picture

To show that I am really in Paris, and not just dry-blogging from some unnamed location. how far from home did I have to go to take this picture? No more than 100 meters, honest!

The Eagle Has Landed

Just a quick note, to say that I arrived here in Paris on Thursday morning, and am comfortably ensconced in the flat that I will be renting for the duration of my stay. It's in a great location, on rue Notre Dame de Nazareth, in the Marais district (nearest Metro station is "Temple"). It's about a 20-minute walk to the school, which I visited on Friday, just to check things out. The bank draft for my school fees had just made it by Friday, after presumably meandering through the French banking system for a week. So I am all set for my placement test first thing tomorrow morning.

For now, I have managed to procure the all-important adapter for the computer. Wi-fi in the apartment works a charm. The good news is that French TV appears to be infinitely more tolerable than its Spanish counterpart, so I have it on in the background as I write - it can't hurt, right?

But it's 12:30 on a bright Sunday morning, so I am headed out once more to explore - this time I hope to make it to Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite. Photos will follow in due course - right now I'm just happy to have the computeer stuff all squared away. I love my little Acer - one of the best investments I've ever made.

So far everyone has been very charming and helpful - let's hope things stay that way.

I'm so excited. Here I am, in Paris. Just knowing that gives me more confidence about my French abilities. But tomorrow will be the moment of truth.

Au revoir for now!