Non-Fiction Challenge (book 3): ‘Persepolis,’ by Marjane Satrapi (2001-2)

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Back in 2015, when I put together my non-fiction reading list of biographies I owned but had chronically failed to open, ‘Persepolis’ seemed to be top of the list.  From blog comments, friends’ recommendations and the wonderful first page, it was the obvious choice to kick off the project.  Something of Satrapi’s independent stubbornness must have seeped through the pages though, because January, February and now much of March have sped by and this blog still lacks an adequately detailed rave review of this most lauded of autobiographical graphic novels.*

*A small aside, a brief internet trawl has suggested that ‘Persepolis’ falls into this confusingly titled genre.  ‘Graphic autobiography’ sounds wrong and suggests a book containing ‘graphic’ imagery, rather than actual images.  On the other hand, ‘Persepolis’ isn’t a novel.   If anyone has good suggestions for the best way to categorise Satrapi’s book, please do let me know.

‘Persepolis’…

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Word formation in English

Morphology is the branch that deals with the internal structure of words, whose structure are mainly modified by means of two phenomena: INFLECTION and DERIVATION.

  • Inflection: interacts with syntax. In English there are just a few examples left such as the genitive ‘s, but it’s almost inexistent in Present day English. In Old English inflection was quite rich.

  • Derivation: the introduction of new elements in the vocabulary leads to the creation of new words. It’s the most dynamic mechanism in word formation.

UM_pc012_A79-041_008_0007_005_0001 - Example of Elizabeth trance automatic writing

L.R. Trask pointed out the importance of other mechanisms involved in word-formation:

  • COMPOUNDING: the combination of two terms create a new term. One of the members usually qualifies (qualifier) the other (head). For example football, blackbird, greenhouse.

  • CONVERSION or ZERO DERIVATION: moving one word from a lexical category to another with no affixation or modificaion. Drink>verb>>noun

  • CLIPPING: reducing a word to a shorter form: telephone, brassiere, gymnasium > phone, bra, gym. It shouldn’t be mixed up with abbreviation. We don’t call it clipping until it has become a regular conventional word.

  • BLENDING: combination of compounding and clipping. Abbreviated forms of two terms combined into a single word: motel, heliport, Eurovision, brunch.

  • BACK-FORMATION: need of speakers to maximize existing strategies in an economic and convenient way. The suffix -er is added to verbs to denote the agent that performs the action (lover, singer). At different points English borrowed from Latin: sculptor, actor, editor. From Norman French: lecher, burglar. All these end up in what seems to be a phonetic variant of -er and are reinterpreted as one of their compounds: verb + agent indicator, and after accepting the noun, they start using the 1st morpheme as a verb.

  • REANALYSIS: using similar mechanisms to those of back-formation but more complex. Notion is similar to analogy. It’s necessary step previous to analogical development. Trask uses the following example to illustrate reanalysis: bikini = piece of clothing in two parts. Originally, Bikini was related to an atoll where the earliest nuclear bomb tests took place; thus, the meaning it confers to the piece of clothing is that it is supposed to have huge impact compared to bathing suits; as in English the prefix bi- = two, when a new bathing suit involving only the bottom part of the bikini was launched, it was called monokini, as bi in bikini was re-analysed as bi = two.

  • FOLK ETYMOLOGY: speakers give a transparent meaning to a word with a dark structure. For instance: bridegroom = in ancient times [guma = man + bryd = bride] = brydguma = brideman. When guma disappeared, the origin of bridegroom became obscure. Then, speakers associated it with groom = servant. Today groom = somebody who works with horses.

  • INITIALISM: reduction of a phrase or name to a few letters (usually the first one) of the principal words. When the letters are spoken one by one. As in FBI, BBC.

  • ACRONYMS: reduction of a phrase or name to its initial letters, but pronouncing it as a new word: RADAR, NATO.

(From Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable).

The People of the Abyss

The People of the Abyss (1903) is n account of the life conditions of the poor in the East End of London collected during his first hand experience staying in workhouses and sleeping in the street as part of his personal exploration of the under-world. He carried out his experiment at a time of affluence, in 1902, but during which 500,000 people were estimated to live in the described conditions: “The starvation and lack of shelter encountered constituted a chronic condition of misery, which is never wiped out, even in periods of great prosperity”, he asserted. In January 1903, there was no space left in the workhouses and the means were exhausted.

casual ward

He visits Johnny Upright’s home in order to have a place where he could receive his mail and, work on his notes, and get a cold treatment as he does so in his shabby clothes, until he speaks to Mrs. Upright. He then starts looking for a room, and learns that even the largest families in this stratum of society took just a room and even took lodgers in. He´s offered a room with two other lodgers and exchanges impressions with a lower class youth: “From the moment of his birth , all the forces of his environment had tended to harden him, and he viewed his wretched, inevitable future with a callousness and unconcern I could not shake”, and learn about the aged poor, a 71% of the population of London, through a newspaper article, how they age alone and die of self-neglect, 450,000 a day. “The Abyss seems to exude a stupefying atmosphere of torpor, which wraps about them and deadens them (…) the full belly and the evening pipe is all they demand, or dream of demanding, from existence”. The environmental conditions they live submerged in are poisonous, as pollution forms solid deposits on every surface.

Jack London decides to see things for himself and not merely to be informed by other people´s theoretical work on the subject of poverty, such as Engels’ or Jacob Riis’s, so that he could see the human factor: “how they live, why are they living, what for”. He finds that there was a slum at a five minute walk from any point in London, but the cabbies refused to drive to the East End, which was a neverending slum packed with a “crowd of shabby white people” belonging to a new different race of “short, beer-sodden, wretched” individuals. He stops by an old-clothes shop and the shop owner thought he was a high-class American criminal. He arrays himself in the shabby clothes and sews one gold sovereign in the armpit just in case he encounters difficulties. He then experiences the different in status effected by his clothes and notices that “all servility – towards him- vanished from the demeanour” and he was called ‘mate’ instead of ‘sir’ or ‘guv`nor’, escaping “the pestilence of tipping and encountered mean on a basis of equality (…) I had to be more lively in avoiding vehicles. Life had cheapened in direct ratio to my clothes”. Lower classes “talked as natural men should without the least idea of getting anything out of me”. The fear of the mob vanished completely as London became –in appearance- one of them.

East End 1903

He gets immersed in the life of the poor and dejected population of the East End were men in one room working for 15 hours a day encaged in a tiny room, with their teeth worn down by the friction of the metallic brads used in their trade –shoe-making -. He witnesses the life of those dying of consumption, those who can only afford to have rotten meat once a week, and who can only wait patiently for death; cramped rooms full of undernourished infants. And he lives with those who can not even afford lodging and try to sleep in the Spitalfields Garden, a surface with patches of grass here and there and a sharp-spiked iron fencing to deter them from entering its enclosed space. Others, in search of a roof, sleep in the benches within Christ´s Church; people covered in rags and filth, open sores and bruises, women who would sell themselves for a loaf of bread. He experiences life in the casual ward and the workhouses. “The Abyss is a huge man-killing machine”.

 

Down and out in Paris and London, by George Orwell.

Your clothes get dirty and you can’t afford having them washed. You run out of soap and razor-blades. You start avoiding prosperous friends in the street. You discover hunger. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge wasteful piles. You start thinking: in a day or two I’ll be starving”; this is Orwell’s description of the process of slipping into poverty. Down and Out in Paris and London” starts in a Paris slum where Orwell lived in 1929, in a lousy hotel in the rue du Coq d’Or among the yells of Mme. Monce, loud prostitutes and children in the street. It’s a narrow street crammed with derelict buildings packed with immigrants of every conceivable nationality, most of them eastern Europeans.

This fantastic book describes the writer’s personal experiences among the inhabitants of an often ignored social stratum, the underworld present in every society and every nation in the globe. “People in this sort of background had given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty freed them from ordinary standards of behaviour he states. Our protagonist, Orwell himself, spent a year and a half in the Coq d’Or until he ran out of money and started his descent to deprivation where boredom is also a fellow traveller, as there’s nothing to do and being underfed, nothing interests you”– he says. However, according to him there’s also a feeling of relief, “as your worst fear is just in front of you and you discover that you can stand it.”

orw

After leaving the Coq d’Or, and going to a pawnshop where he had to accept whatever they gave him, finding a job became imperative. He went to see a Russian friend, Boris, an unemployed waiter who thought that being English was a great asset in the pursue of a job as a waiter. However, as Boris was lame and Orwell didn’t have any experience, took weeks before they could find a job. In the meantime, while now and then Boris collapsed in bed weeping desperately as money oozed away, Orwell tried fishing in the Seine river so that they could eat, but found that fish had become cunning after the seige of Paris. Appealing to the solidarity of his fellow country men, Boris suggested that they could get in touch with a Russian secret society in Paris; apparently they were looking for articles on English politics, which could make things easier for Orwell too. So, they went to the secret hideaway, where the Russian revolutionaries demanded 20 Francs from them as an entrance fee. The revolutionaries asked Orwell about British politics and seemed satisfied. However, when Boris and Orwell went to the hideaway again, the Russian revolutionaries had vanished into thin air with the entrance fee money.

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They start looking for jobs and they find two possibilities; there was work in the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, but not until some time had passed, so in the meantime they had to start working at the Hotel X. Orwell describe the caste system in there: the manager was at the top of the pyramid, followed by the maître d’hotel, then the head cook, the chef du personnel, the cooks, the waiters, the laundresses and sewing women, the apprentice waiters, the plongeurs (dishwashers) and the chambermaids. Orwell worked as a plongeur, the lower job a man could do, and he describes it as follows:

not enough sleep, continuous toil, one felt neurastenic and with fatigue; there were discarded scrapes of meat on the floor, rats and filth – even so, his workmates stated that they had known worse dirtier places-. “A plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world, no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art.” Among the responsibilities of a plongeur, is washing up, keeping the kitchen clean, preparing the vegetables, making tea, coffee and sandwiches, doing the simple cooking and runnning errands. It also implied tacitally no free day and no fixed working hours, although it was an average of 15 hours per day. They pay was just enough to keep the worker alive, the only holiday was the sack, a plongeur didn’t have time to marry. At that moment there were “men with university degrees scrubbing dishes in Paris for 10-15 hours a day, trapped in a routine that made thought impossible.”

After 5-6 weeks of working in the Hotel X, Boris disappeared, as the Auberge was about to open. Orwell left the Hotel X, but as they arrived they saw that it would take weeks for the Auberge to be ready. They employed them in the necessary works without pay. As soon as Orwell left, he went to the Auberge clean, shaved and in a new suit to feel the “curious sensation of being a customer where you have been a slave’s slave.”

Down-Out-10

He contacted a British connection -he hadn’t lost touch with the other world completely- so that he could get a job and then he got ready to leave France. But he travelled to England only to learn that his employers had gone abroad and that the prospect of a job had vanished; again, he exchanged his clothes for older ones and money. “Clothes are powerful things”, he claims as he noticed the change in people’s attitude toward him once he changes his suit for shabby clothes. Then, he starts experiencing and describing an even lower stratum of society populated by tramps. Firstly, he looked for the cheapest place to sleep, a battered looking house (know as a kip) in East London, which was full of oriental immigrants. There, he slept with several men in the same room. As he ran out of money -even more-, he changed his lodgings, as he only had a half penny left, and decided to go Romton, one of the London spikes (casual wards). There he met Paddy, an Irish man who had been a tramp for the last 15 years, who explained how the spikes worked. After queuing for a while at the entrance, a lady with a crucifix welcomed them inside, and gave them tea while she talked about religious subjects, and once the tea time was over, the lady insisted on their kneeling down and pray as part of the deal. “Ah, you don’t get much for nothing. They can’t even give you a twopenny cup of tea without you go down on your knees for it”, says Paddy.

casual ward

Once in the spike, the authorities only allowed each tramp to keep eightpence and they had to hand any sum to them at the entrance, but most tramps would rather smuggle their own money by tying it in a piece of cloth so that it didn’t chink. Once registered in the office, an officer who treated them like cattle lead them inside. They were searched before bathing and there were 50 stark-naked men packed in a room 20 feet square, with only two bathtubs and two slimy roller towels for all. They bathed in used water. There were no beds, they slept on the floor. After midnight, a man began making homosexual attempts upon Orwell, after which it was impossible to go back to sleep. At 8 in the morning they were out. The meal tickets they had been given lead them to a coffee shop where they were reluctantly served tea and four slices of bread. Paddy wanted to go to the Edbury spike and he explained that the Edbury spike was similar to Romton but tobacco was confiscated at the entrance. Under the Vagrancy Act, tramps can be prosecuted for smoking in the spike.

Down-Out-3

After Edbury, they went to a Salvation Army shelter, of semi-military discipline, and then they went looking for a friend of Paddy’s, Bozo. Bozo was a screever (pavement artist). He made his drawings on the pavement with artist’s chalks. He mainly painted cartoons, but had to avoid pro-socialist content due to the police and avoided religious charities, as he said it stuck in his throat to sing hymns for buns. He considered himself in a class above ordinary beggars, but the enemy of society all the same. In Bozo’s lodging house Orwell meets blacks, whites and Indians from all kinds of backgrounds, including a former doctor. Bozo explained to Orwell the different types of tramps that populated the streets: Organ-grinders and acrobats, who were considered as artists more than beggars and screevers who were somewhere in between, as they were only sometimes considered as artists. He introduced Orwell to a real artist who had studied art in Paris and copied Old Masters on the pavement. “It’s shabby sort of blokes you get most off and foreigners. The English are mean”. Sometimes he talked like an art critic about the colours in nature. I go out at night and watch for meteors. The stars are a free show. It don’t cost anything to use your eyes”. “If you got an education, it don’t matter to you if you’re on the road for the rest of your life. If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself ‘I’m a free man in here – and he tapped his forehead – and you’re all right”. Bozo had managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty. Bozo represents an optimistic outlook quite different to the common assumptions on life on the road and poverty, an exceptional character and a remarkable man. As long as he could read, think and watch for meteors, he considered himself free in his own mind.

“Down and out in Paris and London” is an often humorous yet realistic narration which invites to reflection about class issues and reveals the lives of the inhabitants of the lower strata of society, full of ignored poverty-stricken people, rich with stories and experiences utterly alien to the official average citizen.

“¿…Y los hombres asesinados?”

AUTOPSIA

HOMBRES VICTIMAS

Se imaginan que ante la cifra de accidentes de tráfico alguien argumentara, “sí, pero ¿y las víctimas de los accidentes laborales…?”, o que ante los datos de infarto de miocardio saliera un especialista diciendo, “sí, pero ¿y los datos de las hemorragias cerebrales…?”, o que ante una campaña contra el cáncer de mama se respondiera, “sí, pero ¿y contra el cáncer de próstata…?”

Sería absurdo y nadie tomaría en serio la pregunta, en cambio, que al hablar de violencia de género uno de los principales argumentos sea “sí, pero ¿y los hombres asesinados…?” parece correcto y oportuno, lo cual, sin duda, dice mucho de los valores de nuestra sociedad.

Cada uno de esos “sí, pero…” en verdad demuestra un no rotundo y un desprecio al problema planteado al presentar los datos y la información, porque ningún problema social se resuelve negando y desconsiderando otro.

Y no es casualidad que cada…

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Michael Köhlmeier ‘Two Gentlemen on the Beach’

South of Paris books

Two Gentlemen on the Beach is my last post for the fifth German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

Michael Köhlmeier artfully mixes fact and fiction in this comparative life of Churchill and Chaplin, tying them together by their dark secret, depression.image

Chaplin and Churchill meet at a party given in California and Churchill immediately recognises the depressed state of Chaplin and proposes to him that they walk a little along the beach where they discover a strong empathy toward each other and discover amongst other things that “they shared Nietzche’s opinion that the very idea of suicide was a strong comforter which helped them over many a difficult night”.***
Chaplin explains during this walk that “I suddenly saw myself as a man moving forward as best as I could over the last twenty eight years launching thousands of projects just not to hang myself from the first tree…

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The life before us.

“The life before us” is a very special book, not only due to its content, but also to the story surrounding it. It was thanks to it that, for the first time in French history, an author could circumvent the rules to win the Goncourt Price twice, as it can only be awarded once in a lifetime. “The life before us”, by Émile Ajar, won the same year it was written, in 1975. What the jury ignored was that the psedonym Émile Ajar didn’t belong to its impersonator, Paul Pavlowitch. The truth was only revealed in the suicide note left by Roman Kacew, better known as Romain Gary, who had already been awarded with the Goncourt price in 1956, and who was the man behind Ajar. Later on, he would explain the process of the creation of Émile Ajar in “Vié et mort d’Émile Ajar” -”Life and death of Émile Ajar”- (1981), which was published posthumously. Kacew/Gary/Ajar committed suicide on December 2nd 1980, at 66, by shooting himself. He left a note in which he stated specifically that his death had nothing to do with that of his ex-wife Jean Seberg the previous year, and that Émile Ajar was himself.

romain gary

Writing under pseudonym was a habit for Romain Gary, and he did so under the names Shatan Bogat, Fosco Sinibaldi, besides Ajar and Gary itself. As Ajar, he wrote four works which became well known, and he ironically entitled the third one “Pseudo”. Paradoxically, Gary was accused of imitating Ajar’s style: “I’m a pseudo-pseudo!” he would later laugh.

“The life before us” introduces us to Momo, a child who lives in a run-down urban neighbourhood, Belleville Boulevard -Edith Piaf’s birthplace-. There is a high concentration of immigrants in it: North-African Muslims, black Africans from every nationality, Eastern-Europeans… They know and respect each other and lead their daily lives as anyone would. Momo lives with Madame Rosa, a retired prostitute of Polish Jew origins and who lived the WWII and was imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Germans. She takes long-term care of the sons of other prostitutes who are unable to tend to their children properly due to their jobs, and first met Momo when he was three.

Among others, we meet Madame Lola, a transgender prostitute and former boxing champion in Senegal, whom Momo is very fond of, as she’s very kind and motherly. Mr. Driss is a café owner, in whose café several important scenes of the novel take place. There, Momo regularly meets old Hamil, a street carpet vendor, for his lessons about Muslim culture and the Q’ran, as it is Madame Rosa’s wish for the kids to maintain a link with their respective cultures. This is attained through the means available: Momo is in charge of taking 3-year old Banania (Turé) to Bisson Street, where most black Africans live.

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At the time, Momo is around ten, although doubts are raised about that and Madame Rosa, with whom he feels a very strong link, is in her late sixties, but very ill. Madame Rosa is quite a character; she keeps a portrait of Hitler under her bed, so that when she’s feeling down, she can remind herself of what she has been put through and cheer herself up just for having survived all that. Her famous sex-appeal has bidden farewell long ago and she has several ailments, some of which she tries to conceal, as they may hinder her life and that of her kids, including Momo. She keeps secrets, but Momo knows, and suffers. We will walk downstairs with Madame Rosa and Momo, and into Madame Rosa’s basement, where she retires when woken up by nightmares. The place is crammed with memories, Jewish paraphernalia and secrets; it is there where we will witness the most dramatic moments in Momo’s life.

In 1977, Moshe Mizrahi brought the novel to the big screen -Madame Rosa-, featuring Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa.

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