Book review: “The Night Bookmobile” by Audrey Niffenegger
Here’s how the publisher describes Audrey Niffenegger’s graphic novel “The Night Bookmobile” : “First serialized as a weekly column in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, The Night Bookmobile tells the story of a wistful woman who one night encounters a mysterious disappearing library on wheels that contains every book she has ever read. Seeing her history and most intimate self in this library, she embarks on a search for the bookmobile.” So here you have the story and an interesting one. Unless you have been born into a family where books were cherished and a knowledge at the very least of the classics was expected, which luckily was my case, this book may remind you of all sorts of warnings, telling you to leave that book alone and start living.
And here we are at the core of “The Night Bookmobile”. Are books a way to a different, safe and exiting world, an Alice in Wonderland, where the shallowness of every day life, the electricity bills, the office quarrels, the general grumpiness, the one size fits all are gone, to make place for the special, the unique, the YOU or do they prevent you from having a real life, with authentic human interactions? The bookmobile has all the books our main character has ever read and had half forgotten. When she rediscovers them, it is as if old friends were visiting. No need for the role plays society expects, it is as if you had an understanding, a complicity with those books, that doesn’t require a getting to know each other. They have become part of you, steps on your way to adulthood and beyond, ways to your true calling, whether you chose to ignore it later or not. I will always remember the time I read my first Balzac or “Voyage au bout de la nuit” by Ferdinand Céline, a shock that revealed a world to me, I had not suspected at that silly and naive age. I remember my first Jane Austen, my first Tintin comic, my first “Journal de Mickey”, THE French magazine with Mickey Mouse’s adventures, or my first heavy bound book with 10 or more issues of “Spirou”, its Belgian competitor. I remember the serialized stories, the missing ending that led to wild speculations, the philosophical approach of some of these children comics. I took those books to my room and the world, although dead to me at that moment, became somehow more alive thanks to my readings. They gave meaning, ideals.
In the “Night Bookmobile” the conclusion is ambiguous. Yes, the narrator, experiences all these feelings, recollections and she finds her true calling: becoming a librarian, living amongst books, but she also sees the price she chose to pay : her boyfriend, feeling neglected, leaves her, she comits suicide to escape a life that is perceived as an empty obstacle to her true life.
The falsely naive style of her drawing, very American I believe, gives this sense of unreality. The fact that most scenes play in the night in deserted places of the city, that she lost the librarian’s business card, add to that feeling. Ultimately whether this is a positive way to take one’s distance with daily life or a damaging escape is left to the reader. I can only recommend this book. It’s a welcome relief from all the girly, Bridget Jonesy comics that flood the market (I won’t give you references, you know them).
Let’s celebrate comics like this one, like the old Mickey Mouse, the old Spirou, Tintin magazine stories. Even if their styles are widely different, they open up new horizons and that’s how it should be, don’t you think?
On the left, a cover of Spirou and one of the magazine’s alltime favorite: “Gaston Lagaffe” whose creator, Frankin, was a philosophy teacher. Even though his comics were branded “children comics”, they were much more than that. Between the lines you could read a very severe criticism of our modern society and its emphasis on materialism. Frankin also brought up the topic of dictatorship, through stories on nazi Germany or on an imaginary futuristic dictator, the recurring character “Zorglub”
On the right a cover of an old album with copies of “Le Journal de Mickey”, its pirates, mad scientists, victim of the government stories.
Book review: “Grandville” by Bryan Talbot
If I had to put Bryan Talbot’s “Grandville” in a nutshell, I would describe it, as suggested by the publisher on the cover, as a comic inspired by a very English tradition: the detective novel. I’d say, Grandville is halfway between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who never hesitated to put Sherlock Holmes in the most dramatic and violent situations and Agatha Christie who loved to show how the quiet countryside was often hiding the most vicious crimes. So the album opens on a picturesque scene in the English countryside, suggesting at once that all is not well in paradise:
Grandville is an alternative Paris, the capital of a Napoleonic empire from which Britain has only recently declared independence. It’s a world where the English, are considered as potential terrorists. The characters are half human, half animal and remind me of Enki Bilal’s work (see below his eagle-man character), even though Bryan Talbot’s work is not as gloomy. On the contrary, despite the serious topic of this album, its style is sunny and engaging, almost nostalgic, which makes the violence all the more surprising and striking. In one scene, French and francophile readers will recognize Bécassine, the French archetype of French comic characters, born at the very beginning of the 20th century. There is also a mention of Angoulême, the city hosting one of the biggest comic festivals in the world and very attached to European and in particular French comic art.
Finally another key character in Francophone comic history makes a noted appearance: Spirou. Spirou is quite like Tintin, the smart boy-scout type, so his part in Talbot’s album is all the more disturbing (he’s sent to buy items, used to make a bomb). Again the contrast works well to emphasize the violence.
Bryan Talbot refers, through another major character, Sarah Blaireau, to an art form that defined the turn of the century: the “Art Nouveau” style (on the right: a picture inspired by Alphonse Mucha‘s work), a form of artistic rebellion against bourgeois society, whith references to a barbaric (in the sense of non greco-roman) heritage and a preference with models and muses from what was considered the gutter of society (prostitutes, dancers, actresses…). So Sarah Blaireau, aka Sarah Bernardt, is indeed a typical example of these new idols (Wasn’t she called « la Scandaleuse » ?) and our female romantic lead. But no need to insist. I will not reveal what happens between our detective-inspector Lebrock and the lady. That would spoil it, wouldn’t it?
Last but not least, from a political and historical point of view, Grandville highlights the British interpretation of 2 major political figures and their vision of society. First there’s the fundamental distrust the British Empire has always felt for the Napoleonic one. In an interesting twist the latter is compared to George Bush’s America, its paranoia and efforts to conquer the world. Indeed, the British terrorists seem to be there to remind us of the September 11 terrorists. Does Talbot consider 19th century France to be particularly orwellian and the British empire to be unfairly treated by France? Maybe. After all, in “Grandville” the real terrorists turn out to be French government officials who organize an attack, they hope to blame on the British. Passports are planted on the scene to shift the blame on them. What troubles me here is that conspiracy theorists have repeatedly suggested that the September 11 attacks were organized by George Bush’s government to justify the Patriot Act and that the passports of the terrorists had been planted in and around Ground Zero to blame Al Quaida. Of course a comic author is perfectly entitled to whatever opinion he wants to defend or play with, but this is a very serious point to make and I’m not sure a detective novel is the right setting for it. After all, we are talking about much more than Roger Ackroyd’s murder. On the other hand, once again, the colorful and aesthetic setting certainly does a lot to attract the attention to the darker message.
Grandville is a beautiful, certainly controversial book, that will probably spark heated discussions. I recommend reading it and sharing your thoughts on the matter! In the end, should we believe, like agent Mulder in Chris Carter’s “XFiles”, that “the truth is out there”? For this one and despite being a huge fan of “XFiles”, I don’t. But that’s just me.