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DISCOVERIES

Ravel

A Novel

Jean Echenoz

Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

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New Press: 192 pp., $21.95

HERE is a portrait of a musical genius in the last 10 years of his life: “a slate-gray suit beneath his short, chocolate-brown overcoat, not bad either, although old-fashioned and perhaps a touch lightweight for the season. Cane hooked over his forearm, gloves folded back at the wrist.”

It is 1927 and Maurice Ravel is traveling across the Atlantic on the Ile de France (“a Ritz or Plaza under steam”) for his final tour in the United States. His world is changing: Sacco and Vanzetti have just been electrocuted; television has just been invented, not to mention talking pictures. He wears seersucker and sleeps on deck, dreaming about his life. In New York, he receives a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall. In Chicago, he refuses to play without his patent leather shoes.

Back in France, he swims in the ocean at Saint-Jean-de-Luz. He dines alone; he dines with Wittgenstein. After a car accident in Paris, he feels as though his ideas “are trapped in his brain.” Finally, with the help of drugs, the world closes in on him. Ravel dies in his sleep, leaving “no will, no image on film, not a single recording of his voice.”

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Belle de Jour

A Novel

Joseph Kessel

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Translated from the French by Geoffrey Wagner

Overlook Press: 142 pp., $14.95 paper

FIRST published in France in 1928 and in the United States in 1962, then adapted into a film by Luis Bunuel in 1967, this steamy little book is the story of a Parisian housewife run amok. Unable to make love to her husband (too boring), she takes a day job in a brothel.

“Belle de Jour” was an extremely controversial look into the female psyche when it was first published; today it is easier to appreciate the simple beauty of the writing and contemplate the character of Severine Serizy, whose “desire to love was so difficult to put into practice.”

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Belle de Jour is Severine’s name at the brothel, where she indulges the sadomasochistic fantasies of others. At night, in bed with her husband, Pierre, she weeps for “the human condition that separates spirit and flesh.”

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Millions of Women

Are Waiting to Meet You

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A Memoir

Sean Thomas

Da Capo Press: 300 pp., $24

WHEN Sean Thomas’ editor at Men’s Health magazine suggests he write an investigative piece on Internet dating (complete with a year of all-expense-paid dates), the 37-year-old Londoner is reluctant to do so. Desperate as he is for a helpmeet, he is thoroughly convinced that Internet dating is for those best described as “Nitwits,” “Skanks” or “Howler monkeys.”

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What follows after he finally accepts the assignment is a hilarious romp through the London dating scene -- and through Thomas’ personal history as well: from the cleaning lady of his childhood, to the girl he tried to win back by attempting suicide, to Bongowoman, Lizziegirl, Lovemelovemycat and other discouraging dead ends.

Slowly but surely, Thomas pries his lust from its focus on 21- and 22-year-olds and other ideals of beauty his culture has foisted upon him (poor boy) -- and from the model of his parents’ painful marriage -- to discover what it might mean to actually love someone for who she is.

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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