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Pierre Lemaitre: Au revoir là-haut

AurevoirFrance’s most prestigious literary prize is the Prix Goncourt. It’s awarded each year in November, and (like the Booker in the UK and the Pulitzer in the US) there is much suspense beforehand… and much dismay and controversy afterwards. 2013 saw the win of Pierre Lemaitre’s World War One epic. I had previously read (and enjoyed) Lemaitre’s crime fiction and it seems to me that much of the consternation about his win has to do with genre snobbery. This book is just too readable, too much of a page-turner to be a novel of real literary merit… it’s just not ‘difficult’ enough.

And that is exactly why I loved it. It makes sense of a difficult subject like the end of the First World War, with its inglorious aftermath of black marketeering, petty cons, appalling treatment of war veterans, rising materialism and cynicism. The first sentence immediately sets the scene:

Ceux qui pensaient que cette guere finirait bientôt étaient tous morts depuis longtemps. De la guerre, justement.

Those who thought the war would soon be over had all died long ago. In the war, of course. (my transl.)

But it also shows just how difficult this book will be to translate. The short ‘de la guerre’ could mean ‘because of’ the war, ‘from’ the war or ‘in’ the war. The title of the book itself is taken from the farewell letter written by a young soldier Jean Blanchard, who was unjustly executed for treason in 1914: ‘Till we meet again (up there), my dear wife…’. I will be very curious to see what catchy but faithful title the publisher will be able to come up with.

In the very last days of the war, the egotistic Lieutenant d’Aulnay-Pradelle (that double-barrel name is very important to him and says it all about this unpleasant character) orders a pointless patrol and attack which nearly kills two soldiers, the artistic Edouard and the practical Albert. Edouard saves Albert’s life and, in turn, Albert tends to Edouard in hospital. The latter is so badly injured that he can no longer talk and becomes hooked on morphine. He wants to disappear, to take on another identity, even if that causes distress to his family, and Albert helps him with that. This odd couple then try to survive in a post-war world which is all rhetoric of gratitude towards the ‘poilus’ (the soldiers of WW1), but in practice has little kindness or compensation for them, and makes no effort to help them to reintegrate into society. So they embark upon a rather desperate con trick to make money, but they turn out to be nothing like as ruthless as their nemesis Pradelle proves to be with the war graves.

pierrelemaitreMuch of this story is true, but the author brings forth his meticulous research with a light touch. The characters and the situations flow with the ease, satire and excitement of a soap opera. But a soap opera that is more reminiscent of Balzac and Zola, with macabre moments, very dark humour and real cruelty, as well as rather beautifully written passages. A book which reminds us that wars can turn any of us into monsters, and that is consequences are prolonged and unsavoury. It’s a long book, but it just swept me along, made me growl and laugh (bitterly) and cry. Lemaitre really is a master storyteller.

MacLehose Press has already published two of Lemaitre’s crime novels (see my reviews here and here) and hopes to bring out a translation of this book too soon. I also had the pleasure of interviewing the author and was entranced with his answers.

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20 thoughts on “Pierre Lemaitre: Au revoir là-haut

  1. Marina Sofia – What a strong and well-taken point you make about readability. Why shouldn’t a novel draw the reader in? One can do that without insulting the reader’s intelligence. And I’m very glad that you enjoyed this novel. Something for me to add to my list.

    • Hopefully the translation will come out in 2014 or 2015 at the latest. And yes, Dickens or Balzac were pure soap-opera, weren’t they? And now they are considered classics.

  2. I’m definitely going to read this . I read Alex , which I quite liked ( not a huge crime fiction fan) but this sounds like something I would enjoy more .

    • He is a story teller and an entertainer… and if you can entertain readers with something as serious as WW1 and its aftermath, then you must be doing something right.

  3. I normally steer clear of the French literary prizes because all I hear about them are the ridiculous controversies. But your post got me very keen to try this one! I need something readable, and quite soon!

  4. Thank you for introducing Pierre Lemaitre. I wish I could read him in original, and Pablo Neruda too!

  5. Indeed, readability is strangely underrated in books! It’s one of the problems with most of the literary prizes, that books get in because they are ‘worthy’ or ‘intellectual’ – a major reason for why reader reviews have become so popular, I think. The ideal book (IMO) should be able to teach us something about the ‘human condition’, but it’ll only do that if it sucks us in to the experience of reading…

  6. sylviemarieheroux on said:

    I considered buying it online and decided to wait… I researched the author on the web. Read the comments/reviews in Lire and the Magazine littéraire… Saw the book in a couple of bookstores, picked up, enjoyed the weight of it in my hands… Thought “maybe some other time”… Your post made me buy it.

    • Bless you, Sylvie, what a lovely thing to say – I had no idea I would be the drop that filled your glass! (Not the straw that broke the camel’s back, that would be unflattering to both of us.) Look forward to hearing what your opinion of it is.

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  8. Leslie Davis on said:

    Have read and re-read Au revoir la-haut several times now. It’s very reminiscent of Celine’s great 14-18 war masterpiece Voyage au bout de la nuit. It was even written in Courbevoie (Celine’s birthplace!). I really think Lemaitre’s novel is destined to become one of the classics of Great War fiction. Your point about the difficulty of translating is very perceptive, especially since the term most frequently used by writers (and literary critics) describing that war is “incomprehensible”. Let’s face it, if we can’t understand the concept how on earth are we to translate the terms?

    • Another great classic War novel is Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ – which gives the German perspective on the First World War (and shows how soldiers of all countries felt ultimately betrayed, let down and haunted by the slaughter). And that too is perhaps not as well-known in the English-speaking world as it deserves to be (although the film adaptation was fairly well received in the States). That is the problem with translations, perhaps. I hope Lemaitre’s work will be translated well and be well received.

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  10. Jean-Paul DESHAYES, Literary translator on said:

    I do hope the English translation does justice to that excellent novel. Whoever translates this will need to know French extremely well as the book is full of colloquialisms, clichés, idioms, familiar words and makes extensive use the syntax of spoken French, etc. It is reminiscent of CELINE without the linguistic hysteria of CELINE’s style.

    Some instances from the first page:

    1. “ … morts depuis longtemps . De la guerre’.

    In standard French, “Mourir de” is followed by the cause of death such as mourir de chagrin/ d’un cancer, etc.. “Mourir de la guerre” is definitely a stylistic oddity, albeit a very original one. Will it be translated by “died OF the war” equally odd in English, although “die of grief/of cancer” is very common?

    Translating this as “in the war” ( = “à la guerre”) would not convey the deep and bitter irony of “de la guerre”.

    2. “les balles boches”: literally “kraut bullets.”

    3. “en avait vu un paquet (“un paquet” is familiar French for “a great many”) .

    From a syntactic point of view, the whole sentence (at the end of paragraph one) belongs to the register of spoken French.

    “In the course of four years, Albert had seen loads of them, guys killing themselves laughing when they got hit by a German bullet.”

    As a professional English to French translator, I am always curious to see how French novels (classics or contemporary) are translated into English. There are, for example, several translations of Flaubert’s MADAME BOVARY: except for one, I have found all the others rather disappointing.

    Let’s hope that “Au revoir, là-haut” [such a poignant title setting the tone of the whole novel, “ See you up there “ (i.e, “in heaven, my darling wife”)] will be as successful in Britain as it is in France.

  11. Jean-Paul Deshayes on said:

    I was delighted when I started reading AU REVOIR LÀ-HAUT, but I must confess that I had to force myself to get to the last page. Lemaître’s style is very good and he knows how to keep the suspense going. But I found that the story dragged on, the plot had too many unlikely twists, veering at times into the grotesque or the preposterous, especially regarding the former disfigured soldier who dons one mask after another, becomes a drug addict and ends up being run over by his father.
    Only the beginning is about the First World War: it is that part of the book which, in my view, is by far the best. If I were to read that book again, I would not go any further than chapter one.
    As a translator, I will be most interested to compare the English version with the French original. As I mentioned before, whoever has taken on the task of translating the book into English will have his/her work cut out.

    • Yes, it did feel at times like it was descending a bit into soap opera… and yet I was strangely fascinated by it. I thought it was a good reflection of the dissolution of a social order and the chaos which ensues, plus all the corruption/dehumanisation which follows. (Perhaps I was subconsciously comparing it with the fall of Communism in 1989 and the chaotic societies/years which followed).

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