I need to catch up with myself and my reading, but older son is now on holiday and there is still all the end of term stuff to do for younger son. So these will be three rather short reviews of books I’ve recently read.
The debut novel of a hugely talented young French writer – he was 19 or so when he wrote this and is now already on his fourth or fifth novel, aged only about 26. If you liked Karim Miské’s portrayal of multicultural Paris, you will find an even more brutal portrayal of life in the Parisian banlieues (or ghettos) in this book. It’s a very short book, describing the rapid descent of a young man from petty wrongdoings to more serious crime – and is representative of a whole generation of youngsters in Paris.
Abraham (known as Abe) is a young man of the streets, whose family came over from the Maghreb. His mother died when he was very young and his father has buried himself in his apartment, watching TV and barely noticing the comings and goings of his son. Together with his childhood friend Goran (from former Yugoslavia) and some other mates (Jewish, black, North African – a rainbow of deprivation), Abe hangs out in his neighbourhood and around Belleville, Pigalle and even the Latin Quarter, smoking joints, doing some minor drug dealing, fighting in bars and spending the occasional night at the police station. Then, one night, they discover an illegal gambling den at the back of a bar and decide to hold it up to steal the money. The author describes so well how the youngsters egg each other on, how fearful they really are, how they are overcome by physical nausea at their deeds, but then gradually develop a thicker hide. As they run away with their meagre earnings, they miss out on opportunities to start a new life or fall in love, and just fall deeper and deeper into a hole of heroin dealing and addiction, procurement of pistols and self-defence turning into aggression. A sobering and very noir read, which I would love to see translated into English.
One French writer that is being translated into English, thanks to the efforts of Gallic Books, is Pascal Garnier. In fact, he is almost achieving more posthumous cult status in the English-speaking world than in his native country, where it’s quite difficult to find his books in libraries or bookshops (other than in collectors’ editions).
Boxes is his seventh novel to be published by Gallic. It is also the last one he wrote (it was published after his death) and, to my mind, it’s not one of his best. It feels oddly autobiographical. Brice, the middle-aged main character, is an illustrator moving out of the city to a small village in the Ardèche region (which is where the author died in 2010). His wife Emma convinced him to buy an old house in need of extensive renovation, but she has now disappeared somewhere abroad and left him to complete the house move on his own. It gradually becomes clear that Emma has most probably died but Brice is in denial and eagerly awaits her return. In the meantime, he wanders around aimlessly, avoids unpacking the boxes and gets to know his eccentric neighbours, Most notable amongst these is a child-like woman called Blanche, who says that Brice reminds her of her deceased father, and who develops a rather unhealthy dependency on the newcomer. The description of her bringing packet soup as a treat for her new neighbour is grotesque and very funny.
No one can surpass Garnier when he describes the slow, inevitable descent of a person into solitude, madness, alcoholism and despondency. He also examines aspects of co-dependency and the claustrophobia of village life. As in all of his books, he takes characters that are inherently strange, somehow lacking in empathy or moral fibre, living on the margins of society and turns the screws on their suffering until they reach breaking point. Garnier is also a master at the gradual build-up of menace. Yet, overall, this book didn’t work for me (or at least, not as well as his earlier ones, The Panda Theory or How’s the Pain?) and I think this is because Blanche evoked not pity or sympathy (as previous Garnier characters have done), but simply annoyed me.
Finally, after all of these hard-hitting reads (and the middle-aged crisis reads of my preceding review post), I needed something lighter. So I turned to an old favourite, Muriel Spark, and reread Loitering with Intent (also counts as #TBR12). In many ways, Muriel Spark pokes fun at the self-introspection and ‘death of the author’ literary theories of French writers such as Roland Barthes, so it’s very suitable that she should get a review here together with two French authors who write in the first person but are not really autobiographical.
This is meta-fun meta-fiction about a would-be writer, Fleur Talbot, set ‘in the middle of the twentieth century’. Fleur is working on her first novel but needs to earn some money, so she takes on a job as a secretary to pompous snob Sir Quentin Oliver, who runs an Autobiographical Association for well-heeled individuals who have more ego than sense (and all believe they ‘have a book in them’). With tongue firmly in cheek and her usual barbed wit, Spark leads us a merry minuet of ins and outs when life starts imitating art, or Sir Oliver’s actions start to mirror those in Fleur’s novel. Or do they? This time I realised that Fleur is far more of an unreliable narrator than I had previously thought. The author mocks her just as much as the other characters, although she does show some affection for the doddery Lady Edwina, Sir Quentin’s long-suffering mother. This is Jane Austen with a good round of alcohol in her and a tongue that takes no prisoners. It is also full of interesting observations about the self-absorption of writers, as well as the joys and challenges of the writing process itself.