French in June and #20Books: Maylis de Kerangal

Book 6/20: Maylis de Kerangal: Painting Time, transl. Jessica Moore, Maclehose Press, 2021.

I read this book in parallel in French and English, because I had such a wonderful time doing this with her previous book to be translated by Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (there is also a US translation by Sam Taylor, called The Heart). She appears to be the kind of writer who develops a passion for a niche topic of research (organ transplants, building a bridge, becoming a chef, or decorative or trompe l’oeil painting) and then makes a novel out of it. In some cases it works (I found Mend the Living very moving and lyrical), but less so in others. For me, Painting Time (Un monde à portée de main) did not quite take flight and soar.

It’s the story of Paula Karst, a young Frenchwoman, who realises she is not quite good enough to be a ‘proper’ painter, and therefore chooses to go instead to the ‘trompe l’oeil’ master class in Brussels. Here she not only immerses herself in the highly specialised art of imitating materials such as wood, marble, minerals, even animal realm, but also befriends the taciturn, somewhat mysterious Jonas, who becomes her flatmate, and the tall, stroppy former nightclub bouncer Kate from Scotland. We follow Paula’s steep learning curve, the hard work but also the unlearning that she has to do, so that she can see every object in a new light and take nothing for granted. She ends up appreciating the man-made objects more than the natural ones, because of all the effort that goes into them.

What follows then is a sort of meandering tale of Paula’s post-graduation freelance career, moving from one house-painting job to another, taking in some film sets in Cinecitta in Rome and in Moscow along the way, and then ending in Lascaux, where she is involved in the task of recreating the famous cave paintings for a new generation of tourists (without damaging the fragile precious heritage). I can see that the author draws parallels between a coming-of-age story and mastering one’s craft, that the fakery of the art Paula engages in, the ‘creating the illusion of reality’ aspect of her work, raises questions about what is ‘real’, what is ‘unreal’, about falling for appearances – and how that sometimes is a good thing. Also, about how we attribute value to things in general and art in particular.

However, I could have done without the in-between bits. The scenes in the book which really captured my imagination, and where the language really came into its own, were the ones where she is learning her craft in Brussels, especially when painting her end-of-year project, and then the final chapters at the caves of Lascaux. Everything else felt like filler and the characters never really came to life for me: her friends Kate and Jonas just seemed shadowy or flat, and so their friendship never felt entirely plausible or meaningful. She also tries to cram too much into this book: the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a bit of a rant about global nomadic freelancers, a desultory, passionless love affair.

This time the American edition kept the same translator – but what were they thinking with that cover?

I think this lack of attachment readers might feel for the characters is due in large part to de Kerangal’s idiosyncratic style, which doesn’t always translate well into English. She loves her long sentences, with endless clauses and subclauses, often zooming both in and out on a subject in the space of a single paragraph. Her long technical passages can become tedious if you are not particularly interested in the subject; not even her effort to equate it with a writer’s creative process can salvage it. At the same time, she is very deliberate in creating passages where the factual becomes poetical, where she tries to breathe lyrical life into those details, an intriguing mix of detachment and purple prose. This often happens when she describes someone talking passionately about something, for example, when Jonas finally loses his reserve and describes at length the layers of rocks and soil in a quarry. Or in the final section, when they come face to face with the real prehistoric paintings, a twenty-thousand old fish, and realise how transient human life, with all its violence and catastrophes, is on earth.

Original in FrenchTranslation
Lepoisson au-dessus de leur tête révélait la mémoire accumulée au
fond des océans, l’érosion des calcaires, le déplacement des rivières,
la migration des hommes, des durées qui coexistaient avec l’état de
choc du pays, la colère, la tristesse, les chaînes d’information
continue qui écopaient le temps à longueur de journée pendant que
les deux terroristes poursuivaient leur cavale mortifère : il connectait
l’histoire du monde et leur vie humaine.
The fish above their heads reveals the memory accumulated at the bottom of the oceans, the erosion of the limestone, the movement of the rivers, the migration of humans, these lengths of time that coexist with the state of shock their country is in now, the anger, sorrow, the twenty-four-hour news channels that bail out time all day long while the two terrorists continue on their deadly run; it connects the history of the world to their fragile human life.

I expected to like this book far more than Mend the Living (after all, I appreciate and think I understand art more than the minutiae of heart transplants), but in the end it did not quite gel for me. However, I have another of her books, an earlier one, called Corniche Kennedy, which is about a group of young friends growing up and being daredevils in Marseille. Let’s see if she manages to capture the atmosphere of that city as well as my beloved Izzo!

Coincidentally, I was concurrently reading Long Live Great Bardfield (available from Persephone Press), the autobiography of Tirzah Greenwood, Eric Ravilious’ wife and a talented artist in her own right. She too seemed to display the lack of confidence in her work and relationships that Paula has too. Tirzah was modest about her achievements, but she is a funny and keen observer of the egos and pretentions of their bohemian friends. She ended up specialising quite a bit in woodcuts and hand marbled papers, while she raised three children and tried to be modern and understanding about her husband’s affairs. Perhaps de Kerangal’s Paula is safer staying single and emotionally detached!

13 thoughts on “French in June and #20Books: Maylis de Kerangal”

  1. I was transfixed by Mend the Living when I read it some years ago, and also enjoyed Birth of a Bridge. But judging from the passage you quote in both French and English, if I’m going to attempt this one, it ought to be in French. Have I got the necessary stick-ability, and is it worth the effort? You seem to suggest not to the latter.

    1. There are plenty of people who loved it and the newspaper reviews have been very positive, so maybe I was just in a grumpy mood or had too high expectations. But an ornate literary style does not necessarily make a successful book, to my mind.

  2. Ah, that’s a shame… I adored Mend the Living, partly for de Kerangel’s lyrical prose (beautifully translated by Jessica Moore) and partly for the emotional investment in the characters (who were so well portrayed). Like you, I’m interested the artistic process and craft, but your very balanced review of this novel means I’ll probably skip it!

    1. I now feel a bit mean – and, to be fair, quite a lot of people loved it, the reviews were very positive overall, so maybe I just expected too much?

  3. There seems such potential with this book, Marina Sofia, and I can see how you’d be drawn in by the discussion of learning the craft. Sometimes, though, a book just isn’t what you’d hoped it would be…

    1. Shame really, it had some very promising bits in it, but just didn’t quite cohere (for me). But I’ve had other books that I said were only good in parts and other readers completely loved them…

  4. I preferred this to the mend the living I saw it as a loss of a dream at the heart of the book is paint sets art it is but it is a come down to from Fine artist she’d want to be

  5. You’ve hit on what I found off-putting here and in Mend the Living: the long sentences full of unnecessary technical vocabulary. I did love the section that goes deeper into Lascaux, but I wanted more interaction between the characters. I probably prefer the other novel of de Kerangal’s that I’ve read: The Cook.

  6. Now I’ve read and really enjoyed both! Ultimately I preferred Mend the Living, I think, which was more poetic in its use of the technical language. I found the three students mostly superfluous in Painting Time, it’s all about the art and what it is disguising – like the tired Cinecitta behind the scenes, which contrasts so with the wonderful Lascaux parts.

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