Bastille Day and Some Reading Recommendations

Bastille Day has dawned nice and sunny, but clouds are on their way in, thunderstorms are predicted, so the fireworks this evening may be a trifle muffled and damp.

For this last 14th July that I am spending in France, I thought I would bring together all of my favourite early French writers and poets in a long, long list. Hopefully, at least a few of them might be new suggestions for you.

  • Young Rabelais, from france-pittoresque.com
    Young Rabelais, from france-pittoresque.com

    Rabelais is like Chaucer: bawdy, entertaining, and yet with a lot of depth. In the rollicking adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel he demonstrates his optimistic belief in the innate good nature of humans and the value of education:

‘parce que les gens libres, bien nés, bien éduqués, vivant en bonne société, ont naturellement un instinct, un aiguillon qu’ils appellent honneur qui les pousse toujours à agir vertueusement et les éloigne du vice’

Translation: ‘men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour.’

  • Only known picture of Villon, from alchetron.com
    Only known picture of Villon, from alchetron.com

    François Villon is the original bad boy of French literature: a tear-away, a vagabond, convicted of assault and robbery, frequently banished, yet writing assiduously through all this. Reminds me a little of Christopher Marlowe.

Je connois bien mouches en lait,
Je connois à la robe l’homme,
Je connois le beau temps du laid,
Je connois au pommier la pomme,
Je connois l’arbre à voir la gomme,
Je connois quand tout est de mêmes,
Je connois qui besogne ou chomme,
Je connois tout, fors que moi-mêmes.

Translation: I know flies in milk
I know the man by his clothes
I know fair weather from foul
I know the apple by the tree
I know the tree when I see the sap
I know when all is one
I know who labors and who loafs
I know everything but myself.

Incidentally, there is a rather brilliant novella ‘Villon’s Wife’ by Dazai Osamu, about a ne’er-do-well Japanese novelist and his long-suffering wife, which seems to illustrate the nature of ‘genius’ and its self-justifications really well.

  • The young Marquise.
    The young Marquise.

    Mme de Sévigné is perhaps to blame for the cult of motherhood: left a widow at an early age, she devoted herself entirely to her children and wrote them the most loving, concerned, nagging yet also witty, vivacious and observant letters. She reminds me of Moominmamma, always calm, unflappable, generous and imaginative, but with a dry sense of humour.

Ideal beauty is a fugitive which is never located.

I dislike clocks with second-hands; they cut up life into too small pieces.

We like so much to talk of ourselves that we are never weary of those private interviews with a lover during the course of whole years, and for the same reason the devout like to spend much time with their confessor; it is the pleasure of talking of themselves, even though it be to talk ill.

  • louiselabeLouise Labé was that rarity: a 16th century female poet of non-aristocratic origin (her father was a ropemaker in Lyon), well-educated, multilingual, equally talented in sports and in literature. She ran a literary salon in Lyon and there are rumours that she was a courtesan. I suspect that means she slept with whoever she pleased when she pleased. Her poetry is frank, unashamedly feminine and deceptively simple, avoiding the flamboyant artificial flourishes of her period. She reminds me of Emily Dickinson or Emily Brontë.

Je vis, je meurs ; je me brûle et me noie ;
J’ai chaud extrême en endurant froidure :
La vie m’est et trop molle et trop dure.
J’ai grands ennuis entremêlés de joie.

Tout à un coup je ris et je larmoie,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j’endure ;
Mon bien s’en va, et à jamais il dure ;
Tout en un coup je sèche et je verdoie.

Ainsi Amour inconstamment me mène ;
Et, quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me trouve hors de peine.

Puis, quand je crois ma joie être certaine,
Et être au haut de mon désiré heur,
Il me remet en mon premier malheur.

Translation: I live, I die, I burn, I drown
I endure at once chill and cold
Life is at once too soft and too hard
I have sore troubles mingled with joys

Suddenly I laugh and at the same time cry
And in pleasure many a grief endure
My happiness wanes and yet it lasts unchanged
All at once I dry up and grow green

Thus I suffer love’s inconstancies
And when I think the pain is most intense
Without thinking, it is gone again.

Then when I feel my joys certain
And my hour of greatest delight arrived
I find my pain beginning all over once again.

  • Voltaire. How could I avoid the patriarch of the neighbouring village? He was at times an insufferable know-it-all, a born meddler, who could not sit still. But his intentions were honourable and he was so progressive for his time. His world-weary, sometimes cynical pronouncements about human weaknesses and the opium of religion have shaped so much of subsequent French writing.

Zadig dirigeait sa route sur les étoiles… Il admirait ces vastes globes de lumière qui ne paraissent que de faibles étincelles à nos yeux, tandis que la terre, qui n’est en effet qu’un point imperceptible dans la nature, paraît à notre cupidité quelque chose de si grand et de si noble. Il se figurait alors les hommes tels qu’ils sont en effet, des insectes se dévorant les uns les autres sur un petit atome de boue.

Translation: Zadig made his way amongst the stars… He admired those vast globes of light which to our eyes seemed to be mere feeble sparks, while Earth, which is indeed an insignificant blob in nature, seems to our covetous gaze to be so big and so important. And that’s how he saw humans themselves: insects devouring each other on a lump of clay.

Voltaire and Mme du Chatelet, probably an apocryphal painting, from weblogs.senecacollege.ca
Voltaire and Mme du Chatelet, probably an apocryphal painting, from weblogs.senecacollege.ca

Besides, I adore Voltaire’s ‘marriage of true minds’ with Mme du Chatelet. At her death (giving birth to another man’s child), he wrote: “It is not a mistress I have lost but half of myself, a soul for which my soul seems to have been made.”

 

Vive la France! Some Reading for Bastille Day

What better way to celebrate 14th of July, the Day of the Fall of the Bastille, than with some French fiction? I’ve picked three very different French writers for you, who are perhaps not quite household names (yet), especially outside their home country.  Each one has a very different style and approach to literature and life in general. Their books have been translated into English, but there are many more I could have recommended who are not yet available in translation. More’s the pity!

DelphineEng1) Delphine de Vigan: Nothing Holds Back the Night – Bloomsbury (transl. George Miller)

This is perhaps the closest to what you might expect from French fiction – moody, complex, eloquent and philosophical. It is somewhere between memoir and fiction: the autobiographical account (with embellishments and multiple interpretations) of the author’s childhood and, in particular, a portrait of her beautiful, fragile and troubled mother. A book that explores not just mental health issues and depression, family history and myth-making, but also whether we can ever truly help someone, as well as a meditation on the nature of memory, of how we construct our lives, our truths and semi-truths. Infused with some of Colette’s lyricism, yet analytical and even clinical at times, it is a book which startled, shocked and moved me deeply. I’ve reviewed it in the context of ‘bad mothers’ earlier this year. Currently available as an e-book, the paperback version will be published on the 31st of July.

Nicolas2) Goscinny (text) and Sempé (illustrator): Nicholas (Le petit Nicolas) – Phaidon (transl. Anthea Bell)

Absolutely enchanting, nostalgic trip down memory lane, when classrooms still had blackboards and chalk and children were allowed to play outside on a vacant lot. Goscinny( of Asterix and Obelix fame) captures the voice of a seven-year-old with great accuracy and charm. Nicolas and his merry band of friends set out with the best of intentions, but somehow always end up doing something naughty. A mix of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Just William, set in 1950/60s France, there are plenty of witty subtleties which will appeal particularly to adult readers. However, my children loved the books too, as well as the cartoon series and films. Unpretentious, laugh-out-loud fun with a minimum of moralizing, the books in the original language are also great for improving your French.

 

3) DaviBielberg-Project_cover_200x300d Khara: The Bleiberg Project – Le French Book (transl. Simon John)

Are you afraid that French literature is too ornate stylistically, too obscure or quirky in subject matter? Here is something refreshingly punchy and action-filled, but thought-provoking, to whet your appetite. It’s hard to do justice to the complex storyline, but this thriller blends memories of World War II atrocities with an account of a present day menace and manhunt. Many of the usual elements of international conspiracy are added in: an all-powerful global team, ruthless killers, betrayal of the principles of science… there are even sci-fi elements and biological experiments.  Yet the cocktail is served in a fresh and exciting way. I’ve written a review of this book on the Crime Fiction Lover website, as well as conducted  an interview with this popular young writer. The book will now be available in paperback from the 15th of July, courtesy of the hard-working independent publisher Le French Book. Since this is the first book in a trilogy, we hope that the next two translations are on their way soon

 

As for me, after a rain-soaked first week of the holidays, I just hope this weekend stays dry for the multiple planned fireworks displays! Bonne fête!

Happy Bastille Day!

 

Not far from where I live is the Chateau de Voltaire, where the great man lived for about 20 years, when he was banished from Paris and Geneva for his inability to put up and shut up.  Voltaire was also imprisoned twice in the Bastille, so today’s celebrations of the Fall of the Bastille would have gladdened his heart.  I hope the weather holds and the fireworks, dancing, music and theatre will take place as planned in the grounds of his estate.  He would have rejoiced to see children playing, couples flirting and sipping champagne, poetry being recited down the shadey paths. After all, he is not only the champion of social justice, tolerance and anti-mumbo-jumbo, but also the man who said:

Let us read and let us dance – two amusements that will never do any harm to the world.

 

If you are an admirer of French philosophy and literature and want to celebrate the 14th of July with fiction, here are some recently-released English translations or  novels set in France which you might enjoy. It has often been said that French literature and French films are an acquired taste for English-speaking audiences, but the mix below is a really painless introduction:

1) Sylvie Granotier: The Paris Lawyer

Sylvie Granotier is a former actress now turned full-time writer of thrillers, well-respected in France.  You can find a full review of this interesting, atypical crime fiction novel on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

2) Fred Vargas

This is the pseudonym of a French historian and archaelogist and I have probably mentioned her before (and will do again).  Her crime fiction books are always surprising, unusual, with historical and supernatural element, always unsettling me (in a good way).  She has two series – the Commissaire Adamsberg that more closely resemble police procedurals, and the Three Evangelists, about three friends who share a house. If you don’t mind reading books out of order, then ‘Seeking Whom He May Devour’ and ‘Have Mercy on Us All’ are probably good ones to start with.

 

3) Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue

A debut novel by a Welsh/Canadian writer but set on the Côte d’Azure, this is a delightful cosy mystery and romp through pâté de foie gras and champagne for breakfast, cross-cultural misunderstandings and glamorous locations.  I will have a full review of it next week on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

4) Janet Hubbard: Champagne- The Farewell

Another one for foodie and drink fans, this is essentially manor house mystery set in the Champagne region of France. When an attractive French magistrate and a dynamic NYPD detective find themselves thrown together to solve a murder at a mutual friend’s wedding, sparks are bound to fly!

5) Muriel Barbery: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

This has been a runaway bestseller in France since it first came out in 2006, but the English translation has not done as well.  It is a controversial book, with not much in the way of plot, except the friendship between the concierge of an apartment building and a twelve-year old girl, both alienated, over-sensitive souls.  It’s the kind of book you either love or you hate, full of literary and philosophical allusions, yet not pretentious.  Definitely worth a try!