#Eu27Project: France – Marie Darrieussecq

Marie Darrieussecq: Men (transl. Penny Hueston)

The original title in French Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes is from a famous quote by Marguerite Duras:

Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Beaucoup les aimer pour les aimer. Sans cela, ce n’est pas possible on ne peut pas les supporter.

[You have to love men a lot, love them so much in order to love them. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to put up with them.]

So that gives you a clue that this is not necessarily going to be a feminist treatise. Yet, although readers seem to find the first person narrator, French film star Solange, irritating, she strikes me as quite an independent, strong woman, who just happens to become smitten with a younger man. It’s a bit more complex than that, though, because her paramour, Kouhouesso, is a black man who has ambitions to direct a revamped version of The Heart of Darkness on the river Congo. All the clichés about l’amour fou (crazy love), gender and race are examined, although Solange herself seems unaware of the facile assumptions she makes.

I’m not sure why this book has received so much critical dissent. Yes, the first part of the book is all Hollywood froth, very easy to read on the surface, a bit like the gossip magazines.  This serves to make the contrast or gap between Lalaland and the African jungle all the wider. Solange has all the reactions one might expect to the ‘natives’, the insects, the primitive accommodation, although she so badly wants to make this work. Underneath the apparently banal interracial love story, there is a lot lurking: objectification, the attraction of ‘otherness’, construction of identity through gender, race and passion. Fascination with the other yet ultimately a lack of genuine curiosity and desire to embark upon the interior journey (on both sides). It is indeed a modern answer to The Heart of Darkness, written from a woman’s perspective.

There is an excellent review of the book by Compulsive Reader, but I can understand why many people found the story not very original or the characters at all likable. I flip-flopped a lot in my opinion as well: it is a hair’s breadth away from being silly, but I think it just stayed within the realm of the painfully dissecting scalpel.

The reason I chose it for my #EU27Project to represent France (although I will probably read and review other French authors as well) is because I think it says something about the way the EU countries view ‘the others’, the refugees spilling over the borders. Lip service to liberalism and humanity, rhetoric about helping and supporting, but beneath all of that: a lot of fear, stereotypes and excuses. (Incidentally, the English language cover could be said to be objectifying black men somewhat…)

Friday Fun: A Place We Once Called Home

This is something I wrote a long time ago, on a very different blog.

My whole life seems to consist of being really happy in some wonderful places – and then having to tear myself away from them.   I love exploring new places but I also like settling in, making those places my own, getting that intimate connection with them that can only come from repetition and routine.  When it’s time to move on, I am excited about the new adventures I will have, but I am also sad to leave a certain part of myself behind.  With each encounter with a different country and culture, I become richer in experience, but somehow also poorer when I leave. 

It’s difficult to explain – but it’s like my soul has been bereft to a certain extent.  I keep the experience locked up somewhere tight within and remember it with such delight from time to time.  But the experience is unrepeatable.  Even if I go back to that country, it will never feel the same again.  If you go back as a tourist to a country where you were once resident, it can be exhilarating as long as you don’t think about it too closely.  Or you can feel shut out, a stranger once more.  It will certainly never again feel like home.

Last week, I had the opportunity to return to our village in France and took some pictures to try and describe the charm of the location (bearing in mind that these pictures do not cover all the seasons, only a sunny day in February).

Our home in France for 4 1/2 years.
Our home in France for 4 1/2 years, complete with climbing tree for Zoe cat.
Our close from the main road.
Our close from the main road.
The field we passed on our walk to school, often full of ponys grazing.
The field we passed on our walk to school, often full of ponys grazing.
The orchard where we could pick plums, apples, pears and quince.
The orchard where we could pick plums, apples, pears and quince.
'We live in the countryside,' my boys used to tell visitors, 'You will smell a lot of natural fertiliser.'
‘We live in the countryside,’ my boys used to tell visitors, ‘You will smell a lot of natural fertiliser.’
The view facing the other way, towards the Alps.
The view facing the other way, towards the Alps.

Return to Favourite Authors: Simenon and Rankin

Christmas is also about the comfort of favourite authors, who are not going to let you down, no matter what. I turned to two ‘reliables’, each of whom I discovered at a different stage in my life: Simenon in secondary school, Ian Rankin when I first moved to the UK.

maigretdeadmanGeorges Simenon: Maigret’s Dead Man (transl. David Coward)

Maigret is humouring a paranoid matriarch in his office, when a man calls his direct line, in great fear for his life. Not entirely convinced by the man’s confusing story, the good inspector does send one of his men over to the bar where the man claims to be calling from. Alas, too late, the bird has flown. He calls again from somewhere else, and as Maigret and the reader follow the man from bar to café to bar, we start to wonder just what kind of a set-up this is. Then the man is found dead. Who was he and what was he afraid of?

Maigret sets the investigation in motion from his sick-bed initially, so we get to see more of his fellow officers, the prosecuting judge and the other police force that is so typical of the intricate French system. We also get to see a lot more of the patient, protective and discreet Madame Maigret. Above all, however, we are privy to the musings and gut instinct of Maigret himself, although the author does not always play fair. He withholds vital pieces of information and springs them upon us during the interrogation of suspects. It’s more complex and longer than the usual Maigret novels (which are usually of novella size) and there are hints of Simenon’s darker non-Maigret novels in the atmosphere.

The recent TV adaptation makes the links between the Picardie farm murders and the hunted person much clearer from the start, but loses a little in the psychological depth of the Slovakian criminal gang and Maigret’s handling of them.

This is a new translation of the novel, in the highly covetable remastered Penguin Classics edition. It sounds quite modern, without being jarring, and is perhaps slightly less word-for-word faithful than the 1950s translation by Jean Stewart.

ratherbedevilIan Rankin: Rather Be the Devil

Rebus is getting restless in his retirement: merely walking the dog and worrying about his health, even being in a relationship with forensic scientist Deborah Quant, is not quite enough to occupy his time. He reopens a cold case and talks about it to a former police officer who had been investigating it a few years back. When that man is found dead, Rebus becomes convinced that the case is somehow linked to the very current criminal gang turf wars and money-laundering cases that Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox are investigating.

This is an entertaining read, with the usual tussles between Siobhan and her former boss, plenty of laconic humour, and an uneasy sort of truce with Ger Cafferty, Rebus’s former nemesis.  Fox also emerges as a more complete and haunted character than I had previously given him credit for. The case is reasonably tangled and then untangled. However, there is one major reservation I have. If you can ignore the way in which Rebus (and his colleagues too) seem to ignore proper procedure and commit all sorts of illegalities (such as impersonating a police officer, walking off with case files and photocopying them etc. – all the unlikely scenarios which annoyed me about TV series such as ‘Marcella’, for instance), you will enjoy it. It is a suspension of disbelief too far for me: fun enough for a one-off, but I don’t think it will be plausible to see Rebus in a next outing.

However, the writing is as sharp and economical as usual. It’s just enough amount of detail to really convey the landscape, society and characters populating Edinburgh and Glasgow. A master class in crime writing, just like Simenon.

 

 

 

 

 

Friday Fun: Farewell, Ferney and Voltaire!

We leave this weekend. Here’s a pictorial goodbye to Ferney, Voltaire and a few of my favourite local places. I will now be offline for several weeks.

The Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne, from EPFL website.
The Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne, from EPFL website.
On the banks of Lake Divonne in autumn.
On the banks of Lake Divonne in autumn.
The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden of Vaulx
Spring on the lake.
Spring on the lake.
Voltaire's shady path, lined with trees planted by himself.
Voltaire’s shady path, lined with trees planted by himself. Apparently, Gogol carved his initials on one of these trees.
The more formal chateau gardens.
The more formal chateau gardens.
The main street of Ferney. The house on the corner, currently a hotel/restaurant, was built by Voltaire for his personal secretary.
The main street of Ferney. The house on the corner, currently a hotel/restaurant, Hotel de France, was built by Voltaire for his personal secretary. My dream job…
Knitted decorations for the Fete de Voltaire.
Knitted decorations for the Fete de Voltaire.
Weather watching from the bedroom window.
Weather watching over the Jura from the bedroom window.
I'll most likely never have such a glorious view from my house again.
I’ll most likely never have such a glorious view from my house again.
At any time of day or night.
At any time of day or night.

Thank you, France, Rhone-Alpes and Lake Geneva!

P1040005

 

 

Levels of Gentility in Crime Fiction

You know how quickly I devour crime fiction and that my preference is for the subversive, disturbing and relentlessly noir. However, quite a few my recent reads have been of a gentler persuasion, almost an old-fashioned feel. In descending order of ‘gentility’, may I introduce you to…

BVERYflatMargot Kinberg: B Very Flat

Margot is such a supportive, knowledgeable member of the crime-writing and reading community, plus I have a soft spot for novels with an academic setting, so I’d been planning to get this one for ages. Not easy to order outside the US, but I eventually got my paws on it (and am now waiting to meet Margot in person, so she can sign it for me).

Serena Brinkman is a talented violinist at Tilton University, a small but prestigious college on the East Coast. She truly seems to be the golden girl who has it all – but then death strikes on the night of a major music competition. A former detective, now professor of criminal justice at Tilton University, is asked to investigate the apparently accidental death a little further. We are firmly in Golden Age detective era type of fiction here, although there are all the modern accoutrements of student life nowadays (including PDAs and online gambling). What struck me was how very polite and nice all the characters seem – genteel, in other words (although, obviously, they can’t all be, since one of them at least is a murderer). Even the flawed ones, even when misunderstandings occur.  It’s a book for readers who like a puzzle and a minimum of gore.

BirdCageFrédéric Dard: Bird in a Cage (transl. David Bellos)

Dard was one of the most prolific crime writers in France (and that’s saying something, given that Simenon was also writing there). Best-known for his nearly 180 San-Antonio novels (think a more satirical and realistic Bond), he has also written over 100 standalone novels and shorter series, many of them under various pseudonyms (clearly, the publishers couldn’t keep up with him!).

This is a bittersweet novel with a perfect 1950s setting, which reminded me a little of Pascal Garnier. Albert returns to his old neighbourhood in Paris after his mother’s death (having spent several years in prison) and is captivated by a beautiful woman and her young child, whom he sees eating alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. He becomes involved in a very complicated and dubious story with the woman, her husband and the Midnight Mass for Christmas. A clever puzzle and a rather quiet, gentle man who is clearly being manipulated, although we are not quite sure how.

bloodonsnowJo Nesbø: Blood on the Snow (transl. Neil Smith)

I was struck at once by how similar this novel is to Bird in a Cage in terms of premise and feel (rather than style or plot). A professional fixer (with some moral scruples) is asked to ‘fix’ the wife of his boss, but starts to feel sorry for her. Falls a little in love. This is a much more brutal story, far less ambiguous than Dard, and Olav is not as genteel or well-spoken as Albert, but it is a quieter book, with an old-fashioned atmosphere which we’ve not hitherto experienced with Nesbø. Bet you weren’t expecting him to come smack-bang in the middle of this post!

AngelisAugusto De Angelis: The Hotel of the Three Roses (transl. Jill Foulston)

Another Pushkin Vertigo release, I had high hopes for this one, set in a boarding-house in Milan in 1919, written in the 1930s and filled to the brim with unreliable characters with a dodgy past. However, I found there were just too many characters, all lying with no compunction and very little concern about plausibility. There were just too many things happening, insufficient clarity and psychological motivation. This was gentility of the cold-nosed, snobbish variety, not even a smidgen of warmth or attempt to make me care about any of the characters. And, as for those creepy china dolls…!

Deadly-Harvest-Vis-6-copy1Michael Stanley: Deadly Harvest

This is not the Botswana of endless cups of Redbush tea and astute yet gentle musings of Alexander McCall Smith. But it remains, nevertheless, a polite, traditional society with respect for rank and the elderly, even though we are dealing with some pretty horrible realities. Under the ‘quaint’ umbrella of traditional African medicine, muti, we find a profoundly disturbing superstition and increasing use of human body parts. As young girls go missing and the communities are too scared to talk, our beloved rotund Detective Kubu supports his feisty new recruit, Samantha Khama, who wants to find out just what is going on. Politics, traditions, family ties, AIDS victims and reactions to HIV-infected children, plus strong characterisation all form a delightful and far more believable alternative narrative of modern Africa. The authors scratch beneath the surface of the beauty, charm and nostalgia that the British Empire still has for Africa, yet carefully avoid making the country or its people the villain of the piece. One of my favourite series set in Africa.

For a more comprehensive review of the book and an interview with the authors, see Crime Fiction Lover.

 

 

Police Procedurals in Three Countries

Serial killers of some description or another appeared in each of these three books – a trope which I have slowly grown weary of, but it was handled intelligently in each of the novels below and brought something fresh to the subgenre. However, what I found far more interesting were the obvious differences in approach to investigating a crime, reporting on it and even finding a resolution in the three countries and societies described here. [My own translations unless otherwise marked.]

klausvaterKlaus Vater: Am Abgrund – Berlin 1934

The serial killers here are in power. Berlin after Hitler’s rise to power, during a murky period of German history, when the SS and the SA (both Nazi supporters) are fighting for power between themselves, and the police is losing authority daily and its right pursue criminals according to legislation. During the construction of a tunnel for the S-Bahn in Berlin, an explosion kills several of the construction workers. A ‘non-aryan’ carpenter Leiblein is accused of provoking the explosion and is arrested. Hermann Kappe is a Kommissar with a lot of heart and ethical principles, and he soon realises that Leiblein is being made a scapegoat for a matter which the various political factions would like to see buried. As the lines between right and wrong, truth and cover-up, become increasingly blurred, it becomes clear that the power of the fist (or weapons) triumph over the power of law. In fact, law itself is being subverted by a new political regime keen to rid itself of any opposition. Kappe has many moments when he fears for himself and his family. He learns to compromise, to find small loopholes in a society which is becoming ever more frightening and inhuman. No happy outcome is possible, only temporary relief and terrifying uncertainty.

Without looking at them, [Kappe’s boss] told them: ‘According to a report from the Reich’s Ministry of Transport, Director Dr. Erich Klausener shot himself in his office earlier today. There is no police confirmation of this. The news came to us via the security services… It’s hard for me to believe them. Gentlemen, it’s clear to me that there is an entirely different tune being played here. The Führer is clearing out anyone who stands in his way: Klausener, von Schlicher and his wife, … and many more. I don’t know what to do anymore.

They waited for him to say something more. But he didn’t. Then he told them: ‘You can go now.’

sixfourHideo Yokoyama: Six Four (translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies)

In Japan, the police seems to be as much of an administrative morass as the great corporates. Officers are rotated between departments every few years, and Superintendent Yoshinobu Mikami finds himself moved from Criminal Investigations (specifically: murder) to Press Director in the Administrative Affairs department. Even worse, when he tries to create a more collaborative relationship with journalists, his efforts are thwarted by his superiors and decisions about what to reveal and what to hide are made above his head for reasons which are not even explained to him. The amount of political manoeuvring and the social nuances which need to be taken into account make the Japanese police force seem labyrinthine in comparison to its Western counterparts. Everything seems to be about preserving the reputation of the police and getting promoted.

Captain Tsujiuchi is on his ‘tour of duty’ from Tokyo in the prefectural HQ where Mikami works, but he has no real power. He isolates himself in his office and is kept far from any real problems by Mikami’s fellow officers.

The Prefecture D Police had been diligent in their cultivation of the man’s near-divine status. They reported favourable information and insulated him from everything that wasn’t good news. They devoted themselves to ensuring that his time in the Prefectural HQ was spent in comfort. He was kept free from germs, sheltered from the troubles and worries of the local police, treated instead like a guest at a spa, and when he returned to Tokyo it would be with pockets full of expensive gifts from local companies. I enjoyed my time here, surrounded by the warmth of the local community and the officers serving it. They would feel relief as he recited the formulaic words during his departing speech, then, hardly leaving time for them to gather breath, they would begin to gather information on the personality and interests of the incoming captain.

tempsglacFred Vargas: Temps Glaciaires

And then we come to France, itself no stranger to the stranglehold of bureaucracy.  However, as in all countries with a Latin influence, rules are made to be broken or reinterpreted, and Comissaire Adamsberg pushes the boundaries of what is permissible more than most. At a certain point, he is in a rush to get to a certain place in the countryside and is pulled over by the traffic police. He tries to explain that it’s an emergency, but the two gendarmes (a different branch of the police than the detectives, and suffering a bit of a chip on their shoulder from being regarded as inferior) seem to take great pleasure in throwing the rule book at him:

‘I forgot to put my beacon on. I’ll come tomorrow and we’ll sort all that out…’
‘Ah, no, not tomorrow. First of all, because it’s Sunday, and secondly, because it will be too late.’
‘Too late for what?’
‘For testing your alcohol levels…’
‘I repeat: it was an emergency.’
‘Sorry, sir, your trajectory was a bit uncertain in the curves.’
‘I was just driving fast, that’s all. Emergency, how many more times do I need to say it?’
‘Blow here, Commissaire.’

In this book, Adamsberg relies so much on his legendary intuition and continues to pursue a line of enquiry regarded as tenuous by Danglard and some others in his team, that he is almost faced with a mutiny. When he insists on going to Iceland to pursue some leads, his team is divided between those sceptical but loyal to their boss, and those who openly disagree with him. Yet Adamsberg does not pull rank on them and punish the disbelievers: his is a democratic approach, even when he is at the receiving end of distrust. He can even forgive serious mistakes, as one team member discloses rather more than they should have to a suspect. But he does make sure that they realise their mistake and never repeat them.

I have to remind you all that no private information about any of our team members should be given out to a stranger. Not even if he has gone for a piss or to feed the cat. Not even if the stranger is sympathetic, cooperative or frightened.

So there we have it: three very different approaches to policing, one of them is set in a historical context, three insights into different cultures. The world of Scandinavian, British and American policing, which we are all so familiar with, suddenly seems very much easier, doesn’t it?

 

 

Friday Fun: Maisons, Maisons, Mansions

In other words, still more inspirational houses that once belonged to writers and artists in France. Most of them have been turned into museums, although the last one has had an interesting fate.

Alexandra David Neel, who introduced Tibetan Buddhism to France, lived and practised here. From dignes-les-bains.fr
Alexandra David Neel, who introduced Tibetan Buddhism to France, lived and practised here. From dignes-les-bains.fr
Anatole France is not widely read nowadays, but was a Nobel prize winner back in the 1920s. From stcyr-hommes-et-patrimoine.fr
Anatole France is not widely read nowadays, but was a Nobel prize winner back in the 1920s. From stcyr-hommes-et-patrimoine.fr
Picasso's last house on the Cote d'Azure. From nicematin.com
Picasso’s last house on the Cote d’Azure. From nicematin.com
Renoir's home in the south of France. From cagnes-tourisme.com
Renoir’s home in the south of France. From cagnes-tourisme.com
And how can one ever forget Monet's house and garden? From cape-tourisme.fr
And how can one ever forget Monet’s house and garden? From cape-tourisme.fr

Just in case you are thinking that these are all too good to be true (certainly without a talented gardener or two), below is a sad story of aspirations and loss.

The house that Francoise Sagan won and lost. From demain-ma-maison.com
The house that Franoise Sagan won and lost. From demain-ma-maison.com

The Manoir du Breuil near Calvados in Normandy belonged to Lucien Guitry, actor and father of the slightly more famous Sascha Guitry. Whenever Françoise Sagan spent the summer at Deauville in Normandy, she would look covetously at this house perched on a hill and occasionally be able to rent it for a few weeks. Then, one night in August 1958, she won a huge sum at roulette and the very next day she purchased this property.

Unfortunately, there was no happy ending. The house required major renovation works, particularly after it was damaged by fire, but Sagan was a compulsive gambler, buyer of fancy sports cars, drinker and drug addict, so there was never enough money left over. A huge backdated tax bill was the final nail in the coffin. She was forced to sell the house, although the generous friend who bought it allowed her to continue living in part of it until her death. The house has now been completely remodelled by the current owner, the CEO of Eurotunnel.