It doesn’t always have to be chateaux. I would be quite happy with these ‘little’ gems.
Soon to become even more aspirational and unattainable to Brits, these French houses make me dream.
Leila Slimani: Chanson Douce – Lullaby (trans. Sam Taylor)
I was delighted when I heard that a young woman of Moroccan origin had won the Goncourt Prize in 2016 for a novel about domestic life, even though I had not read it yet. This is because the most prestigious literary prize in France is often given to middle-aged white men writing about worthy and very earnest subjects (usually the Second World War). So it was fun to imagine the mysognistic, rather pompous Goncourt brothers turning in their grave.
Since then, I have read the prize-winning book in both French and English (although I still have to read Slimani’s first book Dans le jardin de l’ogre) and have heard mixed reactions to it, particularly in the English-speaking world. I think there are two reasons for that. First, the way it has been marketed as a novel of suspense, a thriller, the next Gone Girl (you should be ashamed of yourself, Daily Telegraph). Secondly, the deceptively simple style, which can come across as rather flat, particularly in translation.
So let me tackle the first issue. There is no suspense. We know from the first sentence that the children have died. We know by the end of the first few paragraphs that the nanny has done it. The rest of the book is about understanding what led up to it, but not a thriller, so it is not about getting clear closure or simple cause and effect.
Myriam and Paul are an average bourgeois couple with two young children, both working, both trying to make a go of combining career and family in Paris in a flat that is probably slightly too small. They hire a day nanny, Louise, to look after the children and at first she seems perfect: small, neat, prim, always available, always patient. But Louise has a lonely life and is far too involved in her employers’ affairs. In such cases, it is too simple to point to mental illness or a single cause for the crime. In fact, as in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone (which has a similar structure of starting with the outcome), there may be a main reason but there are many contributing factors and there are no clearcut answers. This book poses more questions than it answers, with the result that many readers complain that they thought it ended too abruptly or that there was a chunk missing. All of the people in the book whose lives have intersected with Louise’s, however tangentially, feel that if they’d done something differently, this tragedy might not have happened, but in fact there is nothing to indicate that this would be true. There is the inescapable sense of Greek tragedy and fate, of Moira, about it all. A young man who had been looked after as a child by Louise realises:
.. what he first felt earlier, when the policewoman told them, was not shock or surprise but an immense and painful relief. A feeling of jubilation, even. As if he’d always know that some menace had hung over him, a pale, sulphurous, unspeakable menace… Fate had decreed that the calamity would strike elsewhere.
Furthermore, the book is not about whodunnit or even whydunnit, but about issues of class, social divisions, parental pressures, conflicted maternal sentiments, loneliness and fear of abandonment. The countless minute humiliations, anxieties and cruel blows of fate that Louise is subjected to (from the tax office hounding her to the rotten shower cubicle to the well-intentioned but insensitive treatment by her employers) would damage even a stronger person. Add to that her dissatisfaction with her own family, her estrangement from her daughter and the way she used to be mercilessly teased by her deceased husband about her job, which is only fit for ‘illegal foreigners’. Her job isolates her still further, as she has no one but the children to talk with, and the playground nannies’ support network does not apply to her, since she is indeed one of the few white French women doing the job. Above all, Louise is a victim o her own aspirations to be a good bourgeois housewife and mother: she perceives Paul and Myriam initially as the perfect family and cannot forgive them for not living up to that ideal.
The second, stylistic issue does owe something to the translation. As with Japanese books, I have noticed that when German or French books are written in a very unadorned style and then translated into English, they can sound a bit too bare, almost trite. Slimani admits that she was deliberately following the tradition of Camus and Marguerite Duras, aiming for a very simple style. ‘When the thoughts and concepts are confusing and complex, you need a very simple style or else you will overwhelm the reader.’ This is the transparent style of allowing words and deeds to speak for themselves rather than going too deep inside a character’s motivation (think Camus’ L’Étranger or Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale). The very opposite of the voluble, ornate style of the Spanish and Italian (or even Norwegian) authors who have recently become popular. So perhaps she is counter-fashion at the moment. Yet still winning all the prizes and recognition.
If I could live anywhere in Paris, and money were no object, I would choose Montmartre, despite the tourist hordes. The endless steps and steep roads would keep me fit, and there are still many quiet picturesque corners if you know where to look. Plus oh, the historical artistic associations! Of course, in the 19th century Montmartre was anything but posh and expensive: it was a scrappy little suburb full of rebellious smallholders (marking the start of the revolutionary Paris Commune in 1871), poor working class people, bars and cabarets. Artists flocked there because it was cheap and provided an excellent spot for people-spotting.
After four months of #EU27Project, I have to admit I have not been the hardest- working reviewer. I have only linked to six books in total (and two of those are from the same country, France, while the rest are : Germany, Czechia, Ireland and the Netherlands), so in reality only 5 of the 27 countries have been represented in 4 months. At this rate, I have little chance of finishing this project this year – but, unlike some politicians, I never thought it was going to be an easy and quick process, so I’m allowing myself time to continue this project next year.
However, I’m pleased to say that other book bloggers have been far busier than me, so, since my last update in March, we have moved from 16 reviews to 41.
France is the biggest mover, from 0 in the first batch to 6 reviews in the current one. Susan Osborne reviews two very different types of books: Marie Suzan’s poignant Her Father’s Daughter and the lighter French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain. Kate Jackson reviews a book by Sebastian Japrisot, one of my favourite French crime writers, while Karen from Booker Talk considers a contemporary crime novel Hell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé. I have also reviewed two French books, the not quite satisfactory Men by Marie Darrieussecq and the dark but very funny and musical Les harmoniques by Marcus Malte.
Austria is also a popular choice for us book bloggers (a trend which I heartily approve!). It already featured in the first batch and has notched up an additional five reviews, although, to be fair, three of those are for short stories or novellas by Arthur Schnitzler by Jonathan: Late Fame, The Spring Sonata and A Confirmed Bachelor. Like Chekhov, Schnitzler was a doctor as well as a writer, and very much concerned with the human psyche. He describes perfectly the darkness in the Viennese soul at the turn of the 20th century (and not only then). Kate reviews a book set in the same period, Leo Perutz’ The Master of the Day of Judgement, Susan reviews one of my favourite recent reads, Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist, with a guest appearance from Sigmund Freud.
Reviews from the Netherlands continue to trickle in. Karen attempts The Evenings, but does she like it any more than Lizzy did in the first two months of the project? Meanwhile, Susan found The Boy by Wytske Versteeg deeply unsettling. Ireland also features with two new reviews, a new one for The Glorious Heresies, which makes it the most popular book so far (3 reviews in total), and Anne Enright’s The Green Road.
The remaining countries featured in the selection of March and April have been: Norway, represented by Anne Holt – Norway is not in the EU, but we will leave that link there anyway; Denmark with Dorthe Nors’ Mirror Shoulder Signal, Poland with Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, Czech Republic or Czechia with Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains. The French might take exception with Marguerite Yourcenar representing Belgium rather than France, but that was Jonathan’s choice and that country is rather under-represented.
After a strong start in the first batch of reviews, Germany only managed one review in this round, a lesser-known Heinrich Böll oeuvre.
So what will the next two months bring? Personally, I intend to read more in this category. Perhaps two or three in May? I am currently reading the road-trip book by Andrzej Stasiuk (Poland), and will move on to poems from Malta and Pessoa’s pseudo-diary The Book of Disquiet (Portugal). But, as we all know, my plans for reading don’t always work out and I get easily side-tracked.
Special thanks and celebrations for Susan Osborne, Kate Jackson, Jonathan from Intermittencies of the Mind and Karen from Booker Talk, who have been the most prolific reviewers over these past two months, but thank you to everyone who has contributed, read, tweeted about this project.
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…)
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).