Did you know that the term ‘nostalgia’ was coined in the 17th century to describe a medical condition of melancholy and anxiety present in Swiss mercenary soldiers fighting abroad (that’s why it was also know as the ‘mal de Suisse’ in those days)? Apparently, initially military doctors hypothesized that the malady was due to damage to the victims’ brain cells and ear drums by the constant clanging of cowbells in the pastures of Switzerland. But I didn’t grow up within earshot of the cowbells, only lived for a short while in the beautiful Lake Geneva area and am still irreparably damaged and homesick for that part of the world.
In fact, I enjoyed that part of the world so much that I probably stayed much longer in a marriage than I should have.
On the day when I can finally report that I have achieved some kind of financial settlement and inner peace following divorce, I think back once more on the things I loved about that area and introduce a kind of amnesia about the bad memories. Isn’t that what nostalgia is all about?
I say rediscovering, but I doubt that I ever discovered him properly the first time round. I vaguely read his essays in my omnivorous teens, jotted down a few quotes, but probably confused him quite a bit with Montesquieu (well, they both start with M and are roughly categorised as philosophers) and de Tocqueville (I know, no excuses there!).
In 2015 we holidayed in Aquitaine and I kept stumbling across Montaigne in Bordeaux (he was mayor of the city from 1580 to 1585). I borrowed his essays from the library when we returned to our then-home in Prevessin, but once again failed to read them in great depth. I had simply too many other books to review.
Then I recently came across this sort-of-biography of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Entitled How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, it is nothing less than a declaration of love for Montaigne the man and the writer, for his tolerant spirit and for not being judgemental (rare during those times of religious wars in France), his openness to new things, his love of the good life but also desire for solitude. Montaigne feels very modern, very akin to us, even to the point where he claims to despise in-depth scholarship.
I leaf through now one book, now another, without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments… If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.
He also endeared himself to me by preferring his books and travels to family life. Had he been free to choose, he would not have been the marrying kind at all, yet he reached a kind of contentment within it:
Of my own choice, I would have voided marrying Wisdom herself, if she had wanted me. But say what we will, the custom and practice of ordinary life bears us along.
Yet he was by no means a hermit. He enjoyed company and cultivated friendships, highly praised kind-spirited and friendly conversations – about anything, no subject was taboo in his household. He was also one of the first to establish a rapport with animals and think of them as sentient beings.
He is also ahead of his time regarding women: he was very conscious of the double standard used to judge male and female behaviour, and believed that by nature males and females are cast in the same mould.
Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them.
Above all, I can relate to his glorious laziness. Looking after his estate was an onerous task, and he was useless around the house because he had other interests. He hated doing the things that bored him – a dereliction of duty which was shocking for his time, but which we can empathise with nowadays.
I stand up well under hard work; but I do so only if I go to it of my own will, and as much as my desire leads me to it… Extremely idle, extremely independent, both by nature and by art.
As Sarah Bakewell notes, he ‘knew there was a price to be paid’ for this unwillingness to be a micro-manager, that people would take advantage of his ignorance. ‘Yet it seemed to him better to lose money occasionally that to waste time tracking every penny and watching his servants’ tiniest movements.’ Of course, this comes from a position of privilege, where he could afford not to track the pennies.
Finally, perhaps his most endearing quality is his acceptance of everything that happens and everything you have done and been. His was not the Christian doctrine of repentance, but nor did he try to airbrush his past. He knew that some of the things he’d done a long time ago no longer made sense to him now, but he is forgiving to himself and to others for their mistakes. We are all made up of what we’ve done throughout our lives and what we’ve learnt from that.
We are all patchwork; and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game… our being is cemented with sickly qualities… Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.
Yet the author also points out, that for all his individualistic modernity, Montaigne also has much to teach people in the 21st century about moderation, being courteous, that no utopia or fantasist vision of the future can ever justify hurting others in the present or outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.
Coincidentally, a French writer friend Lou Sarabadzic has just been busy curating an exhibition about Montaigne at the library Abbé-Grégoire in Blois, as part of her travelling and writing residency there. And I can now understand her passion for this author and wish I’d discussed him with her sooner! If you want to see the author Sarah Bakewell talk about Montaigne, here is the link to a video from the LRB Bookshop.
I will certainly add him to my list of favourite classic French writers : Voltaire and Molière.
The final day was supposedly a short one, since it finished at 1 o’clock, allowing us plenty of time to catch our trains or even have a nice lunch (yes, it’s all about the food with me!). However, it was packed full of goodies.
The first panel was on the Domestic Noir, and I am not the only reader who has grown somewhat weary of this label and also of the steady output of psychological thrillers conforming to this type, which can end up all sounding very samey. Luckily the authors on the panel not only didn’t conform to the stereotype, but they were also expertly moderated by the hilarious Michael J Malone, who knows how to ask those audacious questions to which you really want to hear the answer! Plus, no one can say ‘Murrderrr’ in a more Taggart like fashion.
Elizabeth Mundy’s amateur detective is a cleaner, because cleaners know so much about the most intimate household details. She is also Hungarian, because it allowed the author to use some of her grandmother’s stories, swear words and cooking recipes. Vanessa Savage’s latest book The Woman in the Dark nearly veers into horror territory as a couple move into a very creepy Victorian seaside home (the original title of the book was going to be The Murder House, but then James Patterson published a book with that title, how inconsiderate!). Will Carver mined his own experience of marriage breakdown to write his disturbing story of a dysfunctional couple and the consequences of their deadly boredom. Louise Beech also used her personal childhood experience of feeling abandoned by her mother to create the central character in Call Me Star Girl.
I liked the conclusion of the panel that if you are going to base any of your characters on real-life people, put in their very worst traits, because they will be reluctant to recognise themselves in that (or may not be self-aware enough to do so).
The second session I was unable to take notes, as I was torn between two panels and tried to attend each of them for 20 minutes or so. The first was entitled Down with Patriarchy and featured Anne Coates, Alison Joseph, Christi Daugherty and Jane Shemilt. The second was a bit more free-for-all, entitled Close to the Edge: How Far Would You Push Your Characters?. It featured the near-legend Gunnar Staalesen, Kate Rhodes (one of my personal favourites), Caroline England (whom I admit I’ve never read) and a newcomer to me, working police officer and writer Charlie Gallagher.
The last session of the day I did take notes: it was about crime science vs. crime fiction. It featured Vaseem Khan, who is untroubled by the veracity of the fact that his baby elephant never seems to cause trouble by pooing when his detective is conducting interviews (but is otherwise a bit of a forensic expert, as he works at the UCL Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science); Dr Georgina Meakin, who is a colleague of Vaseem’s and researches the transfer of trace DNA; Abi Silver, a lawyer turned legal thriller writer; and Robert Thorogood, creator of the anything but realistic Death in Paradise TV series, moderated by Barry Forshaw, who does not shy away from difficult questions.
It was a bit of an eye-opening session, although the panelists started from a well established fact, that you don’t want to let too much accuracy get in the way of a good story. After all, a scientist setting up endless samples and having 6 month’s backlog of evidence to analyse, or a solicitor compiling reams of paperwork do not make for riveting reading (or viewing). At the same time, the scientists were slightly annoyed by the misunderstandings about their profession perpetuated by shows such as CSI. For example, juries nowadays place far too much importance on DNA evidence and expect it to prove things beyond any reasonable doubt, when the truth is far more messy and open to interpretation. I also found out that Death in Paradise was conceived as a deliberate antidote to the scientific sterility of CSI and that you shouldn’t expect to get the whole truth and nothing but the truth in court, because in fact you will only get the version of the truth presented by the storytelling lawyer. Robert Thorogood demonstrated just how hard it is to squeeze a whole story and investigation into just 54 minutes, which is why he moved all the science bits to be analysed off the island. Last but not least, the predicted boom of cyber-crime and the sophistication it has already reached was frightening to both Vaseem Khan and the audience.
How does it compare?
I haven’t been to a huge amount of crime or even more generic literary festivals, but I have been to a few in France and Switzerland, and I’ve been to Henley, Hay, Newcastle Noir and now CrimeFest here. So what are the similarities and differences between countries and types of festival?
Generic literary festivals of course appeal to a broader audience, but the crime fiction readers are a passionate and knowledgeable lot, always willing to recommend or try new authors and titles. So it feels much more like a tribe, particularly when it’s more concentrated on a particular type of crime fiction, such as Newcastle Noir. (But not too narrow, like Iceland Noir, which is mostly Scandi). Besides, crime writers are very funny and nice people – I think they let all of their darker side out in their writing, so they are really quite pleasant to be around.
Of course Quais du Polar has the beautiful backdrop of Lyon, but Bristol and Newcastle proved quite fun cities as well. However, the festival does not take over the city like it did in France, and there aren’t many additional activities beyond the confines of the venue (although Newcastle Noir did include a guided tour of the town, a bit like the mystery trail organised in Lyon). There aren’t any family-friendly activities either – probably because, unlike in France, the local council cannot afford to become involved. There were more opportunities here to mix informally with the authors beyond the signing tables, which was rather lovely. The panels in France (and Switzerland) tend to be much more serious, with quite a high-level (occasionally pretentious) discussion of themes, social influences, politics and so on. Here in the UK the aim of the panels is to entertain – if you are a natural performer, if you come across as charismatic, at the end of the panel the attendees will make a rush on your books. I felt that I was asked to confront my own prejudices or assumptions far more in Lyon – the writers made me think deeply (perhaps because the moderators were usually journalists and literary reviewers, who’d had time to prepare extensively).
However, I really enjoyed going to both UK crime festivals, probably more than the general literary festivals, and will write about Newcastle Noir soon. I’d sent a report about it to another website the very next day, but they still haven’t published it, so I may have to publish it myself on my blog. Depending on my finances (they are expensive to attend, plus I left Bristol with 11 books, and would probably have got more except that my luggage had severe limitations), maybe Harrogate or Bloody Scotland next year?
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.