The Marseille Trilogy: Jean-Claude Izzo

Marseille
Marseille (Photo credit: -eko-)

This is the year to discover Marseille. Named European Capital of Culture for 2013, the second-largest city of France will host numerous events, open new public buildings, enjoy an overall face-lift.  I have never been there, although I have visited the South of France as recently as last summer.  Perhaps, like many other tourists, I was put off by its reputation as a messy, ugly industrial town with high youth unemployment and criminality.

Having just discovered Jean-Claude Izzo and his trio of books set in his home town of Marseille, you might think I would be even less inclined to visit the city.  The author describes a chaotic city, teeming with immigrants, noise, drugs and criminal gangs. Yet through it all you can feel his enduring love for the city, its colourful sights, huge variety of smells, the bustling vivacity of its music and its people.

The books are closely linked and chronological, so I would recommend reading them in order (although I didn’t do it myself):(1) ‘Total Chaos’ ; (2) ‘Chourmo’; (3) ‘Solea’.  In the first book, Fabio Montale is a typical product of his native town – the son of poor Italian immigrants, he falls in with a dodgy crowd, gets involved in rather dubious activities as a teenager and only cleans up his act by joining the Foreign Legion and later the police.  His two best friends, however, Manu and Ugu, and the girl they all loved, Lole, never manage to escape the brutish life of the northern (forgotten) suburbs of Marseille.  When Fabio hears of their violent deaths, he sets aside conventional notions of policing to try and uncover who killed his childhood friends. Along the way he encounters other horrible crimes, damaged lives, Mafia links and a few good women who save him from himself.

Port Autonome de Marseille
Port Autonome de Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the first book still contains a fair amount of ‘setting the scene’ (and some very atmospheric descriptions of Marseille in all its gritty beauty), the second one is a more straightforward crime story and my favourite of the three.  Feeling disillusioned and betrayed, Fabio has left the police force and spends his days fishing peacefully on the coast.  He does not want to take part in any criminal investigations anymore, but when his beautiful cousin Gelou asks him to investigate the disappearance of her teenage son, Guitou, he reluctantly gets involved.  The story of Guitou and his Muslim girlfriend, a real-life Romeo and Juliet, who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, is deeply moving.  The story is far more complex, of course, and involves the Mafia once more, but also Islamic fundamentalism as well as Islamophobic policemen, several years before 9/11 brought the issue to the fore.  Marseille was always a melting pot and therefore simmering with racial tensions which the rest of the world only find out about much later.

The third book features the journalist Babette (one of Fabio’s friends who also appears in the first book), who is uncovering some insalubrious links between the Italian and the French mafia. Fabio is once again involved in protecting his friend and her investigative work, almost against his will and with terrible consequences.  The Mafia start picking off, one by one, all of the people closest and dearest to him.  This book is all about the end of an era, the end of a town (through greediness and rampant over-development, as Izzo sees it), the end of hope and of friendship.  It doesn’t get much bleaker than this, and the author never offers a happy ending, but I was captivated by the evocative language, the charm of the main protagonist, and the haunting sense of regret, of what might have been.

The Calanque of Sugiton in the 9th arrondissem...
The Calanque of Sugiton in the 9th arrondissement of Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I loved about this trilogy was that, although it makes no excuses for crime, it does show just how easy it is to fall into temptation and into a bad crowd.  It is all about trying to live at the fringes of society – bleakness alleviated at times by tasty meals, washed down by good wine and glimmers of love, real or imagined.  Fabio is unusually honest and sentimental for a cop, but he is also a flawed human being, overindulging in food and drink, prone to quick judgements, far too susceptible to feminine beauty, convinced he brings bad luck to his friends, far too eager to run off in his boat, to get away from it all and fish in the calanques.  Someone we can all relate to, then!

The short, snappy titles, by the way, are song titles – the whole series is permeated by the variety of music that Fabio listens to (Arabic, French rap, jazz, Classical), although ‘Chourmo’ also refers to the sense of brotherhood of galley slaves, all pulling together in time on their oars, helping each other out in their shared misery.  When I embarked on this series, I had no idea they had been so popular and influential, giving rise to a whole new genre, the Mediterranean noir, nor that Izzo had refused from the outset to write a sequel to them.

The Marseille trilogy has been very skillfully translated into English by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions in 2005-2007. Unfortunately, there will be no more new works by Izzo, as he died in 2000 at the age of just 55.  However, he has a few other free-standing novels which I intend to read. And when I do go to Marseille, both he and Fabio Montale will be there with me. As will Miles Davis.

I read this trilogy as part of my Global Reading Challenge 2013, hosted by the very widely-read and knowledgeable Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise.  This counts as the first of my European books (discovering a new location or writer).

Something Old, Something New…

Now that the Chinese government has told us in NO UNCERTAIN TERMS that the world is not going to end on the 21st of December, I can safely plan my ‘summary of just 2012’ blog post. Rather than having to summarise the whole history of Earth and human beings.

Out with the old, in with the new is what always comes to mind as the year changes.  So I shall follow the good old wedding traditions and find something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue to list as my highlights for the year 2012.

1) Old

I have rediscovered my pleasure for writing this year, especially for reading and writing poetry, which I haven’t done since high school.  Writing is an old passion of mine, but I have been very clever at avoiding it (at least in its fully creative guise) over the past decade or more.  So, welcome back, old friend, sit down and tarry a while.  It’s such a pleasure to have you here with me!

2)  New

Joining the online community through blogging and book reviewing and connecting with other, much better writers than myself.  There is so much to learn here, so much to enjoy, especially on storytelling sites such as Cowbird,  that I am afraid I am spending far too much time reading other people’s work and not concentrating nearly enough on my own. I have also discovered a genuine community and mutual support system here, which was unexpected and moving.

3) Borrowed

I will borrow my own review of the Top 5 Crime Reads of my year from over at Crime Fiction Lover. But while you’re there, you may want to check some of the other Top 5 picks by my fellow reviewers.  They are all very knowledgeable about crime (fiction, of course). I have certainly added substantially to my already formidable TBR mountain.

4) Blue

No, I am not going to finish on a sad note, about what has made me blue this year.  Instead, since blue is my favourite colour, I will tell you about some of my best discoveries this year. I was going to do it in images, but this antiquated desktop can’t seem to cope with that.

– The beauties of France: its settings, its history, its (contemporary, rather than what I read in school) literature

Peirene Press – beautiful editions of world literature in translation (with a pronounced Teutonic flavour), as well as an interesting business model based on subscription and community-building

– There is more to skiing than racing madly downhill – I have also learnt cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing this year

– That maybe I do need a cat to complete my happiness after all. We befriended a friend’s cat at the weekend and now I want one just like her!

– Online reading challenges.  I intend to participate in a couple this coming year: Translation Reading Challenge (particularly from cultures that I know next to nothing about) hosted by Curiosity Killed the Bookworm and the Global Reading Challenge, to be hosted by Mysteries in Paradise.

So, what have been your highlights this year? And what do you intend to keep on doing in the New Year, or what do you intend to start afresh?

 

 

 

 

Top Reads for October

 

 

It’s been a slow month in reading terms for me (we won’t even discuss how slow it has been in writing terms…). And a few of the books have been rather a let-down. So here is my meagre collection of books (there are links to ones I have reviewed on the Crime Fiction Lover website):

 

1) Adrian Magson: Death on the Pont Noir

 

 

 

2) Amélie Nothomb: Ni d’Eve, ni d’Adam – the Japanese setting intrigued me, but I found the book self-indulgent and the love story a little trite

 

3) S.J. Watson: Before I Go to Sleep – I had such high expectations of this one (there had been such a buzz around it and even the shop assistant wrapping it up for me said she had found it creepy and exciting).  So, perhaps it was inevitable that I should be disappointed.  The memory-loss premise is an interesting one, but I guessed the set-up quite early on, which rather spoilt the rest of the story for me.

 

4) Amanda Egan: Diary of a Mummy Misfit – bubbly fun – handbags at dawn at the schoolgates!  But also a spot-on critique of the snobbery and competitiveness of private schools.

 

5) Sarah Dobbs: Killing Daniel

 

6) Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader – a delightful romp about the Queen descending into a mad passion for reading (actually, it does have the occasional ring of truth to it!). My favourite quote from that is when the Queen buttonholes the French president to ask him about Jean Genet:

 

‘Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point, […] was he as good?’

Unbriefed on the subject of the glabrous playwright and novelist, the president looked wildly about for his minister of culture. But she was being addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

[…] The president put down his spoon.  It was going to be a long evening.

 

7) Véronique Olmi: Un si bel avenir – not at all on a par with the riveting (if emotionally scarring) ‘Bord de mer’. This story of an ageing actress and anxious wife and mother, or even of female friendship, has been done so much better elsewhere.

 

8) Agence Hardy Bandes dessinées – I love the fact that there are so many graphic novels for grown-ups in France. This series is crime fiction, about a private detective agency set up by a glamorous widow, Edith Hardy, in Paris in the 1950s.  Beautiful recreation of very precise locations and period detail – a joy to read!

 

And my Top Pick of the month? Death on the Pont Noir – I adore the setting in a village in the Picardie region of France in the 1960s and am a little in love with Inspector Lucas Rocco.

 

 

 

And if all else fails…

I was passing through the charming town of Chambéry earlier today and I saw this shop front, so I had to share this with you.  This shop is for a Public/Official Writer.  The shop is called ‘The Ear and the Quill’ and we are assured that the shopowner is a certified Public Writer and a member of the Academy of Public Writers.  Sadly, the shop was closed on a Monday, so I could not go in and ask what precisely he or she writes, and for whom.

So, if all my writing and publishing efforts fail, nice to know there is still a career option available for me.  I just hope it doesn’t involve calligraphy (or too much French grammar)!

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!

 

Mal-Entendu

OK, last poem for a while, I promise.  I will be back with some prose and some reviews or discussions of writerly influences next week. 

Almost immediately after I write that, I ask myself: why do I feel apologetic about writing ‘only’ poems?  I am not implying that writing poems is the easy or lesser option.  Just that, in my case, it is very often compensation activity for not finishing that b***** novel.  Come on, lass, only 2 chapters to go (or so I believe). 

Anyway, this poem is about the challenges of a normally chatty, even glib person becoming tongue-tied in a new country with a language she only half-speaks.  Yep, this time it is personal!

One might say the magic faraway tree

is walking away and not toward me,

Always almost, but never quite there.

Haunted by failure, aware of the dangers,

I navigate, anxious, between the extremes.

All blandness in word choice,

accents raining in all directions,

avoiding the telephone for fear of rapid riposte.

My jokes are more plodding,

some meaning eludes me.

I snigger along even when I am lost.

Distracted by how I pronounce the word ‘pain’,

the baker hands me the wrong kind of bread.

I think I’ll stick to baguette in future.