Romain Gary: Yet Another French Link for #EU27Project

Romain Gary: La vie devant soi (The Life Ahead of You)

The furore surrounding this book is well known in France, but let me quickly summarise for those who don’t know. Romain Gary had already won the Prix Goncourt for his novel Les racines du ciel in 1956. Since no one can win the prize twice, he wrote another novel under a pseudonym (he used several during his lifetime) Emile Ajar and won again in 1975. He carried on publishing under that pseudonym for about 4-5 years, getting a nephew to pose as the reclusive writer, but finally killed him off (the pseudonym rather than his nephew) and admitted the truth.

I found it a little surprising that people didn’t spot the similarities in style and subject matter between La vie devant soi and La promesse de l’aube (published in 1960). Or is it just because those are the only two books by Romain Gary that I’ve read at this moment in time (they certainly won’t be my last)? Both are about the relationship between an older woman (the mother, in the case of the earlier book; the childminder in the case of the later one) and a young boy. Both are about the unsentimental love and support they give each other, even as they disagree about things and annoy and hide things from each other. The style is also that unmistakable combination of pain masked by sardonic humour, strong sentiment tempered by a core of steel. My blogger friend Emma, who is a real Romain Gary connoisseur, calls that his Jewish humour and French rationality.

Madame Rosa is a former prostitute turned childminder (or foster mother, really) of prostitutes. She lives on the sixth floor of a building without a lift and is finding it increasingly difficult to climb the stairs, as she gets old and overweight. She is also a Jewish refugee who has never forgotten the horrors of the war, is constantly suspicious of the authorities and has an ‘escape hole’ in the basement. Momo, the narrator, is a young Arab boy who has been living with Madame Rosa since he was three years old. It seems both his mother and father have forgotten him and haven’t been paying for his upkeep for years, but his childminder hasn’t got the heart to turn him out. Momo feels bad about not being able to pay his way, however, and he is also afraid that Madame Rosa might die soon, so he starts planning for the future. Of course, the only life he knows is the life of the street in Belleville, so he shoplifts or tries to pimp out other women or to find protection elsewhere. Through his naive child’s eyes we see a whole neighbourhood and some of its eccentric characters, the daily troubles of people barely able to make ends meet, but also the way people can pull together in times of need. Euthanasia, aging, drug use, prostitution, the life of refugees and transvestites, mental illness – all heavy themes, but done with compassion and kindness. Above it all rise the resilience and beauty of the human spirit. And of course it is the story of a remarkable friendship, one might say a love story, as Momo helps the old woman face death (the thing she fears above all is cancer).

From the BD version of the book.

The book is full of remarkable observations and memorable sentences (beautiful in French, forgive my paltry translations)

Monsieur Hamil is a great man, but circumstances stopped him from becoming one.

‘This is where I hide when I am scared.’ ‘What are you scared of, Madame Rosa?’ ‘You don’t have to have a reason to be scared, Momo.’ I’ve never forgotten that, because it’s the truest thing I’ve ever heard.

People care more about life than anything else, which is funny considering how many beautiful things there are in the world.

‘Don’t worry, Momo, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.’ Was he trying to scare me or what? I’ve noticed that old people always say ‘you’re young, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you’ with a big smile, as it it’s something to look forward to. I know I’ve got all my life ahead of me, but I’m not going to make myself sick with worry over it.

I don’t really care that much about being happy, I prefer real life. Happiness is a fine piece of dirt, a nasty piece of work, it should be taught how to live. Happiness and me are not on the same side at all, I don’t have anything to do with it… there should be laws against it, to stop it being such a shit.

Still from the 1977 film, starring Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa and Samy Ben-Youb as Momo.

This book also fits in the #EU27Project, although I already have a fair number of French entries there. However, I do wish Romain Gary were better known in the English-speaking world. Child narrators are always tricky, but Momo’s ahead of his years in some ways and remarkably innocent in others, which is probably understandable given his unconventional upbringing. A real gem, which has been adapted for cinema in 1977 under the title Madame Rosa and translated into English as The Life Before Us in 1986 (now out of print).

I’m already planning my next Romain Gary book, although I’ll have to have it sent over from France: Les racines du ciel, about saving(my beloved) elephants in Africa.

 

Launching My First Asymptote Journal in Its 6th Year of Existence

The Fall Edition of the Asymptote Journal has just been launched and, although I can’t claim any credit for the content (by the time I joined the team, it was all pretty much done and edited), it is a pleasure to share some of its content with you.

First of all, there is a special feature on new voices from France – unusual and young voices, rather than the ones which have been translated before. I love the disturbing and dysfunctional relationship with a mother described by Frédérique Martin, the grim reality of abortion from three different points of view presented by Valentine Goby. Although not strictly speaking a new voice, one of my absolute favourite pieces in this issue is the provocative, energetic and rather elegiac essay by Bernard Hoepffner – much respected translator of English literature into French, who died recently off the coast of Wales. The translator as a chameleon, con-man and perpetrator of linguistic violence. Still in the sphere of France, there is also a review of Marcel Proust’s letters to his neighbour, which show a witty, charming, sensitive man rather than the hypochondriac we often seem to hear about in literary history.

But it’s not just France who features here. Overall, 31 countries are represented, including Romania, South Africa, Martinique, the Ukraine and Brazil. There is also a very interesting art project by Mikhail Karikis, bringing the sounds and images of a community (and especially that of young people) making abandoned industrial landscapes their own.

Overall, a great place to rummage around and explore, whether you like poetry, fiction, essays, art or drama. And in times fraught with the spectre of nationalism and lack of interest in ‘the other’, I find it is more important than ever to listen to other cultures and to further our understanding.

 

 

Marcus Malte: music, recent history and dark humour #EU27Project

It was Catherine from the wonderful Blog du Polar de Velda (if you read French and like crime fiction, this site comes highly recommended) who introduced me to author Marcus Malte in Lyon four years ago. I read two or three of his books (none of which have been translated into English yet) and found them all very different from each other, quite dark, highly imaginative and experimental.

In the meantime, he has won the prestigious Prix Femina with his novel Le garçon (which I haven’t read yet, but you can read Emma’s review), so here’s hoping at least that will get translated. However, in Lyon this year, I picked up one of his earlier books, Les harmoniques, which makes full use of his love of music, especially jazz. Malte is frequently described as a ‘noir’ author, but this book had moments of hilarious fun, almost farce-like, which surprised and enchanted me. Moreover, it did nothing to detract from the rather serious subject matter, proving that it’s not always grim and tortuous which is memorable or worthy. (Oscar selection committee, take note! How could you ignore ‘Hidden Figures’ so badly?)

The subtitle of the book is Beau Danube Blues (Beautiful Danube Blues) and this is a hint of the European tragedy that lies at its heart. It starts off with a chapter that resembles jazz improvisation, with two people talking (we have no idea who they are at first), and musical interludes between their words.

Som7   Sibm6

‘Believe it or not, there was a time when I thought I was immortal. But I fear that has gone. For good.’

‘That’s called wisdom.’

‘I’d rather call that giving up.

Fa   Fa7

‘Wisdom includes giving up.’

This might seem like a pretentious and unnecessarily difficult way to hook a reader into a novel, but if you move on to the next chapters, you realise it gives you a good insight into the two main characters: Mister and Bob.

Mister is a jazz pianist and one of his favourite fans, beautiful young Vera, has just been murdered and burnt alive. The police has arrested two suspects, who have confessed to the crime, but Mister is convinced there is more to it than meets the eye.

Bob is his friend and favourite taxi driver, a mighty unusual one, former philosophy professor, prone to enigmatic quotations and only occasionally charging his clients. Together, they set out to discover the truth about Vera’s death. In due course, they discover more about her life: she came to France to study theatre, but she was originally from the Balkans, from the Croatian town of Vukovar, where in 1991 an 87 day siege was followed by a whole-scale destruction and ethnic cleansing of the town by the Serbian army. But what could this long-gone war have to do with her present-day murder?

We never get to see Vera herself, she is dead at the outset of the novel, but we do see her through other people’s eyes and through short, poetic chapters, very much like musical interludes, which seem to delve into her mind, although they are in the third person:

This war which she escaped but which she carried everywhere with her. In her head. Secretly. Even in the most tender moments.

They come across a series of paintings of Vera in an art gallery and decide to visit the artist Josef Kristi, a strange, reclusive character, to find out more about the relationship between Kristi and the model. Although the artist tells them a little about Vera’s past, they don’t quite believe he is not involved in her death, so they decide to do some very amateurish surveillance. What follows is a very funny scene, where they end up in the middle of a field of beetroots (or maybe turnips or potatoes or pumpkins, they are not quite sure), just opposite the Kristi house. Mister fears they are too conspicuous, but Bob says they can always claim that they are waiting for a pick-up truck. And then a farmer passes by and stops to see what these incompetent investigators are up to… I was giggling all the way through this scene.

There are serious and dangerous moments too: they get involved with nasty and brutal people, some of them in positions of power, and make some unlikely allies – a blind, elderly accordeon-player and a young, tone-deaf singer. While this is not a plot-driven book, the build-up of tension was working well until about the last 100 pages, when it all descends into a lengthy explanation and is wrapped up too quickly, as if the author had lost interest.

Scene from the literary concert, from Var Matin.

But the crime element is not the main reason to read this book: it is a wonderful piece of rhythmic and musical writing, with many passages designed to be read out loud (as the author did, with musical accompaniment, in Lyon. You can read Emma’s thoughts about the event here). It is a melancholy look at all the ‘forgotten’ towns and victims, and a reminder that the consequences of war rage on long after the conflict is officially over. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am always curious to see what Marcus Malte writes next: he is most certainly not an author to be pigeon-holed.

This fits in well with the #EU27Project, since it is written by a French writer, deals with a recent conflict in Croatia and reminds us of the purpose of the EU.

 

 

 

In the Spirit of Reunification (of Books)

Yesterday I finally braved the loft again and got down a new set of book boxes. Sadly, quite a few boxes ended up with heavier boxes on top of them during 5 years of storage, so the books are not always in pristine condition. (Fellow booklovers who are equally obsessive about book spines remaining uncreased, corners unturned and therefore hardly ever lending books for fear of damage will understand my dismay!)

Small sample in a dusty bundle...
Small sample in a dusty bundle…
Spread out on the floor...
Spread out on the floor… with a nudge from my bright green slipper

From the English collection: one of the funniest books about anthropologists and one of my favourite Barbara Pym novels; Sylvia Plath’s rite of passage, the Metaphysical poets (which we were not allowed to study at university during Communist times).

From the Austrian collection: the stories of Arthur Schnitzler and Elias Canetti’s first volume of memoirs (given to me as a present by a friend who said it was his favourite book).

From the French collection, a charming coming-of-age story by Colette (perfect summer reading) and a grim childhood memoir by Herve Bazin (required reading in French class, but nevertheless memorable rather than sheer torture).

One of my favourite Romanian poets: Ion Pillat (I don’t think he’s ever been translated) – a lyrical nature-loving poet.

And finally a book that I haven’t read (there aren’t many of those in my loft): Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, because I was translating a Romanian writer at the time who kept referring to Pessoa and was writing in his style.

Here are some excerpts from the Japanese collection against a background of bins:

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Ugetsu Monogatari is one of the lesser-known classical works of 18th century Japanese literature. A collection of spooky stories, it is perhaps better known as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. The flowery cover is actually the paper wrapping that you automatically get at the time of purchase in Japanese bookshops for all your paperbacks. It covers Banana Yoshimoto’s Tugumi, which I haven’t looked at since I was a student (and probably won’t be able to read anymore). Finally, we were very excited to read Norwegian Wood with our Japanese professor during our student days, but this is the English language translation. And what a beautiful edition it is too, with its two small volumes encased in a golden box.

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Alas, alas, only a small part of the books have descended from the loft and we are already running out of space!

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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.”

 

Love and Being Content in a Mad, Bad World

tooclosePascal Garnier: Too Close to the Edge (transl. Emily Boyce)

I always get something out of a Pascal Garnier book, but there are some which truly stand out. This is one of the stand-out ones. As usual with this author, it is a slim volume which leaves you ever-so-slightly moody and breathless.

It’s a simple-enough story of Éliette, a grandmother who is ‘not old enough or fat enough to be a Mémé’, who is facing life on her own after her husband’s death two months before he was due to retire. The house they had bought and renovated in preparation for their retirement is in an isolated location in the Ardèche and the life ‘which was supposed to be a never-ending holiday’. After a few months, she finds herself getting restless with this placid existence and overly helpful neighbours. She buys herself a tiny bubble car and zips around the countryside with it. Then, two kilometres away from home, just as the rain is starting, she gets a puncture. A man in his forties called Étienne stops to help and she offers to give him a lift. When he tells her he has broken down himself and is looking for a phone, she invites him into her house. Gradually, some kind of relationship develops between these two strangers, although Éliette is not the sweet, trusting old dear that people can easily take advantage of.

‘I’ll warn you now: if you’re a murderer, I have very little to lose, and there’s nothing here worth stealing unless you count the walls.’

Of course, readers familiar with Garnier’s dark stories will recognise the warning signs, but the danger only becomes apparent once Étienne’s daughter appears on the scene and Éliette finds out about the death of her neighbours’ son. I won’t tell you a word more, because these stories always veer off into unexpected, off-the-wall directions. I will just say that the similarity of the two names is probably not coincidental, as the two characters have more in common than might be apparent at first glance.

She was innocent, just like him, like the worst criminal, like the dog who kills the cat, the cat who kills the mouse, the mouse who… must kill something too. All around, in the bushes and the grass, prey and predators mingled in the same macabre dance. You could be one or the other, depending on the circumstances, all of which were extenuating. It was what they called life, the strongest of all excuses.

I rather loved this wistful but completely unsentimental look at aging, loneliness and hoping to find love or at least comfort in a world which seems to have gone crazy. This book will be released on 11th April and comes heartily recommended.

feveratdawnPéter Gárdos: Fever at Dawn (transl. Elizabeth Szász)

This is a fictionalised account of how the writer’s (and film maker’s) parents met and fell in love after the end of WW2.  After his father’s death, Gárdos was given the letters his parents had preserved with such care for so many years by his mother.

The backdrop is anything but promising: Miklos and Lili have just emerged from Belsen and are recovering in different refugee camps in Sweden. Miklos is 25 years old, emaciated and toothless, weighs barely 29 kilos. On his way to Sweden he starts coughing up bloody foam. He has tuberculosis and is told that he has only six months left to live, but that doesn’t stop him looking for a wife. He finds a list of all 117 young Hungarian women from his region ‘whom nurses and doctors were trying to bring back to life in various temporary hospitals across Sweden’ and writes to each one of them in his beautiful handwriting. A few of them write back, but it is the letter of eighteen-year-old Lili which captures his attention. He is instantly convinced that she is the one, but over the next six months they will have to make do with writing each other increasingly passionate letters and seeing each other only three times very briefly and with great difficulty.

When they do meet face-to-face for the first time, they almost run away from each other, but instead they recognise each other in choked emotion. They are kindred souls, although they have had different upbringings and disagree about a number of things. Lili wants to convert to Catholicism, Miklos is a committed Marxist. Miklos is a dreamer with poetic licence, Lili is more timid and realistic. And, although they try to tell each other everything, they never speak about certain important things, neither then, nor later.

My father never told Lili that for three months he burned bodies in Belsen concentration camp… Lili did not tell Miklos about the day of her liberation from Belsen. It took her nine hours to drag herself from the barracks to the clothes depot, a distance of about a hundred metres… Miklos could never bring himself to tell her of his time, before he burned corpses, as an orderly in the typhoid barrack… the most ghastly block in the camp… And Lili never said a word about her twelve-day journey to Germany in a freight wagon.

This is not a book about the Holocaust, but a book about survival, about finding hope and love against all odds, when all the world around you seems ghastly and hopeless. It is anything but sickly sweet – charming, poignant and with little shots of sarcasm and humour which keep it from descending into sentimentality.

The film director originally wrote this story as a film script, then later turned it into a novel. The film came out in December 2015 (in Hungarian). Here is the official trailer on Vimeo.

https://vimeo.com/138878104

 

 

Reading in June

Longest days, shortest nights of the year, so plenty of time for reading in June –  not much time for anything else in fact! It’s the kind of month where I can’t hear myself think, let alone write, we were all so busy with end-of-year stuff. So reading it is, to feed that relentlessly hungry gawp in myself.

#TBR20 Challenge is going well:

#TBR3 Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji (also re-reading challenge)

#TBR4 Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch

#TBR5 Wendy Cope (ed.): The Funny Side

#TBR6 Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night

#TBR7 Liad Shoham: Tel Aviv Suspects

#TBR8 Ever Yours: Essential Van Gogh Letters

#TBR9: Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs

#TBR10: Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills

#TBR11: Jeremie Guez: Paris La Nuit

#TBR12: Muriel Spark: Loitering with Intent (also a rereading challenge)

#TBR13: Friederike Schmoe: Fliehganzleis

#TBR14: Fouad Laroui: L’étrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine

These last two will be reviewed shortly, or as soon as holidays and children allow.

Review copies:

Cath Staincliffe: Half the World Away

Hakan Nesser: The Summer of Kim Novak

Ruth Ware: In a Dark, Dark Wood

Maggie Mitchell: Pretty Is

Pascal Garnier: Boxes

The One That Got Away:

Etienne Davodeau: Les Ignorants

Some other facts and figures:

18 books read in total, of which 7 can be legitimately classified as crime fiction/psychological thriller. My Crime Fiction Pick of the month (a meme initiated by Mysteries in Paradise) is Witness the Night, although I was also very impressed with Tel Aviv Suspects and Paris la Nuit.

3 books in German, 4 in French, 7 translations (from French, Swedish, Russian, Dutch, Hebrew and Japanese). I haven’t done so well in my Global Reading Challenge, with only Kishwar Desai bringing me to a new country, India. I still have to read books set in Africa, Oceania and South America, and find something for the 7th continent. 9 by women authors, 9 by men. And I am only 3 reviews behind!

1 poetry, 1 graphic non-fiction book, 2 rereading challenges, 1 auto-biography/letters.

Doing the #TBR20 challenge is having a very calming effect on me. Although I’ve still been doing a fair share of reviewing, it has felt much more within my control. I’ve felt much more freedom in the selection of my next book, plus there is such satisfaction to be had when you make a dent in your messy book pile!

Having said that, though, I must admit that I’ve cheated slightly and borrowed some books from the library. I haven’t actually started reading them yet, as they are for the duration of the summer holidays. So I will start them once I’ve completed my #TBR20 – that’s still within the rules, right?

Coming up for the #TBR20? A female French writer, for a change – Sylvie Granotier’s latest. One of my favourite German crime writers, Jakob Arjouni, and The Neck of the Giraffe by Judith Schalansky. Blood Jungle Ballet, set in American Samoa. I may have a change of heart for the remaining two books of the challenge, so I’ll allow myself (and you) to be surprised.

And those library books? The latest Vargas Temps Glaciares, a fictionalised biography of Isadora Duncan (one of my childhood heroines) by Caroline Deyns and Carrère’s L’Adversaire (couldn’t resist, after hearing the neighbours’ story of the real-life event which it’s based upon).

When You Loiter With Boxes in Paris by Night

I need to catch up with myself and my reading, but older son is now on holiday and there is still all the end of term stuff to do for younger son. So these will be three rather short reviews of books I’ve recently read.

GuezJérémie Guez: Paris la nuit (Paris by Night)

#TBR11

The debut novel of a hugely talented young French writer – he was 19 or so when he wrote this and is now already on his fourth or fifth novel, aged only about 26. If you liked Karim Miské’s portrayal of multicultural Paris, you will find an even more brutal portrayal of life in the Parisian banlieues (or ghettos) in this book. It’s a very short book, describing the rapid descent of a young man from petty wrongdoings to more serious crime – and is representative of a whole generation of youngsters in Paris.

Jeremie Guez at Quais du Polar, Lyon.
Jeremie Guez at Quais du Polar, Lyon.

Abraham (known as Abe) is a young man of the streets, whose family came over from the Maghreb. His mother died when he was very young and his father has buried himself in his apartment, watching TV and barely noticing the comings and goings of his son. Together with his childhood friend Goran (from former Yugoslavia) and some other mates (Jewish, black, North African – a rainbow of deprivation), Abe hangs out in his neighbourhood and around Belleville, Pigalle and even the Latin Quarter, smoking joints, doing some minor drug dealing, fighting in bars and spending the occasional night at the police station. Then, one night, they discover an illegal gambling den at the back of a bar and decide to hold it up to steal the money. The author describes so well how the youngsters egg each other on, how fearful they really are, how they are overcome by physical nausea at their deeds, but then gradually develop a thicker hide. As they run away with their meagre earnings, they miss out on opportunities to start a new life or fall in love, and just fall deeper and deeper into a hole of heroin dealing and addiction, procurement of pistols and self-defence turning into aggression. A sobering and very noir read, which I would love to see translated into English.

GarnierBoxesPascal Garnier: Boxes (transl. Melanie Florence)

One French writer that is being translated into English, thanks to the efforts of Gallic Books, is Pascal Garnier. In fact, he is almost achieving more posthumous cult status in the English-speaking world than in his native country, where it’s quite difficult to find his books in libraries or bookshops (other than in collectors’ editions).

Boxes is his seventh novel to be published by Gallic. It is also the last one he wrote (it was published after his death) and, to my mind, it’s not one of his best. It feels oddly autobiographical. Brice, the middle-aged main character, is an illustrator moving out of the city to a small village in the Ardèche region (which is where the author died in 2010). His wife Emma convinced him to buy an old house in need of extensive renovation, but she has now disappeared somewhere abroad and left him to complete the house move on his own. It gradually becomes clear that Emma has most probably died but Brice is in denial and eagerly awaits her return. In the meantime, he wanders around aimlessly, avoids unpacking the boxes and gets to know his eccentric neighbours, Most notable amongst these is a child-like woman called Blanche, who says that Brice reminds her of her deceased father, and who develops a rather unhealthy dependency on the newcomer. The description of her bringing packet soup as a treat for her new neighbour is grotesque and very funny.

From encres-vagabondes.com
From encres-vagabondes.com

No one can surpass Garnier when he describes the slow, inevitable descent of a person into solitude, madness, alcoholism and despondency. He also examines aspects of co-dependency and the claustrophobia of village life. As in all of his books, he takes characters that are inherently strange, somehow lacking in empathy or moral fibre, living on the margins of society and turns the screws on their suffering until they reach breaking point. Garnier is also a master at the gradual build-up of menace. Yet, overall, this book didn’t work for me (or at least, not as well as his earlier ones, The Panda Theory or How’s the Pain?) and I think this is because Blanche evoked not pity or sympathy (as previous Garnier characters have done), but simply annoyed me.

loiteringFinally, after all of these hard-hitting reads (and the middle-aged crisis reads of my preceding review post), I needed something lighter. So I turned to an old favourite, Muriel Spark, and reread Loitering with Intent (also counts as #TBR12). In many ways, Muriel Spark pokes fun at the self-introspection and ‘death of the author’ literary theories of French writers such as Roland Barthes, so it’s very suitable that she should get a review here together with two French authors who write in the first person but are not really autobiographical.

Muriel Spark, from Amazon.com
Muriel Spark, from Amazon.com

This is meta-fun meta-fiction about a would-be writer, Fleur Talbot, set ‘in the middle of the twentieth century’. Fleur is working on her first novel but needs to earn some money, so she takes on a job as a secretary to pompous snob Sir Quentin Oliver, who runs an Autobiographical Association for well-heeled individuals who have more ego than sense (and all believe they ‘have a book in them’). With tongue firmly in cheek and her usual barbed wit, Spark leads us a merry minuet of ins and outs when life starts imitating art, or Sir Oliver’s actions start to mirror those in Fleur’s novel. Or do they? This time I realised that Fleur is far more of an unreliable narrator than I had previously thought. The author mocks her just as much as the other characters, although she does show some affection for the doddery Lady Edwina, Sir Quentin’s long-suffering mother. This is Jane Austen with a good round of alcohol in her and a tongue that takes no prisoners. It is also full of interesting observations about the self-absorption of writers, as well as the joys and challenges of the writing process itself.

Male Midlife Crisis in Books – a French prerogative?

middleageOr should this post be called ‘Woman! Without her, man is nothing but an animal…’? Over the past 2 months I’ve read a number of books by French-speaking writers in which men are approaching something like a mid-life crisis. Outwardly, they seem a bit young for it  – in their thirties for the most part – so perhaps the disappearance of a good woman from their lives is the catalyst that provokes this falling apart. Seduced and abandoned in equal measure by life and by women, these men are struggling with the weight of their bruised egos.

Although the authors and the stories are all very different, there is a similar atmosphere to these books. It’s the cry of a soul in pain – a man not used to expressing his emotions (yes, even if they are writers like Ramon Hill)  trying to connect with us the readers. Trying to give voice to emotions they are incapable of naming.

Joseph Incardano: Banana Spleen

André Pastrella is a 30-something drifter, although he starts out with a semblance of a normal life. He is a part-time teacher, has an attractive live-in girlfriend Gina, additional income from helping his Chilean friend Pablo do house moves. He enjoys a beer, a tennis game, has a colleague who quite fancies him but he turns her down. He is attempting to write a novel, settle down, but is not quite ready to commit to either.

Then, in the midst of the cold, dry, sterile Geneva winter, his life spins out of control. His girlfriend dies in a car crash and suddenly André realises how much of his self-control (weak though it may have been) depended on her. He squanders her inheritance (which her parents insist should be shared with him) on a family monument in a cemetery, which he later sells to gypsies. His behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.  He loses his job and is made to attend ‘social reinsertion’ classes, where he develops a stalkerish obsession with his instructor on the course. He betrays Pablo by having sex with his hooker girlfriend, he commits acts of vandalism, and generally wallows in the seedy underbelly of the Genevois lifestyle (or what passes for seedy in this rule-driven country). The spleen erupts at all levels: the main character is often infuriating and out of control, but he does produce a manuscript in the end. It remains unclear to me if his grief has been digested and if he has learnt any lasting lessons out of his experience.

220voltsJoseph Incardano: 220 Volts

Ramon Hill is another writer struggling with writer’s block. However, in his case, it’s his fourth book and his previous ones have had some success. His wife Margot suggests they take a break in her family’s mountain chalet, which might also help to rekindle their marriage. Which is not going badly… officially at least… but it’s getting a little stale, buried under the routine of children and work. But isolation proves to be their undoing, as they get to know too much about each other. The couple engage in a deadly game of cat and mouth, of spying upon each other, instead of communicating openly.  As the blurb says ‘ Incardona turns a love story into a noir novel. Because love stories usually finish badly…’.

This is much tauter writing than in Banana Spleen. The story does not finish with the dastardly deed (I leave it open who kills whom and how). And even when we think we understand what has happened, the author reserves another little twist. Cleverly done, written in an impeccably lean style – no superfluous words or wallowing about in misery, like the previous narrator – this one’s a wicked little meditation on marriage and selfishness.

Grégoire Delacourt: On ne voyait que le bonheur (All You Could See Was the Happiness)

I’ve reviewed this in detail elsewhere, but it too is the story of a nervous breakdown of a man nearing middle-age. Antoine may have had an unhappy childhood, but are those psychological scars enough to explain his horrendous deeds? There is a gradual piling on of horror here which somehow avoids the plunge into lurid melodrama. And ultimately, the message of the book is about forgiveness and redemption.

FuirJean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir (Running Away)

The narrator finds himself in a befuddled, jet-lagged state in China, at the behest of his girlfriend Marie (who is safely back in Paris). He has a rather suspicious, bulky man as his constant companion and bodyguard and for some reason an arty young female student joins them too, arousing feelings of desire, even though the male protagonist is sure that Marie is the love of his life. From the sublime to the ridiculous it’s just a small (mis)step. A lust-riddled scene in a toilet on a train is interrupted by a mobile phone in a backpack. There’s a mad dash through the building-sites and busy streets of Beijing on a motorcycle, with smelly bowling shoes, not quite sure whether it’s the police or the ‘baddies’ chasing them. The final part of the book  sees the narrator reunited with Marie on the island of Elba, at the funeral of her father. This part of the story is infused with lyricism rather than visual pyrotechnics and black humour. Yet it’s a hazy, dream-like sequence – almost too good to be true. Is it just wishful thinking, is the narrator being transported to the old stone houses and gardens filled with thyme and sage through sheer exhaustion?

So, in response to my title question: is it a French man’s prerogative to have a midlife crisis? Certainly not, but they are more willing to admit to it and be eloquent about it than most. (Recent presidential peccadilloes aside.)  

I seem to be on a roll with books about midlife crisis and disillusionment – books about German, Polish and other country’s disenchantment with life, love and politics are on my TBR pile, written from both male and female perspectives. I hope it doesn’t drive me to utter despondency…

 

My 150th book: Grégoire Delacourt

lalistedemesenviesToday I reached my reading target for the year: 150 books. So everything else from here on is a bonus. But what a book to finish my challenge on!

It’s the story of a family haunted by coldness, lack of communication, lack of love and overflow of sadness entitled (ironically) ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur’ (All you could see was the happiness) by Grégoire Delacourt, which has just been published this rentrée littéraire (the autumn publishing frenzy in France, just ahead of all the literary prizes). Delacourt is a PR specialist/copywriter who started writing at the age of 50. He achieved considerable success in France with his second novel ‘La Liste de mes envies’ (The List of My Desires) – which has since been adapted for the theatre and film – about a lottery-winner, and some notoriety with his third novel ‘La Premiere chose qu’on regard’, featuring a Scarlett Johansson double, which the American actress did not appreciate and for which she took the French publisher to court.

This fourth book is fiction, but you might be forgiven at first for thinking that it’s a misery memoir. It’s the story of a seemingly boring insurance expert nearing middle age, Antoine, who muses about his unhappy childhood and the impact it has had on his own life and parenting skills. But misery memoirs are miserable only when they are badly written; when deftly handled and improved by the lack of constraints of fiction, they transcend the specific details and allow the reader to identify with the universal emotions and truths expressed therein.

DelacourtIt starts off deceptively low-key. Antoine sounds like a pessimistic sod, but perhaps for good reason. His job is to investigate insurance claims and car accidents, making sure that the payout is minimal for the insurance company he works for. In the process, he has to ignore people’s heartbreak and suffering. He berates himself for being a coward, for not having any integrity, for not standing up for the oppressed little man. Bit by bit, through slivers of pictures and scenes from the more distant and more recent past, we discover his unhappy childhood. His parents were terribly mismatched: a cold, clinical father who never shared his heart or secrets or games with his children. A Madame Bovary type of mother, clinging to her illusions, cigarettes and Sagan novels. Twin sisters five years younger than him, much more his parents’ darling than he ever was – until the day when one of them dies in her sleep. The other twin then develops a strange speech impediment, losing half of her words, while the mother abandons the family, never getting in touch again. Antoine and his little sister cling to each other in a touching story of sibling love and protection.

So far so plausibly grim, you might think. In the first part of the book the first person narrator (Antoine) is addressing his son Leon, trying to explain how he ended up being the kind of father he was, how he met his future wife and Leon’s mother, how they tried to play at happy families for a while. There is a lot in the book about the gap between appearances and reality, between façade and the unhappiness or darkness lurking underneath. But then the book descends into the shocking, the unthinkable, and it becomes deeply disturbing. Especially to a parent. Most especially to a parent who feels not entirely confident that they are always providing their children with all the love, opportunities, attention and balance that they deserve. (So that would be all of us, then.) There are a lot of loving details in the memories Antoine has of his mother and yet:

Un jour, je lui ai demandé si elle m’aimait et elle a repondu à quoi ça sert. Aucun enfant ne devrait entendre ça. Ca m’a tué. Je veux dire, c’est ce qui a commencé à me tuer.

On day I asked her if she loved me and she replied: what’s the use. No child should have to hear that. It killed me. Or rather, that’s what started to kill me. (my translation)

Gregoire-Delacourt_1705The second part of the book is more about Antoine’s gradual redemption abroad, in an isolated and very poor part of the world, while the third part is written by his daughter Josephine. It’s a very powerful story about the fear of loving and the need to feel loved, but also about forgiveness, about understanding the reasons for extreme behaviours which we usually condemn. It was an emotionally wrenching read, but also strangely fascinating. I found myself unable to concentrate on much else until I had finished the book.

One final word on the author’s predilection for list-making. At many points in the book, you find whole pages of phrases or sentences repeating certain rhythms, words or structures. Of the type (my translation and slight cutting):

In the photos,  you can’t see how overcooked the fish was. You can’t see the false compliments: yes, it was perfect. You can see our new car. You can see me, stupidly proud, next to the car. You can see the Barbie tricycle. You can see Josephine and Nathalie in the bathtub. You can see Anna and her husband Thomas in our tiny garden, next to a faded hyacinth. You can’t see my mother. You can’t see the lies. You can’t see the baby that Nathalie hadn’t wanted to keep the year before because she wasn’t sure she loved me anymore. You can’t see my tears at the time. My nights spent on the couch. My insomnia. The beast that was awakening. All you could see was the happiness.

And there are many, many more like that throughout the book. Is Delacourt just being stylistically lazy, or does the gradual piling up of details and the repetitions add to the layering on of emotions? It’s certainly an effective way of presenting the disparate, almost pointillistic thoughts that both Antoine and his daughter have – reminding me of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique.

In summary, a haunting, compelling, gut-squeezing read, an opportunity to end my reading challenge with a bang, not a whimper!

completed