French in June and #20Books: Maylis de Kerangal

Book 6/20: Maylis de Kerangal: Painting Time, transl. Jessica Moore, Maclehose Press, 2021.

I read this book in parallel in French and English, because I had such a wonderful time doing this with her previous book to be translated by Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (there is also a US translation by Sam Taylor, called The Heart). She appears to be the kind of writer who develops a passion for a niche topic of research (organ transplants, building a bridge, becoming a chef, or decorative or trompe l’oeil painting) and then makes a novel out of it. In some cases it works (I found Mend the Living very moving and lyrical), but less so in others. For me, Painting Time (Un monde à portée de main) did not quite take flight and soar.

It’s the story of Paula Karst, a young Frenchwoman, who realises she is not quite good enough to be a ‘proper’ painter, and therefore chooses to go instead to the ‘trompe l’oeil’ master class in Brussels. Here she not only immerses herself in the highly specialised art of imitating materials such as wood, marble, minerals, even animal realm, but also befriends the taciturn, somewhat mysterious Jonas, who becomes her flatmate, and the tall, stroppy former nightclub bouncer Kate from Scotland. We follow Paula’s steep learning curve, the hard work but also the unlearning that she has to do, so that she can see every object in a new light and take nothing for granted. She ends up appreciating the man-made objects more than the natural ones, because of all the effort that goes into them.

What follows then is a sort of meandering tale of Paula’s post-graduation freelance career, moving from one house-painting job to another, taking in some film sets in Cinecitta in Rome and in Moscow along the way, and then ending in Lascaux, where she is involved in the task of recreating the famous cave paintings for a new generation of tourists (without damaging the fragile precious heritage). I can see that the author draws parallels between a coming-of-age story and mastering one’s craft, that the fakery of the art Paula engages in, the ‘creating the illusion of reality’ aspect of her work, raises questions about what is ‘real’, what is ‘unreal’, about falling for appearances – and how that sometimes is a good thing. Also, about how we attribute value to things in general and art in particular.

However, I could have done without the in-between bits. The scenes in the book which really captured my imagination, and where the language really came into its own, were the ones where she is learning her craft in Brussels, especially when painting her end-of-year project, and then the final chapters at the caves of Lascaux. Everything else felt like filler and the characters never really came to life for me: her friends Kate and Jonas just seemed shadowy or flat, and so their friendship never felt entirely plausible or meaningful. She also tries to cram too much into this book: the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a bit of a rant about global nomadic freelancers, a desultory, passionless love affair.

This time the American edition kept the same translator – but what were they thinking with that cover?

I think this lack of attachment readers might feel for the characters is due in large part to de Kerangal’s idiosyncratic style, which doesn’t always translate well into English. She loves her long sentences, with endless clauses and subclauses, often zooming both in and out on a subject in the space of a single paragraph. Her long technical passages can become tedious if you are not particularly interested in the subject; not even her effort to equate it with a writer’s creative process can salvage it. At the same time, she is very deliberate in creating passages where the factual becomes poetical, where she tries to breathe lyrical life into those details, an intriguing mix of detachment and purple prose. This often happens when she describes someone talking passionately about something, for example, when Jonas finally loses his reserve and describes at length the layers of rocks and soil in a quarry. Or in the final section, when they come face to face with the real prehistoric paintings, a twenty-thousand old fish, and realise how transient human life, with all its violence and catastrophes, is on earth.

Original in FrenchTranslation
Lepoisson au-dessus de leur tête révélait la mémoire accumulée au
fond des océans, l’érosion des calcaires, le déplacement des rivières,
la migration des hommes, des durées qui coexistaient avec l’état de
choc du pays, la colère, la tristesse, les chaînes d’information
continue qui écopaient le temps à longueur de journée pendant que
les deux terroristes poursuivaient leur cavale mortifère : il connectait
l’histoire du monde et leur vie humaine.
The fish above their heads reveals the memory accumulated at the bottom of the oceans, the erosion of the limestone, the movement of the rivers, the migration of humans, these lengths of time that coexist with the state of shock their country is in now, the anger, sorrow, the twenty-four-hour news channels that bail out time all day long while the two terrorists continue on their deadly run; it connects the history of the world to their fragile human life.

I expected to like this book far more than Mend the Living (after all, I appreciate and think I understand art more than the minutiae of heart transplants), but in the end it did not quite gel for me. However, I have another of her books, an earlier one, called Corniche Kennedy, which is about a group of young friends growing up and being daredevils in Marseille. Let’s see if she manages to capture the atmosphere of that city as well as my beloved Izzo!

Coincidentally, I was concurrently reading Long Live Great Bardfield (available from Persephone Press), the autobiography of Tirzah Greenwood, Eric Ravilious’ wife and a talented artist in her own right. She too seemed to display the lack of confidence in her work and relationships that Paula has too. Tirzah was modest about her achievements, but she is a funny and keen observer of the egos and pretentions of their bohemian friends. She ended up specialising quite a bit in woodcuts and hand marbled papers, while she raised three children and tried to be modern and understanding about her husband’s affairs. Perhaps de Kerangal’s Paula is safer staying single and emotionally detached!

#6Degrees of Separation: June 2019

It is always a pleasure to participate in the Six Degrees monthly link-up organised by Kate. The starting point this month is a book I haven’t read but which recently won the Wellcome Book Prize, Murmur by Will Eaves. I am interested in the subject matter but need to work up my courage to read this one, since it is a reimagining of the strain and suffering that Alan Turing must have gone through in the last few years of his life.

The title of the book, however, made me initially think it was about a heart murmur, perhaps a heart transplant. The best book (or perhaps the only book) I’ve read on that topic is Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living (published as The Heart in the US).

This book won the Prix Orange in France back in 2014. Another winner of the same prize (in 2018) is Haitian author Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s Avant que les ombres s’effacent (Before the Shadows Fade). A novel based on the real fact (that I was not at all aware of) that the Haitian state passed a decree in 1939 granting Jewish refugees passports and safe passage to Haiti.

The Haitian state was born out of slave rebellion and its hero was the beautifully named Toussaint Louverture, born a slave but, as he declared himself, ‘nature gave me the soul of a free man’. Much has been written about him, especially in French, but I have an English language biography and reassessment of his legacy written by Charles Forsdick and Christian Hogsbjerg on my bookshelves, which I have yet to read.

Since we are talking about revolutions, and with the Paris Commune on my mind quite a bit this past month, let’s turn to another book, a novel set during a very tricky revolutionary time: The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov, one of my favourite Russian writers. It’s the story of a family in Kiev (somewhat similar to Bulgakov’s own) having to live through the consequences of the Russian Revolution, and all the warring factions of the Ukrainian War of Independence – the Whites, the Reds, the Imperial German Army, and Ukrainian nationalists. Although this book was banned for decades, the stage version of the book was apparently one of Stalin’s favourite ways to relax.

Many plays were banned, of course, in Communist times in Romania. One play that censorship consistently fought over with the theatre directors (and censorship usually won) was Caligula by Albert Camus. I’m not quite sure why it was seen as so inappropriate that even the filming of the performance was stopped (and the film destroyed), except that it perhaps shows the descent of a hitherto kindly despot into absolute mad tyranny.

And so we end with one of the classics of historical novels: I, Claudius, written by Robert Graves in first person, as if it were the memoir of Emperor Claudius, who was despised and marginalised by his family because of his stutter… and therefore managds to survive to become emperor and tell the tale.

From Turing to France to Haiti to the Ukraine, with a short stopover of sorts in Romania, and a slightly lengthier stint in the Roman Empire. It’s been quite a journey in time and space this month. Where will your links take you?