Jean Teulé: The Poisoning Angel, transl. Melanie Florence, Gallic Books.
When I embarked upon this book, I had no idea that it was based on a real-life case of a serial poisoner in Bretagne in the 19th century. I gather this is this author’s special niche, he takes on true crime cases or real historical figures and speculates about the gaps in their lives or their psychology and motivation.
Hélène Jégado is a little girl in Bretagne, who grows up to become a servant and a cook, and seems to believe that she is either an avenging or a just angel, that she is death’s helper, according to a local myth, and is therefore divinely guided towards ending people’s lives. Whether the real Hélène Jégado believed this, we shall never know, although some of the statements from her trial have been preserved (and are quite puzzling).
I liked the references to the Breton superstitions and gossip, but was not quite sure what the presence of the Norman wig-makers added to the story (a complete invention by the author, obviously). They keep popping up in almost every location and having bizarre, supposedly comic accidents.
The repeated accounts of poisoning entire households (and people not realising for a long time that she, the cook, might be to blame) are sprinkled with a dose of humour and detachment, but overall the story just felt a little flat. Are we supposed to shake our heads at the ‘witch hunt’ or at village superstitions and illiteracy (Hélène cannot read)? Are we supposed to be moved by her ‘love story’, that she did develop feelings for one person in her life, although it didn’t stop her from poisoning him too? I am not quite sure how to feel about this one.
Florence Noiville: A Cage in Search of a Bird, transl. Teresa Lavender Fagan, Seagull Books.
This book is also about a delusion – this time not of acting as the angel of death, but an extreme obsession with another person. I had not heard of the De Clérambault syndrome before reading this book, but I had heard of cases of celebrity stalkers and the obsessions that they can form about ‘their’ celebrities. However, in this case it is not really a celebrity, merely a fairly niche TV journalist who meets an old schoolfriend, recommends her for a job at the TV station she works for and then begins to notice and fear the unhealthy fixation her old friend develops for her.
This is written almost like a personal memoir as the narrator, Laura, uncovers more and more about this syndrome and speaks to others who have fallen victim as the ‘object of affection’. Laura has the frightening insight that there is no cure for it, no way to diminish the ardour of the person suffering from this syndrome, that each of her reactions will be misinterpreted, and that it very often escalates into violence and destruction.
It was a quick, fascinating read, written in that quite matter-of-fact, unadorned modern French style (as Leila Slimani said at an event in London – everyone in France wants to write like Camus). I found the scenes where Laura is not taken seriously by her boyfriend particularly poignant. It also has a sense of escalating danger, quite sinister, and then… I hate to say that there is a ‘twist you won’t be expecting’, because to be honest, you are sort of expecting some kind of twist… But there is a twist, and it is quite a satisfying one.
I should say that these too were new-to-me authors and I was very happy to see that this time both of my translated #FrenchFebruary reads are from independent publishers. Gallic Books were those brave publishers to bring one of my favourite French writers, Pascal Garnier, into the English-speaking world, while Naveen Kishore’s Seagull Books, based in Kolkata, India, needs no further introduction. So I can join in with Kaggsy and Lizzy’s #ReadIndies initiative.
While staying at my friend’s house near Vevey, I had the pleasure of exploring her extensive library, which contains quite a lot of French-speaking writers (since my friend is also a translator from French). So I had the opportunity to discover three new women writers.
Elsa Triolet: Roses à crédit(Roses on credit), 1958
Of course I had heard of Elsa Triolet, usually as an appendage to Louis Aragon, I’m ashamed to say. I also saw the touching documentary made about her by Agnes Varda ‘Elsa la Rose’, which is basically Aragon telling us about his love for her and Michel Piccoli reciting poetry about her and she blushing and brushing it off.
“All these poems are for you. Do they make you feel loved?”
“Oh, no! They aren’t what makes me feel loved. Not the poetry. It’s the rest. Life.”
I know she had a fascinating life: the daughter of Russian Jews, she emigrated to France, and wrote first in Russian and then in French. She met Aragon in 1928, they fought in the Resistance during WW2 and, though she joined the French Communist Party in the early 1950s, she protested vehemently against Stalinist policies. She was the first woman to win the Goncourt Prize. I had heard that after her death in 1970, Aragon kept the calendar in their house forever fixed on the day she died – because time had no meaning for him without her. But I had never read anything by her. This book is the first in a trilogy she called The Age of Nylon, which uses different characters and life stories to critique post-war French society. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the rose imagery is so strong in this book, while Agnes Varda’s documentary refers to Elsa herself as a rose.
This particular book is about the rise of the consumerist society: Martine comes from a very poor rural household, with rats and cockroaches roaming around the house, her mother ready to sleep with any man she encounters and a great number of siblings all living in uneducated squalor. She is determined to escape this misery and befriends a girl at school whose mother is a hairdresser. She becomes her apprentice and later they all move to Paris, where her neat and precise ways make her a highly-appreciated beautician. She has set her sights on marrying her childhood crush, Daniel Donelle, who stems from a family of horticulturists. He is obsessed with creating a new variety of rose with the shape of the modern rose but the fragrance of the old one. Although Martine seems to support him in this mission, in truth all she wants is a bourgeois life with all the latest ‘must haves’ (some of them in dubious taste, as Daniel observes) and she gets into terrible debt in order to create her dream life.
While this seems like a straightforward story of a mismatched couple, there is a lot of implied social critique. I love the way in which Triolet observes the little specific details of rural and urban houses and lifestyles, and somehow manages to make them truly universal (at least for post-war Europe).
We can sympathise with Daniel’s exasperation at Martine’s greediness, but I am pretty sure that Elsa Triolet, who experienced hardship and poverty herself, will have had a lot of understanding for her desire to improve herself through material possessions. I could certainly detect my mother’s traits and tendencies in this book, as well as my father’s more idealistic, less materialistic streak.
Lydie Salvayre: Marcher jusqu’au soir (Walk until Evening), 2019
It takes some convincing, but the author Lydie Salvayre finally agrees to spend the night in the Picasso Museum in Paris, where there is a Giacometti exhibition. One of her favourite works of art in the world is Giacometti’s Walking Man, which she feels expresses best our human condition ‘our endless solitude and vulnerability, but, in spite of that, our stubborn desire to continue living, our stubborn desire to persevere against all reasons for living’.
To her surprise, she experiences a sense of fear and a near panic-attack locked in with all that art and has a rant about museums, the purpose of art, whether beauty can really save us.
This becomes a pretext for her to remember her childhood with a frightening revolutionary father (whom she also describes in her Goncourt Prize novel Pas pleurer – Don’t cry), and also poke fun at the pretentiousness and snobbishness of the art world. The Walking Man intrigues and terrifies her in equal measure, for she cannot help but see it as a metaphor for humankind walking towards death and extinction, no doubt influenced also by the fact that she was undergoing chemotherapy at the time.
She skilfully weaves her own story, her acute past and present fears, with that of Giacometti the man and his art, his immense modesty, how he was never satisfied with his work and would often remodel even his so-called ‘finished’ sculptures. It is reported that he said: ‘In a fire, if I had to choose between saving a cat and a Rembrandt painting, I would choose the cat.’ (See a similar discussion in Mircea Cărtărescu’s Solenoid).
Violette Leduc: La femme au petit renard(The Lady and the Little Fox Fur), 1965
This is the saddest of the three, all the more so when we think that Leduc was very much a proponent of what we call ‘autofiction’ nowadays. This slim little volume depicts the plight of a sixty-year-old woman (considered ancient, apparently, back in the 1960s). She is so poor that she is counting out the beans for her coffee, or trying to divide six potatoes by eight days. She avoids the foodstalls in the market and spends her small change on a metro ticket, so that she doesn’t feel so alone and can feel the warmth of the crowds.
She paces up and down in her garret room, containing pieces of furniture which indicate that perhaps she was not always so down on her luck. She talks to her furniture, and you can’t help wondering if the hunger is causing hallucinations. One day, she has a terrible craving for an orange and goes down to rummage among the rubbish bins for a half-rotten orange someone might have thrown away. Instead, she finds an old fox fur. She imbues this discarded neck adornment with life, and treats it like a much-loved pet, but decides she will have to part with it. She has to sell it so she can get some money to eat.
I won’t tell you the end of the story, merely state that it is almost unbearable to read and the ending is somewhat ambiguous. Imagine a Jean Rhys heroine who has grown old and ugly, who no longer is able to find any male protectors to pay her bills, and who finds herself all alone, starving, wandering in a half-demented state through the streets of Paris.
This is all written in a breathless recitative style, a long monologue (or dialogue with the objects surrounding her), with the exception of one short chapter in which we see the woman through the eyes of others (and realise just how pitiable and weird she seems). There is something of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness style here, particularly the sections in Mrs Dalloway dedicated to war veteran Septimus Smith. Her style is raw, unfiltered, somewhat chaotic, often with no punctuation or paragraphs. It feels like someone on the edge of despair – or maybe on the verge of exploding with anger. And yet, just when we think we’ve reached the nadir, we find in our narrator and perhaps in the author herself that will to survive, that rhythmic cry of ‘I am, I am, I am’.
I was hoping to be able to place at least two of these books also under the #ReadIndies initiative, hosted by my dear blogging friends Karen aka Kaggsy and Marcia aka Lizzy Siddal, but it turns out that the proud publisher Gallimard, host of so many Nobel and Goncourt Prize winners, is no longer independent, but part of Groupe Madrigall. Better luck with my next two #FrenchFebruary reads…
The year is not quite over, so it is slightly annoying to see all of the ‘Best books of 2018’, as if there is no possibility of reading something amazing over Christmas. I, for one, am firmly convinced I will find a few corkers to keep me busy, entertained and enthralled over the holidays. However, I can share some stats about how I’ve fared this year in reading and writing, as not much is likely to change in that respect in the remaining 2 weeks. I will do a separate post on the exceptional books that I’ve enjoyed most, but closer to the very end of the year.
From Goodreads, I gather that I’ve read 128 books so far (and am likely to reach approximately 135 by the end of the year). That’s about 36,000 pages, with the shortest book being A Month in the Country (absolutely beautiful) and the longest Killing Commendatore (could have been much shorter). The most popular book I read (i.e. the one that most other people read) was I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (gripping and moving true crime account), while only one other person ever bothered to read Die Stille der Gletscherby Austrian writer Ulrike Schmitz.
There have been a few innovations for me in reading this year:
I joined the Asymptote Book Club and so was exposed to more diverse reading in translation. One example of a book that I might not have come across independently isAranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. I also followed the David Bowie Book Club for a while, which also introduced me to new books, but it seemed to peter out in May or so, or else I was unable to keep up.
I’ve tried to cut back on reviewing and read more outside my preferred genre. In addition to my usual crime fiction, poetry and literary fiction, I’ve also read historical fiction (Ahmet Altan’s Like a Sword Wound), biography (Shirley Jackson‘s was particularly memorable), romance or women’s midlife crisis fiction (Marian Keyes), plays (Tales from the Vienna Woods), political essay (James Baldwin and Susan Jacoby), true crime (Michelle McNamara) and reportage (George Orwell).
I’ve discovered new publishers like Charco Press and Two Lines Press, as well as countless ambitious poetry publishers doing wonderful work with chapbooks, such as V. Press, SAD Press, Ignition Press and Midsummer Night’s Dream Press.
However, when you read a lot, you also get a lot of dross. I’ve read more than my share of average books this year, if I’m being honest. Some proved disappointing, simply because I have high expectations of the author or the premise and reviews were too complimentary (Killing Commendatore, Conversations with Friends, Vernon Subutex). Others were quickly consumed and perfectly entertaining while reading them, but failed to make a lasting impression or stand out in a crowded field (most, though by no means all, were titles for review). I reckon about 35-40 of 130 books fall into this category, which is quite a high percentage. A couple of these quick reads every now and then is fine, but with such limited time, am I not better off reading books that will enhance my own writing or teach me something new or give me a frisson of pleasure?
Writing was nowhere near as fast, furious or voluminous as the reading. I did attempt flash fiction in an effort to get the creative juices flowing again. I’ve made a half-hearted attempt to put together a chapbook collection of my poems but haven’t sent it out yet. And I haven’t touched the novel with a barge pole. I’ve submitted less than a handful of poems (or anything, really), so it’s not surprising that I only have one publication in 2018.
Meanwhile, I’ve created over 200 posts and written over 103,000 words on this blog alone. If I were to add all the reviews I’ve done in other place, plus letters and marketing copy that I’ve created for Asymptote… I’ve been productive, yes, but not really on the things that matter most to me personally.
So there is one major lesson to be learnt from this year (even if it comes in a triptych format): time to focus on my own writing, time to read only things that nourish me and give me joy, time to cut down on my other commitments.
I found this delightful book meme with Margaret over at Books Please. It was something started by Jo at The Book Jotter. You summarise six months of reading, sorting the books into six categories. Jo suggests plenty of categories, but you can also create your own. The same book can obviously feature in more than one category.
Here is my version for 2015, with links to my reviews where those exist. I had a hard time not using the same book more than once for each of the category – that was the one rule I set for myself, so that I could present as many books and authors as possible. It is fair to assume that books I loved and authors I want to read more of are interchangeable.
6 Books I Loved
Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji – the best three months of reading, total immersion in a very strange world, yet still fully relatable
Some of them were more exciting than others, but I think I want to read more from each of these authors I’ve just discovered.
6 Books that Didn’t Live up to Expectations
Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train – entertaining enough, but quite average for my taste, despite its resounding success
Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation – poetic and thought-provoking, but ultimately too fragmented and cold for me. Perhaps suffering also in comparison to Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Days of Abandonment’, which I had read just before.
Matthew Thomas: We Are Not Ourselves – moving, well-written in parts, but just too long and trying to squeeze too much in
John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet – I loved the first book in the series so my hopes were perhaps too high for this one
Vesna Goldsworthy: Gorsky – The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite books, so I thought I’d love to see it transposed into present-day London with all of its foreign money. But alas, it didn’t add anything new…
Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilk – not the Christiane F. of the new generation of Berliners…
Sorry, they are nearly all in French. That’s because I can only talk about those books written in languages I can read other than English – and I’ve read far fewer German books this year and next to no Romanian books. This may be about to change…
6 That Don’t Fit into Any Category But I Have to Mention
There are too many new-to-me authors that I’ve discovered this year. They’ve all brought me surprise and joy: it would be unfair to rank them. However, the books on the list below did make me want to seek out everything else their authors have ever written.
Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters (review to follow shortly)