Virginie Despentes: Vernon Subutex 1 – ennui and more ennui

This book fits into no less than four categories of hashtags: #TranslationThurs, #EU27Project, #WomeninTranslation and #20BooksofSummer. However, it didn’t do much else for me! Which is a shame, because I’ve had a good experience, on the whole, with Despentes’ writing.

This time, however, she focuses on such a narrow category of arty-farty pretentious Parisians that it’s difficult to care about any of them. Vernon is a middle-aged loser, former record shop owner now sofa-surfing from one dubious acquaintance to the next. Besides, haven’t we had enough of French male midlife crisis, portrayed in so many French novels and films? I wouldn’t have expected a woman to write about it – although she supposedly makes fun of it. But for a figure of fun, we simply get too many details about Vernon and the people he mingles with.

Everyone is neurotic, narcissistic, racist, drugged to the eyeballs or all of the above. You switch quite rapidly from one point of view to the next, which does allow for comic effect (what people believe about themselves and how they are perceived by others vs. how people are actually perceived by others), but rarely digs beneath the surface of a character. Despentes has created unlikable narrators before, but then gradually revealed many more layers to them. No time for that in this rather futile, repetitive and overly long novel (and there are two more volumes of this!)

There are some good social observations, as you might expect of Despentes, but it’s simply not political enough, witty enough or engaging enough to sustain my interest. It must have been a bit of a challenge for the translator as well to use so much bad language – Trainspotting for the chi-chi media set and those funding them.

The cultural habits of the poor make him want to spew. He imagines being reduced to such a life – over-salted food, public transport, taking home less than 5000 euros a month and buying clothes in a shopping mall. Taking commercial flights and having to wait around in airports sitting on hard seats with nothing to drink, no newspapers, being treated like shit and having to travel in steerage, being a second-class scumbag… Screwing ageing cellulite-riddled meat. Finishing the working week and having to do the housework and the shopping. Checking the prices of things to see if you can afford them. Kiko couldn’t live like that… Guys like him never act like slaves…

Kiko’s job? Trader on the stock markets.

DNF

P.S. A French friend who works in publishing says it’s a ‘roman à clef’ with recognisable characters from the Parisian media world, but that is too narrow a satirical premise to appeal to me.

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Women in Translation Month: Poverty in France

WITMonth15Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few.

 

Despentes

Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse Bébé

[I read this in French, but it has been translated into English by Sian Reynolds and published by Serpent’s Tail].

Valentine, the troubled teenage daughter from a well-off Parisian family, has disappeared. The private detective her family had hired to follow her, Lucie, is out of her depth, so she partners with a creature known to everyone only as The Hyena, a secret agent with a mad gleam in her eyes, notorious for her penchant for good-looking women and her ability to make the bad boys of this world quake in their shoes. Valentine must also be the only teenager in France who doesn’t use her mobile or Facebook or any other internet platform – how to trace her?

As this strange, squabbling duo search for the girl first in Paris and then in Barcelona, they come across all walks of life. This is where the satire comes in, and Despentes spares no one. She has a ruthless eye for revealing details and a sharp tongue. She mocks and yet at the same time serves some uncomfortable home truths about the publishing world (Valentine’s Dad is an author), blended families, hustling to escape poverty, nouveau riche aspirations, the angry young people of the banlieue, the lesbian milieu, even the building boom and snobbery of Barcelona.

This book just whacks you on the head and takes you for one hell of a ride, with a blend of fierce humour, very individual voices and genuine revolt and sadness. It is to my mind a very realistic fresco of contemporary French society, with no particularly likeable characters, but certainly characters that you can understand and pity. My heart went out to the poor stepmother, Claire, who has played by the rules all of her life, lived according to other people’s expectations, and yet has encountered nothing but disappointments.

Even though I usually prefer my prose to be less direct and more measured or minimalistic, this was quite an exhilarating experience, a shock to the system.

QuinnAlice Quinn: Queen of the Trailer Park (transl. Alexandra Maldwynn-Davis)

I came across this book on Netgalley: despite the name of the author and the rather American-sounding main protagonist, it is translated from French. Under the original title Un palace en enfer it became a self-publishing phenomenon, reaching No. 1 on the Kindle bestseller list in France in 2013. Then again, France has a much lower rate of e-book penetration, so perhaps the people reading it were on the younger side. The plot is unrealistic to say the least, but it’s a bit of escapist fun.

One might call this ‘Despentes lite’: it too portrays life on the margins of society, of people whom many might call ‘losers’, but it is a book with a much more optimistic message. Fairy tales can happen. Single mothers on benefits with little education can make it good, trick the Mafia, battle corrupt officials and still bathe four children and put them to bed. The ‘trailer park’ is actually a single caravan parked outside the former railway station in a town in Southern France and sounds quite idyllic, but the language and attitude is defiantly that of what the Americans would call ‘white trailer trash’. I did like the quote: ‘People always say money isn’t everything… Don’t believe a word of it. It’s not as simple as all that. It might not buy you love, but it lifts your spirits…’

For a more thoughtful (yet just as funny) depiction of life in poverty in France, I would recommend Jeanne Desaubry: Poubelle’s Girls. Or just read the original: Despentes herself.

Quotes are not always inspirational…

For every inspirational quote, there is another that yanks us down to the bottom of the murky river bed. For every kind thought from a stranger, there is an sharp thrust of unkindness from a near one, all for your very own good, of course.

Vintage housewife, from blog4yourlife.com
Vintage housewife, from blog4yourlife.com

The way to hell is paved, crenellated, wallpapered and sandblasted with good intentions couched in cruel terminology. There is often no subtlety involved (‘obese’, ‘bags of fat on two legs’, ‘heart attack waiting to happen’), while at other times a theatrical sigh will underline that another poison arrow is striving to reach its mark: ‘I’ll only stop praying for you when you finally have found a decent job.’

Good old Dobbin, you work horse, you clothes horse. Keep on plodding and don’t take your nose out of your snuffle-bag or wardrobe until you find the right job, that makes them proud rather than you happy, the perfect dress that covers your stumps, denies your belly, turns your liabilities into assets and doesn’t cost a fortune either, into the bargain (bin)!

Then there are all of those black-and-white world views, all tinged with horrific fatality. All children of divorced parents end up drug addicts or lunatics or worse. All men cheat, all women suffer. Women punish by cutting off their noses to spite their faces. They imprison the man into vengeful marriage, piercing snide remarks, alimony payments, guilt, guilt, guilt. No matter how much men might pressure you into having babies, you will end up with the precious bundles and all their messes – they will only take the glory and successes. A boast at the office and nothing too tangly to weigh yourself down.

Meantime, princess, you’re too old, your pink too soiled, far too busy doing the things you should be doing, to waste time on creative nonsense. Life is to be endured, not to be enjoyed. We have no right to expect happiness. To be selfish. To scratch meaningless little words in short lines and call them poetry. Exchange your heels for flip-flops and wait out the ice-cube tinkling cocktail hour. Jump in and drown in the pool of your perfectly content disapproval.

We have every right to expect happiness. We were the apple, the peach, the light of our mother’s eyes. She did all she could to make us happy and was expecting you, quite frankly, to do more of the same. We cannot be happy with someone who is unhappy. What on earth do you think we should do when that happens — we’re not equipped, not trained, not interested… We twiddle our thumbs defensively. We look down, shuffle our feet, speed out the door, no longer want to be seen with this person in public. We do not want to rock the boat… unless it’s us doing the rocking. We’re worth it, but she isn’t because she wants too much, she wants the impossible. Because she is illogical, irrational, all emoting gushingness – so like a woman!

Pipe down, you shrew, your ranting is giving us all headaches! Who wants or needs feminism now anyway, when it’s proven women can have everything they want, but they don’t know how to choose wisely?

Why should we help when she ends up doing it alone anyway? How else can we prove our independence, our maturity, our love for our father, or that she is needed? These moments pass so fast, we grow up so quickly, she’ll cry later, when we leave home. She already feels the loneliness whenever we leave the house for a day, for a week, for a lifetime. She talks too much, she repeats incessantly and what she has to say we have long since stopped believing. What would each member of our family be if we were animals? A koala, a panda, a giraffe – the cuddliest and tallest all sorted. Mother? A bookworm.

Does the worm ever turn?

Virginie Despentes from www.grazia.fr. Her second volume of Vernon Subutex came out this week in France.
Virginie Despentes from http://www.grazia.fr. Her second volume of Vernon Subutex came out this week in France.

This piece of prose above has its origin in some family history, the great voices of feminism and the quote below from French writer Virginie Despentes.

Parce que l’idéal de la femme blanche, séduisante mais pas pute, bien mariée mais pas effacée, travaillant mais sans trop réussir, pour ne pas écraser son homme, mince mais pas névrosée par la nourriture, restant indéfiniment jeune sans se faire défigurer par les chirurgiens de l’esthétique, maman épanouie mais pas accaparée par les couches et les devoirs d’école, bonne maîtresse de maison mais pas bonniche traditionnelle, cultivée mais moins qu’un homme, cette femme blanche heureuse qu’on nous brandit tout le temps sous le nez, celle à laquelle on devrait faire l’effort de ressembler, à part qu’elle a l’air de beaucoup s’emmerder pour pas grand-chose, de toutes façons je ne l’ai jamais croisée, nulle part. Je crois bien qu’elle n’existe pas. (Virginie Despentes)

[The ideal of the white woman, seductive but not a slut, well married but not faded, working but without being too successful so as not to crush her husband, slender without becoming obsessed about food, forever young without having to resort to cosmetic surgery, a mother in bloom without being too overcome by nappies and homework, good housekeeper without becoming a traditional housewife, well-read but not quite as much as a man, this happy white woman that they keep brandishing under our noses, that we’re supposed to try and resemble (except when she goes ape-shit about insignificant things), well, I’ve never met her anywhere. I do believe she doesn’t exist.] (my translation, with apologies to the original)

Reading/Writing Summary for April

I could almost claim 14 books for April – except that one of them has been so massive that I am still reading it, and will be reading it for many months to come! That is, of course, Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji), which I’m reading along with brave Akylina.

greatwarOf the remaining thirteen, I had another epic doorstop of a book: The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica. You will find the full review on Necessary Fiction website shortly. This website, incidentally, is well worth a look for its thoughtful reviews of lesser-known authors and short story collections, its research and translation notes, and writer-in-residence feature. For now, let me just say this book is an ambitious, sprawling, almost encylopedic collection of stories and characters, from all the different sides fighting the First World War. Touching, humorous and ever so slightly surreal.

Six books were in my preferred genre, crime fiction. If you’ve missed any of the reviews, they are linked below (all except Cry Wolf, which I was not sufficiently enthusiastic about).

Attica Locke: Pleasantville

Rebecca Whitney: The Liar’s Chair

Michael Gregorio: Cry Wolf (Ndrangheta clans penetrating the peaceful areas of Umbria in Italy)

Karin Alvtegen: Betrayal

Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

Sarah Hilary: No Other Darkness

Child44My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month, as hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, is very, very tough, as Child 44, No Other Darkness and Pleasantville are all jostling for position. So this time I think I’ll go for the one that kept me awake all night to finish it, which was Child 44. I saw the film as well this weekend, which simplifies some of the story lines and emphasises perhaps different aspects than I would have (if I’d written the screenplay – the author was not involved in it either). But I enjoyed it, and the actors were really impressive. If you want to see an interesting discussion of book vs. film adaptations, check out Margot’s latest blog post.

Meanwhile, Pleasantville fulfills my North American requirement for the Global Reading Challenge – I don’t often get to read something set in Houston, Texas.

A lot of online poetry this month (after all, it is National Poetry Month for the Americans) and I’ve also started a poetry course organised by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But, surprisingly, I haven’t read any poetry collection.

However, I did read a non-fiction book, the funny yet thoughtful essay collection with the irresistible title 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write.

Three of the books I read this month fit into the historical fiction category, but the one I want to highlight is Fire Flowers by Ben Byrne, which gives such a poignant description of post-war Japan, something few of us know about.

Alongside the two translated books (from Swedish and classical Japanese), I also read four books in French (well above my monthly target of 1-2). These were Yasmina Khadra’s L’attentat, Philippe Besson’s La maison atlantique and Virginie Despentes’ Teen Spirit (which I’ve reviewed all together here). I also read Metin Arditi’s rather chilling description of a Swiss boarding-school for boys Loin des bras.

So, all in all, a good month of reading. Although some books felt a bit average, there were quite a few that impressed me. At least I no longer feel obliged to write lengthy book reviews about those I didn’t quite gel with (or even finish them). And I’m pleased that I am spending some time in Genji’s company again. It helps to slow down my world and see things from a very different angle.

In terms of writing, I’ve been less successful. School holidays and business travel have wreaked their usual havoc. I have, however, solved outstanding plot holes and know very clearly where everything is heading now. I have the post-it note wall to prove it! Although I’m still open to allowing my characters to surprise me a little…

WIP

So, how has your April been in terms of reading and writing? Any must-read books (dare I ask that question, dare I be tempted)? Anything you felt was overrated or overhyped? Let me know below!

 

 

 

 

Quick Reviews of Foreign-Language Fiction

I’ve fallen very far behind on my reviews, so will write brief ones for four books I’ve recently read in a vain attempt to catch up. Besides, although they are all good books, they did not quite bowl me over. I suspect that may be because I wasn’t reading the best efforts by these authors. I do want to revisit each one of them in future.

AttentatYasmina Khadra: L’Attentat (The Attack)

Absolutely terrifying and intriguing premise for this book. A suicide bomber attacks a Tel Aviv restaurant. Dr. Amine, a respected surgeon of Arab origin (but now an Israeli citizen) is working in a nearby hospital and spends all night trying to save the lives of the victims of the ensuing carnage. Then he is called in by the police: the suicide bomber turns out to be none other than his wife. Devastated by his loss and apparent blindness to his wife’s real feelings, he tries to understand what could have driven her to such a terrible action. There is no real final message from his wife, except for the one question about how we can enjoy personal happiness when the whole community is suffering. There are many descriptions of the humiliations of daily life for Palestinians living in Israel, but the book offers no simple answers, it merely raises more and more questions. I liked the even-handedness of the depiction of both Israelis and Palestinians – there are good and bad people in each group, there are friends and enemies that the narrator makes in both camps. It’s a powerful book in its depiction of the sources of anger amongst the Arabs in Israel, even though the points are sometimes made in a rather heavy-handed way.

TeenSpiritVirginie Despentes: Teen Spirit

A French author recommended by Emma, although for a different book. But this was the only novel I could find at the local library. She has a very natural internal monologue style and a great ear for dialogue. Bruno is a failed writer, sponging off his girlfriend. He believes he suffers from agoraphobia and has been unwilling to venture outside for well over two years. But then one of his first girlfriends from high-school contacts him and tells him that they have a thirteen year old daughter, Nancy, who wants to get to know him. This is the bittersweet, often funny story of how father and daughter find each other – in a way that is not at all sentimental. The story is not terribly original and the ending felt a bit abrupt, but the characterisation was very good. The teenager Nancy is suitably stroppy and impressionable, but also touching and naive at times, while her father Bruno is lazy, contradictory, selfish but increasingly protective and paternal. A quick and fun read, with perhaps some more profound messages about self-absorbed parents.

BetrayalKarin Alvtegen: Betrayal (transl. Steven T. Murray)

This was an author that both John Grant and Margot Kinberg had mentioned recently, so I followed their recommendations. The book was a bit of a surprise, not quite what I expected. It started out relatively conventionally, with the discovery of a husband’s infidelity. Eva’s feeling of betrayal and hurt turns into a desire for revenge. But then it took a darker twist, not just because the characters were for the most part unlikeable and unreliable as narrators, but also because they were making some very bad choices. Most people have said they did not like the ending and I could say things about it feeling unjust, undeserved – like real life, I suppose. It was a cleverly constructed book, that took well-worn tropes and managed to inject a note of freshness in them – as well as constant creepy menace. But there was something about the style which did not quite appeal to me; it felt too cold, detached, perhaps a reflection of Eva’s own desire to cope. Something did not ring quite genuine. But I’ll be looking out for more novels by this author.

MaisonatlantiquePhilippe Besson: La maison atlantique (The House on the Atlantic Coast)

Another author recommended by Emma (again, not this particular book). This was a rather predictable story, but the author did make the most of it. He has a limpid, clear style, very pleasant, elegant and easy to read, although with more internal musing of the first person narrator than one might expect. It’s a coming of age story, a son thwarted by his father at every turn, with predictably tragic consequences (that we’re alerted to from the very beginning, although without giving away any of the details). It would have been interesting to hear alternative points of view (and I don’t often say that about books), as it all seems to be speculation and self-justification.

So four foreign writers, three of them French-speaking, two women, two men. Luckily, they’ve all been translated to some extent.

Karin Alvtegen has had 5 psychological thrillers translated into English, all with snappy one-word titles. The best known is perhaps ‘Shame’. Yasmina Khadra’s so-called ‘extremist trilogy’ has been translated and is very thought-provoking: ‘The Attack’, ‘The Swallows of Kabul’ and ‘The Sirens of Baghdad’. Two rather controversial books by Virginie Despentes are available in English: ‘Baise-Moi’ and ‘Apocalypse Baby’. I’ve only found two Philippe Besson books in English: ‘In the Absence of Men’ and ‘His Brother’.

 

 

 

Placeholder, Admin and Other Boring Stuff

I’m on another business trip and therefore falling behind on my writing and reviewing, so be warned… This is going to be the world’s most boring blog post, mostly a reminder to self what I have read and reviewed, what still needs reviewing… yes, a To Do list!

I started off the week with a review of Child 44 – the book, rather than the film. The book was written 7 years or so ago, but I was wary of reading it because descriptions of totalitarian regimes disturb me in a way that any number of dark crime fiction thrillers cannot. And this one combines Stalinist Soviet Union with a serial killer and graphic scenes of torture? Oh, no, thank you, I thought. Yet, with the film coming out now (haven’t seen it yet, but it looks compelling) and after meeting Tom Rob Smith in Lyon, I plunged right in. It’s a wild ride: I sat up till the early hours of the morning to finish it and that doesn’t happen very often. Yes, there are minor niggles about how faithful the portrayal of fear and belief in a an oppressive state system really is, but suspend your disbelief and enjoy the thrill!

I’m also rather proud of my introduction to Latin American crime fiction. It’s not that easy to find translations into English, but I did my best with what I had. Some I’ve read, some I’ve only read about and researched – but you bet I now want to read them all!

Then there are all those books weighing on my conscience:

1) epic and encyclopedic The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica needs to be reviewed by the end of this month, preferably this week.

2) Natsume Soseki’s Light and Dark has been on my bedside table since January and I’m still not nearing the end. It is so much like Henry James’s later works and I’m struggling with all the tiny details, that I wonder if I would be able to read James again nowadays.

3) Ben Byrne’s Fire Flowers introduced me to post-war Japan – and I want to write something about Japan’s experience of WW2 and how it’s been portrayed in both Japanese literature and abroad. I wrote something similar in my B.A. thesis, but that was a loooong while ago.

4) Three new to me authors this month: Virginie Despentes, Yasmina Khadra and Karin Alvtegen. I enjoyed their books (well, ‘enjoy’ is perhaps the wrong word to use, as each of their novels is harrowing in its own way), but I wasn’t completely bowled over. Yet. I do want to read more of them before I make up my mind, though.

5) I haven’t progressed much with Tale of Genji – well, it’s a very THICK book and not easy to take with you on a trip…

6) I keep trying to resist the siren song of new releases, but I really, really want to read Sarah Hilary’s No Other Darkness. So that is next on my TBR list, along with Philippe Besson, recommended by none other than Emma from Book Around the Corner.

Next week there’s no business trip coming up, the children go back to school and hopefully there’ll be time for reviewing as well as that all-important, now-critical writing!