21 April 2014

Joseph Brotherton in Salford

 
 
'Joseph Brotherton
 1783–1857
"My riches consist not in
the extent of my possessions but
in the fewness of my wants."'
 
Close to this plaque is a much larger and much more informative one mentioning the Salford MP's concern for the abolition of child labour, better education, health and nutrition. He established the first vegetarian soup kitchens and was the founder of the Vegetarian Society in 1847. Some of these things (and a few others) I mention in my blog post on Brotherton's memorial in Weaste Cemetery linked below.

The statue, appropriately, is on the Salford side of the River Irwell. Directly opposite it on the Manchester side is its former site in Albert Bridge Gardens. Originally it was in Peel Park in Salford, by was taken down in the 1950s to make way for a college, then bought by the owner of Gawthorn Hall in Cheshire in the late 1960s and then bought back by Manchester City Council. Perhaps the Brotherton statue has now found a permanent home.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Joseph Brotherton in Weaste Cemetery

John Byrom in Manchester

 
'THE
OLD WELLINGTON
The Old Wellington existed in 1552, when Edward VI was on the throne, in what was then the Market Place and Shambles. It is now the oldest building in Manchester. In 1554 it was purchased by the Byrom family and was part residence and part drapers shop.
The third storey was added in the mid 17th century.
In 1691 John Byrom who developed phonetic shorthand was born here.
The building was licensed in 1830 and known as 'The Vintners Arms'
and later as 'Kenyons Vaults'.
By 1865 the ground floor was known as 'the Wellingont Inn' whilst the upper floors served as 'Mathematical and Optical Maker'.
The familiar large lantern already existed on the corner of the building.
In 1897 the upper two storeys became 'Ye Olde Fyshing Tackle Shoppe' and a large clock was added to the main gable.
In 1974 a concrete raft was cast under the building and the whole structure raised 1.5 metres as part of the Arndale Centre development.
A terrorist bomb caused considerable damage to The Old Wellington and the Arndale Centre in 1996.
After restoration completed in February 1997, the city centre rebuilding plan involved moving The Old Wellington some 300 metres towards the Cathedral.
Over a period of more than two years the building was dismantled timber by timber and re-erected in its new home, where it reopened in November 1999.'
 
Most sources give John Byrom's birth as 1692, and give his place of birth as Kersal Cell in Broughton, Salford. He was also a notable poet, although he is probably best remembered for coining the expression 'Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee' in relation to an argument concerning Handel and Bononcini: this was of course popularised as two identical characters in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1871).

Byrom died in 1763, spending his later years in Stockport.

Charlotte Brontë in Manchester

'CHARLOTTE
BRONTË
(1816–1855)
In 1846 The Revd. Patrick Brontë
came to Manchester for a cataract
operation accompanied by his daughter
Charlotte. They took lodgings at
59 Boundary Street West
(formerly known as 83 Mount Pleasant).
It was here that Charlotte began to
write her first successful novel
Jane Eyre.'

This plaque is on the Salutation pub in Higher Chatham Street in the Oxford Road area of central Manchester, although the pub would certainly not have existed at the time that Brontë stayed there.

My other Brontë posts:
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Haworth and the Brontës

Anne and Charlotte Brontë and Thackeray in Cornhill

20 April 2014

Hélène Grémillon: Le Confident (2010)

Le Confident (translated as The Confidant) is Hélène Grémillon's first novel and took her four years to finish. It concerns love and hate, lies and truth(s), fertility and (assumed) infertility, change and constancy,  suicide and survival, desire and jealousy, all largely set against a backcloth of the lead up to – and then the reality of – the Second World War.

I used the word 'largely' in the sentence above because the novel begins in 1975 but has very long flashbacks to the war years. This is done in what could be called an epistolary format, although the letters are frequently so long that this doesn't read at all like a conventional epistolary novel.

Le Confident is thickly plotted with four voices, although two of these are in effect ventriloquized by one of those four. Camille lives in 1975 and her voice has a non-serif typeface, whereas while Louis physically exists in the same year he is particularly mentally preoccupied with the years between 1939 and 1943 and his voice is indicated by a serif typeface. Louis – in the same typeface – repeats two long sections using what he remembers of the words of his dead lover Annie. Finally – also in the same typeface  there is the long uninterrupted voice of Camille's dead mother as repeated through Louis again.

Camille's sections are short and mainly appear in the earlier parts of the novel, although they bookend the other voices.

Camille's mother has just died and among the letters of condolence is a long narrative written (he just mentions in passing) by someone called Louis. Louis continues to send passages of his story to Camille, who initially thinks he must be doing so in error. Eventually, though, she comes to realise that Louis is in fact writing about her mother's life, of someone she didn't even know was her mother. And that Camille's biological mother Annie became pregnant by the husband of 'Madame M.' (actually Elisabeth), her 'adopted' mother.

None of the story here would have been possible without Annie and Louis's love for each other, but that's, er, another story. This is a complex novel and it is one hell of a read.

18 April 2014

Tatiana de Rosnay: Spirales (2004)

A short way into Tatiana de Rosnay's Spirales I began to think of Ian McEwan's Saturday: the smelly underclass meets the well-heeled middle class and then things rapidly spiral downhill for the main character. I was appreciating this more than any McEwan, although by the end I was thinking of Amélie Nothomb's Tuer le Père, which was the book that put me off reading any more of Nothomb's books as I felt – well – cheated, short-changed.

Hélène is a young-looking and rather naive fifty-year-old who has been married to Henri the well-respected publisher for many years and she's a good mother, good grandmother and even a good daughter-in-law in spite of somewhat trying circumstances. Although Henri has strayed sexually a few times it would be unthinkable for the saintly Hélène to do the same.

Until, that is, she strays, and with a big bang at that: yes, she falls into the arms of a younger down-at-heel Serb whose name she doesn't even know but who swiftly clues her in on her wild orgasmic potential. But they will only have one brief encounter as the man dies at her side of a heart attack. She flees and only discovers that she's left her handbag in the bedroom a few minutes before the commissaire de police phones to say he has that very bag.

So Hélène, Henri and Pablo (a Spanish author they are with that evening) go to the cop shop and Hélène explains that Zarko Petrovic (yes, he now has a name) must have stolen the bag out of her open car window, and of course she has nothing to do with the post-coital position in which he was found – no, she's never heard of him. Later she's informed that Zarko didn't die under suspicious circumstances, so she can stop worrying about DNA and such as she's off the hook.

But Hélène's worries are far from over because Zarko's twenty-year-old daughter and younger son are aware of the truth and appear at Hélène's house demanding money to keep them quiet. She must above all keep them away from Henri, so she pays them off, but of course you can never get rid of a blackmailer and Hélène's mind begins to spiral out of control as she continues to be asked for more money: the girl is pregnant, and this is a fact used to increase the stranglehold the young blackmailers have over her.

And then when Hélène visits the girl at her shabby flat she learns that Zarko wasn't her father at all, just a friend of his, like the boy who was merely a friend of hers, but it turns out that she was in the kitchen watching the two in action, and she demands 1500 euros on a monthly basis, and keeps adding extras for the baby as it grows. Unsurprisingly, Hélène refuses and in a struggle the girl falls and bangs her head on a table. She doesn't move and Hélène doesn't know if she's just unconscious or something more serious, but she swiftly leaves again anyway. After temporarily forgetting where she put the car and having a hot chocolate and a 'surreal' conversation with another woman in a café she goes through weeks of purgatory worrying about the girl and the unborn child, and a further worry is that any police can track the girl's phone history back to Hélène.

Eventually she learns that the girl has died: this means that there are now three deaths on her conscience, and she turns that fact over and over in her mind, unable to relax. And then, of course, the young guy comes knocking on the door.

But he's suddenly grown bigger and stronger and when will the nightmare end and how come she's now responsible for four deaths? Oh, it was all just a nightmare, was it? Tatiana de Rosnay's ending is far from original, and it amounts to no more than a very easy way to keep Hélène out of jail. I noticed that one person described the book as ending 'en eau de boudin', which is just another way of putting it.

15 April 2014

Shakespeare in Glossop, Derbyshire

Above of course is the very familiar figure of Hamlet reminiscing about Yorick, the king's jester, while staring at his skull. This statue niche is on the present Partington Players Theatre in Henry Street in Glossop.

The odd thing, though, is that the building began life not as a theatre but as the Glossop Liberal Club, Sir Edward Partington having laid the foundation stone in 1914 (although it wasn't completed until 1917).

14 April 2014

Delphine de Vigan: Rien ne s'oppose à la nuit (2011)

Delphine de Vigan's Rien ne s'oppose à la nuit (translated into English as Nothing Holds Back the Night) takes its title from the line 'Plus rien ne s'oppose à la nuit' in the late rock singer Alain Bashung's song 'Osez Joséphine', which was written by Bashung and Jean Fauque, and Vigan describes it as having 'a dark and daring beauty' that accompanied her throughout the time she was occupied in writing this book.

This is Vigan's 'livre de ma mère', essentially concerning her mother but necessarily also her mother's family and of course herself. The information is largely culled from people's memories, obviously including her own, and incorporates film, tapes, her mother's autobiographical writings, etc. Inevitably there must be some guesswork in the reconstruction, such as the fictionalization of dialogue.

The narrator calls her mother by her forename Lucile and describes her grandparents' household with its eventual total of nine children, although there were never nine at the same time.

Lucile's parents George and Liane and the rest of the family suffered three early losses: Antonin, who fell down a well at the age of eight; the adopted Jean-Marc, who was abused by his natural mother and died in bed from auto-erotic asphyxiation at fourteen; and Milo, who killed himself at twenty-eight and may have been involved in a suicide pact with two friends.

Lucile suffered from bipolar disorder, her daughter being used to trying to detect when a crisis would occur, when her mother would be re-admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The narrator mentions in passing that she too was briefly admitted to hospital for anorexia, which Vigan describes in Jours sans faim* (2001), translated as Days without Hunger and originally published under the pseudonym Lou Delvig.

It's quite possible that Lucile's life was traumatised by her father raping her at the age of sixteen, which is what she claimed, and the narrator finds two other women – one of them being another daughter – who were rather alarmed by George's behaviour towards them in their youth. But on the other hand Lucile's repeated written descriptions of the supposed rape don't exactly tally.

The narrator sometimes interrupts the narrative to describe how she went about finding her information and/or what difficulties she had in writing the book, and in passing she mentions Christine Angot's L'Inceste (for obvious reasons) and Lionel Duroy's Le Chagrin (as if fearing negative reactions within her own family – although certainly not from her sister Manon). Neither Marie Cardinal's Les Mots pour le dire nor Valérie Valère's Le Pavillon des enfants fous is mentioned, although there are similarities.

Towards the end of the book (and Lucile's life) the narrator says the doctor made the situation clear:

'either he put Lucile back in a chemical straitjacket, in which case she wouldn't have been able to work; or he gave her a chance to lead a normal life, and we had to accept that she expressed some irrational or suspicious ideas [...] "Like many people who aren't considered to be ill."'

She had the chance, but tragically it didn't last long.

At four hundred pages this book never flags, and it's even more riveting than the two earlier novels. I'm not too sure how she'll follow it up, but then Vigan's first directed film – À coup sûr – was released at the beginning of the year.


*The word 'faim' is pronounced the same as 'fin', and it's difficult not to see an intentional play on words.

Clip of 'Osez Joséphine', plus links to my earlier posts:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Alain Bashung: Osez Joséphine
Delphine de Vigan: No et Moi
Delphine de Vigan: Les Heures souterraines

13 April 2014

James Taylor in Royton, Oldham

 
'IN MEMORY OF
JAMES TAYLOR
"THE ROYTON POET"
WHO DIED 18TH SEPTEMBER 1863,
IN THE 70THYEAR OF HIS AGE.
AND OF MARY HIS WIFE,
WHO DIED 12TH MAY 1873,
IN THE 73RD YEAR OF HER AGE.'
 
According to a webpage written by a member of Royton Local History Society, James Taylor was born on the currently named Middleton Road near its junction with High Street. Beginning work as a handloom weaver, he moved on to a steam-driven cotton mill where he continued until he was sixty, when he began making shoe blacking and selling it from a shop near MIddleton Road.

He had no formal early education, his mother apparently fearing that he would turn into an irreligious radical, which he in fact did for a time before returning to the Christian fold.

Before the end of the 1820s he was writing poetry for magazines using the pseudonym 'poor poet'. He is most remembered for the poem 'On My Native Village' and shortly after his death a book – Miscellaneous Poems – was published by private suscription.
 
Taylor's grave was one of those moved from St John's graveyard in 1969, and is now in Royton Cemetery.

Annie Kenney in Lees, Oldham

'The workplace of
ANNIE KENNEY
1879–1953
Leading suffragette, first to be
imprisoned for direct action,
with Christabel Pankhurst, 1905
 
Women gained the full vote
in 1928'

'LEES BROOK SPINNING CO
LIMITED
1886'

Lees Brook Mill
 
Annie Kenny's autobiography Memories of a Militant was published in 1924.

12 April 2014

Ian Curtis in Macclesfield, Cheshire

I finally got round to visiting Macclesfield again: I made a post in 2009 explaining that while on the way to Atlanta (via Manchester airport) we were unable to find the kerbstone of Ian Curtis (1956–80) of the band Joy Division, although we made it to the important places in Elizabeth Gaskell's Knutsford.

Above is a photo of 77 Barton Street, Macclesfield, where Curtis lived and where he hanged himself in the back kitchen.
 
'IAN CURTIS
18-5-80
LOVE WILL
TEAR US APART'

The kerbstone memorial, which has perhaps become Macclesfield's most important feature and is certainly visited by many people from all over the world. Today was a rather miserable Saturday and no one else was there at the time of our visit:
 
But there was strong evidence that many people had visited in the recent past, leaving all kinds of tributes, including an old tee-shirt bearing the album cover from Unknown Pleasures (1979), which was recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport (featured in this blog earlier this year).

Elsewhere on this blog are photos of the graves of Martin Hannett, Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson in Southern Cemetery, Chorlton-cum-Hardy. Below I show photos of tributes above the kerbstone which attracted my attention.
 
 
 
 
 
 

9 April 2014

Tanguy Viel: Paris-Brest (2009)

Louis is seventeen and lives in a tiny apartment in Brest downstairs from his grandmother, who lives in a huge apartment and has been left eighteen million euros after the death of Albert, whose companion she was for three years. The young man's parents are in 'exile' in Palavas-les-Flots in Languedoc-Roussillon: Louis's father was vice-chair of Brest football team until fourteen million euros were found to have 'disappeared', and his father is continually insulted in the town for being responsible. After his daily dinner with his grandmother at the Cercle Marin – where Louis hates the right-wing old sailors and where his grandmother met Albert – his friend le fils Kermeur comes up to his apartment to join him and they drink wine.

Several years later – after Louis's parents have quietly returned to Brittany but not Brest, and have the ageing grandmother living with them – Louis returns from Paris for a few days over Christmas, although he cuts the visit short.

From the beginning it's clear that Louis doesn't like his parents, and his mother comes across as insufferable: she has always hated le fils Kermeur as a bad influence on Louis, and when she was in Palavas-les-Flots she used to ring her son every evening to check that he wasn't up to mischief. But he was.

We learn more about le fils Kermeur, of how he recruited Louis as a child into the petty theft of chocolate bars from a supermarket, and later how he encouraged Louis to burgle his grandmother's apartment. Shortly after the theft Louis left for Paris, where he rented a place in Paris overlooking Luxembourg. There, he fulfilled his ambition to be a writer.

Louis's 'family novel' is completed but must never see the light of day until his grandmother's death. It contains a great deal of information about Louis's family, and although it's fictionalised (with names and some facts changed) it to a certain extent falls in the relatively recent sub-genre of 'autofiction'. But this is not the book we're reading – which begins with a brief history of Brest – as the 'family novel' begins with grandmother's death.

Other things are different. In Paris-Brest they escape from the burglary with impunity, although in Louis's family book his mother finds le fils Kermeur out and is responsible for his imprisonment. When he gets out he seeks revenge and the whole of Louis's book leads up to le fils Kermeur cornering his mother in order to kill her. Obviously the reader now expects that this last part of Louis's book will come true and le fils Kermeur will in fact kill her in Paris-Brest.

But this is not to be and there's just a little bonfire of Louis's book. It's futile though, as he's caressing a memory  stick in his pocket and will soon be back in Paris and out of his family's life for ever.

Interestingly, Tanguy Viel not only shares the same publisher as Laurent Mauvignier but is also a friend of his.

8 April 2014

Olivier Adam: Les Lisières (2012)

Lisières means fringes or edges, and in Les Lisières relates to a large number of things. Paul Steiner grew up in V., a town in Essonne on the fringes of Paris, although with his wife Sarah he moved to Brittany, to a town in Finistère, on the fringe of France.

Now Sarah has left Paul for good, taking their children Clément and Manon, whom he now only has access to once a fortnight. But he can't accept this, can't face up to the fact that his wife has left him and that his children will grow up largely not knowing their father. He obsesses over his situation, making his already unstable mental state worse, and he can't stop drinking. He seems to be on the edge of his sanity, the edge of his own existence, half a person (and yes, The Smiths are mentioned in passing a few times).

As a depressive hooked on various kinds of medicines as well as drink (mainly whisky), Paul is understandably attracted to kind of literature and music that many consider miserable – like his books, which he writes as therapy. Many times, Paul uses a form of the verb 'engloutir' (meaning to swallow up, to devour), and this seems very appropriate to the existence of Paul and most of the other characters, whose lives are eaten up by desperation, hatred, resentment, envy.

Paul has regularly made an annual visit from his seaside bolthole to his parents' house in V., always dreading the return to the Parisian fringes weeks before obligation calls for him to spend several hours with them. So it comes as an added imposition that he should be expected to spend some days at his childhood home and attend to his cantankerous father while his mother is in hospital for an operation.

This return is an opportunity for the book – and Paul himself – to veer off into memories of earlier days. The experience is a strain on Paul, as his father (he feels) has never really liked him, and is certainly a man of few words, those usually being accusatory and full of complaints about his son and the world in general.

And Paul meets a number of his old school friends, giving some prime opportunities for them to to critise him too for refashioning characters in his books from the real people in V., in fact – as one puts it – for being a 'post-adolescent wanker'.

Even Sophie – the girl he used to lust after in school, who married her much older lover, and who also unbeknown to Paul has always lusted after him – has some criticisms for his writing. But at least she has read him, and when her husband Alain is away and her children at school she takes him into the woods and they consumate their relationship voraciously. She even follows him back to Brittany for more sex and cuddles, only to be followed by Alain, attempt suicide, be saved by Paul, and finally be taken back to a psychiatric hospital near her home on the fringes: much of the time she too is on the fringe of madness.

Paul sees that his family's religion is denial, and this is particularly true of his father, who denies (as his wife has always told him to) that the photo which fascinates Paul – that of a very young baby with tubes attached him – is of his twin, and says he's never had a twin. But Paul's mother (now on the fringes of Alzheimer's) has told him that he did have a twin, but that he died after only three days. Paul later discovers that this is true, and this is of course a vindication of the fact that he has always thought he's had something missing, that there's something wrong with him, and believes that this explains his parents' lifelong coldness to him.

Les Lisières is to some extent autobiographical and Olivier Adam lost thirty-five kilos writing this long book, his eleventh novel and most probably his best. There is a strong political content and Paul is incensed that his father – who once voted for the Parti communiste – now feels that the number of immigrants in France means that he can no longer call the country his own and will no doubt (like a depressingly large number of once left-inclined voters) support the extreme-right  'la Blonde' (the narrator being unable to bring himself to utter the dreaded name Marine Le Pen): we could of course call him a man of the fringes too, clinging on to a belief in a past France that never in fact existed.

Other characters – some being past friends of Paul's, one being a particularly articulate taxi driver – are more politically aware, aware that the major political parties are in thrall to market forces, that the nation's wealth has been handed over to big business, and that only a handful of people now own the country, and are forever trampling on the huge majority of the dispossessed population. Yes, of course Adam is feeding his characters with his own words – after all, what else do most writers do?

And speaking of twins, I'd put this after Agota Kristof's 'Trilogie des jumeaux' as the second best piece of literature I've read so far this year: this is an excellent book, a depressing outsider's delight.

Ian Cross: The God Boy (1957)

Ian Cross's New Zealand classic The God Boy reads at first like a young adult novel, until you realise that this is interstitial literature narrated by a thirteen-year-old boy recalling his previous life, in particular the disturbing events which occurred when he was eleven: the truth is often between the lines, part of which others hide from him, part of which he hides in self-deception.

Jimmy Sullivan is the narrator, a New Zealander of Irish descent whose parents send him to a Roman Catholic school and in whose God he at first wholly believes, although strong doubts come into play towards the end of the book.

In the background to the story, the background to Jimmy's consciousness, are the fights Jimmy's parents have, although the background becomes the foreground and he's very much aware of some things, aware of the alcoholism of his father, of his frequent taunting of his wife which lead his mother to desperate measures.

It will be a while before Jimmy comes to realise that his mother's not in hospital but in jail for killing her husband. Obviously though, Jimmy himself is also a victim, mentally destroyed by his dysfunctional family.

Annick Pérez: Je cherche Goldie (2002)

Tia – mysterious, young and beautiful – is allergic to reality. She ran away from the death of her sister Monique, from the doctor, from the funeral. She is now running towards Goldie, a mysterious man who has written a succès de scandale concerning the Shoah that has made him the enemy of many, and who now travels incognito. Tia doesn't really want to find him, though, as it would be horrifying to find the person she's looking for.

There's a profound truth in this of course – that once we have what we want we no longer want it. However, the other main character in this story – Hugo Klein, a successful writer from the same publishing stable as Goldie who comes to know Tia in her search for the elusive man – is living in hell: he's found his ideal woman but can't stop having sex with her, he's obsessed with her and she's driving him mad. Can Tia save him from himself?

No, she can't. As Tia feels she knows who Goldie is and tries to cross an uncrossable barrage of lies, what else can she run towards? Obviously the dead Monique: foot on the accelerator. A very odd, and – oddly – gripping book.

J. G. Ballard: Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography (2008)

Written quite a short time before his death from prostate cancer, J. G. Ballard's autobiography is relatively short, often amusing, and remarkably gentle on almost everyone, even – rather scarily for a republican such as Ballard – the Queen of England.

Perhaps unexpectedly, almost half of the book covers Ballard's first sixteen years – his growing up in the International Settlement of Shanghai, where he was born into his parents' comfortable lifestyle, considerably cocooned from the realities of China itself, and then his rather surprisingly happy days in the World War II prison camp.

The book charts Ballard's progress towards becoming a writer, one of the few writers of science fiction to break through to the mainstream, although he perhaps only became really recognised after the autobiographical The Empire of the Sun (1984), particularly after it was filmed in 1988. And of course this success was enhanced by more than a touch of infamy (a reaction scorned by Ballard) on the filming of Crash (1973) by David Cronenberg in the 1990s.

It slightly surprised me to learn of Ballard's friendly relationship with Kingsley Amis (before he became a reactionary bigot), although he notes that he had relatively little contact with the literary scene. He speaks warmly of his long friendship with fellow SF writer Michael Moorcock (now based in Texas), and of very stimulating conversations with Will Self and Iain Sinclair, and he has only bad words for the wife-bashing B. S. Johnson.

I don't think I have a bad word to say about Ballard's autobiography: as I said at the beginning, it's rather short, but then so was the time in which he had left to write it.

Véronique Olmi: Cet étè-là (2010)

There's a paragraph on pages 101 to 102 in Véronique Olmi's Cet étè-là when fifty-five-year-old Denis talks about his mother, who at times 'loses her head', and Denis asks himself 'why should words always exactly express our thoughts?'. He sees his mother as 'deconstruct[ing] the world and its logic', and they both find themselves laughing stupidly at something others tend to cry over. I found this a fascinating moment, although I have to say that it's the only moment in the book when I thought that Olmi was beginning to speak to me, to break out of the rather conventional content of the novel and begin to say something of real interest. There are certainly a number of moments of interesting psychological insights in the book, although I felt that this paragraph was never surpassed.

Right from the first paragraph we know that there's something wrong – at least from Denis's wife Delphine's point of view – with their marriage: as with 14 July holiday weekends for the last sixteen years, the couple have invited friends to join them at their holiday home in Coutainville on the Cotentin peninsula in the north-west, and Delphine thinks the more people there the better, as they put more distance between herself and Denis.

We know virtually from the beginning that Delphine is leaving Denis for good, and there are problems in the relationships of the other two adult couples. Lola is thirty-eight and regularly comes with a new boyfriend – this time it's with the twenty-six-year-old Samuel, who unsurprisingly comes across as somewhat immature to her: Lola can already see the end. And there are Nicolas and Marie, who are more Delphine and Denis's age, and have been married for many years, although for three years Nicolas has been keeping a secret from her: his breakdown was caused by the fact that he was most probably responsible for the suicide of a female teacher colleague who was having an illicit relationship with a male pupil.

The three couples are of varying financial circumstances, although they're all middle class, but with different reactions to the strange Caliban-type figure Dimitri, a surprisingly shy twenty-year-old who befriends Denis and Delphine's daughter Jeanne (aged sixteen). He's a young man of few – but very unsettling – words who will affect all the characters: Delphine is frightened for Jeanne's (sexual) safety, Nicolas fears that he's the brother of his dead colleague come to seek revenge, Lola is reminded of the child she had at sixteen whom she was forced to send away, etc. The major statement he makes is to say that the pine tree near Denis and Delphine's house is dying: the tree is the main thing that distinguishes the couple from the others, where people congregate, and is an important symbol of their little community.

Towards the end – after the traditional firework display in the village – there's the high drama of Jeanne going missing with Dimitri*, and then, well, nothing much at all: the end of the book is something of a damp squib.


*I forgot to mention that Jeanne doesn't seem to be interested in her smartphone too much. What? She's sixteen! Now that really is stretching credibility to its limits to make way for the plot.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Véronique Olmi: Le premier amour

2 April 2014

Yann Moix: Partouz (2004)

For the first time in a long time, I was unable to finish a book: that is indicative of the level of boredom to which I felt subjected by Yann Moix's Partouz.

In the literary magazine Le Matricule des anges no. 57 (October 2004), Ludovic Bablon gives a scathing review of this novel that he claims isn't a novel. For a French periodical to state such a thing seems very strong to me, as the expression 'roman' (the equivalent to our word 'novel') is generally accepted in France to cover a number of written works that in Britain would just not come under that term: plainly autobiographical works, short stories bundled together by a common theme, novellas, collections of ramblings notes, etc. So what is it about this book?

Bablon clearly intended a strong criticism. Partouz – which gives the Arabic transliteration of 'partouze', a word with the same meaning in both French and English – is divided into four parts, although by the time I reached halfway I'd not got through the second part but had read just over 200 pages. The central premise of the first part – which in large part concerns the Twin Towers terrorist Mohammed Atta – is that Atta became a terrorist out of sexual frustration, and the narrator invents Pamela Wiltshire, a girl he says Atta was lusting after. The narrator is experiencing his first partouze and feels somewhat uncomfortable, although he gives vivid descriptions of the many sights he sees: yes, it's something of a porn novel.

The second section is called 'Masturbator' and painfully reconstructs the history of the narrator's masturbatory activities and fantasies, and after so many pages I just gave up. I thoroughly enjoyed Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Brian Aldiss's Hand-Reared Boy – both books having wanking as their main subject – but Partouz? Oh no. The critic who wrote 'Moi, Moi, Moi!' of him (I forget the name) seems spot on.

The reason I'd started this book was as a kind of preparation for Moix's Naissance , which won the prix Renaudot last year for this 1200-page door-stopper (brique in French), and I was testing the water. And it just seems to be all about Moix's birth, with many digressions. Yeah: Moi(x), Moi(x), Moi(x).

However, Frédéric Beigbeder's infuriating yet fascinating Premier bilan après l'apocalypse (2011), which I reviewed earlier and which lists his favourite 100 books, includes Moix's Podium (2002) at number 79, and tells me something I didn't know: Partouz is Moix's second volume of his second trilogy, which begins with Podium and ends with Panthéon (2006). Beigbeder says Podium is about 'fame, the new opium of the people', and that sounds interesting. Plus, his Jubilations vers le ciel (1996) won the prix Goncourt for first novel. I don't give up easily, so I'll no doubt get back to Moix when the occasion presents itself.

24 March 2014

Véronique Olmi: Le premier amour (2009)

When Emilie notes that her first lover Dario wants to see her she almost immediately hops into her car and begins the drive from Paris to Genova, Italy. Despite the fact that she's just spent hours preparing for a loving evening celebrating her twenty-five years of marriage to her husband Marc, and despite the fact that she hasn't seen Dario for thirty years and has no idea why he wants to see her.

It's hardly surprising that no one understands what she's up, let alone herself: like Dario, she's now about fifty, although unlike him she has three daughters who have all left home. This is part of the problem: she feels lost, and even tells her eldest – Zoé – that Dario is the only man she's ever loved. Unsurprisingly, Zoé walks away from her mother in disgust, and Emilie at least has the honesty to admit that she'd have done that same.

Emilie meets Zoé on the journey down because Zoé lives in Marseilles and guesses that her mother will pay a visit to Christine (Emilie's sister who has Down's syndrome) in a home not far from Aix-en-Provence, the town where Emilie spends the night. This is the last of a series of meetings that Emilie has made on her way to Italy, although the others have been with strangers, and have had a weirdness that seems to indicate an almost allegorical significance, although that's clearly not intended.

When Emilie arrives at Dario's wealthy home she's surprised to be greeted by Giulietta, his wife of twenty years: something's made Dario lose his memory and Giulietta – who's discovered some diaries that her husband wrote about his obviously enduring memories of Emilie – hopes that her presence will be able to jog his mind out of its amnesia.

Alas, this is fruitless, and attempts to reconstruct the cause of the trauma only worsen things considerably. Dario had grown very attached to Malika, a ten-year-old daughter of illegal immigrants who was a kind of daughter substitute he used to regularly give presents to. But one day when he's trying out his new car the sun gets in his eyes and he hits the young girl, who dies a few days later. Two years after the trauma reconstruction Dario's grief kills him.

This is a very quick read – despite the 278 pages – and frequently a gripping one, but it expects far too much credence on the part of the reader, particularly with the primum mobile. Er, so in preparation for the wedding anniversary celebration Emilie goes to the cellar to fetch a bottle of wine and finds it wrapped up in a copy of Libération, from which she reads a message apparently from her ex-lover telling her to go to his home in Italy, which is exactly what she does. And for some reason Giulietta chooses to leave just one message in a left-leaning newspaper in the hope that Emilie will see it. Umm. These days of course, people simply go to Facebook or Twitter, etc, but we know she's tried Facebook (which Emilie doesn't have an account with) and anyway that would ruin the plot, letting Emilie (and of course the reader) know in advance what would happen when she arrived in Genova. Modern technology continues to make things difficult for authors, which is obviously why Emilie conveniently forgets her phone. The major problem is that it's all too contrived, all so unbelievable.

And why, Livre de Poche, do you show a photo of a much younger woman in the rear view mirror on the cover? Rhetorical question of course.

21 March 2014

Calixthe Beyala: L'Homme qui m'offrait le ciel (2007)

The back cover of Calixthe Beyala's novel L'Homme qui m'offrait le ciel ('The Man Who Promised Me the Earth') reads:

'Elle est noire, africaine, célibataire et mère d'une ado rebelle. Il est blanc, occidental, marié sans enfants. Entre eux, un amour fou. Une rencontre improbable, elle qui se bat pour les déshérités, lui qui vit dans un monde de célébrités. Et pourtant ils vont s'aimer... L'homme qui m'offrait le ciel est le récit d'une passion absolue. Mais la passion peut-elle lutter contre les pressions sociales, le confort des habitudes et la peur de l'innconnu ?'

My translation:

'She is black, African, unmarried and the mother of a rebellious adolescent daughter. He is white, western, married without children. Between them, a crazy love. An unlikely encounter, she fighting for the disinherited, he living in the world of the famous. And yet they will love each other... 'The Man who Promised Me the Earth' is the story of an all-embracing passion. But can this passion conquer social pressures, the comfort of habit and the fear of the unknown?'

Calixthe Bayala was born in Cameroon in 1961, which she left for France when she was seventeen. She is noted for her passionate support for the amelioration of the lives of African peoples.

For two years, between 2004 and 2006, she had a relationship with the television presenter Michel Drucker. This book, in which the first person narrator is the writer Andela and her lover François, is a fictionalisation of that relationship, and the book caused quite a stir in France on its publication in 2007.

L'Homme qui m'offrait le ciel describes the relationship between the Andela and François in some detail, from the increasingly frequent dinners, through the first physical embrace in a car which was interrupted by the police, to the mad love scenes during which Andela – twenty years the junior of the sixty-year-old François – teaches him the meaning of love: François is married, although he has slept separately from his wife without sexual contact for many years. But his profession depends on his wife.

Andela and François become increasingly attached to each other and he makes no attempt to hide the relationship from the public and in private he speaks of his dreams of moving to Africa with her, setting up a school and getting involved in humanitarian work. Andela never dreams that he will leave her, although the abrupt break comes via a telephone call from a friend of François's, who can't even bring himself to tell her in person.

The title may sound like this is a bitter novel, but it isn't, although it could easily have been so: towards the end, François asks Andela what the press and the country would say if they learned that he had left his wife for a black woman.

This is writing as therapy, and it is spellbinding.

20 March 2014

Sorj Chalandon: La Légende de nos pères (2009)

Previously a schoolteacher and then a journalist, Marcel Frémoux now receives commissions to write the life stories of people who want their experiences – or the experiences of their friends or relatives – translated into book form.

He is moved when a customer, the surgeon Lupuline Beuzaboc, contacts him to put together her railworker father's Resistance stories: Marcel's own father worked for the Resistance, although he never told his son anything of his experiences: Lupuline's father can therefore become a kind of proxy. It's more convoluted than that though.

Working on Beuzaboc's autobiography with him, Marcel soon comes to realise that Beuzaboc is lying about his heroic actions during the Resistance: bedtime stories he told the young Lupuline about killing a German in Lille, looking after an English airman, having his leg ripped apart by a bomb in the war, etc. Eventually Beuzaboc (which is also an invented name) implores Marcel to write the truth in the book, as he doesn't want to die leaving his daughter and friends believing a lie.

His daughter is already aware that these are lies – although neither Marcel nor the reader is until the end – but this leaves Marcel in a dilemma: should he tell the truth and expose Beuzaboc according to his wishes, or should the book continue as planned with all the lies?

Some people's lies are of course often other people's truths. Marcel sees a kind of vindication of his father's unrecognised work – and by extension that of others working against fascism in the Resistance – by writing Beuzaboc's original lies, which after all (apart from the very real events at Ascq, which Marcel resolutely omits) are at face value mere children's fantasy tales: so paradoxically, a kind of truth emerges through (and in spite of) the lies.

The structure of this novel strongly resembles a play, often in the form of a conflict between two people – Beuzaboc and Marcel. And I can see a resemblance here between this and Amélie Nothomb's crazy novels, but then I've probably read too many of her books for my own good. This is my first Chalandon though, but there's no reason why it should be my last.

19 March 2014

Maurice Leblanc L'Aiguille creuse | The Hollow Needle: (1909)

Crime novels are far from my staple literary diet, although a short time ago I read Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin Gentleman Cambrioleur and was impressed. With a few reservations, I'm impressed with L'Aiguille Creuse (The Hollow Needle) too.

L'Aiguille Creuse is largely set in the Pays de Caux in Normandy, which can – as Leblanc describes it – be fairly accurately located in the triangular area between Le Havre, Dieppe and Rouen, with the north being the coastal strip between Le Havre and Dieppe, the south being the River Seine between Le Havre and Rouen, and to the east the valleys between Dieppe and Rouen.

Without going too much into the wildly unbelievable story – which includes murders, mistaken identity, obsessive sleuthing, incredible coincidences by the bucketful (no exaggeration), nail-biting chases and an ineffectual, Spoonerised Sherlock Holmes (as Herlock Sholmès) – L'Aiguille Creuse is essentially a battle of wits between Lupin and Isidore Beautrelet.

Lupin is a highly intelligent burglar and a kind of anarchistic would-be aristocrat – in the end he'd like to be remembered by having rooms in the Louvre named after him for instance – and Beautrelet is a fantastically gifted seventeen-year-old student of rhetoric at a lycée who is more a match for Lupin, who two thirds of the way through has to confess that the 'Bébé' is much more dangerous to his success as a thief than the inept police chief Ganimard or the bungling English dick Sholmès.

Fortunes swing to and fro for the two main characters here, and Beautrelet goes from hero for saving his father and Raymonde de Saint-Véran from the amorous clutches of Lupin – as well as discovering that L'Aiguille creuse is the château de L'Aiguille in the département of Creuse – to cry-baby when he finds that Lupin is one step ahead and knows that the château is a red herring netted by none other than Louis XIV. And then, when Beautrelet works out that the real Aiguille creuse is in fact the hollowed rock formation off the coast of Étretat* (incidentally the town where Leblanc used to live), he is shocked to learn that Lupin (using another identity) has in fact married Raymonde.

Lupin's fortunes swing too – not only is he upstaged by a schoolboy upstart, not only does he have to give up his luxury home in the hollow needle surrounded by kings' treasures and priceless paintings by old masters, but Sholmès shoots his beloved wife dead.

Maybe I just felt in the mood for a little light reading but – in spite of the old-fashioned-sounding words ('diable !', 'damnation !', 'gredin' ('rascal')), etc, instead of more modern words like 'putain', 'connard', and so on, I was quite surprised how fresh a lot of this seems, how crazy, and well, how enjoyable. I won't be turning Lupin into a reading habit, but all the same Leblanc a very good writer...

*No, it's not hollow in real life.

18 March 2014

Emmanuel Carrère: D'autres vies que la mienne | Lives Other than My Own (2009)

Emmanuel Carrère's D'autres vies que la mienne – trans. by Linda Coverdale as Lives Other than My Own in the American and Other Lives but Mine in the English edition – is perhaps self-explanatory to anyone acquainted with Carrère's previous work: it's an attempt to move away from self-preoccupation and on to the lives of others.

This is a true story, although not exactly a linear one, which concerns itself essentially with three things – the 2004 tsunami in south-east Asia; excessive debt and two judges working in that area; and his sister-in-law's early death from cancer.

Carrère closely but indirectly experienced the effects of the tsunami when on holiday in Sri Lanka with his partner Hélène and their two sons, each by a former companion. A family staying in the same hotel lose their daughter Juliette, and the narrative reconstructs the effects of this death and others in such a way that painfully and skilfully describes large and tiny details. This section is particularly powerfully written.

When the family returns to Paris the author's sister-in-law (also Juliette) dies, leaving three daughters and a husband who is earning much less money than his judge wife. Juliette had one leg amputated, as did a her close friend Étienne, and Carrère begins the first of a number of interviews with Étienne about his life, his sympathetic (left-wing) work as a judge of victims of excessive debt, and his relationship with his colleague Juliette, who is doing similar work.

At first I couldn't see the where the tsunami fitted in, but at the end it's clear that the effects of the tsunami are to a certain extent mirrored – but in a smaller way – in the third part, which concerns the death of one person: the interest is still on the effects, the small details of tragedy.

Some critics had previously seen Carrère as something of a narcissistic writer, although I think he redeems himself in this book – parts of which are quite devastating.

Below is a link to another Carrère book:
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Emmanuel Carrère: Un roman russe

17 March 2014

University of Manchester plaques #5: Anthony Burgess

'THE UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER
commemorates
ANTHONY BURGESS
1917–1993
Writer and Composer
Graduate
BA English 1940'

This plaque is on the Samuel Alexander Building.

Below is a link to an earlier much longer post I made on The International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

14 March 2014

Trouble on Louis Golding's Magnolia Street

Censorship in its most common form is self-censorship, something we do every day to prevent ourselves from going too far due to all kinds of considerations: losing our temper, our job, friendship, or just to avoid hurting people and so on. This form of censorship is expressed by omission, half-truths or simple lies. It exists of course in written form, which more or less serves the same functions.

But the censorship of other people's work is a different issue entirely, and there have to be very good reasons for it, such as the fear of legal action.

There are some (often famous) examples of literary censorship, such as Jessie Pope's ruthless excision of much of Robert Tressell's The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists – yes, he'd of course already self-censored the title to the milquetoast 'Ragged-Trousered' but the original text was restored by Lawrence & Wishart much later; there was the puscillanimous censoring of much of the sexual content of Lawrence's Sons and Lovers by Edward Garnett (about one tenth of the book), until Baron & Baron came along and restored the text; then there was the horrendous butchering in the 'translation' (to give it a vastly unmerited description) of Beauvoir's The Second Sex by the anti-feminist, non-philosopher, French-literature-deleting H. M. Parshley, who managed to cut the text by a quarter, although Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier's (translated and restored) text has still received criticism: luckily, I was able to read it in the original French.

My main point, though, is that – obviously painfully in the case of the ever-thorny issue of translation – the modern drift is towards a scholarly view of the original text, restoring it where it can be restored, ever heeding what is thought to be the final intention of the author.

What, though, are we supposed to think when we already have a final text but someone decides to censor it on the grounds that the text might cause offence? A recent case that came up was the changing of well over 200 instances of the word 'nigger' to 'slave' in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. The argument, of course, is that the word 'nigger' is insulting to black people so it must be altered to conform to present-day sensibilities. Many people – particularly academics – were shocked by this measure, as indeed they should have been: irrespective of the fact that Huck Finn is a major work of literature, irrespective of the fact that at the time the word 'nigger' had no pejorative connotations, and irrespective of the fact that Huck Finn is in no way a racist work (in fact quite the opposite), it is very wrong to interfere with an original text in this way.

That there are problems cannot be denied: the teaching of Huck Finn in schools must be handled maturely and with much tact. But in no way should any word of the original text be altered.

It therefore came as a shock to me when I saw that the word 'nigger' had been changed in the Five Leaves edition of Louis Golding's Magnolia Street. On inquiring I discovered that Ross Bradshaw was responsible for this action: unsurprisingly, he finds the word 'nigger' 'outrightly offensive'. So do I, although Magnolia Street was written in 1932, when is was not considered offensive: by censoring, you are dehistoricizing the novel, attempting to wipe away historical usage of language, altering an original text which should be left alone. This smacks not so much of misguided political correctness as of paternalism. Am I correct in assuming that no one else was consulted when this decision was made?

Unlike Huck Finn, Magnolia Street is not even freighted with the iconic baggage of being in the educational canon: at 500-plus pages, such a tome never risks being on any syllabus below undergraduate level.

So what is the problem? Totally misguided censorship is the problem. I spoke to Ross about the issue on 10 March 2014, and he pointed out that I was the first person who had ever expressed any objection to his censorship, although my esprit de l'escalier prevented me from saying the obvious: the tiny note in the book – which explains the reason for the censorship – is probably only noticed by a few footnote junkies like me, so how would anyone know they were reading a censored work anyway? (There are not even any footnotes or endnotes indicating where the text has been changed.)

To sum up: the censorship of this book is a major error: anyone using the novel for scholarly purposes must refer to the original text.

Below is a link to the blog post that occasioned this post. Also included below is a link to a two-year-old Guardian article on a censored Huckleberry Finn edition – the many comments are almost as interesting as the article itself:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Ross Bradshaw: 'The "n" word'

Benedicte Page: New Huckleberry Finn edition censors 'n-word'

12 March 2014

Patrick Deville: Peste & Choléra | Plague & Cholera (2012)

Patrick Deville's Peste & Choléra – now translated as Plague & Cholera – won the Prix Femina in 2012. It is a largely biographical novel about Alexandre Yersin (1863–1943), who was born in French-speaking Switzerland.

Yersin had a brilliant brain – he was a scientific researcher who worked with Pasteur, was a ship's doctor, a tireless globetrotter, an inventor, a horticulturist, and many more things, always seeking to learn more. His most noted achievement was the discovery of the bubonic plague bacillus in 1894, as well finding a vaccine for the disease.

He spent many years in the then tiny Nha Trang in Vietnam, where he created his paradise and where he died. Deville describes his restlessless thus:

'At night, if Yersin is bored, he draws up plans for a water tower. And next day he starts building the water tower. For forty years, from all parts of the world, he will choose the most beautiful natural things and bring them back to Nha Trang – plants and animals, trees and flowers.' (My translation.)

Deville finds that the person in history Yersin has most in common with is Dr David Livingstone, although throughout the book he also makes references to writers who are also known for their travels: Joseph Conrad, Blaise Cendrars, Rimbaud, and Céline for instance. These are some of the novel's digressions/comparisons with which Deville punctuates his novel, and although the book follows a generally chronological pattern, there are a number of anachronisms relating to his subject's life which seem to be randomly thrown in. In some respects, the rambling nature of the narrative (not a criticism) reminded me of Iain Sinclair.

Patrick Deville presents an amazing man of whom I'd never heard before, and for whom the author obviously has a tremendous amount of respect – he visited the many places in the world Yersin went to. I thought it very interesting that Deville also said of him:

'He wanted to protect himself from the world, create his own quarantine area, a garden cut off from the world, viruses, politics, sex and war.'

He was never sexually or romantically associated with anyone: could it be that asexuality was a major driving force behind his insatiable lust for knowledge?

11 March 2014

Linda Lê: Lame de fond (2012)

Linda Lê's Lame de fond (perhaps best translated as 'Tidal Wave', as the cover perhaps suggests) reached the final stage of the 2012 Prix Goncourt before being trumped by Jerome Ferrari's Le Sermon sur la chute de Rome.

The novel is in four major parts corresponding to different parts of the day, from the heart of the night to twilight, and within each of those parts are monologues by four different people, but not always in the same order of speech.

Van begins. He has very recently been buried in the Cimetière de Bobigny after accidentally (I think we are given to believe) being run over by his drunken wife  Lou.

Lou has been married to Van for about twenty years and they have a teenaged daughter called Laure.

Laure is a goth with a friend called Tommy.

And Ulma is Van's lover, whose flat Van had just left at 2 o'clock in the morning when Lou mowed her husband down.

That is the story, just as it is: the emphasis here, as we might expect from Lê, is not on what happens (or rather, doesn't happen), but on the psychological interplay between the characters: Lou is to be tried for her killing Van, although the interest lies not in if she is imprisoned or set free (which we never learn), but in the events which happened before Van's death.

Van was born in Vietnam to Vietnamese parents, although his father left the family to join Hô Chi Minh's forces and Van left for France when he was fifteen, where he was educated and permanently lived there as a proof reader.

Van was obviously more attached to his mother than his absentee father (who was later killed), and Lou was much more attached to her father than to her racist mother, who severed all connections with her daughter on her marriage to a Vietnamese.

Laure is not academically brilliant, and her father tries to 'correct' her grammar and her slang, although it is a fruitless. Nevertheless, Laure looks back on her childhood with nostalgia, and misses her father's pedantic ways.

It is Ulma who in a number of ways brings on the fateful event, although she, like the other characters, does not come across unsympathetically. The product of a hippie, globe-trotting and free-loving French mother Justine and a week-long relationship with a Vietnamese man in Paris, Ulma is largely brought up by her grandmother.

As a mark of how little importance suspense has in the book, the back cover informs us that Ulma is Van's half-sister. It is Ulma's eventual decision to send Van a letter informing him that he has a sister which brings on the lame de fond. Ulma's four monologues are written as if she were talking to her long-term psychiatrist, although her final monologue reveals that she no longer has any need of him.

Van meeting Ulma is a coup de foudre, an experience in which both see themselves in the other, and begin the incestuous relationship that will not only lead to Van's death, but occasion all the monologues in the book.

I'm not certain that Laure comes across as a fully developed entity rather than a somewhat stereotypical youth figure, but it was fun reading her (and Tommy's) expressions. The main potential problem, I think, is in how to persuade the reader to continue reading when virtually all suspense has been stripped away. It definitely worked for me, and I loved the book, although I suspect that not all people would read it in this way.

6 March 2014

Agota Kristof: Le Troisième mensonge |The Third Lie (1991)

This, then, is Le Troisième mensonge, the third volume of La Trilogie des jumelles (The Twins Trilogy), and it changes a great number of things. I'd begun to wonder if there were any hard-fast truths to the books, as there seemed to be so many 'lies', so much unreliable narration.

And that is one thing that's true: a lot has been unreliable, and although this doesn't stop in the final volume, all becomes clear in the end. However, if La Preuve began to set my head turning, this one made me feel on several occasions as if it were being kicked like a football. Because of its many mind-boggling twists, I can easily understand a number of people just giving up on this volume – or far more likely just skimming through it and missing vital details – but careful reading really does pay off.

So the second volume ended with Claus in prison, although it's really just a police cell where he's being held until he can be sent back home. And through the lies that have come before we begin to see how the notebook to a certain extent fed on reality but often changed it, moulding it to a different shape. And we're in for a number of surprises, shocks even, of which I can only give an indication of the main ones.

Unlike the first two books in the trilogy – which are told in the first person plural and third person respectively – Le Troisième mensonge is told in the first person singular. As a child Claus spent some years in hospital recovering from a (war) injury and when he got better was sent to live with an old woman who wasn't his grandmother at all, and he had no brother there and had no idea where he was. The man who died crossing the border before him was a deserter, not his father, and once over the border he meets Peter (depicted as a very discreet homosexual in La Preuve) who is living with his wife Clara (Lucas's lover in the second book).

It is over the border that Lucas decides to call himself Claus, and where he lives for many years before deciding to return to the country of his birth. There are dream sequences in Lucas's story, and it seems as though my suspicions were right about Claus and Lucas being the same person (just an anagram), as Lucas here (who's called Claus of course) doesn't believe he has a brother, thinks he's just created him in his dreams.

Le Troisième mensonge is in two parts and begins normally enough in the first person, although the second part seems to begin in a dream sequence: but the difficulty is the staggering revelation that the first person narrator of this half is the poet Klaus [sic] Lucas, whom Lucas (aka Claus) correctly thinks is his brother. Lucas is spending his last hours in the capital of the country, and he rings up Klaus and goes to his house with his passport (which calls him Claus of course) although Klaus (whose mad mother is in the house in bed) refuses to recognise him. So Lucas goes away bitterly disappointed.

The truth of the matter is that the brothers were separated by 'la chose' ('the thing') at the age of four. We learned in the highly unreliable first book that Grand-Mère killed her husband – twice-married Kristof hated marriage, but that's another story – but in fact it was Mère who killed her adulterous husband, whose forename was incidentally Klaus-Lucas and the twins were named after him. For some years while Mère was in a psychiatric hospital Klaus was brought up by Antonia, his father's lover, his younger half-sister Sarah living there too.

One day when Klaus is back at Mère's, where he has lived from the age of eleven up to the end – he never married as he only ever loved Sarah, but of course that would have led to incest – the ambassador tells him that Lucas has thrown himself in front of a train and had requested to be buried with his family. Klaus thinks it would be churlish not to allow Lucas this last wish, even though he doesn't recognise him as a brother, so OK he can be buried there. And he thinks that when Mère dies, jumping in front of a train will make as good a death as any for himself: he'll no longer have any reason for living.

Amazingly, Agota Kristof had no intention after the first book to write a second, or after the second a third, but they fit together ingeniously and I'm not surprised that they've been published in French and English in one volume – the first two may stand on their own, but I don't really see how a reader could get a great deal from reading the third without the others.

But Le Troisième mensonge is far and away the most complex and the most challenging, it's a wonderful book that beautifully completes the trilogy. And although I may well come to change my mind, at the moment it feels that taken together these three books are among the most absorbing reads I've ever come across. And that's saying something.