31 December 2015

Cimetière de Picpus, 12e arrondissement, Paris

During the Grande Terreur (14 June to 27 July 1794) 1306 people of different social origins and ages were executed – often for no or very little reason – in what is now the Place de la Nation. The massacre ended with the fall of Robespierre. Their bodies were buried in common pits.

Some families of the dead succeeded clandestinely in buying up the land in which and around which the bodies were buried, and initially a chapel was built there. This is one of only two private cemeteries in Paris, but the only openly accessible one: Cimetière de Picpus, 35 rue de Picpus, Paris. When we visited in October 2015, the entrance fee was a mere two euros each.

'ANDRÉ DE CHÉNIER
FILS DE LA GRÉCE [SIC] ET DE LA FRANCE
1762 – 1794
SERVIT LES MUSES
AIMA LA SAGESSE
MOURUT POUR LA VÉRITÉ'

André Chénier was dead at the age of thirty-one. Born in Galatia of a Greek mother and French businessman father and brought up by relatives in Carcassonne, his works were published from 1819, making him a major figure of Hellenism in France. He is the elder brother of the poet, dramatist and politician Marie-Joseph Blaise de Chénier (1762–1811). 

'JEAN ANTOINE
ROUCHER
1745 – 1794
POÈTE
AUTEUR DES "MOIS"
GUILLOTINÉ LE
7 THERMIDOR AN II'

Jean-Antoine Roucher was a French poet born in Montpellier. The poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore wrote 'Aux petits-enfants du poète Roucher' for his descendants:

'Il est des noms aimés qui s’attachant à l’âme
Vivent comme des fleurs au fond du souvenir :
Gémissant, mais baigné d’harmonie et de flamme,
Le vôtre a des parfums pour tout votre avenir.

Beaux enfants ! Que ce nom mélodieux rassemble
Doux héritiers du cygne, ah, ne nous quittez pas :
Un écho pleure encore où vous parlez ensemble,
Mais une gloire chante où vous posez vos pas.'



Charles de Montalembert (1810–70) was a journalist, historian and politician. He defended the freedom of the press and supported oppressed minorities. 

'LOUIS LÉON THÉODORE GOSSELIN
G. LENOTRE
DE L'ACADÉMIE FRANÇAISE
1855 – 1935'

Lenotre was a historian and dramatist who specialised in studying and writing about the French Revolution. He published a history of the cemetery, Le Jardin de Picpus, in 1928.


'QUI CREDIT
IN ME
ETIAM SI MORTUUS
VIVET'

('Who believes in me, even if dead, will live.')

The chapel.

One of the two walls bearing the list of the dead.

A painting of Père Damien, known for his work with lepers in the Pacific.

Louis Guilloux, 6e arrondissement, Paris

'ICI VÉCUT
LOUIS GUILLOUX
ÉCRIVAIN
1899 – 1980'

42 rue du Dragon. Louis Guilloux was born in Saint-Brieuc in Brittany, which was also the town where he died. He came from a working-class background, his father being a staunchly socialist shoemaker that Guilloux represents in La Maison du peuple (1927). His most famous work is Le Pain noir (1935), which failed to win the Prix Goncourt of that year, which went to Joseph Peyré's Sang et Lumière. However, in 1949 he won the Prix Renaudot for Le Jeu de patience. The town of St Brieuc bought Guilloux's house the year after his death, and it is now a writers' residence.

Le Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, 6e arrondissement, Paris

'Le Vieux-Colombier
––––––––––––––––––
En 1913, Jacques Copeau, cofondateur de la N.R.F.,
réunit quelques comédiens et fait aménager la salle de
l'Athénée Saint-Germain, baptisée «Théâtre du Vieux-
Colombier». Il voulait créer un théâtre populaire,
dégagé du mercantilisme, et rajeunir l'interpretation,
l'art du décor et de la mise en scène. Cet essai de
rénovation l'amène à privilégier l'œuvre et l'acteur.
Après le départ de Jouvet et de Jules Romains,
Copeau se retire en 1924. D'autres expériences
théâtrales et cinématographiques se poursuivrent
cependant, telle la création du «Huis Clos» de
Sartre en 1944; les spectacles
se succèdent jusqu'à la
fermeture en 1977. Seconde
salle de la Comédie fran-
çaise, ce lieu mythique,
consacré au répertoire
contemporain, revit
depuis avril 1993.'

'In 1913 Jacques Copeau, co-founder of the Nouvelle Revue Française, brought several actors together and had the salle de l'Athénée Saint-Germain – to be known as the 'Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier' – transformed. He wanted to create a popular theatre, free from mercenary concerns, to rejuvenate performances, scenery and production, leading him to foreground the play and the performer. After Jouvet and Jules Romains left, Copeau retired in 1924. However, other theatrical and cinematographic experiments ensued, such as the creation of Sartre's Huis Clos in 1944; shows continued up to 1977. The second theatre of the Comédie française, this legendary place dedicated to contemporary theatre, was reborn in April 1993.'

30 December 2015

13 Rue de Bellechasse, 7e arrondissement, Paris

'ÉDIFIÉ À L'EMPLACEMENT D'UNE MAISON OÚ MOURUT
GASPARD MONGE
CET IMMEUBLE FUT HABITÉ, DE 1885 À 1897, PAR
ALPHONSE DAUDET
ET SON ÉPOUSE. VEUVE, ELLE Y TINT SALON ET Y REÇUT
MARCEL PROUST
IL ÉCRIT, PARLANT DES DEMEURES QU'IL AIMA
"JE N'EN SAIS PAS D'AUSSI PLEINE DE PASSÉ. DE
PENSÉE, D'AUSSI PIEUSEMENT CONSACRÉE PAR LE
SOUVENIR QUE LE 31 RUE DE BELLECHASSE."
DANS CETTE MAISON EST MORT, EN 1936, L'HISTORIEN
JACQUES BANVILLE'
 
As it says above, this impressive plaque is at 31 rue de Bellechasse, 7e arrondissement, Paris. It was built on the site of a house where the mathematician Gaspard Monge lived, and Alphonse Daudet and his wife Julia lived here from 1885 to 1897. Alphonse's widow kept a salon here, where she received such eminent writers as Edmond de Goncourt, Maupassant, Rachilde, Émile Zola, Édouard Drumont, and Marcel Proust, the last of whom remembered the place very fondly. Julia was one of the first people to read Proust's work.

André Gide, 7e arrondissement, Paris

'ANDRÉ GIDE
né à Paris le 22 novembre 1869
habita cette maison de 1926
jusqu'à sa mort, le 19 février 1951'

1 bis rue Vaneau, 7ème arrondissement. Gide probably published his most famous works before moving here, although he received the Noble Prize in Literature in 1947.

Jean Fourastié, 15e arrondissement, Paris

'JEAN FOURASTIÉ
1907 – 1990
MEMBRE DE L'INSTITUT
AUTEUR DES TRENTE GLORIEUSES
A HABITÉ CETTE MAISON
DE 1942 À 1978

IL Y A PUBLIÉ
LA PLUPART DE SES LIVRES'

10 rue César Franck, Paris 15. Fourastié's book Les Trente glorieuses ou la révolution invisible (1979) refers to the economist's expression for the thirty years from 1946 to 1975, when most developed countries experienced strong economic growth. The two villages described in the book are in fact one: Douelle (46) past and present, where Fourastié spent his youth, where he retired, and where he is buried.

29 December 2015

Raphaël Confiant: Mamzelle Libellule (1987, as Marisosé); trans. 1994

Raphaël Confiant's Mamzelle Libellule is Confiant's own French translation of his Marisosé, which was later translated into English by Linda Coverdale as Mamzelle Dragonfly. The book concerns about sixteen years of the protagonist Adelise's life, and is narrated (usually alternately) both by Adelise and an unknown third omniscient person. In fifteen chapters, it in some respects reminded me of a film or television script in which omissions of events and times are made.

Mamzelle Libellule begins in a rural environment, where Adelise's mother slaves in a sugar cane plantation, where she is economically forced to send her fourteen-year-old daughter Adelise, who is raped by the boss and later younger workers take advantage of her, although she keeps things from her mother. Sex means nothing to her, its just an incomprehensible act from which she derives no pleasure but no particular displeasure. Her body doesn't belong to her, although her heart is different, and she gives that to a tree she doesn't know the name of, and nor does anyone else. It transpires that her mother buried Adelise's umbilical cord at the tree's roots, and at the end of the book it is named as a jastrame.

Adelise's mother believes her daughter will have a better life in the capital, so she is sent to live with her aunt Philomène in Fort-de-France. But the forty-year-old Philomène lives in a kind of shanty town with a corrugated roof and without electricity and is forced to eke out a living through prostitution: 'I didn't choose this profession, I was led to it by poverty and bad luck.' Philomène believes that the uneducated Adelise can find a better way to make a living, although this is not the case and Adelise is impelled by circumstances to join her aunt's trade, although not by selling her physical attributes on the infamous Pont Démosthène but by tapping into the more bourgeois market, even if it sometimes means satisfying a well-heeled old man and his idiot son.

In time Adelise starts more legitimate but far less lucrative employement by working in a café. Philomène hopes that one day she will marry, although Adelise says to herself: 'What was Auntie thinking? She didn't realise that in my eyes men were of no more value than stones in the gutter or rainwater running from the roof of the houses in our part of town.'

But then Homère comes along and she's in love for the first time, he seems different from the other guys who are only interested in sex and know nothing, and she intends to share her life with him, but he's really just a bum like the others, and he doesn't understand that to give her body is nothing, but to give her heart is something special. After the death of her aunt and with money to leave for France, she's ready to go, and the news that Homère has thrown himself under a car is surely just a post scriptum?

The personal seems important here, and Aimé Césaire's speech, the political unrest, the battles between the police and the workers, all the violence, seem like a mere backcloth to the main story, they almost get in the way of it. And the story is resolutely female.

28 December 2015

Raphaël Confiant: Madame St-Clair, Reine de Harlem (2015)

Raphaël Confiant, from Martinique, explores his island's history. His Madame St-Clair: Reine de Harlem is a novelised biography of Queenie (1886–1969), or Stéphanie St-Clair (born Stéphanie Sainte-Claire in Martinique), who emigrated to the USA and became a notorious gangster who ran a numbers game, an illegal lottery within Harlem. She also becomes the friend, for instance, of the eminent W.E.B. Du Bois and the poet Countee Cullen, a homosexual who was very briefly Du Bois's daughter Yolande's husband.

Confiant's novel has many laugh-out-loud events, is full of apparent admiration for Stéphanie St-Clair for her spunk, her almost androgynous nature, her fierce feminism, but doesn't shrink from the violent streak that was certainly in her, the brutal determination not to allow anyone to stand in her way.

Before all that though, Stéphanie Sainte-Claire came from a very modest background in Martinique, where she first found work in the relatively wealthy Verneuil household and accepted being raped at night by the adolescent Eugene, the family's son: her only fears were getting pregnant and losing her job. She loses her job over a trifling matter anyway, and with the death of her mother leaves initially for France. But in Marseilles, after only about seven months in the mother country, she sets sail (third class) for New York, where she becomes 'St-Clair' on Ellis Island.

After starting life in New York with an Irish family poorer than her (she at first finds it hard to believe there are poor whites) Stéphanie associates with the infamous Forty Thieves, although she ends up completely severing O'Reilly's penis and testicles, and on blinding Duke in one eye has to escape from New York for a time before she is forced to join many others as mere statistics pulled out of East River by the cops. She gets the wrong bus out, which is held up by the Ku Klux Klan and she's repeatedly raped by the monsters. But, almost by miracle, she escapes relatively intact and is helped by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Several months later, when she returns to New York, Duke has been killed and with relief she sets up home in Harlem.

It's quite by chance that Stéphanie discovers that the 'medicine' Jamaica Ginger contains virtually all alcohol, which at a time of Prohibition is really good news: alcohol is in theory banned, but much good stuff is smuggled through Canada, the prairies of the Mid-West provide wholesome material, although the rot-gut chemically adulterated liquor produced in New York can send a person blind. So too it turns out can Jamaica Ginger, but it provides Stéphanie St-Clair and her companion Lewis with a decent living until she decides to opt out and go for the gambling, although Lewis fights with her and she accidentally breaks his neck and runs out on a manslaughter the cops put down to a burglar.

And so Stéphanie St-Clair thrives and makes pots of money out of illegal gambling, living the life of a black aristocrat on Edgecombe Avenue, Sugar Hill, where the cops generally leave her alone. OK, she pays some of them well to be left alone to her business, and continues to do so until – Prohibition ended – other shady characters such as Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano begin to muscle in on her territory and she is forced to compromise by taking a big cut in profits.

The other stories of Stéphanie St-Clair ratting on bent cops, telling her tales in a column in a highly reputed Harlem paper, etc, are gems. But the one about her falling in love with a religious guy and shooting him for screwing a younger girl (although certainly based on fact) somehow falls flat, as though added without consideration for the main story. Which is a shame, as this is a hell of a read.

26 December 2015

Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche (1989)

Marie NDiaye was influenced by David Garnett's novel Lady into Fox for her title of La Femme changée en bûche (lit. 'Woman Turned into a Log'), or more exactly influenced by the title of the French translation: Une femme changée en renaud. In a review of the novel on 30 March 1989 in Libération, Michèle Bernstein calls her article De la souffrance d’être Radiguette (lit. 'On the Suffering of Being Radiguette'), an obvious reference to Raymond Radiguet (1903–23), whose first novel Le Diable au corps (1923) was written when he was seventeen. Ndiaye's first novel Quant au riche avenir (lit. 'As for the Rich Future') was written when she was seventeen as well, and La Femme changée en bûche, her third novel, was published when she was twenty-two.

The novel is divided into three parts, the first occupying half of the book and the other two roughly a quarter each. The first and third parts have a number of similarities, whereas the second part partly contains a separate but related story. But that's not the only difference: the second part has a number of paragraphs, often made where there is dialogue, whereas parts one and three contain huge paragraphs with often very long sentences and any dialogue is within them – in fact the third part in itself is a huge thirty-seven-page paragraph. It doesn't make for easy reading, and I found the third part particularly irksome, although the first part – painful though it is in some respects – has its fascinating aspects.

I can't find the reference at present, although I believe NDiaye came at a later stage to 'disown' her first three publications, possibly in a similar way to Linda Lê taking issue with her own earlier works. Nevertheless the seeds are here for subjects taken up in NDiaye's more mature novels, such as: reality versus fiction or appearance versus reality, the supernatural, metaphorphosis (such as the cat-human Mécistée who seems to experience atavisms nostalgically), the protagonist's love of trivia, and on and on. I have a strong feeling that I'll be re-visiting this book, much as it now seems to be mainly juvenilia.

Links to my other Marie NDiaye posts:
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Marie NDiaye: La Sorcière
Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe
Marie NDiaye: Mon cœur à l'étroit
Marie NDiaye: Ladivine
Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes
Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert | Self-Portrait in Green
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison
Marie NDiaye: Les Serpents
Marie NDiaye: Les Grandes Personnes

21 December 2015

Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert | Self-Portrait in Green (2004)

Marie NDiaye's Autoportrait en vert was originally one of Colette Fellous's 'Traits et Portraits' collection published by Mercure de France, included in which, for example, are J-B Pontalis's in Le dormeur éveillé and Pierre Guyotat's Coma. The series also includes photos relating to the events in the books, and here old photos are used along with new ones by Julie Ganzin, such as the one on the front cover typically showing a girl in soft focus in the foreground and the background scenery set to infinity.

Just how much of a 'self-portrait' this is of Marie NDiaye is of course unknown, although there are moments when the narrative veers off into the fantastic, and certainly many of the events in the narrative have an oneiric quality. Essentially, these are snatches of existences recalled in memory or imagination, if indeed there is any difference between the two. The woman in green standing by the tree whom the narrator sees four times a day – on the way to taking her children to school and going back, then going to school to pick them up and bring them back – is interesting.

The woman isn't seen by the children, perhaps suggesting that green here is intended to represent an adult element. The narrator asks the children a Berkeleyan question that they're unable to answer: 'The woman in green is there every day. Is she there when I'm not there?' The woman attempts to kill herself by jumping from the building to the ground, but gets up apparently unhurt, which seems almost to be a premonition of Wellington being pushed from the hotel balcony in Ladivine and miraculously surviving.

The woman says her name is Katia Depetiteville, which the narrator thinks is improbable but appears to accept and becomes friends with her; the narrator's husband (Jean-Yves like NDiaye's) frees Katia from the flood which forever threatens those who live near the Garonne; and the two women become friends until the narrator takes her to see her two sisters and Katia feels uncomfortable and leaves: the narrator feels uncomfortable too and would have preferred to leave with her.

But then, families are often an embarrassment in NDiaye's world, which is one in which the generations can sometimes mix sexually. Such as the narrator's mother living with a much younger man in Marseilles, or her ex-friend (in green) becoming her step-mother by marrying her father, who's been married several times and whose eldest son smashes their restaurant with a golf club: that's the trouble with having too many children, the narrator muses. And the father and step-mother make a later appearance when the narrator visits (as an author) not Senegal but Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, where she dreads that her literature-hating father will show up.

And then there's Jenny, whose son and husband have left her, who has no money and in poverty goes back to live with her parents, and then meets her former lover Ivan, who's now happily married. So Jenny lives their happiness by proxy, spending a great deal of time with Ivan's (green) wife, but apparently too much time as the wife kills herself and Jenny finds her hanging in the basement. It's not long before Jenny marries Ivan, but then his ex-wife seems to come to life again. It's a strange world, Marie NDiaye's.

Links to my other Marie NDiaye posts:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Marie NDiaye: La Sorcière
Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe
Marie NDiaye: Mon cœur à l'étroit
Marie NDiaye: Ladivine
Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche
Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison
Marie NDiaye: Les Serpents
Marie NDiaye: Les Grandes Personnes

20 December 2015

Marie NDiaye: Mon cœur à l'étroit (2007)

The popular television quiz programme Questions pour un champion – the last word being a pun on the large metal champignons which contestants hit when they think they know an answer – is represented as the brainless exercise it is in Marie NDiaye's novel Rosie Carpe. So I wasn't too surprised to learn that Nadia and Ange, the two teachers in NDiaye's Mon cœur à l'étroit (lit. 'My Cramped Heart') don't have a television set as they see the medium as soul-destroying. And although there may well be other references to the negativity of television in NDiaye's other books, I haven't yet come across any.

But I have come across other recurring themes in Mon cœur à l'étroit: the importance of the family, the harmful neglect of the family, changing personalities, inter-generational sexual attraction, the fantastic (especially metamorphoses), and, among several other things, debt: not just the debt of owing someone money or a favour, but (an almost religious concept here) the idea that past wrong-doing can be redeemed by good behaviour to the wronged person or persons. And a few times I've (rather oddly I thought) been reminded of Anne Tyler's characters just walking out on their spouses, although in this novel I was particularly reminded of Tyler's interest in geographical dyslexia when Nadia gets lost in Bordeaux, a city she's known all her life but suddenly becomes disoriented in.

But then disorientation is Marie NDiaye's speciality, although it's the reader who is usually disoriented: to translate a sentence from Chloe Brendlé's article 'NDiaye de faille en faille' in Magazine Littéraire (Septembre 2010, p. 94): 'To read a single page without experiencing violent seasickness is to attempt the impossible.' (That's a slight exaggeration, but I fully understand the general idea behind the argument.)

Le Nouvel Observateur reckoned that NDiaye has – like the 'illustrious' Richard Victor Nogent who cooks for the ailing Nadia and Ange – over-buttered the 'bread' in Mon cœur à l'étroit. And there's probably some truth in that, as the two assiduous teachers are thrown into a Kafkaesque world in which everyone (apart from the once detested Nogent) seems to be against them for reasons unknown: they lose their jobs, Ange seems to have been stabbed and his life seems to be ebbing from him, and Nadia gets bigger and bigger and appears to be pregnant.

Nadia decides to join Ralph, the son she's neglected and now lives in Corsica and who is a medical doctor who originally had a homosexual relationship with Lanton, who's in the police force, and of whom Nadia is still fond. But, after the meddling of her first husband Nadia cheated on and walked out on Ralph seems to have settled down and married Yasmine, and they have a daughter called Souhar, a name Nadia can hardly bring herself to pronounce.

In the end Ange not only cures completely of his illness but gets together with Corinna Daoui, a former prostitute known to Nadia from her schooldays and who now works on a computer at an unnamed activity associated with the sex industry. Nadia is freed from the clutches of the older Wilma, a gynaecologist who also seems to be some kind of malevolent witch who only eats meat, is now Ralph's partner, and may even have eaten Yasmine; Nadia's parents have moved from crummy housing in Bordeaux to Corsica, where any shame Nadia once felt for them is forgotten, where Souhar is safe and sound, and where Nadia's mother, thanks to giving her daughter a semolina diet, has brought on the abortion of the monster Nadia was to have given birth to.

Something of an old-style children's fairy-cum-horror story with a good ending, but whatever name you care to give it this is pure Marie NDiaye, and although it may not quite come up to the standard of her best works, it's a book you can't put down, although you have to hold onto it as it keeps removing the ground from your feet.

Links to my other Marie NDiaye posts:
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Marie NDiaye: La Sorcière
Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe
Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert
Marie NDiaye: Ladivine
Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes
Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison
Marie NDiaye: Les Serpents
Marie NDiaye: Les Grandes Personnes

17 December 2015

Marie NDiaye: Ladivine (2013)

Marie NDiaye's Ladivine (English translation available April 2016) concerns identity, the horrors the family can cause, metamorphosis, geographical mobility, sudden and unexpected turns in the narrative, recurring names, all wrapped in a general malaise, in fact all the ingredients you'd expect from an NDiaye book.

The first sentence reveals: 'Hardly had she boarded the train when she became Malinka again which was neither a pleasure nor a displeasure because for a long time she had ceased to notice it.' (My translation.) The breathless sentence structure is pretty typical of Marie NDiaye's style, although this is a relatively short sentence: the second one in the book, for instance, tortures itself in this way:

'But she knew because she could then no longer spontaneously reply to the forename Clarisse when, this was rare, a person she knew got on the same train, hailed or greeted her by the forename Clarisse and found her disconcerted, stupid and smiling in confusion, creating a situation of reciprocal embarrassment which Clarisse, a little dazed, didn't know how to get out of by simply saying, and sounding natural, a hello, a how are you.' (My translation again of course.)

So the problem of identity strikes the reader right from the beginning. Clarisse Rivière is married to a successful car salesman and lives in Langon south-east of Bordeaux, although her original forename is Malinka, which is at the root of her problem: only one word ('negresse') specifically refers to her mother's colour, although Malinka/Clarisse (who relatively easily passes as white) sees her past (white father, African-born mother) as a great shame on her. (I had to do a retake on this as Malinka/Clarisse would (if she'd lived and had a reality outside this book) have been about sixty when the book was published, so she'd have been an adolescent in the 1960s: was racism really so prominent in France then?)

Well, it was prominent enough for Malinka/Clarisse to flee from her black mother in Paris to Bordeaux and find a job in a café under the name of Clarisse, although her mother follows her and lives in a flat in a housing block in Sainte-Croix (Bordeaux). And when Clarisse marries she (slightly unbelievably) passes as white, doesn't reveal her true forename to her husband Richard, and secretly visits her mother (Ladivine Sylla) once a month, although her mother doesn't know anything about Malinka's other life.

This then is a story which begins with a big lie, one that will continue through a few generations until Richard discovers it at the end, on finally meeting Ladivine Sylla. And essentially it's the story of three (not strong) women: Ladivine Sylla, Malinka/Clarisse, and the latter's son by Richard, whom she calls Ladivine after the grandmother.

For no reason mentioned at the time, after twenty-five years of marriage Richard leaves for Annecy, leaving Clarisse in the Langon home, where she begins to live with Freddy Moliger, who is a lost soul with a past of parental abuse, the guy who is perhaps the missing part of her life and with whom they can maybe repair themselves. Certainly a kind of mending takes place when Freddy is introduced to Malinka's mother, although he's hurt beyond repair, and so is Malinka when he knifes her to death.

Ladivine the daughter marries the German Marko Berger and they have two kids and live in Germany as Marie NDiaye now does, although Ladivine is cursed too. After Malinka/Clarisse's death the narrator tells her story, shows things only through her eyes, and this vision is strange. Dogs have appeared before certainly, and seem to have a healing purpose, and there may well be a reincarnation of Clarisse in one.

Oh, and then there's Wellington, the strange museum guide in the unnamed Anglophone country in Africa where the Bergers go on holiday, where Marko has an argument with him in their hotel room overnight, where Marko throws him the balcony of their sixth-floor hotel room and he falls to his death on the concrete below. But only Ladivine sees this, and from the breakfast table only she sees the marks of the blood where Wellington was squashed, only Ladivine, from the swimming pool, sees the workers wash the blood away, and only she is seen to argue with Marko about poor Wellington, who resurrects in the spooky Cagnac's home in the holiday country. And no one knows that Ladivine's disappearance is because she's turned into a dog. Does Richard's eventual meeting with the aged Ladivine Sylla end the curse? Woof.

Some critics rate this as NDiaye's greatest achievement, although I'm still not certain, but it's a very powerful book.

Links to my other Marie NDiaye posts:
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Marie NDiaye: La Sorcière
Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe
Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert
Marie NDiaye: Mon cœur à l'étroit
Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes
Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison
Marie NDiaye: Les Serpents
Marie NDiaye: Les Grandes Personnes

15 December 2015

Michèle Lesbre: Écoute la pluie (2013)

In 2003 an old man smiled at Michèle Lesbre at the Gambetta métro station and then threw himself onto the rails in front of a fast-moving train. This suicide, the reasons of which would never be known to her, haunted her. In 2007 she dedicated her novel Le Canapé rouge to him, although it was not until Écoute la pluie (lit. 'Listen to the Rain') that she was able to write about her traumatic experience, to turn it into fiction.

This is a first person narrative and the narrator's name is only mentioned once: Gisèle Desmaret, which is an obvious corruption of the author's own name. Gisèle no longer lives with her unnamed partner, who now lives in Nantes, although the pair still appear to see each other regularly, although it is only revealed gradually that things may not quite be as they were with the pair, and when the narrator claims that the absence makes the two more fond of each other she is evidently using what Sartre referred to as mauvaise foi: self-deception.

The whole book is addressed to her lover as 'tu', although ironically she may never reveal the contents to him, which are in fact her thoughts after seeing the old man kill himself. She had in fact been waiting to catch a train to meet her partner in a hotel they had often used during an earlier stage of their relationship. But the suicide severely disturbs her, causes her to wonder around Paris in the rain most of the evening and night and not try to get in touch with her lover to tell him what is wrong with her, as she is incapable of explaining.

She does explain her problems to Irène, a long-term friend, although she announces the suicide to many others at her friend's dinner party in a hopelessly gauche manner: in anger, she stands on a chair and says: 'This evening I saw a man throw himself under the métro, he smiled at me and jumped.'

The short novel sees the narrator mulling over the past, her relationship with her lover. One of the main themes is communication, the inability of words to convey their meaning. Her partner is a professional photographer and tries to show significations through images, which causes the narrator to see similarities between different things, such as the smiling old man and an old photo her lover took of a man smiling while lying asleep on a seat on the métro. The whole narrative seems like a subterfuge, as if the narrator is taking stock, the death is something of a catalyst for her to question herself on their relationship, they the living must decide on their future. Unable to explain herself any other way, she can only leave a cryptic message on his answering machine: 'Écoute la pluie'.

How can I express my opinion of Michèle Lesbre's novel? Well, let's just say that this is far from the last book of hers that I'll be reading. She writes exquisitely.

13 December 2015

Régis Jauffret: Sévère (2010)

Regis Jauffret's Sévère clearly states that it is a novel, and it even has a Prologue (or Préambule) which is a disclaimer: Jauffret is a novelist, therefore a liar, no one in a novel has ever existed, its characters are puppets full of words, spaces, commas, with syntax for skin, they are imaginary, the author has invented them, people who recognise anyone should run the bath, stick their head in the water and hear their hearts beat. The book mentions no names, apart from the insignificant obese plane flight companion of the female narrator's, who in return gives him the false name of Betty.

And yet the Stern family attacked the book: the story of the sado-masochist in it, murdered by his friend while he was in a latex suit, was too close for comfort to the real-life Édouard Stern (1954–2005), who was murdered by his friend Cécile Brossard. Many noted French authors signed a petition against the family's actions, and these are just a sample: Virginie Despentes, Christine Angot, Pierre Guyotat, Philippe Djian, Jonathan Littell, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Philippe Sollers, Michel Houellebecq, Sophie Calle, Eric Reinhardt, Marie Darrieussecq, Emmanuel Carrère, Atiq Rahimi, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Catherine Millet, Matthias Enard, Annette Messager, Claude Lévêque, Nicolas Fargues, Yannick Haenel, Elisabeth Roudinesco, Frédéric Beigbeder.

The novel weaves in and out of past and present time, near beginning with the female murderer briefly going to her place and leaving her nonplussed 'husband' – they had a 'wedding' in LA which wasn't a real one – as she gets in a taxi to leave for Milan, and then catches flights to Sidney, from where she quickly flies back, taking champagne and pills throughout the journeys to steady herself before she sort of gives herself up, is found guilty and imprisoned for murder.

In between the bare bones of this plot we learn small and large snippets about the man she's murdered, of his love of women and men, his great wealth, his love of killing animals, his various fetichisms (such as gaining sexual satisfaction from making people suffer), and his conviction that he will be killed shortly, so hiding weapons everywhere. It might not – in fact it certainly isn't – be Jauffret's best book, but it's a relatively short and powerful read.

My other posts on Régis Jauffret:

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Régis Jauffret: Claustria
Régis Jauffret: Lacrimosa

11 December 2015

Emmanuel Bove: Cœurs et visages (1928)

Emmanuel Bove (1898–1945) is a half-forgotten writer who has nevertheless become something of a cult to many readers, and his books have been re-published a number of times, such as in this example from Motifs, an imprint of Le Serpent à Plumes. The back cover calls Bove an 'Impitoyable taxidermiste des sentiments humains' (a 'pitiless taxidermist of human feelings'), which I think is an excellent way to describe this book at least (I've only read one other of his novels). Rightly or wrongly, I thought of a male, early twentieth-century Jane Austen.

I won't go on to describe the many characters in this book, I'll just leave a few of my impressions. André Poitou, a noted shoemaker with several branches in Paris and others throughout France, has just received the coveted Légion d'honneur at the age of sixty. He's worked his guts out to build himself up to such a position, seems never to have married or even have played the field, and now feels that his life is just beginning. As he approaches the Hôtel Gallia where over one hundred guests are joining him in his celebration, he anonymously pops into a bar for just one anis to steel him for the experience. He will need it.

In a relatively recent one-paragraph review, L'Express likened the scene that seems about to unfold to Buñuel's movie L'Ange exterminateur, and I confess I felt that a similar climax would occur, although it didn't, in spite of all indications pointing in that direction.

To sum the novel up in a word, this is a tale of pride and prejudice, petty vanities and long-harbored jealousies, all there around the dinner table waiting to explode in an alcoholic haze as many of the ill-chosen guests – who include André's hypocritical doctor friend who isn't a friend at all, plus his younger brother who lives off André's earnings and is a nasty piece of work all round – prepare to take their frustrations out on him. But in the end it just doesn't plan out the way things appear to be headed.

My other posts on Emmanuel Bove:

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Emmanuel Bove: Le Piège
Emmanuel Bove: Cimetière du Montparnasse

Héléna Marienské: Le Degré suprême de la tendresse (2008)

In the Prologue to Héléna Marienské's Le Degré suprême de la tendresse  the title being taken from the macho Salvador Dalí's definition of cannibalism  the narrator relates a fait divers or news item she heard about a drunken couple leaving a bar in the Bastille area. We are told to remember the place, the passage des Taillandiers (a taillandier being a maker of cutting tools). The young woman is forced to perform fellatio on the man, but she uses extreme force and gives him a glansectomy, cutting off his glans penis (or bell-end in common parlance), letting it roll into the gutter for the pompiers to retrieve. Yes, this is a feminist book to make men wince in parts.

And although there are some pretty gruesome episodes in it, the erotically suggestive nature of the cover conceals a very clever, and often very comical, novel. Although many in the Anglophone world would perhaps disagree with the French world's much more flexible description of this book as a 'novel', because it consists of eight very separate parts, each is linked by that particular sex act, and each written in a different pastiche of a French author: Michel Houellebecq, Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Jean de La Fontaine, Christine Angot, Michel de Montaigne, Vincent Ravalec, and Georges Perec. My aim here is not to comment on all eight pastiches, but simply to comment on a few aspects of the book which particularly captured my attention.

The first 'Restriction du domaineis an obvious comment on Houellebecq's Extension du domaine de la lutte, and the 'restriction' evidently relates to the severing of the organ, so we know where the stories are leading, but we don't know how. Although we know the area when we laugh at the Houellebecqian cynicism, the obsession with sex, and the restricted sex. For instance, the protagonist Pierre Hitkartoff has troubles with getting an erection, although he experiences something of a new lease of life when he becomes a writer. Needless to say, perhaps, there's a particularly violent scene in it when Pierre loses not only his glans penis but also his limbs.

I'm unfamiliar with Tallemant des Réaux (1619–92), let alone his Historiettes, but then Marienské does say in the Prologue that he's little known, and that it's not necessary to be familiar with his work to enjoy the story, and it certainly isn't. Here we have the very sassy fourteen-year-old Marquise Héloïse who's far too independent for her own good, although the reader surely applauds when she bites a few centimeters from the sexually aggressive Capitaine's organ. The king Louis XII has already experienced the young girl's cheekiness, so locks her away in a convent to, er, keep her mouth shut. On pretending to be penitent there though, she asks the Mother Superior for a a crucifix and a hairshirt: she then stuns the Mother with the former, gags her with the latter and runs off to marry a Turkish Sultan!

Another name I was unfamiliar with is the contemporary Vincent Ravalec, whose writing is imitated in this way, with my translation here:

'Virgi's life at the time, it was pure Zola. One stoned evening when we were mates, real mates I mean, Virginia had told us that her father, long-term unemployed embittered by the vicissitudes of his existence, used to sodomize her without Vaseline when he wasn't bashing her mother. She found that really shitty. She was seventeen years old, [...] and no shit, Daddy's perverse practices really stank.'

She goes to see an overworked social worker who just gives her five euros for a tub of Vaseline, so with the male narrator she escapes, becomes a rich high-class prostitute and to cope takes lots of drug cocktails, and the narrative helterskelters into surreal multiple glansectomies, but somehow works its way into a kind of happy ending. Weird.

Next there is the final story dedicated to 'G.P', or Georges Perec, but Marienské couldn't say that because – unlike the previously story mentioned above which has chemical Es in it – this is like Perec's La Disparition in which there are no typographical Es in it. And there are some of the characters in Perec's novel here. There are also, like Perec's novel – many tortuous sentences which abound with foreign words and phrases ('miniskirt' for 'minijupe', 'nada' for 'rien', etc), many slang or familiar words ('toubib' for 'docteur' or 'médecin', 'gus' for 'mec', 'soutif' for 'soutien-gorge', etc), slightly odd expressions ('cubain' for 'cigare', 'RV' for 'rendez-vous') – all to dodge the e-word: inevitably, the plot tends to go adrift as you marvel at the inventiveness.

Yes, a very clever book which all-in-all manages not quite to get too lost in its own cleverness. A book with real bite (although slightly less in the French sense).

9 December 2015

Andreï Makine: Le Testament français | Dreams of My Russian Summers (1995)

Andreï Makine was born in Siberia in 1957 and didn't move to France until he was thirty. He was brought up by his French grandmother in Russia, thus receiving access to two cultures. Le Testament français (literally 'The French Will') has the distinction of gaining the prestigious Prix Goncourt for 1995, along with the Prix Médicis and the Prix Goncourt des lycéens. It is translated into English as Dreams of My Russian Summers, a title which loses the significance of the document at the end of the novel.

Le Testament français is a partly autobiographical novel which begins and is to a large extent set in Saranza on the edge of the vast Steppes, where the narrator Alyosha spends his childhood and adolescent summers – along with his unnamed sister – with his French grandmother Charlotte. Charlotte speaks to the children in French, although the France she remembers is imbued with a certain glow, a romantic patina which thrills Alyosha, makes him want to understand as much as he can about the country he obviously belongs to, and yet at the same time doesn't know.

The drama of the narrator's double identity – or as he puts it he 'pénible entre-deux-mondes' – his 'painful double-world' – makes up much of the drama in the novel: French is perceived as a 'greffe' ('graft'), 'ma langue grand-maternellel' ('my grand-maternal language'), and his difference can be the subject of discord with his school colleagues, who call him 'Frantsuz', an expression which he views with some ambiguity. The narrator initially, before he attempts to integrate more with his school colleagues, associates with Pashka, the other outsider who doesn't fit in with the norm.

Much of the novel is taken up with the narrator's struggle with his duality, of his acceptance of his double heritage. At the age of thirty we see him in France sleeping rough, almost living the life of a tramp, almost insane, contemplating suicide, and there are little or no explanations for this, apart from his obvious attempts to be granted French nationality, to become an author.

Unable, because unwilling, to re-establish contact with Charlotte in Siberia when living in Paris, the narrator has Alex Bond try to visit her. She was still living at the time, although later an American (via Bond) tells him of Charlotte's death and of his 'testament', by which he means the narrator's legacy, which amounts to a manuscript by Charlotte informing him about the photo (enclosed) that intrigued him at the beginning of the book: the woman saying 'petite pomme' (the French equivalent of 'cheese' to make people appear to smile), who was Charlotte's daughter and the narrator's mother.

7 December 2015

Nathalie Rheims: Place Colette (2015)

While I was looking for information last week on Nathalie Rheims's novel Place Colette I came across a hysterical review by Jean-Marc Proust on Slate.fr with an outrageous title urging the reader not to buy the 'atrocious' book. I read the article, immediately ordered the offending item, and highly recommend this well-written, intelligent novel.

For novel it is, although Rheims's distinction between 'autofiction' and 'roman-vrai' (which she insists this is) is lost on me. She says, though, that anyone is free to believe or disbelieve the events in the book: well, of course, although it does seem largely autobiographical. And the names are real, although the narrator isn't given one and the name of her lover Pierre is false, although she leaves a trail of clues that make it difficult to mistake him: born in 1929 (in Nice we learn towards the end), well-known actor and sociétaire of the Comédie-Française – none other than Jacques Toja, who died in 1996.

Nathalie Rheims comes from a bourgeois family – her father Maurice is a writer and an académicien – and they regularly go to their holiday home in Corsica and fraternise with such people as Michel Mohrt, Paul Morand, Félicien Marceau, Guy Schoeller, even Dalida. In Place Colette – which Rheims originally wanted to call 'Détournement de majeur' (something like 'Corruption of an Adult') – the narrator is twelve going on thirteen at the beginning and almost seventeen at the end.

We learn that from the age of nine the narrator spent three years in hospital covered in plaster until it was discovered what was actually wrong with her. During this time she has devoured such novelists as Balzac and dramatists such as Molière, Marivaux and Musset. And towards the end of her hospitalisation she began menstruating and so, as she has heard, became 'a woman', although at the time she has only a hazy idea of what this means.

This is, of course, the 1970s, and we are in full sexual revolution era: her parents more or less openly have other partners, her friend Isabelle (slightly older than her) is sexually experienced, her parents have a porn film business, and the narrator even watches some of an explicit film with Isabelle and her parents: the past is a different country. The narrator detests the boring, spotty adolescents at school or anywhere else and is only attracted to older men – above all Pierre, who is thirty years older than her and whom she is determined to have, to make him her lover.

Which she does, to a certain extent. But the fact that Pierre is in many ways restrained, does not have vaginal sex with her, will not even touch her between the legs when encouraged to, and the fact that the girl does all the running does not exonerate him in any way. But Pierre's actions are welcomed, at no time is he criticised by the narrator. At the end of the book she knows that she has jumped straight from childhood to adulthood and by-passed adolescence, but she feels no regrets whatsoever, and it is evident that the author feels none. The photo on the cover was taken at the time of the narrator's relationship with Pierre.

The book may raise a few troubling questions, although there are in fact very few sex scenes in it, and even those are not at all graphic. In fact the existence of Pierre gets shunted to the sidelines in the final one hundred pages, which are concerned with the blooming future career of the narrator in the acting profession. Place Colette is enthralling, a delight to read.

6 December 2015

Philippe Claudel: De quelques amoureux des livres (2015)

The full title of Philippe Claudel's book is De quelques amoureux des livres que la littérature fascinait, qui aspiraient à devenir écrivains mais en furent empêchés par diverses raisons qui tenaient aux circonstances, aux siècles de leur naissance, à leur caractère, faiblesse, orgueil, lâcheté, mollesse, bravoure, ou bien encore au hasard qui de la vie fait son jouet et entre les mains duquel nous ne sommes que de menues créatures, vulnérables et chagrines. My suggested translation of this is 'On some book lovers fascinated by literature, who aspired to become writers but were prevented from becoming so for various reasons such as the centuries they were born in, their character, weakness, pride, cowardice, idleness, bravery, or chance which makes life its plaything and in the hands of which we are tiny creatures, vulnerable and despondent.' In other words the subject is literary failure.

As Claudel says, many people write books and are celebrated, have statues and busts sculpted of them, streets named after them, but many more are unsung because unpublished or whatever. Like the (obviously fictitious) Virgil Maubert (1962–2006), whose real name was Benoît something – and whose wife didn't take his writing seriously and nagged him to help her with the dishes – and whose novel 'Le Cercle' was still a mass of confusion on paper when he hanged himself from the light fitting in the salon. This is a little book packed with imaginative gems and often has Borgesian tinges. I give several examples below:

–– The man who wrote from his gut, but the more he thought about it and spoke about it the more abdominal pains he got and had to go to hospital, where the incredulous surgeon found a thousand-page book inside him made illegible by gastric juices which caused the print to dissolve.

–– Seed merchant Leonard W. P. Rosemond from Glasgow accused (the dead) Proust of plagiarising his work, and to 'prove' so he narrated by heart À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27) continuously for nine days and nine nights, initially at the police station where he made his complaint about Proust, and then at a psychiatric hospital he was sent to. His rendition was word perfect, although he was born years after Proust's work, and in fact scarcely ever opened a book, apart from a few catalogues on seed and garden tools.

–– The man who thought he was the author of a book but was in fact only a character in it. (Suggestions of Gilbert Sorrentino there?)

–– The man from the principality of Vaduz who self-published a long story about an illegal immigrant housekeeper Nan Sung B. from Burma, who was killed and eaten in such convincing graphic detail that the police arrested him and he was jailed by the high court for life on the grounds of murder and cannibalism. The fact that the police could find no evidence of bodily remains at the author's place, or any register of the disappearance of anyone called Nan Sung B. made no difference, and the writer's only regret was that he's written his work in the first person.

–– A critic of an underground fanzine HZD claimed that the Austrian writer Baldur von Taxenberg wrote 'shit', so von Taxenberg wrote him a long prose poem titled Meine Scheize (My Shit) on pink toilet paper – in his own excrement – and sent it by registered post.

–– Of Belgian origin, Ambroise Loubratte published seventy exceptionally crude pornographic novels between 1917 and 1969. He died a virgin at 84.

–– Finally, the paradox of the man who can only write when he's drunk, and then he can write pages and pages, although in the morning when he's sober he finds that what he's written is illegible.

These are just a few of the offerings in De quelques amoureux des livres, etc, published by the wonderful Finitude of Bordeaux and a joy to read and re-read, a little book to treasure. I also suspect that it will be much translated.

My other posts on Philippe Claudel:

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Philippe Claudel: Le Rapport de Brodeck | Brodeck's Report

Philippe Claudel: Les Âmes grises | Grey Souls

3 December 2015

Henry Bauchau: L'Infant bleu (2004)

From 1947 to 1951 Henry Bauchau (1913–2012) underwent psychoanalysis with Blanche Reverchon, the wife of the poet Pierre Jean Jouve, and was profoundly affected by the experience. Bauchau himself became a psychoanalyst and worked from 1975 in a day hospital in Paris, which inspired him to write the novel L'Enfant bleu.

The central characters in L'Enfant bleu are the psychoanalyst Véronique and her patient, the thirteen-year-old Orion. Véronique is married to Vasco, formerly a racing car driver but now striving to become a musician, and she takes on the irksome task of understanding the mentally disturbed Orion, who calls her a 'psycho-prof-un-peu-docteur'.

Orion suffers from what appears to be a form of autism: he has severe difficulties communicating on some of the most basic issues, to the point of being incapable of entering a shop on his own. He needs someone he can trust to aid him, and Véronique fulfils this role admirably, helped a great deal by her husband. She sees the important thing as developing Orion's obvious artistic skills by encouraging him to paint (and later to sculpt), as his art is his way of expressing his demons, of revealing his subconscious thoughts. His dictations to Véronique also fulfil this need.

Language is very important to Orion, although the way he uses it is counter-productive to his ability to communicate: he is incapable of saying 'je', or 'I', and instead says 'on', more specifically in the much-repeated example 'On ne sait pas', which is difficult to translate into English here: it can mean 'We don't know', but not here as that would be too explicit; or it can mean 'No one knows', or 'It isn't known', which I think is more to the point. Orion dodges the first person, the 'I', by retreating into the indirect, the passive, as if 'On ne sais pas' were an existential get-out clause.

Gradually, painfully, Véronique endeavours to understand Orion's problems, which her sessions with him bring out, particularly when Orion lapses into his violent nature, breaking windows in the hospital, biting people (including Véronique), kicking and breaking plates and doors in her own home when she lets him 'come in' more, express himself and his frustrations as she becomes closer to him.

And closer to her husband: both psychoanalyst and her husband become close to Orion, become concerned with his progress and his regressions. The central problem is that Orion distances himself from himself and from others by refusing to accept responsibility for his actions: a monster in Paris (although entirely in himself) haunts him, and he externalizes the monster (much as he externalises himself by calling himself 'on') when that monster bites people or damages property.

Things come to a head when Orion is forced due to his age to go to another center and only see Véronique occasionally. Now, after several years of therapy, he forms a relationship with the anorexic Brazilian girl Myla, whose father is seen as a shark, a businessman only interested in money, and any possible money Orion may earn from his art is peanuts to him, so he must sever the relationship between his daughter and her friend. Were they in love? As Véronique says, 'Amour est un mot, c'est un monde pour les normaux, dont Myla et lui sont exclus' ('Love is a word, it's a world for normal people, from which Myla and he are excluded.)'

But this is not a depressing book, it is full of hope and joy, which to a certain extent seemed to me to suggest some of the things the anti-psychiatrists of the latter half of the twentieth century, such as R. D. Laing and David Cooper, were stating, that madness is largely a function of the society in which we live, the apparently sane are often the full-blown crazies and vice versa.

I thought about that last night as I finished the novel and learned of the decision of the British government to attack Syria, to reproduce the same mistakes as have been brought to Iraq by Tony Blair and George Bush rushing into situations of which they had no understanding, tiny minds that destabilized the world, tiny minds like Cameron and his ilk continuing to destabilize the world more by giving the go-ahead to kill innocent people, behaving exactly like their enemy IS. As the mindless Hilary Benn compared the (undoubted) fascists of IS to the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and then Hitler, I lost track of all reality as Benn was equally mindlessly praised on social networks for ranting total bullshit about attacking a country whose politics he cannot possibly comprehend. Violence is self-perpetuating, it can never be prevented by more violence.

At least L'Enfant bleu is written by an intelligent, human person.

30 November 2015

Paris 2015: Monument to Adam Mickiewicz, 8e arrondissement


Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855) was one of the great European Romantic poets, considered in the country of his birth as the father of modern Polish literature. He spent much of his life in France, and it was in 1929 that this magnificent statue, sculpted by Antoine Bourdelle and financed by the Association France-Pologne, was erected in the Place de l'Alma; it was moved to the present site a short distance away in Cours Albert 1er in 1955. Mickiewicz stands at the top of the structure, whereas the bas reliefs represent some of his poems.

'AUX DZIADY
LA MORT
VIENT PRENDRE
LA PAROLE.
LA VIE
N'EST PLUS
Q[U]'AUX OMBRES'
 
'CAPTIF
TU PEUX PAR
LA PENSÉE
ET PAR LA FOI
FAIRE CROULER
ET RELEVER
LES TRÔNES'
 
'WALLENROD
DIT: J'AI ÉCOUTÉ
LE CHANT.
TRIOMPHE POUR
LE POÈTE.
LES PROJETS
SERONT ACCOMPLIS'
 
'LE VIEUX BARDE
HALBAN
TOUCHE LES CORDES.
EN ACCORDS TIMIDES
IL SUIT LES TONS
FAROUCHES
DE SON MAÎTRE'
 
'CHANTS
D'ALDONA
QUE
L'AUDITEUR
SENSIBLE
T'ACHÈVE
DANS SON ÂME'
 
'RÉASSEMBLÉES
LES TROIS ÂMES
DE LA POLOGNE
SONGENT
VERS MICKIEVICZ
PROPHÈTE DE
LA DÉLIVRANCE'
 

29 November 2015

Paris 2015: Cimetière de Vaugirard, 15e arrondissement #4: Marguerite Bourcet and Ella Bouet-Dufeil


'MARGUERITE BOURCET
ÉCRIVAIN CATHOLIQUE
1899 – 1938'

Marguerite Bourcet wrote books in different genres: novels, children's literature, travel, biography. Among her works are L'Héritière de Ferlac (1922), L'Étoile de Navailles (1925), Princesse de neige, suivi de La romance d'autrefois (1931), Le Jura (1934), Mirage de gloire (1935), and Un couple de tragédie : le duc et la duchesse d'Alençon (1939).

'ELLA BOUET-DUFEIL
ÉCRIVAIN CATHOLIQUE
1905 – 1994'

Ella Bouet-Dufeil is only listed in the BNF catalogue as having written two books: Marguerite Bourcet, mon amie (1963) and L'Amitié, cette accusée, un long procès, une riche histoire (1968).

Paris 2015: Cimetière de Vaugirard, 15e arrondissement #3: Lucien Besnard


There's not a great deal of information readily available online about the playwright Lucien Besnard (1872–1955), although I've managed to discover that he was born in Nonancourt (Eure), that his full name is Lucien-Eugène Besnard, and that his final play – Dans l'hombre du harem – was turned into a film in 1929. His current Wikipédia entry gives almost no biographical details, but lists a large number of his plays: Le Glas (1896), Papa Dollivet (1898), Les Chiens du maître (1899), La Fronde (1900), Le Domaine (1902), L'Affaire Grisel (1904), La Plus Amoureuse (1906), Mon ami Teddy (1908), Le Diable ermite (1909), La Folle enchère (1910), Je veux revoir ma Normandie (1913), L'homme qui n'est plus de ce monde (1924), Le Cœur partagé (1926), Dans l'hombre du harem (1927).

Paris 2015: Cimetière de Vaugirard, 15e arrondissement #2: Marius-Ary Leblond

Marius-Ary Leblond won the Goncourt in 1909 for the novel En France, the story of Claude Mavel from La Réunion, but now in Paris and having problems adapting to the changed environment. The name Marius-Ary Leblond in fact conceals two cousins from La Réunion: Marius Leblond (1880–1953) – or Georges Athénas, and Ary Leblond (also called Aimé Merlo) (1877–1958).

And of course they moved to Paris, where they wrote many works together. In 1911 they created a museum in La Réunion which in 1918 was called le musée Léon-Dierx, and in 1934 Ary became conservator of the Musée de la France d’Outre-Mer in Paris.

Didier Blonde: Leïlah Mahi 1932 (2015)


Leïlah Mahi 1932 : enquête (2015), which won the Prix Renaudot de l’essai this year, is the third of Blonde's publications about mysterious women, and which he has called a 'trilogy'. The others are Un Amour sans paroles (2009) – a search for the silent cinema actor Suzanne Grandais  and the novel L'Inconnue de la Seine (2012), a new edition of Blonde's earlier Le Nom de l'inconnue (1988) concerning the unknown young girl discovered drowned in the Seine at the end of the nineteenth century.

The book begins with a homage to the philosopher, psychoanalyst and Gallimard publisher J-B Pontalis, one of the many people fascinated by the face of Leïlah Mahi, the bewitching woman who stares at anyone passing by case 5011 in the Columbarium at the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.

I too have been struck by the face and wrote a few words about it elsewhere on my blog, and reproduce the photo I took above. To my surprise, page 34 of Blonde's book contains the words I originally wrote but later changed slightly, and then added to as I discovered a little more of her, and then a few words in an Addendum about the publication of this book, which was on 1 October 2015:

'"The name Leïlah Mahi (presumably in the acting profession, but she seems more famous for her lack of fame) didn't ring any bells, although I felt the need to include her because she tries so hard to be someone in this photo. Tony Shaw (Nottingham, Royaume-Uni)."'

Blonde discovers that Mahi was a 'femme de lettres' and wrote two books which he considers of little literary merit: En marge du Bonheur (1929) and La Prêtresse sans dieu (1931): he says, 'J'en ai conclu que ses admirateurs n'avaient pas poussés tres loin leurs recherches' ('I concluded from this that her admirers hadn't taken their researches very far.)' Well, yes, but then not many people would have thought of searching in literary records for someone who looks like a film star. Blonde was very lucky to find the novels online: there are now none available, and his book will inevitably increase demand for the probably unattainable.
At over one hundred pages, there are nevertheless few facts about the elusive Leïlah Mahi here. Apart from the two novels, virtually the only further information Blonde can glean is that Mahi lived at 24 avenue de Wagram, a building that has since been pulled down. But then at the end of the book he learns from the mairie of the 5e arrondissement that her address on her death was 59 rue Geoffroy Saint Hilaire, although she also had an address at 13 rue Shakespeare in Nice, and was born in September 1890 in Beirut (which was at the time in Syria).

As Jérôme Garcin states in Bibliobs in his review of Leïlah Mahi 1932, it is Blonde's detective work that is of real interest here, the way the author goes about discovering the tidbits that form the rather small and necessarily inconclusive picture. Blonde makes many suggestions about Mahi, things he can guess from the photo or guess from things he's gleaned from old directories, or even what he can surmise about any possible autobiographical content in Mahi's two novels.

Blonde's talks with the painter 'Christine C.' and the bibulous 'André B.' come to nothing, but – much like his discovery of the existence of the (now dead) 'Gisèle N.' (a spin-off from the publication of Un Amour sans paroles) – these may be digressions, but they are all part of the richness of the quest for the intangible. The book is something of a literary feast, in fact.

ADDENDUM: Leïlah Mahi looks remarkably similar to the IT (International Times) girl of the late 1960s and early 1970s, although someone made an error and instead of it being the original 'IT' girl Clara Bow of the silent movie era, it was Theda Bara. Apart from Mahi's beauty spot...: