31 January 2016

Thierry Séchan: Le Roman de Renaud (1988)

Le Roman de Renaud is written by the singer Renaud's elder brother Thierry Séchan, who understandably writes 'FIN'at the end, although the whole book is full of comments by Renaud himself reproduced in his original handwriting, and after 'FIN' he even more understandably suggests that Thierry ought to have instead written 'À SUIVRE', ('To be continued'): the book ends in 1988, and there were many more years of Renaud to follow, and indeed his brother published another Roman de Renaud in 2006. And after a number of years without any new releases Renaud returns this spring with a new album called 'Toujours debout' ('Still Standing'), the title of which defiantly indicates Renaud's comeback, and the already released eponymous single of which is a harsh stab at all the 'arseholes' ('trous du cul') and 'fuckers' ('enfoirés') who said he was finished.

On his paternal side Renaud comes from a line of writers: his grandfather Louis Séchan (1882–1968) was a Hellenist who wrote a number of books and taught at the Université de Paris, his father Olivier Séchan (1911–2006) wrote novels and children's books and his brother Thierry (born 1949) is a writer and journalist. Renaud's daughter Lolita is also a writer of children's books.

I'm uncertain of Renaud's present relations with Thierry Séchan because there has been a serious rift, although obviously that was many years after this book was written. The 'Not to be borrowed' mark on the cover was originally put there by staff at Leeds University Library (Music section), UK, where it was shelved before being sold: it bears no signs of being read, and it would rather surprise me if many people at the university had heard of Renaud, let alone understood him – his hallmark is many expressions of (sometimes obscure, even self-invented) slang, and even young French people have had trouble understanding some of the things he says. So it's not for nothing that he's been included (honoured, in fact) in the Petit Robert dictionary.

Thierry Séchan's book traces he and his brother's Parisian roots in the 14e arrondissement and the Montrouge area, the familial cultural mix – staunch middle class on the paternal side, staunch working-class on the maternal side: Renaud wrote a song about his coalminer grandfather Oscar in the song of the same name – gives an explanation of many of the songs, and concludes that Renaud is still a person who has never grown up.

This idea of eternal youth is evidently still present in Renaud's latest single, and has certainly still been there throughout his musical career, and can perhaps be said to be his main strength. It was recognised by the equally ageless (and at the time sixty-year-old) writer Frédéric Dard (1921–2000) (alias San-Antonio); it's in France's favourite song Mistral Gagnant (a former confectionery) which the video clip shows Renaud singing to Lolita – isn't parenthood very much a re-visitation of childhood? As people age they generally become more conservative, more resigned, but Renaud? Never!

The anarchism has nuanced, OK, but it's very much still there, as are the insults to the forces that govern us, the faceless, moronic nonentities that would have us follow them into non-life, into accepting their mindless violence, their supremely arrogant theft from the public, their conning the public that we live in a free world, live in a democracy, which is so much hideous bullshit, and which Renaud understood and still understands. Renaud tried to believe, supported Mitterand until he realised he was playing the same war game as the others, and he adapted Vian's 'Le Deserteur' to the times, inviting the president to smoke a pétard (joint) with him, the pipe of peace.

Going beyond the time of the book now, 'Dans le jungle' ('In the Jungle') isn't about the mess that is Calais, but about the kidnapping of the Franco-Columbian ecologist politician Ingrid Betancourt (between 2002 and 2008): this was by Marxist guerrillas, but was in no way supported by the always left-thinking Renaud because he believes in freedom and the kidnapping itself, and the fact that the group FARC was also involved in drug trafficking, made this an obscenity.

Coming back to the time of Le Roman de Renaud, and of course back into international politics, it is heart-warming to be reminded of Renaud's 'Miss Maggie', a song which is a celebration of women throughout the world because they aren't violent, don't declare war, they are civilised human beings: with the exception, of course, of Margaret Thatcher. Yes, this is an important song full of delicious humour: how could I have forgotten to include it in my list of anti-Thatcher songs?

There are many things in this book that testify not only to the importance of Renaud as a French singer, but to the importance of his words to the world. An equal to Brassens, or Brel, or Ferré? Yes, definitely.

29 January 2016

Patrick Lapeyre: La vie est brève et le désir sans fin | Life Is short and Desire Endless (2010)

When I gave my impressions of La Splendeur dans l'herbe several days ago I mentioned the bit about a pair of tourists seen as Martians taking photos to sell on their planet. This is an observation by the American Murphy Blomdale, who's working in central London. He's obsessed by the mysterious Nora Neville, a young English woman striving to be an actress. She's been living with Murphy, although after two years she returns to Paris, to Louis Blériot, named the same as the famous pilot, a man eking out a living as a translator of prescriptions but married to Sabine, the real breadwinner. Like Murphy, Louis is also obsessed with Nora, who has a mysterious power to win men over, extract love and money from them, endless desire, and whose gift is never really fully explained, although we're told that her eyes have the ability to convey a 'limpid, almost lunar, unreality'.

Also, when I was speaking about La Splendeur dans l'herbe, I noted the fact that Lapeyre brings to mind Craig Raine's Martian view of everyday observations, and these re-occur here in the comment about men's behatted heads from a distance resembling talkative mushrooms, or people aligned in deckchairs giving the appearance of cellos in a row. And again, there's a certain other world quality in the behaviour of some of the protagonists and their propensity to disappear without warning, as Louis does when he and his wife are about to go into the cinema: time for his vanishing trick, and he returns to the hotel a few hours later explaining that he got a little lost, but that there's still time, at midnight, to visit the casino. Sabine says that she's worried about him, and most readers (quite possibly severely reduced by this almost halfway stage) would probably agree.

It would be a shame for people to lose interest in or get exasperated with Lapeyre though, because he sees things from a different perspective: people don't behave as expected, the normal is odd, or maybe to be more accurate it's the odd that's normal. References to the (real) Russian space dog Laika, or to Star Trek, or Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles aren't for nothing.

There are of course certain similar themes or main character traits in both Life Is short and Desire Endless and La Splendeur dans l'herbe, such as the importance of waiting, and waiting is even mentioned as a kind of religion here. Lapeyre's characters are also strong on indecision as well as desire. And where does the idea of a parallel universe fit in here? Just asking: someone has to.

My other posts on Patrick Lapeyre:
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Patrick Lapeyre: La Splendeur dans l'herbe

Patrick Lapeyre: L'Homme-sœur

27 January 2016

Hervé Bazin: Vipère au poing (1948)

Many French people, and many non-French people aware (or to be more exact often unaware) of contemporary French literature have accused it of navel-gazing, or nombrilisme, writing what Serge Doubrovsky dubbed 'autofiction', fictionalised representations of autobiography. French writers who have been named as falling into this category are Christine Angot, Christine Millet, Camille Laurens, Delphine de Vigan, Michel Houellebecq, Chloé Delaume, Annie Ernaux, Guillaume Dustan, Christophe Donner, Catherine Cusset, etc, etc, etc. As if this supposed 'infection' were something new to French, or indeed any other foreign, literature.

This is usually where I start citing B. S. Johnson's dictum about no writing being new, that all literature essentially comes from autobiographical sources: even the three-headed monster of science fiction derives from the concepts three, head, and monster. D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913) is an example of autofiction par excellence, and I forget who said that D. H. Lawrence incorporated his whole life experiences into his books, that he was incapable of 'inventing' any purely original characters, but of course he wasn't French and he died over eighty-five years ago.

Jules Renard was French, and his novel Poil de Carotte (1894) is a prime example of the (sub)-genre. Enter Hervé Bazin, the first part of his autobiographical trilogy being Vipère au poing (1948), yet another example of autofiction avant la lettre. Here the story begins in 1922 and continues until several years later.

Jean Rezeau (nicknamed Brasse-Bouillon), eight years of age, lives with his slightly older brother Frédie (or Chiffe) and his paternal grandmother until her death. Then everything changes, and the parents have to return. The father Jacques Rezeau, doctor in Law who has taught in a university in China, married Paule Pluvignec from a wealthy family: he is a timid man more interested in the scholarly study of insects, whereas Paule (almost always referred as Folcoche, a mixture of the feminine 'mad' ('folle') and 'female pig' ('cochonne'), is an aggressive, and surely half-mad, woman whose passion (when not beating her children) is, er, collecting stamps.

The parents return after the grandmother's death, along with the youngest son Marcel, who becomes a kind of double agent in the civil war which develops between the brothers and Folcoche. And Folcoche's agents dwindle as she frightens off the domestics, the (religious) teachers, and so on. Largely, though, this develops into a war between the narrator Brasse-Bouillon and Folcoche, in the end with the sexually mature son forcing his mother (if that word can be uttered without vomiting) to accept if not defeat then a kind of stalemate by a mixture of maturity and cunning. Very amusing in a rather chilling kind of way, and of course a classic of French literature.

24 January 2016

Grégoire Delacourt: La Liste de mes envies | The Wish List (2012)

This is a very simple book written in a very simple language, at 183 pages is easily readable in a few hours, and coming to this after reading the superlative La Splendeur dans l'herbe by Patrick Lapeyre it gave me the impression of being far inferior. Or was I just influenced by the fact that a little Googling showed that this is a very popular book that has also been filmed? 'Popular' to me has a nasty smell to it.

Well, I couldn't help asking myself if I was reading a kind of chicklit for an older generation. The 47-year-old Jocelyne Guerbette owns a fabric shop in Arras and is married to a male Jocelyn who works in a Häagen-Dazs factory with no loftier ambitions than becoming a foreman there. Jocelyne also runs a successful blog, the advertising revenue from which allows her to employ a member of staff.

And then comes a moment of wonder, when Jocelyne wins 18.5 million euros on the lottery but keeps quiet about it, telling not a soul. She doesn't even arrange a bank transfer, but initially keeps the cheque hidden in an old shoe in her wardrobe. Things carry on as normal and she continues to see her Alzheimer-struck father, work in the shop and have good sex with husband Jocelyn, who has stopped drinking alcoholic beer since the still-birth of their child, who followed their now grown-up kids: Nadine, the go-ahead film-preoccupied daughter living in the UK, and Romain, the feckless, unambitious tail-chasing son. And Jocelyn carries on his factory work, dreaming of a super-duper new car and a complete set of James Bond DVDs.

Until Jocelyne's world crumbles when she finds that her loving husband has discovered the winnings and run off to spend it: all that is required is for him to skilfully scratch out a letter 'e' at the end of the first name on his wife's cheque and the money is his. Jocelyne, devastated, leaves the shop and uses what money she has to stay in Nice, away from any lingering sights, smells or whatever of the man she used to share her life with.

Meanwhile Jocelyn goes to exotic Belgium because he can't speak any language other than French and obviously has a very limited imagination. He goes back on the beer, this time super strength, finds no friends, finds no joy with the prostitutes, yearns for the life he threw away, and returns Jocelyn's money in a cheque in a letter, minus the 3 million he's already blown in about a year. But he's blown more than money, Jocelyne doesn't reply, and the police in Belgium will later discover her husband's neglected, stinking remains.

So Jocelyn buys a house, lives with a guy she met when married but didn't yield to temptation because she loved her husband at the time, although now she can't feel the same about love. Ever again.

Money doesn't buy happiness then? Is that just the trite message of this disappointing book? In the Afterword, Grégoire Delacourt seems very happy with his readers who say that their lives have been changed because of his book. There's no self-satisfaction on his part though, of course, he's very happy that the book's so successful, been made into a film, etc. I'm sure he's immensely happy about all the money he's made too, although naturally he doesn't mention it as that would appear to contradict the message.

I'm nevertheless  grateful to Delacourt for reminding me that I really must get down to reading Albert Cohen's Belle du Seigneur, but as for La Liste de mes envies, no, give me Patrick Lapeyre any day: that man knows what desire is. And Lapeyre can write really well too.

23 January 2016

Patrick Lapeyre: La Splendeur dans l'herbe (2016)

In Patrick Lapeyre's previous novel, La Vie est brève et le désir sans fin (2010) (a title translated literally into English as Life Is Short and Desire Endless) the American character Murphy at one point sees an obese couple at the edge of a lake 'dressed like Martians', taking photos of everything they can see, 'with the probable intention of selling them on Mars one day'. It's far from a one-off comment by the author, and reminded me of Craig Raine's vision of everyday objects from a Martian's point of view, although with Lapeyre of course it's people themselves who are seen as behaving in an alien way. Couples frequently don't get on with one another, see the other as a totally incomprehensible being. Yes, many of us have been there.

This is not necessarily negative though, because Homer, the protagonist of La Spendeur dans l'herbe*, asks himself of his lover Sybil 'From which planet, from which unknown world was she coming to spread such tenderness?': a little over two years before, Homer lived – in between several separations – with his wife Emmanuelle, and it was as though they were both from different, ill-starred planets.

Then there's Massimo, a work colleague of Homer's, who describes the time he started looking for a football kicked well away from the pitch where his team was playing: he forgot the game and became entranced by being in the woods, the silence, as if he were leaving behind his old life for a new one. He says that he later had a similar experience when he left his wife and children briefly during a theatre interval, when he went via a fire exit to meet the darkness and the noise of the streets. He points out that it wasn't as powerful an experience as the first time, but thanks Homer for giving him the opportunity to speak about 'that planet'.

Reading this Patrick Lapeyre novel is a little like being on another planet, and my translation of the back cover gives an idea of the content:

'In the beginning they were like shadows. A man and woman speaking to one another about those who had betrayed them. They speak about it incessantly, obsessively, each time they meet. Until between them, and almost in spite of them, a strange loving relationship develops, the logical product of which seems to be continually delayed. As if the enchantment of the conversation made them forget all the rest.'

This of course takes us back to Zobain territory, and Raymond Guerin's non-sexual relationship with his wife, although there's a major difference: the two here become a fully loving couple after all the lack of sex. And all the missed opportunities, such as the time on the boat when Homer wanted to kiss Sybil's neck but didn't dare, or the time when he lay down on the floor after Sybil accidentally pushed him from his piano stool and wanted to pull her down with him but didn't dare, etc, are simply manifestations of Homer's immaturity. He is just incapable of making any decisions, he's way too sensitive to force the moment through its logic. And even when the moments, er, come at the end the reader isn't treated to any description of them: they happen behind the scenes.

And not only is any sex kept on hold, but the development of the relationship between the dumped Homer and dumped Sybil (by her husband Giovanni to join Emmanuelle) is held back in that almost every other chapter (and there are sixty-five of them in this 378-page book) is concerned with the young Homer's relationship with his parents Arno and Ana, or Arno and Ana's relationship with themselves.

Needless to say, Arno and Ana live on different psychological planets from one another, which obviously must be borne in mind if we have to consider Homer's oddness. OK, he hardly said a word for his first three years (echoes of the real-life Amélie Nothomb), evidently suffered some trauma when a man exposed himself in front of him, and when his mother left him waiting for hours when she was supposed to pick him up from school early. In fact, she was talking to a prostitute because she used to enjoy talking to people about their lives. Also he seems to have had something of an absentee father. How does this parental background affect him? Difficult to say, but in the end his father is living with a much younger girl in Toronto and Homer really isn't interested in him, although his mother died in her fifties and on one occasion we see the son (with a little help from Sybil) tend his beloved mother's grave as a kind of self-redemption for all the times he's failed to appreciate her.

This is one of the books in the January rentrée for this year. And already it feels like it just has to be one of the best French books of the year.

* The expression 'splendo(u)r in the grass' may call to mind the Elia Kazan film to many, although the quotation at the beginning of the novel is from William Wordsworth.

My other posts on Patrick Lapeyre:

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Patrick Lapeyre: La vie est brève et le désir sans fin

Patrick Lapeyre: L'Homme-sœur

18 January 2016

Jean-Paul Kauffmann: 31, allées Damour: Raymond Guérin 1905-1955 (2004)

'This anarchist, this permanent rebel, is in everyday life a man of order and habit.' Jean-Paul Kauffmann's sentence comes towards the end of his scholarly, 350-page biography of Raymond Guérin, one of the most famous of the forgotten – in fact never really ever known – French writers. And yet it could serve as an introduction to this chameleon-like author. On the one hand Kauffman doesn't have an easy job with a man so little known, although on the other almost everything he discovers is new and his task was much facilitated by the archive at the Bibliothèque Jacques Doucet near the Panthéon.

I was a little reminded of my research on the artist and would-be writer Karl Salsbury Wood, who (this was wartime England) scribbled his findings on wallpaper-backed diaries, fastidiously (manically?) recording details of every (half)penny spent on his windmill tours. But Guérin seems to have been even more obsessive, with his bills, restaurant napkins, etc, included in the archival boxes.

Kauffmann doesn't only include the details of the Raymond Guérin archive but also much of himself, his conversations with his research neighbour who's looking into Paul Éluard, the interest of Juliette Bordessoule more in Kauffmann's own captivity than Guérin's, the girl in the lift to 31 allées Damour (Bordeaux) who thinks the 'great writer' associated with the building is not Guérin (well, who he?) but Montesquieu, on so on.

This is a wonderfully meticulous, obsessive book about a meticulous, obsessive person, a book to return to and discover amazing things about an amazing person. But only for some of us, of course, as the majority of committed readers will not, for instance, be interested in Monsieur Hermès (probably named after a brand of exercise book) and his masturbatory activities in L'Apprenti, or Hermès again in the 800-page 'follow-up' Parmi tant d'autres feux..., let alone the 500-page Les Poulpes in which Guérin changes Hermès's name to le Grand Dab, and which ends the trilogy Ébauche d'une Mythologie de la Réalité (lit. 'Sketch of a Mythology of Reality'). Pretentious? I should hope so: aren't James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf et al gloriously pretentious? Of course, so what's wrong with that? Readable? Probably not for most, but then I specialise in reading unreadable books, and Guérin sounds deliciously unreadable.

I've only read Zobain so far (my review is linked below), but I shall certainly be back for more. Fascinatingly, Kauffmann discovers that all correspondence with Denise Montauriol (Guérin's first wife) has been removed from the archive, and asks if Juliette Bordessoule is responsible for this: tantalizingly, there's later a photo of the elderly woman on one of the plates between pages 56 and 57, although the reader has to plough though about two thirds of this biography before he or she can be certain that Bordessoule is the heir to Guérin's estate. Kauffmann, then, wouldn't have known (as Finitude's Zobain Afterword makes clear) that Denise (or Denyse) complained bitterly to Guérin in more than one letter that her problem was that he hadn't made her 'a woman', and furthermore hadn't told his mother the 'real' reason for the divorce.

Guérin may well have appeared very pleasant to many other people, although he could be very difficult too. After a letter savagely criticising Gaston Gallimard for the 'pittance' he received from him, Gallimard replied: 'You are too egocentric, too self-oriented to conceive of an outside world. Your arrogance blinds you, and if you were a normal man you wouldn't have this totally unjustifiable persecution complex, which in my eyes excuses you. However, this egotism, this ingratitude, which has perhaps been the driving force of your publications, is probably what will limit you in the future'. But amazingly, Gallimard went on to meet many of Guérin's demands.

How can I criticise this astonishing book? There's not enough sex?

Patrick Modiano: Les Boulevards de ceinture | Ring Roads (1972)

I've only read two Modiano novels apart from this, and since his Nobel Prize for Literature win I've wondered – there being so many excellent living French authors around – if he actually deserved it. OK, most writers pen the same book over and over again, but isn't Modiano, with his obsessions with detective tales, Jewishness, the streets of Paris, (multiple) identity, etc, well, just a bit too samey?

Les Boulevards de ceinture (translated into English as Ring Roads) has me thinking though. The novel begins (and incidentally ends) with a photograph of the interior of Le Clos-Foucré restaurant in a village on the edge of the Fontainebleau woods. This photograph morphs into the living characters in it, the main ones being the dodgy publisher Murraille, the dodgy ex-legionnaire Marcheret, and the dodgy fat man who now calls himself Deyckecaire.

In fact, in the Occupation period of Modiano's novel it's difficult to find anyone who's not dodgy. The narrator calls himself Serge Alexandre because he's concealing his true identity from his father, who is in fact Deyckecaire (who's also using a false name). His father used to sell fraudulent stamps, and then graduated to lots of other things when found out, and was with his son when he used to forge signatures and dedications on books to make large sums of money.

That was when the narrator was seventeen, before his father tried to push him under a train, and has been tracking his father down after ten years because he's forgiven him. Hard to swallow this forgiveness? Yes of course, if you take it literally, and it's hard to swallow the fact that the father doesn't recognise the son after ten years, and did the narrator really murder Lestandi?

Many questions come easily to the surface in this hallucinatory, almost surreal work in which a lot is not what it seems to be, where much is imbued with the substance of dreams. There's definitely more to Modiano than first appearances suggest, and I shall be looking further into his odd world.

My other posts on Patrick Modiano:

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Patrick Modiano: L'Horizon
Patrick Modiano: La Petite Bijou
Patrick Modiano: Rue des boutiques obscures | Missing Person

14 January 2016

Roger Vailland: La Loi (1957)

This powerful 1957 novel was awarded the Prix Goncourt in the same year. Communist Roger Vailland was shattered to learn the truth behind Stalin's lies, and sought refuge with his wife Élizabeth for several months in the Pulgia area of southern Italy, more specifically in the town of Gargano, which becomes masked as Manacore in La Loi, and is where almost all of the action in this claustrophobic novel is set.

The title La Loi refers to the translation of La Legge, a (male-only) bar game played in small towns and villages in southern Italy where everyone knows each other and in which, after the casting of a die or the drawing of a tarot card, a 'boss' emerges to chose a second-in-charge to lay down the Law with over a bottle of wine. The boss can drink as many glasses from the bottle as he wishes, and give or refuse glasses to other players who ask. He has the power to criticise, indeed insult, or even praise any of the other players or anyone else he wishes. For the dispossessed, this is a chance for a moment of glory, a chance to become all-powerful in theory, to make 'The Law'. The Law is a microcosm, here, of the social situation in Manacore.

Manacore suffers from often oppressive heat, oppressive mosquitoes, and oppressive men who think it their right to rape young virgins if they are refused that pleasure. Manacore on first appearances seems to be a place that time has forgotten, although there are glimpses of the twentieth century: the scooters, the cars, and the TV sets, for instance. But socially let's say there's room for growth.

There are feudal echoes here, as in the seventy-two-year-old Don Cesare's long-held 'right' to take women, although this right can easily be concealed by him employing them as servants: he owns a fair amount of land as well as money, so he can make the Law.

Matteo Brigante also makes the Law, has a great deal of money, but is a racketeer, not of the same social status as Don Cesare. Brigante is married, but likes to seduce virgins, such as Mariette, who is sixteen to seventeen here, and cuts Matteo deeply on the cheek with his own greffoir, or grafting knife, when he tries to rape her. This is an example of the 'lesser' sex turning the tables, of Mariette standing up for herself rather than accepting her lot as others would do: an example of a woman making the Law.

Making the Law can be complicated, as in prostitution. A hirer of prostitutes makes the Law by using the woman, but then the woman makes the Law by using the 'john' and establishing the price and creating all the conditions: maybe she has the best of both worlds by making the Law and receiving it, the narrator suggests. But there are no brothels in Manacore, a place where it is said that everyone is everyone else's cop, where if anything clandestine is to be done it has to be done by great cunning and/or a great deal of money.

But positions in the hierarchy are by no means permanent, as proved by the huge upward leap by the rank outsider Mariette, who may well be Don Cesare's daughter, and who gains a great amount of property in his will. As opposed, that is, to her mother and sisters and his servant Tonio, who is forced to join the ranks of the unemployed. A complicated story, but a very interesting one.

My other Roger Vailland posts:

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Roger Vailland: Les mauvais Coups
Roger Vailland: 325.000 francs

12 January 2016

Jean Vautrin: Un grand pas vers le Bon Dieu (1989)

In 1991 Patrick Griolet lodged a complaint of plagiarism against Jean Vautrin's Prix Goncourt 1989 novel Un Grand Pas vers le Bon Dieu on the grounds that it uses many of the words and expressions in Griolet's works on Cajun words and expressions. Griolet lost his case because although explanatory texts, definitions, examples, etc, are indeed protected the words and their orthography are not; Griolet also lost on appeal. For me, what this exercise shows more than anything is the extent to which Un grand pas vers le Bon Dieu is steeped in the Cajun lexicon.

So steeped in fact that, reading some comments by regular as opposed to professional readers, bafflement is the order of the day – or rather, the order of the daze: this novel is for at least half of its monster 535-page length a mixture of Cajun, straight French, and liberal smatterings of English.

The events in the novel take place between 1893 and 1920 – just twenty-seven years – but a great deal happens in that time, although that time is not represented sequentially: we are to some extent made to lose track of the past half way in. That doesn't concern me as much as the essential joining of two parts does, and in spite of the eventual resolution of the hiatus between the parts there is a number of pages here in the second half that just left me cold as they felt superfluous. All the same, I never at any point wanted to give up on the book because it contains superlative, often very funny, writing.

Before the momentous event of most the killings, which take place on one occasion and almost exactly half way through Un grand pas vers le Bon Dieu, we have Edius Raquin – the surname surely not being gratuitous as this reads throughout like a cartoon Zola – in Bayou Nez Piqué in remote Louisiana with his wife Bazelle and his very choosy daughter Azeline, who just refuses to marry any of the guys around as they're plain boring skirt-chasers.

Until, that is, Farouche Ferraille Crowther, the most wanted outlaw in the country and with a past as unlikely as his name, guns his way into the territory, Edius (in equally unlikely mode) takes to him and hides him in the marshes with a view to taming him for marriage to Azeline and working on the plantation after a change of appearance just to put bounty hunters and (for example) Farouche's notorious enemy Palestine Northwood off the scent.

Wonder of wonders, Azeline is (in theory secretly) turned on by the first erection she's ever seen as Farouche washes himself in the bayou water and she masturbates with a groan. So marriage is inevitable, although all the killings come on the wedding day and Farouche has to leave pretty sharpish. But not before he's sown the seeds of motherhood in Azeline, who moves to New Orleans and, well... another story begins with her son.

It's this second story that often had me yawning, as this reader can only take so many wild stories – and so many larger-than-life characters – in one go. So Azeline's son Jim Crowley (who will become a musician) lives in New Orleans for many years, growing up fast in cockroach infested places, fathering children by (in this order) his black foster mother, by a Japanese prostitute called Tokyo-Rose, and (as a one-legged World War I casualty) by his nurse. In between this he unknowingly has sex with his mother, who now calls herself Lilly Mae.

But the deus ex machina comes in the form of a detective who's been tracking Jim down for a few years to inform him that he's a rich man: in 1916, Jim's gold-rich grandfather Edius died, living the palatial home of his long-nourished dreams – along with pots of money  – all to his grandson. Et le bon temps roulera.

8 January 2016

Caroline Lamarche: Le Jour du chien (1996); repr. Espace Nord 2012

This edition of Caroline Lamarche's second book, Le Jour du chien, is published by the Belgian company Espace Nord, and comes with twenty very useful pages at the end by Daniel Arnaut. Some of the useful things we learn from Arnaut concern the hors texte. We already know that the book is dedicated to a dog seen on the E411 motorway on the 20 March 1995, but not everyone will know that the epigraph about a lost dog that paradoxically possibly never existed, and is written by Vladimir Nabokov, is from his autobiographical Mademoiselle O. Arnaut also, oddly, mentions the back cover summing up the book as 'Six characters in search of a dog', after Pirandello's play 'Six Characters in Search of an Author'. I say 'oddly' because there is no such sentence on the back cover: a reference to the original Minuit edition, or an editorial decision not to include the sentence after all?

In spite of that, though, 'Six characters in search of a dog' is a very apt description because the book is about just that. The text is divided into six sections, each narrated by a person on the motorway who has stopped because the stray dog is a potential accident hazard. But there's more to it than that because each person is at some kind of crisis point in their lives, and identifies with the dog because they too feel abandoned.

The text opens with 'Histoire d'un camionneur', in which a lorry driver has been abandoned by his parents, then his wife, has no children, leads a solitary existence so creates (a favourite word of his) a new life by writing to various magazines, and has even been interviewed by a journalist working for (the imaginary?) Tendresse.

A sixty-year-old priest is the subject of 'Le Combat avec l'ange', and when he speaks of caressing and licking the interior of a pebble, an object he compares to a woman's sexual organ, we get a vivid (and weird) idea of this fight of his with the angel. The thirty-year-old woman in the story is Sophie, who doesn't go to Mass but he sees her regularly in the library, until she disappears and he feels abandoned, even looks in other libraries for her but she has gone.

'Un petit parasol piqué dans la crème fraîche' is a phrase that appears right at the end of the eponymous story, expressing a wish. She is unnamed and was on the point of going to her lover to break with him but the dog causes her to abandon the act and merely go to see a film at the cinema, the actions of which she scarcely follows. She has identified her lover with the abandoned dog, although she herself is the abandoned one.

There is a gay young man in 'À Vélo', a person to some extent – like others in this multi-layered novel – also responsible for his own abandonment. His father has disowned him in part, he says and probably believes, due to his homosexuality, but he brings about his own dismissal from his dead-end job at 'Hello-Fruits', where his boss has made comments about his obvious gayness, so he insults her. Abandoned from home, abandoned from his job, he abandons his friends and risks arrest, which may come as some relief to his abandoning himself to cycling on the hard shoulder of the motorway.

In one of the cars that stop for the abandoned dog there is a mother and a daughter. The mother is the narrator of the fifth story, 'Rien à faire'. Her husband Nico has 'abandoned' her through death due to cancer. She compares the dog which she refuses to have anything to do with to a baby goat whose life she 'saved' from being shot by the hunting enthusiast Nico before they were married.

Unlike her unnamed mother, the daughter Anne in 'Le Repos éternel' goes to seek out the dog. Anne has abandoned herself to overeating since the death of her father, and her mother in a sense abandons her daughter by avoiding this person many take to be a male. Desperate for attention like for instance the gay young man, she wishes that her mother would beat her and abandon her on the motorway – like, of course, the dog.

There are a some other themes in the book, such as the religious one suggested in the title of Anne's section above, but I've tended to concentrate on abandonment: Caroline Lamarche is incidentally one of Marie NDiaye's favourite Francophone writers, and that clearly makes sense here. What more can I say: Lamarche is clearly a writer to look out for.

6 January 2016

Jacques-Pierre Amette: La Maîtresse de Brecht | Brecht's Lover (2003)

As the title indicates, Jacques-Pierre Amette's novel La Maîtresse de Brecht – translated as Brecht's Mistress in the American translation and Brecht's Lover in English – principally concerns the playwright Bertolt Brecht's woman. Who is the imaginary Maria Eich.
 
The omniscient narrative concerns the return of Brecht in 1948 from his fifteen-year exile from Nazi Germany – spent with his wife Hélène Weigel, mainly in the USA – to East Berlin, now under the control of the Soviets.
 
Vetting is the order of the day on the part of all sides, and just as Brecht has been under close surveillance in California from the McCarthy witch-hunters sniffing the slightest hint of communist sympathy, so the Stasi in East Germany want to know if the great writer has in any way changed his political allegiances over the previous fifteen years.
 
This is where Maria Eich comes in: the Soviets, via Hans Trew, employ the beautiful young actor Maria to spy on Brecht, to glean any information she can on him by taking photos of any of his papers. As a person with an estranged ex-Nazi husband and an ex-Nazi father but herself with no particular political views, Maria easily takes to the job, which inevitably soon includes sharing the bed of the notoriously sexually-oriented but much older Brecht.
 
In fact Brecht doesn't have that many years to live as he has a serious heart condition, and as the relationship with Maria progresses even though she gets nothing from it sexually and grows to severely dislike Brecht as a man in spite of her huge respect for him as a writer, her feelings for Hans grow.
 
Hans has a working partner named Théo Pillat and the couple have an odd, sometimes humorous relationship that reminded me almost of a Laurel and Hardy in reverse at times, and Théo can't understand why Hans – who's also in love with Maria – doesn't act on his feelings. But he can't, and I'm relieved that there wasn't a mushy ending here, although Hans ensures she gets safely to West Berlin where her daughter lives.
 
So there we have it, an interesting and quick read, although I've no idea if it deserved the Goncourt.

Tony Duvert: Quand mourut Jonathan (1978)

In an earlier post I mentioned L. P. Hartley's famous phrase 'The past is a different country' in relation to Gilles Sebhan's first biography of Tony Duvert, and indeed the same expression can be applied to Duvert's novel Quand Jonathan mourut. All kinds of sexually liberated ideas sprung from the (almost) anything-goes ethos of the late sixties and seventies, and indeed much of this spirit remains, which is a great advantage: who, for instance, would want to return to the closeted sexual silence of the previous years when masturbation was considered both harmful and even deviant, when it was necessity for a couple to flash a ring to stay at a hotel, when homosexuality was illegal, etc?

During the supposed sexual revolution of this era experiment was the norm, as long as – and this is vital to a historical understanding of Duvert – no one was harmed or persuaded in any way into doing anything against their wishes in the process. So, erm, as children are undoubtedly sexual beings then what's wrong with adults having  consensual sex with them? This is the basic idea behind Quand mourut Jonathan and indeed behind, it seems, much of Duvert's work.

This is not Lolita, and there are not even any remotely grey areas here. In a few words, the artist Jonathan is entrusted during the summer months to look after Serge, an eight-year-old child Jonathan has known since he was six going on seven, and with whom he has had certain forms of totally consenting sex. What we have rather briefly described in the book are the activities between child and adult when the child was eight and ten, and when the man was in his twenties. Serge's mother Barbara senses that there's something not quite right about Jonathan's relationship with Serge, and censors any more stays of her son with the man. End of story really.

But in between, there is the fact that Serge has – particularly as an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old – enjoyed having a limited sexual relationship with Jonathan, particularly the oral and anal sex when he was ten years old. Jonathan, aware that he can be imprisoned for up to ten years for such behaviour, realises that the relationship is over when he understands Barbara's suspicions about the nature of the relationship.

The real problem is that Jonathan doesn't appreciate that he's done anything wrong, sees child sexuality as a normal occurrence that adults have no wrong in indulging in, and sees other children he's met as 'abnormal' when he's 'innocently' exposed himself to them and fled from him on seeing their reaction. But you see, it's adults who have the real problem: they see this as child abuse.

Umm. Yes, they certainly do. As a view into the world of a child, and to which in some respects Duvert belonged, this is an interesting if not valuable novel, although as an example of adult behaviour it is of course reprehensible. But doesn't it show us the workings of the mind of a paedophile, doesn't it have merit because of that? Well, yes but...

Tony Duvert's experimental novel Paysage de fantaisie won the Prix Médicis in 1973. I'll be reading and passing judgement on this in due course.

My other post on Tony Duvert:

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Gilles Sebhan: Tony Duvert: L'enfant silencieux

2 January 2016

Raymond Guérin: Zobain (1936); repr. Finitude 2015

I'll begin by translating the back cover of this Finitude re-edition of the rather obscure writer Raymond Guérin's bizarrely titled Zobain:

'Zobain has been married for four years. He loves his wife, his wife loves him. They are young, full of hopes, united by the same taste for beauty, for art, for literature.

'Zobain has been married for fours years, and that's where the story takes off. His wife is wasting away, loses her appetite, the doctor is involved. Rest, much rest. Illness is spoken of, depression, specialised establishments. A procession of white coats.

'Zobain has been married for four years, and his wife is still a virgin...

'Zobain is Raymond Guérin's first novel, published in 1936. Already the writer had a penchant for "writing everything", even if it disturbed. He describes his shipwreck of a marriage in minute detail and with touching sincerity, down to the last detail:

"Zobain is an autobiographical story, from which I have drawn entirely from my life.'"

The above paragraph is in part the way Guérin presented his manuscript to Jean Paulhan, adding that he had written 'without falsifying a single episode, nor a date, nor a place'. Well, some of the places are just given capital letters, and as for some of the dates, Thierry Boizet, the editor of this slightly amplified edition, shows by some of Guérin's wife Denyse's letters that there are some discrepancies in what the couple say. In fact, according to the letters of Denyse (née Montauriol), there are a great number of ways in which Guérin's (or Zobain's to be exact) account of things differs from his wife's.

But first, to that odd name: Zobain. Gallimard didn't like it and wanted the novel to have a different title, although Guérin insisted that it would be Zobain or it wouldn't be at all. So there (or here) is it. 'Zobain' was a nickname Guérin had back in his lycée days, when he given to saying 'Je vais au bain', emphasising the liaison and in so doing making the end sound like 'Zobain'. And it surely can't be a coincidence that zob is also a slang for 'cock' as in 'dick': the title of the book contains the very thing that is missing here.

The first hundred pages of this 255-page book might well put many people off as they are self-obsessed, introspective to a painful degree, psychologising, intellectualising, and although the subject is ostensibly Zobain's wife it isn't really because it more concerns the narrator's feelings towards his wife's situation, her (supposed) illness. Which is never actually named by Zobain in this one-sided epistolary novel in which the protagonist writes to an unnamed male friend whose voice is only (briefly) heard after the letters have all been written, after the divorce.

Quite early in the book though, the reader must surely have noticed that there's something seriously wrong: for her health he's sent his wife to a villa for a few months, and then the doctor thinks he can cure her but Zobain must come as soon as possible, which he does, and his wife is obviously desperate for sex, welcomes him with open arms and....he's repulsed by the coarseness and the ugliness of her desires: this, er, coming after a chaste marriage of nearly four years.

This doesn't sound like Zobain's led us to believe, but later he tells the reader that she's frigid: Zobain on the doctor on the subject of his wife: 'He had never seen a woman so ashamed of her sex. Anything to do with it horrified her. He couldn't manage to reason with her'. So it's of course the wife's fault that they're both in marital hell. And having her widowed mother living with them has made things worse.

When we look at the letters at the end of the book though, there are fifteen pages in a one-letter babble in which Zobain, in denial of what's happened to the relationship, lays into his wife's mother, but a few short and very clear letters from Denyse as to why the marriage has failed: he's not made a 'woman' of her, and as a result this non-woman – originally having no mental or physical problems – has been forced to lead what she calls an 'abnormal life'.

Haven't both parties been to blame though? I don't think so. And just take a look at the cover: this is definitely something of a Hamlet figure, thinking too precisely on the (non-)event, maybe even thinking 'to be or not to be', but only in an existential sense as opposed to a physical one: his wife's the one who's attempted suicide at least twice.

This is a fascinating book which deserves to be carefully read.