17 December 2018

Marguerite Duras: Emily L. (1987)

Almost every afternoon in summer, Marguerite Duras and Yann Andréa would drive from Trouville to the Hôtel de la Marine in Quillebeuf, usually via Pont-Audemer, a round trip of slightly under eighty miles. This is just what the two unnamed characters in Emily L. do, at a time when, Duras’s biographer Laure Adler says, the couple were drinking six or eight litres of wine a day without eating. It’s hardly surprising that the narrator is terrified of the masses of Koreans she sees around her on the café terrace: sounds like a dose of the DTs.
The narrator and her friend seem to be at a negative turning point in their relationship, but that’s not the focal point of interest here: it’s the much-travelled English Captain and his wife (later known as Emily L.) who are the principal subjects here, he with his strong Pilsner beers, and his alcoholic wife with her double bourbons. An early few sentences about them sets the tone:

‘Perched on their stools almost motionless, heads leaning forwards, dangling, they were […] a little ridiculous. You could have called them plants, something like that, of no definite state, a sort of vegetable, human plants, no sooner born than already dying, no sooner living than already dead.’ (My translation.)

Emily L.’s history comes in instalments, but to sum up: she comes from a wealthy family, and after the death of her parents she inherited a boat and property. She has been many places in the boat with her husband the Captain (a nickname the patronne gives him), but  their relationship seems to have run aground, they seem to be in terminal Despair Street.

Probably once beautiful, Emily L. wrote nineteen poems in her youth which were (unknown to her) published by her father, and (also unknown to her) they’ve been translated into a few European languages, she quite a celebrity if only she knew it, but the Captain has always seen her poems as a rival and steers the pair into safe Malaysian waters where Emily L. remains anonymous. Emily L. has already dismissed these poems as juvenilia, but the turning point in her poetry came when she was writing a poem following the still-birth of her child, an unfinished poem that the Captain burned in jealous hatred, and which Emily L. searched all over for. She never wrote anything after that.

She only learns of the existence of the booklet from the warden of their house, who looks after it when they are (almost always) away on mindless cruises. He loves Emily L., she loves him, but their relationship will never see day. Emily L. was Marguerite Duras’s favourite character, and there’s more than a little Duras in her.

16 December 2018

Vincent Almendros: Ma chère Lise (2011)

Ma chère Lise is Vincent Almendros’s first novel: he sent the typescript to Jean-Philippe Toussaint, who appreciated it and sent it on to Irène Lindon of Les Éditions de Minuit, and she subsequently made Almendros a member of this highly select publishing group.

The narrator of the novel is unnamed, but is twenty-four and private tutor to the immature and capricious Lise: for instance, she seems to have a habit of ordering coffee, taking a sip and proclaiming ‘beurk’ because she can’t stand coffee. Rather improbably he falls in love with her, and is obviously worried about the consequences of acting on his desires: although the age of consent in France is fifteen, there are ten years between them and he was born on the wrong side of the tracks.

The narrator comes from a working-class background, was raised in an HLM flat in the provinces, and has suddenly been temporarily hoisted into the life-style of the rich, joining Lise’s friendly parents Jean and Florence Delabaere at their weekend home in Le Loiret, etc.

And then Lise’s schoolfriend Camille appears, there’s a great deal of travel, a great deal of confusion (partly due to drink), it’s not clear what the relationship is between the narrator and Camille, and the love affair between Lise and the narrator is in a mess. Bizarrely, I note that some amateur reviews find this book straightforward: I don’t know what coffee they’ve been drinking.

15 December 2018

Christian Gailly: Les Oubliés (2007)

Christian Gailly’s Les Oubliés (lit. ‘The Forgotten’), as expected, is written in his recognisable, compelling style: truncated, telegraphic, pointilliste, repetitive, parenthetical. Not that Gailly would use long words, though: he prefers short simple words in short simple sentences, as in this short paragraph that Albert Brighton addresses to his dead work partner:

‘Here we are, he said. These words were addressed to Paul Schooner. And Brighton asked himself how Paul. If he were there. Present at the side of him. In contact with this woman. On approaching the house. Would have reacted. What would we have seen in his gaze?’ (My translation.)

Albert and Paul are reporters for a weekly cultural paper and this (like Gailly’s book) is their thirteenth mission. They are reporting for a series called ‘Que sont-ils devenus’ (‘What has become of them?’), cultural figures once famous but now forgotten. Gailly deals with big themes such as life, death, love, memory, forgetfulness, age, etc.

And on the way to see the forgotten cellist Suzanne Moss in Britanny their car is involved in an accident. They continue by train, but Paul dies in the toilet so it’s left to Albert to let his wife know, and he decides to take the journey to make the interview with Suzanne by himself. As it happens, he’s obviously done the right thing.

Suzanne is more than welcoming, perhaps too welcoming in a sense: when Albert gets a good old-fashioned fire going, she tells him he’s gifted, and that such people are supposed to make the best lovers. Albert senses danger.

The interview starts, and then Suzanne decides that they should go for a walk along the sea shore, which they do, Albert struggling hard to keep pace with her. And then it rains, they get drenched and take refuge in a café, and on the way back to Suzanne’s house he says something. Funny, but many important things happen in or after visiting the toilets in Quentin Tarantino’s films, and since the death of Paul, Albert has often thought of his work colleague when going there. He tells Suzanne that he made a decision when in the café toilet: Paul died in a toilet, but he wants to continue to live, which means continue to love. He concludes by saying that he’s decided to love her, that he already loves her, is she going to slap him?

They return to the coastal house with the three stray cats of varying ages that Suzanne didn’t have the heart to reject. She’s pre-cooked a lovely meal for them both which only needs re-heating, so they get a little drunk on whisky, it’s understood that Albert is staying the night, and Suzanne says that they’re sleeping together, OK? Albert says he’s very old, Suzanne’s shoots back ‘Me too […]. We’ll do what we can’.

In fact they do much better than that, in spite of Suzanne’s reluctance to get naked because of her wrinkles, and after all she’d had ten years of celibacy since the death of her pianist husband. But the reader gets the impression – as Albert wakes up to Suzanne next to him and not just three cats on the bed, but to the cat Franklin licking his hair and saying ‘Mia-mia’ (which Suzanne translates as ‘I love you’ – that Albert will be waking up like this for a long time to come. Yup, this is no one-night-stand.

By far the best Christian Gailly book I’ve read, and I’ve been through six others.

14 December 2018

Marguerite Duras: Les Yeux bleus cheveux noirs | Blue Eyes Black Hair (1986)

Les Yeux bleus cheveux noirs (trans. as Blue Eyes Black Hair) is a novel containing limited dramatic directions: a similar Marguerite Duras play, Maladie de la mort (trans. as Malady of Death) was published four year before, in 1982. Duras also gives a brief explanation about the two protagonists in La Pute de la côte normande (also published in 1986). As yet I’ve only read the novel.

Les Yeux bleus cheveux noirs is paradoxical throughout, and strongly reminded me of Samuel Beckett, particularly Endgame, its interdependence, its madness, despair, asphyxiation, etc. It also called to mind the plays of Bernard-Marie Koltès not just for the homosexual element, but for the transaction, as if life is a (terrifying but necessary) business deal of some kind. There is certainly no escape.

There are no names here, just a man and a woman. The woman joins the man in a café, they move to another when that closes, and from then they go to the man’s place: he says he’ll pay her for being there, but not for sex. Although it’s never specifically mentioned, the man is evidently homosexual, and therefore incapable of pleasing her sexually. But she continues living there.

This is a huis clos situation, but although the woman goes out to have (violent) sex with a man in this seaside town –  modelled on Trouville where Duras lived with the homosexual Yann  Andréa, to whom she dedicates the book – she will always return. They are living out their own insanity.

She will always return and lie naked on the bed next to the naked man in the naked room, also stripped bare of any other furniture, any other means of communication with the outside world. She is naked apart from a black veil. At the man’s place she spends most of the time sleeping, and also cries a great deal, although probably far less than the man. They detest each other, but love each other, and remain inseparable, like twins who can’t break free because if one of them went they would both die. This is a chilling book, but this is the one that taught me how great a writer Marguerite Duras is.

10 December 2018

Jean-Marie Gourio: Les Nouvelles Brèves de comptoir: Tome I (2008)

Until the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Jean-Marie Gourio (who was associated with Charlie) was noted most perhaps for his collections of jokes or odd comments that customers in bars came out with. I'm not too sure that he stood or sat there pen in hand in order to collect his gems, but then (in another country, another world) I'm not too sure that Patrick Hamilton did so either.

What we have here is a book of four hundred pages with about five comments each page considered worthy of publication. Some are pretty odd, some bizarre, some obviously influenced by drink (!). There are a number of philosophical comments, some about the insanity of modern living, some plain crazy in themselves, some about sex, life in general, drink, getting pissed, politics, in fact everything: there are even comments by women! Here's a sample:

'If my husband killed another woman, I'd be jealous.'

'Kangaroos are good meat, and there's a pouch to put the chips in.'

'Things go so fast that next year is already out of date.'

'People want to live longer and longer, and then they complain that they're old.'

'With cocaine, there's no need to keep it in the cellar for ten years.'

'They put Durex machines in schools but ban chocolate bars.'

'In a million years there'll be a night train to the moon, and a day train to the sun.'

'Paedophiles must have their cocks cut off, and if they re-offend, cut them off again.'

'The most difficult tongue to learn is how to shut up.'

'A baker covered in flour is a snowman that doesn't melt.'

'The internet is like going directly to a mushroom without putting a foot in the woods.'

Sometimes you can't translate. Anyone can understand 'A scalded cat fears the bastard who threw it in the water', but not that this is from the expression 'Chat échaudé craint l'eau froide', which literally means 'A scalded cat is frightened of cold water', in other words 'Once bitten, twice shy'.

This book is highly amusing in parts, although I wouldn't like to make a collection of them.

8 December 2018

Marguerite Duras: L'Amant | The Lover (1984)

What Marguerite Duras said about things could definitely vary with her mood, or I think according to the industrial proportions of the wine she's been drinking with Yann Andréa, but at one stage she described L'Amant as 'shit', a beach read ('roman de gare'), and that she wrote it when she was drunk. After decades of novels, though, she scooped the Prix Goncourt in 1984 with this novel, at the age of seventy.

In a way this is a type of replay of Un barrage contre le Pacifique (1950), although much shorter, and with less linearity, different ages of the protagonist being shown, different perspectives of the same person ('I' and 'she'), for instance. In Barrage the mother is a kind of pimp, but not here: she's given a much softer treatment.

But it's not the family itself that's the important thing in L'Amant: it's the relationship between the adolescent girl and her Chinese lover. Her rich Chinese lover, who has a very rich father who owns a great deal of property. Initially, though, the Chinese lover (who's not given a name) sees this white young creature as the only white person on the ferry across the Mekong, but that's her last time, and from then on in she's chauffeured to her lycée.

She also willingly loses her virginity to her Chinese lover, willingly accepting that she is just one of his many conquests, although he loves her. It's a mésalliance of sorts, though, as in spite of his money he's considered inferior because of his race. The girl's elder brother, invited to an expensive meal with the girl's family and on to a kind of night club, doesn't once speak to him, although everything is of course paid for by the Chinese lover, who will also pay for the girl's mother's journey back to Paris.

The relationship between men and women, money, power in its broadest sense, time and age, psychology, sex and what it can pay for, all play their part in a novel that's interesting enough, but surely far inferior to Lol V. Stein. But then, Marie NDiaye's Goncourt-winning Trois femmes puissantes was very much inferior to her Rosie Carpe (which won the 'consolation' Renaudot).

6 December 2018

Marguerite Duras: Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein | The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein (1964)

'Manon' is a patient Marguerite Duras once met in a psychiatric hospital, and to some extent the Lol Valérie Stein of the title of this novel is very loosely based on her. Not, though, that this novel is entirely (or even partly) about a mad woman. Indeed, as the very uncertain plot progresses, the truth becomes increasingly blurred, to such an extent that most of my statements here could be suffixed by a one-word sentence: 'Perhaps.'

The truth is elsewhere, although there at least seem to be some definites in this story, which  appears to be set in a vague U.S.A: Lol V. Stein lives in S. Tahla and is engaged to be married to Michael Richardson; she goes to a ball at T. Beach casino, where her fiancé dances with an older woman, Anne-Marie Stretter, and he leaves with her and Lol is left with her best friend Tatania Karl. Lol V. Stein is devastated, but tries not to show it.

Traumatised, Lol V. Stein takes some months to 'recover' and then marries Jean Bedford, they move to U. Bridge for ten years, have three daughters, and then return to S. Tahla, to the home where Lol V. Stein's parents lived. The children are no problem as the couple have money to employ servants. But barely a quarter of the novel has passed: most of the other three quarters concerns the reconstruction of the past.

Reconstruction (by memory), obsession, paranoia, insanity (?), a possibly unreliable narrator, etc, all follow. Lol V. Stein goes for walks, thinks about the events at the ballroom leading up to her ten-year-old trauma, follows Tatiana with her lover to l'Hôtel des Bois, later meets Tatiana and her husband Pierre Breuger, who's with his friend Jacques Hold, Tatiana's lover, who also turns out to be the narrator.

And the narrator  is not omniscient, imagines things, conjures things up, so how much of this is the reader to believe? Tatiana and Lol seem to merge at times: the same person, or is Jacques Hold, or Lol, or indeed Tatiana, deforming reality to serve unknown ends? Not that reality can in any way be defined here, partly because Lol's reality is part of her madness (if she is mad), partly because she doesn't fit into any framework, because she's part of a jigsaw that will never make a full picture, only (at best) a distorted vision of what this book is about.

Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein is certainly Marguerite Duras's most complicated novel, and it is also most probably her best. Paradoxically, she thought it unpublishable, but then there are many paradoxes surrounding Duras, who is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

Pierre Bergé: Les Jours s'en vont je demeure (2003)

Pierre Bergé (1930–2017), who was born in Saint Pierre d'Oléron and died in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, is perhaps best known as the partner of Yves Saint Laurent, whom he doesn't include in this book, although he does include many other people he knew.

He begins with an aphorism by Jean Cocteau, that whether we paint a landscape or a still life, what we are in effect painting is a portrait of ourselves. This in a sense is Bergé's excuse, if any were needed, to display to the reader his relationships with the many people included in this book.

At the age of fifteen, Bergé read Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit and discovered the nature of literature, how words spurt, and how to spit in the face of the world. He notes that Céline called Henry Miller one of his 'plagiarists', although to Bergé Miller was a kind of pupil. At eighteen, Bergé began to live with the slightly older Bernard Buffet for eight years.

Bergé splits this book into two sections: the main people he knew, and those of whom he has less to say. Of the main people not mentioned above are: Jean Giono, François Mitterrand, Marie-Laure de Noialles, Louise de Vilmorin, Louis Aragon (who during a restaurant meal wonders if the waiter 'sucks well'), Chanel and Schiaparelli, Lili Brik and Tatiana Yakovleva. The smaller accounts of known people are: Garry Davis, Pierre Mac Orlan and Francis Carco, Marguerite Duras, the Rostands (Maurice and Rosemonde), Diana Vreeland, Rudophe Nureev, Danielle Cattand, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Louis Barrault and Madelaine Renaud.

This is a gem.

1 December 2018

Gilles Costaz: Edith Piaf (1974)

Although much shorter than Duclos and Martin's biography, which I could in no way conclude, this book – which is both biography and the words of her most noted songs – I could relate to it far more as it is straightforward and doesn't lose itself at all.

It's interesting to note that both Piaf and Maurice Chevalier – who I can't stand at all – were both born in the Belleville area of Paris (20th arrondissement), but received a very different upbringing. Piaf had a much rougher time, and was literally born in the street. Her mother was an 'artiste lyrique' and her father a street acrobat. After staying some years (during three of which she was blind) with her brothel-keeping paternal grandmother in Bernay, l'Eure, her father took her back to Belleville when she was seven. There, she passed around the hat for her father's audience, and he got her to sing a few lines of songs in the process. Realising the success of her singing, he taught her some more songs.

She was on her own at the age of fifteen, became pregnant at seventeen but lost her baby at a young age. She moved to Pigalle and was 'discovered' at twenty by Louis Leplée, who changed her songs from the sugary Tino Rossi type to a more 'realistic' kind.

However, a bigger break came when Raymond Asso, who came to write songs for her, changed her name from 'la môme Piaf' to Edith Piaf. The rest, I suppose, is well-known history, and Costaz goes on to mention her first film La Garçonne (an adaptation of Victor Margueritte's novel); the beginning of her song-writing during the war ('La Vie en rose'); her acting L'Étoile sans lumière with Yves Montand; and her success with 'Les Trois Cloches', which I've mentioned before in this blog in relation to Jean-François Nicot and the wrongly identified grave in Baumes-les-Messieurs, Jura.

Piaf's short life, her addiction to morphine and refuge in alcohol, etc, make for sad reading. Both of her marriages were short-lived: the first, to the famous boxer Marcel Cerdan, only lasted a few years because he died in an air crash in 1949. She re-married in 1962, to the much younger Theophanis Lamboukas (later Sarapo), although she died a year later, at 47.

Costaz finishes the story on a positive note: Piaf's grave in Père-Lachaise has become one of the most sought-after sights in the cemetery; Serge Lama and Léo Ferré, for instance, wrote songs of praise to her; but most of all her singing lives on.

30 November 2018

Gilbert Cesbron: Il est minuit, docteur Schweitzer (1952)

Gilbert Cesbron's play takes place in twenty-four hours, and begins and ends with the words of the title, 'Il est minuit, docteur Schweitzer', first spoken by Albert Schweitzer's faithful assistant Marie, secondly by the administrator Leblanc. War has broken out in 1914, and the then German Schweitzer, born in Alsace, must leave Gabon.

Schweitzer has left his wife and child in Alsace to work in Lambaréné in the African bush, consoling himself on his piano, treating patients stricken by malaria. His African name is N'Chinda ('The one who cuts well'). As the twenty-hours progress, the more the net tightens in on his and his workmate Marie and Father Charles de Ferrier (really Charles de Foucauld). A powerful story of love, war, power and death.

29 November 2018

Charles-Louis Philippe: La Mère et l'enfant (1900; repr. in full 1911) / Le Pére Perdrix (1902)

This is a collection of two books in one, the first – La Mère et l'enfant – being a partly autobiographical account of a working-class child at different stages, essentially aged two, five, twelve, fifteen and twenty. There are great hopes for him and – a very promising scholar – he earns a bursary to a lycée, gets his bac and then goes to Paris with even greater hopes. However, he disappoints his parents by ending up with a menial office job, earning a paltry 3 francs 75 per day, with (horrors!) dreams of becoming a writer.

Charles-Louis Philippe's work is noted for its sympathy with the plight of the poor and its hatred of the complacency and callousness of the rich, of which Le Pére Perdrix is a good example. In Bruno Vercier's Preface, he notes that the main character the farrier (with his wife), often called le Vieux and  la Vieille, are based on the Cérilly blacksmith Jean-Baptiste Galand and his wife.

In Le Pére Perdrix we see the farrier being advised by his doctor to cease work because of his failing eyesight. He does so and receives money from the bureau de bienfaisance, although this public assistance is cut off due the collusion of the same doctor and the mayor. The story also involves le vieux's nephew Jean, a well-paid chemical engineer, walking out of his job in sympathy with the striking workers. Soon after his return, Jean walks out on his parents who are disgusted with him and ashamed of his 'idleness'. Jean goes to live with the farrier and his wife, who dies, and Jean takes a reluctant Vieux to Paris and to more poverty.

25 November 2018

Nicolas Mathieu: Leurs enfants après eux |The Children Who Came After Them (2018)

Literary hyperrealism isn't an expression that's frequently employed in English, and yet it's relatively common in French. It's one that's been used of Nicolas Mathieu's work, and his first novel – Aux animaux la guerre (2014) – earned him the title 'The Harry Crews of the Vosges' from one reviewer. And François Busnel on La Grande Librairie, just after Mathieu's Goncourt victory, pointed to the influence of Southern writers less well-known than Faulkner and company: David Joyce, Larry Brown, and Barry Hannah. Mathieu readily agreed.

One of the reasons why the Goncourt jury chose Leurs enfants aprés eux is because although this big book (426 tightly-printed pages) is set in 1992, 1994, 1996 and 1998 it still concerns modern aspects of life, life in the wreckage of a post-industrial society. Here, the blast furnaces of the Vosges have shut down, former workers are on some kind of income support and/or are surviving on small, far lesser paid jobs, mainly in the service sector, or making additional income on the black economy: heavy drinking and smoking are a matter of course. The scapegoats, as in many other post-industrial societies, are the non-whites, blamed for taking white people's jobs, resulting in a change of voting behaviour: instead of the working classes voting for the traditional working-class supporting parties, they are tending to vote for the far-right FN (Front National). For the young people life is something of a disaster as there's little to do but smoke (and sell) cannabis, added to cheap beer from Aldi, all night parties, casual sex and occasionally poppers or (rarely) coke. Heroin isn't mentioned. It's a deadend life that the kids have inherited, most accept it and think they can't change things, and only a few find their most important means of escape from a dying society is not getting out of their heads, but just getting out of the area by education. Nicolas Mathieu left the Vosges at the age of twenty, survived on small jobs, and didn't publish his first novel until he was thirty-six.

Another reason for the Goncourt 2018 triumph is the language used – the book uses a deluge of slang, youth talk, often in verlan – giving a powerfully authentic feel to the novel, not just in the speech, but in the narrative itself, which joins in the slang talk in sympathy with the victims the book deals with. It amuses me to think what the translator of this book will do to the language, as verlan obviously can't be translated, and there are many thousands of French slang words which can sound flat in English, being without the original playfulness. (The title Leurs enfants aprés eux is taken from the Bible, and the English translation – due out next year – is to be called 'The Children Who Came After Them'.)

In 2005 Thierry Ardisson interviewed Michel Houellebecq after the publication of La Possibilité d'une île and asked him if young people have also lost love (as well as God), and quite naturally Houellebecq replied that he didn't know as he's no longer young. It's an interesting question though, and love virtually has no place in this novel, where people fuck (baisent, niquent, etc) live with and marry, but never seem to really relate to each other: there's always a gap. Anthony, perhaps, is an exception; we follow the exploits of this main character throughout – from the precocious 14-year-old (whose parents divorce) to the hardened 20-year-old, and although the word 'love' is never expressed, he almost seems to have such feelings for Steph, who is seen at the end about to carve out a new life for herself in Canada with her guy.

Violence is always close to the surface, as in the graphic scene in which Anthony fights with the Moroccan Hacine in the toilets of the ironically-named bar L'Usine (The Factory), and the even more graphic entrance of Anthony's father Patrick, who literary smashes Hacine's teeth in for stealing his motor-bike. This leads to Patrick hitting the skids, and indirectly to him drowning himself some time later.

Goncourt jury member Paule Constant said Macron should read this book. It wouldn't make any difference: Macron could never understand that it's politicians such as him, and the superrich and the EU he idolises, who have created such wastelands of desperation as are described here. Probably the best Goncourt winner I've read.

19 November 2018

David Foenkinos: Le Potentiel érotique de ma femme (2004)

I suppose many of us, at least at some time or other of our lives, have collected something: stamps are a classic example, but then there is the almost pathological collection of train numbers, postcards, whatever. In my time I've collected beer mats, beer labels, matchbox labels, yoghurt containers, crisps packets, but I was defeated when it came to hat pins.

However, having in parts enjoyed David Foenkinos's La Délicatesse, I thought I'd give him a second chance with this: the back cover enticed me with its lists (Foenkinos, as I've mentioned before, is fond of lists) of things that protagonist Hector has collected: election campaign badges, cocktail sticks, rabbits' feet, melon labels, birds' eggs, and so on. The one-line paragraph that he then started to collect his wife didn't deter me, but maybe it should have.

We have Hector at the beginning failing to kill himself after failing a collection competition, then trying to reabilitate himself by going cold turkey on collecting. It seems to work as he meets a young woman who seems similar to him in that they're both learning about the USA in an attempt to convince others that they've really been there. This even provides Hector with the opportunity to start a new career teaching people how to be mythomanics, and this all seems promising in spite ot the weird false starts to the book, the odd sentences that somehow don't seem to fit anywhere, just don't gel. Trouble is, the lack of gelling continues.

More than halfway through, the narrator says 'We should always die in groups, like on a package tour'. Yeah? Two pages later he says that Hector's wonderful soup-making mother Mireille, who has difficulty recovering from the death of her husband, is given a sachet of soup: 'All these years she had bought, washed and peeled dozens of millions of vegetables to, on the moment of her husband's death, discover that our modern society provides delicious ready-made soups.' (OK, we'll allow for satire, but....) 

But this book continues to describe how Hector moves on to be spellbound by his wife cleaning windows, his obsession with her cleaning windows by collecting on film the moments that she cleans windows, and then everyone likes her cleaning windows, his friend Marcel's partner Laurence likes to feel his balls when they're alone in the kitchen (although that's another issue, as is his stripping naked after dinner and asking the others if they think his cock's small), and oh, is this book dead on its feet, as boring as hell. I never want to read another David Foenkinos book. I feel better for saying that.

17 November 2018

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: La Nuit de feu (2015)

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's La Nuit de fer is a part-autobiographical novel set in the south of Algeria. The title of the book comes from a phrase Blaise Pascal used about his conversion to Christianity in 1654, and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt made a similar visit to Algeria in 1989.

The philosopher narrator, with director Gerard who wants to make a film about Charles de Foucauld and Eric-Emmanel to write the scenario, join eight others on a walking expedition from Temanrasset, through the Hoggar (a mountainous area in the middle of the Sahara Desert) to Assekrem, the place of Foucauld's hermitage.

The expedition is led by the Tuareg Abaygher (a man of the old wisdom of pre-industrialised societies) and the American guide Donald. They camp rough over ten to eleven days, in fear of snakes and scorpions and perhaps other humans. Ségolène is a Catholic who questions Eric-Emmanuel on his atheism and he tells her about the three philosphical 'proofs' of the existence of God: the universal consensus proof, the cosmological proof, and the ontological proof, all of which can be blown away in a few words.

However, Eric-Emmanuel rather stupidly loses himself from the group in a particularly anonymous, mountainous area. He has no food and virtually no water, and with night coming on he has to dig himself a bed to shield himself from the bitter cold. It is during this time that he had an epiphanic moment, and comes to believe in God: in the morning he finds his way to the camp and the worried team by following the path the stars showed him the night before.

In the Epilogue, the present-day Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt talks about his profound experience in the desert, when he was born a second time, and explains that he remains a philosopher, and if asked if he believes in God he would say 'I don't know', followed by 'I think I do'. He has a sentence to 'explain' things: 'What I know isn't what I believe.' He believes that certainty, a person knowing that he or she does or doesn't believe, is the problem, as this position goes beyond the rational, and certainties create dead bodies. He seems sure of this, but all I can think is 'Er, just a second...'.

16 November 2018

Anna Langfus: Les Bagages de sable | The Lost Shore (1962)

Anna Langfus's Les Bagages de sable (trans. as The Lost Shore) won the Prix Goncourt in 1962, which made her only the fourth female winner since the first Goncourt in 1903. A female writer – Elsa Triolet – became the first female Goncourt winner in 1944: yes, all the winners from 1903 to 1943 were men. There have been 116 Prix Goncourt since its creation – but only 12 of them have been women. Furthermore, of the ten members of the Goncourt jury, only three are women, and the (at present male) jury leader is allowed to have two votes in case of a five-five final choice. Women, the perception seems to be, just can't write as well as men.

Anna Langfus's Les Bagages de sable is a tale of the post-traumatic stress disorder – with obvious autobiographical elements – of the young Polish woman Maria, whose family was killed during the war. (Anna Langfus is of Polish origin and writes French as a second language, her family was killed during World War II, she was tortured but was freed at the end of the war.)

The book is written as a kind of dreamscape, with Maria imagining or perhaps hallucinating her family, incapable of telling her story to those who haven't lived through what she has lived, only on one occasion speaking of a small part of her ordeal to a Polish survivor. In Paris at the beginning, passing people she meets on park benches have no idea of her internal suffering, which of course remains internal.

Eventually she meets an old man (Michel Caron) with a dog and grows to like him because he seems genuine and he doesn't ask questions. Unknown to her at the time, the old man, who has fallen in love with her, is married, and, leaving his wife, he takes Maria to the south of France where a friend has left him his basic home for an apparently indefinite time. Maria 'earn's' her keep by doing most of the housekeeping and sleeping with the man.

Maria knows that she is mature far beyond her years, and tries to break free from the stranglehold that her terrifying past has on her, but although she has many ways of finding defence mechanisms to stave off pain, she keeps falling back into the abyss.

This is an immensely powerful novel which deserves to be far better known than it is. My secondhand copy, apart from the first few pages, was uncut since 1962: it almost seems a crime to have it and not to read this devastating novel.  Also, clumsily, the back cover mis-spells the old man's name as 'Carron'.

Thomas B. Reverdy: Les Évaporés (2013)

Les Évaporés is Thomas B. Reverdy's Japan book, which he wrote at the Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto in 2012, and which is influenced by the American writer Richard Brautigan: two of Brautigan's quotations are given at the front of the book, a number of his quotations are included in the novel itself in italics, and Brautigan too spent some time in Japan and (briefly) married a Japanese woman.

Brautigan killed himself, disappeared, but not in the same way as the johatsu, the essential subjects of this book. They disappear, or 'evaporate', and very often never return: disappearance not in itself being a crime, the police have no interest in it. Disappearance is, for instance in times of debt, seen as the honourable way to go in order to avoid one's family paying the money owed.

 And so begins the story here, with down-at-heel private eye, er. Richard B. – who needs him these days with the internet doing the work for you? – in San Francisco, and who's probably too fond of whiskey for his own good, being contacted by his former girlfriend Yukiko, a San Francisco barmaid: her mother in Japan has contacted her to tell her that her huband (Yukiko's father) has become one of the disappeared. Obviously, Yukiko wants her ex-boyfriend to help her out, and prints out online tickets for them both.

So begins a 300-page story – which is really two stories because we also discover what happens to the father Kazehiro. And all this is set against Japan's triple whammy – the tsunami, the earthquake, and the nuclear power disaster Fukushima. Reverdy also includes a fair bit about Japanese society in this interesting story.

Maurice Genevoix: Trente mille jours (1980)

Maurice Genevoix (1890–1980) was born in Decize (Nièvre), spent his early years in Châteauneuf-sur-Loire (Indre), and from 1929 largely lived in Saint-Denis-de-l'Hôtel (Indre). This book is one of his autobiographies, published in the year of his death.

Trente mille jours doesn't begin where you would expect, but in the small town – Saint-Denis-de -l'Hôtel – where he spent most of his later life. In fact, the book isn't generally chronological and jumps about a great deal, apparently following Genevoix's thoughts. This was for me the main fault of the autobiography, which tends to ramble, although it rambles in a very well written and poetic fashion.

It's interesting to learn how Genevoix acquired his dream home in Vernelles near Saint-Denis de l'Hôtel at the side of the Loire, because he didn't buy it as such but 'swapped' a prominent property in Jargeau, the small town opposite on the left bank of the Loire for it: the pride of the former owner of the house in Vernelles couldn't resist it.

Genevoix bought the house on the proceeds of his sales of Raboliot (1925), the novel that won him the Prix Goncourt. He calls this win 'manne providentielle', which is no doubt the reaction of many Goncourt winners (but certainly not all): securing this prize (which only with great difficulty can be compared to the Booker) means worldwide recognition and a virtual guarantee of numerous translations.

Although the in some respects unconventional, Genevoix went on to produce many more books and became a member of the prestigious Académie française, his work is often rooted in the Sologne/Berry area, and some of his books are also influenced by World War I, in which he was injured in Les Éparges, very close to where Alain-Fournier met his death in the commune of Saint-Rémy-la-Calonne (Meuse).

More from Le Cimetière Père-Lachaise Columbarium, Paris (75): #26: István Keszei

István Keszei (1935–84) was a Hungarian poet who died in Paris. He gained French nationality in 1973, and his early death at the age of forty-eight was caused by pneumonia.

15 November 2018

More from Le Cimetière Père-Lachaise Columbarium, Paris (75): #25: Wolfe Kaufman

Wolfe Kaufman (1905–70) was born in Poland, moved to the USA, and made his home in France in 1954. He wrote for many American magazines.

14 November 2018

More from Le Cimetière Père-Lachaise Columbarium, Paris (75): #24: Isidore Isou Goldstein

Poet, painter, film-maker, playwright, philosopher and novelist, Isidore Isou Goldstein (1925–2007), who wrote as Isidor Isou, was born in Romania and died in Paris. A gifted child, he read Dostoevski at thirteen, Marx at fourteen, and Proust at sixteen. He is the creator of lettrisme and received the support of Queneau and Jean Paulhan, who published his lettriste manifesto Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une nouvelle musique in 1947.  Included here is a quotation from his La Créatique ou la Novatique - 1941-1976.

More from Le Cimetière Père-Lachaise Columbarium, Paris (75): #23 Pierre Castex

Pierre Castex (1924–91) was a journalist and writer of screenplays, cinema critic and journalist who worked for  Action, Libération, Les Lettres Françaises and VSD. He also wrote short stories, novels, screenplays and cartoons. 

More from Le Cimetière Père-Lachaise Columbarium, Paris (75): #22: Caroline Babert

Caroline Babert (1947–2010) was a journalist with Gala and a novelist who wrote Souviens-toi, Éléonore ! (1977), Les Méandres de la Moselle (1980), Un amour précaire (1982), Des amis et des amants (1992) and (with Isabelle Rivère) Lady D (2007). I can't find much more information about her though.

13 November 2018

The Forest Folk memorial window, Blidworth, Nottinghamshire

Now that we live in the north-west of England, in the Manchester area, we only go back to Nottingham a few times a year. After learning that there are remains of the lamented Forest Folk pub windows dedicated to James Prior, the regional novelist who wrote Forest Folk (1901), I had to see them. There're in the chapel of St Andrew's Mission Hall, The Crescent, Blidworth, and even if you have a supply of phone numbers you still might have to work on the task some time, especially if you don't live in the area. But we made it! Not all of the windows, of course, were salvaged, but these are all the remaining ones, showing animals in a rural setting. There are a number of posts relating to Prior on this blog, including my full (75, 000 word) MA on the book as a de-historicised, working-class take on the New Woman. (The Forest Folk pub, by the way, was opened in 1926 and demolished in 2005.)

And a photo I took of the Forest Folk pub, when it was still open, in about 1992. The memorial was in the entrance room to the pub.

8 November 2018

Sophie Divry: Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain (2005)

Knut Hamsun's Hunger and George Orwell's Down and out in Paris and London, the experimental Franco-American writer Raymond Federman, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rabelais, and many others, are all influences on Sophie Divry's Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain (lit. 'When the devil came out of the bathroom', but at the moment untranslated). The book is both a serious reflection on twenty-first-century life – particularly the poverty, the bureaucratic idiocies and the casual (and largely accepted) sexism in it – although it is also highly amusing.

Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain is hard to explain. It's about Sophie, a young divorced and childless woman from Lyon, France, who is without money due to being honest and declaring that she has earned a small amount of money working as a freelance journalist: it's only 150 euros, although the social security system won't allow her any benefits until they've seen on paper the amount of money earned. The problem is that she can't prove her earnings as she's still waiting, but no proof means no more money, and she's literally starving.

The devil tempts her into stealing, but fortunately the christening of a nephew sends her down to Montpellier to her widowed mother's, where she can stoke up on some food for a few days. Returning to Paris she finds a temporary job as a waitress: it's poorly paid but she finds a little satisfaction waiting on fat, rich pigs, until she's reduced to washing the dishes and loses her cool when she wildly attacks one of the kitchen staff for his constant sexual harrassment.

That's essentially the story, although it doesn't mention the book that she's writing, the book within the book, when her friend Hector – also a character in the book – in a moment that reminds me of Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, comes out of the book and demands that Sophie stop making him wait to have sex with the woman he's long been lusting after. And – in a moment that reminds me of Apollinaire – when Hector invokes the devil, there's a double page spread of a prick (Sophie hates polite words) 'drawn' in words, and spurting 'AH! AH! AH!' etc. Divry also plays with different fonts and font sizes throughout the novel, and the love of long, breathless lists is frequently evident, such as the pages of lists of the things Sophie doesn't like about men: as she remarks, the list is so comprehensive that there's not a great deal positive left to play with.

Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain is in love with words, so much so that Sophie finds the French lexicon insufficient: why, for instance, is there an adjective for Sunday (dominical) but not Saturday, why no separate words for being wet with rain and wet with snow, why no verb for 'I bought it on the internet', why no word for the false notes a violin makes when someone's learning to play it? She even tries to make up her own words, of which 'Sansconvictionnement' ('unconvincingly') is probably more than enough, although the reader can see her point.

This is a very playful book (or two) which leaps(s) out at you.

7 November 2018

Joséphine Dard: Frédéric Dard, mon père: San-Antonio (2010)

Joséphine Dard is Frédéric Dard's only biological child by his second wife Françoise, and this book is a huge love letter to her father on the tenth anniversary of his death. In 'coffee table' style this publication may be, but it is very revealing of the enigmatic, crazy, but so sain antidote that Frédéric Dard was to the world of literature, to the world in general.

Here, we have letters written to Frédéric Dard – the man known to most people as San-Antonio after his eponymous larger-than-life private detective – and many tributes and many letters by (mainly, but not exclusively) figures involved in the world of literature and the arts such as Bernard Pivot, Georges Simenon, Frédéric Beigbeder, Albert Cohen, Geroges Trenet, Patrick Sebastien, Jean Dutourd, the list is huge.

Frédéric Dard was a highly gifted, highly original and very funny writer whose work will continue to inspire many other writers. He was also a very loving father, husband and very warm to his many friends, very giving. But this book seems to tease out more than Jean Durieux's book on him did. Here, and by more than one person, we learn of his hypersensitivity, shyness even, and Joséphine Dard reveals that on her first marriage he walked her to the church but no further as on that day his arms were covered in psoriasis. For me, the most revealing part in this book is in three pages he wrote about himself, which I find quite devastating.

The paper is called 'Si j'étais...Frédéric Dard' ('If I were...Frédéric Dard') and is astonishingly frank, even though he didn't (I'm sure) intend to publish it. Here we have the existential Dard, reflecting on what he, er, isn't. He writes that he always expected to be himself, that his self (Frédéric Dard) would somehow magic itself into being when he grew up, like at a particular age when he was allowed to vote. But it didn't happen, he still feels deprived of himself, is still waiting for something to happen, as if he's missed an appointment. There's a kind of parallax (my expression), a lack of correspondance between how others see him and how he sees himself. Everything he says, does and thinks doesn't conform to his 'true [or real] essence'. This seems even bleaker than Samuel Beckett.

An extremely interesting book.

One small correction: the author says that her father invited Renaud on Le Grand Équiquier, in 1982, when his career was just starting: wrong, Renaud already had five successful albums to his credit. He went on to much greater success, but that's hardly the same thing.

6 November 2018

René Fallet: L'Angevine (1982)

At one point in René Fallet’s L’Angevine the main character, the playwright Régis Ferrier says that his friend’s wine tastes of raspberries, and this can’t be coincidental because the singer Boby Lapointe’s name is mentioned at least twice in this novel (once as the only footnote in the book), although his forename is misspelt as ‘Bobby’. ‘Framboise’ (meaning ‘raspberry’) is the name of Boby Lapointe’s most famous song, the one he sang in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste, and the song is appropriate to the novel in several ways.

The title of the novel, L’Angevine, refers to the main female character in the book, Christine Labé, who lives in Angers, which is in the département Maine-et-Loire, and both Angers and the Maine-et-Loire are mentioned in the song. Framboise’s name is really Françoise, although customers in the bar she serves in call her Framboise, and Boby Lapointe harps on her big breasts: Christine’s breasts are mentioned a number of times, and Régis Ferrier likes to fondle them, although unlike Framboise’s they are very small. Régis Ferrier will ponder on all these things, including the fact that Framboise refuses to have sex, when he drowns his lost love in several whiskies towards the end of the novel, just after Christine has told him she’ll never again have sex with him.

Boby Lapointe’s song is one of many references to singers and novels in the book, but the most quoted. One novel that’s obliquely referred to more than once is Zola’s La Faute de l’abbé Mouret, and although it’s not Jean-Luc Labé ‘sin’ but his wife’s, these are opportunities for Fallet to indulge in a Lapointe-style pun in wishing Labé dead: ‘Labé mourait’.

Régis doesn't first think of Christine with love, though: he is married, although it’s a dead marriage, and he has several much younger female sex objects at the same time: Christine, no matter what her confessions of love for him, and the fact that he’s sexually opened her blinkered eyes, initially has little effect on Régis from a romantic angle, although Christine (who has three children) gets to see him in his Paris appartment as often as she can.

The novel is in three sections: ‘Avant’, ‘Pendant’ and ‘Après’ to describe the three parts of the relationship. In the first, then, Christine doesn’t much impact on Régis, although in the second he rather quickly comes to love her and they can’t see each other too much, escaping to Belgium and London (where the restaurant food is unspeakable), etc. It even comes to a point where Règis begins to live with Christine in a ZAC (Zone d’aménagement concerté), or urban development area: although he gets on with the children very well, and although it’s obvious that he’s like a fish out of water, it’s Christine who very soon abruptly sends him packing because she has realised that there’s a difference between having a lover and having that lover live with you.

So, end of story and time to return to his young girlfriends, although of course he’s getting older now (53) and reflects on his losses. Strangely, though, after the ‘FIN’ there’s a PS saying they met again, will continue to meet, and will always see each other. It’s in italics, though, like so many of Christine’s wishes have been: presumably this is as real as Régis’s imaginary Muriel?

Very 1980s of course, but a fascinating read nevertheless.

4 November 2018

Pierre Magnan: La Folie Forcalquier (1995)

This takes place at the end of the era of Napoleon III, and is set in and around Forcalquier in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, with the narrator and protagonist Félicien Brédennes, a herbalist  and something of a quack doctor, something of a petty thief, and a great deal of a lover of numerous women.

And the vocabulary is quite a mountain to climb, with not only archaic expressions but – this being an epic full of the atmosphere and smells of Provence – also the names of many herbs, flowers, etc.

It is also the story of devastating letters, fear, murder, and general mayhem. There are many characters described here, perhaps the most colourful, apart from Brédennes, being the rich highwayman Zinzolin and the sex-loving Aigremoine, with who Brédennes and Zinzolin (her unwitting father) separately share sex romps.

There's a fair amount of blood shed, a great deal of chasing (especially by Brédennes on his horse behind the stolen coffin-shaped buggy), and changing affinities: a long, convoluted story with almost as many twists and turns as the horses themsleves have to undergo.

That, perhaps, is the main problem: at 487 pages, the novel goes on far too long for its own worth: which is a pity, as Pierre Magnan can write a hell of a tale with tremendous jest and confidence.

29 October 2018

Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Voyage au bout de la nuit | Journey to the End of the Night (1932)

I read Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit many years ago, so don't remember too much of it, although as the novel is known by so many people and can hardly in any way be described as 'obscure', I shall limit my comment here. I have, also, and probably on more than one occasion, written about the odd fact that Guy Mazeline, rather than Céline, scooped the 1932 Goncourt with Les Loups.

Suffice to say that essentially the book is in four parts: the protagonist's experience of war, Africa, America, and then his experiences (partly as a qualified doctor) back in France. Throughout the book, which is only loosely autobiographical, Ferninand Bardamu has brief flings with various women, and keeps meeting Léon Robinson (who appears to have some kind of relationship to Bardamu's self), who is killed very near the end by Madelon, Robinson's jealous lover, who's shortly before suggested (anonymously) that Robinson and Bardamu are in a gay relationship, and even says that they're in a threesome with Bardamu's current lover Sophie.

But all this has been written about many times before, and the essential is that Voyage au bout de la nuit is a fierce criticism of war, of the violent and racist colonial system, and of the extremes of capitalist society witnessed in New York and Detroit. More importantly, though, it's the way these criticisms are made, because the novel introduces popular speech not only into the quotations of its characters (very frequent slang and 'taboo' words, the negative 'ne' missed as in ordinary spoken French, ellision as in 'T'as raison', etc), but this kind of language is also used by the narrator himself. Céline's writings had a great influence on a great number of people, and he is considered by many critics to be, along with Proust, one of the two greatest writers in French in the last century.

There. And I didn't even mention anything about pamphlets.

25 October 2018

Maurice Leblanc: Les Trois Yeux (1920)

This is not one of Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin detective stories: it's a mixture of a science fiction novel set in the near future, a thriller, a crime story and a love story. It's full of surprises, shocks and murders, and largely concerns a scientific invention.

This invention is by Noël Dorgeroux, who has discovered how to project moving images on a screen, without a projector, apparently of the (sometime very distant) past or near present: the value of this invention is obviously enormous, which explains the desire of everyone to know the code for it.

Unfortunately, for me the interest in the book was heavily marred by the very long, digressive scientific explanations of Benjamin Prévotelle: probably very clever stuff, but I found them boring. Think I'll stick to Arsène Lupin.

23 October 2018

Jean Giono: Notes sur l'affaire Dominici (1955)

In the early morning of 5 August 1952 three people were murdered near the village of Lurs in Provence: the eminent scientist Jack Drummond, his wife Ann, and their daughter Elizabeth, aged ten. Jean Giono was asked by the weekly paper Arts to cover the trial, and presumably Giono (never possessing a car) went by train from his home in Manosque to Digne in order to do so. These are notes on his findings.

Much of this concerns the Dominici family, near whose home the Drummond family – on holiday from Long Eaton in Derbyshire, near where Jack worked for Boots – had stopped to perhaps camp for the night, but who were certainly in need of water for the Hillman's radiator, tortured by the the heat in Provence.

The trial was a little crazy, but the 72-year-old Gaston Domenici – who had admitted to the murders several times but then retracted his statements – seems to be a cooked goose still in the farmyard: Giono (surely slightly exaggerating?) states that he's worked out that Gaston (who must have left school between the age of nine and eleven) has a total vocabulary of 35 French words, and even though he's intelligent, this is no match against the many thousands of words lawyers and judges make use of, especially if they choose to use them to get a trial over quickly.

Giono says he wouldn't like to be in the shoes of one of the jurors, but Gaston is sentenced to death, in spite of the unbelievable bungling of the cops, and in spite of no motive for the murders being put forward, although the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and de Gaulle freed Dominici on health grounds in 1960 (five years afters Giono published these notes). Giono is uncertain of Dominici's guilt, but certain that the trial was by no means fair.

But Dominici was never pardoned, which later generations of the family have tried to achieve. A German prisoner Wilhelm Bartkowski had confessed that he was partly responsible for the murders (the motive no doubt being robbery) although this doesn't appear to have been followed up by anyone. Such is the course of justice.

22 October 2018

Philippe Grimbert: Un secret (2004)

The narrator of the partly autobiographical novel Un secret was originally called Grinberg, which obviously reveals the Jewish name. He grows up a weakling at the side of his athletic parents, and as he's without a brother he obsessively invents one. His parents Maxime and Tania run a clothes shop in Paris, with Louise (also a Jew) running a shop above them.

One day Louise tells the narrator the story his parents haven't told him, what has been kept a secret from him. His mother Tania was once the sister-in-law of Maxime, who was married to Robert, and Maxime was married to Hannah and they had an athletic son called Simon: yes, the narrator had a half-brother, no need now to invent a brother.

The Nazis killed Robert, Hannah and Simon, and in time (and not without a huge amount of guilt) Maxime married the beautiful Tania: they have loved and lusted after each other for so long that, tacitly, everyone agreed it was bound to happen.

Jean Durieux: Frédéric Dard dit San-Antonio (1990)

This is, in effect, an autobiography / biography of Frédéric Dard/San-Antonio, who wrote perhaps 288  books, mostly as San-Antonio but also under many other pseudonyms. Jean Durieux tries his best to track down this great figure of French literature, interviewing him in Switzerland and Cannes, for instance, and at times it's initially difficult to figure out who's speaking, such is the resemblance between the slang of the two people. Anyway, in San-Antonio's books it's sometimes difficult to know whether San-Antonio or Frédéric Dard is speaking.

Most of this is culled from tape recordings of what Dard said to Durieux, and much of it is rambling slang. At times it's difficult to believe, as Durieux points out to him, and the bragging seems to be never-ending. But it's clear that we have a man from relatively humble beginnings, born in Bourgoin-Jussieu, who spent a part of his childhood in Saint-Chef (both in Isère), moving to Lyon where the writer Marcel Granger (born in Lons-le-Saunier) sets him on as a young writer for his paper Le Mois â Lyon.

It takes a few years before Dard's books take off, but Armand de Caro encourages his writing San-Antonio books, and he goes to Paris and has a family with Odette and sells many thousands of books and of course becomes rich. There's a great deal of name-dropping, and such people as Édith Piaf and Johnny Hallyday (spelt as Halliday) are just thrown out as a matter of course.

Then there's the failed suicide when Dard is torn between his wife and family with Odette and his new love Françoise de Caro, his publisher's wife. Eventually, he marries Françoise and they end up living in Switzerland with Fabrice (his wife's son by her first husband), Abdel (an African child they adopt), and their own child Joséphine.

And it's the kidnapping of Joséphine and its effects on Dard and his family that occupies more than 100 of the 346 pages in this book, which goes into the precise details of how it was accomplished, the extraordinary lengths the kidnapper went to, and details of his former thefts. 

Gradually, a picture emerges of Dard's life, although it's not necessarily in complete chronological order – the reader has to do a little work – but Jean Durieux has obviously made the most of a very difficult (human) subject.

(Of all the people mentioned here, one unnamed guy runs a kind of utopian restaurant in Courcheval, with a sock to put any contributions for the food consumed hanging on the door. Dard doesn't mention his name, nor the restaurant's name, but says he used to write. A little Googling proved him to be Jean Bouvet, head of 'La Soucoupe' restaurant, and author, among other books, of Billebaude dans les Alpes.)

18 October 2018

Félicien Marceau: La Terrasse de Lucrezia (1993)

Casually looking for a job in Rome, the young Lucezia happens to find out that one of the most luxurious hotels in Rome want a laundry maid, so her luck is in. And while she's attending to the laundry in room 504, the most luxurious in the hotel and which has just been vacated, she notices that an electrician is fixing a socket. Their eyes meet, Lurezia bolts the door, and the bed sheets are waiting for them. Later, Lurezia slightly lies about this event and calls it her honeymoon night.

This sex romp is in fact not mentioned until Chapter VI of the book, which begins with the law Professor Lamberti rather innappropriately describing the wife of the former electrician as 'piquante' at a co-owners' meeting in a luxury block of flats on the outskirts of Rome. Lucrezia and Antonio are one of four couples who have applied to live in and attend to the daily activities in the block, and, heavily supported by the Professor who is of course smitten by Lucrezia, the couple are unanimously voted in.

And so Lucrezia begins to dominate the appartment block, in spite of her inappropriate behaviour, such as delivering the co-owners their mail and telling them the contents of the postcards' contents before they've looked at them. But she doesn't get criticised for this, and even when she thinks she's overstepped the mark by opening a telegramme for Mme Soardo she comes up trumps, and even receives a gift of a seventeenth century writing desk from Mme Soardo for her troubles.

Antonio and Lucrezia are discounted from a theft from one of the rooms by the Professor, who tells the police to investigate someone else, although Antonio has been frequenting a bar where some very rough criminal types go. But Antonio is killed shortly after when he speeds round a hairpin bend into a fire engine: the ever-smitten law Professor manages to find the pompiers guilty instead of Antonio, and Lucrezia receives a huge indemnity. She can't go wrong.

Lucrezia goes on to not only pocket her own and her husband's salaries for looking after the building, but she also easily wins over the Professor by telling him that she can run the flats better than the present manager, so she also snags that job (with a 10% increase) on top of what she's already earning.

Added to this, she has two children by Antonio – Alberto (who is to become Count Alberto and maybe a famous tennis player) and Isabella (due to marry Eric, the nephew of the king of Sweden). The reader might be tempted to call Lucrezia a scheming little bitch, which may be true, but she's also highly intelligent and extremely lucky. And Félicien Marceau does humorous novels very well.

17 October 2018

Christian Signol: Dans la paix des saisons (2016)

The year is 1997. Mathieu is only forty and has just had an operation for a tumour on his lung, and although it will take him some time to recover, the doctor rather dismissively tells him that he'll cure if he changes his lifestyle: no more two packets of cigarettes a day, and a life free from stress. His mother lives in Paris, having to move to a city to find work, and his wife Odile is a city woman. But some time before, when Mathieu was between three years of age and eleven, he lived with his grandparents Paul and Louise near Bayac in the Quercy: Signol was born in Quatre-Routes-du-Lot in the Quercy.

To recuperate, Mathieu decides to see the grandparents he's not seen in ten years, and receives a very warm welcome. Paul is in his late seventies but is still very mobile, still making horse shoes even though he sold his last one in the 1960s, and still fishing (technically illegally). Louise was a midwife, although now that everyone goes to hospital she's found a new interest in making different concoctions from herbs: in fact, the whole book is shot through with the names of herbs, fish, birds, cooking and different smells. Mathieu's lung still hurts, he has a few funny turns, but he's re-living his youth.

All three people have deep scars: Louise, before the birth of Mathieu, lost her child and sees his new incarnation in Mathieu; and Paul bitterly regrets returning to Germany towards the end of the war and killing teenage soldiers who had no knowledge of Nazism: when his hammer fiercely strikes the metal on the anvil, he's really striking himself.

Both Louise and Paul have a different kind of wisdom: Louise is more accepting, hopeful, she can 'tame the unknown', whereas Paul is full of refusal, anger and rebellion. But they're both rebelling against the steamroller of the economic imperative, they're self-sufficient, even re-start baking their own bread. Paul is building walls for the people who'll return, and though this is not the Côte d'Azur, he really believes they will return. Forced to go back to Paris for medical tests, Mathieu feels much bettter physically, and much better mentally now he's got back in tune with his past.

I found this book much better than Au cœur des foréts, the only other book of Signol's I've read, as I understand much better now what he's doing.

Hélène Lenoir: Son nom d'avant (2005)

Son nom d'avant is in three parts, the second part being by far the longest. The first part is an obsessive view of a street, concentrating on a girl of about twenty who boards a bus where a man is standing and who stares at her.

In Part II the same girl appears, now a 39-year-old woman with children, and who we learn after some time is Britt Casella, married to a man very comfortably off with his own business. But, as with (all?) main characters in Hélène Lenoir's books, she's mentally asphixiated, as is quite clear from her interior monologue. Justus is employing the prominent photographer Johann Samek to photograph his building. Samek, it soon becomes evident, is the man who was standing on the bus about twenty years ago, the man who stared at the young Britt. And he's preoccupied by the photo of the older Britt in Justus's office.

Part III begins with Britt receiving two photos addressed to her from Samek, photos relating to her twenty years before, just before she took the bus. But she doesn't understand, thinks he's made a mistake. Of course, she hasn't, and she phones Samek, and what he mainly wants to know is her 'name before', which brings us to the title. She was Britt Ardell, but what the present Britt Casella is she doesn't know, and she must flee from her marriage. The conclusion is far from conclusive.

16 October 2018

Hélène Lenoir: Entracte (2005)

In this collection of five short stories by Hélène Lenoir – which make far from easy reading – there's a short but oddly immensely revealing sentence towards the end of the final story: 'La vie, la vraie, grouille autour de ce qui est tu' ('Real life swarms around the unspoken.') I think my English translation of the sentence is reasonable, although there are several problems here, the first being that although 'unspoken' translates 'tu' (the past participle of the verb taire, meaning to be silent, tu here means more than that: it refers to the intense complications of that swarming real life, not just to the fact that nothing is said. Taire is not just about being silent, it is about witholding information that could disturb, be harmful, hugely disruptive. 'Unspoken' is also a participial adjective, and only very rarely used as a noun: 'the unspoken' (apart from as the name of a game) is rarely used in English, although the French noun 'non-dit' is common. A 'non-dit' usually belongs to that category of words which dangle, swarm around the unspoken, never really said. I'm convinced that there is no proper English translation of 'non-dit', not even as 'the unspoken', and yet this is very often what Hélène Lenoir's work is about.

In the final short story here, 'L'Infidèle (lit. 'The Unfaithful Man') we don't even know that the nameless man is in fact unfaithful to the woman, but she is obsessed with it, seems a little crazy over it,  but then many of Lenoir's characters are a little crazy. The man is actually going to Switzerland on a business trip, but moving away from the bed she mumbles 'Retourne voir tes putes' ('Go back to your tarts!'). And she's said it, she's given voice to a non-dit!  This is an utterance of seismic proportions, she waits for ages for the effect, an absurd cold blade because to her knowledge he's never used a prostitute, and anyway he makes no reaction. Maybe the sentence was never heard so remains in effect 'non-dit', and the woman's internal monologue debates that this is a good thing, he's not heard the earth-shattering sentence, but on the other hand maybe if he had heard then a cataclysmic row would have been, er, therapeutic, finalising?

There are a number of non-dits in this and the other stories, then: the title story 'L'Entracte', 'Les Étrangères', 'Les Escarpins Rouges', and 'Le Verger' being the others. But also present in most if not all of the stories are preoccupations of the main characters with questions of sex, identity, ideas of flight, but most of all the stifling power of other people, particularly the family (remember Le Magot de Momm). The word L'Entracte (meaning intermission or interval: the man and woman of the eponymous story meet during a classical concert) can be used for all the stories because they happen at a crisis point in a person's life, when the character has to make an important (perhaps vital) life decision. I can fully understand why people love Hélène Lenoir's books, but feel a bit sorry for those who like a quick read, those who are impatient with the (often multiple) internal monologues of her characters.