31 August 2018

Albertine Sarrazin in Doullens, Somme (80)


In 1957 Albertine Sarrazin  – who would later briefly become a bestselling author – famously (or should that be infamously?) jumped  from a wall  to escape from La Citadelle, Doullens, where she was a prisoner. I've written about her biography below, and also her first novel L'Astragale (Astragal in English), which begins with her talking about her broken astragal, a bone in the ankle. She was relatively lucky: another inmate later leapt over the wall and broke both her arms and legs.

30 August 2018

Lola Lafon: La Petite Communiste qui ne souriait jamais | The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (2014)

Lola Lafon's La Petite Communiste who ne souriait jamais is a mixture of historical inquiry and fiction, with a number of imaginary conversations in italics between the author (who by the way spent some of her youth in Romania) and the protagonist: Nadia Comăneci, the fourteen-year-old Romanian girl who stunned the world in a pre-internet age when television and hard copy newspapers ruled the media.

To call the young Comăneci, from the small town of Onești, a 'communist' is of course as much of an absurdity as calling the tyrant President Nicolae Ceaușescu a communist: but then, the word 'communist' sells books, although Lola Lafon seems to be perfectly aware that the brave new 'post-communist' eastern bloc countries are undergoing huge problems with capitalism.

Nadia Comăneci's managers don't come out of this too well, starving their girls in order for them to perform huge gymnastic feats, prolonging their puberty, spying on them to make sure they're not eating or drinking too much, etc.

Nadia leaves Romania as soon as possible (on Ceaușescu's downfall), later marries a US citizen and becomes a US citizen herself. The book doesn't continue much beyond that: it's only a partial, but fictionalised, biography.

Pebbleart Preston at Ashford, Kent

This delightful handpainted pebble originates from Pebbleart Preston, a Facebook site. I found it on a small car park bollard outside the Premier Inn North/Woolpack pub in Ashford, Kent. At first I didn't know what to do with it exactly, then went online for Pebbleart Preston, and discovered that it runs on similar lines to Bookcrossing, only without all the tracking: it seems that the only rule for these sites (and there are a few more apart from Preston) is just post on the appropriate site and either keep or leave somewhere else. Love it, great idea. I'd love to know the history of it.

25 August 2018

Pierre Lemaitre: Au revoir là-haut | The Great Swindle (2013)

Literary journalist François Busnel describes Pierre Lemaitre's Au revoir là-haut (lit. 'Goodbye up there' but miserably translated as The Great Swindle in English) as 'efficace comme un coup de poing en pleine figure' ('as powerful as a thump smack in the face'), and I have to agree: out of the forty-three Goncourt-winning novels I've so far read, this has to pack one of the biggest punches.

The main target here is war and its inevitable horrors, the physical and mental distress it causes through not only death but injury, and its effect on family and loved ones, the effect of injuries on the injured towards loved ones, the unspeakableness of war as symbolised by the main character Édouard Péricourt with his lost lower jaw and tongue. Édouard was born into wealth, and this could also be called 'Pride and Prejudice' without any loss of meaning.

Capitalism is also under attack, mainly in the figures of the people who profit from the results of war, especially Lieutenant d'Aulnay-Pradelle (later scandalously promoted to General), who has tried to kill Édouard and the man whose life he saves, Albert Maillard, born of very humble parents. Édouard and Albert are platonically bonded for the rest of their lives.

In this long but never boring story (615 pages) set mainly immediately after world War I, class itself isn't really a problem (apart from with the nervous and self-conscious Albert), and nor is sexual orientation (Édouard's homosexuality being unknown to Albert and barely perceived by his father). Essentially this is goodies and baddies, with Pradelle being the main villain.

Édouard of course must be the tragic figure, accidentally killed by his father, but the reader can't help loving his fellow thief Albert and his at the time unwitting partner Pauline (Péricourt's former maid) and both escape to Libya, where Pauline even successfully knocks down the price of her partner's freedom: the value of money is infectious. A great book which is also about identity, but that's another issue.

23 August 2018

Albertine Sarrazin: L'Astragale | Astragal (1965)

As I wrote in an earlier post, Albertine Sarrazin (1937–67) was essentially rejected by her (semi- adopted) family and escaped from her school-prison to Paris, went on the game, was imprisoned again, escaped again but broke her ankle bone (astragal in English), and was luckily picked up by Julien, also an ex-prisoner, who became her lover and her husband.

This is the autobiographical story of a young prisoner rescued by a man fifteen years older than her, who first takes her to his mother, and then to various boltholes where she can hide until the search for her is over, and where her ankle is operated on at Julien's expense.

They escape to Paris, although the absence of Julien means she has to once more live on her wits, or rather her ass, and her  life is time and time again repeated in the language of the prisons, the language of prostitution, the language of the milieu. A number of reviews talk of the obsolescence of the language, the difficulty with the prison slang, although this is part of the book's charm, of its strange mixture of arcane language and poetic descriptions. This is a very powerful, and very rare, treasure.

15 August 2018

Charles-Louis Philippe: Contes du matin (1916; rev. and repr. with Preface by David Roe (2009))

In an earlier post I commented on Charles-Louis Philippe's collection of short stories  Dans la petite ville (1910). The later Contes du matin  collection adds some stories which weren't included in the original edition. David Roe has added some stories which Philippe didn't write for the important daily Le Matin, and in so doing this edition (along with Dans la petite ville) represents all of the short stories Philippe ever published.

Whereas Philippe's stories in Dans la petite ville were just that – tales based on those he'd heard or those he imagined happening in the small town of Cérilly where he was born – there are also stories based in la grande ville – Paris, and arguably some of those are a little darker. Of interest (and perhaps a little surprise) is 'Deux apaches' ('Two Thugs'), young yobs who think the world revolves around them, have not the slightest consideration for anyone else, and think nothing of stabbing a drunk in the back and running off leaving him dead. It is the 'apaches' who occupy Lucien's thoughts and fears as he walks back after a drinking session to the (at the time) rather remote Montrouge at one in the morning, although these change to fears of being attacked by a lion escaped from a festival: however, with a rather Maupassian ironic twist (not very usual in Philippe's writing) it transpires that it is not the lion but a dog that he should have been frightened of.

As there are thirty-six stories here, it would be stupid for me to comment on all of them, but I was pulled up sharply when I began 'La Visite'. Philippe had been friends with another working-class writer – Marguerite Audoux – and it was with some surprise that I discovered he'd included a version of her in this story: the character too is called Marguerite (but Dubost), her father walked out on her when she was very young, she was brought up by nuns and then forced to shepherd sheep, later moving to Paris and working as a seemstress, etc. And again, there is a drunken father in 'L'Ivrogne', with two daughters called Marguerite and Madeleine, the name of Marguerite's sister.

Included in the non-Matin stories in one Philippe wrote for the communist paper L'Humanité: true to his usual form, 'Pour les jours des rois' is a working-class story, but one everyone learns differently: Philippe's take on the Nativity is that the three wise men visiting Jesus is a lie invented by the rich, because it was in effect a humble clogmaker and his wife (much like, say, Philippe's parents) who took in Joseph and his heavily pregnant wife.

It won't be long before I read more of Charles-Louis Philippe.

Jean Anglade: Le Roi des fougères (1996)

As expected with a Jean Anglade book, this is set in the Auvergne. Unusually though, this edition more or less tells the whole story on the front flap: Zébédée, a ten-year-old Martinican, runs away from home in shame after his tram-driving father is given a warning by the inspector that he will be sacked if he ever again is caught drinking while driving; Zébédée heads towards the Puy de Dôme and meets the 'Roi des fougères' ('King of the ferns'), who lives in a cave far from conventional society, and spends a few very happy days with him; and then the police discover where he is.

What's really missing here is not of course the story itself, but the character studies, which are Anglade's strongest points. One example of these is the totally irresponsible, but nevertheless strangely likeable, nature of the father Pamphile. But more particularly, the king of the ferns, later dubbed 'Jean Gabin' by Zébédée after he tidies himself up in order not to be recognised: he is one of nature's anarchists who has walked out of his job as can't stand obeying society's rules, and his resourcefulness in his cave and outside it is remarkable: he makes a reasonable living conning (particularly foreign) tourists visiting the puys (volcanic rocks) by selling them trinkets of little value, but which they consider to be of great value.

And 'Jean Gabin' loves having the young child around, treats him as a son, and even calls the doctor in when Zébédée has a nasty fall on returning from his first (and last) trip to the Puy de Dôme. Fascinating.

12 August 2018

Claudie Gallay: Les Déferlantes | Breakers (2008)

Drip, drip, drip. That's the way the information in Claudie Gallay's Les Déferlantes (trans. as Breakers) comes through here: slowly revealing tiny points in an enticingly poetic fashion. Most characters here have secrets, and it is the unnamed female narrator, who frequently speaks silently to a past lover and has obviously been hurt in some way because of him, to whom the revelations come. She has been a teacher in Provence, but now makes ornithological reports at the Cap de la Hague, on the north-western tip of the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. She has moved into a huis clos situation where most people seem to spend much time watching others.

The language itself is subtly devastating, and it would be easy to imagine the life and events here in a medieval context, although we know that the poet Jacques Prévert once lived here (so it's after 1977), audio-cassettes are mentioned, as is telephone sex, the mentally wounded narrator has ceased to use her mobile phone, and a bottle of 1997 wine is mentioned. But there's no internet or even computers mentioned.

The inspiration for the main theme of the story is Prévert's brief poem 'Le Gardien du phare aime trop les oiseaux' ('The Lighthouse Keeper Likes Birds Too Much'), although this poem isn't mentioned in the book: incidentally, many things aren't initially mentioned because silence and verbal constipation rule here, anything spoken seems too painful to be said.

The narrator plays detective here, achieving much more than the ex-cop Lambert can – he's come here partly to sell the family home, partly to investigate what happened all those years ago, when he was only fifteen, when his parents and his baby brother died on their return journey from Aurigny (the French for 'Alderney'), crashing into the rocks. Théo, now an old man, was the lighthouse keeper at the time, and there are suspicions that he inadvertently played God: this is where Prévert's poem comes in, as its about a lighthouse keeper who switches off the light to save birds from killing themselves as, attracted to the glow, they hit the glass.

And then there's the photo of Paul, Lambert's brother, which is stolen from his grave, and it is later discovered that Nan, who ran an orphanage and adopted a child she called Michel. And what about all these letters Théo receives?

There are other colourful characters here too, clustered around the local café run by Théo's daughter Lili: M. Anthelme and his obsession with Prévert, Max the boat-builder with his impossible dreams, La Mère who's not as stupid as she seems, Raphäel the artist, and his sex-crazy sister who thinks the narrator should have a good 'fuck' (she likes to talk rough and dirty) to shake her out of her emotional deadlock.

Certainly the sexual tension between the narrator and Lambert is painful both for them and the reader. But things will be resolved after Lambert's contact with his long lost brother, who's alive and well and living as a monk in the Jura. The narrator and Lambert – now in a deeply satisfying sexual relationship – drive out to see him. They've rejoined the world of people rather than ghosts.

Highly engaging. My only complaint: the language loses much of its poetic impact in exhange for emotional power some time after the halfway mark, so seems a little uneven. But then, it would be difficult to retain the same atmosphere in a 539-page book.

My other post on Claudie Galley:
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Claudie Galley: Les Années cerises

9 August 2018

Jean-Louis Fournier: Où a va, Papa ? (2008)

Où on va, papa ? is Jean-Louis Fournier's Femina-winning controversial novelisation of Jean-Louis Fournier's life with his first two (male) children (Mathieu and Thomas), both of whom were born with mental and physical disabilities so significant that they would never be able to read or write, drive a car, have a relationship, have a job, lead a normal life. But then, as the narrator says, what is normal and is it a good thing? The novel is full of black humour, anger at people who don't understand the situation, who for instance brag about the achievements of their own children: the narrator finds this as arrogant and vulgar as a Porsche-owner bragging about his car's performance to the owner of a humble 2CH (or 'Deuche').

There's nevertheless a great deal of humour here, although much of that is black. Would survival have been possible without humour, and anyway is survival in any life possible without humour? The novel relates that the narrator's wife left him after the birth of their third child, Marie, who had no disabilities. Unfortunately, Mathieu dies after an operation for his scoliosis.

Agnès Brunet, the children's mother, published a scathing attack in her blog on Fournier's novel, which she originally called 'Où on va, maman', although for legal reasons some passages were withdrawn, and her blog was re-titled 'La maman de Mathieu et Thomas'.

7 August 2018

Romain Rolland in Clamecy, Nièvre (58)

The Musée d'Art et d'Histoire Romain Rolland is in Clamecy.

And this plaque.

A room in the musée is dedicated to Romain Rolland.

An old photo shows, from left to right, Rolland's grandfather Edme Courot's house, Rolland's birthplace, and the former Hôtel de Bellegarde. In 1990 Clamecy acquired Edme Courot's house and his birthplace – the house in which Romain's solicitor father Émile lived with his wife Marie; the Romain Rolland room occupies the original second floor of Edme Courot's house.

Romain Rolland's daughter Marie Romain Rolland donated these items of furniture from Romain's parents and grandparents.

A display of a children's edition of Rolland's major set of novels, the roman-fleuve Jean-Christophe, which ran to ten volumes from 1904 to 1910.

This sketch doesn't even come from the museum, but from an information plaque near Claude Tillier's statue.  Rolland's most famous character Colas Breugnon doesn't even need an introduction to French people.


The novel Colas Breugnon was published in 1919, and is about a ficticious master carpenter from Clemecy in the seventeenth century. Rolland based the short novel on historical researches he made.


The property here comes from Romain Rolland's period in Villeneuve, Switzerland, and they are donations from Marie Romain Rolland. The photo is of Rolland with Gandhi.

Bust by Carlos Velasquez-Espino (1965).

Alain-Fournier in La Chapelle-d'Aiguillon, Cher (18)


The small museum in La Chapelle-d'Aiguillon, Cher, is not where Alain-Fournier was born. Jacques Rivière (1886–1935) was a director of La Nouvelle Revue française from 1919 until his death, and also a friend of Alain-Fournier, with whom he exchanged many letters and became his brother-in-law.

Alain-Fournier in Épineuil-le-Fleuriel, Cher (18)

Alain-Fournier (1886–1914) was born Henri-Alban Fournier at La Chapelle-d'Aiguillon (Cher), and is of course best known as the creator of his only novel Le Grand Meaunes, which for many years, as a frequently set school text book, remains in many people's memories and hearts. Moved to the school in Épinay-le-Fleuriel in 1891, Fournier's teacher father taught him here between 1891 and 1898, and as the above plaque states, the character 'Le Grand Meaunes' was born here. The school was also the family home.

A broad view of the front elevation, with the well in the foreground.

The school was an important building in local villages, and here (as elsewhere) part of it doubled as the Mairie, or town hall.

Albanie Fournier, Henri's mother, taught the infants' section (with some initial controversy).

The junior class, where Henri's father taught pupils aged from nine to thirteen.

The kitchen at the foot of the staircase.

The family dining room.

The red drawing room, to which Albanie would often retire.

The bedroom where Henri's parents slept.

The attic, in effect the place where Le Grand Meaunes was created.

The rear elevation, which looks out onto a large lawn.

Er, I'll just use the polite expression 'toilettes à la turque'.

Claude Seignolle in Sainte-Montaine, Cher (18)

On the wall of the Mairie, along with a plaque of Marguerite Audoux (see below), is a plaque dedicated to another literary figure who had lived in Sainte-Montaine – Claude Seignolle (1917–2018), who lived there from 1945 to 1959, and who found the Sologne area a rich source for gleaning many of his folkloric tales. Probably his most famous novel is the fantasy La Malvenue (1952), which went through many editions and is set in the Sologne. The UCPS (Union pour la Culture Populaire en Sologne) erected this plaque in 2006.

6 August 2018

Jacques Layani: Albertine Sarrazin : une vie (2001)

On the cover, the beautiful and photogenic Albertine Sarrazin stares longingly at the viewer, as if she loves him or her. The shot was taken two years before her senseless death, when she was for just two years caught up in in a merry-go-round of publicity after publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert had discovered that she was a brilliant writer and published two novels of hers: L'Astragale and La Cavale, both in 1958, swiftly followed by her third and last novel, La Traversière. And then her life – frequently out of control – went out of control for keeps.

This biography tells us that Albertine Sarrazin – who was forced to assume a number of names throughout her life, only some of which she invented for herself – was born in Algiers and adopted by a much older couple via the Assistance publique. Well, that was always the official story – and one Albertine believed all her life – but it was in part a lie. Her 'adopted' parents were only half adopted, as her 'adopted' father, a doctor and a slimeball who appears to have believed in a kind of droit du seigneur (or droit de cuissage), was in fact her real father by his maid. But he never said a word about it, and never showed any fatherly love.

Growing up unloved and miserable, Albertine was shunted about to various places, one being the Bon Pasteur school-cum-prison in Marseilles from which she escaped for Paris. Raped by an uncle at the age of ten, she seems to have taken for granted the lust of a few of the people who picked her up while hitch-hiking, and on arriving francless in Paris what could seem more natural to her than prostituting herself in order to survive?

And then Albertine pursuaded Marie, a friend inmate from Bon Pasteur, to run away and join her. A mistake, as they acquired a gun and Marie used it when they held up a woman in a clothes shop  and shot her in the shoulder: but although Marie did the shooting, Albertine was seen as a instigator and got two more years than Marie's five. Moved from Fresnes to Doullens, Albertine couldn't face the thought of staying in prison any longer, jumped over the wall (the equivalent of four floors) and hurt her ankle.

This is when it gets really weird, far less believable than any movie. Staggering, Albertine was spotted by a lorry driver who could have lost his job if he'd taken her, so flagged down the next vehicle which contained a certain Julien Sarrazin and his boss, who was well aware of where she'd come from and was having none of it. By the way Sarrazin spoke though, Albertine could tell that he had served time, and (quite a stocky guy) Sarrazin told his boss that if he revealed any of this to anyone he was in trouble: meanwhile back in Amiens (a mere thirty kilometers away) he'd come back on his motorbike to pick up Albertine and hide her at his mother's.

The large Sarrazin family could barely afford another mouth to feed, and Albertine was shunted around various places in Amiens, but the relationship grew and they married, partly living by stealing and making a few returns inside.

However, Albertine had been writing for most of her life and was an undiscovered brilliant writer, although it was some years before Pauvert discovered her and she became famous. Her novel L'Astragale, translated into seventeen languages and as Astragal in English (but not 'The Anckle [sic] Bone' as Layani states), comes from the broken ankle bone on her fall from Doullens. She was now an important literary figure, but this was not to last.

Albertine Sarrazin died a few months before she reached thirty, and the repercussions continued for years: Albertine was mis-anaesthetised, should have had a blood transfusion but her blood group wasn't known, in effect her operation was a farce, but Julien Sarrazin – who had spent years waiting for release in prison – had all the time in the world to wait until the 'toubibs' (quacks) who had killed his wife got their just deserts. And eventually he won, although the surgeon had died before manslaughter was declared.

Needless to say, until the end of his life Julien Sarrazin worked to promote Albertine's work, and wrote a book himself – Contrescape (1975)concluding when he met Albertine. Albertine Sarrazin is quite a read, and the 320 pages fly by.

Albertine was originally buried in the cemetery in Matelles, Montpellier, but transferred to L'Oratoire, where Sarrazin had built a tomb and sculpted a work of art on the top of it: a representation of an astragal.

4 August 2018

Christian Gailly: L'Incident (1996)

This being a Christian Gailly novel, the reader can't not be swayed all over the place. So, Marguerite Muir loses her purse in a supermarket, Georges Palet finds it elsewhere minus mainly cash, tries to contact her, fails, and informs the cops. So what?

This is a very short (253 big-paged) book, although it took me several days to read, but I was in transit all the time, so maybe I missed something? Like Alain Renais's 2008 film (Les Herbes folles) of the novel, is what follows in the world of fantasy? The married Georges seems to have a thing for Marguerite, who tries to shrug the much older guy off, but then there's a 'rebondissement' and she seems to have a thing for him. Yeah? Maybe I oughta re-read this, although I think I'll see the same story: Christian Gailly is weird stuff.

My other posts on Christian Gailly:
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Christian Gailly: Un soir au club

Christian Gailly: Lily et Braine
Christian Gailly: La Roue et autres nouvelles

Charles-Louis Philippe: Dans la petite ville 1910; repr. 1997 with Introduction by Francine Masson

This is a collection of Charles-Louis Philippe's short stories which he had intended to publish in one volume, and although his untimely death at the age of thirty-five (probably from meningitis) intervened, André Gide ensured its publication the following year, 1910. This edition of the stories is published by Plein Chat's imprint of working-class authors, Collection voix d'en bas, and a number of them are obviously based on life in Cérilly where Philippe was born and spent his early days, and a number of them no doubt came from the stories that the author's father told him in Cérilly.

Here, the people may be working-class, but they are far from uncomplicated as in stories and novels often written by authors from a middle-class (or even working-class) background. These tales don't distort by nostalgia or glorification: they show a whole series of often contradictory emotions: jealousy, hatred, boredom, despair, love, childish mischief and its often negative effects, etc: Charles-Louis Philippe's stories show life in general.

And they are shown with a sense of humour as well as an eye for tragedy, irony, and misfortune. Charles-Louis Philippe deserves much more than the semi-oblivion he's been subjected to.