31 October 2014

Joseph-Marie Quérard: Cimetière du Montparnasse #27

Auteur de la France littéraire
Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur
1797 [sic] – 1865
Se amis souscripteurs

Association des Amis de Joseph Marie Quérard
Association Conservation Monuments Napoléoniens'

As the comment says below, the plaque is wrong about Joseph-Marie Quérard's year of birth, which was in 1796, not 1797. Quérard was obviously best known for his colossal fourteen-volume work La France littéraire, ou Dictionnaire bibliographique des savants, historiens, et gens de lettres de la France (1826–42), but he also wrote the five-volume Les Supercheries littéraires dévoilées (1845–56), Bibliographie La Menaisienne (1849), and Dictionnaire des ouvrages-polyonymes et anonymes de la littérature française, 1700-1850 (1846–47). In addition, he wrote a supplement to his great work La France littéraire called Écrivains pseudonymes (1854–56): Quérard himself also wrote under two pseudonyms – Marie-Jozon d’Erquar and Photius.

Saúl Yurkiévich: Cimetière du Montparnasse #26

1931 – 2005'

Saúl Yurkiévich was a poet, essayist and literary critic from a poor family in Argentina. He lived in Paris, where he became professor of hispano-American literature at the University of Vincennes, from 1969. he died in a motor accident.

(I had to take this grave at such a distant, skewed angle to avoid getting my shadow in the picture.)

The poem is of course one of Yurkiévich's, and is called 'Desde al fondo' ('From the back'), and is clearly about a voice (presumably of God) calling to him and summoning him. But the first line of the poem, 'desde al fondo del café', is missing:

'Una tenue voz
                  me llama
... Saúl... Saúl...
suave musita alguien
y no se ve
alguien que fue y estuvo
que está conmigo
y me convoca'.

Jerôme Lindon: Cimetière du Montparnasse #25

9 JUIN 1925 – 9 AVRIL 2001

From 1948 until his death, Jerôme Lindon was the publisher of Les Éditions de Minuit, a highly-reputed business largely responsible for experimental novels, and which was established by Jean Bruller ('Vercors') and Pierre de Lescure in 1941. He published such writers as Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, and Jean Echenoz, who published a short fictionalised biography of him – in Minuit – shortly after his death.

Jerôme's daughter Irène Lindon now runs Minuit.

Philippe Besson: Son frère (2001)

Lucas has returned to his family's home on the coast to join his brother Thomas, who is suffering from a blood disease which is incurable: his time is limited.

The brothers have been separated from each other for some time, and this is a final opportunity for them to be together at their childhood holiday home at Saint-Clément-des-Baleines on Île de Ré – the place where land meets the nothingness of the vast Atlantic, seeming (symbolically, of course) the end of the world.

As with Besson's La Trahison de Thomas Spencer, the main characters of Son frère are two males, although in the former novel they strongly resemble brothers as opposed to the actual brothers of this novel. But there is no (self-evident) homosexual undertow in Son frère.

The narrative takes the form of a kind of journal narrated by Lucas, although it weaves between the past and the present. But most of it is in the present, involving Thomas's illness, a series of blood tests and operations, usually negative results, and much heartache.

The drama of the second half of the novel is dominated by an old man who at first comes to tell the brothers that he's been watching Thomas – who now looks like an old man too, many years more than his chronological age – and who talks to them on several occasions. His final talk is addressed specifically to Thomas, and tells of a young woman who was drowned off the coast. His words 'On ne va pas contre la volonté de l'océan' ('You can't argue with the will of the ocean') seems to have a symbolic – even premonitory – significance. It certainly has a strong effect on Thomas.

Thomas confesses to Lucas that he had a girlfriend, Annette, whom he got pregnant and – contrary to Thomas's wishes – refuses to have an abortion. (Lucas muses that the same problem wouldn't have happened to him as he's gay.) Annette goes swimming the day after the argument, gets in trouble and yells to Thomas for help, but he hesitates, then goes to rescue her, is within twenty metres of her but he's too late to rescue her.

If he hadn't hesitated he'd have saved her, wouldn't he? The guilt. Thomas knows he's dying, but he cuts his life slightly shorter by yielding to the will of the ocean. The police find Lucas's body in exactly same spot as they found Annette's body: on the beach of Saint-Sauveur.

Unfortunately, this is a book that only really seems to take off in the second half.

Links to my other Besson posts:

Philippe Besson: La Trahison de Thomas Spencer
Philippe Besson: Un garçon d'Italie
Philippe Besson: Un instant d'abandon
Philippe Besson: En l'absence des hommes | In the Absence of Men
Philippe Besson: « Arrète avec tes mensonges »

28 October 2014

Raymond Queneau: Les Enfants du limon (1938)

Les Enfants du limonChildren of Clay in the translated version – is Raymond Queneau's fifth novel, which is a fictionalisation of a book considered to be unpublishable: 'Encyclopédie des sciences inexactes', on which Queneau had spent four years. The subject of the unpublished book (and the central subject of the published book) is 'fous littéraires', a term which has unfortunately often been translated as 'literary madmen', 'literary lunatics', and equally inaccurate expressions when 'outsider writers' would cover it far more politely, and far better.

Before this post runs away with itself though, perhaps a little backtracking is in order. In Les Enfants du limon Queneau – through Chambernac, but more of him later – mentions former works on fous littéraires/outsider writers which he consulted while researching his unpublished book: Charles Nodier's De quelques livres excentriques (Paris, 1835); Delepierre's Histoire littéraire des fous (London, 1860); Philomneste junior (aka G. Brunet)'s Les Fous littéraires; and Iv. [sic]Tcherpakoff (aka Auguste Ladrigue)'s Les Fous littéraires (Moscow, 1883).

Queneau restricts himself to nineteenth century fous littéraires/outsider writers: before that period misunderstandings could get in the way of definitions, and of course when he began writing the twentieth century wasn't even through its first third. But within the chosen century there are also limitations as to who should or shouldn't be placed in the category of fou littéraire/outsider writer, although the boundaries may change because this is after all a working copy (now within a novel, that is):

– by definition the person should be unknown (which of course automatically invalidates everyone if a list is published: i.e. there's a built-in paradox)

– the fou littéraire/outsider writer must have published something and so be to some extent in contact with the world outside his brain

– the published works must be saying something very strange indeed.

The question of how to establish the line between madness and plain eccentricity is also important here, but then more crucially so is the line between madness and sanity, and the reader can certainly be forgiven if he or she feels they are losing grip on reality, as indeed must have Queneau, who sifted through all these mathematical 'geniuses', messiahs without followers, idiots savants, prophets of apocalyptic doom and heavenly bliss, etc, for such a long time.

This then is a book within a book, the unpublished book within a loose story about the Limon-Chambernacs, a business family married to the impoverished aristocracy, where almost everyone is a little mad.

But it's Henri de Chambernac who is the main character, the retired schoolmaster who's now writing the book, and using the mysterious Purpulan as his secretary-cum-slave. Or is Purpulan just a facet of Chambernac's imagination, as Chambernac's passing on his book to the fictional Raymond Queneau – who makes a brief appearance at the end – is a facet of the narrator's imagination?

What are true are the names of the fous littéraires/outsider writers featured here, along with the sometimes detailed quotations from their works. But obviously what couldn't be mentioned is that the Belgian writer and bibliographer André Blavier (1922–2001) – who was near despair until he read and later met Queneau – actually succeeded in writing and publishing a huge book such as Queneau had intended to publish: Les Fous littéraires, which was published by Henri Veyrier in 1982 and revised and extended in Editions des Cendres in 2000. It is one of the oddest – and one of the most fascinating – reads anyone could ever wish for, as of course is Les Enfants du limon.

Links to my other Queneau post, my post on Blavier's book, and Queneau's grave:

Raymond Queneau: Exercices de style
André Blavier: Les Fous littéraires

Queneau's grave, Juvisy-sur-Orge

Tanguy Viel: Insoupçonnable (2006)

Tanguy's Viel's books are marked by long, tortuous sentences. In the first sentence of Insoupçonnable (lit. 'Above Suspicion'), for example, the first sentence – which is also the first paragraph – is seventy words long. It describes a wedding table, emphasising the light on it.

Light is very important to Viel, whose novels are much influenced by the cinema. In an interview with Thierry Guichard in Matricule des anges (No. 71, March 2006), Viel says that he sees the cinema first of all as a 'reservoir of images, décors, characters, tableaux' that encourage him to write. He is fascinated by the 'inhumanity' of the movie camera, and strives to create a similar effect through his writing.

Several critics have seen the suspense in Viel's books as Hitchcockian, and the author is certainly a fan of the master of suspense. In Insoupçonnable Lise works as a hostess in a bar on the coast, but unlike the other girls refuses to sleep with any customer. She lives with Sam, until a client twice her age – the fifty-year-old, rich auctioneer Henri Delamare – asks her to marry him: at this point Sam becomes her 'brother'. The couple see the marriage as a chance to fulfil their dreams of going to the States. Kidnapping is their plan.

But the 'kidnap' is of Lise, for whose return the pair want one million euros. Henri doesn't inform the police and goes to the arranged meeting point, it's discovered that he's only brought blank papers instead of notes, so he has to be killed and dumped into the sea. Amazingly, the cops don't track the guilty pair down, although Henri's mysterious brother Édouard is on their trail.

The game is finally given away by Sam's Panama hat, an object which takes on a tremendous importance. And it is the selling back of the hat to Sam – by Édouard, by auction – that buys the couple's 'freedom' at the expense of Édouard taking Lise from him.

Links to my other Viel posts:
Tanguy Viel: Paris-Brest
Tanguy Viel: L'Absolue perfection du crime
Tanguy Viel: La Disparition de Jim Sullivan

25 October 2014

Susan Sontag: Cimetière du Montparnasse #24

1933 – 2004'

Writer and political activist Susan Sontag spent the final decades of her life with photographer Annie Leibovitz and died in New York city, where she was born. But according to her wishes, she was buried in Paris. Salman Rushdie, who was supported by Sontag during the fatwa, was present at her funeral.

Henri Troyat: Cimetière du Montparnasse #23

1911 – 2007'

Henri Troyat wrote more than a hundred works. His novel L'Araigne (1938) won the prix Goncourt in the year of publication, and the author is also noted for the novel La Neige en deuil (1952), the five-volume series of novels Les Semailles et les Moissons (1953–58) and the three-volume series Viou (1980–87). He also wrote many biographies, from one on Dostoievski in 1940 to one on Goncharov, published posthumously in 2012.

Brassaï: Cimetière du Montparnasse #22

1899 – 1984
1920 – 2005'

'Brassaï' is a pseudonym for Gyula Halász, an Austro-Hungarian-born naturalised French artist, sculptor and writer who was friendly with Henry Miller, Léon-Paul Fargue and Jacques Prévert. One of his books is Graffiti (1960), one of the first books to make the suggestion that grafitti is a (naive) form of art.

Gisèle Freund: Cimetière du Montparnasse #21

'Gisèle FREUND
Berlin 1908 – Paris 2000'

Gisèle Freund was a French photographer of German origin who is most remembered for her portraits of writers, some of the most notable of them being Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Jean Cocteau, Colette, James Joyce, Michel Leiris, André Malraux, Henri Michaux, Jean-Paul Sartre, Virginia Woolf, and Marguerite Yourcenar.

23 October 2014

Catherine Cusset: Un brillant avenir (2008)

Catherine Cusset's novel Un brillant avenir is a work of autofiction, a fiction blending with autobiographical elements. It contains twenty-eight chapters, chronologically divorced from each other, beginning in 2003 and then moving back to 1941, then on to the eighties, back again, but concluding at 2006: it's a form of novelistic jigsaw in which all the pieces come together bit by bit.

We follow the story of the probably adopted Elena – although no one is certain of this, not even Elena – whose parents have moved from Belarus to Romania under Ceaușescu's régime. They are absolutely against their daughter marrying her Jewish friend Jacob because they say they fear he would move with Elena to Israel. However, Elena's wishes triumph and she marries Jacob – she a nuclear scientist and he an engineer – and although they move to Israel for a brief period, their aim is to escape to America, with their son Alex, for better opportunities. They succeed in crossing the Atlantic via Italy.

In the US Elena Anglicises her name to Helen and the couple live a much better life, hoping that Alex will have the 'brilliant future' of the title. When Alex – who has a penchant for foreign women – starts to get serious with the French woman Marie there is a replay of Elena and Jacob's problems in Romania: the parents (particularly Helen) fear that they will lose Alex because Marie will inevitably want to return to France.

Un brillant avenir is a novel not just about national differences and languages and the misunderstandings they cause, but of different age groups misunderstanding each other, of people's behavior being misinterpreted, and how much it can affect people. Helen above all is too sensitive – a neighbor just has to make a joke and she takes it the wrong way, she can be very hurt by something Marie has said without thinking, and she nurses it for years, letting it fester. Sometimes she's right to speak out – as when she strongly objects to an anti-Semitic joke one of her guests cracks – but a lot of the time she simply gets things wrong.

She's usually wrong about Marie, but then of course she's jealous of her – jealous that she might take Alex away, jealous that Marie has a PhD and Alex doesn't, jealous of young women's freedom. She even at one point imagines Marie as a female satan – but through the years she comes to understand her more, sees her even as someone she might have been herself if an earlier age had allowed it. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law reach a mutual respect that represents a kind of love.

There's some impressive psychology at work here, particularly with Cusset unpacking the minutiae of misunderstanding.

18 October 2014

Julia Deck: Viviane Élisabeth Fauville (2012)

Julia Deck's Viviane Élisabeth Fauville* comes from the highly esteemed Minuit and 2012 was the first time it had published a first novel in a long time. It's perhaps needless to say that it's an experimental one.

Viviane is in charge of communications at an important concrete company, although her husband has very recently left her and she now has to care for a three-month old baby on her own. But far worse: she's just stabbed Dr Sergent – her psychoanalyst – to death.

Several personal pronouns – 'je', 'tu', 'elle', 'nous' and 'vous' – are used from a narrative point of view, all to describe Viviane's story: this is an indication of the multiple layers of personality the protagonist is thrown into as the story becomes more crazy and the reader wonders where the truth lies because everything seems unreliable.

The police interview Viviane a few times and know that she's lied, for instance about using her mother as an alibi because she in fact died eight years before. But they still don't arrest her and she reads Le Parisien to find out who's being questioned so that she can stalk them and question them: the doctor's girlfriend, his wife and his patients, including Tony Boujon, who has a criminal record for menacing sexual behaviour, using one of the knives he has a collection of. But then Viviane sexually assaults Tony, who complains to the police, who are surprised by how both Tony's and Viviane's versions of the story seem to match.

Surely the woman's howling mad? Well, yes, and she goes into hospital for it, although while she's there a nurse wishes her 'Happy Christmas' and leaves her with a copy of Le Parisien detailing the arrest of a certain Pascal Blanche, another (formerly unmentioned) patient of Sergent's, who has no alibi at all. By the second week in January Viviane is free to leave the hospital and return home.

And by mid-April she is still working for the same company, but in Normandy in a nice apartment overlooking the channel: Pascal Planche is in prison because the police irrefutably discovered that the real murder weapon was the shrinks's paper knife found in Blanche's possession.

Therefore the much-travelled kitchen knife – the one Viviane's mother gave as part of a wedding present – turns out to have mainly been used on red herrings.

A kind of noir, a kind of detective story à la Minuit with suggestions of Duras, Beckett, etc, thrown in, and this short novel seems to herald a very interesting new talent. And the reader shouldn't give up in exasperation before section 18, because he or she will be very impressed.

*This is translated into English under the simple title Viviane, which perhaps renders it less 'foreign' for better consumption but also misses out on the multiple personality issue.

Link to my other Julia Deck post:
Julia Deck: Le Triangle d'hiver

Yasmina Khadra: Ce que le jour doit à la nuit | What the Day Owes the Night (2008)

The reader opens this book to find a short note on Yasmina Khadra which calls him the most read Francophone writer in the world, and says that he's been translated into thirty-seven languages. Ce que le jour doit à la nuit (translated into English literally as What the Day owes the Night) is probably his most famous book, and through Googling I note that the vast majority of readers seem to think it's a very good novel. However, Karim Sarroub (of whom more later) calls it 'un roman de gare', which can be translated as something like 'airport novel' or a 'beach read'. And I can understand the reasoning for this.

Ce que le jour doit à la nuit – at 450 pages and covering the years 1930 to 1962 in Algeria, plus a (then) present-day coda set in Provence – is epic in scale. Forgetting the coda, the book (narrated by Younes) is divided into three parts: 'Jenane Jato', 'Río Salado', and 'Émilie'.

Jenane Jato is the slum in Oran that Younes's family flee to after their farm is destroyed by fire. This first third of the novel struck me as a modern version of a nineteenth century novel, particularly of Dickens with its vivid descriptions of characters from the slum district.

And then Younes is handed over to his prosperous uncle (a chemist with a successful shop) and aunt, who adopt him and re-name him Jonas. From Oran Jonas moves with his new family to Río Salado, a much smaller town where Jonas's Arab identity becomes blurred (but never forgotten) as he mixes with the more wealthy Europeans.

The Émilie section takes up almost half the book, largely dealing with a doomed love affair: Jonas has had a secret, one-off dalliance with the much older Mme Cazenave, but then falls in love with her daughter Émilie, who is also in love with him. But Mme Cazenave forbids Jonas to touch Émilie.

One of the problems is that no one in the book really comes across as particularly engaging, even – in fact especially – Jonas, who seems incapable of making decisions. It's commendable that Jonas has strong principles: he doesn't tell his aunt and uncle that he father has become a drunkard; at school he refuses to reveal the name of his aggressor; and towards the end  he doesn't say anything about his (rather reluctant) involvement with the freedom fighters; but the reader doesn't identify with his problems, doesn't know what his beliefs are, or if indeed he has any.

Jonas just doesn't say much at all, especially to the woman he continues to love throughout the book. Even though Émilie pleads with him, he allows her to fulfil her mother's wishes and marry someone else, he won't say he loves her, and even when he tracks her down later after her husband dies during the war and Mme Cazenave is no longer a problem he won't open his mouth, he just cries. He's pathetic.

So all in all this is a pretty disappointing read.

But back to Karim Sarroub, who (very convincingly indeed) accuses Yasmina Khadra of plagiarism. In 'Ce que Yasmina Khadra doit à Youcef Dris', Sarroub draws attention to the Algerian writer Youcef Dris's (little known) book Les amants de Padovani, which is the true story of a cousin of Dris's. It was published in 2004 – four years before the publication of Yasmina Khadra's Ce que le jour doit à la nuit – and Sarroub finds twenty significant similarities in the story line of the two books. Even the hat and the poise of the head of the woman on the cover above is similar to a photograph in Dris's book, which shows Amélie and her friend in Aix-en-Provence, the Provençal town which is incidentally also the title of the final (present-day) section of Khadra's novel.

The article makes very interesting reading:
Ce que Yasmina Khadra doit à Youcef Dris, by Karim Sarroub

17 October 2014

Philippe Besson: La Trahison de Thomas Spencer (2009)

Philippe Besson's novel essentially involves two Americans – Thomas Spencer (the narrator) and Paul Bruder – who were born on the same day: 6 August 1945, when the plane Enola Gay dropped its lethal cargo on Hiroshima. Thomas was born in Savannah, Georgia, although he never met his father, who left when his mother was pregnant, and who took her young baby to Natchez, Mississippi, where the Bruder family lived next door.

So the story begins in 1945, when Thomas and Paul started growing up together and for many years are inseparable, much like loving twin brothers. The novel traces the couple through school, through their lovers, up to and a little beyond the messy end of the relationship. To a lesser extent, it also traces the history of North American culture of the time, particularly the South which was still living through the Jim Crow period.

The back cover explains many of the important elements in the story: Claire McMullen, a free spirit (young, like the brotherly pair, in the 1960s) comes along and brings great danger to the Thomas-Paul bond: as Claire Chazal states in Le Figaro magazine (also mentioned on the back cover), this is – but only in some ways, I have to add – a darker version of Jules et Jim. Claire has previously had a relationship with Paul, but as an adolescent has to move with her family to Atlanta, thus severing the relationship. But she returns years later, and begins living with Paul.

La Trahison de Thomas Spencer translates as 'Thomas Spencer's Betrayal', and it is more or less this betrayal that the story in general points towards. Thomas and Paul have continued to be 'brothers' throughout and no girl or young woman has come between them before. More importantly, they have maintained this strong bond in spite of political differences. Thomas is the more studious, left-wing one, and when he moves to 'Ole Miss' (Oxford University, Mississippi) he  (not altogether wholeheartedly) joins in the demonstrations and drug-taking that were almost part of the fabric of student life in the sixties; but he still returns home to Natchez by Greyhound during the summer vacation. Paul, however, has been indoctrinated by his commie-hating parents, and feels that it is his duty to go and fight in Vietnam.

Paul and Claire promise to remain faithful to each other, although the inevitable happens and Thomas and Claire get together sexually and intend to remain that way on Paul's return. When he does, though, the new lovers feel that the physical wreck of a man that Vietnam has made of Paul – who returns with one arm and half his face a mangled, gruesome mess – that he would be better dead. Claire confesses her relationship with Thomas to Paul, who not long after puts a bullet through his own brain.

This ends the affair between Claire and Thomas, who exiles himself to Oregon with his guilt. What is the real betrayal? Simply Thomas having sex with Claire? In a much colder clime, Thomas now misses swimming in the Mississippi, and the final short paragraph states that he misses 'La sensation de l'eau sur la peau nue' (The sensation of water on my naked skin'). This doesn't relate to the time when the 'brothers' were spellbound by watching Claire swim naked in the river, but rather to the elephant in the room.

Thomas is thinking of when he and Paul used to swim naked as children, but probably more specifically to when the slightly later developing Thomas first sees Paul's pubic hair by the river, to when Paul clutches him in fun in the water and he feels Paul's cock rub against his buttocks: as Thomas says: 'C'est un moment de communion absolue.' Although no specific homosexual desire is mentioned between the 'brothers', throughout the book there are references to or allusions to homosexuality: at school a lesbian 'girlfriend' uses Thomas as a cover, thinking that he too is homosexual and doing the same; lack of interest in sport (in this case football, which Thomas tries to hide) is a stock 'code' used in homosexual fiction; but far more telling is when Thomas says that although he found Elizabeth Taylor 'very sexy' in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof', Paul Newman impressed him more: 'It took me a long time to understand why. I was too young at the time, it was impossible for me to put words to my confusion.' Quite.

This I thought was a central problem in the novel: there's a huge homosexual undertow that is going nowhere.

On a few minor notes, occasionally I was struck by an incongruity, such as a reference to 'traversin', the long sausage-like French pillows that surely aren't used in the USA, and one definite anachronism is that 'flower power' didn't appear in the early seventies but the late sixties.

Link to my other Besson posts:

Philippe Besson: Son frère
Philippe Besson: Un garçon d'Italie
Philippe Besson: Un instant d'abandon
Philippe Besson: En l'absence des hommes | In the Absence of Men
Philippe Besson: « Arrète avec tes mensonges »

16 October 2014

Edmund Potter in Dinting, Glossop, Derbyshire


This plaque was unveiled on 6 September 2014 and Dinting Lodge no longer exists. Edmund Potter was born in Ardwick, Manchester, and was the paternal grandfather of the children's writer, illustrator and conservationist Beatrix Potter (1866–1943).

Edmund Potter published several short works, including Calico Printing as an Art Manufacture: A lecture (1952), A Few Pages on Taxation (1959), and Trades' Unions and Their Tendencies (1861).

Below is a link to an earlier post I made on Edmund Potter's grave in Gee Cross, Hyde, Cheshire:

Beatrix Potter's relatives in Gee Cross

15 October 2014

Antoine Bourdelle: Cimetière du Montparnasse #20

1861 – 1929'

Below is a link to an earlier post I made on the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle:

Musée Bourdelle

Régis Jauffret: Lacrimosa (2008)

A woman friend of Régis Jauffret's strangled herself on 21 March 2007, coincidentally exactly two years after he had met her at the Salon du livre in Paris on 21 March 2005. Lacrimosa is a novel based around those bare facts, although I'm unaware of the truth of any others in this work.

The book has a kind of epistolary form with letters from the unnamed male narrator beginning 'Chère Charlotte' interspersed with imagined letters from his rather younger dead lover from the grave – but which of course are also written by the narrator, and all of which begin 'Mon pauvre amour'.

As its title suggests, this is indeed a requiem, although the male narrator frequently indulges in flights of fancy, causing Charlotte to insult him, say he's wasting his time, accuse him of re-inventing her at the expense of truth, and certainly more than once the male narrator admits he's invented something, such as the pair of them being threatened with deportation by the Tunisian police if they again swam naked at Djerba during their Club Med holiday.

This in fact is a far less bizarre invention than, for example, Dr Hippocampus Dupré living (and sleeping) with a panda. I'm not too sure why this section was included, but then there are a few other puzzling things, such as the male narrator addressing Charlotte by the formal 'vous' throughout, whereas Charlotte uses the expected 'tu' to her (former) lover. Is the 'vous' form intended to indicate the distance (living versus dead) he now sees between them, but if so surely that negates the need to write letters to the dead person in the first place: the death has already been accepted.

Finally, we can perhaps view the whole exercise as a kind of therapy, although the resolution in the last sentence (written by 'Charlotte') – 'Je suis fiére de toi' ('I'm proud of you') – sounds far too much like self-praise: but is this the narrator praising the narrator, or the author praising himself? Although I've only read this novel by Jauffret, I don't think it's one of his best, and other people – who have read others – seem to agree.

My other posts on Régis Jauffret:

Régis Jauffret: Claustria
Régis Jauffret: Sévère

13 October 2014

César Vallejo: Cimetière du Montparnasse #19

César Vallejo (1892–1938) was born in Peru, and is one of the most important and innovative poets in the Spanish language. He moved to Paris in the 1920s. His most noted works published in his lifetime are Los Heraldos negros (1918) and Trilce (1922), and – at the instigation of his poet wife Georgette – came the posthumous Poemas Humanos (1939).

He was initially buried in Montrouge, although in 1970 his remains were moved – according to his wishes, as the inscription above notes – to the cimetière du Montparnasse, where he could be close to Baudelaire.


The above inscription is said to be written by Georgette (1908–84) although there's no way round the fact that translated it reads 'I have snowed so much | So that you can sleep | Georgette': I don't think anyone has as yet suggested a meaning.

ADDENDUM: The Spanish Wikipedia page for Vallejo says the inscription is 'He nevado tanto para que duermas': 'It has snowed...'. Although this is clearly not what is inscribed on the grave, it makes a lot more sense, with the snow being visualised as a shroud. So the 'J'ai' above should probably read 'Il a'.

Fouad Laroui: L'Étrange Affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine (2012)

Fouad Laroui's novel Les Tribulations du dernier Sijilmassi made it into the first selection for this year's Goncourt prize, but failed to make the second selection. His book L'Étrange Affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine won the Goncourt prize for short stories last year, and this is probably an excellent introduction to the author's strange world.

Laroui is a French-speaking writer who was born in Morocco, has lived in England, and now lives in the Netherlands, and as a theme, national difference is prominent in a few of the nine stories here. Also prominent are questions of (sometimes mistaken) identity, (existential) confusion, the use of language, irony, and references (direct or oblique) to literature, philosophy, and popular culture. Much of this mix is usually expressed in a light and frequently humorous manner, with conversation – often including stories within stories – frequently an important driving factor.

'L'Étrange Affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine' is the title of one one of the shortest stories in this book of the same name. It begins with the spoken 'La Belgique est bien la patrie du surréalisme' ('Belgium is Very Much the Homeland of Surrealism'), and this more or less sets the tone for much of the book. Dassoukine is a Moroccan sent by his government on an urgent mission to Brussels to buy a large and much-needed supply of corn.

Unfortunately his trousers are stolen during the night and as his stay is very short he only has that pair. He also has an early interview, and because he's very tall he will have a great problem finding another pair of (even borrowed) trousers to fit him. As it happens, the hotel manager is very understanding and his aunt runs an Oxfam Solidarité shop a few minutes away on rue de l'Étang: she opens it for him to look at the wares. Rue de l'Étang translates as 'Pond Street', and the only pair of trousers that will fit him could well have been dragged out of a pond and dried.

So Dassoukine presents himself before the EU committee looking not altogether unlike a tramp, and the head of the committee is the man who the evening before mistook Dassoukine for a waiter at the hotel. The committee's decision is to give him a huge supply of corn, and he will be welcomed by a lavish reception when he returns to Morocco a hero: all due to his trousers, of course.

The title of the next story is 'Dislocation' and (rather like another title in the collection – 'Né nulle part' ('Born Nowhere') – is very appropriate for a work by Laroui. This time the story is distinctly Oulipian, and the paragraphs are like an ever-expanding language sandwich in which the original beginning and end of the sentence are repeated as more information is gradually added inside it, and that too is repeated, until the sentence (now a large number of sentences) is a paragraph over three pages long. What we are reading – as he walks home increasingly slowly to his wife  are the thoughts of Maati, who is a Moroccan living in Utrecht with his Dutch wife Anna. He's feeling foreign and dislocated, and philosophical, existential, literary and linguistic thoughts assail him, as does the thorny question of his adapting or not adapting. His dislocation is relieved by the loving Anna, who sees an exhausted husband, and after he collapses on the sofa she takes off his shoes while humming a song, and Maati seems to realise that he's reached home.

'Ce qui ne s'est pas dit à Bruxelles' ('What's Not Said in Brussels') has a couple of lovers – John the Dutchman in the Netherlands and Annie the French woman in France – having one of their many dates, this time in Brussels. But Annie, who muffles out the polyglot talk in the train carriage with earplugs, has decided to end the relationship, not realising that John has made the same decision. Two people, foreign to each other in more than one way, have in the past relished difference – as when John learns the names of trees in French and Annie laughingly thinks the Dutch equivalents sound like insults – but now they rehearse the fairwell speeches. Although they're never spoken, or at least they're never heard, and the relationship continues.

The above may suggest there's positive resolution in all the stories, but there's not, and Laroui's work certainly can't be described as whimsical or sentimental. In the playlet 'Le Quart d'heure des philosophes' (Philosophers' Quarter-Hour') Amir's threatening gun turns out to be only a water pistol, but his former philosophy teacher Sylvie has still been terrified by it, she still runs away in fear, and Amir himself – even though he's become a philosophy teacher – has obviously harboured a quasi-psychotic desire to avenge himself for the youth he feels Sylvie has stolen from him simply by teaching him philosophy. And then in 'Le Garde du corps de Bennani' ('Bennani's bodyguard'), the bodyguard smashes Bennani to a pulp in a drunken act of class hatred. Yes, there's a darker side to Fouad Laroui. For me at least, this introduction was encouraging and I shall look out for more of his work.

11 October 2014

Albert Cossery: Un complot de saltimbanques | A Splendid Conspiracy (1975)

Albert Cossery (1913–2008), whose grave I photographed below, was an Egyptian-born French-speaking writer who lived a long life but only wrote eight books. He took his time, watching life go on from the Café de Flore, the Brasserie Lipp or the Jardin du Luxembourg. His philosophy involved regarding possessions, having ambitions and creating wealth as anathema. Laziness is a virtue, enabling freedom. From these thoughts, tramps, beggars, the unemployed, the outsider, the forsaken are the heroes of the earth. Many would see this as an inverted version of the norm, as anarchistic, a threat to the order of society, and this is very much what Un complot de saltimbanques – translated as A Splendid Conspiracy, and so avoiding the interesting collective noun – is about.

Although Cossery lived for over sixty years in Paris his novels are all set in Egypt, or at least a country resembling it. The country in Un complot de saltimbanques isn't actually mentioned, but Teymour returns there after spending six years abroad. Ostensibly he was studying to be a chemical engineer, although in reality he was squandering his father's money, and when called back home he spent a small fortune buying a fraudulent diploma which his father is proud to show off.

Teymour initially thinks that he's come back to a very primitive environment and as he sits on the pavement area of a café feels, in the words of the first sentence of the book, 'as unlucky as a flea on a bald man's head' ('aussi malchanceux qu'un pou sur la tête d'un chauve'). But he soon settles into a lazy life with his old schoolfriend Medhat (who thinks all professions represent slavery) and the myopic actor Imtaz, who – following a harmless action onstage that could be interpreted as homosexual – has retreated from the limelight of the big city to a smaller one. Imtaz's reaction to Teymour's confession that his diploma is a fake is: 'I don't think you should concern yourself over that. We live in a world where everything is false.'

So Teymour, like his friends, decides not to work, simply to spend his time with them in cafés, playing games on people and interesting themselves in (rather too young) girls. But the act of procuring a schoolgirl's uniform is in order to play a trick on the gruesome rich buffoon Chawki, who doesn't realise that his rendez-vous is in fact with a local prostitute.

However, the police chief Hillali is fooled by the uniform too, and thinks that school satchels can hide bombs: he sees conspiracy everywhere, and can only see subversion in the young characters. He gets Rezk – a kind of foster child of his – to spy on them, although the result is that Rezk becomes increasingly attracted to the young ones' lifestyle.

If at the end it's discovered that 'important' people who have disappeared in the town have been killed by the brothel keeper, then that's a good thing (according to Medhat), it's fewer bastards in the world. And it's even a positive thing that the student Samuraï has met the same fate, as he had a slave mentality, he was an ambitious person who wanted a diploma to ensure himself a place in the society the non-ambitious ones hate.

The world of Albert Cossery is a truly bizarre one: 'unique' is a term often applied to his work, and it's one that fits well.

My other Cossery posts:
Frédéric Andrau: Monsieur Albert: Cossery, une vie
Albert Cossery: Cimetière du Montparnasse
Albert Cossery: The Colors of Infamy
Albert Cossery: Men God Forgot
Albert Cossery: Une ambition dans le désert

10 October 2014

Albert Cossery: Cimetière du Montparnasse #18

1913 . 2008'

This then is the grave of Albert Cossery, although it's really just a slab of concrete that appears to be waiting, and I assume it's just been more or less waiting like this since Cossery died almost six years ago. There's just the plaque and a few tributes left by friends and/or admirers:

Albert Cossery was one of my fascinating literary discoveries of last year, whose existence I learned of in Frédéric Beigbeder's Premier bilan aprés l'apocalypse, in which he lists one hundred books to be saved from a literary apocalypse. One of these is Cossery's Les Couleurs de l'infamie (1999), his last novel. Beigbeder mentions the people Cossery knew, such as Sartre and Beauvoir, Vian, Camus, Genet, Henry Miller, etc, and says he often used to sit on the terrace of the Bar du Marché and watch Cossery going into La Louisiane, the hotel he lived in for sixty years, (and where he died at the age of 94).

Elsewhere on this blog I wrote my impressions of Beigbeder's book, and was particularly impressed by what he says here:

'As with all of [Cossery's] books, he praises laziness, condemns the rich with their possessions, and only respects beggars, outsiders, the poor. For him, these are the only free humans. [...] [L]et's stop classing the unemployed as handicapped when they are gods!' (My translation.)

Obviously I had to acquaint myself with Cossery's work. I've just read Un complot de saltimbanques (1975) to begin, and shall be posting my impressions of this amazing novel tomorrow.

ADDENDUM: I'm unsure about that pot pansy: in French the word for the flower is pensée, which also means 'thought': but the person who put it there presumably didn't know that Cossery couldn't stand flowers, and according to his biographer Frédéric Andrau there wasn't a single one at his funeral.

My other Cossery posts:
Frédéric Andrau: Monsieur Albert: Cossery, une vie
Albert Cossery: Proud Beggars
Albert Cossery: A Splendid Conspiracy
Albert Cossery: The Colors of Infamy
Albert Cossery: Men God Forgot
Albert Cossery: Une ambition dans le désert

Patrick Modiano and the Nobel effect

Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature can have a very fast and dramatic effect on sales, and following the announcement of Patrick Modiano's win yesterday afternoon, in France alone he currently has thirteen books in Amazon's bestselling 100. The biggest sellers among those are Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (published earlier this month) in second place, while in third place is Rue des boutiques obscures (1982), in seventh is La Place de l'étoile (1975), and in ninth is Dora Bruder (1999).

The Nobel has strong teeth, and Modiano's win has nudged Valérie Trierweiler's hilarious anti-François Hollande rant Merci pour ce moment (2014) down to fourth place.

Conversely, following the second Goncourt selection announcement three days ago only two of the eight contenders make an appearance in Amazon's top 100: David Foenkinos's Charlotte (39) and Éric Reinhardt's L'amour et les forêts (98).

The only review I've made of any Modiano novel – L'Horizon (2010) – is here.

8 October 2014

Henri Fantin-Latour: Cimetière du Montparnasse #17

1836 – 1904'

One of Fantin-Latour's most famous paintings, which I've mentioned before, is Un Coin de table (1872), which notably features Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud seated on the left, and Jean Aicard standing on the right:

This post numerically follows on from the last of my second series of posts on the Cimetière du Montparnasse on 14 November 2013. The following link is to my first – and very long – post on the cemetery:

Montparnasse Cemetery / Cimetière du Montparnasse

Olivier Séchan: Cimetière du Montparnasse #16

Homme de Lettres
1911 – 2006'

Olivier Séchan was a writer of crime and young adult novels. Fluent in German, English and Dutch, he translated most of Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings series of novels (changed to Bennett in French). He was the father of the singer Renaud.

This post numerically follows on from the last of my second series of posts on the Cimetière du Montparnasse on 14 November 2013. The following link is to my first – and very long – post on the cemetery:

Montparnasse Cemetery / Cimetière du Montparnasse

Belinda Cannone: La Chair du temps (2012)

I wrote a post about Belinda Cannone when La Chair du temps first came out and it was brought to my attention in Magazine Littéraire. Reading it certainly wasn't a disappointment. To recap, Belinda Cannone (as herself, the narrator) arrives at her home on the Cotentin peninsula in La Manche to find that she has been burgled, and two vital trunks have been taken: they contained her personal diaries over decades, old photos, documents, etc. Particularly for a woman with a poor recollection of things, this is a great loss, tantamount to the theft – indeed the rape – of her memory.

La Chair du temps (literally 'The Flesh of Time') is Cannone's very expressive expression for memory itself – as if it were a living entity: we are, in the end – each one of us – made up of the past, we are the construction of ourselves over the period of time we have lived. Cannone's loss is profound, and this book is in large part a reconstruction of the nature of the theft and speculation as to what can have happened to her diaries, what the robbers were like and what they can have done with her memory in its physical form. At the same time, the book examines the nature of memory itself, makes comparisons between other people who have suffered similar losses (such as Hemingway), and reflects on different kinds of loss, on different kinds of memory.

The creation of this book is a strong counteraction to the devastating effect of the theft, and this new 'journal intime' (or personal, intimate diary) becomes a 'journal extime' (or public, 'extimate' diary).

And then, before the Épilogue, and after Cannone has told us that this book is different from 'autofiction' in that everything here is true, we have – mainly for the purpose of the closure of something that is by its very nature unending – a 'nouvelle' (or short story) in which the menacing Raphaël emerges to haunt the narrator by his appearance in her life, and his eventual admission that he is the one who has stolen her memory.

Belinda Cannone is obviously a writer I've until now missed out on: I must read more of her work.

Links to my Belinda Cannone posts:
Belinda Cannone: Entre les bruits
Belinda Cannone: La Chair du temps

6 October 2014

Molière's Two Birthplaces, 1st arrondissement, Paris

L'AN 1620'

This is an extremely impressive memorial on 31 rue du Pont-Neuf, although the claim is untrue: not only wasn't Molière born in a house where the present building is, but he wasn't born in 1620 either.

LE 15 JANVIER 1622'

This site, on the corner of the present rue Sauval (formerly rue des Vieilles-Étuves) and rue Saint-Honoré, is where Molière was born. He was baptised on 15 January 1622, so he was probably born slightly before this date.

Below, a link to my post on Molière's fountain:

Molière's Fountain

Square Lamartine, 16th arrondissement, Paris

The notes in French below are taken from a paragraph at the entrance to the square, and the English is my translation of them.

'Square Lamartine


En 1860, le poète Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869), ruiné par sa trop grande prodigalité, accepta, à contre-cœur, d'habiter un chalet de l'avenue Henri-Martin, cadeau de la Ville de Paris. Une statue (1951), œuvre de Paul François Niclausse (1879–1958), le représente.'

'In 1860 the poet Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869), ruined by his huge extravagance, reluctantly accepted to live in a chalet on avenue Henri-Martin, a gift from the town of Paris. A statue (1951), the work of Paul François Niclausse (1879–1958), represents him.'

'Un monument (1904) de Jean-Baptiste Champeil est dédie au compositeur français Benjamin Godard.'

'A monument (1904) by Jean-Baptiste Champeil is dedicated to the French composer Benjamin Godard.' (Unfortunately with pigeons here.)

'La fontaine, située devant le square, alimenté par un puits artésien creusé en 1861, servait, à l'origine, à alimenté les riviéres et les lacs du bois de Boulogne. Son eau, provenant de la nappe phréatique albienne, aurait des vertus thératpeutiques.'

'The fountain in front of the square, fed by an artesian well dug out in 1861, originally served to feed the rivers and lakes of the Bois de Boulogne. Its water, coming from an Albian water table, had therapeutic qualities.'

FORÉ EN 1855'

Yes, work began on the well in 1855, but it wasn't actually completed until 1861.