30 November 2014

Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse bébé (2010)

Virginie Despentes describes herself as an 'anarcho-feminist'. When she directed a film of her first novel Baise-moi (1994) in 2000 it caused quite a stir and was subjected to accusations of 'pornography'. I could describe the film Baise-moi as Tarantino meets Thelma and Louise with lashings of unsimulated sex. But there is nothing titillating about it, and there would be something very unusual with anyone getting off on this stuff: Despentes is very angry. Coyly, the film version for distribution with English sub-titles didn't translate the title: a film called 'Fuck Me' would obviously have encountered censorship problems.

In 2010 it was a surprise when Despentes won the prix Renaudot – the second most important French literary prize. But to capture the atmosphere of the novel the making of a film version is highly unlikely because of the cost involved – this is a devastating read in more than one respect.

The back cover of this novel calls it a mixture of social satire, contemporary detective story and road novel, which seems a reasonably accurate shorthand description. Valentine Galton is the key character – a wayward fifteen-year-old who frequently plays truant and has sex with as many men as possible because she imagines that the more she has of it the better she'll get. Earlier on she mixes with the band PDTC (Panique Dans Ton Cul), which can be translated as 'Panic In Your Ass': it could almost be a prediction of the novel's climax, but more of that later.

There was a sub-genre of the fin-de-siècle New Woman novel in English literature which involved women detectives, and although I never managed to track one down to read I imagine that Apocalypse bébé must be a kind of update. The narrative switches between first and third person, with the first being related by the private detective Lucie Toledo, and the third revealing key characters in Valentine's life, ending with Lucie herself.

Valentine has gone missing, and Lucie's job is to find her. To help her in this she co-opts La Hyène ('The Hyena'), a much more experienced private detective and a larger-than-life, very openly lesbian character who doesn't flinch about using violent tactics to reach her goal. The novel involves various detective activities in Paris, and then a journey by car to Barcelona, where Valentine is eventually found and is ostensibly a docile captive.

Valentine comes from a broken family with an extremely self-centred mother and novelist father François whose books have gone out of fashion: the internet plays a very important role in detection in the story, although François uses it to write his Wikipédia entry and check his tiny sales positions on the Amazon charts.

But François's position in those sales charts will rocket, albeit posthumously. Finally his contribution to literature has been noticed, and this is to be recognised in a ceremony at the Palais-Royal. Valentine accompanies him, although what follows is catastrophe of such proportions that it will be compared, among other things, to the Twin Towers and the earthquake in Haiti.

The Palais-Royal metal detector registers when Valentine passes through it, but when she explains that this is clitoral ornamentation the staff don't probe any further. Ten minutes before the ceremony Valentine borrows her father's iPhone to post the ready-recorded video clip 'Little Girl' – showing her inserting a highly explosive device into her vagina: the result will change more than the nature of French security for ever.

Overnight Lucie becomes a wanted person, but her boss provides her with a fake driver's licence, she escapes to Spain to join her lesbian Polish lover Zoska, and ends up near Seville hoping for a fake passport to take them to South America.

A review of this book in the Independent suggests that the end of Apocalypse Baby is tacked on: oh no, it was intended. Like Baise-moi, this is an angry book, and a very powerful one.

My other Virginie Despentes post:
Virginie Despentes: Vernon Subutex I (2015)

26 November 2014

Didier van Cauwelaert: : Un aller simple | One Way (1994)

Didier van Cauwelaert's Un aller simple (translated into English as One Way) won the prix Goncourt in 1994. Aziz Kamel is the narrator, with the exception of twenty-odd pages of Jean-Pierre Schneider's diary. It was published shortly after the government clampdown on immigration, and is concerned with the question of identity.

Aziz is named after the Ami 6 Citroën car, which crashed into traveller Vasile's mobile pizza van, killing Aziz's parents but leaving him an unharmed baby in the back seat. Vasile is so psychologically hurt by this that he doesn't drive again, although the orphan (born in France of unknown origin) is taken in by the travellers, renamed and given a false Moroccan passport.

So Aziz is brought up in a caravan in an area in north Marseilles, the kind of area where the residents welcome attempts by the council to give them a permanent dwelling because as soon as its finished and before they're allocated a property they rip out all the sellable fixtures, just leaving the tiling for the winter when they can make more money out of it. Aziz is keen to learn and enjoys the brief schooling he has, although the community want him to earn his keep, so he soon becomes an expert at stealing car radios.

Aziz is a gadjo (a non-gypsy), meaning he doesn't have full rights in the community he was brought up in. This means Radjo is more entitled to marry Lila, whom Aziz wants to marry, and whose 'honour' Aziz has respected by only having anal sex with her. However, Radjo is murdered before marriage: he has had vaginal sex with Lila before marriage, leaving the pathway clear for Aziz to marry Lila.

In theory. But before Aziz and Lila are married the future groom is jailed for stealing the ring. This is a frame-up because the ring is one of the few things Aziz has bought as opposed to stolen, although as he's a rookie buyer he didn't think of asking for a receipt.

Enter Jean-Pierre Schneider, a man charged by the government to repatriate immigrants such as Aziz, who hasn't renewed his (false) papers. Schneider has been assigned to accompany Aziz on the plane back to his home town and help him to find a job, only he can't find Irghiz, the supposed place of Aziz's birth, on the map.

He can't find it because it doesn't exist, but for reasons of his own Aziz plays the game and on the way over to Morocco and the first day there creates an aura of mystery and enchantment around the mythical Irghiz that has Schneider spellbound to find it. He even dreams of fulfilling his ambition of writing a book based around the adventure, and so make his wife (who is divorcing him) believe in his worth.

But then, the child is father to the man and soon roles are reversed and Schneider is being led up the (Atlas) mountain path by not only Aziz but the highly attractive and highly educated Valérie, a Moroccan courier Aziz has saved from discontented tourist dummies and had rather indifferent sex with. But Aziz is smitten and Valérie is all in favour of leading Schneider by the tail in the search for Irghiz.

Schneider is vulnerable in several ways: he soon falls for Valérie's charms as they make their way up the mountains, but a second illness strikes him and he dies many miles from civilisation, dreaming of love and literary success.
So it's down to Aziz to take Schneider back in a coffin, although his wife's remarried and Aziz has to spend virtually all his remaining government resettlement allowance hiring a van to drive the coffin back to Schneider's parents' ghost town in Thionville, Lorraine. The parents had disowned Schneider, so they're hardly likely to welcome his return, especially as a dead body. But Aziz's luck is in.

He has discovered that the van has been stolen from the Conforama car park where he left it, and using an Arab voice he anonymously reports (spending his last five francs on a public phone call) that Schneider has been kidnapped by Moroccan terrorists: the parents then express alarm and signal the catastrophe to friends and relatives.

As for Aziz, he's welcomed into the Schneider home, where he works on the man's notes to create the book he never published in his lifetime.

Very funny, imaginative, and highly engrossing.

My other Didier van Cauwelaert post:
Didier van Cauwelaert: Jules
Didier van Cauwelaert: Vingt ans et des poussières

Mathieu Belezi: Le Petit roi (1999)

Mathieu – the narrator of this short novel – is a twelve-year-old child who has been left to live with his grandfather on his farm in Haute-Provence. He goes to a religious school several miles away, which he reaches on a bicycle.

The only person he positively relates to is his grandfather: on the farm he is preoccupied by hurting, even torturing, animals and insects, and at school he has no respect for the teachers and treats Parrot – a boy who is friendly towards him – with contempt.

Mathieu also sees his parents with contempt, and tells one of the priests that they are dead. They are dead to the boy, and there's a strong suggestion that his mother – whose letters he disposes of without opening – mortally stabbed his father.

Throughout the book Mathieu's narrative frequently interrupts itself with his memories of the fights between his parents, sometimes with his own voice trying to stop them, sometimes with his parents' remembered voices at the time of the violence. It is evident that serious damage has been inflicted on the child, although it is by no means clear how much  – or how little – his taciturn grandfather knows of Mathieu's history.

And it's equally evident that Mathieu is releasing his frustration onto others – violence breeds violence and his attacks on animals are a release of the psychological damage caused by his parents, and this damage is mixed with his growing sexual frustrations which express themselves by Mathieu making friendship-starved Parrot an occasional sex slave.

There's a genuine love between Mathieu and his grandfather, but the natural death of Pépé leads to the boy setting fire to the farm and riding off with ideas of killing himself.

This is a deeply disturbing book, but also a very French one. The back cover, with its reference to the kind of interstitial literature where suffering is to be read between the lines, draws the readers' attention to Charles Juliet's L'Année de l'éveil. That's another to look into.

23 November 2014

Lolita Pille: Hell (2002)

'We have a credit card in place of a brain, a vacuum cleaner in place of a nose, and nothing in place of a heart, we go to night clubs more often than lessons, we've more houses than real friends, two hundred numbers we never call in our address book. We're the golden youth.' (My translation.)

'La Jeunesse dorée' (or 'golden youth') is the title used for the poor rich kids, the nappies from the Neuilly, Auteuil, Pereire and Passy areas to the west of central Paris, particularly in the 16th arrondissement.

It's not surprising that the sixteen-year-old Lolita Pille, who felt inspired to write after reading Frédéric Beigbeder's 99 francs, sent a copy of the original manuscript to him. Nor is it surprising that Beigbeder (a fan of Bret Easton Ellis) should have enthusiastically contacted his publisher about the manuscript.

The book illustrates the life of the still-teenaged Ella – renamed Elle by her friends, but re-renamed Hell by herself because Elle sounds too much like a magazine. Sounds count in Hell, the sound of money in particular, but also the way things are expressed, such as contemporary verlan or backslang – cheum for moche (ugly), meuf for femme (girlfriend), pécho for chopé (seduced, had, etc), and so on.

This is a world of (often very) young adults in which brand names are of vital importance, where spending vast sums of money is an everyday occurrence, where hooving up coke in the early hours is normal, as is having frequent and dangerous sex with multiple partners.

The price of living in this world – in fact this kind of Hell – is not only that of losing your youth early, but also of falling into despair: when you've done everything, there's nothing left to do but go through the cycle again, and life (along with all the champagne) increasingly loses not only its sparkle but also its entire meaning, if it ever had one.

It's only when Hell hears of the existence of Andrea that she perks up. Andrea, she learns, is a guy who chained a girl naked to his radiator before sex, went out to buy cigarettes and in the process met a friend and went off with him for the weekend. Forgetting about the girl, who had nothing to eat all weekend. And sure enough, Andrea turns out to be the man of Hell's dreams.

For six months they hide themselves away, enjoying each other. But then things turn sour and they part, although neither will admit to the other that they are still in love. Love? Nonsense, it doesn't exist. Just get coked up, pissed up.

Andrea has his own chapter as narrator, when we learn his true feelings for Hell, that he loves her and is going to tell her so. The reader already knows that Hell is going to tell him the same. But this is not the kind of book that has a happy ending and when Andrea takes his car out for a final time that night/morning he runs through a red light at great speed at the Place de la Concorde and is crushed to death. Too much of a coward for direct suicide, a heartbroken Hell – yes, she really has one  continues her descent into a living Hell.

21 November 2014

Régine Deforges: Le Diable en rit encore | The Devil Is Still Laughing (1988)

Régine Deforges's Le Diable en rit (translated as The Devil Is Still Laughing) is the third volume of her La Bicyclette bleue series which stretches to ten volumes, although this is probably as far as I'm going with it: not through disappointment or other dissatisfaction, but after almost 1200 pages all told I think I get the idea, and action-packed sagas aren't exactly my main interest in literature.

Nevertheless this is a fine book which is in no way less of an accomplishment than the previous two I've read. It continues the story of Léa Delmas during World War II, and like the second volume 101, avenue Henri-Martin, is much more violent than the first and with a much less important love interest.

The tense atmosphere of terror, suspicion, brutal murder and torture is continued here, with again the setting changing between rural France (mainly the area around Bordeaux) and central Paris. But some of the action takes place in Germany too, when France is liberated and the allied push into Nazi Germany finally destroys Hitler's regime.

Many characters lose their lives, perhaps the most notable of them all being Léa's uncle Adrien, the priest who loses his belief in God because of the atrocities he's seen in the war; he goes out with two resounding bangs: a bullet through the loathsome Nazi Maurice Fiaux's head, and one through his own tormented brain; but although people later learn of his suicide, no one knows that he killed Fiaux.

Léa's cousin Camille is killed by the Nazis quite earlier on, and much later her husband Laurent meets his death too; Léa's uncle Luc, a collabo, is one of those killed by the French seeking vengeance after the Germans leave; Otto, the lover of Françoise and father of her child, dies in battle in Germany; and Léa's old school-friend and former lover Mathias joins the Nazis in what seems like a suicide mission.

In the Belsen-Bergen prison camp in Germany Léa – while working for the Croix-Rouge  discovers Sarah, her Jewish friend who was tortured in Paris. She manages to save her by having her transported to England.

This book, along with the two preceding volumes in this series, represents a remarkable achievement. Although these are works of fiction, the background and many of the events are based on true facts that happened during World War II, and give powerful illustrations of the horrors of war.

My other Régine Deforges posts:

Régine Deforges's grave
Régine Deforges: La Bicyclette bleue
Régine Deforges: 101, avenue Henri-Martin

Samuel Benchetrit: Le Cœur en dehors (2009)

The back cover of this book reads:

'Tu sais Charly, il faut aimer dans la vie, beaucoup... Ne jamais avoir peur de trop aimer. C'est ça, le courage. Ne sois jamais égoïste avec ton cœur. S'il est rempli d'amour, alors montre-le. Sors-le de toi et montre-le au monde. Il n'y a pas assez de cœur courageux. Il n'y a pas assez de cœurs en dehors...'

('You know, Charly, you have love in your life, a great deal... Never be frightened of loving too much. That is courage. Never be miserly with your heart. If it's full of love, then show it. Take it from yourself and show it to the world. There aren't enough courageous hearts. There aren't enough external hearts.') (My translation.)

It's Georges Roland who gives this advice to Charly, who is a ten-year-old French-born child from Mali, whose father left him when he was a month old, and whose mother has been a paid help to the elderly Rolands.

The advice comes towards the end of a book which begins shortly before Charly's mother is arrested by the police. From the end of the introductory chapter 'La Vie', the following nineteen chapters take place in one day, beginning at 08:00 and ending at 22:50. In this time, thoughts of the past and actions in the present vie with each other.

Charly – who initially has no idea why his mother has been arrested – decides not to go to school but to seek out his drug-addicted brother Henry. This involves a tour of the rather gruesome housing estate in which the names of places (blocks of flats, park, library, etc.) are ironically named after prominent cultural figures: Rimbaud, Marcel Proust, Colette, Guillaume Apollinaire, Berlioz, and so on. As Charly remarks of a school visit to the Musée National Picasso, in which a friend makes a joke about his father having a Picasso – a Citroën Picasso – 'It's to make you think it's beautiful.' Making his way through the tenements – though an area of dumped beer cans, used needles and drug-cooking spoons  Charly eventually finds Henry, who suggests that his mother may have been arrested because she has been without legal papers since her husband left with them.

It took me a while to warm to this precocious and rather goody-goody child and his limited, excessively hyperbolic verbal mannerisms heavily punctuated by frequently repeated colloquial or slang expressions such as 'La vache', 'craignos', 'bizarroïde', but (coyly) not a single 'putain'. But his (unsentimental) charm came through to me in his love for the slightly older schoolgirl Mélanie.

Finally, Charly is redeemed from any suspicions of mushiness by his brazen lies to the Rolands. Inventing a story about his mother having a bad case of flu, he tells the elderly couple that he a really good cook, and we find him in their kitchen confessing to himself that he has difficulty even pouring milk on his cereals. So he serves them up a plastic mess of overcooked pasta and rice embellished with grated cheese and raw tomatoes. George Roland's honest verdict comes after a few glasses of wine: 'dégueulasse' ('shit'), followed closely by his wife's 'infect' ('revolting').

Happily, I can't use those adjectives on this book.

19 November 2014

Princesse Sapho: Le Tutu: Mœurs fin de siècle (1891; repr. 2008)

'Holy Shit!'. That's my translation of the expression 'Merde alors!', which is Geneviève Duchêne's translation of the title of Julián Ríos's seven-page Afterword to Princess Sapho's novel Le TutuRíos wrote this in Spanish, and although I don't know the original title of the Afterword I trust that the word 'shit' was in it: 'Holy Shit' is a very apt reaction to a book that very early on contains four pages of correspondence between the Duchesse d'Orléans and the Électrice de Saxe, in which the word 'shit' ('merde') or a form of the verb 'to shit' ('chier') is mentioned at least once in virtually every sentence. An example:

'If you think you're kissing a beautiful mouth with very white teeth, you're really kissing a shit mill; the finest meals, biscuits, patés, pies, partridges, ham, pheasants – they're just to make chewed shit'. (My translation.)

The front cover of this edition of Le Tutu calls it 'LE ROMAN LE PLUS MYSTÉRIEUX DU  XIX SIÈCLE' ('THE MOST MYSTERIOUS NOVEL OF THE 19TH CENTURY'). It's not just mysterious: it's very odd indeed. As well as the correspondence there are also over five pages of Lautréamont's Chants de Maldoror printed here, a few pages of conversation in play form, and a page of celestial music. This was printed in 1891, and yet it seems to predict several things, such as Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus (1914), surrealism, and even texting. 

Léon Genonceaux printed this work, but then he disappeared very shortly after and the novel wasn't even distributed to bookshops: in fact very few copies of it were distributed at all, and the Bibliothèque nationale de Paris only acquired a copy of the first edition a few years ago. Furthermore, the book was forgotten until Pascal Pia wrote about it in an edition of La Quinzaine littéraire of April 1966, part of which is published as a second Afterword in this edition. In this article, Pia suggests that Léon Genonceaux himself wrote the novel, and gives a number of well considered reasons for this. However, Jean-Jacques Lefrère, after some amount of speculation and reasoning in a third and final Afterword, concludes inconclusively. What is certain is that Le Tutu was finally published by Tristram in Auch (32) in 1991 – exactly one hundred years after the original printing – and it released two more editions, in 1997 and 2008.

The novel follows the the story of Mauri de Noirof, who is obviously a satirized version of the publisher Maurice de Brunhoff  incidentally the father of Jean de Brunhoff, the author and illustrator of the Babar the elephant books. A few more characters are modeled on actual people, although the next most prominent one is Jardisse, who is a satirized version of Henri d'Argis, the author of the novels Sodom and Gomorrhe.

The back cover notes the eccentric, extravagant, and even monstrous nature of all the characters in the novel. At least one reader has also noted its emetic qualities. Mauri is a young opportunist who frequents brothels and who marries Hermine, a rich, fat alcoholic fond of picking her nose, rolling the crows into little balls and eating them. He never has sex with her   he is in love with his mother, who is also in love with him, although their relationship is for some time unconsummated. Instead Mauri has sex with Mani-Mina, a two-headed, four-armed and four-legged circus phenomenon.

The result of this match is Paul-Uc-Zo-Émilie, a four-headed creature Mauri feeds with his own milk – the product of a miraculous creation by Doctor Messé-Malou, who has also invented a tree that grows people and which he feeds by pissing at the roots.

Paul-Uc-Zo-Émilie dies, as did his mother before him, and towards the end the mysterious Jardisse is found dead in bed with his secret lover Hermine, his stiff arm tightly around her neck. Hermine too dies a few minutes later, and Mauri and his mother finally consummate their relationship by making love on a train – on top of Hermine's coffin.

There are many other things I could have detailed – such as the eating in a café of part of a dead, worm-invested cat found in the gutter, or Mauri and his mother meeting regularly to tuck in to a plate of rotting brains washed down with the spit from asthmatics, but I've probably already given taste enough of this truly bizarre novel.

The book contains an insert of quotations from reviews of the book, including La Quinzaine Littéraire, L'Événement du Jeudi, and Le Canard Enchaîné. Libération calls it 'a specimen of literary pathology'. Quite. A must – if your constitution is up to it. It was published in English translation last year (as The Tutu) under Atlas Press's Anti-Classics imprint.

15 November 2014

Nina Bouraoui: Garçon manqué |Tomboy (2000)

Garçon manqué. Tomboy in the English translation. Autofiction. About a girl called Yasmina. Born in Rennes in Brittany. Moved to Algiers, Algeria as a child. In 1967. French mother. Maryvonne. Algerian father. Rachid. He's a senior civil servant. She goes to a French school. She speaks fluent French. She doesn't speak Arabic. Her father calls her Brio.

In France they call her Nina. It sounds less Arab. Maryvonne's parents didn't want her to marry Rachid. Her parents met while the war was on. Nina is French. Nina is Algerian. Nina is both. She's neither. She has no country. She looks at a photo of Rachid's brother, who died in the Algerian war. He's pointing a rifle. At her. She's the enemy.

Nina wants to be like a boy. She cuts her hair. She tries on the gendered mannerisms. 'Je ne me sais pas.' 'I don't know myself.' A prisoner of her body as well as a prisoner in both countries.

The telephone sounds at night. Their car tyres are removed. From a balcony they throw dirty water at her. Things could end in a blood bath. Kids throw pebbles at the car while her mother's driving.

Nina and her sister stay with their grandparents for the summer. They don't ask about Algeria. So much is spoken by never being said. But.

There's a devastating violence in the word, casual or intended. The effects on a highly intelligent, hypersensitive child. Their effects on anyone. Yes, the power of the word. This book conveys it. Sometimes brilliantly.

My other posts on Nina Bouraoui:

Nina Bouraoui: Avant les hommes

Nina Bouraoui: Mes mauvaises pensées

13 November 2014

Mongo Beti: Trop de soleil tue l'amour (1999)

Alexandre Biyidi Awala (1932–2001) – who wrote as Mongo Beti – was a prominent French African writer. He came from Cameroon and Trop de soleil tue l'amour (lit. 'Too Much Sun Kills Love') is evidently set in a country strongly resembling Cameroon in the 1990s.

Zamakwé (usually called Zam) is a journalist living with his girlfriend Elizabeth (usually called Bébète) in an oppressive, corrupt, violent country under dictatorial rule masquerading as democracy, and which is seen by its opponents as undergoing neo-colonial influence from France. Here, absurdity is the norm and Kafka's shadow looms large.

The language is very slangy, often insulting, and the action is fast. Throughout, references are made to the cinema and this seems to be a strong influence – is Beti some kind of precursor to Tanguy Viel? At the beginning, Zam is deeply upset because his CD jazz collection – which he sees as a personal history – has been stolen*. But that is just the beginning: soon afterwards a dead body is discovered at his home, and then an apartment they retreat to is bombed. On moving again, Zam fears that the new property is bugged. When Zam's boss tries to argue with the police that Zam needs protection, he's just told that what Zam has experienced is normal.

There is no investigation into the dead body at Zam's because the police aren't allowed to carry out investigations because investigations might lead to incriminating a member of the government. So when Bébète disappears, the police are of course not interested and Zam (even though he has called her a prostitute) is heartbroken.

Georges represents the exploitative French element, and when this short fat man is seen together with the tall thin police agent Norbert the reader is encouraged to think of the cinema again and imagine a black and white Laurel and Hardy: even in a regime of torture, political corruption and repression, of paranoia and killing, there is something to laugh at – maybe that makes things more chilling.

But there is really nothing funny about Georges, who has a sweet tooth for young girls. He has previously had a child by Bébète, but his sexual dalliances are increased when he is invited to stay at the luxurious home of Ebénezer, the very symbol of the corrupt regime. Here, Ebenezer encourages Georges to indulge his paedophilic instincts, and his thirteen-year-old niece joins Georges in bed each night.

Clearly, Trop de soleil tue l'amour is a very angry book. Mongo Beti intended to write a trilogy, and there is indeed a second volume: Branle-bas en noir et blanc (2000), but unfortunately he died before finishing the third book.

*Is jazz used here as a representation, or a symbol, of the black condition?

11 November 2014

Cadenas d'amour, Pont des Arts, Paris: an update

I've previously made a few posts on the cadenas d'amour (or love padlocks) on a few bridges across the Seine, including the Pont des Arts, one of which is here. They may make a delightful sight, but the sheer weight is causing problems, and the decision has been made to take measures not simply to prevent people from adding to the burden, but to replace the padlocks with transparent screens. A few photos below (taken at the end of September 2014) show the situation on the Pont des Arts.

André Léo: Cimetière d'Auteuil, 16th arrondissement, Paris

1824 – 1900'

André Léo was born Victoire Léodile Béra, and unlike her friend the anarchist Louise Michel she was born into a bourgeois family, although she had a revolutionary grandfather. Her husband Grégoire Champseix (181763) was a journalist close to the socialist Pierre Leroux and is buried with her. She took her nom de plume from her twin sons (also buried here), and who she was left to bring up after her husband's death.

Léo lived by her pen and worked for the feminist cause, workers' rights, and affiliated herself with anarchist groups. She also lived in Switzerland and Italy returning to France after the 1880 amnesty  and wrote a huge body of fiction and non-fiction.

Paul Claudel, 13e arrondissement, Paris

et sa soeur
de 1886 à 1892'

31 boulevard Port-Royal, 13th arrondissement. From his late teens Paul Claudel (1868–1955) lived here with his family. Shortly after moving here he converted to Catholicism. He was much influenced by Rimbaud's Illuminations, and in 1889 he wrote an early version of Tête d'or. The first version of La Ville was also written when he lived here.

Jean Paulhan in the 5th arrondissement, Paris

1884 – 1968
DE 1940 À SA MORT'

And the house is at 5 rue des Arénes, quite close to the Jardin des Plantes. Jean Paulhan was the son of the philosopher Frédéric Paulhan. In 1920 he became secretary to Jacques Rivière at La Nouvelle Revue française (NRF), of which he was editor after Rivière's death in 1925 until 1940, sometimes writing as 'Jean Guérin'.

During World War II Paulhan wrote for a number of Resistance organs, and on one occasion was arrested, only to be saved by the collaborator Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, who had taken over as editor of the NRF. Paulhan later went into hiding until the Liberation.

Famously, Dominique Aury – secretly Paulhan's partner from 1953 to his death in 1968 – revealed in 1994 that she was the pseudonymous 'Pauline Réage' who wrote the 'pornographic' novel Histoire d'O (1954), which won the prix des Deux Magots the year after publication. It was her 'love letter' to Paulhan.

10 November 2014

Paul Gachet: Cimetière du Père-Lachaise #4

This painting by Van Gogh is the most well known representation of Dr Paul Gachet (1828–1909), who died in Auvers-sur-Oise but was buried in Père-Lachaise. It shows the doctor, artist, and art collector holding a foxglove branch.

He specialised in nervous illnesses, his thesis being a study of depression. He pracised in Paris but bought the house in Auvers as a breathing space for his sick wife. His house was visited by a number of artists, and Gachet's children left many paintings – including several by Van Gogh – to museums in Paris.

My Auvers-sur-Oise post:

Van Gogh and others in Auvers-sur-Oise

Alain Bashung: Cimetière du Père-Lachaise #3

1947 – 2009'

Alain Bashung (or Baschung) was a singer-songwriter and rock musician. He comes from a Breton mother and an Algerian father (whom he never knew), and he was particularly popular in the eighties. His surname is from an Alsatian his mother married shortly after his birth. His 1991 album Osez Josephine was made in collaboration with Jean Fauque, the title track from which Delphine de Vigan took the line 'Plus rien ne s'oppose à la nuit' for her the auto/biographical work on her mother.

9 November 2014

Constance de Salm: Cimetière du Père-Lachaise #2

Décédée le 15 Avril 1845.'

At last I found it, although not without some effort. I suppose it goes without saying that it's not in the very useful Plan du Cimetière du Père-Lachaise you can buy at either of the florists opposite the west and east entrances, but even when you know vaguely where to look the map can still be a little woolly in parts. I've already mentioned Constance de Salm elsewhere, so I'll just leave the link:

Constance de Salm: Vingt-quatre heures d’une femme sensible

Élisa Mercœur: Cimetière du Père-Lachaise #1


This grave has been in a bad state of repair for some time. The poet Élisa Mercœur (1809–35) was abandoned as a three-day-old child and left at the entrance to the orphans' home in Nantes, with an anonymous note saying that her name was Élisa and her birth unregistered, adding that her parents at the time hadn't the means to care for her. She was given the surname Mercœur.

Almost two years later Adélaïde (or Adèle) Aumand, Élisa's mother, claimed her back from the orphanage.  She was unmarried and originally from a professional family background who worked as an embroiderer. The father – who didn't live with the mother and the child – was most probably the lawyer Jules-François Barré, who died in 1925. 

At the age of twelve she was a child prodigy and could teach children of her own age several subjects, including history, English and French. her first poems were published when she was sixteen. Soon, with the help of an enthusiastic publisher and sufficient subscribers, she had published her first volume of poems. And it wasn't long before she was known throughout the country.

Élisa Mercœur dreamed of great fame and glory but unfortunately died of a pulmonary infection at the age of twenty-five. Poets mourned her, and Chateaubriand – who was present at the funeral ceremony – wrote an elegy.

My other Élisa Mercœur post:

Élisa Mercœur in the 7th arrondissement

Alfred de Musset, 8th arrondissement, Paris

On avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt, immediately south of the Palais de la Découverte and in front of the Vallée Suisse, is a marble sculpture of Alfred de Musset and lovers/muses. The work was executed by Alphonse Emmanuel de Moncel de Perrin from a single marble block and placed here in 1910. The name is Le Rêve du Poète ('The Poet's Dream').

Eduardo Jonquières: Cimetière du Montparnasse #32


Born in Argentina, the painter, poet and translator Eduardo Jonquières studied Fine Art in Buenos Aires and in the 1950s became influenced by the Bauhaus, particularly by Joseph Albers. He moved to France in 1958.

Man Ray: Cimetière du Montparnasse #31

but not indifferent

1890 – 1976
love juliet'

Man Ray with his wife Juliet (1911–91).

Man Ray was an American artist loosely connected to dada and surrealism who spent many years in Montparnasse, which he considered as his home.

Gaston Maspero: Cimetière du Montparnasse #30

1846 – 1916

Egyptologist Gaston Maspero was the grandfather of the writer and publisher François Maspero. His many works include:

Des formes de la conjugaison en égyptien antique, en démotique et en copte (1871)
Du genre épistolaire chez les anciens Égyptiens (1872)
Histoire ancienne des peuples de l'Orient (1875)
L'Égypte à petites journées : études et souvenirs (1877)
De quelques navigations des Égyptiens sur les côtes de la mer Érythrée (1878)
Nouveau fragment d'un commentaire sur le second livre d'Hérodote (1879)
L’Archéologie égyptienne (1887)
La Syrie avant l'invasion des Hébreux (1887)
Les Contes populaires de l'Égypte ancienne (1889)
Les Momies royales de Deir El-Bahari (1889)
Histoire de l'Orient (1891)
Études de mythologie et d'archéologie égyptiennes (1892-1916)
Les Inscriptions des pyramides de Saqqarah (1894)
Histoire ancienne des peuples de l'Orient classique (1895-1899)
Guide du visiteur au musée du Caire (1902)
Notice biographique sur Auguste Mariette (1904)
Ruines et paysages d'Égypte (1910)
Hymne au Nil (1912)
Essais sur l'art égyptien (1912)
L’Égyptologie : la science française (1915)
Introduction à l'étude de la phonétique égyptienne (1917).

Also buried with him – as well as his wife – is his son Jean Maspero (1885–1915), who was a papyrologist.

8 November 2014

Louis Hachette: Cimetière du Montparnasse #29

Louis Hachette (1800–86) came from a modest family and founded the famous publishing business in 1826. He was the first publisher of books by the Comtesse de Ségur.

Régine Deforges: 101, avenue Henri-Martin (1983)

The design of this book cover, with Léa Delmas and her blue bicycle in the foreground and a germanopratin* background – Café de Flore on the left, Abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the right – is fine. It's just a shame about the gaudiness of it, which gives it the appearance of a trashy novel, which it isn't at all.

Régine Deforges's 101, avenue Henri-Martin is the second volume in La Bicyclette bleue series, and I think it's more successful than the first volume. But it's much darker than the first, with the love interest cut to a bare minimum. The Prologue, with the murder of scores of French prisoners by Nazi firing squad, gives a brief (and very subdued) idea of the violence the reader is in store for.

As in the first volume, the story is set in both Paris and the Bordeaux area, and Léa, her sisters, her sister-in-law Camille and her lover François still play a prominent role, although her early lover Laurent only makes a few brief appearances.

Much more to the fore is Léa's gay friend Raphaël Mahl, who is an eccentric but likeable writer who is obviously making quite a profit from the black market, but who may well be a police/Gestapo informant. His existence more or less sums up the threatening and fearful atmosphere of the second volume: no one at all is to be trusted. In fact the least members of the Resistance know about each other the better because under torture almost everyone cracks and is forced to reveal the whereabouts and activities of even their closest friends.

Literary references abound: in a bookshop Léa replaces a message inside a volume of Proust and the assistant recommends she read Marcel Aymé; Mahl is obsessed by literature and as an adolescent was much affected by Le Jardin des supplices by the anarchist Octave Mirbeau (incidentally buried in Passy, although that is not mentioned here), and shows Léa the tombs of Renée Vivien and Marie Bashkirtseff in the cemetery at Passy and gives as a password a line from Baudelaire; François takes Léa to Chateaubriand's Vallée-aux-Loups in Châtenay-Malabry, and so on.

The most striking thing about the book, though, is not just the atmosphere of terror, but the horror of the Nazi régime itself, and just to give a few examples: Sarah's living but mutilated body after the cigar-burn torture; Raphael's beating up by the Gestapo and later gruesome murder in prison for having betrayed young Loïc (but strangely, not Léa's uncle Adrien); and worst of all, the London radio announcement in French of more than one hundred Jews being bundled into a tiny wagon with five centimetres of quicklime to eat their feet and asphyxiate them, as if they wouldn't already be asphyxiated – and them being left like that for about a week, when their dead bodies are shovelled into a pit.

Not a comfortable read, but there is a tremendous power here.

* germanopratin is simply a French adjective for the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area of Paris.

My other Régine Deforges post:

Régine Deforges: La Bicyclette bleue
Régine Deforges: Le Diable en rit encore
Régine Deforges's grave

6 November 2014

Régine Deforges: La Bicyclette bleue | The Blue Bicycle (1981)

There's a great difference in time and space between Atlanta of the Civil War and France of World War II. But although there are a number of similarities between Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and Régine Deforges's La Bicyclette bleue (which Deforge freely acknowledged as an influence), she eventually defeated the litigious Mitchell estate after a series of court cases.

The principal settings in La Bicyclette bleue are the fictitious Montillac near Bordeaux, and Paris, and the story follows the spunky seventeen-year-old Léa Delmas from the beginnings of the war, through the Armistice of 1940, to the early period of the Resistance against the Pétain régime. On a personal level, it is very much a sexual and political coming-of-age of Léa.

We follow Léa and her three lovers: Clément (who is married to her cousin Camille and whom she at last makes love a few times towards the end); the more mature François Tavernier, who is almost as madly in love with her as she originally was for Clément; and Mathias Fayard, her long-time schoolfriend who leaves with the STO (the 'service du travail obligatoire'). And we follow the various political affiliations of the central characters, which creates much of the tension that drives the plot.

Deforges doesn't depict a saintly Léa, who out of spite gets engaged to the (soon to die) Claude, and makes love to Clément behind (her supposed friend) Camille's back, for which she has no remorse. But on a number of occasions she risks her life for the Resistance, delivering messages and other items on her blue bicycle.

This blue bicycle is of course a symbol, and is a force of opposition to the Nazis in general and the Vichy regime and its 'collabos'. This is a world in which everything must be done clandestinely, in which no one can be trusted: for instance, the Delmas family itself is deeply divided – Léa's paternal uncles are on opposite sides of the political camp, with Luc (whose face Léa savagely spits on) a Nazi sympathiser while Father Adrien is a resistance fighter on de Gaulle's side; and then Léa's sister Françoise is pregnant by a German officer and they want to marry.

This book is the first of the series and it's one of resistance in more than one sense: forget the Léa Delmas/Scarlett O'Hara and François Tavernier/Rhett Butler comparisons, the natural ancestor of this book is the weighty, linear nineteenth-century novel; this is simply an updated, sexier version of it. But that didn't put me off as sometimes it's a refreshing change to read such 'old-fashioned' books, and I'll probably read the next two in the series.

My other Régine Deforges posts:

Régine Deforges's grave
Régine Deforges: 101, avenue Henri-Martin
Régine Deforges: Le Diable en rit encore

3 November 2014

Régine Deforges: Cimetière du Montparnasse #28

1935 – 2014'

The once controversial publisher and prolific novelist Régine Deforges married the artist Pierre Wiazemsky, the grandson of François Mauriac and inheritor of the title Prince Wiazemsky from his father Yvan Wiazemsky, to whose memory Deforges dedicates her most famous book La Bicyclette bleu (1981), the first of a series which consists of ten titles.

My other Régine Deforges posts:

Régine Deforges: La Bicyclette bleue | The Blue Bicycle
Régine Deforges: 101, avenue Henri-Martin

Frédéric Andrau: Monsieur Albert: Cossery, une vie (2013)

An old man sits in front of Saint-Sulpice fountain, perhaps in the middle or at the end of his daily walk: starting from his hotel La Louisiane in rue de Seine, moving to the cafés Flore and Lipp on the Boulevard Saint Germain, to the jardin du Luxembourg and then back to the hotel. At all these places, of course, he sits for hours and hours just thinking – or should that be watching the young girls go by.

Frédéric Andrau's book – which includes some whimsical details and addresses its subject Albert Cossery (1913–2008) throughout as 'vous' – is the first biographical interpretation of the writer's life, and its publication marks the centenary of his birth.

It begins with a quotation by Cossery as a epigraph, which pretty much sums up the writer's work and ethos, and which I translate as:

'I am an aristocratic anarchist because I believe that humankind, apart from women, doesn't amount to much. But I'll always be on the side of the little people, never on that of the bastards and if, after reading my books, you don't know who the bastards are then you've not understood a thing.'

It's fairly well known that Cossery – who adopted French as his language – was born in Egypt, moved to France in 1945 and stayed there, spending almost all the time there in hotel rooms and only managing to write eight (fairly brief) books. His father had lived off his lands and rents from his properties and so didn't actually work, and Cossery too scarcely ever worked: after a short time working on a transatlantic ship, he said – after settling in Paris – that he only wrote about a sentence a week towards his books.

Andrau doesn't spend a great deal of time praising Cossery, who some of the time comes across as an egotistical sponger – gate-crashing the literary scene at first in search of anyone who'll buy him a meal, etc. He married once (Monique Chaumette) and didn't even live with her: he preferred to have sex with her in his hotel room when he woke up in the afternoon after evenings and early mornings having a good time (often at others' expenses); when, after several years, his wife announced that the party (or at least the marriage) was over he said it had come at a wrong time as the monthly hotel bill needed paying: if that was a joke, it wasn't a good one. But when Cossery years later inadvertently met his ex-wife with her second husband Philippe Noiret, he actually shed tears: was that because he'd let his guard slip and forgot to hide his true feelings behind his usual mask of insouciance?

If all this sounds like a story of a writer not writing, well it is in part,
although he does meet a number of writing friends, such as Henry Miller, Albert Camus, Lawrence Durrell, Roger Nimier (whose politics I'm pleased to learn Cossery didn't like), Louis Guilloux, etc. And Cossery's work is later recognised in the form of three literary prizes the first carrying the significant award of 400,000 francs in 1991.

Towards the end of the story I warmed a lot more to Cossery, and not just because he's growing older, undergoing illnesses and therefore more sympathetic. There was something more: the now eighty-seven-year-old meets a young girl follower: the Belgian photographer Sophie Leys – who is anonymous in the body of the book and Cossery agrees to have her publish a book of her photos of Egypt followed by extracts from Cossery's books that they chose together: L'Égypte de Cossery (2004). Furthermore, Andrau mentions the short film Leys made: Une vie dans la journée d'Albert Cossery: this I had to check out.

Digression: Ley's thirty-two minute film is well worth seeing even if you don't speak French. It shows Cossery in Luxembourg, in his hotel room, in cafés (such as Brasserie Lipp), and contains comments on him by, for instance, Michel Piccoli, Joëlle Losfeld, Georges Moustaki, Roger Grenier and Frédéric Beigbeder. Age has not softened his ideas, and he emphatically states – barely speaking and partly using sign language after a pharyngotomy – that less people vote now because we no longer live in a democracy: the bastards are the only ones profiting from the situation.

Near the end he was mainly writing on pieces of paper to communicate, and this sentence is beautiful: 'La télévision participe à un complot mondial destiné à éradiquer l'intelligence sur toute la planète': 'Television is part of a world plot to destroy intelligence throughout the planet.' Lovely. A link to the film is here.

But (briefly) back to Monsieur Albert: thanks to Frédéric Andrau, I now feel that all my questions about this remarkable writer have been answered. Andrau goes about it in an original way which is really effective.

On the negative side, this book is in need of an Index. There are also several indications of sloppy proof-reading: Fegallah or Feggallah? Both versions are used on pp. 14 and 15 respectively; it's Sunsiaré de Larcône, not Sunsarié (p. 109); on p. 226 Les Couleurs de l'Infamie is called Cossery's eight novel, whereas it's his seventh: Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu is a collection of short stories; Andrau writes of the book L'Égypte d'Albert Cossery, but it's in fact called L'Égypte de Cossery and was published in 2001, not 2004 as he states; on p. 252 Andrau says Cossery spent sixty years in one hotel room, when he's already said that he moved from Montmartre to La Louisiane in 1952 (p. 67), and also on pp. 182–83 there is mention of a room change from 58 to 77.

My other Cossery posts:
Albert Cossery: Cimetière du Montparnasse
Albert Cossery: Proud Beggars
Albert Cossery: Un complot de saltimbanques
Albert Cossery: The Colors of Infamy
Albert Cossery: Men God Forgot
Albert Cossery: Une ambition dans le désert