30 April 2018

Yann Andréa: Cet amour-là (1999)

Yann Lemée was born in Guincamp, Brittany, in 1952, and Marguerite Duras in Gia Định, near Saigon, in 1914: he lived with her during the final sixteen years of her life, and what may sound like an odd couple with thirty-eight years dividing them sounds odder because Lemée (renamed Andréa by Duras) was a practising homosexual. But they had a very profound love. Andréa first wrote of Duras and her second detox in M.D. (1982). As its name suggests, Cet-amour-là is about 'that love', and was published three years after her death, after she left him as her literary executor. It's a kind of personal epitaph, an attempt to come to terms with grief.

Cet-amour-là isn't linear, it hops about all over Andréa's sixteen years with Duras, repeats itself,  loops back on itself, dwelling particularly on Duras's grave in 'Mont-Parnasse' and on the time they spent together in Duras's flat Roches noires in Trouville, or her house in Neauphle-le-Château, or the flat in rue Saint-Benoît in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He writes to her, speaks to her, and her words come from the page unpunctuated. He is often despairing, with talk of suicide, pages obviously full of loss, existential crisis, lack of will.

Duras left Andréa with a flat, still on rue Saint-Benoît, and close to the Café de Flore, which Andréa takes some time to revisit after his loss. He spends many days just drinking, leaving bottles strewn about the flat, just eating delivered meals, not washing or cleaning his teeth, he stinks. Until he finally calls his mother, and she and her partner come to collect Andréa, and take him to their home in Agen, Lot-et-Garonne.

When he's ready to return to Paris to eventually clean his flat up, on the way he visits Duras's father's grave, which she wanted him to drive her to but he'd feared she'd die at any moment, die in the car. Andréa barely mentions anything about his homosexuality, unless his enthusiasm for barmen in white jackets (only mentioned once), or his solitary walks can be read as euphemisms. And then, in January 1999, his book is finished and he goes off for a two-week holiday to Patmos with unnamed friends.

Yann Andréa died in his flat in 2014 at the age of sixty-one.

29 April 2018

Laure Adler: Marguerite Duras (1998)

It's taken me several days to read this book, and not just because it's almost one thousand pages long. For anyone with more than a passing interest in Marguerite Duras's life and work, it needs to be read carefully: this must be the definive biographical work on her. While not exactly a friend of hers, Laure Adler had many contacts with her, as well as being able to interview such important people in Duras's life as Yann Andréa, Monique Anthelme, Robert Gallimard, Jérôme Lindon, Dionys Mascolo, François Mitterrand, and many more.

Although not a critical biography, this tome gives summaries of all of Duras's books and films and gives some details of how they came from her life: Duras was no enthusiast for biographies, and when Adler asked if she minded her writing such a book, gestured to those she'd written, as if she'd already provided enough biographical details.

To Duras, writing is an elucidation of herself, a search for the truth in its different aspects. For example, she made three versions of the story of her Chinese lover in Indochina, and although both Un barrage contre le Pacifique (1950) makes her mother appear as something like Duras's pimp, she and her opium-smoking brother both come out in a more positive light in her Goncourt-winning L'Amant (1984).

Although opium wasn't Duras's drug of course, she was a chronic alcoholic and underwent a few detoxes, the 1982 one (when she was sixty-eight) being astonishing: after drinking up to a phenomenal six to eight litres of cheap wine a day, she was rushed to the Hôpital américain de Paris in Neuilly and very nearly didn't survive. Considering that Duras went on after this episode to produce some of her most ineresting works is also phenomenal. As Adler notes elsewhere, and I translate: 'On her body she knitted a second skin of words which prevented her from dying.' What a beautiful image.

I could go on from many more words about this superb book, and haven't even mentioned her two husbands Robert Anthelme and Dionys Mascolo or her fascinating sixteen-year life with the gay and very much younger Yann Andréa, but I intend to read many more works by Marguerite Duras, as I've obviously been neglecting an important author.

18 April 2018

Claude Michelet: Rocheflame (1982)

This is a very old house, in fact a farm, on a dry plateau once called Rocheflame, but now named Rocsèche. And this story is in fact two stories, set in the fifteenth and the the twentieth centuries. The stories alternate all the way through the novel: the earlier one concerns Jehan Bonavi and his wife Catherine, and the later one Michel Delabat and his wife Françoise and family.

In some respects the story is slightly similar: Jehan is very happy farming the land but the Baron de Nillac owns the property and wants Jehan to leave it to serve as his den where he can take any beautiful girl he fancies without his wife suspecting anything; Michel also farms the land but Françoise detests the tedium and the poverty, yearns for such things as the cinema and the madness of the city, and wants to leave.

Jehan and his troubles take up much more of the book than Michel and his family, largely because of the existence of Chinglar, who is a kind of evil male witch who bears grudges, and from the beginning wants to cast a spell on de Nillac but Jehan isn't in agreement. And for this reason Jehan will have his property invaded, his cat nailed to the barn door, his peaceful dogs savaging each other, and his barley crop vandalised. Before, that is, Jehan's skilful archery can put paid to Chinglar: but at what price?

Michel has it pretty cushy by comparison: his reason tells him to go for the money, although his heart tells him he'll never leave Rocsèche. But then, Françoise's father might be able to find work for her in his business and that's little more than thirty minutes away, so maybe they can come to a compromise?

17 April 2018

Camara Laye: L'Enfant noir (1953) | The Dark Child

Laye Camara, much like Osmane Sembène, reversed his forename and surname when he became a writer. Camara Laye writes of Guinea, the country where he was born, and his strongly autobiographical first novel L'Enfant noir (1953) won the Prix Charles Veillon the following year. The first part of the novel takes place in Camara's birthplace, Kouroussa, where his father is a blacksmith.

As is not unusual in many countries, for belief in animism to co-exist with Islam (or other religions). Camara's mother in particular has supernatural gifts – she has, for instance, the ability to master horses, can turn spellmakers tricks back on them, and crocodiles will not attack her. The blacksmith takes a magic potion, and can command silence. Camara is surrounded by a ritualistic atmosphere.

 He has to face two rituals on reaching puberty, of which by far the worst is circumcision, which is supposed to make him a man. Although Laye is almost puritanical about the circumcision ceremony – he doesn't even use the words pénis or prépuce – this section is nevertheless vivid and the 'cure' lasts into the fourth week, separating the adolescent from his family and involving 'healers' to make sure that the patients don't sleep on their side and harm the injured part. Again, there is no specific mention by the author of possible erections forestalling the curing process, although it is quite clear why the boys are not allowed to look at any girls.

Then begins the process of Camara severing himself from his family by education, leaving Kouroussa to study in Conakry where he stays with his uncle's family, succeeding brilliantly and we finally see him leaving for a further education in Paris. A gem.

16 April 2018

Jean Giraudoux: La Folle de Chaillot | The Madwoman of Chaillot (1945)

Jean Giraudoux (1882–1944) died the year before his play La Folle de Chaillot (translated as The Madwoman of Chaillot) was published. General opinion seems to be that this isn't his best work, although one review thought that it's a failed masterpiece, and its Wikipédia entry (slightly oddly, I find) suggests that it is at once 'folklorique, ethnologique, écologique, politique, poétique, antipsychiatrique et d'amour'. Er, maybe.

It's also very weird, blending the surreal and the nonsensical, but then I suppose the title might suggest that anyway. The overriding impression I have of it is that it is a great criticism of the excesses of, and the insanity of, capitalism.

This is a play in two parts, the first of which takes place outside Chez Francis in the Place d'Alma, with some undesirable business terrorists plotting to blow up Paris in order to get at oil. Young Pierre is blackmailed into destroying an engineer's house, but decides to kill himself,  although he is saved before even touching the water. But this is when Aurélie, La folle de Chaillot, starts to understand what is going on.

And in the second part,  consulting the other 'madwomen' of Paris La folle de Passy, La Folle de Saint-Sulpice, and La Folle de Concorde – Aurélie convinces them that she's doing the right thing by luring the real mad people (the ruthless moneymakers) into the sewers and shutting the lid down tight over them for good.

This play is an oddity whose ethos I firmly approve of.

Jean Giraudoux's grave in the Cimetière de Passy.

15 April 2018

Marguerite Audoux: Marie-Claire | Marie Claire (1910)

This edition of Marguerite Audoux's Marie-Claire (translation title Anglicised to Marie Claire) contains a five-page Preface by Octave Mirbeau, who is full of enthusiasm for the book, the manuscript of which he read after her friend Francis Jourdain recommended him to do so.

The book is a fictionalised autobiographical account of Audoux's early life up until she leaves Sologne for Paris to begin an unknown new life, at the age of eighteen, with hardly any money.

The novel is in three parts, the first of which concerns the author's life up to the age of thirteen. Her mother died when she was a young child, and her father abandoned her and her sister. She was sent to a nearby religious boarding school-cum-orphanage attached to the (unmentioned by name) Hôpital général in Bourges. There, the narrator is fortunate enough to meet Sister Marie-Aimée, who, however, is obviously distressed to learn that the Mother Superior has assigned the narrator to a family on a farm, expecting this sensitive, bookish adolescent to learn farming skills.

Needless to say this is a disaster, although not a total one. The narrator hates the work at first and just wants to escape back to Sister Marie-Aimée, although as time progresses the farming tenants Sylvain and Pauline become more humanised. The narrator is a shepherd and has to learn the art very painfully, although she is not psychologically equipped to withstand the slaughter of animals that is going on around her, and lusts after any reading material she can find. Fortunately, the farmer's brother Eugène is of a different mould altogether, has sensitivity towards animals and reads a great deal: the narrator has found a kindred spirit, another sensitive being, someone with intellectual aspirations, and there are perhaps romantic prospects? Alas, Sylvain, Pauline and Eugène are forced to give up the tenancy.

And so to the third and final part, in which the new owners, the Alphonses, are far worse than the previous farmers, and the man never speaks directly to the narrator, and the woman – gloriously called 'la bourgeoise du château' by the labourers – is only interested in textiles, embroidery, that kind of thing. Again, it's fortunate that Henri Delois,  the brother of La bourgeoise –  is around: this time, it really does look like love. But then, the narrator is forced to insult the new farmer, Henri is forced to say they are no longer friends, and the (now) eighteen-year-old flees back to the orphanage. Where Sister Marie-Aimée is no longer a nun, where she learns of Henri's marriage, and although the narrator is for a brief spell engaged as a worker in the kitchen, she soon has to leave.

Marguerite Audoux didn't write a great number of books, but this is certainly not the last one of hers that I shall read.

14 April 2018

Thyde Monnier: Les Desmichels I : Grand-Cap (1946)

Thyde Monnier (1987–1967) – a writer I discovered when in Marseille and on visiting Allauch, where she spent five years with her first husband – left a large body of work on the sights, smells, tastes and characters of Provence. Grand-Cap is the first novel in a six-part series Les Desmichels, the others being Le Pain des pauvres, Nan le bergerLa Demoiselle, Travaux and Le Figuier stérile.

I found the book rivetting but a little uneven, and initially infuriating dense, so difficult to get into because of the various generations peopled by so many names (I'm terrible with family trees), although  eventually the deluge calmed and I could tell, er, the wood from the trees, although that's after a number of deaths a little way in. All this is evidently because Monnier had to some (maybe a large?) extent got the saga figured out in her head if not on paper.

This novel is slightly related through memory, and that largely through Arnaude's memory. Arnaude was the beautiful daughter of the (knife)grinder, an occupation considered lower than the dust, especially by the nouveau-riche (by marriage) father of Antoine, who will do anything to prevent the 'mésalliance'. Including severing him from any entitlement to his inheritance.

Nevertheless Antoine marries Arnaude, has three sons by her, a relatively brief but hard and poverty-stricken existence rich in love, but – wood here again – dies while working in the tree-cutting business. Anyway, World War I sees off one son, although the second, Félicien, just disappears. Until he returns again in secret (as a deserter) although he too soon dies, but not before unknowingly giving his younger brother a huge interest in sex.

Ollivier is a sixteen-year-old who's been excited by the nymphomaniac Nine's sexual activities with Félicien, and soon his enthusiasm in sex leads her to have him go for some time to a hotel in Toulon, where she visits him every few days for sex. But what's going on here, as Ollivier doesn't want to spend his time as a pimp, he wants to be a sailor, and his mother Arnaude, who's she?

My other Thyde Monnier post:
Thyde Monnier in Allauch

Blaise Cendrars: L'Or, La merveilleuse histoire du général Johann August Suter (1925)

One translation of Blaise Cendrars's book is called Gold: The Marvellous History of General John Augustus Sutter:  the 't' doubles in English. I've not read of Cendrars's motives for writing this fictionalised biography, but he was a lifelong friend of Auguste Suter, the Swiss sculptor, and the novel is written with great admiration for the man.

Sutter wasn't exactly a globetrotter like Cendrars, although the book takes us from his leaving his wife and family in Switzerland to emigrate to the United States, where he becomes an immensely rich businessman, but then ironically loses it all in the gold rush.

The story charts the progress of the penniless, theiving Sutter through France to the coast, where he boards a boat for North America, gets through Ellis Island, spends four years in New York learning how to survive, then greatly risks his life travelling across the continent to California, to San Francisco, or Yerba Buena as it was in the early nineteenth century, when it belonged to Mexico.

Land is dirt cheap, and Sutter buys up a large area of it, builds farms on it, maintains a number of workers, becomes a multi-millionaire, and is highly respected by all. But then when gold is discovered on his property all hell lets loose, he strives to keep his land and his business but the ruthless mob of gold seekers – coming from all parts of the country and as word spreads all parts of the world – don't respect him at all and destroy all he has, including killing two of his sons after his family leaves Switzerland to join him: his wife dies very soon after she arrives.

The latter part of Sutter's life is spent in law cases, in trying to gain some of the money he considers is rightfully his, and for much of the time he lives in poverty. He dies a broken man.

12 April 2018

Roger Peyrefitte: Les Amours singulières (1949)

Strange loves indeed. In a few introductory paragraphs to Roger Peyrefitte's Les Amours singulières, the book reveals that the two stories here, 'La Maîtresse du piano'and 'Le Baron de Gloeden', show different loves: the first destructive, the second not.

'La Maîtresse du piano' involves the young Czech Mathias, who has come to Paris to paint but ends up as a photographer. He meets the young René at art classes, and he befriends him and introduces him to his mother the piano teacher, Mme Bertin. When asked, Mathias tells René he's a virgin, whereas René startles him by saying that his mother likes him to keep her widowed friends happy, that at present he's satisfying three of them, and even that his mother fancies Mathias. Mathias says he prefers younger fare. And then they visit a widowed cousin who's deaf, ugly, walks with a stick and René reveals he lost his virginity to. Then a young couple arrive and walk around naked, and Mathias later hears them having sex with Mme Bertin. Later, he even hears René having sex with his mother.

But the story isn't really about incest or gerontophilia, it's more about moral corruption, and Mme Bertin's jealousy and greed is extremely destructive. Mme Bertin has hoped that René will marry Hélène, who's from a weathy family, but Mathias falls in love with Hélène, the feeling is reciprocated, and it's time for Mme Bertin to wreak revenge. And she does so on a huge scale, causing two suicides, one premature death, and obvious misery for the survivors.

'Le Baron de Gloeden' is also about an artist who turns photographer: in 1926, the seventy-year-old German Gloeden speaks of his past over the previous fifty years. He mentions that he visited Capri – where the gay writer Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen was exiled and about whom Peyrefitte later (in 1959) published L'Exilé de Capri – but decided that Sicily was a far more beautiful place, so settled there. It's not long before he takes up photography as a way of earning money, and continues this occupation for many years. He's particularly interested in the naked young boys around Taormina, and of course takes many photographs of them. He writes about the many customers who have come to him, including generations of the same family, and he keeps a visitors' book for them to sign. The police come to visit him as they're dubious about his photographic activities, but they can't find any wrong-doing, and none is mentioned.

The note at the end of the story made me wonder if Gloeden had in fact been a real person, and he certainly was. Peyrefitte has based it on the biography of the photographer Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856–1931), who is noted for his (non-pornographic) studies of naked boys.

Wilhelm von Gloeden (c. 1891).jpg
Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden

11 April 2018

Jean Nohain and François Caradec: Le Pétomane (1967)

I ordered the English translation of this in error, although it's hardly important because it's non-fiction (even if the story inevitably reads like fiction). Calling Nohain and Caradec the authors of the book seems a little misplaced to me: surely 'editors' would be more accurate, because most of this book is quotations from other people. The full French title is Le Pétomane, 1857-1945, sa vie, son oeuvre, and the English simply Le Pétomane: 1857-1945, whereas the awful punning on the front cover adds 'The story of an amazing man who breezed his way to fame and fortune.'

As many people are probably aware, Joseph Pujol (better known as 'Le Pétomane') was a showman who entertained in the late part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century by going on stage and farting. Well, of course there's a lot more to it than that. When going into the sea as a child on one occasion, which was a frightening experience he only took the courage to repeat while doing his national service, he came to discover that his anus could take in a large quantity of water and then expel it. Having this amount of muscle control meant that he could also take in air, so using his intestines as his chest and his anus as his mouth (by farting) he had the remarkable ability to make noises at will, to such an extent that he could play tunes by farting.

As Pujol's profession was as a baker in Marseille he was initially reluctant to exploit his farting skills, although his family managed to persuade him to put on concerts, which he began doing in Marseille to considerable success. He branched out to other towns in the Midi, such as Clermont-Ferrand, Toulon, and Toulouse until he felt confident enough to tackle Paris. He went to the Moulin Rouge and his abilities very quickly demonstrated to the co-founder Charles Zidler that Le Pétomane was a force to be reckoned with.

And he wowed the audiences with his performance, which included smoking a cigarette with a length of tube attached to his anus, snuffing a candle out from a foot away, and playing 'Au clair de la lune'. He began earning more than twice other famous performers were making, including Sarah Bernhardt. But he really wanted to break away from the Moulin Rouge and start his own travelling business up, which he did, but broke his contract and he lost a law case over it. It was the price he paid for freedom, as he immediately began the Théâtre Pompadour, a travelling show.

World War I and the chaos and calamities it brought made Pujol lose faith in continuing as an entertainer, so he returned to baking, later running a biscuit factory. He is said never to have been ill and died at 98. He is buried in the cemetery in La Valette, Var.

10 April 2018

Grégoire Bouillier: Rapport sur moi | Report on Myself (2003)

Grégoire Bouillier's Rapport sur moi (translated as Report on Myself) is certainly a remarkable book. The back cover of this poche edition claims it's not an autobiography, nor a novel, nor autofiction, but something between 'survival manual' and 'miniature Odyssey', in fact a new genre in the contemporary literary landscape. Fair words, but they butter no parsnips with me: this is a part-autobiography, so let's not pretend.

All the same, it's an interesting autobiography as we have quite a family here. Grégoire is born in Algeria, where his parents were at the time (1960) because his father was doing his service militaire there. But, as this is the time of free love and virtually anything goes, an Algerian friend of his mother and father, with whom his mother was having sex at the same time, as a threesome, may be his 'real' father.

This book is so full of coincidences, games with numbers, speculations, possibilities, with Bouillier playing his particular tune, that it can't fail to delight and annoy many people, as witnessed by the numerous positive and negative reviews it's received. It won the Flore 2002 title, though, so does it merit such a mixed reaction?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Introspective this book certainly is, but so what: all autobiographies are. But the facts don't cohere, the narrative jumps all over the place, mixing up particular periods on Bouillier's life, and it is impossible to see any sequence, the reader just sees a series of events. Humorous it definitely is though, as perhaps best seen in the description of two of the women the narrator lived with: Laurence the nymphomanic, and Fabienne in San Francisco, who took him on a nightmare drive to Mexico.

At 127 pages, Rapport sur moi is a very brief autobiographical work. But then fifteen years later Grégoire Bouillier publishes Dossier M, which is in two volumes,  each containing more than 800 pages. Shall I be reading them? The temptation is there, but I've read a few pages via Amazon, and I think I'll give them a miss.

8 April 2018

Bernard Clavel: Les Fruits de l'hiver [Vol. IV, La Grande Patience] (1968)

Set in the closing stages of World War II, Les Fruits de l'hiver is the final part of Bernard Clavel's tetralogy La Grande Patience, and at 445 pages is another of the many tomes to win the Goncourt, this time in 1968. Its two protagonists are the elderly husband and wife of the Dubois family, who are almost throughout referred to simply as 'the mother' and 'the father'. The father is seventy, and although his wife is hardly elderly at a considerably younger fifty-six, she has aged a great deal, looking and felling much older than her years.

The father (though whom the third-person narrator sees things) has one son, Paul, by an earlier marriage, and a slightly younger son Julien by his second wife. The two sons could hardly be more different from each other: Paul is a money-making grab-all who lives with his wife Micheline in Lons-le-Saunier (Jura), the same town as the mother and the father, and Paul more or less openly trades with the German occupiers; Julian, however, cares more for art than money and has deserted from the Vichy-controlled French army and is therefore a wanted man.

The central story involves the ex-baker father first in his relationship with the mother, secretly collecting his nub ends to re-roll as shortages are the order of the day; seeking out wood to heat their house; and tending his beloved garden. Life, especially in a war economy, is already difficult without the added burden of age to contend with. So of course worries predominate, including worries about where Julien is.

And then, in a slightly surreal secret homecoming, Julien re-appears at the parents' house with a skeleton he uses as an artist's model. He sees nothing unusual in this, especially as carrying the skeleton on a train is so obviously drawing attention to himself that no one can possibly think he's a member of the Resistance, can they? Perhaps not, but then the Nazis thought nothing of killing the mentallly disturbed, but fortunately this issue doesn't come into it. The main question, though, is what to do with Julien as he can't stay in a small town, especially without identity papers or food tickets. Their neighbour M. Robin has previously advised that they have a word with Vaintrenier, who tells Julien that he has the choice between joining the Resistance or opting for anonymity in a large town: he chooses to go to Lyon where he has friends, and Vaintrenier provides him with a false name, false card, and food coupons.

And so the story continues, with Julien marrying the delightful communist's daughter Françoise, the mother dying, the father enjoying a brief new lease of life, the repulsive Paul and Micheline treating the father appallingly, taking all his possessions from him, and, well, we knew more or less how it would end. This is my first Bernard Clavel book, and it certainly won't be the last. It may read in many parts like a nineteenth century novel, but this is a twentieth century update, and its principal interest is with its sympathy for the working class, for the downtrodden.

6 April 2018

René Daumal: La Grande Beuverie | A Night of Serious Drinking (1938; repr. 1966)

My translation of the back page, which sums up the content so well:

'A descent into the lower depths. René Daumal explores those of the materialist world, and also those which each one of us conceals in himself. Thoughout the drinking session, the author [well, the narrator] visits the counter-celestial Jerusalem, where the Escaped people live. Artists, scientists and fake sages get drunk on artificial paradises. Then comes the awakening. [The narrator] has to learn to understand himself better, to deepen his introspective path.'

Daumal was very much concerned with the discrepancy between words and thought, of how inadequate language is to express thoughts. La Grande Beuverie (translated as A Night of Serious Drinking) is one of the few works published in his lifetime, and is full of many quotable sentences, of which this is also mentioned on the back cover: 'Whereas philosophy teaches man how he claims to think, drinking demonstrates how he really thinks.'

The parasurrealist, novelist and poet René Daumal (1908–44) died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-six, and his health couldn't have been helped by his various experiments with drugs, including the very dangerous carbon tetrachloride.

This then, is a long drinking session, but one in which fantasy plays a great part, thus allowing Daumal to indulge in some strong satire of the present and predictions of the future, and in places reads a little like Jules Verne brought into the twentieth century. Very odd indeed.

5 April 2018

Erik Orsenna: L'Exposition coloniale (1988)

Where do you begin to describe a huge, 555-page book which is packed with often crazy characters, and that takes you on a kind of journey around the world in many years, taking in a great number of historical events?

I think the answer is to avoid being too specific, and just give a brief picture, or else it would take hundreds of words to even begin. Erik Orsenna' L'Exposition coloniale was the Goncourt winner for 1988, and is a breathless read which includes most of the protagonist Gabriel Orsenna's life, and before he was born. No, it's nothing to do with Orsenna's family, its fictitious, and in any case Erik Orsenna is a pseudonym of Éric Arnoult.

Marguerite is the grandmother who had a very brief liaison with a Mexican who swiftly dies, although the result of that is that Gabriel's father Louis is born. Louis is a much-married man who was originally a book seller (specialising in travel), and as he has few opportunities for sex elsewhere, Gabriel is conceived during a quick one when the shop is empty.

Gabriel doesn't take after his father in the sex stakes, and differs from Louis in a number of ways. Louis appears in the book episodically, even in the form of an imaginary letter at the end: this book is in part one of dreams and imagination. Ever since he was a young man, Gabriel has dreamed of the Knight sisters from when they were pre-adolescents, and when they are old enough he finds it difficult to choose between Ann or Clara. Ann later becomes a business woman, and the rather disturbed Clara is to have a brief intellectual flirtation with Freud, and then settles into taking photos of everything.

Before that, though, she marries Gabriel. Gabriel is into Auguste Compte's positivism, and also (non-sexually) into rubber: he's an expert on the subject. On his honeymoon the couple take the boat for Brazil, where Gabriel is to work on the rubber plantation. But the flighty Clara leaves him where he is as soon as they land, and Gabriel becomes catatonic in his distress for three months. Interestingly, what pulls him out of it is words from a book one of the bosses from the rubber plant gives him: the only other book of Orsenna's I've read is about the power of language: La Grammaire est une chanson douce (2001), translated as Grammar is a Gentle, Sweet Song.

Clara doesn't leave Gabriel completely, and nor does Ann, and although they remain with him only briefly, and although sex between them is very infrequent, Gabriel doesn't listen to his father's advice and continues to put up with their capricious behaviour. All through his dealings with the rubber business, which takes him to many places: L'Exposition coloniale is a mad romp through the world, the characters often larger than life, and frequently very humorous.