29 September 2020

Laurent Mauvignier: Histoires de la nuit (2020)

Laurent Mauvignier's Histoires de la nuit was published earlier this month and isn't among the fifteen novels long-listed for the Prix Goncourt, although that rather surprises me. And although this is a psychological thriller, it bears the mark of Mauvignier's other books in many ways: pointilliste writing, trauma and the unspoken at the fore, and the psychology of the characters foregrounded to the actions. All the same, there is much action here, but even that is crammed into less than forty-eight hours in a 635-page novel, so this is Mauvignier's longest by far.

The hamlet La Bassée has come up as a name a few times before in Mauvignier's work, and here virtually all the action takes place in it. Patrice Bergogne, whose two brothers have left the farm after his father's death, has decided to continue the family business and lives in the hamlet with his wife Marion (found on the internet, much to his delight) and ten-year-old daughter Ida. Marion is six years younger than him, has studied printing and works for a printing company in the small (pop.  3000) town nearby and will shortly be celebrating her fortieth birthday.

There's an empty property for sale in the hamlet which the Bergognes are selling, although so far only a few Dutch and English have shown any interest, but eventually backed out. La Bassée really is almost in the middle of nowhere, which is why it has appealed to Christine, a Parisian artist of 67 who likes the anonymity of the place, and who is often driven into town by 'Bergogne' as she calls him, whom she sees almost as a son. The story – and there very certainly is one, although it is deliciously, tantalisingly drawn out in the minutest of detail – begins with a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin in which Bergogne once more has taken Christine to the police station to lodge a complaint about an anonymous threatening letter she's received, which (like the former ones) is increasingly menacing. But that's more or less all we hear of the letters, although they remain in the background for some time.

And then Marion's past revisits her, in the terrifying shape of a trio of brothers: by age downwards, Denis, Christophe and Bègue. In dribbles, we learn of Marion's past in a place 500 kilometres away, of the life she ran away from, of her sexual promiscuity, the drugs she took, her life with the violent Denis, her being an accomplice with him in a killing but escaping imprisonment, of her escape (pregnant with Ida) to another life while he spent ten years behind bars. Daddy Denis has come back for revenge.

As I said in the first paragraph, trauma is one of Mauvignier's preoccupations: Marion has had a miserable childhood, and her penniless, alcoholic mother slashed her wrists in the bathroom of a hotel she couldn't afford; Bergogne has been taught by his parents to be completely selfless, only to care for the interests of others, and after two rather fruitless relationships he marries a woman who wants to flee from her past and doesn't believe in love; Bègue has a history of psychiatric illness and is used by his brothers; Christine is escaping from the cultureless idiots in Paris who would rather talk about the quality of the champagne at her exhibitions than her paintings, etc.

And then there's the unspoken, which is so deafening in Mauvignier's work: Bergogne's sexless marriage and his resort to prostitutes; Marion's silence about her past; Christine's blanking out of previous married lovers to the police, which may have provided them with motives for the poison pen letters; Ida's silence to anyone because who would believe a ten-year-old?, etc.

The title Histoires de la nuit relates to the bedtimes stories Marion tells her daughter, also of course to the stories the reader learns on the night of Marion's blood-drenched birthday, and to the histories of the protagonists. This is a masterly performance by Mauvignier, although perhaps slightly overdone: the ending is full of violent horror, the baddies get their just deserts, on the plus side we're not too sure about the ultimate survival of Christine and Marion, but Ida as deus ex machina is surely a little clichéd? I loved it, but as it's so packed with suspense and blood I can't help thinking that Mauvignier is going for the money.

24 September 2020

François Bégaudeau: Dans la diagonale (2005)

Dans la diagonale is written by the writer of the novel Entre les murs (The Class), which was published the year after this novel (2006) and adapted to the cinema, for which it won director Laurent Cantet the best film award of Cannes in 2008. The film Entre les murs is even well known in England, which is relatively rare for a French film. The book Dans la diagonale, on the other hand, is little known to any French people. And after wading though it, I can quite understand why.

Dans la diagonale is written in a truncated, telegraphic fashion with verbs usually omitted, sometimes with many pages with no sentence or paragraph breaks, just strings of phrases making very little sense. In a word, it's a mess, and the lack of reviews of the novel are surely testimony to its almost total failure to engage the reader.

The story, such as it is: the narrator, who only uses the first person in the opening section to reply to a few questions, and his name appears to be Teddy. To the narrator's horror, he is hailed in the street by an old schoolmate Jacques, who invites him to a party he's having with his wife Anabelle. The narrator feels obliged to go and hitches there, subjecting the reader to the comments of the various drivers made on his way.

When the narrator arrives the scene seems to be something out of a Buñuel film, with gluttony, heavy drinking and sexual lust coming to the fore: so could this be a satire on the bourgeoisie, with added criticisms of the way people from the south of France speak in extra syllables, or others denote expressions in 'speech marks' at the side of their ears, etc? If so the joke wears thin after a while and the reader gets sick of the constant repetition. This is all played out against a backdrop of TV footage of the war on Iraq and music from Alain Bashung, The Strokes and Green Day but not (as one guest would have liked), Édith Piaf.

And the party develops into some kind of orgy and the narrator is accused of raping Annabelle, to which he won't admit. I could go on but let's just say that François Bégaudeau is very far from being James Joyce. Not a disaster novel but a disastrous one. 'Je m'en lave les mains'.*

*Alain Bashung, 'La nuit je mens'.

22 September 2020

Greater White-Fronted Goose, Manor Park, Glossop, Derbyshire (UK)

 And a greater white-fronted goose, also in Manor Park, Glossop, Derbyshire.

Ancona Duck, Manor Park, Glossop, Derbyshire (UK)

A solitary ancona duck spotted in Manor Park, Glossop, Derbyshire among the many Canada geese, mallards and winter-plumaged black-headed gulls. We'd normally be in France in September, but...

16 September 2020

Auguste Rodin's Les bourgeois de Calais, Pas-de-Calais (62)

This statue, Les Bourgeois de Calais in front of the mairie in Calais, was sculpted by Auguste Rodin in bronze in 1895, and it is the first of twelve originals. The figures are Eustache de Saint Pierre, Jacques and Pierre de Wissant, Jean de Fiennes, Andrieu d'Andres and Jean d'Aire, the six city leaders who in 1347 surrendered to the English king, Edward III, in return for him saving the city during the Hundred Years' War. A very powerful creation.

Sand sculptures in Calais, Pas-de-Calais (62)

Definitely time that I finished the blog posts from our last visit to France (July to August) as I've been spending too much time looking into Marie NDiaye, Samuel Beckett and Éric Chevillard. So here goes with Calais, working back in time in general. Sand sculptor Franck De Conynck was commissioned to make sand sculptures of Calais's principal features. Barriers weren't initially put up to protect them, although they were later, and when the artist returned to complete another sculpture he'd correct the damage that the weather had done. I missed the sculpture of Les Bourgeois (the real bronze sculpture of which I'll make a post of next), and we weren't in time to see Conynck's last sculpture near the dragon.

L'Église de Notre-Dame in front of the mairie.

L'Hôtel de Ville in the Place Marechal Foch in front of le Parc Richelieu.

And the Théâtre de Calais near the Tour du guet, with the sculpture of De Gaulle with his wife Yvonne, who was born in Calais in 1900.

9 September 2020

Various: Une nuit à l'hôtel (2019)

This is a collection of eleven short stories, all written by prominent authors, and all having a night in a hotel as the theme. We need books like this, which give us not only an idea of what authorial talent is around, but also perhaps a hint of who we'd like to read more of, or not at all. I particularly appreciated the stories by Cécile Coulon, Nina Bouraoui, Adeline Dieudonné, Franck Bouysse and Négar Djavani.

The stories:

Cécile Coulon, 'Madame Andrée' –  A woman goes to a hotel to have a lesson on playing the flute from her former teacher, although everything is in her mind.

Serge Joncour, 'Une nuit, presque à l'hôtel'  – A man sleeps in a deckchair by the hotel swimming pool because, well, he can't stand duvets: he's an eiderdown salesman.

Nina Bouraoui, 'Une nuit à Timinoun– A woman with homosexual sympathies admires a young female guest in a hotel after fleeing from her husband, children, and the asphyxiating normality.

Silvain Prudhomme, 'La Femme au couteau– A guy remembers his university back-backing days, particularly staying in a bug-ridden hotel and being greeted by a woman with a knife.

Adeline Dieudonné, 'Alika– The hell of a child minder from the Philippines come to France to what amounts to slavery.

Franck Bouysse, 'Ma Lumière– A clever young boy lives in hotels with his mother who perhaps works as a cleaner, but also as a prostitute.

Négar Djavani, 'Le Dernier– After twenty-two years a cop tracks down a serial killer who has set up a new life in Buenos Aires.

Caryl Férey, 'Juste pour un jour– The punk era by the Berlin wall, the title of course being a translation from David Bowie's 'Heroes'.

Ingrid Astier, 'Fil de soie– A man, dumped by his girlfriend, arrives at a hotel where there's a 'telepathic' barman.

Régis Jauffret, '¡Alzheimer! ¡Que buéno! Y Macrón! ¡También!'  – An insane rant from a hotel (or psychiatric hospital?) in which virtually every sentence ends in an exclamation mark!

Valérie Zénatti, 'Le Miroir de Cirta– A young French woman traces her mother's and her grandmother's Algeria, before they were forced to emigrate to France.

6 September 2020

Jean Echenoz: Envoyée spéciale (2016)

In Lac (1999) Jean Echenoz wrote a kind of parody of the espionage novel, and after some time dabbling with biographical novels returned to espionage here, although with a difference, as it doesn't read as if it's a parody, and much more is involved here: the spy story just seems a starting point for Echenoz to weave a very complicated web in which the 'story' becomes a number of interrelated stories in which there are occasional digressions made gratuitously by the narrator, who is sometimes 'I', or 'we' or 'you', etc.

It's pretty impossible to sum this novel up without writing a great deal, and in any case that wouldn't make a great deal of sense because of its complex nature: there are a large number of character studies here, although that's the wrong expression because we only see parts of a person. Let's say we just see certain facets of the characters' personalities.

The novel begins with the ageing General Bourgeaud of some kind of secret police telling his much younger worker Paul Objat (later named Victor for anonymity) that he needs a woman, and Paul saying he does too, but that's being facetious because Bourgeaud's reasons are professional and Paul's are sexual. Yes, Bourgeaud needs a woman to spy, but a woman who knows nothing about spying. Paul thinks he knows the woman (although he's never spoken to her) and she (the paradoxically-named Constance) is kidnapped outside the Cimetière de Passy near Trocadéro – the first part is a second nature for those familiar with Paris – where the novel will end in a kind of circle via Creuse (the second least populated département in France) and Pyongyang.

Creuse is where we have the development of both Stockholm syndrome and its opposite Lima syndrome, where the abducted (Constance) sides with her abductors (Jean-Pierre, Christian and Victor), and vice versa. And things are in part played out in South Korea, where Gang is ready to defect, but.

There is a whole, er, gang of other characters here, killings, social bondings, eccentricities and so on, but I'll leave it at that or it might risk becoming too complicated. This is a gripping book, full of twists and turns, and has to be read in a short space of time or you might lose the thread(s).

Éric Chevillard: Sans l'orang-outan (2007)

Éric Chevillard's Sans l'orang-outan has been said to be his most political novel, and that is perfectly understandable: it depicts a world – very sadly probably not that far from us in time – when the orangutan will no longer exist, when it will be as dead as a dodo, or a glyptodon.

Sans l'orang-outan is in three parts, in the first of which the narrator Albert Moindre (a favourite character for Chevillard, and his surname – 'moindre', meaning 'slightest' or 'least', is a favourite word) – learns that the last two orangutans, Bagus and Mina, have died of a virus. Moindre works in the zoo and everyone is devastated by the news. 

The second part goes crazy, and the narrator is plunged into a barren, meaningless, hellish violent world in which almost any hope of humanity, any hope at all in fact, is virtually non-existent. All because the orangutan has gone. This part is very similar in theme and tone to Chevillard's next novel, Choir (2010), and could very easily be viewed as a precursor to it.

The third part, as well as reminding us of the disappearing forests causing the orangutans to lose their habit for the increasing use of palm oil,  plunges us into surrealism: Bagus and Mina have been stuffed, and as a reminder of what has been lost Albert Moindre has their remains displayed in a glass case for all to see. There are also very odd remarks that he makes about his sexual attraction to them, which reminds me of Joseph's behaviour in Marie Nimier's La Girafe (1987).

Sans l'orang-outan can be seen as a symbol of impending ecological catastrophe or by extension of humanity's insensitivity to anything other than profit. It is a genuine horror story.