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Too Irishy for its own good

March 28, 2013 28 comments

Foster by Claire Keegan 2010. French title : Les trois lumières.

I bought this book on a whim, in French, something I tried to avoid when it’s Anglophone literature but sometimes I’m just too lazy to read in English.

Keegan_3_lumièresFoster is a very short book (around 80 pages) and is narrated by a child. It’s hard to say when it is set, probably before the 1970s. Her father drives her to a foreign house to spend the summer with relatives she’s never seen. The girl arrives at the house, is quickly left behind by her thoughtless father. We soon understand that her mother is pregnant again, that she’s too tired with her pregnancy, the girl’s siblings and trying to make ends meet to take care of this quiet little girl. Her father seems to be lazy, spending more time gambling than working, leaving all the farm work to his wife. This little girl arrives in a childless household and is welcomed by kind and caring foster parents. They are quite silent, willing to take care of her and she progressively adapts to her new surroundings.

Foster is a lovely book, delicate in its way of unravelling dramas and describing the bond this little girl creates with this couple. I enjoyed the descriptions of the countryside near the ocean. It’s lovely but a bit too smooth and not exactly predictable, but a bit clichéd and déjà vu. How can I explain this. First the style is too polished and even if it’s good and flowing it’s not that creative. I imagine that the translation (Belgian or Swiss, probably, I spotted a septante instead of soixante-dix, somewhere) is faithful and reflects Claire Keegan’s style.

Second, it reminded me of a comment Caroline left when I wrote about True Believers by Joseph O’Connor. She wrote “I think he writes well but some people would argue that they hate exactly this poor people’e tales because it sounds so Irish cliché.”  I didn’t think this applied to O’Connor’s short stories but perhaps it does to Foster. Just read the first paragraph:

Early on a Sunday, after first Mass in Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home drives deep into Wexford towards the coast where my mother’s people came from. It is a hot day, bright, with patches of shade and greenish, sudden light along the road. We pass through the village of Shillelagh where my father lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five, and on past the mart in Carnew where the man who won the heifer sold her shortly afterwards. My father throws his hat on the passenger seat, winds down the window, and smokes.

So we have a tired and respectful mother married to a useless man who spends the family’s money gambling, lets his pregnant wife organize farm work and housework and can’t even keep his hands off her to avoid another pregnancy since contraception isn’t an option. They live on the edge of poverty, the father doesn’t do anything at home and the mother is too overwhelmed with everything to take care of her children the way they deserve. The other couple has also lived through a traumatic experience.

I think this is too much: too much misery in a book kills compassion. I have the same feeling as when I read Hidden Lives by Sylvie Germain. The story has been seen before in a way, and well, it’s a nice read but I don’t think it’ll stay with me. If I were Irish, I’d be a bit irritated that it fosters the expected clichés about Ireland. I preferred Joseph O’Connor; his characters sounded real.

This book has glowing reviews like here or here at Delphine’s Books and More; or with reservations like here at Savidge Reads

In Sydney, the Ladies’ Paradise is named Goode’s

March 21, 2013 37 comments

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. 1993.

St_John*Sheepish*. Before starting Book Around The Corner, to me, Australia meant kangaroos, sun and INXS. Starting from nearly zero, my knowledge of the country and its literature could only improve. After reading Lisa’s review about The Women In Black, I decided I wanted to read it too and it soon joined other friends on the TBR.

The Women in Black are the salespersons at Goode’s, a department store in Sydney that can be compared to the Galeries Lafayette. They wear black clothes provided by the store. We’re in the 1950s, and we follow a group of sales clerks in the Ladies’ Frocks Department and the Model Gowns areas during a few weeks around Christmas.

Fay is 30 and still single. Patty has been married to Frank for ten years and still works since they don’t have children. Frank was a bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate. Poor Patty. Magda is an immigrant from Slovenia married to a Hungarian immigrant Stefan; she works for the Model Gowns Department and feels slightly superior. Lisa is about 18 and works at Goode’s as a temp while she’s waiting for the results of her Leaving Certificate. The novel is split into fifty-five very short chapters, sharp like scenes in a sitcom. (Fifty-five? Does the novel happen in 1955?) It has the same upbeat feeling as the Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.

For me, reading this was puzzling at times. Most of all, it’s strange to read a story around Christmas time where the characters complain about heat, go to the beach, want a bathing suit as a Christmas gift and wait for results to their exams. Try to buy a bikini in December in France. I had to research Australia on Wikipedia when the prices were mentioned in £; I was sure the money was AUD so, what was that? I discovered they changed from £ to AUD in 1966. Good to know, I like to go to bed less stupid than I got up. Then, there were the sizes of clothes!

Patty Williams’s frock was an SSW as we know, whereas Fay Baines was an SW, but Miss Jacobs was a perfect OSW, especially around the bust.

What? This sentence left me guessing the women’s figures from slimmest to fattest. I also assumed that the Leaving Certificate is the Australian equivalent to the French baccalauréat.

Another interesting aspect was the attitude toward European immigrants. Well, not all of them, Continentals. I’ve never heard that word used in other circumstances than followed by breakfast. I suppose it covers immigrants from Europe that are neither British nor Irish. They live in different neighbourhoods, eat different food and don’t expect to marry outside of their community. Except for Rudi, Madga and Stefan’s friend, who wants to marry a real Australian girl.

I don’t know Madeleine St John, but I’m sure of one thing: she speaks French. Stefan, Rudi and Magda used to communicate in French before switching to English after they immigrated to Australia. Their English is tainted with mistakes Francophones make when they speak English, like “I am enchanted to meet you” or “I can recommend the chocolate pudding here, it is formidable.” Formidable sounds like a faux ami; in French, it means fantastic, not dreadful, unless you also use formidable while meaning awesome? Madga often includes French words and expressions in her sentences although I suspect it is more out of snobbery. After all, she works in the Haute Couture section of the store, she needs to have class! However Ms St John uses French words or references in her descriptions, as in “Up here, all was luxe, calme et volupté, with nice pink lights and pink-tinted mirrors which made you look just lovely, and the thick grey silence underfoot of finest Axminster.” Luxe, calme et volupté comes from a poem by Baudelaire, L’invitation au voyage.

The novel speaks about another era, at least for Australia and other Western countries. Lisa’s father doesn’t want her to go to university, even if she has stunning grades and a full scholarship. She’s a girl, what’s the point? Here is Patty’s doctor about her childlessness:

The physician regarded his patient with some despair. It was too bad. Here was a woman well into her childbearing years with no baby to nurse: it was entirely unnatural. She had lost all her bloom and was therefore not likely to attract another man who might accomplish the necessary so if her husband failed to come up to scratch her life would be wasted. It was too bad, it really was.

What is she? A cow?

The department store closes at mid-day on Saturdays and all the shops are closed during the weekend. Sydney is a dead city until Monday. We forget that there were times when you couldn’t shop on Saturday afternoons. Patty will stop working if she can prove her usefulness and get pregnant. Rudi is always happy and the reader can only suspect that he’s seen so horrible things before leaving Hungary for Australia that he’s grateful to just be alive and free. Other problems are mere inconveniences.

All these details just show you how much I enjoyed reading The Women in Black. I needed a light and funny read after Under the Volcano and I got a good one. Thanks Lisa. I’ll read That Deadman Dance that you virtually gave me for Christmas in a few weeks.

You can find another review HERE, in French, from a French blogger who now lives in Australia.

No se peude vivir sin amar

March 17, 2013 14 comments

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry 1947 French title: Sous le volcan

Under the volcano! It was not for nothing the ancients had placed Tartarus under Mt. Aetna, nor within it, the monster Typhoeus, with his hundred heads and—relatively—fearful eyes and voices.

After a disconcerting first billet about Under the Volcano, this is my attempt at writing a sensible one. I still have Pulque, mescal y tequila playing in my head as I try to collect my thoughts. I started reading that masterpiece without knowing anything about it, apart from the difficult masterpiece tag.

Under the Volcano is located in Mexico, precisely in small town named Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead, November 2. On that very day of 1939, M Laruelle recalls the drama that occurred the same day the year before. The novel tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, the alcoholic British consul in position in this little town. His wife left him the year before and on that day of November 2, 1938, she comes back to him. It is also the day that Hugh Firmin, the Consul’s half-brother returns to town too. Geoffrey expected Hugh, but not Yvonne. The novel relates that day, the day these four people with intertwined lives gather again and try to communicate and interact with one another.

The Consul is an alcoholic and his disease impacts the lives of the ones who love him. Yvonne loves him madly, would like to save him but is at loss what to do. She tried to leave to save herself or him.

Yet they had loved one another! But it was as though their love were wandering over some desolate cactus plain, far from here, lost, stumbling and falling, attacked by wild beasts, calling for help– dying, to sigh at last, with a kind of weary peace: Oaxaca.

Everything but the first chapter happens the same day. The narrative alternates between M Laruelle, the Consul, Yvonne and Hugh. Each of them ruminates about their life and the reader discovers about their past lives and their current predicaments and anguish. (What was life but a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn?)

The Consul is the main character. Laruelle is his childhood friend, Yvonne is his wife, Hugh is his half-brother. The chapters where the reader sees the event through the Consul’s eyes are the most difficult. Because he’s drunk and Lowry manages to put you into the mind of the drunkard like no other writer does. I felt a lot of sympathy for the Consul’s struggles.

The Consul felt with his right hand his left bicep under his coat. Strength—of a kind—but how to give oneself courage? That fine droll courage of Shelley’s; no, that was pride. And pride bade one go on, either go on and kill oneself, or “straighten out,” as so often before, by oneself, with the aid of thirty bottles of beer and staring at the ceiling. But this time it was very different. What if courage here implied admission of total defeat, admission that one couldn’t swim, admission indeed (though just for a second the thought was not too bad) into a sanatorium? No, to whatever end, it wasn’t merely a matter of being “got away”. No angels nor Yvonne nor Hugh could help him here. As for the demons, they were inside him as well as outside; quiet at the moment—taking their siesta perhaps—he was nonetheless surrounded by them and occupied; they were in possession.

He tries to keep up appearances but his vision of reality is blurred. The pages of his delirium tremens are amazing; you’re there, in his head, seeing the world through his blurred and confused mind. He wants to make a decision, but he needs a drink first. He hides bottles everywhere. He wants to resist but cannot. The booze comes first, whatever the situation, even if his life is at stake.

For him life is always just around the corner, in the form of another drink at a new bar.

Hugh is also an interesting character. He’s a product of the 1930s, he’s probably read La condition humaine by Malraux He comes from a wealthy family, tries to be a songwriter, decides to be a sailor to piss his family off and much to his dismay, they don’t fight against it. He becomes a journalist, covering wars and especially the Spanish Civil War. He’s into a bolshevist or communist (whatever the right term is) movement and supports the Spanish Republicans. I suspect Lowry put a part of himself in Hugh, just as he put his experience with alcohol into the Consul.

Lowry excels at describing landscapes (as in the quote in my previous post) and at creating bonds between his characters and their surroundings.

There was something in the wild strength of this landscape, once a battlefield, that seemed to be shouting at him, a presence born of that strength whose cry his whole being recognized as familiar, caught and threw back into the wind, some youthful password of courage and pride–the passionate, yet so nearly always hypocritical, affirmation of one’s soul perhaps, he thought, of the desire to be, to do, good, what was right. It was as though he were gazing now beyond this expanse of plains, and beyond the volcanoes out to the wide rolling blue ocean itself, feeling it is his heart still, the boundless impatience, the immeasurable longing.

The volcanoes are characters themselves, the landscape interacts with the humans living there. Does it come from his reading of Indian legends and cosmology? Like here, about a storm:

Up in the mountains two drunken gods standing far apart were still engaged in an endlessly indecisive and wildly game of bumblepuppy with a Burmese gong.

 Under the Volcano is also about politics. The story takes place in November 1938 and the political context of the 1930s is both present in the background and plays deus ex-machina. It’s set during the Battle of the Ebro, the decisive battle in the Spanish Civil War. Franco ruled the country after that. This war made people pick a side in other countries too and it weighed on local political contexts. It filters through the pages.

The poultry was a sad sight. All alike had submitted to their fate; hens, cocks, and turkeys, whether in their baskets, or still loose. With only an occasional flutter to show they were alive they crouched passively under the long seats, their emphatic spindly claws bound with cord. Two pullets lay, frightened and quivering, between the hand brake and the clutch, their wings linked with the levers. Poor things, they had signed their Munich agreement too. One of the turkeys even looked remarkably like Neville Chamberlain.

In addition to the Spanish Civil War, Lowry evokes the Jews and anti-Semitism and the situation in Germany. The political context in Mexico also plays a role. The communist ideas are spreading; Hugh is involved in political movements. I’m not qualified to discuss this and I actually missed most of the political references mentioned. I don’t know anything about the history of Mexico and I don’t remember much about the Spanish Civil War although I plan on reading about it later. (I have Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Geroges Bernanos on the shelf.) I decided not to research this aspect of Under the Volcano. Yes, it’s frustrating sometimes not to understand all the political implications of the novel but a reader can enjoy it without that. The content is rich enough and the style is so breathtaking that it doesn’t matter. At least, it didn’t matter to me.

Under the Volcano is full of literary references, questions about the meaning of life.

Yes, indeed, how many patters of life were based on kindred misconceptions, how many wolves do we feel on our heels, while our real enemies go in sheepskin by?

You can find useful explanations about the references here. (Leroy, if you read this, thanks for the link)

Lowry’s language is his own and sometimes a strange pix-and-mix of English, French and Spanish. His sense of English grammar and use of vocabulary can drive MS Word’s spelling and grammar check tool go wild with green and red waves. I don’t speak Spanish but I discovered I’m not that bad at guessing the meaning of the sentences sown in the text. Thank God for seven years of learning Latin in school. I suppose it helps being French, especially for sentences like this one: The Consul decapitated a dusty coquelicot poppy growing by the side of the gutter with his stick. A coquelicot is a red poppy. The dialogues with Spanish native speakers attempting at English are funny.

You were so perfectamente borracho last night I think you must have killèd yourself with drinking. I think even to send a boy after you this morning to knock your door, and find if drinking have not killèd you already.

It’s an untamed flow, a new way of disposing of words. Lowry can write proustian two-pages digressions between brackets. His sentences are long, full of strings of adjectives, propositions. I don’t have the words to describe it, suffice to say it’s different from any other writer. Was he influenced by Virginia Woolf? I’ll leave the analysis of his astounding style to specialists.

On a personal level, several coincidences pulled me toward Under the Volcano. Details kept on bringing back fond memories. M. Laruelle comes from Moselle, like me. I bought my copy during an extraordinary trip to New York with colleagues; I was in a bookstore while they were queuing at Abercrombie and they thought I was nuts to prefer books to shirtless salesmen. I spent my honeymoon in Bristish Columbia, so I loved the descriptions of the region by Hugh and Yvonne when she imagines living there with Geoffrey. And last, but not least, Huston, who directed the film Under the Volcano also directed The Roots of Heaven.

I hope I did better in this billet than in the previous one. Let’s face it, Under the Volcano is a difficult read but please, try it.

PS: I have a special message for the writer Emilie de Turckheim and to the question she left in the comments of my billet Promising French women writers, they say. She wrote “Take Under the Volcano, read it as if you were reading a foreign language, and tell me if it wasn’t worth disturbing the dust on your shelf !”  You are so right. It was more than worth it.

The Seagull was staged like a clumsy albatross

March 8, 2013 15 comments

The Seagull by Anton Chekov 1895. French title: La Mouette.

Theatre_CélestinsA couple of weeks ago, I watched The Seagull at the theatre and was disappointed. Usually, I forget quickly what I didn’t like but here it’s been on my mind since that day. I thought I’d try to write about it to find out why it didn’t fade away.

The Seagull is a play Chekhov wrote in 1895 and it was first staged in 1896. It is set in the country, in a dacha. The owner is Sorine and his sister Irina is arriving soon with her current lover Boris. Her son Treplieff is an aspiring playwright. He’s put on his play for the first time; the lead actress is Nina, the daughter of a local landowner. Treplieff and Nina are in love; she’s an aspiring actress. Treplieff is anxious to show his play to his mother and Boris for Irina is a successful theatre actress and Boris a famous novelist. The play is bombastic, Irina can’t hide her irritation and her amusement; Treplieff is devastated. Meanwhile Boris is attracted to Nina and she’s bewitched by the attention she gets from such a great man. The two first acts end with Irina and Boris going back to the city and Nina following them to be an actress and Boris’s mistress. Treplieff stays behind, devastated.

The two last acts happen two years later when the same group of people meets again at Sorin’s. What happened in their lives during these two years slowly unravels and leads to an inevitable drama.

Several threads are intertwined in the play. One is the difficult relationship between Treplieff and his mother. He’s the son of a star and he feels he will never compare to her and lacks tremendously of self-confidence. Her careless way of treating him doesn’t help strengthening his ego. The exchanges between mother and son are painful; the love they feel for each other never manages to cover the pain Irina inflicts on Treplieff. Chekhov seems to say: “Hey, she’s an actress. By definition, she’s selfish, self-centered and needs all the attention drawn to her. She can’t bear that Boris looks at someone else. How can he set his mind on someone else when he has the star? She can’t wish the best to her son, encourage him to write, consider he could be talented. He could outshine her, be a brighter star than her. How awful.”

A second thread is unrequited love. Treplieff still loves Nina when he sees her again two years after she left him for Boris. Several second characters love the wrong person and are terribly miserable. It reminded me of classic plays by Shakespeare or Corneille or Racine. These people don’t have a crush on the wrong person; they pine for them forever and settle for dull marriages. They accept their fate and the one who doesn’t ends up badly. Chekhov seems to say “Poor of them. Loving someone who doesn’t love you back is a curse. How do you eradicate feelings? How do you live your life knowing you’ll never be with the partner your heart chose?”

A third one is thoughts about theatre, its need to be reinvented. It’s also about writing as Treplieff first finds Boris’s prose quite simple, not elaborated enough. He thinks his fame is overrated. Two years after, he reconsiders his judgement. Chekhov seems to say “It requires a lot of gift to ally simplicity and style. Behind the apparent easy flow of words is either a remarkable gift and/or a lot of work.” Something I totally agree with as I particularly like uncomplicated sentences with common language but with powerful images. Boris, as a writer, is constantly taking notes. He’s like a Japanese tourist with a camera: they seem to live their journey through the lens of their camera instead of enjoying it and making mental pictures and three dimensional memories. Boris lives his life through a notebook; he notes down moments and feelings he captures for future use in his writing. As a writer, he’s like an observer and he’s totally dominated by Irina and smitten with Nina. He’s a gifted writer but he writes better than he lives his life.

The text manages to knit these threads together, to lead the spectator through a story and spread ideas. So the disappointment didn’t come from the text but entirely from the production. Part of the cast was in cause. Nicole Garcia played Irina and Magne-Håvard Brekke was Boris. She talks in a clipped Parisian way and he’s got Norwegian accent. He’s got a haircut à la Bernard-Henri Lévy and she acted like the actress Arielle Dombasle, who’s Lévy’s partner. They sounded wrong, all along. It didn’t help that the strong Norwegian accent reminded me of Dave, an old singer of Dutch origin; I was there with my sister and a friend, they had the same thought. Wrong cast for two important roles.

And then the production. It was staged with heavy décors. They glided on rails and consisted in full decorated rooms. They weren’t useful to the acting; they caught the spectator’s attention for nothing and were detrimental to the play. The first act was in a garden where the stage for Treplieff’s play had been installed. Did we need full rooms of the house in the background? They were used in the two last acts of the play and I found myself watching stage helps moving the décors during a scene instead of concentrating on the text. I found it annoying. In my opinion, this play deserved a light décor suggesting the garden, the rooms and letting the full power of Chekov’s words sink in the spectator’s mind. I would have preferred a production like the one Declan Donnellan did for Macbeth, light and classy. It left me frustrated and that’s probably why it lingered on my mind like a missed opportunity.

Too bad for Chekov.

Pulque, mescal y tequila

March 5, 2013 16 comments

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry 1947

Lowry_Under_VolcanoWhen I was a teenager, my friend and I used to listen to Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine. A lot. As I’m not getting younger, this was pre-internet age and the well-cultured references included in his songs left us with a lot of questions. With no answers, most of the time, since you couldn’t google things. Asking your parents wasn’t safe because you didn’t really want them to listen to all the lyrics that guy wrote. Let’s say he provided me with the appropriate soundtrack for Naked Lunch when I read it and could teach Ms James kinky ideas about lavatories or had creative visions about how the Holy Spirit could hurt his balls with a motorcycle. I loved his album Eros Über Alles and the song Pulque, mescal y tequila is where I first heard of Malcolm Lowry. The song was stored somewhere in my memory and I had a kind of Proustian moment when I started reading Under the Volcano. It happened page 1 when Lowry mentions the Hotel Casino de la Selva and the song came back suddenly and stayed with me. At least I understand the lyrics now.

I haven’t finished Under the Volcano, I’m only around page 110 of a book that counts roughly 400 pages but I wanted to share my first impressions about it. Actually, I feel I’m under the volcano myself. I mean, under a flow of hot lava of words coming from a writer who uses the language in a different way. It’s hard to describe. It’s cinematographic, I feel I’m there.

The leaves of cacti attracted with their freshness; green trees shot by evening sunlight might have been weeping willows tossing in the gusty wind which had sprung up; a lake of yellow sunlight appeared in the distance below pretty hills like loaves. But there was something baleful now about the evening. Black clouds plunged up to the south. The sun poured molten glass on the fields. The volcanoes seemed terrifying in the wild sunset.

I’m reading it in English and it’s difficult but I’ve heard it’s difficult for English-speaking readers too. But still, I won’t read it in translation, his style is so unique that I don’t want the interference of a translator, as good as they may be. I enjoyed the English tainted with French or Spanish of the first dialogues.

I have trouble building coherent thoughts about what I’ve read so far. I’m stunned by the prose, the atmosphere. It’s haunting, inebriating, and powerful. I’m in the middle of sensations from every page: sounds, images, poetry.

I’m struggling to wrap my head around the relationships between the characters. I regret that I don’t know more about the politics in the 1930s and especially the Spanish Civil War. I’m thinking about Ulysses and I wonder why since I haven’t read the book. Perhaps it’s because everything happens in the same day. It brings back passages from Hiroshima, Mon amour by Marguerite Duras because of the dialogue about a place:

–          “Remember Oaxaca?”
–          “– Oaxaca? –“
–          “– Oaxaca – “
–          “Oaxaca”

And it’s stupid because Hiroshima, mon amour was written after Under the Volcano. Unless Duras was inspired by Lowry.

I find in there the strength of Jack London in The Road, the appetite for life from of Cannery Row. There’s also the wild currents of life and destruction we’ll find again in On the Road. Something of the colonial atmosphere you find in books or films set in France’s colonies in Africa. The booze, the strangeness of being in a country that isn’t yours, the alien traditions of the locals, the tension, the small circles. There’s something like this in The Roots of Heaven too. It reminds me of a film by Almodovar.

I guess this ramble doesn’t help you figuring out what the book is all about. I promise I’ll write a proper billet about it. With descriptions of the characters, an idea of the plot. But now, there’s no room for sensible organization of my thoughts, just feelings and impressions.

It’s going to take a long time to read it but I’m not giving up. And that Thiéfaine connection just added to my determination.

Consequences by Philippe Djian

March 2, 2013 24 comments

Incidences by Philippe Djian 2010 English title : Consequences (Sept. 2013)

Dieu sait vers quoi notre vie nous porte, Annie, Dieu sait ce qu’on récolte au bout du compte. On décide de choisir la facilité et soudain tout se complique. On passe le plus clair de son existence à payer pour ses erreurs, vous savez, ce n’est pas moi qui l’ait inventé. On peut le vérifier chaque jour. God knows where our life leads us, Annie, God knows what we get in the end. We choose the easy way and suddenly everything gets complicated. We spend most of our existence atoning for our mistakes, you know, I didn’t invent this. We can see this every day. (Sorry, no professional translation available.)

I believe every reader has their “comfort” writers, ones they enjoy and turn to when then they when to be sure to read something good. Philippe Djian is one of my comfort writers; I’ve been reading him since adolescence. I wrote a billet about Unforgiveable, but for the rest, I read them pre-blog. He’s not very famous in the English-speaking world, I believe, except for Betty Blue, which was made into a film.

Incidences starts with Marc driving his Fiat 500 at night on a small lacy road in the mountains. He teaches creative writing at the local university and is a womanizer. Or more precisely, he enjoys discreet no-strings-attached sex with some of his students. This particular night, he’s bringing Barbara home for a booty call. The next morning, there’s a slight glitch in his usual routine: Barbara is dead. Instead of following the conventional path and call the police, he decides to haul the body in the mountain and ditch it in a crevasse.

The next day at work, he is interviewed by a policeman about Barbara’s sudden disappearance and seems to get away with it. Myriam, Barbara’s step-mother, comes to see him to hear about Barbara and discuss her with him. They are attracted to each other and start a steamy relationship.

Despite Marc’s carefulness, everything goes downhill from there on.

Marc is 53 and lives with his older sister Marianne, also a teacher at the same university. They have a muddy relationship, coming from a dreadful childhood tainted with violence and abuse. A drama that was never healed happened and the reader discovers progressively the extents of the damages. Marianne and him have put together a way of living that allow them to cope with the past and take care of each other. With Myriam in the picture and Richard, the president of the university coming on to Marianne, their careful balance is shattered.

When you read my summary, it seems quite a classic novel but it isn’t. From the beginning, the reader can feel that Marc isn’t a reliable narrator, that his reactions are out of line, that something’s off in his behavior. Is he sane? The women in his life are his curse: his abusive mother, his fragile sister, his forbidden young lovers and his unquenchable lust for Myriam.

Marc is a cold character, one that makes you feel uneasy, not a mind you’re happy to visit. He doesn’t trust the police and is ready to anything to save himself. He’s like an animal, his survival instinct overcomes all sense of propriety or of moral code. He has a hard time with the stiff conservatism of the university and his affairs with students don’t help his case.

Les professeurs pouvaient s’accoupler aux professeurs, ça ne posait aucun problème, l’exercice était même amplement pratiqué dans les environs, voire encouragé, mais en revanche les professeurs ne pouvaient pas s’accoupler avec les étudiants ni avec les parents d’élèves. C’était la loi. Personne ne voulait d’ennui. Personne ne songeait à mélanger les genres. Aucun membre sensé de la communauté. Teachers could mate with teacher, that wasn’t a problem, the exercise was by the way widely practiced in the area or even encouraged. But teachers couldn’t mate with students or their parents. It was the law. Nobody was seeking trouble. Nobody thought about mixing genres. No sensible member of this community. (Sorry, no professional translation available.)

Djian_incidencesMixing genres is exactly what Marc does and also exactly what Djian is doing in this novel. I haven’t read a lot of Noir but I’ve read enough of Guy’s reviews to recognize the pattern in a book. This is classic Noir to me: a lethal woman unfurling her sexuality to a man who cannot resist, a dramatic event that shakes the hero’s carefully built life, the past looming and threatening, a character who doesn’t make the right decision. He’s doomed from the start and the tension builds up as his life gets more and more complicated as the events develop. The reader is attached to the book with a suspenseful string, knows it can only end badly but wonder how bad it will be and what kind of bad it will be.

Djian’s style is excellent, as usual or at least, I enjoy his style. Contrary to Unforgivable which was too rooted in today’s society for its own good, this one has a sense of timelessness that helps books surviving the time they were released. I love the cover of the book as it represents well the physical crevasse where Marc throws Barbara’s body and the figurative fault-line that this event and his subsequent acquaintance with Myriam create in his life.Once again, Djian didn’t let me down, I wanted to read something good, I did. I also have Vengeance at home and I can’t wait to read his latest, Oh! which received a lot of praise when it was published last fall.

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