Archive

Archive for the ‘French Literature’ Category

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel – Superb and surprising

January 2, 2020 28 comments

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel (2005) Original French title: La petite fille de Monsieur Linh

Before writing anything about Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel, let’s talk about the French and English titles. In French, it is La petite fille de Monsieur Linh. Since there is no hyphen between “petite” and “fille”, it means Monsieur Linh’s little girl and not Monsieur Linh’s granddaughter. The English publisher chose Monsieur Linh and His Child and I wonder why they picked “child” instead of “little girl”. But back to the book.

Monsieur Linh is an immigrant from Vietnam, probably one of the boat people. We never know exactly where he comes from. He left his home after his family was attacked. He’s an old man and he’s disoriented by his journey. He arrives in France and everything is strange: the language, the food, the city, the smells. He is sent to a refugee center where there are other families from his country. An interpreter comes from time to time to talk to him and help him out with the administrative duties.

He settles into a routine, goes to the park nearby and becomes friends with a widower, Monsieur Bark. They can’t talk to each other with words because one is a native French speaker and the other only knows his mother tongue. But somehow, they speak the same language of sadness and loneliness. Monsieur Linh has left his country and his family is dead. Monsieur Bark mourns his wife and doesn’t have any children. Their common need for company brings them together on this bench morning after morning. Somehow, they communicate and bring each other some much needed warmth.

All along the text, Monsieur Linh has his little girl with him. He travelled with her, never left her alone and he dotes on her. She’s his link to his country, to his past and his family.

La petite fille de Monsieur Linh is a perfect novella, as striking as Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman-Taylor although their theme is different. They have the same way of building a story up to an unimaginable denouement. And in both books, the clues that lead to the ending are scattered along the pages, the reader just overlooks them. The construction of this tale is perfectly executed.

The other outstanding quality of Claudel’s novella is his compassionate tone. We are in Monsieur Linh’s head and we witness his puzzlement with his new life. He seems to have arrived in Calais or Dunkirk. He’s cold, the city smells, there are a lot of automobiles everywhere. The food is strange, except when his fellow refugees feed him at the center. He doesn’t know what to do anymore and his only goal in life is to take care of his little girl. Although he’s traumatized by the war and his journey to France, he won’t let go because she needs him.

Philippe Claudel imagines Monsieur Linh’s feeling and makes the reader “experience” the pain of being a war refugee. It means leaving a country without preparation and without a real will to emigrate. It’s not a choice, it is imposed on him by dreadful circumstances. The reader feels empathy for these refugees.

I remember the arrival of boat people refugees when I was a child. For us, it meant changing from a tall grumpy French dentist with huge paws and no patience for children fears to a tiny Vietnamese dentist with agile embroiderer hands and a calming presence. I can tell you that his customer base grew quickly.

Not surprisingly, La petite fille de Monsieur Linh is taught in middle school. It’s short, easy to read and has obvious qualities to build the character of tomorrow’s citizen.

Very highly recommended. Lisa also reviewed it here.

PS: Sorry to be blunt, but the cover of the English edition is ugly. There’s no other word for it.

Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar – and before, their mothers

December 18, 2019 7 comments

Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar (1981) Original French title: Fatima ou les Algériennes au square.

Fatima ou les Algériennes au Square by Leïla Sebbar is not available in English and it’s a shame. Set in La Courneuve in end of the 1970s, this novella describes the lives of immigrants from North Africa in the suburbs around Paris.

Fatima and her husband belong to the first generation of immigrants from Algeria. They came for work and they intend to go back to the country. Meanwhile, the children grow up in France, go to school and are on the bridge between two worlds. They want to be as French as the others but at home, they are summoned to be Algerian, Muslim and to remind themselves that their country is Algeria.

Dalila is the oldest daughter and she loves sitting by her mother on the bench at the square near their apartment building. The women meet at the square and share news about friends and relatives. From one afternoon to the other, it’s like a feuilleton for Dalila. Sometimes she dares to ask about someone in particular. The Algerian ladies stick together and never really learn French. They often come from poor villages and are illiterate. These meetings at the square are their network and support system.

In her novella, Leïla Sebbar perfectly describes the life of this first generation of immigrants. They struggle with the language and their children learn it quicker than them. Their mastering the language reverses a bit the power in the family. The parents cannot talk to teachers properly. The children can read administrative documents and are propelled in the adults’ world because they have to help their families. For the parents, everything is different and they had to adapt to a new country, with different customs. Leïla Sebbar also describes very well the condescension of the French and their racism.

The author is very thoughtful and delicate in her descriptions of their lives. She doesn’t hide the clash of cultures, the violence in the couples and the strict control that fathers and brothers have on the girls of the family. Dalila would like to be like other French teenagers but fashionable clothes and make-up do not agree with her father. He can be vocal and violent about it and the responsibility falls down on her mother.

She captures very well the atmosphere of the time and she reminded me a lot of things from my own childhood. She tells the fights between communities and neighborhoods. She shows that these girls are studious in class and see school as a key to a better future. It’s a path to independence, if their parents don’t marry them too young. The boys are the kings of the house and they take power because they are male and are more at ease in France than their fathers. We see a culture where men have all the power and don’t hesitate to use it.

We also see families torn apart by immigration: the parents’ only dream is to go back to Algeria and the children’s only dream is to settle in France and be like the others in school. The parents have not yet understood that they would not go back because their children and grandchildren would stay in France and because, whether they fight against it or not, they slowly lose contact with their former lives in Algeria.

Fatima is the generation before the one featured in Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu.

Fatima ou les Algériennes au square was published in 1981. Native French and Algerian immigrants live under the false impression that the Algerians’ presence in France is temporary, just to earn money before going back to Algeria. Both sides acknowledge too late that, contrary to what they thought, these immigrants were in France to stay. It might explain the loose ends in the assimilation process.

Fatima was written was before the foundation of the association SOS Racism (1984) and the marches against racism towards . I was too young to march but in school, a lot of us wore the pin Touche pas à mon pote (Don’t touch my friend) It was the time of awareness: these families where here to stay; their children went to school with the children of their age and France was their country. Leïla Sebbar perceived that and Fatima and Dalila are the representative of two generations and she shows a turning point for the immigrant communities.

Fatima made me understand how much they hoped that their stay would be temporary, in what frame of mind Fatima and her husband were. As a child, it never crossed my mind that Mohammed in my class could move “back” to Algeria. Unfortunately, the assimilation didn’t go as well as it should have. When you have curly brown hair in France, some people still feel entitled to ask you of what origin you are, as if you weren’t French.

It is a pity that this brilliant novella has not been translated into English. I think that it has a British follow-up in Brick Lane by Monica Ali. This quote in Ali’s book could come from Sebbar’s novella.

‘But behind every story of immigrant success there lies a deeper tragedy.’ ‘Kindly explain this tragedy.’ ‘I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family.

Figurec by Fabrice Caro – Appearances are deceitful

December 15, 2019 4 comments

Figurec by Fabrice Caro (2006) Not available in English

Figurec is Fabrice Caro’s debut novel. His first love is BD (comics) with an offbeat sense of humor. He has a knack for picturing our world, our quirks and inconsistencies. You’ve heard about him twice this year on this blog, first when I blogged about his BD Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï and then when I wrote about his latest novel, Le discoursFigurec is a first bridge between his BD and novels, Le discours is more accomplished.

Now the book and how can you sum up a book like Figurec?

The first chapter is an “Act 1, Scene 1” of a theatre play. The second chapter is a man attending a funeral and who thinks:

L’enterrement de Pierre Giroud m’a énormément déçu, c’était une cérémonie sans réelle émotion. D’accord, il y avait du monde, bien plus qu’à celui d’Antoine Mendez, mais tout cela manquait de rythme, de conviction. Même la fille de Pierre Giroud –du moins celle que je supposais être la fille de Pierre Giroud—n’était pas très en verve. Elle hésitait en permanence entre une pudique retenue et des sanglots bruyants de qualité très médiocre. Le résultat était assez caricatural, sans nuances. Pierre Giroud’s funeral was a stark disappointment. It was a ceremony devoid of real emotion. OK, there were a lot of people, a lot more than at Antoine Mendez’s funeral but this one lacked rhythm and conviction. Even Pierre Giroud’s daughter –or at least the one I assumed was Pierre Giroud’s daughter –wasn’t in brilliant form. She was always between modest self-restraint and loud sobs of poor quality. The result was caricatural, without proper nuance.

He watches the funeral as if he were watching and commenting a theatre play or a soccer game.

After this funeral, the narrator goes to diner at his friends Julien and Claire’s place. We learn that he dines with them five times a week but they don’t seem to mind. He likes them but still thinks he’s mooching off them and at the same time bringing entertainment in their otherwise dull marriage. For fun, Julien collects original 45s that were #1 at the Top 50 French chart in the 1980s and his enthusiasm about his latest find is puzzling, but who are we to judge someone else’s passions?

Our narrator also goes to diner at his parents’, a diner that his successful younger brother and lovely girlfriend attend too. His parents worry about him because he won’t settle down and doesn’t seem to grow up. He feels like a failure compared to his brother.

Our narrator is a would-be playwright and the “Act Something / Scene Something” inserted in the novel remind us his attempts at writing his play and his true goal in life.

After the first few pages, the reader feels that they’re spending time with a weird narrator, a sort of loser who attends funeral for fun, takes advantage of his friends, makes his parents believe he’s a writer-to-be when he just bums around. At this stage we think we’re just with a pathetic and nutty character.

Things get strange when a man approaches him at a funeral and asks him whether he belongs to Figurec too. That’s where the off-the-wall story takes you to a parallel world of false pretense where you don’t know who is who and what to think. All this is wrapped up in Caro’s unique brand of humor and talent for alternate universes.

A fun and disconcerting book. Next week I’ll see the theatre version of Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï and I can’t wait to see how the director translated this BD to the stage.

Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre

December 7, 2019 4 comments

Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre. (2014) Original French title: Pas pleurer

This is my second mini-billet to vanquish the TBW –To Be Written— pile. I think there is a reason why Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre stayed so long on my TBW. I don’t quite know how to write a billet about it and I kept procrastinating. Before diving into the book, one has to wonder how the French title that means No Crying or Don’t Cry became Cry, Mother Spain. The answer to that question is in Simon’s review of the book, here.

Lydie Salvayre is French but her parents were Spanish immigrants. In Pas pleurer, she comes back to her mother’s youth and how the Civil War in Spain changed her life forever. Her mother is named Montserrat Monclus Arjona, “Montse”, and she came from a small village in Spain. She and her brother José went to Barcelona in 1936, to help the Anarchist movement. An adventure and some bitter disappointments later, they are back to their village. This short time in Barcelona changed Montse’ life forever. In comparison to the liveliness and modernity of Barcelona, their village seems frozen in the Middle Ages with its rigid social hierarchy. Peasants remain dirt poor and under the rule of rich families. These immutable social rules remind me of what Mouloud Feraoun describes in The Poor Man’s Son. The 1936 Anarchist movement in Barcelona meant to take down these walls made of smothering traditions and free the country of rigid social conventions and religious constraints.

Lydie Salvayre shows how the hope of a revolution, of a new world with more social justice reached even small villages. Through Montse’s story, we see how Franco’s followers took over and the divides that this conflict created in communities. We see the personal fate of a young woman who embraced life in Barcelona and had to live with the repercussions of her actions. We see how women are often the first victims of conflicts and of society’s rules. We also understand how powerful the resistance to change can be, how inexperienced the young revolutionaries were. People’s fear of change always works in favor of the ones who preach immobilism.

In parallel to her mother’s story, Lydie Salvayre shares her reading of Les grands cimetières sous la lune, the non-fiction book in which Georges Bernanos relates the horror of the Spanish Civil War in Mallorca and how the Catholic Church was complicit of massacres. He was living there when it happened and had a front seat to it. I tried to read Bernanos almost three years ago but I couldn’t finish it. I didn’t like his tone, I didn’t know the people he was pointing at and it was more a pamphlet than calm-and-collected non-fiction. I missed the subtexts. I wished Bernanos had been more like Orwell.

Cry, Mother Spain is a poignant homage of a woman to her mother. Lydie Salvayre transcribes her mother’s creative French, the outcome of learning the language when she left Spain. She’s sometimes crude, sometimes funny as she mixes words. It’s the love of a daughter who gives her mother’s life a chance at eternity through literature. Cry, Mother Spain won the Goncourt prize in 2014 and it put the 1936 Civil War under mediatic lights.

I really recommend Simon’s review, which is a lot more thorough than mine and makes excellent justice to the book.

Literary escapade: Proust and the centennial of his Prix Goncourt

September 29, 2019 17 comments

In 1919, Proust won the most prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt for the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Gallimard was Proust’s publisher.

To celebrate this centenary, the Gallerie Gallimard in Paris set up an exhibition around this event. Did you know that Proust’s win was a scandal at the time?

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower was in competition with Wooden Crosses by Roland Dorgelès, a book about the trenches and WWI. The public was in favor of Mr Dorgelès and his patriotic novel. (I’ve never read it, I can’t tell anything about it)

Proust was considered too old for the prize. There have been arguments about the Goncourt brothers’ intentions when they made the prize for a “young talent”. Who’s young, the writer or the talent? Proust was too rich and the 5000 francs of the prize would have been better spent on a poor writer. Proust was too involved in the high society, even if at the time he wrote In Search in Lost Time, he was mostly living in solitude. Proust was too odd with his strange living habits, his book was too verbose and he did not fight in the war.

There were a lot of arguments against his winning but none of them were about the literary quality of his novel. And the Académie Goncourt, in charge of picking the winner, concentrated on the literary aspects of the book.

After the 1919 Prix Goncourt was awarded, the press went wild against Proust. The exhibition shows a collage of press articles of the time, all coming from Proust’s own collection.

According to Thierry Laget, who wrote Proust, Prix Goncourt, une émeute littéraire, (Proust, Goncourt Prize, a literary scandal), the violence and the form of the attacks against Proust were like a campaign on social networks today. I might read his book, I’m curious about the atmosphere of the time and what Laget captures about it.

There was a wall about Gaston Gallimard who founded what would become the Gallimard publishing house in 1911. Gallimard convinced Proust to let them publish In Search of Lost Time and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower was Gallimard’s first Prix Goncourt.

The exhibition displays the letter that the Académie Goncourt sent to Proust to officially inform him that he won. I found it simple, unofficial looking.

There were two previously unreleased drawings of Proust like this one by Paul Morand in 1917. It was made at the Ritz and it represents Proust, Morand and Laure de Chévigné, one of the women who inspired the Duchesse de Guermantes.

And the other one was of Proust on his death bed in 1921.

It’s a small exhibition that lasts only until October 23rd, rush for it if you’re a Proust fan and are in Paris during that time.

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun – Not everyone can be Agatha Christie

August 4, 2019 4 comments

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun (1994) Original French title: Meurtre chez Tante Léonie

If you’ve ever read Proust, you know all about Aunt Léonie, Combray, Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way. Murder chez Proust by Estelle Monbrun is set in Illiers, the village that inspired Combray and where Proust’s aunt used to live. My recent visit to the Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann prompted me to pick up this cozy crime novel.

When the book opens, the Proust Association is about to welcome Proust aficionados in Illiers for a tourism & literature stay. Unfortunately, Emilienne, the cleaning lady in charge of Aunt Léonie’s house finds Mrs Bertrand-Verdon, the president of the Proust Association, murdered. As we get acquainted with the VIPs of the conference, we realize that each of them has a good reason to dislike Mrs Bertrand-Verdon.

Her secretary, Gisèle Dambert, is writing her PhD thesis about Proust. She inherited of a treasure, Proust’s famous 1905 notebooks that his governess Céleste Albaret had to destroy. Gisèle had informed Mrs Bertrand-Verdon of this important discovery and now regrets it.

Professor Verdaillon, Gisèle’s PhD supervisor is about to publish a complete edition of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. What would be the value of this edition is the 1905 notebooks were to reappear? M. Desforges works for the publisher who will market this edition. He used to be Mrs Bertrand-Verdon’s lover and his credibility has faded away recently. He can’t afford this edition to be a failure. M. de Chareilles was about to marry Mrs Bertrand-Verdon. He’s a traditional nobleman and it’s not certain that he knows all about his fiancée’s background. Professor Rainsford is an American academics who has been in contact with Mrs Bertrand-Verdon too. He seems to have things to hide as well.

All the important people of this literary microcosm have something to hide or a good reason to fear or dislike the victim. She was quite manipulative and had the upper hand on their future. So who did it? Commissaire Jean-Pierre Foucheroux and Inspector Leila Djemani are in charge of the investigation.

Estelle Monbrun is the penname of Elyane Dezon-Jones, a teacher of contemporary French literature in the USA. (Barnard College and Washington University in St Louis) She’s a specialist of Proust and Marguerite Yourcenar. Murder chez Proust will be nice for Proust nuts. It’s full of literary nudges about In Search of Lost Time and Proust’s biography. It’s fun to track them in the text.

Estelle Monbrun also knows how to write and how to describe the quiet French countryside. Her book sounds timeless. If you put aside the Proustian details, the village and the villagers reminded me of St Mary Mead. The best characters are the police, with a commissaire who limps after an accident and mourns his wife and a female inspector of North African origins who has a lot to prove to herself.

BUT. I’m sure you were waiting for the but. Even if Estelle Monbrun ticks all the right boxes to write an Agatha-Christie branded whodunnit, it doesn’t work. It’s bland like a poorly executed imitation.

This is where you see that crime fiction is a noble genre too. You may know how to write, how to assemble plausible details and use a believable setting for a cozy crime, it’s not enough. You need talent to create a story with interesting police characters, with characters that feel like flesh-and-blood people and with actions that are believable.

Back to Michael Connelly and how I thought that The Black Echo was perfectly executed. Connelly has the craft to do that, and even if he’s not a literary writer the way Chandler is, he has a huge talent as a storyteller. Here, the ingredients are there on paper but Estelle Monbrun didn’t manage to cook a good story. Storytelling is a talent per se and excellent crime fiction is an art as difficult to handle as more literary genres.

The Rhône River Murders by Coline Gatel – French CSI in 1897

July 7, 2019 17 comments

The Rhône River Murders by Coline Gatel (2019) Original French title: Les suppliciées du Rhône.

I am forever late with my billets this year and I was tempted to write a crime fiction post about The Rhône River Murders by Coline Gatel, Black Run by Antonio Manzini and The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. But I’m always reluctant to mix several books in a billet, even if I enjoy other bloggers’ omnibus reviews.

The Rhône River Murders is Coline Gatel’s debut novel. It’s not available in English but it’s an easy read for a foreigner who understands French. Coline Gatel was invited at Quais du Polar and participated to a panel with Fabrice Cotelle, the head of the French CSI. This talk about the early days of criminology was fascinating and I wrote about it here.

After attending this conference, I purchased and got signed Coline Gatel’s crime fiction book, set in Lyon in 1897. Young women are murdered in the city, pregnant and most probably after visiting a faiseuse d’ange, a backstreet abortionist. (The French term is more poetic for such a bleak business, it means angel maker.)

At the time, Alexandre Lacassagne is a pioneer in forensic medicine and criminology. He’s convinced that autopsies are a way to gather clues about the cause of death. He instigated techniques to find material clues on the corpses and on the crime scene. Lacassagne is one of the fathers of CSI but he was also interested in sociology and psychology, linking them with scientific investigation methods.

While the police remain incompetent and absent, Lacassagne asks his best student Félicien Perrier to investigate the case. He will work on it with his roommate Bernard and a young journalist, Irina Bergovski, an emigrant from Poland.

Coline Gatel takes us to the Lyon of that time and for those who know the city, it’s a nice journey into the past. We see Lacassagne teaching at the Lyon Faculty at the Hôtel Dieu. We enter the opium salons of the city, something I wasn’t aware of. We see the hospices and the streets. We learn about early criminology and that the morgue was actually on a boat on the Rhône River. Coline Gatel peppers her book with anecdotes and trivia. This is where I learnt that in the 19thC, women couldn’t wear pants unless they had a special police authorization to do so. Without the appropriate pass, women could be arrested for wearing pants. Unbelievable.

I’m a good public for this type of books because I love hearing about everyday life in previous centuries. (I had a great time with What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist—the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England by Daniel Pool) And I enjoyed reading about Lacassagne who is now more than an avenue name to me.

The plot was well drawn, I kept reading, I was eager to know the ending. It had an unexpected turn in the end, one I didn’t see coming. The Rhône River Murders is a pleasant read, a nice way to dive into the Lyon of the Belle Epoque with a gripping murder story.

A perfect holiday read.

%d bloggers like this: