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

July 7, 2019 12 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.

Literary escapade : Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann – dedicated to Marcel Proust

July 6, 2019 16 comments

This week I had the opportunity to stay at the Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann in Paris. It’s a literary hotel dedicated to Marcel Proust and in the neighborhood where Proust lived his whole life. The building itself brings you back in time:

Proust in on the façade and inside, the decoration is Proust-inspired, in the lobby, the staircase, the rooms and in the breakfast room. There’s a timeline to disclose Proust’s biography, the room card have a Proust jacket and quotes from In Search of Lost Time are printed on the walls.

The rooms are Proust inspired, each of them is named after a character of In Seach of Lost Time and marketing did its best to play on the Proust pattern. See here the bathroom door, the nightstand and the coffee corner.

They did not put cork-padded walls like in Marcel’s bedroom and I’m not sure you can send the staff on nightly errands Proust used to do with his faithful servant Céleste Albaret.

All this marketed décor could be a bit tacky if the hotel had stopped there, after staging a Proust atmosphere. The charming part is in the display tables full of Proust memorabilia. There are display cabinets and tables in the lobby, with letters written by Proust to his friends. The visitor can admire a dress made by Doucet, the famous dressmaker of Proust’s time.

Here’s a display dedicated to Céleste Albaret, who gave us a lot of details about Proust’s quotidian in her memoir. It’s her Rememberance of Things Past and it’s a lovely read. My billet about it is here.

I think it’s moving to see her letters, her pictures here, in a place that celebrates her master. She shared precious information with Proust’s readers and we should all be grateful that she decided to talk instead of taking her memories to her grave.

There’s also a marvelous map of Paris and the places Proust used to shop to or visit.

Each place comes with a caption, its location and whether it still exists or not. I could have stayed in front of it forever to imagine a literary walk to follow Proust and Céleste’s footsteps.

The lobby includes a library full of books by Proust or about Proust.

This hotel truly celebrates literature and goes beyond exploiting the “Proust trademark”, if such a thing exists in our world. After all, I was the only guest walking around, spending time by the displays and taking pictures of everything I could. I can’t be cynical about this place because I felt a genuine love for books and literature. I thought it was charming and I take any opportunity to promote literature and reading as a good thing. There are never too many reasons to praise books and authors.

If you’re in Paris one of these days and feel like checking out the lobby, the address is 11-15 rue de Constatinople, 75008 Paris. Meanwhile, you can see better photos on their website.

I wasn’t going to participate to July in Paris hosted by Tamara because, being French, I feel like I’m cheating. But this billet goes well with the event, so I’ll join in.

The Débâcle by Emile Zola – A reading debacle for me

June 10, 2019 14 comments

The Débâcle by Emile Zola (1892) Original French title: La Débâcle.

I read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia and I have to confess that I’ve been a terrible reading companion. We agreed to post our billets on May 31st and I only finished reading it today. I must say that I have the Kindle version and I realized too late that the book was more than 600 pages long.

La Débâcle is the 19th opus of the Rougon-Macquart series and it is about the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. It results in the fall of Napoléon III and the Second Empire, the beginning of the Third Republic and the formation of the German Empire. It is a catastrophic war for France as the country lost the Alsace-Moselle territories and nursed Revanchism. It sowed the seeds of hatred that fed WWI. As mentioned in my billet about Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu, I come from Alsace-Moselle, where most of the battles occurred and that was annexed to Germany until 1919. This piece of history resonates in me and I was interested in reading about this war which, to this day, in never taught in school.

In La Débâcle, we follow Jean Macquart and Maurice Levasseur during the whole war. They belong to the same regiment, become friends and will support each other. There is not much character development in La Débâcle, the war is the main character, a bloodthirsty ogress that devours her children. The novel is an implacable condemnation of war.

Zola depicts the stupidity of the generals who led the war and commanded the soldiers. He shows an inefficient commandment, unable to make decisions, useless when it comes to military strategy and losing ground because of its sheer incompetence. Zola’s novel is very graphic: he describes the exhaustion of the soldiers who move around aimlessly, the massacre on the battle field, the deaths, the agony of horses, the killing of civilians, the hunger of prisoners, the ambulance and care of wounded soldiers. In a very cinematographic way, he is like a war reporter, writing about the theatre of operations and in the heart of the action. He draws a precise picture of the consequences of war on civilians, the carelessness of the commandment with the life of their soldiers. 139 000 French soldiers and 41 000 German soldiers died between July 19th 1870 and January 28th, 1871. A bloodshed, there’s no other word for it.

Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series, he wants to tell the story of the Second Empire. It’s not surprising that Jean and Maurice are part of a regiment that followed the Emperor and fought in Sedan, where Napoléon III capitulated, fled to Belgium and ended the Second Empire. We hear about the battles in Alsace and Moselle through the papers but the characters do not participate to this part of the campaign.

Zola’s aim is commendable but I think he said in 600 pages what Joseph Roth would have said in 300. The descriptions are too long. In the first part, the soldiers walk, walk, walk and look for food, and cook and eat. Sure, it shows pretty well the state of the army and its mismanagement. The generals don’t get along, can’t agree on a strategy, have feel of the land, have inefficient intelligence and don’t know where the enemy is. They make the troops walk around aimlessly, they wear them out, physically and mentally. Did we need so many pages to get the picture? Certainly not.

I know the region; I could follow the soldiers’ journey but I wonder how foreigners manage to read this and not get lost. Maybe they get the same feeling as the soldiers: they feel rushed around from one place to the other.

The second part in Sedan is awful. The descriptions of the massacres and the deaths are very graphic and again, way too long. We follow the artillery, the cavalry, the infantry, the civilians. Thank God Sedan is not beside the sea and there were no planes yet or we would have had to go through the description of the battle on the water and in the air as well.

The third part is easier to read, it shows the aftermath of the rendition of Sedan, the presence of Germans in the country, gives news about the Alsace-Moselle front, the war progresses, the loss is inevitable. There are a few pages about La Commune de Paris but while the events were probably known to Zola’s contemporaries, it’s not so obvious for today’s reader and I didn’t get much out of it.

So, La Débâcle is a painful read because it’s too long, too descriptive but what Zola writes is accurate despite the pomposity and the prejudice against the Second Empire. I know that because this weekend I visited the Museum of the 1870 War and the Alsace-Moselle Annexation in Gravelotte. It’s a bilingual museum (French and German) that retraces the 1870 war in Moselle. Gravelotte was one of the battle sites, a place where the combats were so fierce that there is a popular expression that says “Ca tombe comme à Gravelotte:” (It’s dropping like in Gravelotte), to say that it’s pouring. It is a fascinating museum, well stocked and very educational. Historians confirmed what Zola describes. There’s even a painting by Lucien Marchet, based upon a chapter in La Débâcle, the battle of Bazeilles:

Zola’s novel helped me realize that the 1870 war was the last one with cavalry battles and the first industrial one, where soldiers were sent to a sure death. They were killed by shells, the French had bullet cannons and Zola writes about trenches. I thought that the French army had learnt nothing about this war if we consider the beginning of WWI: the soldiers were still wearing red pants, noticeable from afar and turning them into easy targets. The whole army was ill-prepared for modern war. I also wondered what Zola would have written about WWI if he had been alive to see it.

Zola’s book ends on a hopeful note, the idea that this debacle is also the beginning of a new order, the Third Republic. The hopeful note in the Gravelotte museum is that Robert Schuman who was born in Luxembourg as a German citizen in 1886, went to school and university in Germany, became French in 1919, lived through WWI and WWII and became one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community, the starting base of the EU. We, Europeans, needed two more devastating wars to stop fighting against each other. Slow learners, that’s what we are. Let’s hope we are not forgetful too.

Please read Marina Sofia’s reviews Zola: The Débacle Readalong and The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune.

Romain Gary enters La Pléiade

June 9, 2019 15 comments

I wasn’t about to write a billet about Romain Gary entering La Pléiade because, who wants to read another billet about my Gary addiction? And then I stumbled upon Le sens de ma vie in a bookstore, a transcription of an interview he gave to Radio Canada in 1980. I had to read it, now I want to write about La Pléiade and this interview.

On May 16th, Gallimard published the complete works of Romain Gary in their renowned collection La Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, better known as La Pléiade.  It is a very prestigious collection and it’s an honor for an author to “enter la Pléiade”. It’s a literary recognition for a writer’s work, a way to say that his/her books have a significance for the history of literature. The Pléiade catalogue is mostly composed of French writers but it’s also open to foreign authors, in bilingual editions or in French translations. If you want to browse through their catalogue, here’s the link to their website.

Romain Gary was a bit despised by the literary intelligentsia of his time. His French was too unorthodox for the conservative writers and he was Gaullist in a literary world dominated by communist trends. (Think about Sartre) Now, decades after his death, he enters the Pléiade, his books are read in school, always present in any decent bookstore and his pléiade edition makes the news. My favorite bookstore celebrated the event with a special wall display in the store, in addition to a full display in the shop window.

And near the cash register, I found Le sens de ma vie (The meaning of my life), an interview recorded a few months before Romain Gary killed himself. He comes back to the major times of his life, his youth and his mother, his time in the army during WWI, his time as a French diplomat and his time with the cinema industry. He started to write when he was nine and kept writing until he died. Books, writing and literature were his life companions. I didn’t discover anything major in this interview but it’s interesting to see what he puts forward and considers as worth mentioning.

In the last part, Le sens de ma vie, he closes the interview with his legacy:

Je trouve que c’est ce que j’ai fait de plus valable dans ma vie, c’est d’introduire dans tous mes livres, dans tout ce que j’ai écrit, cette passion de la féminité soit dans son incarnation charnelle et affective de la femme, soit dans son incarnation philosophique de l’éloge et de la défense de la faiblesse car les droits de l’homme ce n’est pas autre chose que la défense du droit à la faiblesse.

I think that the most valuable thing I did in my life was to include in all my books, in all my writing, my passion for femininity, either in its flesh-and-blood version – a woman or in its philosophical incarnation through the praise and defense of weakness, because human rights are nothing else than fighting for the right to be weak.

He believes that weakness is a strength because since you can’t rely on your force (muscles or power), you have to be inventive. He also thinks that tenderness, compassion and love are feminine values and virtues but he doesn’t mean that only women have them. I’m not sure that the feminine tag is necessary here but I respect his idea of promoting soft power against blind force.

He also talks about humor as a powerful knife against the crushing realities of life. I have mentioned this before because it is the heart of Gary’s work and a reader can’t understand his literature without having this key. He mentions the gentlemanly sense of humor of the British and has words for the powerful, virulent and tragic American humor of the Jewish NY literary movement. He refers to Saul Bellow, Singer and Malamud, writers I want to read too. And he mentions Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth and I thought “Ha! I knew it! He had to love Roth” Each time I read Roth I feel a kinship with Gary’s work, certainly coming from their common Jewish background. They both use humor as a self-defense knife and I wish Gary had been alive to read Exit Ghost.

Coming back to La Pléiade: it is extremely rare that a living author is published in La Pléiade. And yet, Philip Roth entered this collection on September, 12, 2017. He died on May 22nd, 2018 almost a year before Gary joined him in this literary temple.

PS: For family and friends who read this billet, here’s a last quote:

Je me retrouve donc au lycée de Nice, je continue mes études, je fais du sport, beaucoup de sport, presque professionnel de tennis de table, j’étais devenu champion junior de la Côte d’Azur où j’étais payé, parce que nous n’avions pas un sou pour donner des leçons de ping-pong, comme on disait à l’époque, et je pars faire mes études à la faculté de droit d’Aix-en-Provence d’abord, puis à Paris. 

La Place Royale by Pierre Corneille – A rom com from the 17th century

May 26, 2019 4 comments

La Place Royale by Pierre Corneille (1634)

Yes, you have read the title of this post correctly. I put Corneille and “rom com” in the same sentence. I know the guy is mostly known for verses like O rage! O despair! O inimical old age! Have I then lived so long only for this disgrace? (*) Corneille, the classic playwright is not exactly famous for being fun. But La Place Royale, written in 1634, three years before Le Cid is definitely a rom com.

Let me you tell why and describe this play in modern words. Once you dust off the alexandrines, forget about the old-fashioned language, the weird names, you start picturing a rom com. First of all, the plot is paper-thin and is all about “he/she wants me, he/she wants me not.”

Alidor is dating Angélique. Cléandre is Alidor’s BFF and has a secret crush on Angélique. He hides it by hanging out with Phylis, Angélique’s BFF. Doraste, Phylis’s brother is pining for Angélique, who knows it and has no patience for it.

Alidor and Angélique have been dating for a year and need to take their relationship to the next stage, which means marriage in the 17th century. But Alidor is a commitment phoebe and is totally freaking out. He needs a plan to get out of this relationship without breaking up because he can’t find a reason to break up except the fact that he doesn’t want to be tied up forever to one woman.

His brilliant idea is to find his replacement in Angélique’s heart. No harm, no foul, she’ll move on and be happy with someone else and Alidor will be free. And who can you ask to take that bullet for you? Your BFF, of course. Cléandre is happy to oblige as he gets the girl in the end.

Alidor puts his stupid scheme into motion and of course, nothing goes according to plan. He makes Angélique believe that he cheated on her and he pisses her off enough for her to reject him. Cléandre is on board, ready to woo and win her.

As Angélique feels vulnerable after Alidor’s betrayal, Phylis steps in and gives Doraste an opening. The poor guy becomes Angélique’s rebound. He’s on the verge of marrying her when Alidor realizes that he can’t lose her and convinces her to leave Doraste the night before their wedding and elope.

The elopement goes wrong, Cléandre ends up kidnapping Phylis and they discover they are very much in love with each other. They have their HEA. Doraste decides he deserves better that being a rebound and is happy to leave Angélique to Alidor. That’s when you remember you are in a French 17th century comedy  and not in a Hollywood sugary movie because Alidor and Angélique do not have their HEA. He doesn’t put his head out of his ass soon enough to get the girl, she doesn’t forgive him, she swears off men forever and makes it final by joining a convent.

See? Almost a teen movie. And the characters seem to come out of an American rom com.

We have the central power couple, Alidor and Angélique.

Alidor is more than annoying, he’s a jerk. He makes speeches and babbles about fading beauty and fickle love. He raves about his precious freedom and how he doesn’t want to give it up. But he’s also a giant coward who doesn’t have the guts to be honest with Angélique and would rather weave a tangled web of deception than make a clean break.

Angélique is more mature than her boyfriend. She knows she’s in it for the long haul, she loves him and doesn’t play games. She’s genuine, devastated when their relationship ends but she’s not desperate. More importantly, she’s not a doormat.

Cléandre is the classic BFF. He’s second best to Alidor who seems to be the biggest fish in their dating pond. He won’t do anything about Angélique because she’s dating his friend but he’s happy to take on Alidor’s offer to take his leftovers if he gets Angélique.

Phylis is probably the most interesting character of the play. She’s outspoken and wild. She’s a shameless flirt, treating every beau the same way, not getting attached to any of them. We’re in the 17th century and she argues that she’d better not fall in love with anyone because in the end, her father will dispose of her and marry her off to the man he chooses and not to the man she loves. She’s protecting herself against heartbreak.

Doraste is the good guy, the one who will nurse a sore heart in the end.

So, we have the typical characters of a rom com but we also have some of the key scenes. The boy talk between Angélique and Phylis. The wallowing-in-my-misery scene in Angélique’s bedroom. The only reason why she wasn’t binging on Ben & Jerry is because it wasn’t invented yet. The plotting scenes between the Alidor and Cléandre. The opening scene where Alidor gets cold feet and decides to get out of his relationship.

Even the French vocabulary of the time matched today’s American ways. I hate the expressions she/he is mine, I belong to him/her. We don’t say that in French anymore but in Corneille’s time, we did. And that’s the most infuriating part of this play. It callously shows that women are properties, goods to be exchanged between males. Nobody should belong to anybody but themselves.

Phylis chooses to giver herself freely and her attitude is the most modern of the play. And more importantly, Corneille doesn’t judge her for it. He gives her speaking time in his play to explain why her frivolous way are a defense mechanism. It’s her attempts at regaining some power over her body and her life before she has to give in to her father’s decision. Women don’t decide for themselves. The only decision they can make is to enter a convent.

I found that Corneille was more progressive than I thought. Molière was the progressive one for me, not Corneille. The women in La Place Royale are not deceitful creatures who play games. They are the honest and mature characters. The men are the ones who, in a way, have all the flaws usually attached to female characters: they don’t play fair, they toy with feelings, they lack courage. Corneille shows compassion and empathy for the women of his time.

I have seen La Place Royale at the Théâtre des Célestins. It was directed by the brilliant Claudia Stavisky. She casted young comedians who reminded us how young the characters of the play are. Their acting was lively and right from the boy talk scene between Angélique and Phylis, I knew I would love this play the way Claudia Stavisky staged it. They brought the alexandrines to life, they moved around like 21st century people and it worked. They played in such a way that it felt like a contemporary play without betraying the original. The modernity of Corneille’s play pops out and I never knew Corneille could be so funny. I went into the theatre, tired by a gruesome week at work and hoping I wouldn’t fall asleep on Corneille’s alexandrines. Stavisky’s direction of the play kept me awake, amused and I had a grand time.

For French readers, if this comes to your city, rush for it and buy tickets. Highly recommended.

___________

(*) Le Cid by Pierre Corneille (1637) translation by Roscoe Mongan.

The Speech by Fabrice Caro – hilarious, bittersweet and spot-on

May 1, 2019 5 comments

The Speech by Fabrice Caro. (2018) Original French title: Le discours. Not available in English

Fabrice Caro is better known under his penname Fabcaro and for his BDs. (comic books) I recently posted a billet about Zaï Zaï Zaï Zaï, one of his most successful BD albums.

Le Discours (The Speech) is his second novel. We’re in Adrien’s head, he’s currently sitting through lunch at his parents’ house with his sister Sophie and his future brother-in-law Ludovic. He’s heartbroken because he recently broke up with Sonia. Their relationship lasted one year and she left him 38 days before. He’s sitting there, alone with his misery when Ludo asks him to give a speech at his and Sophie’s wedding. Poor Adrien doesn’t dare to refuse and he starts panicking about The Speech.

The whole novel is set during one Sunday meal and Adrien is going through breakup angst. Shall he text Sonia? What to text? And after it’s sent, when will she answer? He checks out his phone, goes to the power room to regroup and look at his messages. He’s on pins and needles and overanalyzes everything. He reminisces the stages of their relationship, how they met, how they were together and when things started to fall apart. It rings true because Adrien is going through spot-on little details and his pain is palpable to the reader. It’s one aspect of Caro’s novel. It’s bittersweet, funny at times because of Adrien’s self-deprecating sense of humor but my heart went out to him. Poor Adrien.

While his whole being screams of pain because of his breakup, he manages to engage in the small talk around the table and to worry about The Speech. His mind wanders and he imagines himself at the wedding, speaking in front of everyone. He writes drafts of his speech in his head and it varies according to the tone and the topic of the conversation at the table. These parts are hilarious.

The third aspect of the novel, the one that interested me the most is the family dynamics. The parents regularly invite their children to share a meal. The siblings wouldn’t spend time together otherwise. Sophie takes Ludovic to her parents’ house but Adrien never brings any girlfriend. The meal is like a perfectly orchestrated symphony with each family member knowing their role, their score and playing their usual part. It’s classical music, not jazz and impro is not allowed. Each member sticks to their score. The dishes are a family tradition. The repartition of tasks between the parents and the children are set. At the table, each guest plays his role, brings his topics and share their news.

It’s also a perfect picture of the French middle class with perfunctory meals where nothing important is said but they still glue the family together. The affection is there, deep but silent. Fabrice Caro was born in 1973 and Adrien is forty. Author and character are from the same generation and have reached a stage in life where parents start ageing. The roles are shifting, children feel the need to take care of their parents, they realize their parents won’t be there forever. Here, Adrien remembers a time he drove them to diner at Sophie’s.

Sur le trajet, ma mère, assise à l’arrière, m’avait demandé de rouler moins vite parce qu’elle avait un peu le mal de mer, et j’avais repensé au vomi sur l’auto-stoppeur, et cette inversion des rôles m’était apparue comme le symbole d’une tristesse infinie, une preuve tangible de plus que j’étais entré dans la seconde moitié de ma vie qui consiste à faire pour eux ce qu’ils ont fait pour moi dans la première moitié : m’inquiéter, les chérir, les épargner, rouler moins vite pour éviter qu’ils ne vomissent. On the way, my mother, sitting in the back, had asked me to drive slower because she had motion sickness. I recalled throwing up on a hitchhiker and this reversal of our roles seemed like a symbol of utter sadness. It was another proof that I had entered the second half of my life, the one that consists in doing for them what they did for me during the first half: worry about them, cherish them, spare them and drive slower so that they wouldn’t throw up.

Adrien also remembers his thirtieth birthday. Another breakup and he had come to his parents’ house to find solace. Although his parents did not provide any tangible comfort, the fact that this house exists, with his teenage room intact, his craft done in school on the kitchen wall is already something. He may make fun of himself and his successive breakups, softly joke about his parents’ routine and decoration, his childhood home remains a safe haven. Even if he’s forty, it eases his pain to think that in time of need, this is a place he can turn to. His parents will welcome him. Even if he knows they won’t give him advice because they won’t have heart-to-heart conversations, he knows they love him and show their affection differently.

Le discours is a lovely book and a nice picture of how families get together. Of course, you can read Caro’s description of Adrien’s family dynamics and think they’re pathetic. There’s no deep conversation, Ludo sounds like a jerk, Sophie and Adrien have nothing in common except a childhood in this house and with these parents. I didn’t take it that way. I just thought that going through these rituals is how this family expresses their affection. They’re not touchy-feely but they’re there for one another in times of need. And in the end, that’s what matters the most.

Adrien has a wicked sense of humor and sees everything through biting humorous goggles. It’s self-deprecating sometimes and it borders on sadness. Often, the comic side of the book comes from Adrien’s wild imagination. His mind wanders from a banal topic or sentence. He starts thinking out of the box, exposing the ridicule of something and his thoughts get crazy and out of the usual paths. It’s huge fun, and it’s Caro’s brand of humor, the one that made me laugh so much when I read Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï. Adrien has also a devilish sense of observation. His thoughts are sarcastic and hugely entertaining.

Le discours is a sad and a funny book at the same time. This combination makes it deep and light. Adrien’s feelings, the description of the family meal and his depiction of his relationship with Sonia, everything rings true. It isn’t bleak but it doesn’t discard Adrien’s raw pain under fake jolly farces. It’s a lot more subtle than that.

Warmly recommended.

And Then, Their Children by Nicolas Mathieu – Prix Goncourt 2018

April 28, 2019 9 comments

And Then, Their Children by Nicolas Mathieu (2018) Original French title: Leurs enfants après eux.

And Then, Their Children is my translation of the title of the Prix Goncourt 2018, Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu. As far as I know, it’s not available in English yet but it will probably be translated soon, being the winner of the Goncourt. I’ll use the French title in my billet.

Nicolas Mathieu was born in Epinal in 1978. Epinal is a town in the Vosges mountains, part of the former Lorraine region in France. (Administrative regions have changed in 2016) This region was made of four départements, Meuse (where Verdun is), Meurthe et Moselle (Nancy), Vosges (Epinal) and Moselle (Metz). These four départements have a long and different history. Nicolas Mathieu comes from the Vosges and his novel is set in Moselle.

The Moselle département is close to the borders of Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium. It was the Lorraine part in the Alsace-Lorraine loss of the 1870 war, the one featured in La Débâcle by Zola. This means that it was under German administration from 1871 to 1918. This has left traces in today’s society, with a different social security regime, two additional public holidays and various legal specificities. The Moselle département has also cultural differences with its neighbors. It’s more of German culture, with a patois coming from old German. It’s also a département half-industrial, half-rural. The industrial part is one of those traditional industrial areas we’ve had in all Western countries and that have collapsed after coal mines, iron mines and steel industries closed down. In the early 20th C, lots of immigrants came to work here and the Italian and Polish communities were the most important ones. Later came people from Spain, Portugal and North Africa.

Leurs enfants après eux is set in the Fensch valley, an area near Luxembourg and that was rife with steel industries until the 1980s. (For French readers, that’s where Florange is) It was a very populated area with cities that grew with the factories and were made to accommodate their needs. It bears the traces of old capitalism, the one in which the workers’ lives were arranged by the factory like houses, sports clubs, libraries, summer camps and sometimes food. It shaped the landscape with pipes, railroads and street names. (Steel Street, Plant Street, Blast Furnace Street…) In the 1980s, the plants shut down, lay-offs were everywhere. Unemployment skyrocketed. People aged fifty and more were put in pre-retirement. Large noisy plants became industrial wasteland, quiet steel monsters becoming ruins. Meanwhile, Luxembourg’s economy thrived with the financial industry and French workers started to cross the border and work there. Today, there are between 60 000 and 100 000 French employees in Luxembourg.

Why such a long introduction? You need a bit of background to understand Leurs enfants après eux.

The 2018 Prix Goncourt tells the life of three people during their formative years in four remarkable summers, all symbolized by a song.

1992, Smells Like Teen Spirit. Anthony is 14, Stéphanie is 16 and Hacine is 16 too. Anthony is killing time by the local lake with his cousin. They decide to steal a canoe to cross the lake. They get acquainted with Stéphanie and her cousin. Anthony is attracted to Stéphanie who doesn’t give him the time of day. Hacine is part of a group of adolescents who is into marijuana trafficking and small delinquency.

We’ll follow them during three other summers: 1994, You Could Be Mine. 1996, La Fièvre, by NTM, a French rap group. 1998, I Will Survive, the totem song of the French soccer team, the one who won the FIFA World Cup with its Black-Blanc-Beur team.

The main character is Anthony, a typical child of a working-class family that could come out of a Ken Loach film. His father is self-employed after he lost his job. His mother works as an entry-level employee. They live in a housing development and work hard to pay their mortgage. Stéphanie comes from a richer family, she lives in a bigger house. Hacine lives in a council flat with his father. The three of them represent the social classes of the city. Their lives intersect during these summers, leaving indelible marks on their lives.

Nicolas Mathieu describes the formative years of these three adolescents and their backgrounds. It’s a picture of the French society, the one of the Yellow Vests and the roundabouts. It shows the class system and the fact that, despite de country’s moto claiming Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, equality is an illusion. Not everyone has the same chance to achieve their potential, especially working-class children. Stéphanie’s parents know the codes to help her make the best of the school system. Anthony is average and lacks parental incentive to work harder in school. Hacine is on his own, his father doesn’t speak French well enough. Each of them dreams of leaving.

Nicolas Mathieu paints an accurate picture of working-class and middle-class life in France. It’s a good depiction of its pop culture, its way-of-life and its ups-and-downs. He shows the end of the dream of the Post-war economic boom. Now, the social ladder is broken. Children remain at the same level as their parents or go down and people make do. We see how one generation reproduces the life of the previous one. In that respect, Leurs enfants après eux is a brilliant book. Nicolas Mathieu is the same age as Anthony. It’s his generation and I liked that he put the spotlight on this world, one that is far from the Parisian salons but makes most of the population of this country.

I didn’t like the undercurrent idea of the end of the book. Nicolas Mathieu hints that if you stay in your hometown, live the life of your parents, you failed. The ones who didn’t manage to escape are losers. My question is: why should “escaping” be the goal? What would happen if everyone tried to leave? Where would they go? Populate the Parisian suburbs? Why is having a small life in a little province town a prison? I thought that the tone was a bit judgmental in the end. I wonder how the Parisian literary elites read this. Like anthropologists?

Leurs enfants après eux was a rather emotional read for me. I come from Moselle, from a town like the Heillange of the book, not in the Fensch valley but from a nearby one. I know the place where Leurs enfants après eux is set. I kept seeing the places in my mind eye. I’m from the same generation as Anthony, Stéphanie and Hacine. I “escaped” through the school system and thanks to parents who pushed for school achievements and paid for education. Nicolas Mathieu comes from this world too and “escaped” the same way, thanks to parents who paid for a private school. Even if it’s not his own story, it’s based on people around him and on his own experience. It shows the classes who come out bruised and battered by liberal capitalism.

Leurs enfants après eux is written in spoken language, one that reflects the social classes it describes. It rings true but lacks the regionalisms you’d expect from people of the Fensch valley. I noticed it because it’s my home but it’s not visible for other readers. I guess it wouldn’t have brought anything to the story anyway.

I’m happy that Leurs enfants après eux won the Prix Goncourt because it pictures real life and the prize will ensure it gets a lot of readers. It’s a political novel in the best sense of political, like books by Richard Russo, songs by Bruce Springsteen or films by Ken Loach.

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