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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.

Norah, Fanta, Khady Demba and many others we never hear of

October 26, 2012 15 comments

Trois femmes puissantes de Marie Ndiaye 2009. English title : Three Strong Women

Their names are Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba. They live in France or in Senegal or have lived in both countries. Their stories are not exactly linked but more adjacent like pieces of fabric composing a patchwork quilt. The novel is structured into three parts, each one relating the story of one woman.

The first part is for Norah and it’s her voice we’re hearing. At 38, she’s the daughter of a French hairdresser and a Senegalese. His father left his wife and children behind to go back to Senegal when Norah was a little girl and her mother struggled to raise her and her sister on her own. Now Norah’s father has begged her to come and visit him in Senegal. The novel starts when she arrives at her father’s house. As Norah gets reacquainted with her father’s way-of-life and adjusts to the changes, she recalls her childhood, analyses her present fears and her mixed feeling toward this man. Then she discovers why he called her.

The second part is for Fanta and the only image of her that we will have is through her husband’s eyes, Rudy Descas. He used to live in Senegal and met Fanta there when they both worked as teachers in a French high school. Fanta comes from a poor family and with a lot of work and willpower, she started a career as a teacher of French literature, quite an achievement for an African woman from her origin. We quickly understand that Rudy pushed her to move back to France but they never found work as teachers there. They are now living rather poorly, Rudy sells kitchens, Fanta doesn’t have a job and their marriage is falling apart. Rudy loves her madly but doesn’t seem to know how to show it anymore; he’s too embittered by his life and he feels like a failure.

The third part is the sour voyage from life to hell of Khady Demba, guilty of being a young widow with no children. When her in-laws throw her out of their house, she starts a voyage to the unknown with little experience, little education and no financial means.

Trois femmes puissantes is a tribute to all women who fight for their dignity through adversity. Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba have things in common: they fought to climb the social ladder, to achieve something and be independent. And men smash all their hard work. Norah’s father undermined her confidence from the start with his lack of interest in his daughters who were unfortunate not to be sons and girls who didn’t meet his definition of what a woman should be. Her partner messes up with the orderly life she has patiently built with her daughter in such a way that she feels that she admitted an enemy in her home. Her brother is the catalyst of two radical changes in her life, once as a child, once as an adult.

For Fanta, she fell in love with Rudy and following him to France was the beginning of her end. She couldn’t be a teacher there and she lost her identity. It’s difficult to have a clear portrait of Fanta because Rudy is the one who describes her. And dear, doesn’t he have heavy issues to cope with! His mother believes in angels and promotes angels through fliers. In France, I can tell you that a mother who leaves fliers around te enlighten her fellow citizens about the presence of angels among us is not seen as religious but as totally crazy.

For Khady Demba, the untimely death of her husband turns her life upside down in the most horrible way. After their in-laws have kicked her out, she’s the victim of other men too.

The three women remain strong in their mind and face the worse although sometimes their sanity wobbles. They stick to who they are and cling to their identity as a life-saver. They keep their dignity and Kadhy Demba’s attempts at dignity are the most poignant I’ve read in a long time.

The three stories are also an indirect thought about the relationship between France and Africa. Marie Ndiyae is black, her father is Senegalese. Her mother raised her as a single mom after her father left when she was a little girl. She has only met him a couple of times. She doesn’t feel African but she has mixed-blood and it can’t be discarded because it’s visible.

Although Trois femmes puissantes reveals terrible events, there is no useless pathos. Marie Ndiaye describes the inner minds of her protagonists –Norah, Rudy and Khady Demba –in a most realistic way. She’s analytical and with a dose of surreal elements sometimes. There’s a recurring pattern of birds in the three stories, a recurring pattern of bad luck. Fanta’s story appears less terrible than the two others, perhaps because she’s seen through Rudy’s eyes, she’s less real. Each part ends with a short paragraph, a sort of conclusion. It gives a feeling of an oral tale.

The novel is wonderfully composed and echoes to other forms of art. It’s a literary triptych of stoic and strong women, like iconic paintings put in churches. It’s a symphony with three movements, telling about women’s condition in general, in Senegal and in France in particular.

When Trois femmes puissantes was first published, I remember reading a glowing review of it and that the article included a quote from the book and I thought I wouldn’t like it. I picked it again by chance at the library, when I was looking for an audio book. I started listening to the audio version read by Dominique Blanc but it proved difficult to enjoy the beautiful prose of Marie Ndiaye while driving, therefore I eventually borrowed the paper edition. Dominique Blanc reads marvelously though, giving the rhythm of her steady voice to the rhythm of the author’s sentences. It could have been enchanting to hear it in good conditions.

You can also read reviews by Stu at Winston’s Dad and Iris at Iris On Books. Like Iris, I preferred the first and the last stories but Rudi’s struggle with his life and the terrible guilt he feels for not being able to make her precious wife happy got to me too.  I’m glad to say I was wrong to shy away from this book. Marie Ndiaye won the Prix Goncourt in 2009 for this novel and it’s well-deserved. Although it wasn’t an easy read, I felt compelled to read further. This book has everything to become a classic: excellent and unique prose, universal theme and stories without obvious references to current events which anchor a book in its time.

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