19 February 2018

Jean Echenoz: Les Grandes Blondes (1995)

Les Grandes Blondes. So, great blonds rather than tall ones? It doesn't matter, in a sense, and they don't really have to be true blonds. Uh? Paul Salvador – probably quite a saviour as his name suggests and as it turns out, but that's not a valid point to make now – works for television and has devised a series on the great blonds: you know, Brigitte Bardot, Marlene Dietrich, and so on.

But the fictional (in 'real life') Gloire Stella (or Gloire Abrall) is elusive and hasn't been heard of for some years. She's disappeared from the radar, which obviously makes her more interesting, although the reader perhaps wonders why Salvador goes to such lengths and such expenses to re-locate her.

Quite simply, Gloire has had enough of fame and wants to live a quiet existence. But then there's this 'homoncule' (or homunculous): I remember Ian McEwan (a guy I intensely dislike) once interviewing John Updike on his use of the word 'homunculous' – just saying. But a homonculous called Béliard appears frequently in Les Grands Blondes, an invisible little creature who might be her guardian angel, although this is doubtful as he sometimes encourages Gloire to kill people who get in the way of her rehabilitation, if that's the right word. So, maybe the devil or the id...?

Nah, too simple: this is Echenoz: don't look for symbolism, just enjoy a disturbing read, prepare to be mentally knocked around, thrown from pillar to post, but accept no easy solutions as there are none. Re-read and you'll enjoy far more, but still be no wiser. Just prepare to be surprised every which way the novel takes you, and this (it's Echenoz after all) will geographically (as well as mentally) take you to many places.

Maurice Leblanc in Étretat (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

As a plaque shown below informs us, the author Maurice Leblanc (1864–1941) lived here at the Clos Lupin, Étretat, from 1915 until his death in 1914. In 1999 it was opened to the public by Leblanc's grand-daughter Florence. The tour is audio-guided (by Frence television's own Lupin, Georges Descrières) and is much more about Arsène Lupin and the mystery of L'Aiguille creuse than Maurice Leblanc himself: but then, look at the name of his house, where fiction takes over from reality. I let the photos tell the story, which ends with the treasure hidden in the needle, Lupin staring at it in the background.

The Cliffs, Étretat (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

The Falaise d'Aval, with its aiguille (needle) rock formation on the left made famous by Maurice Lablanc's novel L'Aiguille Creuse ('The Hollow Needle').

Looking upstream, the rock formation of La Falaise d'Amont.

And a broader view of Étretat and its coast.

Maupassant in Étretat (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

The street where Maurice Leblanc lived, and which is now an author's house, is in fact named after Guy de Maupassant.

Maupassant bought some of the land on which La Guillette stands from his mother, who had bought it for a vegetable garden. Originally Maupassant wanted to call it 'La Maison Tellier', although his mother (and some friends) strongly objected to any suggestions that it was a brothel. Instead, he adopted Hermine Lecomte de Noüy's suggestion of La Guillette. The house was eventually built in 1883, and is where the author finished 'Pierre et Jean' and wrote a large part of 'Bel Ami'.

The original figures on top of the posts were jade Chinese lions.

What we didn't realise at the time of visiting Étretat on Saturday is that the place now belongs to L’Association les amis de la Guillette, and that visits can be arranged online.

18 February 2018

Dominique Denry in Fécamp (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

'L'Heure du Bain'
Dominique DENRY sculpteur

A meditation on women bathers on the seafront, Fécamp.

Louis-Arsène Bigot in Fécamp (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

This plaque dedicated to the 'super-human' efforts of Louis-Arsène Bigot (1810–53) bringing the springs of Grainval to Fécamp involved what, exactly? Ah, he dug tunnels into the chalk and flint cliffs in order to give water to the people of Fécamp. Amazing for a twenty-six-year-old illiterate guy. And the town now (occasionally) does visits to the tunnels. Pity we couldn't make it, as this sounds fascinating.

Maupassant in Fécamp (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

La fontaine du Précieux-Sang. Legend has it that a little of Christ's blood, concealed in the trunk of a fig tree, fell from the cart carrying it in Fécamp. A (healing) well sprang from this, and Fécamp, along with the Mont-Saint-Michel, became the greatest places of pilgrimage in Normandy. In the second half of the nineteenth century through to the first half of the twentieth century the pilgrimages were so successful that a train service was set up specifically to cater for religious tourists. Maupassant mentions the tale in his short story 'Histoire d'une fille de ferme' (1881).

Jean Lorrain (Paul Duval) in Fécamp (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

1855 – 1906'

Paul Duval was born in Fécamp, where he is buried. He wrote as Jean Lorrain and was one of the most colourful characters of the period. He was a homosexual who wore corsets, make-up, dressed as a woman, dressed in disguises, and frequented the literary world as well as the shadier areas of Paris. His first novel, Les Lepillier (1985), caused a scandal in Fécamp because he drew some his characters from actual people in Fécamp. His childhood friend Maupassant was incensed by the depiction of Beaufrilan in his second novel, Très Russe (1886). In 1887 he fought a duel with Proust over his negative reaction to Proust's first work: Les Plaisirs et les Jours, of which Proust himself later sought to prevent republication. His health disintegrated under the effects of ether and syphilis, and he died at the age of fifty.

Le Chat Pitre, Fécamp (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

I couldn't resist taking a shot of this bookshop I noted in Fécamp, called 'Le Chat Pitre' ('The Clown Cat'), as it is of course a pun on 'Chapitre', or 'Chapter'.

Les Jardins d'Étretat, Étretat (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

Les Jardins d'Étretat, as an attraction, are less than eighteen months old. But their history goes back to 1905, when a local landscape gardener Auguste Lecanu, with the actor Madame Thébault (of whose existence I can find nothing online), planted the first tree here on the Falaise d'Amont, within sight of the Falaise d'Aval, its Aiguille made famous by writer Maurice Leblanc's creation, the 'gentleman burglar' Arsène Lupin. Thébault's most famous role, the story goes, was as Roxelane in Soliman le magnifique, and she bought an area of land here and had a villa called Roxelane constructed. Lecanu designed the garden influenced by the Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet, noted for his painting Coucher de soleil à Étretat.

Much later, it was the Russians Alexandre Grivko and his friend Mark Dumas who began transforming the premises into a kind of sculpture garden. This includes Coquillage de mer by Alena Kogan; Le jardin des Etreintes et des arbres by Viktor Szostalo and Agnieszka Gradnik; Le Jardin Emotions (with its remarkable ball faces) by Samuel Salcedo; and Viktor Szostalo also created the sculpture of Monet with his easel and artwork, with the real Falaise d'Aval in the background. These are just a few photos:

Finally, a representation of Monet painting Coucher de soleil à Étretat.