29 December 2014

Christophe Donner: Quand je suis devenu fou (1997)

Christophe Donner was born Christophe Quiniou in 1956 and has written a large number of books, about half of them (for children) written as Chris Donner, and one as Hélène Laurens. He narrowly missed winning the Renaudot in 2007 with Un roi sans lendemain, when Daniel Pennac's Chagrin d'école came as if from nowhere to take the prize. This is his only novel I've read, and I'm unsure what to make of it so I'll suspend my judgement until I've read a few more of his books, which should give me a fuller picture of his worldview.

I would certainly classify Quand je suis devenu fou (lit. 'When I Went Mad') as gay literature, and apparently the expression 'coming out' has been used in relation to Donner and this novel, although Donner most strongly denies the tag: he has never called himself homosexual, would deny it under torture(!), and views with horror the idea of anyone being reduced to their sexual practices. So that is categorically clear.

Quand je suis devenu fou is more about obsession than madness, the obsession of the narrator for the male prostitute Nick in Amsterdam. At one point the narrator says 'Quiconque exerce ce métier stupide mérite tout ce qui lui arrive' ('Whoever practises this stupid profession deserves everything that happens to them'.) Interestingly this expression is also the title of Donner's last novel, which concerns acting, and I learn that this is a quotation from Orson Welles, although for some reason – maybe because it's a misquotation? – I can't find the exact sentence Welles used in English. But prostitution is certainly (and no doubt correctly) depicted as a branch of the acting profession in this novel, which reminds me of a particularly brilliantly acted scene by Jane Fonda in Pakula's Klute.

But I digress. The French-speaking narrator, a number of whose biographical details are a lot like Christopher Donner's, is desperate to 'rescue' Nick – who is of Italian origin but speaks English and holds a UK passport – from the 'Boys [sic] Club'. Nick himself says the narrator doesn't know him, and anyway how is the narrator going to, er, pull off such a coup when his beloved isn't exactly wild about him and the whole crazy thing seems doomed to failure before it starts?

But pull it off he does – at the beginning at least: they both make it to San Francisco, but they don't get on, they start leading separate lives, they row, and the narrator pays for him to return to London or wherever. And the narrator sells up in the USA and – sick of Anglo-Saxon culture – heads off for Mexico.

On the way down to Guadalajara the narrator mentions that he plays Brel, although there is no mention – as on the way to Amsterdam from Paris – of a muzzy tape of an interview with Hervé Guilbert (1955–91), a writer much loved by both the narrator and Donner himself.  At his luxury hotel the narrator meets Saúl, who's wearing a tee-shirt of Dalí's Christ, and the narrator quotes Dalí to Saúl: 'The difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.' Saul responds: '¿ Pero quién es, Dalí ?' We know already that the narrator doesn't like his men to be intellectuals, that just complicates a relationship, so, yeah, obviously he's falling in love again...

27 December 2014

Albert Cossery: Les Couleurs de l'infamie | The Colors of Infamy (1999)

I moved straight from Albert Cossery's first book of short stories to his last novel, mainly to gauge the difference. Les Couleurs de l'infamie took fifteen years in the making – or possibly prevaricating is a more appropriate word, as there must have been many distractions. But it was beyond doubt well worth the wait: in Premier bilan aprés l'apocalypse (2011) Frédéric Beigbeder considers this one of the best books in the previous one hundred or so years, and who could argue? At the moment of writing I've only read Cossery's novel Un complot de saltimbanques and his short story collection Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu, so I'm definitely in no position to call this Cossery's best novel, although Les Couleurs de l'infamie will take some beating. When it was first published Cossery was eighty-six years old, and it shows him as a master of suspense: short it certainly is, and I couldn't put it down until I'd finished it.

The main character is the twenty-three-year-old Ossama, who is a thief and dresses like a dandy not because he's rich – he certainly doesn't want to be rich – but because he has far more chance of being a successful thief if he dresses smartly than if he dressed as a beggar. He's a Cossery character and his ideology can be very neatly summed up by his rather Fagin-like former teacher Nimr:

'There is nothing more immoral than stealing without risk. Risk is what distinguishes us from bankers and their like who practise legalised theft under the government's patronage.' (My translation.)

Yes, Cossery was well on the ball, and might even have been predicting a global financial crash. In his topsy-turvy world, the goodies are those whom most people would call the baddies, and vice versa. For Cossery, the bankers and their allies are the bastards, and the particular bastards in this novel are property speculators.

The initial underworld setting starring Safira, the seventeen-year-old tart with a heart and her beloved but unloving Ossama soon gives way to the central point of interest: Ossama steals a crocodile wallet, which as well as containing money contains a government letter with very valuable incriminating evidence.

The letter is a rejection of Abelrazak's interest in the property interests of Suleyman, whose dangerous cheap housing has killed fifty tenants. Suleyman had tried to buy away the housing scandal as an earthquake, but the letter risks incriminating him, so he thinks he can buy it from Ossama to shut his mouth. Ossama (with the help of friends) decides to keep the letter tied to his chest as it will serve him for future alibis. When Suleyman calls him a thief, Ossama points out that he's nothing like the thief that Suyelman is. Ossama's former teacher finds this all very funny:

'Nimr burst out laughing, a laugh like no other, a revolutionary laugh, the laugh of someone who has just uncovered the ignoble, grotesque face of those who hold the world's power.' (My translation.)
 
My other Cossery posts:

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Frédéric Andrau: Monsieur Albert: Cossery, une vie
Albert Cossery: Proud Beggars
Albert Cossery: Cimetière du Montparnasse
Albert Cossery: A Splendid Conspiracy
Albert Cossery: Men God Forgot

Albert Cossery: Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu | Men God Forgot (1941; rep. 2004)

In 1931 Albert Cossery published his first book, Les Morsures: he was eighteen years old and it was a collection of poetry inspired by Baudelaire and written, Cossery much later said dismissively, 'to impress the girls'. Bearing the view of the author in mind, plus the fact that the book now seems to be virtually unfindable – even in the BNF catalogue – it's probably better to view Cossery's Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu (Men God Forgot) as his first work.

Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu is a collection of five short stories that I see as Cossery's apprenticeship into his own work: it's where he's collecting his ideas, but hasn't exactly formulated them completely coherently. All the makings of a Cossery novel are here though, the obsessions which will fill his seven novels to come over almost sixty years.

Cairo – or at least a place strongly resembling Cairo – is the setting of these stories. And although Cossery was firmly ensconced in Paris Saint-Germain-des-Prés for virtually all the time – from 1945 up to his death in 2008, he continued to set his stories in north Africa. His concern is for the humble, the poor, the beggars, the lazy hashish smokers, as opposed to the rich, whom he sees as 'bastards'. In fact, he also praises ordinary thieves, seeing them as in a totally different class to the 'real' thieves: those in power, those who control, the people who make the money. Cossery's gentle anarchy inverts the norm.

Postman Zouba in the story 'Le facteur se venge' is the butt of many people's anger: he may not be an immediately obvious target, but he is employed by the government and therefore possesses the officialdom gene. He wears a uniform (and so appears military, bellicose), can read letters and so has power over those who can't. As he delivers letters in the rue de la Femme-Enceinte (the Street of the Pregnant Woman) he's seen to be proud, artificial and manipulative. He's in a number of respects similar to the rich later narrators who will be attacked in Cossery's novels. And Hanafi – the ironer whose irons are rusted from disuse and who just wants to sleep all day and have dope-smoking parties – is very much like the lazy heroes of Cossery's novels.

The book takes its title from the story 'Le coiffeur a tué sa femme', in which a father – in answer to his young son's question – says that they are poor because God has forgotten them. All of Albert Cossery's books after this one will take as their subjects these very people and show their lifestyles and the way they go about defying – and so denying the validity of – the prevailing system.
 
My other Cossery posts:

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Frédéric Andrau: Monsieur Albert: Cossery, une vie
Albert Cossery: Proud Beggars
Albert Cossery: Cimetière du Montparnasse
Albert Cossery: A Splendid Conspiracy
Albert Cossery: The Colors of Infamy

24 December 2014

Pierre Autin-Grenier: Je ne suis pas un héros (1993)

Pierre Autin-Grenier died in April this year. He divided his life between Lyon and Carpentras (Vaucluse), and was incapable of writing novels, preferring instead tiny stories of just a few pages, such as this book which has exactly one hundred pages but contains thirty-three stories.
 
He is generally included in the same area of writing as François de Cornière and Jean-Pierre Georges, both of whose works Autin-Grenier enjoyed. Je ne suis pas un héros (1993) is the first part of the trilogy Une Histoire, which also includes Toute une vie bien ratée (lit. 'A Completely Wasted Life') (1997) and L'éternité est inutile ('Eternity is useless') (2002). Autin-Grenier dedicated Toute une vie to his dog Music. The first story of that is called 'Je n'ai pas grand chose à dire en ce moment' ('I've not a great deal to say at the moment'), which of course is hardly the kind of beginning to set the world alight.

I suspect Autin-Grenier is known by very few people outside France, and even within his own country itself I doubt if very many people are aware of his existence. He nevertheless has a small, very devoted, group of enthusiasts: he's something of a cult figure.

The title Je ne suis pas un heros ('I'm not a hero') and Roland Topor's painting Rire panique ('Panique Laughter') on the front cover say a lot. Many of Autin-Grenier's stories include self-deprecation, the narrator seeing himself as a little man in a threatening world, one full of monsters which are often admitted to be part of his own imagination. This is a world of casual, everyday, even uninteresting events shot through with surreal happenings that could have been horrifically treated but are simply seen as part of the norm. In 'Des fourmis', for instance, a man shaking lettuce in front of his house sees his arm drop off and roll into the grass, he rushes to chase after it and one of his legs drop off, he hobbles on and his head drops off, his wife views all this from the window and laughs, etc: reading this is like watching a cartoon.

It's taken me quite a while (well, two or three days on and off) to work out what Autin-Grenier is about, but I've arrived at a very good idea from looking beyond this book: after all, a writer's worth can't be summed up by reading a small quantity of his or her output. In 2010 Les Éditions des chemins de fer published Elodie Cordou, la disparition, a remarkable book by Autin-Grenier having just fifty-two pages all about a woman Autin-Grenier knew in his youth, but who now seems untraceable. There is no resolution and the narrator is just left with his memories of, for example, discussing the complete works of the poet Norwich Restinghale with Elodie.

Elodie Cordou is lavishly illustrated with paintings of Cordou by Ronan Barrot, but Autin-Grenier says that although some group photos including her from her university days may still be mouldering away in a few graduates' scrapbooks, she was intensely camera-shy. Oh, the internet has made things so very much easier, and it's simple to discover that Norwich Restinghale is a fictional character in Christian Garcin's novel Du Bruit dans les arbres (2002), and it goes without saying that Elodie Cordou has never had any more substance than Restinghale.

I'm coming round: the Autin-Grenier spell is beginning to work on me.

21 December 2014

François-Paul Alibert: Le Fils de Loth (2002)

François-Paul Alibert (1873–1953) was a poet and a journalist who was born and buried in Carcassonne.

His erotic gay novel Le Supplice d'une queue (lit. 'The Torture of a Dick') was published and sold under the counter in 1930–31 in a print run of only ninety copies by René Bonnel in the same volume as Hugo Marsan's Le Jeu de l'amour et de la nécessité (lit. 'The Game of Love and Necessity', and an obvious pun on Marivaux's play Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard).

Alibert's second (gay) novel – Une Couronne de Pines (lit. 'A Crown of Cocks') with a print run again of about one hundred – was confiscated by the police.

His third novel – Le Fils de Loth (lit. 'Lot's Son') – was called 'the most audacious' of Alibert's works by Joë Bousquet (1897–1950), who is perhaps Carcassonne's most famous poet. The above scan is the first edition, meaning that it took about seventy years to be published. That was by Musardine, and it has an Introduction by Emmanuel Pierrat and a Preface by Didier Eribon. The cover illustration is from Ils, dessins érotiques de Jean Cocteau (Annie Guédras, Le Pré aux clercs, 1998).

Le Fils de Loth takes as its subject not simply male homosexual love, but also gay incestuous love. At the beginning of the book Alibert uses a quotation from André Gide's Nouvelles Nourritures, in which he speaks of Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt and Lot then sleeping with his daughters. Didier Eribon says that this could almost be seen as Alibert cocking an advance snook at the 'psychoanalytical vulgate' of judging homosexuality as a reversal of the Oedipus story: the male child dreaming of sleeping with his father and seeing his mother as a rival.

On first appearances it seems odd that this boundary-breaking book should come not from the literary centre of Paris but from the small town of Carcassonne, tucked away in the south-west of France. But then, there was a long correspondence between Gide and Alibert which lasted from 1907 to 1950: Didier suggests that Alibert was tempted to go beyond boundaries both because that is just what Gide had done with L'Immoraliste, and because of Alibert's taste for Helleno-Latin culture.

Le Fils de Loth begins with the young lovers Roland and André enjoying each other by the sea and Roland asking who initiated André into the art of love. André says that it was his father, and so begins a long explanation with only occasional interruptions.

Every attempt is made to make André's incestuous relationship very natural, wished for, chosen, non-exploitative. From the time that the seven-year-old boy shares a bed with his father when the mother is away and he enjoys his father's rugged masculinity and he is excited by his father's morning glory he knows that there is a power he must discover, although his father Édouard feel something is not right and they sleep alone afterwards, even though nothing of an overt sexual nature has actually happened.

André has never had any interest in girls but is particularly sexually excited by his father. When years later father and son sleep in separate beds Édouard – when he believes André is sleeping – has a tremendous wank (I don't think the word 'masturbate' is ever used), and André knows that he is having this effect on his father. But neither can express their feelings for each other.

It remains for Édouard's friend Michel to play Cupid and bring the fifteen-year-old André sexually together with his father, and the lovers have a number of days of unbridled passion, with full descriptions of many of their activities.

In the end André dies of meningitis, the nameless mother dies, Édouard is living with Michel, and the reader wonders what to make of all this. It wouldn't have been possible to publish this book in the 1930s, and although now pretty much anything of a sexual nature goes in terms of the written word the fact remains that even though André is a more than willing partner and even instigates a number of things sexually, this is still parental abuse of a child.

As Eribon states, and I translate: 'This book will again ask the eternal question: is everything possible in literature? How far can you go?' He also says that Alibert took it upon himself to push the boundaries back, and I think that's the best way to view the book: as a curiosity, a literary experiment.

20 December 2014

Lorette Nobécourt: La Démangeaison (1994)

The expression 'Génération Houellebecq' has been used to describe contemporary French writers not of a recognisable school – and indeed many who could assume this label are often very different from each other – but of a number of writers preoccupied with themselves, the body, sex, and perhaps with the state of France and the world in general. Such writers of course include Michel Houellebecq, but also Virginie Despentes, Nina Bouraoui, Christine Angot, and Lorette Nobécourt.

Michel Houellebecq's first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, was coincidentally published in 1994, the same year as the publication of Lorette Nobécourt's first novel, La Démangeaison (lit. 'The Itching'). The subject is psoriasis – very acute psoriasis, lasting a number of years, and from which Nobécourt herself suffered in childhood and youth. This book is a fictionalisation, with the protagonist Irène as the narrator.

This is a short novel, but no easy or quick read: it is painful, and Nobécourt makes no compromise with the readers' sensibilities. Before the first page of text, the quotation is by Nietzsche: 'the serpent would die if it didn't change its skin'. The novel takes us beyond good and evil, but the particular remark about skin is very relevant here: it is full of words such as 'skin', 'scratching', 'itching', 'sores', 'swellings', 'pus', 'blood', 'scales', 'wounds', 'smell', 'marks', 'scabs', 'oozing', etc. The reader is forced to some extent to identify with the victim.

Irène has suffered from psoriasis since about six months of age and her bourgeois parents have never shown her any affection and her mother sometimes beats her. Her psoriasis is a mark of her difference, making her a stranger in the world she strives to survive in. She speaks early on of washing in icy water her skin lacerated with 'hieroglyphics', and the language of the body will play a part later in the story.

Irène sees her family as complete hypocrites, making the external show of caring by attending church every Sunday but in private being anything but caring to their sick child. Unsurprisingly, Irène initially sees herself as guilty, as 'abnormal'. But she knows her mental state is preferable to that of the others around her.

One day, pushing her little sister on a swing the corners cracks her head hard and she has to have an operation. But she refuses an anaesthetic, fearing that during the operation they'll take sometime out, or put something in that will cause her to wake up like them, without 'la conscience de mon être: 'the consciousness of my being'.

Irène comes to be her illness, to love it. Her parents are only too willing to send her to a small boarding school, where although the other girls call her 'Caiman' and 'Hippocampe' in reference to the loss of her scales and the roughness of her skin, but at least she can immerse herself in the solitary pursuit of reading. And later she writes and writes in school notebooks, writing the scratches of her body into word.

On leaving school Irène, being freed from her psoriasis, finds a job as a proof reader until the marks return and make it impossible for her to go back to work. The relationship between her marked body and her sexuality is strongly felt not so much so her masturbating alone in bed, or at peep shows, but in her rapport with Rodolphe.

Rodophe is about fifteen and doesn't ask any questions about her body marks, and as he masturbates her she teaches him to scratch her, harder, and harder, and harder. Their sexual relationship lasts a few months until he has to go on holiday with his parents. Then he returns, and she is taken to a psychiatric hospital for, it seems, killing him.

In the last paragraph there are suggestions of an unreliable narrator, when Irène says she's lied a great deal, that she never had a younger sister, she's the eldest, but that changes nothing in the end, as the extremes of psoriasis are real.

My other Nobécourt posts:

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Lorette Nobécourt: La Conversation
Lorette Nobécourt: En nous la vie des morts

17 December 2014

Rowena Edlin-White: Kate Douglas Wiggin and Bramall Hall (2007)

I had intended to tie in a blog post about Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856–1923) with a visit to Bramall Hall, Stockport, Cheshire, but unfortunately it's been closed 'for restoration and refurbishment' since the end of this September, and doesn't re-open until spring 2016. Meanwhile I've read Rowena Edlin-White's Kate Douglas Wiggin and Bramall Hall, which underlines the very interesting relationship between the North American writer and this part of England.

Kate Douglas Wiggin first visited England in 1890, the year after the death of her first husband, Samuel Bradley Wiggin. It was towards the end of her stay – after she had also visited several countries in Europe – that she accepted Charles and Mary Nevill's invitation to visit them at their home: Bramall Hall, the Elizabethan manor house which the calico printer Thomas Henry Nevill had bought for his son Charles in 1882. She stayed there five days, but this was to be the first of many usually annual visits up to about 1913, after which the First World War – along with Charles's death – intervened.

In her autobiography My Garden of Memory published posthumously but in the same year as her death Wiggin speaks of Bramall Hall's 'picturesque beauty and grandeur', and says that the death of Mary (1901) and Charles (1916) 'left a great blank in my list of English friendships'.

She loved the luxury of the great house, and slept in the Davenport Room:

'When I go to bed at night there is a procession of room-maids, ladies' maids, housekeepers and others, with warming pans, jugs of hot water, candles, eider-down quilts, and hot gin and water! In the morning a procession arrives with different articles, and oh! how I like it!'

Wiggin initially visited Bramall Hall with Chatto & Windus publisher Percy Spalding's wife, although later she went with her sister Nora Archibald Smith (also a writer) or George Riggs, her second husband, whom she married in 1895.

Kate Douglas Wiggin is noted for the 'Penelope' books, the first of which Penelope's English Experiences was published in one volume with A Cathedral Courtship in 1893, although revised editions of each were published in 1900 and 1901 respectively. The germ of Penelope's English Experiences began on her first visit to Bramall Hall, and her most famous book Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) – was dedicated to Charles Henry Nevill, 'under whose dear English roof so many of these chapters were written'.

Rowena Edlin-White wrote her doctoral thesis on Kate Douglas Wiggin, and it is clear from the back cover of this very interesting book that she wants the 'Penelope' series to be as well known as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. And also, of course, that the link between Kate Douglas Wiggin and Bramall Hall be better known: which it probably won't be while it remains closed.

16 December 2014

Véronique Bizot: Mon couronnement (2010)

After publishing two books of short stories, Le Couronnement is Veronique Bizot's first novel, although she's since written two more: Un avenir (2011) and Âme qui vive, which reached the final for this year's Médicis award. With just one paragraph for each of its eighteen chapters and no speech markers, this short novel initially appears a little daunting, but it's not at all.

Eighty-seven-year-old Gilbert Kaplan is the narrator, although we don't find out his name until much later in this book, which is in many ways a study of the absurdity of life, although its treatment of it is in general far from pessimistic. People in it go mad or are thought to be mad but are dealt with in an amusing fashion – M. Schenker, Gilbert's maths teacher at university, is taken away in the middle of a lecture; Gilbert's first wife (he only had one but he calls her his first), jumped out of a window of their house and her false teeth he keeps in a plastic bag to remember her; Colette Lenoir is a more doubtful case of madness, although she keeps Gilbert waiting in her flat for his old friend Henry Lenoir – her husband – until Gilbert suspects that Henry may have died some time before.

The central absurdity is the fact Gilbert has received an award for an important discovery he made when he was a scientist, although this is so long ago that Gilbert has forgotten what his discovery was: far from being delighted by this belated recognition, he sees the attention he's receiving as rather an invasion of his privacy and disruption of his routine.

And Gilbert's routine revolves around his housekeeper Mme Ambrunaz cooking for him and mothering him. She lives in the large property, sleeping in a room overlooked by Gilbert's stone sculptures left over from the later work he took up before it became too strenuous for him. She obviously lives for Gilbert and there's an unrecognised mutuality in this relationship.

Certainly there are no other people whose company he really enjoys. His brother Victor is preoccupied by his novel writing and his fame, and will never forget that his wife left him and was in love with Gilbert, although Gilbert didn't know this and didn't even have a relationship with her; his son is perfunctorily filial; he really doesn't like his sister Alice, who lives in her beloved Alsace and leaves a tacky souvenir from the place each time she visits him; apart from Mme Ambrunaz, the only other person of importance to him was his sister Louise, whom he's not seen for many years and who ran off with a bishop (now long dead) in order to do good works around the world.

Shortly before the dreaded presentation ceremony, Mme Ambrunaz decides to give Gilbert's spirit a lift by taking him to Le Touquet for two nights: she can stay with a nearby distant relative and show him around the town in the day. So she gingerly spends a while reversing Gilbert's old car which she in the beginning drives with white knuckles but handles the autoroute well enough, telling him not to talk to her as it spoils her concentration. And they both love the brief break, and Gilbert wants to tell Mme Ambrunaz how much he truly appreciates her, but he just can't manage it.

They're both very tired when they return but Mme Ambrunaz is in a hurry to have the holiday photos developed. He says he'll go with her too but then notices she's still staring at him, leaning her head back on the sofa. But she can't see him.

Both Gilbert and Mme Ambrunaz expected that he'd die before her and be buried in the plot that she'd chosen for them miles away from the Paris area, a lovely cemetery in the country. But it happened the other way round and it's time for Gilbert to take a taxi to this absurd presentation ceremony. When he arrives he finds a huge crowd, and spots a little group with his brother, his own son, and his sister Alice. But of course no Mme Ambrunaz, and no sister Louise. He decides not to go in.

Earlier in the book Gilbert goes to a book-signing session to buy his brother's latest tome: a seven hundred pager, because Victor says the public wants big books with big themes. Consciously, I'm sure, Veronique Bizot is making a comment on her own book, which is on the surface quite the reverse of Victor's: it has just one hundred pages of print, and ostensibly has a very small theme. But I found that Mon couronnement has a resonance far greater than many much 'bigger' books. This is a little treasure.

15 December 2014

Erik Orsenna: La Grammaire est une chanson douce | Grammar Is a Gentle, Sweet Song (2001)

I've read this before: it's the kind of book you can read a number of times without its freshness ever leaving you. It's a sort of fairy story for adults.

The narrator is the ten-year-old Jeanne – think of Joan of Arc, she boasts – who has a fourteen-year-old brother Thomas, and their parents are divorced. They're used to travelling by ship to see their parents when school's out, but this time there's a shipwreck and they are the only survivors. They spend a brief time on a small island until their parents come and collect them. But it's what they see on the island that is important.

La Grammaire est une chanson douce is strong on social criticism: in the first chapter we see Jeanne and her class friends being taught by Mademoiselle Laurencin, a woman in love with literature and words in general who has to be sent to have her enthusiasm ironed out and a more 'scientific' approach instilled. On the island the children – who have both lost their voices in the wreck – learn of the politician Nécrole, who sometimes burns down libraries to the delight of 'business men, bankers and economists': limiting vocabulary makes sound business sense.

Jeanne and Thomas are shown around the island by Monsieur Henri, who is a creation inspired by the guitar-playing wordsmith Henri Salvador (1917–2008). Monsieur Henri teaches them to find their voices again, and tells them that without language things – life itself – will die. On the island there's a shop, for instance, where customers can buy words to express their love for someone: saying 'I love you' is not enough, it's a hackneyed expression that becomes tired and wears out through overuse. Words are seen as living organisms that form relationships with other words, which bond, even marry. A very old and very respected woman breathes life into archaic words to revive them.

A sheer joy to read.

(I note that the English translator couldn't decide whether 'douce' means 'gentle' or 'sweet' here, so in the end kept both words: I don't know what the rest of the translation reads like, but the title is in the spirit of the book itself!)

14 December 2014

Paule Constant: Confidence pour confidence (1998)

This is the novel which took many people by surprise and won the Prix Goncourt of 1998, easily defeating the book in my post below – Michel Houellebecq's Les Particules élémentaires. It's also a novel which appears not to be among the most popular of the Goncourt winners.

The book depicts a huis clos in the imaginary town of Middleway, Kansas, in the black American academic Gloria Patter's house: briefly staying with her (on the occasion of a feminist symposium) are three other women in their late forties.

These are the Jewish Algerian professor Babette Cohen, who is also a settled in the United States; the French writer Aurore Amer, who has spent much time researching in Africa; and Lola Dohl, a washed-out Norwegian actress whose face betrays years of alcohol abuse.

There's a beginning and an end here but it's very digressive and the main interests are in the personal political dynamics of the situation and the details of the protagonists' past. There's also some amusement to be found here and I particularly enjoyed: Gloria's description of the way people avoid direct speaking today – well, at the time of writing at least – by making quotation marks with their fingers; Aurore saving Lola embarrassment by sending her back into the bathroom to undo her catastrophic face make-up; and Aurore's occasional friendship with the prostitute Leila and her mongrel dog.

It was interesting to learn that Paule Constant was in a huis clos experience herself some years previously, and that she was determined to introduce a take on the killing of a rat that happened at the time: not very pleasant, but after squeezing the sick rat to death Gloria lies and says that she's writing a novel called La mort-aux-rats. In fact the book she's (sort of) writing is to called African Woman, and for me this is the most amusing part of  Confidence pour confidence.

The writer Pierre Assouline claimed to have discovered that the novelist Calixthe Beyala had plagiarised passages of Constant's novel White Spirit (1989) in Assèze l'Africaine (1994). Defenders of Beyala speak of 'intertextuality', although Constant was aware of Beyala's book. In Confidence pour confidence, she has Gloria plagiarize the white Aurore's new and as yet unpublished novel by translating it into English as her own book.

Confidence pour confidence certainly has its moments. As Gloria says to Babette (and I translate): 'Who is plagiarizing whom? The Whites who are copying my Africa? It's not enough for them to have colonised our countries, now they're doing it to our books!'. (As a point of interest, Paule Constant spent some years in Africa, and her father was an Algerian pied-noir.)

11 December 2014

Michel Houellebecq: Les Particules élémentaires | Atomised (1998)

In 1994 Michel Houellebecq published his first novel, which was bizarrely translated into English as Whatever. I say 'bizarre' because the English title misses out the meaning behind the original title Extension du domaine de la lutte. Houellebecq's allusion was to the Marxist class struggle ('lutte') of financially rich and financially poor being extended to the sex rich and the sex poor. Les Particules élémentaires continues and extends the arguments.

It was expected by many that this novel would win the Prix Goncourt of 1998, although it came as a great surprise – indeed as a shock to many – that Paule Constant won with Confidence pour confidence. Some reviewers even compared this unexpected result to the 'scandal' of Guy Mazeline winning the 1932 Goncourt with Les Loups (a book and a writer long forgotten) instead of Céline's masterpiece Voyage au bout de la nuit. Houellebecq eventually won the Goncourt with La Carte et le territoire, although not before a second unexpected occurrence: oddly, in 2005 François Weyergans's Trois Jours chez ma mère was absent from the first selection, but appeared in the second and third selections and went on to beat Houellebecq's La Possibilité d'une île (Island).

The above are a few examples of Goncourt oddities, although perhaps the oddest thing in the history of Les Particules élémentaires is Lucie Ceccaldi – Houellebecq's eighty-three-year-old mother – turning up on the French literary scene in 2008 not only in an attempt to denounce her son as a liar, but to do so in her book L'Innocente, a 413-page rant.

Controversy has not so much dogged Houellebecq throughout his writing career as helped him to achieve a very high level of fame over a relatively short time. Does he deserve it, or is this book in particular just the pessimistic, pretentious verbiage that some people have attacked it for? In a word, yes, I think he does deserve high acclaim.

But it's difficult, in a few words, to say what kind of book this is. It is to a small extent fictionalised autobiography, certainly, but it is also a denunciation of the hippie period and contemporary French society in general, it is a pornographic novel, a horror story, a scientific tract, and even a work of science fiction. In parts, it also manages to be surprisingly tender.

Michel Djerzinski and his half-brother Bruno have been abandoned by their mother, who has gone off to join a hippie colony. Michel grows up to be a molecular biologist with little desire for sex and an inability to love. Bruno is physically and sexually abused at school, and grows up obsessed with sex, to the point of it driving him mad: at one point, as a school teacher he masturbates in front of a fifteen-year-old girl and he subsequently becomes an inmate in a psychiatric hospital.

Via Bruno in particular, Les Particules élémentaires attacks the soixante-huitards (the hippie generation) for their hedonism and suggests that one of the natural results of this attitude was the monster Charles Manson. (I wholly disagree with this theory, but no matter.)

The body's decay and the ageing process in general  are prominent in the novel, and in spite of both Bruno and Michel finding brief companionship (of rather different kinds) in Christiane and Annabelle  respectively, both women kill themselves: the first as a result of paralysis, the second after a hysterectomy.

Bruno finishes up going back to the psychiatric hospital, his libido lost in a chemical straitjacket. But although Michel also eventually kills himself, it's not without creating a great name for himself as a scientist cloning, creating the people of the future: immortal and sterile.

My other posts on Michel Houellebecq:

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Michel Houellebecq: Platforme | Platform
Michel Houellebecq: La Carte et le territoire | The Map and the Territory

7 December 2014

Philippe Besson: En l'absence des hommes | In the Absence of Men (2001)

Most of the men are absent in this summer of 1916 because they're fighting in World War I, although a few men are brought together in Paris: the aristocratic Vincent de l'Étoile and the great writer Marcel Proust; and Vincent again with the housekeeper's son Arthur Valès, a soldier who has a week's leave.

Vincent, a sixteen-year-old far wiser than his years, is soon seeing the forty-five-year-old Proust every afternoon either at his home or in an expensive café: the two men are of the same class, are very intelligent, and almost instinctively recognise that they are of homosexual persuasion. But although the relationship becomes loving and confidential, it remains Platonic.

When Vincent gets together with the twenty-one-year-old Arthur though, the two enjoy seven nights of sexual bliss. Vincent's father knows nothing of this, although he knows that his son is friendly with Arthur and tries to discourage the mixed-class relationship. Later, Housekeeper Blanche will initially tacitly show that she is aware of the real nature of the relationship.

More than half of the book is the first part, which ends with Arthur leaving for an unknown future in an increasingly bloody war. The second half – almost a quarter of the book – is purely epistolary, with Arthur and Vincent expressing their deep love for each other, and Vincent slowly revealing his love affair to an understanding and avuncular Proust. The final letter is just a few lines: Vincent sending the news to Proust of Arthur's death.

The final part of the book is brief, with Vincent giving some consolation to Blanche by telling her of his deep love for her son, who Blanche informs him has loved Vincent since he first saw him. She also tells Vincent why she could never reveal who Arthur's father was. At the end of the 19th century circumstances drove Blanche to prostitution, although her shame led her to only have sex once with one client before she fled from the brothel.

The client was an aristocratic man whose father had given him money to go to the brothel because of his reluctance towards the opposite sex, and both Blanche and man found the experience uncomfortable. It doesn't exactly require great guesswork to figure out the identity of the father of Arthur.

The strength of the book is in its psychological insights, its understatement, the subtle characterisation. This is Philippe Besson's first novel, and I found it much more successful than the other two novels of his I've read: Son frère and La Trahison de Thomas Spencer. One small point though – on page 66 Vincent mentions the word 'surréaliste': this is supposed to have been written in 1916, but surely the word wasn't used until later?

My other posts on Philippe Besson:

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Philippe Besson: La Trahison de Thomas Spencer
Philippe Besson: Son frère
Philippe Besson: Un instant d'abandon
Philippe Besson: Un garçon d'Italie

6 December 2014

Éric Reinhardt: Cendrillon (2007)

'Que serais-je devenu si je n'avais pas rencontré Margot à vingt-trois ans?'

'What would have become of me if I hadn't met Margot when I was twenty-three?'

So reads the back cover of this edition of Éric Reinhardt's Cendrillon (lit. 'Cinderella'). On page 308, the frequent first-person narrator (who calls himself Éric Reinhardt) speaks about his 'synthético-théoriques' avatars Laurent Dahl, Thierry Trockel and Patrick Neftel, whose stories are all related in the third person, sandwiched between the narratives of 'Éric Reinhardt'.

I read many reviews by non-professional critics of Cendrillon, and wasn't at all surprised to find that a number of people only read so much of this whopping 568-page pavé that has sections but no paragraphs, whose dialogues run on continuously in italics, and whose speakers are introduced by a long dash. Some readers suggest that you can skip whole chunks without loosing the thread. Others say that the author has an ego the size of the book, and that he imagines himself as an heir to James Joyce.

Well, this is no easy-to-read book, and pages and pages of unbroken text – particularly when the subject is hedge funds (and there's a lot of that) – are somewhat (let's be polite) daunting, but I kept reading, I didn't throw the book at the wall. In parts I was reminded of a difficult Jonathan Franzen, and I even thought that perhaps this is more like Franzen should write – pushing the post-modernist boat, experimenting more.

This book is no modern inferior version of Finnegans Wake Joyce, not even Ulysses Joyce: it's much more accessibly experimental than that. There are some really funny episodes here, such as Laurel's father's boss's wife puking on the entrance hall carpet, or a pubescent Laurel himself trying to clean up his diarrhoea in his would-be girlfriend's family home toilet, or even an increasingly crazy Patrick Neftel smashing his sister's bridegroom's goofy teeth in.

But this is in some respects a dark book, a book of modern life where there are super-winners and super-losers, where rampant capitalism is a tremendously destructive force, where the globalisation card trumps all.

We have 'Éric Reinhardt', family man writing and researching mainly (it seems) at Le Nemours café, Place Colette, Paris; then we follow the adventures of Laurel and his many 'dolls' (million dollars); and we see his unfortunate father morph into Patrick's father, who kills himself by stabbing a fork into his throat at the dinner table and thus also ruins the life of his son, making him not only unemployable but also insane.

Often, what goes up must come down and Laurel has to flee from hedge fund hell. Patrick, a modern Don Quixote seen as a terrorist, drives off to tilt at windmills created by television rather than books. And Thierry Trockel has a small part in this too: his brain is turned by the kind of porn sites where you get to meet real people with warts and all. Welcome to twentieth-first-century reality.

4 December 2014

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: Milarepa (1997)

Eric-Emmanuel wrote Milarepa for Bruno Abraham-Kremer, who later directed it as a play. Milarepa (1040–1123) was a Tibetan Buddhist, and a magician, yogi and poet who fascinates Schmitt, a non-Buddhist partly because he's too passionate, as he explains in the Afterword interview with Bruno Metzger in the above edition.

Milarepa is a short narrative, much like a short story rather than a novel, and Schmitt won the Prix Goncourt for the short story in 2010 with Concerto à la mémoire d'un ange. It forms the first part of Schmitt's 'Cycle de l'invisible', which also includes Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, Oscar et la dame rose, L'Enfant de Noé, Le Sumo qui ne pouvait pas grossir, and Les dix enfants que madame Ming n'a jamais eus.

The story begins with Simon, who is troubled by a recurring dream that he has to kill someone. A strange woman he initially believes is insane comes up to him in a café and informs him that he is a reincarnation of the hateful Svastika, the uncle of the sage Milarepa. But she is telling the truth and Simon has a long way to go before the cycle of rebirths can be broken.

As Schmitt says in the interview, Milarepa would have been a yawn if he'd started out as a goodie-goodie and became a sage, as opposed to the revengeful mass murderer he originally was, and who grew into a sage through years of duress: it takes no time to be a villain, but to become a genuine sage requires extremely hard work and a considerable gift for the task.

My other Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt blog post:

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Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: La Tectonique des sentiments