21 November 2017

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Salle de bain | The Bathroom (1985)

That is, not 'bathroom' in the American sense. La Salle de bain was Jean-Philippe's first novel, which seems to be about a madman, although – with the exception of one particular instance – it is really funny for much of the time, if funny in both senses of the word. Post-modern this certainly is, and Oulipian too in that the constraint is a huge lack of information about the psychology of the first person narrator, a historical researcher who does no professional research here.

In fact he is obviously undergoing some kind of crisis, and the Pythagorian theorem about the square of the hypotenuse is a kind of illustration of the form of the book: the first and last sections are called 'Paris', the middle one 'L'Hypoténuse'. 'L'Hypoténuse' mainly takes place not in Austria where the narrator has been asked to go to, but Venice (water, bathroom, of course) where he flees to under some kind of psychologically-driven panic.

Not that he does anything much there, apart from watch football on television, or 'talk' in one of the only ways possible that he can to someone (the hotel barman) whose language he doesn't share: by exchanging names of esteemed footballers and racing drivers. He also shows interest in tennis, although it's far easier to throw darts at a circle chalked on a wardrobe panel.

Until, that is, he entices his girlfriend Edmondsson (who works in an art gallery) over to join him, and with great force he (for no reason that we're aware of) hurls a dart with great into her forehead and (after a short time in a Venetian hospital) she returns to Paris. His reaction to his behaviour perhaps brings on another crisis: a doctor in Venice tells him he has to be treated for sinusitis, which causes him to stay for a few nights at the hospital in preparation for the treatment he never has: he simply takes the plane back to Paris.

At the beginning of the novel he has spent a great deal of time in his bathroom, and it appears that he may do the same again on his return. He also spends long moments in bed, in non-activity. Contrary to Edmondsson, he loves Mondrian, whom he sees as a painter of immobility, contrary to most paintings, which he sees as highly mobile. Staring at a crack in his bathroom wall in Paris he sees no movement. Similarly, (although it's sinking at the rate of thirty centimeters per century) Venice, even if the narrator and Edmundsson tread heavily on the streets, their effect on the sinking of the place will be like water off a duck's back, as it is only sinking at the rate of 0.0000001 of a millimetre per second.

Before the narrator's violent attack on his girlfriend, he (and occasionally his girlfriend too) used to enjoy doing a few slightly malicious things, such as having really long (especially long-distance) conversations on the phone while Edmondsson's employee wasn't there; the narrator also enjoys holding people up by asking them complicated directions, and goes out of his way to find anyone in a hurry; having enjoyed an evening meal and afternoon drink with the hospitable doctor and his wife, the narrator walks right out of their lives saying he has to return to his hotel and his wife. Come again? No, no.

A very weird book that only the French (OK, I mean the French-speaking: Toussaint is Belgian) do really well.

19 November 2017

Christophe Ono-dit-Biot: Plonger (2013)

First and foremost Christophe Ono-dit-Biot's Plonger (lit. 'Diving') is a love story, and at 454 pages a long one, but it is much more than that. Winner of the Grand prix du roman de l'académie française and the Prix Renaudot des lycéens for 2013, Plonger was a critical as well as a popular success.

Plonger is packed with cultural references, sometimes mentioned in passing, sometimes dwelt on rather more, and these references come from many different periods, and many different sources. Homer is an obvious one, but he blends in freely with the statue Hermaphrodite endormi (of which there is a photo in the novel, although not at all from an obvious angle: i.e. the female breasts and erect penis aren't visible); Josef Koudelka's photos of gypsies and his own outsiderdom; Charles Ray's sculpture Boy with Frog in Venice; Pulp's song 'Disco 2000'; even an important mention of Philip Larkin's poem 'Water' towards the end, etc, etc.

The internet is vital here too, although there are a few reflections on modern technology (maybe particularly via ordiphones (or smartphones)) reducing the quality of our lives, along with other technological 'progress'. But then the narrator, the journalist César (father of war hero Hector) wouldn't have met his partner the photographer Paz (mother of Hector and whose name is Spanish for 'peace', of course) without the internet.

And forces drive César and Paz into opposite camps: initially Paz meets César after his article on her work, and she likes the way he writes but says he's completely got the wrong idea of it: Paz's photographic studies of beaches (or more exactly the touristic enjoyment of them) aren't about enjoyment at all but about vacancy, or emptiness.

There's also a case of empty pram syndrome here, as Paz is very much against having any children. But as César slyly throws Paz's birth control pills into the gooseberry bushes (OK, I'm slightly exaggerating to make a point), Paz, at about the same time as she becomes pregnant, 'adopts' a hammerhead shark.

César can understand texts to the beautiful Paz saying things like 'Great night, let's do it again', or 'I'm touching myself thinking of you', but what is he to understand by one entitled 'Ampoules de Lorenzini' (or 'ampullae of Lorenzini'): Google the expression, of course. And it refers to the highly sensitive 'sixth sense' that sharks have to detect electro-magnetic waves that might be emitted by predators or, say, humans diving for touristic pearls but with thumping hearts.

But perhaps the main bone of contention between César and (the much younger) Paz is that whereas he has 'done' the world, is not a little frightened of the way it's going and prefers to stay in Europe, she hasn't travelled but wants to. So she amicably leaves César for eight months.

That's where the novel really begins, but with the end already known: Paz has been found dead, naked on the beach of an unnamed Gulf country, and César is flying out to identify her body. She's apparently just died by drowning, but is there anything more sinister to it? And who is this Marin she's been getting all the texts from?

The end of CODB's novel may not be the most surprising, but most importantly it's the way he tells the story, which held me from beginning to end, no hitches: this is a fascinating, masterful  work.

16 November 2017

Thomas B. Reverdy: Il était une ville (2015)

Couverture du roman Les évaporés
It obviously makes commercial sense to set a novel in an Anglophone country, as it's for one thing more likely to be translated into English. And it's better still if that country is the USA, as that's a far sexier place than England, for instance. In any case – as I learned when I was teaching in France – the French have long had a love affair with the USA: I seem to remember reading somewhere that even Jean-Paul Sartre loved American cartoons.

Thomas B. Reverdy's Il était une ville isn't about New York, or San Francisco or L.A., but Detroit, Michigan in 2008 during the sub-prime crisis. But even this, of course, is sexier than, say, Dagenham at any time.

This novel is fictional, although of course the background, the near-ghost town that was Detroit, with its lack of jobs, people abandoning worthless houses, the very few remaining retail outlets, the tense, violent atmosphere, the hell-hole that the town has become, are all there.

Il était une ville is in some ways a detective story, in others a post-apocalyptic, almost science fiction novel. Here, we have Eugène, the French guy parachuted down to boot up the car industry, which in the end he gives up on as a kind of joke, resigns and leaves the work to China, and hopes that the barmaid Candice will continue her relationship with him; there's twelve-year-old Charlie, brought up by his grandmother Georgia,* who goes missing to join the gang hanging out in the former school; and then there's Lieutenant Brown (nicknamed, er, Marlowe), the ageing cop who's trying his best under difficult circumstances to track down lost kids.

All this adds up to a highly readable novel about the collapse of a small part of civilisation which, the reader can't help thinking, might easily occur again, only on a much bigger scale.

*Georgia is incorrectly called 'Gloria' on the back cover: an editorial boob which has caught out many 'reviewers' of a book they obviously haven't read? Or is it a deliberate error, to weed out those who have just pretended to read it? We'll never know.

12 November 2017

Serge Joncour: L'Écrivain national (2014)

In Serge Joncour's L'Écrivain national, the writer Serge has been invited by a bookstore in a small town in the Nièvre and Morvan area for a month making library visits and helping writing groups and suchlike. How can he resist, even if the mayor of the town condescendingly calls him 'L'Écrivain national', and his supposedly plush hotel doesn't quite live up to expectations?

A few other things don't quite live up to expectations, but then this is deepest rural France, and the locals, while not being stereotypical hicks, aren't exactly too well up on contemporary culture. Why should this concern the national writer anyway, when he is greeted at the train station (Serge Joncour loves France's train network) by the woman in the station bar who serves him a coffee and a slightly old edition of the local paper?

The national writer is so riveted by a news item in the paper that he doesn't touch his coffee. Or rather, the news item, which he tears from the paper, contains the transfixing photo of the néorurale Dora, partner of the néorural Aurélik, who has been retained in custody following the disappearance of the supposedly rich octogenarian Commodore. Dora has been cleared from any blame. The small town is buzzing with tales of the disappearance, and initially less than buzzing with the appearance of the national writer.

But the locals' interest in the national writer grows almost in proportion as the national writer's interest in his temporary post decreases. The locals, in fact, think he's spending far too much time where Dora is, even that he's sexually involved with her: which isn't true, well not until towards the end at least.

A love story removed from the norm this certainly is, but it's also one of cannabis harvests, an accidental death by one of the least suspected locals, and surely above all an unconventional detective story without a moral, or rather a novel about an amateur detective with highly questionable morals, whose morals are in his underpants? Fascinating stuff, though.

My other Serge Joncour post:
Serge Joncour: L'Idole

9 November 2017

Alain-Fournier: Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)

Alain-Fournier's only novel Le Grand Meaulnes was a relatively short time ago voted sixth most favourite book in a survey of readers on La Grande Librairie. Why? Because it's a great novel? I can't believe that, interesting as it most certainly is. André Gide thought it overly long, its first one hundred pages being the most interesting, and I have to agree. But then, in a list with Saint Exupéry's Le Petit Prince at the top, and Camus's (surely hugely overrated) L'Étranger in second position, what should we expect?

Le Petit Prince and L'Étranger, even Le Grand Meaulnes, are fascinating books, but surely in no way represent the greatest in French literature: so what's the problem? Surely it lies in the 'reading' public in general,  very much in the 'on dit' as opposed to the non-dit? How many people have re-read these books after childhood and adolescence, for how many have these been almost the only read books (with possibly the likes of Marc Levy and Guillaume Musso being the only exceptions?)

OK I'm being pessimistic, even insulting perhaps, but what has an adult to learn from reading Le Grand Meaunles? It's about childhood, or rather the gap between childhood, adolescence versus adulthood,* seen through the eyes mainly of the fifteen-year-old narrator François Seurel, who lives with his father and mother, M. Seurel and Millie, who are both school teachers living next to the school in Saint Agathe (in reality Épineuil-le-Fleuriel). The appearance of the seventeen-year-old Augustin Meaunles subverts the other pupils, especially of course the narrator, who shares a room with him.

By chance, on losing his 'borrowed' horse and cart, Meaunles stumbles on the domaine mystérieux, which seems to be run by children having a celebration for Frantz de Galais's (aborted) engagement to Valentine (a beautiful girl based on Alain-Fournier's meeting with Yvonne de Quiévrecourt in 1905). That is when Meaunles falls in love with Frantz's sister Yvonne de Galais, whom he will later marry, have a child by, and er...

There's a certain playfulness with the names: Saint Agathe is a real chapelle in the nearby village of, er, Meaunles, La Ferté-d'Angillon recalls La Chapelle d'Anguillon where Alain-Fournier was born, Vieux-Nançay obviously represents Nançay, etc. But one of the great works of French literature? One of the best remembered, yes.

*Does it really need to be said that later authors such as Alexandre Vialatte and Amélie Nothomb later ploughed a similar theme of puberty being the Fall?

Charles-Louis Philippe: Bubu de Montparnasse: (1901)

Charles-Louis Philippe was born on 4 August 1874 in Cérilly (Allier) and died in Paris in 1909 at the age of thirty-five. He was born into a very poor family, but became one of the co-founders La Nouvelle Revue française. His novel Bubu de Montparnasse is set in the twilight zones of Paris, its main characters being the pimp Maurice (or Bubu de Montparnasse of the title), his prostitute Berthe, and her respectable client Pierre Hardy.

Berthe is essentially worthy and only dragged into prostitution by her lover Maurice, the pimp who live off her, degrades her, and in the end more or less kidnaps her back into a life of sexual slavery.

In between, we have Pierre scraping a legal living and meeting Berthe, with whom he has formed an emotional attachment while she is living with her pimp. There is much material filth amongst the moral degradation, living hand to mouth, and syphilis is a major result, even a symbol perhaps, of that mental degradation: Berthe, Pierre and Maurice all contract it. But religion is never really seen as a way out of the impasse, only mentioned as a way out that some people use.

Pessimistic this short novel certainly is, yet not moralistic, yet there seem to be few ways of escape from poverty, if indeed any, apart from the brief respite of a little cheaply and sordidly made money, and of course theft, resulting perhaps in a custodial sentence before a return to the pimp-prostitute-john cycle.

Outsider Artists, etc.

I've had another minor linking review, and while so doing I've now gathered together the few posts on outsider artists, or similar, which I've made in the past, and created links to them. I've no doubt forgotten a few, but these are the ones that spring instantly to mind:

The Art of Theodore Major
Kevin Duffy, Ashton-in-Makerfield
The Outsider Art of Léopold Truc, Cabrières d'Avignon
Le Musée Extraordinaire de Georges Mazoyer, Ansouis
Le Facteur Cheval's Palais Idéal, Hauterives
Marcel Bascoulard, Bourges

The Little Chapel, Guernsey

1 November 2017

Karl Wood and the Old Parsonage, Bishops Tachbrook, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

I'm grateful to Tim Lisle-Croft for sending me these images of the Old Parsonage, Bishops Tachbrook, near Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, which include a watercolour of the house (where Tim was born) by Karl Wood from 1945, and which Wood gave his parents (probably in exchange for a meal). Here Dr Douglas F. Lisle-Croft, Mrs Joyce K. Lisle-Croft and their three children lived: in all, the Lisle-Croft family lived there from 1938 to 1976.

Before 1904 the Rev John Thomas Hallett lived there. The house was demolished after the death of Tim's parents in 1976. This photo of the house was taken a little before the demolition: of note is the work on the chimneys since the painting was taken. Parsonage Close was built on the land.

31 October 2017

Eugène Manuel in the 16e arrondissement, Paris

The statue of the poet and teacher Eugène Manuel (1823–1901) by Gustave Michel in the courtyard of the 'Petit lycée Janson-de-Sailly', Avenue Georges Mandel.

LE 1er JUIN 1901

Manuel died in rue Mignard, about half a mile from where his statue now stands. Coincidentally, a certain future great philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, was born next door. Unfortunately, much like this building, it is a huge block of flats that doesn't make for a pretty photo. And there's not even a plaque on it.

28 October 2017

Marie NDiaye: Les Grandes Personnes (2011)

In six years Marie NDiaye published five plays: Hilda (1999), Providence (2001), Papa doit manger (2003), Les Serpents (2004) and Rien d'humain (2004). Her sixth play, Les Grandes Personnes came seven years later. In that time a great deal had happened to her: winning the Goncourt, moving to Germany, and becoming a recognised figure of literature at least among French readers of serious works. Andrew Asibong, in his Marie NDiaye: Blankness and Recognition (2013), suggests that although the usual themes are in place, there has been an accompanying 'incongruous drift towards 'uplift', which is sometimes 'superficial' and 'crowd-pleasing'.

Éva and her husband Rudi are being visited by the ghost of 'their' daughter – actually the product of a relationship between Éva and Georges, we discover later – who walked out of the home many years before, although not due to any physical abuse on their part, indeed it seems they have almost killed her with kindness. Her ghost lives in the space under the stairs (which recalls Fanny in En famille). They share their problem with the less well-off couple Georges and his at times bizarre wife Isabelle.

Georges and Isabelle have had just one child, who is a schoolteacher and simply known as Le maître, and who tells his parents that he has been sexually abusing some of the children in his care, that he has raped several: the parents ignore the matter. The question comes to a head at a meeting of parents of the children, with Madame B. accusing Le maître of sodomising her eight-year-old son Karim  with a dildo. The kid's name of course indicates a non-European birth, and Le maître calls her 'Saloperie d'étrangère' and 'Sale métèque'.  In the end Le maître just flies off, reminding us of the daughters in La Sorcière. But these episodes themselves remind us of a true-life incident in which NDiaye's husband was commended by taking a pedophile schoolteacher and driving him to the local police station in Cormeilles, Normandy, where the couple were living at the time.

But there is also another trauma: Éva and Rudi have adopted a son who has the voices of his dead parents speaking from his chest, and they urge him to kill his adopted parents. But Éva and Rudi speak to the voices, and there appears to be a kind of resolution.

My other posts on Marie NDiaye:
Marie NDiaye: La Sorcière
Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe
Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert
Marie NDiaye: Ladivine
Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes
Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison
Marie NDiaye: Mon cœur à l'étroit

Marie NDiaye: Les Serpents

27 October 2017

Marie NDiaye: Les Serpents (2004)

Les Serpents seems to me a very good description of Marie NDiaye's books in general: slippery, slithery, shape-changing, filled with treachery, in the grass waiting to bite you, etc. It's difficult to pin down a snake, and it's difficult to pin down what NDiaye is doing to the reader.

Andrew Asibong, in his masterful Marie NDiaye: Blankness and Recognition (2013) states that Les Serpents is one of NDiaye's 'more complex and repulsive plays'. I can understand that, and I like his comparison with Beckett's Fin de Partie, only with Hell being inside rather than outside, and Mme Diss being Hamm (maybe hammer) to France and Nancy's Clov (perhaps clou, or nail).  But I'm not convinced.

Abuse (especially child abuse) is all over NDiaye's work, as are class differences, indifferences, difference in general, the importance of money, change of identity, unhappy families, constant fear, unspeakable violence, etc.

As this is a play, the comparison with Papa doit manger (regrettably the only other NDiaye play I've yet read) at the beginning at least seems so evident: the long-lost father knocking on the door after money mirrors Mme Diss  knocking on her son's door wanting to borrow money.

But Papa doit manger is much more benign, whereas here we have Nancy's son (also Mme Diss's grandson) beaten, killed by snakes, and then maybe eaten by his father: not unusually, we have a mother walking out on her husband, but then the first wife  feeding her ex-mother-in-law with money in exchange for information.

Not everything is entirely bleak: France (the son's second wife) walks out on her husband in horror that he has tied up their children, and the ex-wife Nancy walks back into the house of horror to take her place, in hope of redeeming both herself and her husband. Welcome to the world of Marie NDiaye: just take a seat and gape, quake and leave thinking 'What just happened?'.

My other posts on Marie NDiaye:
Marie NDiaye: La Sorcière
Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe
Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert
Marie NDiaye: Ladivine
Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes
Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison
Marie NDiaye: Mon cœur à l'étroit

Marie NDiaye: Les Grandes Personnes

Dominique Fabre: Fantômes (2001)

Dominique Fabre's Fantômes is of course about visions, although these are the protagonist Edgar's own visions, springs of life in his adolescent world to which he feels he hardly belongs: he doesn't know his father, he lives in boarding school most of the time, and his mother Isabelle (whom he actually calls 'Isabelle') is very much an absentee mother. Fringe areas of Paris, Ménilmontant and Asnières (where his mother lives) are frequently mentioned: Edgar lives on the fringes of himself.

This novel has a first and third person narrator, a 'je' and an Edgar, although the two are physically but not mentally the same: Edgar exists (or in part exists to be more exact) with a kind of double called 'I': reality is a slippery subject, and the two not-quite-the-same narrators are often merged in one sentence. Edgar is often the negative side of the protagonist. The novel is also very autobiographical and some readers (but not me) have previously met the five-year-old Edgar in Ma vie d'Edgar (1989).

Edgar is fourteen going on fifteen, he smokes, has spots of puberty, and wants a girlfriend. He's on the cusp of adulthood, but life isn't treating him well. So his ontological insecurity causes him to invent people, to daydream, imagine that he meets people on the train, such as Aline Soviétique, whom he chats to and kisses goodbye after she's left him her address in Saint-Germain-des-Près: in the heart of Paris, not the fringes. The wildest daydream is with the baker's wife, who makes Edgar lick her breasts, then between her legs, pointing out where her clitoris is and telling him to slow down, and then she comes noisily as the baker himself looks on. The slippages between 'reality' and fantasy happen so subtly that occasionally the reader has to think for a second which world he's in. But then, this is Dominique Fabre.

Before writing this novel, Fabre read the back page of an Henri Calet book, in which Francis Ponge describes Calet as 'boss of the linguistic three-card trick', and Fabre, in an interview for Le Matricule de anges, notes that when you always see the same three-card trick it no longer works, so you have to change the way you cheat. Um.

My other Dominique Fabre post:
Dominique Fabre: Photos Volées

23 October 2017

Laurent Mauvignier: Une Légère blessure (2016)

Laurent Mauvignier's Une Légère blessure (lit 'A Slight Wound') is a play, or more specifically a monologue by an unnamed woman in her forties, preparing dinner in the dining room for her parents, her brother and sister-in-law and their three children. As she can't cook she's doing this with the help of a young foreign girl who can't speak French and who is in the kitchen. The woman talks all the time without being understood, and the whole play seems to be a continuous kind of psychoanalysis.

Sex is at the forefront of the monologue, beginning with the narrator's first experience at the age of sixteen with a young boy and the narrator's probable schoolfriend Sandra, with whom the boy has sex with both, of no apparent consequence to either girl.

There follows a series of 'speeches', ostensibly to the cook (who, in the kitchen, is never seen to the audience) but in reality to herself, concerning her inability to have kept up a steady relationship with a man as opposed to her brother with his marriage and children, her lack of usefulness, and finally she comes to a revelation about her father's behaviour to her on one occasion when she was much younger, and I translate:

'My father, his flies open and this almost violet thing in his hand.

'He started to rub this piece of flesh in front of me, this monstrous cock with a blue vein running down it, this idiotic piece of flesh hanging like a lifeless animal or a piece of rubber.'

(Lack of) communication, the sexual abuse of women, family matters, oblique talk deliberately avoiding the real issue, talk as a means of non-communication, this is Laurent Mauvignier, and these are what make him one of the key figures in contemporary French literature. Wonderful.

My other Mauvignier posts:
Laurent Mauvignier: Loin d'eux

Laurent Mauvignier: Ceux d'à côté
Laurent Mauvignier: Seuls
Laurent Mauvignier: Ce que j'appelle oubli
Laurent Mauvignier: Continuer
Laurent Mauvignier: Autour du monde

16 October 2017

Marcel Bascoulard (artwork); Patrick Martinat (text): Bascoulard: Dessinateur Virtuose, clochard magnifique, femme inventée (2014)

Bascoulard is an enormous book in more ways than one: this hardback (49 euros and well worth it) won't fit onto the average bookshelf with the spine legible, it probably weighs about two kilos, and the number of pages is about three hundred. Many would describe this as a coffee table book (or beau livre in French), but that expression just suggests something pretty to look at, with little to read, and invariably of a very well-known subject.

Certainly the text in this book (by Patrick Martinat) is very soon read, and there are a great number of photos in it of the artist Marcel Bascoulard (1913–78) and his work, but from there it parts company from the regular coffee book, in fact it subverts the coffee table book: outside central France (the Bourges (and Sologne) areas to be specific), how many people are aware of Marcel Bascoulard, who has his own square with his bust in Bourges, as well as a street named after him in Saint-Florent-sur-Cher, where he spent his youth?

Shortly after his mother Marguerite, when her elder son Marcel was nineteen, shot her violent husband dead in the back and was institutionalised, he moved to Bourges and began painting. He didn't fit in with society, and I won't even bother involving psychological analysis, which he would (quite rightly, I'm sure) have detested. Marcel grew away from conventional society, being unconcerned with the trapping of success, unconcerned with money or fame to such an extent that he wasn't interested in a roof over his head with running water and electricity, and traded his paintings for food and suchlike to feed his cats and dogs as well as himself. His mother had been the main love of his life, and no one else.

And yet Bascoulard was a gifted painter, first a realist depicting in minute detail the city of Bourges (particularly the cathedral), including the few other places he visited, although they were very few and probably the furthest he ever ventured was Paris. He later introduced odd colours to his townscapes, even painted abstract pictures, but they weren't welcomed, although he didn't care, he wasn't interested in painting to order, in being commissioned, he preferred his outsider, tramp status, although he didn't see himself as a tramp: after all, how many tramps dress in female clothing, for example, or ride tricycles that they've designed themselves? OK, many may live on wasteland, but what of it?

Marcel Bascoulard saw his death coming in the form of the twenty-three-year-old social reject Jean-Claude Simion, but no one else in Bourges did, otherwise they'd have protected him. Such a waste.

Bascoulard is a magnificent book, one of the few which you must have in your possession even if you don't speak French, as it so evidently speaks for the outsiders, the outcasts who have so much to tell us. Only Bascoulard wasn't an outcast, he was loved in spite of the dirt he lived in, in spite of (even because of) his anarchism, and his death was a great blow to Bourges: after all, how many other people have played such a role in putting the town on the French map?

My criticism is that Patrick Martinat glibly dismisses Marcel Bascoulard's writing, quotes from it very briefly, and gives it virtually no space. Fascinating as photos of Bascoulard are, as his painting and sketches are, as his precise maps are, many photos here would have lost nothing by their exclusion, although so much could have been gained by the inclusion of Bascoulard's writings, no matter what Martinat think of them: he is no expert in literature, and should not pretend to be one. It would have been very interesting, for instance, to give just one example, to have read 'Maternelle réhabilitation' in full.

15 October 2017

Christian Gailly: Lily et Braine (2010)

After the war, after months in the military hospital, Braine returns to 'normality', at least to his family, his wife Lily, his son Louis, and his car-sick dog Lucie. Only at first he can't speak, a little I thought like Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) in Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas (1984), but soon Braine fits back in to Lily's father's car firm job, and surely things will be fine?

Although La Roue was published after Lily et Braine, it seems quite clear that the lead story 'La Roue' was written well before, and is to a certain extent the inspiration behind this novel. Braine goes to fix the wheel of stranger Rose Braxton's car and his life's suddenly changed.

Yeah, music enters the scene, Braine's life takes a huge swerve (ah, the power of music for Gailly), and soon Braine's former jazz band is being re-formed, and oh the spunk in Rose Braxton!

And such is her power that she will unwittingly destroy the relationship between Braine and his wife. That gun is just waiting to go off, the reader is quite clear of that, although who will pull the trigger and on whom is the mystery. Christian Gailly may not be the best of the Minuit writers, but he sure as hell pulls a punch.

My other posts on Christian Gailly:
Christian Gailly: Nuage Rouge

Christian Gailly: Un soir au club
Christian Gailly: La Roue et autres nouvelles

Alice Zeniter: Juste avant l'Oubli (2015)

As I write, Alice Zeniter's fifth novel L'Art de perdre is among the eight novels chosen in the second selection for the Prix Goncourt 2017. This is her previous novel, written when she was twenty-nine.

Juste avant 'Oubli is about love, and about writing. Judging from Zeniter's remerciements (Acknowledgements) the germ of the book is in her uncompleted thesis on the playwright Martin Crimp's representations of women. The novel is set on the imaginary Hebridean island Mirhalay, where the imaginary detective novelist Galwin Donnell spends the remaining last few decades of his life, following his divorce, in isolation until his apparent suicide in 1985.

Franck is a Frenchman and a nurse convinced that his forename has led him to a life of obscurity. After three months, he joins his girlfriend on the island, hoping that she will spend the rest of her life with him: Émilie has given up her teaching job to work on a thesis on Galwin Donnell's representations of women, and Franck (whom Émilie has upgraded to medical doctor status to her colleagues) is organising a seminar on Donnell on the island.

So we are treated to an idea of the series of lectures on Mirhalay, details of most (if not all) of ten novels involving the sex-addicted detective Adrian Dickson [!] Carr: Donnell's writing can be somewhat controversial as there are intimations of paedophilia in Carr's girly interests. And there are a number of footnotes to fictional books, plus (in sans serif type) a copy of a fictional Wikipédia entry of Donnell's use of the expression 'porc-chien' (or 'dog-pig').

Galwin Donnell begins to take over Émilie's mind, and therefore greatly intrudes on her relationship with Franck, who finds a kind of solace in the warden Jock, now the only permanent inhabitant on the island. Jock, though, has his own problems, not the least of which is his isolation, and he has built a sound-proof room in which no water or birds can be heard.

Jock, an alcoholic and a nihilist, is in no respect an idiot, and his knowledge of the island and its history (if not the world outside it) is most profound, and as an outsider to an outsider, he befriends Franck, who is very frank about his lowly academic medical status. And Jock is very frank too, even to the point of 'admitting' (maybe falsely) that as a ten-year-old he pushed Galwin Donnell to his death.

And then Jock kills himself, leaving Franck to do what he wants with to Donnell's missing (and never read) last chapter of his final novel. Well, what do you do when you find a precious manuscript?

11 October 2017

Sorj Chalandon: Profession du père (2015)

Sorj Chalandon's Profession du père is a staggering work, so powerful that indeed it would scarcely be possible to imagine it as a work of pure fiction, rather than a work of auto-fiction, the true blending in with the false. In some ways, too, it is in part a reprieve of Chalandon's La Légende de nos pères (2009), in which a ghost writer is asked to put words to his father's false experiences. In Profession du père, where the word 'profession' plays on the meaning of 'occupation' and that which is professed or claimed, lying also plays a central part. The back page blurb gives a strong indication of the content, which I translate:

'My father said that he had been a singer, footballer, judo teacher, parachutist, spy, pastor of a Pentecostal American church and personal advisor to General de Gaulle up to 1958. One day he told me that the General has betrayed him. His best friend had become his worst enemy. So my father announced that he was going to kill de Gaulle. And he asked me to help him.

'I had no choice.

'It was an order.

'I was proud.

'But I was scared too...

'At the age of 13, a gun is really heavy.'

In part, this book is really heavy too: a violent mythomaniac father – in fact a maniac tout court – tells his young son (in reality an amalgam of Chalandon and his brother) that he was been all of these things and more: he was a secret agent for the OAS, his American friend Ted (the narrator's godfather, so his story goes) was JFK's bodyguard, and he's angry if the narrator doesn't perform well at school; somehow, this is supposed to justify the child beating.

At times it's difficult to understand how the mysterious 'Dr Helguers' hasn't declared the father unfit as a parent, or indeed anything else, but then his understanding of psychiatry appears to be non-existent. And what of the mental state of the mother tolerating all this? Years later, when the narrator – a restorer of paintings (especially medieval ones) manages (mentally, that is) to re-visit his parents, his father, far from being welcoming, tells his son he's just a 'messenger boy', not a real painter. The narrator also brings his French-born half-Algerian wife Fadila and baby to see his parents, only to receive subtle racist abuse and Fadila to say 'never again', without her even knowing that the father has been sending the narrator two letters a year (latterly not even opened, but each becoming increasingly insane). Ted? Just an invention inspired by a movie, the narrator finds out by accident.

This is a shattering piece of literature.

My other post on Sorj Chalandon:
Sorj Chalandon: La Légende de nos pères

Jean Echenoz: Je m'en vais | I'm Off | I'm Gone (revisited) (1999)

Many books aren't worth reading, let alone worth reading more than once. Jean Echenoz's books, however, well deserve to be re-read, perhaps especially his Goncourt-winning Je m'en vais. Having previously written about this novel, what else can I say? Well, I wasn't specific about the end, and I have no qualms about spoilers, so why not just have my say?

Je m'en vais (variously translated as I'm Off or I'm Gone), as I wrote before, is about art gallery owner Félix Ferrer going to the North Pole on the advice of his head (and soon dead) employee Delahaye (but incidentally against the advice of his doctor who is aware of his heart condition), bringing back highly valuable Inuit art treasures from a wrecked ship in the 1950s, and a certain Baumgartner stealing the treasure from him. As I explained in the previous post, Baumgartner wasn't Baumgartner and Echenoz was playing games.

No, Baumgartner was Delahaye, who obviously hadn't died at all. So a joint investigation by the French and Spanish cops lead to Félix tracking Delahaye down, discovering that he has (illegally but officially) changed his name to Baumgartner, and Félix very generously leaves his ex-employee with a little less than a third of the proceeds and he (Baumgartner, let's call him) gets on with his life while he (Félix) can get on with his. What little life Félix has, of course, after his latest girlfriend decides she's probably dumping him, sadly leaving him with no friends on New Year's Eve, travelling a virtually empty métro, and entering (with intent to soon leave) his ex-wife's home (which used to be his own and his wife's) but now is his ex-wife's and her new partner's. The novel begins and ends  with the same words: 'je m'en vais'. Of course, Finnegan's Wake this certainly isn't,  but it's still a very interesting read.

My other Jean Echenoz posts:
Jean Echenoz: Jean Echenoz: Jérôme Lindon
Jean Echenoz: Lac | Chopin's Move
Jean Echenoz: Je m'en vais | I'm Off | I'm Gone
Jean Echenoz: Courir | Running
Jean Echenoz: Ravel

6 October 2017

Olivier Adam: À l'abri de rien (2007)

À l'abri de rien, I can't help thinking, is one of Olivier Adam's best novels. We have a family in chaos, we have a (female) protagonist in despair, but we also have a political situation which is admittedly going nowhere but which is seen from a positive oppositional point of view.

Marie lives in the Nord and is mentally adrift until an illegal immigrant helps her change her wheel, which plants a firm seed. She has a loving husband and two young kids, but still needs serious help. She loses her supermarket check-out job on a crazy fit of temper, and is suddenly caught up in the world of illegal immigrants, those risking their lives to reach the shores of England.

She very soon discovers the sordid reality of the immigrants' life, the danger of the violent police, the deaths by the desperate people to escape from what amounts to a death sentence in their native country.

But Marie's awakening comes at a price: that of severing contact with her own family, of bringing back fleas, and her children (completely wrongly) being called the children of a prostitute, of her school bus driver husband dumping children in the middle of a beetroot field in the freezing cold, etc.

Fortunately, although there may be no cure for the immigrants' problems, there seems to be a strong possibility for Marie to return to her family when she's cured. Obviously this novel is a political statement, but an important one.

My other Olivier Adam posts:
Olivier Adam: Je vais bien, ne t'en fais pas
Olivier Adam: Des vents contraires
Olivier Adam: Le Cœur régulier
Olivier Adam: Falaises

Olivier Adam: Les Lisières

Éric Holder: L'homme de chevet (1995)

Éric Holder's Mademoiselle Chambon (which I reviewed below) is about a kind of mutual sexual (but physically unexpressed) revelation between two members of different classes. As such, it isn't unlike Holder's slightly earlier L'homme de chevet, of which a cinema version has also been made.

L'homme de chevet concerns an alcoholic (in his late twenties) who applies for a job as a help to a tetraplegic woman (also in her late twenties), a victim of a car crash. A kind of re-birth begins, against all odds: whereas Muriel's other help, Marie, needs to inject herself with heroin to numb herself from the horror of her duties, the man develops an obsession, a love for Muriel, so strong that he loses his dependence for drink.

A transformation begins too in Muriel, whom the man takes for a taxi-ride to Marseille (the book is set in Provence), including a dinner at a restaurant where people don't regard her as a freak: he's very protective of her. Muriel even buys a car for him to chauffeur her around in, driving fast, and she's not frightened she loves the thrill, and is also developing a love for her employee.

This is a short but fascinating book which inevitably reminded me of Hal Ashby's film Coming Home (1978) with Jane Fonda and the wheelchair-bound Jon Voight, the Vietnam casualty. The trouble is the boxing sub-plot here, which takes up almost half of the book, is quite unnecessary, and ruins things flat. OK, if the boxing scenes were removed we would only be left with a short story, but why not give us more of the real story? Yes, I understood the analogy of the dog, etc, but so what?

My other post on Éric Holder:
Éric Holder: Mademoiselle Chambon

Christian Gailly: La Roue: et autres nouvelles (2012)

Without going into the details of the other seven short stories here, La Roue is well titled, as the first story, 'La Roue', is certainly the best, although nothing much really happens in it: it's the way the story, such as it is, is unveiled that is of importance.

Of great importance, too, are the digressions, and this is very digressive writing, every tiny and often insignificant detail being used up in the making of it. The narrator, the unnamed man in the story, agonises about the exact nature of  the temperature when he goes to fetch an unused hammer from his shed. This is after a tortuous discussion about the kind of hammer needed – in other words what it is needed for – after a well-dressed woman who has randomly knocked on his door and finally tells him that she can't loosen the nuts from her car wheel, and that the tyre is punctured.

When the narrator goes to see the car in a field there is a sizeable digression about the man's hand-bell, and how he loves the sound and the nature of it, refusing to cede to his partner Lily's wishes to install an electric one. We even have a short description of what he looks like carrying his big hammer – like a workman (although he's a writer) – and of the nature of country roads.

Eventually a well-dressed man (albeit a little oil-besmirched) appears, and as the narrator (in detail, of course) changes the wheel he learns that the man has walked out of his own wedding ceremony and chosen the woman he loves rather than marry someone he doesn't.

So there we have it. This seemed very promising, but unfortunately none of the other stories were anything like as interesting.

My other posts on Christian Gailly:
Christian Gailly: Nuage Rouge

Christian Gailly: Un soir au club
Christian Gailly: Lily et Braine

Christian Oster: En ville (2013)

On the face of it, nothing much happens in 174 pages, but then this is Christian Oster: much psychologising over anything said or done, the possible consequences of any future action taken, long sentences and long descriptions of ever single thing done, etc. This, in fact, is a monologue, with other people's words not read as actually spoken by them but added into the monologue, which also has very long paragraphs as well as long sentences.

And life here is pretty much a mess, with sudden switches of emotion, although perhaps not quite as dramatically as in some of Oster's other novels. The main character has a steady job but his love life is, well, indeterminate and he's very slow to make any decisions. Oh, and his name's Jean, although the novel takes a long time telling us this.

The main plot revolves around a small group of people who have been going on holiday in July together, such places by the sea as Corsica and Malta, and this time they decide to go to Hydra. They all are past their prime, most of them in their fifties or older. The oldest one is  the now gross William, who's tried his hand as a dentist and a musician and several other things. Then there's the married couple Paul the doctor and his wife Louise, there's George who's split up from his wife, and finally the narrator Jean.

Things go wrong: William dies coming out of hospital and falls on his stairs onto Jean (who is in turn temporarily  hospitalised); Paul and Louise split up; and although George very briefly moves into Jean's new flat with him near the Statue of Liberty replica below Pont Grenelle, he's soon moving in with the attractive estate agent.

Nevertheless the holiday goes ahead (although moved to Hérault) with the four existing characters: George's (whose new girlfriend may have found someone else) is on the train, so is Paul, and maybe Louise and Jean will hit it off. But where does Samantha in Paris stand in this, as she's expecting a child by Jean, who doesn't seem to react too well to becoming a father, if he has any detectable reactions at all? Yeah, it's a mess, but a fascinating one for the reader, even if it's perhaps not one of Oster's best.

My other posts on Christian Oster:
Christian Oster: Dans le train
Christian Oster: Une femme de Ménage | Cleaning Woman

Christian Oster: Rouler
Christian Oster: Le Cœur du problème
Christian Oster: Mon grand appartement

27 September 2017

Paris 2017: Cimetière de Vaugirard: Hector Bianciotti

Hector Bianciotti (1930–2012) was born in Argentina and was a film actor, a journalist, a writer and an academic who took on French nationality. He lived in from 1961 and in 1969 Maurice Nadeau published his first literary criticisms in La Quinzaine littéraire. He also wrote novels in his maternal language, although his first novel in French, Sans la miséricorde du Christ (1985), won the prix Femina. After his death Dany Laferrière took his seat at the Académie française.

26 September 2017

Cimetière du Mesnil-le-Roi, Yvelines (78) #5: Jeanne and André Bourin

Jeanne Bourin (1922–2003) (née Mondot), was a historical novelist who returned to the Catholic faith at the age of forty. She had a sentimentalised and idealised view of the Middle Ages, and her La Chambre des dames (1979) is her most well-known novel. She married the literary critic and writer André Bourin (1918–2016) in 1940. André contributed to a number of magazines and wrote at least thirteen books.

Cimetière du Mesnil-le-Roi, Yvelines (78) #4: Louis Pauwels

'Quand verrai-je ma fin du monde ?
Que votre Volonté soit faite etnon la mienne.
Mais je vourdrais semer des oiseaux dans ceux que j'aime
Et qu'ils ne souffrent pas quand je m'endormirai

Louis Pauwels (1920–1997) was, as the stone above states, a poet, writer and journalist. He was the editor-in-chief of Combat in 1949, directed the monthly Marie-France, and with Jacques Bergier founded the magazine Planète, dedicated to science, philosophy and esotericism. He later founded Figaro Magazine, which he was in charge of for more than twenty years. The novel L'Amour monstre (1954) is one of his principal fictional works.

Cimetière du Mesnil-le-Roi, Yvelines (78) #3: Józef Czapski

Józef Czapski (1896–1993) was one of the officers to survive the Katyń massacre, and was a fourth founder of Kultura: another exile living in Maisons-Laffitte. He was a writer and an artist. His plaque just within the boundary of Maisons-Laffitte stands alongside Jerzy Giedroyc. Keith Botsford's Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation (2009) is an attempt write Czapski's 'autobiography', what Botsford calls 'a biography from within'.

Cimetière du Mesnil-le-Roi, Yvelines (78) #2: Zofia and Zygmunt Hertz

Zofia Hertz (1911–2003) was the first Polish woman to become a lawyer. She met Jerzy Giedroyc in 1933 at the Bureau de la culture, de la presse et de la propagande and she became his secretary. With Jerzy Giedroyc and her husband Zygmunt (1908–79), she also founded the Instytut Literacki (which in two years produced twenty-eight publications) and Kultura in 1946.

Cimetière du Mesnil-le-Roi, Yvelines (78) #1: Jerzy Giedroyc

I showed a photo of a plaque dedicated to Jerzy Giedroyc (1906–2000) a few posts below, and now I discover him in the Cimetière du Mesnil-le-Roi. As I mentioned in the post, he was the founder of the review Kultura, a magazine which concerned Polish culture, particularly emigrant writers and intellectuals. He also founded the literary institute in Maisons-Laffitte. Following his wishes, Kultura ceased publication on his death.

24 September 2017

Marie-Hélène Lafon: Sur la photo (2003)

Rémi lives in Paris with his wife Isabelle and daughter Louise, and is a collector of photos. This novel weaves in and out of Rémi's present live and his life as an eleven-year-old with teenaged sisters in the countryside. Maybe I wasn't quite ready for it, but I was certainly expecting more of this highly-rated novelist: OK, this is one of her earlier works, so I'll return to her.

22 September 2017

Jerzy Giedroyc in Maisons-Laffitte, Yvelines (78)

Fondateur de « Kultura »
revue politique polonaise –
et de l'Institut Littéraire
a vécu et travaillé
dans cette maison'

Kultura was a Polish and world cultural magazine designed as an instrument against communist totalitarianism. Many important writers of the twentieth century contributed to it, such as Albert Camus, Simone Weil, George Orwell, Witold Gombrowicz, T. S. Eliot, Emil Cioran and Czesław Miłosz.

Paris 2017: Cimetière de Montrouge, Hauts-de-Seine (92) #3: Cécile Aubry

Cécile Aubry (1928–2010) was a novelist, screen writer, and an actor most remembered for her TV series success 'Belle et Sébastien' based on her novels, from which the English indie group Belle and Sebastian took its name.

Paris 2017: Cimetière de Montrouge, Hauts-de-Seine (92) #2: Michel Audiard

Michel Audiard (1920–85) was a screen writer, a film director, and a novelist. Sometimes called a right-wing anarchist, one of his greatest regrets was not to have adapted Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit to film. He is the father of the film director Jacques Audiard. His novels include Priez pour elle (1950), Massacre en dentelles (1952), Ne nous fâchons pas (1966), Le Terminus des prétentieux (1968), and Le Petit cheval de retour (1975).

Paris 2017: Cimetière de Montrouge, Hauts-de-Seine (92) #1: Albert Kazimirski de Biberstein

Albert (or Albin) Kazimirski de Biberstein (1808–87), of French nationality but born in Poland, was an Arabic-speaking orientalist who was the author of an Arabic-French dictionary, and the translator of several Arabic-French works, principally the Koran.

Ariane Chemin: Mariage en douce (2016)

Ariane Chemin works for Le Monde, and this book involves the secret marriage of diplomat and (amusingly fraudulent) two-times winning Goncourt, the chameleon Romain Gary, man of a number of names, to Jean Seberg, the deeply disturbed female actor most famous for her role in Godard's hugely popular À bout de souffle (Breathless in English).

The heavily-cropped photo on the cover shows the happy couple looking perhaps not all that happy: the tiny village Sarrola in Corsica was chosen for the occasion – and the mountains can clearly be seen in the background – because they (and Gary especially) wanted to avoid a media circus at all costs.

However, this book is also a summary of the lives of Gary and Seberg, Gary the Vilnius-born possessor of many names, Seberg the small-town, Marshalltown, Iowa-born movie star. I loved the information about them visiting the Kennedys, and Jackie Onassis telling Jean Seberg (aside) not to get married as it ruins things. De Gaulle and his wife would certainly have objected, but then De Gaulle and America...

Jean Seberg went on to marry twice after her marriage to Gary (although her final marriage was bigamous) before killing herself 30 August 1979. Gary put a gun to his mouth on 2 December 1980, leaving a note that his suicide had nothing to do with Seberg. Really, nothing at all?

21 September 2017

Paris 2017: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux, Hauts-de-Seine (92) #1: J.-H. Rosny aîné

J.-H. Rosny aîné was the pseudonym of Joseph Henri Honoré Boex (1856–1940), a French author of Belgian origin who is considered one of the founding figures of modern science fiction. Born in Brussels, Rosny spent most of his years in France. Rosny was an influence on Arthur Conan Doyle, the plot of his Force mystérieuse (1913) being adopted by Doyle for his The Poisoned Belt. Les Navigateurs de l'infini (1925) is generally considered as Rosny's best work, and his use of the word 'astronautique' is a first. However, I suspect that, in spite of a prize existing in his name, Rosny will be most remembered for his disagreements with Lucien Descaves, particularly for the, er, scandalous winning of the Goncourt in 1932 by Guy Mazeline's Les Loups, rather than Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit, which received the 'compensatory' Renaudot.