24 November 2017

Andrée Chedid: Les Quatre Morts de Jean de Dieu (2010)

Andrée Chedid (1920–2011) was born in Cairo to a Syrian mother and a Lebanese father. Les Quatres Morts de Jean de Dieu is about the life (and death) at the age of seventy-seven of Jean de Dieu, born in Spain into a solidly bourgeois Catholic Spanish family. This novel (not her last published) was published shortly before her death at the age of ninety.

Jean's first 'death' was that of his Catholic faith: his friend Miguel's father José introduced him to the readings of thinkers such as the Russian anarchist Kropotkin. At a very young age, both Jean and Miguel were forced to flee from Spain with the coming of the fascist Franco, and emigrated permanently to France.

Jean married Isabelita in France, and was for years a man of communist persuasion, although even on the fall of the Berlin wall, Isabelita wonders if his second death, his lack of belief in communism, didn't come some time before, such as on the death of Stalin and Khrushchev's denunciation of him in 1956.
The third death of Jean came on his illnesses, his cardiovascular problems and more, but essentially his onset of Alzheimer's disease.

The final death of Jean is in carrying out his final wishes, to have his ashes scattered from a high point in Cerbère (Pyrénées-Orientales), where Miguel and family members used to go to view the Catalonia that they remembered, but where Isabella stumbles.

Andrée Chedid is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse. The quotation at the front of the book is by Chrétien de Troyes, and engraved on the tomb: 'Lil cors s'an vet, il cuers séjourne': 'The body leaves, the heart remains':

Nathacha Appanah: Tropique de la violence (2016)

Nathacha Appanah's Tropique de la violence is a kind of (fictional) thriller which at the same time highlights one of the major problems in Mayotte, an island in the Atlantic which is also a department of France, although it vastly differs from the European mother country. The novel addresses one of the country's biggest problems: the plight of illegal immigrants, mainly from the Comoros, but also those from other nearby countries.

Tropique de la violence is narrated by several people, two of whom – Marie and Bruce – are dead. Marie was a white nurse in Mayotte whose husband had left her and she refused to divorce him until a teenaged woman, who has braved the hazardous journey on a kwassa from the Comoros, leaves her baby with Marie at the hospital.

The general idea of children or adolescents being left (or leaving themselves) in Mayotte is that they'll have a much better life in a French country. The reality, though, is that many paperless young people are living in a bidonville called Gaza, drinking, taking drugs and living by stealing from or conning others.

Marie 'adopts' the child (whom she calls Moïse) as her own with her husband's consent and an official certificate in exchange for a divorce. And then, when Moïse is still fourteen, she falls down dead in the kitchen. Not knowing what to do, Moïse leaves the house and eventually falls into the hands of Bruce, the 'king' of Gaza, and a very violent character who runs a Mafia-style gang.

But Moïse shoots Bruce dead, and the novel is much concerned with the events leading up to the killing, with a big surprise at the end. A superlative book that forced me to read on.

22 November 2017

Grégoire Delacourt: Les Quatre Saisons de l'été (2015)

Grégoire Delacourt's Les Quatre Saisons de l'été is a novel, but also four short stories linked by the same theme: all take place on the 14 July 1999 holiday period, and all at Le Touquet seaside resort (formerly called Paris Plage) in Normandy. And the stories are all named after flowers: 'Pimprenelle' (burnet), 'Eugénie Guinoisseau' (a variety of rose), 'Jacinthe' (hyacinth) and 'Rose'. Francis Cabrel's song 'Hors Saison' (lit. 'Out of Season') is also the sound of all four (summer) seasons here. This is much more of a novel than, say, the wonderful Marie NDiaye's rather disappointing Trois femmes puissantes,* as there are far more interlinks in the stories, far more sightings of the various people involved.

The stories go from youth to age, with 'Pimprenelle' being a tale of fifteen-year-old Louis's love for the thirteen-year-old Victoire being the essential element. Alas, when she has her first period they must part, although she didn't love Louis anyway, and rather made a fool of herself in her attentions to Louis's much older neighbour Gabriel.

The thirty-five-year-old Isabelle of 'Eugénie Guinoisseau' is a loser in the love stakes, although she slightly prolongs the life of an anonymous old man, nicknamed 'Monsieur Rose', whose last uttered word was 'Rose', the name of the elderly woman who was his wife.

'Jacinthe' is a story of successful seduction, of the fifty-five-year-old Monique being reborn as Louise, partner of the reborn Robert.

And 'Rose' brings us back to the septuagenarian couple Rose and Pierre, who observe many of the activities in the other stories in Le Touquet, but who have decided that they shall end their lives by walking into the sea together.

Grégoire Delacourt is more interesting than I at first thought.

*Rosie Carpe, for example, is far superior to Trois femmes puissantes, and don't be misled by anyone suggesting otherwise.

My other Grégoire Delacourt post:
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Grégoire Delacourt: La Liste de mes envies | The Wish List

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: L'Appareil Photo | Camera (1988)

In Pierre Lepape's review of Jean-Philippe Toussaint's novel L'Appareil Photo (translated into English as Camera) on 9 January 1989, he describes the anonymous narrator/protagonist as a hypersensitive person 'trying to live less in order to live less badly', which makes a lot of sense.

Deciding to take driving lessons, the 'hero' is bogged down by bureaucracy, and can't cope with everything he's asked for at once, particularly four photos of himself. He brings out an envelope of photos of him as a child with his father, of his sister in his mother's arms, his parents with his sister at the swimming pool, etc, but knows that they're inappropriate. He'll have to work on it.

One thing he says, and in fact repeats and seems to echo Lepape's words, is that his 'jeu d'approche' (the way he goes about things) is to try to 'fatiguer la réalité' (exhaust the reality) of difficulties he stumbles up against, much as he works on an olive on his plate, leaving marks of it with his fork, trying to crush it to make it suitable for him to stab and put into his mouth. Er, yes, that's quite an analogy.

So this is the story of a man who starts taking driving lessons, becomes at first vaguely involved with one of the women (Pascale!) who work there, goes with her in one of the dual controlled cars when she needs a primagaz refill, although the car breaks down and has to be left at the nearest garage. Then for some reason they end up in London for the night and become lovers, the 'hero' appears to have gone to the wedding mentioned in the second sentence of the book, misses the last train home and walks towards Orléans, resting in a telephone booth and concentrating on the fugitive moment, on immobility.

There are obviously a number of similarities between the protagonist in La Salle de bain and the one in L'Appareil Photo, although this one seems (relatively) far saner and has far less malice towards others: he even worries deeply over stealing (meaning not handing in) a presumably very cheap instamatic camera he finds wedged between two cushions in the self-service café on the boat going back home.

My other posts on Jean-Philippe Toussaint:
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Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Faire l'amour | Making Love
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir | Running Away

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Nue
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Salle de bain | The Bathroom
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Vérité sur Marie | The Truth about Marie

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 force 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 employer 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; he visits the hotel kitchen with a view to stealing a chicken leg; having enjoyed an evening meal and afternoon drink with his 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.

My other posts on Jean-Philippe Toussaint:
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Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Faire l'amour | Making Love
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir | Running Away

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Nue
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: L'Appareil Photo | Camera
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Vérité sur Marie | The Truth about Marie

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:
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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
Coral Castle and Ed Leedskalnin

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.