Novella a Day in May 2020 #24

Astragal – Albertine Sarrazin (1965, trans. Patsy Southgate 1967) 190 pages

I first came across Astragal on Kaggsy’s blog last year, and not long after reading Kaggsy’s post I found a copy in my favourite charity bookshop (how I miss browsing those shelves… it’s been good for my wallet though…) It’s sat in the TBR since then but NADIM prompted me to pick it up.

Generally I’m not one for biographical readings of novels, I prefer to let the work speak for itself and not get too caught up in looking for insights into the author’s life. In Astragal though, it’s pretty unavoidable. Albertine Sarrazin wrote Astragal in prison; she was a French-Algerian who spent her childhood in care and then in reformatory school after being abused by a family member; she escaped to Paris and earned money as a sex worker and through crime. She died at the age of 29 after complications from surgery. It is her picture on the cover.

You’d expect that Astragal was thoroughly depressing, but maybe due to the author’s youth, it stays resolute and optimistic. It begins with Anne leaping to freedom from a prison wall and shattering her talus bone (astragale in French) in the process.

“A match striking. A shooting star, a searchlight. No, it’s the forge in my ankle illuminating the whole crossroad: the sparks whirl around for a moment, then gather and freeze into a brilliant circle of light, a huge torch whose beam passes through my head, and lands, without striking me, on the tree trunk.”

She is rescued by Julien:

“Long before he said anything, I had recognised Julien. There are certain signs imperceptible to people who haven’t done time: a way of talking without moving the lips while the eyes, to throw you off, express indifference or the opposite thing; the cigarette held in the crook of the palm, the waiting for night to act or just to talk, after the uneasy silence of the day.”

These two jailbirds fall in love and go on the lam while Anne’s ankle heals, or fails to. What follows is a series of safe houses where Anne is left while Julien disappears to commit robbery and visit other women. Eventually Anne makes it back to her beloved city:

“Beaten, broken, I’m here all the same; furthermore, as we often said in jail, the winner is the one who gets away. I’m coming back, Paris, with what’s left of me, to start to live and fight again.”

I liked Astragal more than I thought I would. Anne and Julien don’t always behave well, but Sarrazin doesn’t ask the reader to like or excuse them. She also writes beautifully without overwriting:

“I was busting with images anyhow: I’d been locked up too young to have seen much of anything, and I’d read a lot dreamed a lot and lost the thread.”

She also has a hard-won wisdom about the impact her life is having her. It’s not that she unthinkingly follows destructive paths but rather that she does what is familiar to try and improve her situation while knowing how unlikely this is.

“You can’t wash away overnight several years of clockwork routine and constant dissembling of self.”

Sarrazin was undoubtedly a writer of talent, its truly sad that she didn’t live to see what else that talent could produce and where it might have taken her.

To end, this edition features a rhapsodic introduction by Patti Smith “My Albertine, how I adored her!” If you’ll permit me a paraphrase: “My Patti! How I adore her…” Here she is singing about lovers, which I thought was apt for Anne and Julien:

 

Novella a Day in May 2020 #20

Lie With Me – Philippe Besson (2017, trans. Molly Ringwald 2019) 148 pages

(For those of you who have noted the translator’s name – yes, that Molly Ringwald!)

Lie With Me tells the story of a closeted gay love affair between two teenage boys living in small town called Barbezieux, in southern France. The narrator is looking back on his relationship with a slightly older boy called Thomas Andrieu (the novella is dedicated to a man of the same name, but Lie With Me is presented as fiction):

“I recently returned to this place of my childhood, this village that I hadn’t set foot in for years. I went back with S. so that he would know. The grid was still there with the ancient wisteria, but the lime trees had been cut down, and the school closed a long time ago.

[…]

‘It must have taken great determination to have lifted yourself out.’

He didn’t say ‘ambition’ or ‘courage’ or ‘hate’. I told him: ‘It was my father who wanted it for me. I would have stayed in this childhood, in this cocoon.’”

The narrator knows he is different to his schoolfriends, and he knows why. It isn’t because his father is the schoolteacher, or because he is physically awkward, although these things don’t help. It is because he is gay:

“In this one regard, I would stop being the model child. I wouldn’t follow the pack. Out of instinct, I despised packs. That has never changed.”

Thomas is older than him, a mysterious and much cooler boy who both fits in and holds himself aloof:

“He also likes his solitude. It’s obvious. He speaks little, smokes alone. He has this attitude, his back up against the wall, looking up toward the sun or down at his sneakers, this manner of not quite being there in the world.”

The narrator is interested in Thomas but he seems entirely unobtainable. It is Thomas who makes the first move:

“I feel this desire swarming in my belly and running up my spine. But I have to constantly contain and compress it so that it doesn’t betray me in front of others. Because I’ve already understood that desire is visible.

Momentum too, I feel it. I sense a movement, a trajectory, something that will bring me to him.”

Lie With Me follows their relationship from beginning to end. There is an elegiac quality from the older, now successful writer – openly gay, well-travelled and living a cosmopolitan urbane life – looking back, but there is no sentimentality.

Instead, there is a pervading sadness, even following the first time they sleep together:

“I should be able to stay in this state of ecstasy, Or astonishment. Or let myself be overwhelmed by the incomprehensibility of it all. But the feeling that prevails the moment he disappears is that of being abandoned. Perhaps because it is already a familiar feeling.”

In this Guardian article, Tessa Hadley felt Lie With Me suffered from not enough focus on Thomas. The characterisation of the lover is thin, but personally I felt this worked. The first throes of romantic love, especially teen romantic love, can be very much wrapped up in how exhilarating it is for the individual. The narrator is waking up to the possibilities of life, the possibilities of gay life, far away from his childhood town and its constraints, and I felt his self-focus worked well.

Lie With Me is a coming of age tale, with the narrator realising not only who he is as a gay man, but of all that he could be, reflected in his lover’s eyes:

“In the end, love was only possible because he saw me not as who I was, but as the person I would become.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #17

Those Without Shadows – Françoise Sagan (1957, trans. Irene Ash 1957)

I really wanted to include something by Françoise Sagan in NADIM this year, as I recently saw a repeat of Clive James’ Postcard From Paris on BBC4 which included a lovely interlude driving round the streets of the city with Ms Sagan. Why anyone would get into a car with her when she had the reputation for driving the way she did is beyond me, but I’m glad he did as it was very entertaining to watch from afar. I can’t get the clip but the whole episode is available on YouTube, and you can see the Sagan section from 2:35-6:36:

When I posted about The Suicide Shop I mentioned that other readers seemed to like it more than I did. I’ve had the opposite experience with Those Without Shadows (Dans un mois, dans un an). A quick search tells me this is not a popular read! Admittedly its not Bonjour Tristesse, but then so few books are 😉

Those Without Shadows was written four years after her classic work, when Sagan was still only 22. It follows a group of entirely vacuous Parisians as they live their lives without any purpose. I didn’t find it nihilistic though, I felt Sagan was treating her characters with amused affection.

The novel opens with Bernard ringing his lover Josée in the early hours of the morning, where her phone is answered by an unknown male voice:

“Now he was going home to find his bad novel lying in disorder on his desk, and his wife in bed asleep.”

His poor wife Nicole adores him, who knows why?

“After three years she loved him more every day, and this, he felt, was almost repulsive, for she no longer attracted him. He liked to remember the picture of himself when they had been in love, the decision he had shown in marrying her, for since that time he had never been able to make any decision at all.”

I thought that was so incisive, and so brutal. Bernard’s love for his wife (or lack thereof) is all about himself. He is repulsed by her because she no longer reflects the vision of himself he wants to see. The clarity of this dynamic is so believable and destructive.

This is echoed in Josée’s new relationship with a medical student, Jacques.

“It is really quite amusing. It’s not even a question of physical attraction. I don’t know if it is the reflection of myself in him that I like, or the absence of that reflection, or just him himself. But he is not interesting, he is probably not even cruel. He just exists”

Bernard and Josée are part of a group who congregate at the Maligrasse’s parties. Alain and Fanny Maligrasse like to surround themselves with younger people. Alain is “badly paid, cultured, and very fond of his wife. How had it happened that their joke about Béatrice had become the enormous weight he had to lift every morning as he got up?”

Béatrice was the character I liked least. Generally the people who inhabit this world are self-focussed but not deliberately cruel (Bernard tries to be kind to Nicole but generally fails through his own self-regard). Béatrice, desperate to be a successful actress, is happy to attract men to her as a distraction but really cares nothing for how hurt they get when she inevitably discards them.

Sagan doesn’t cut her characters any slack, but she does it through the judgements they place on themselves, which makes it more readable than if an authorial voice was constantly reminding us how dreadful they all are:

“He re-read it dispassionately and realised how bad it was; worse than bad, not merely tedious but intensely tedious. He wrote in the same way people cut their nails, attentively and absent-mindedly.”

I love that banal domestic detail of nails, next to ambitions for high art. While I can understand why people would not enjoy this novella, it was this sort of wry humour that meant I quite enjoyed it.

There are some decent people amongst the crowd too: Josée’s lover Jacques, Édouard who is provincial and naive and in love with Béatrice, and Jolyet, a theatre producer who is old enough to see himself clearly:

“as always when his own mediocrity was brought home to him, he felt a fierce sort of pleasure.”

So, definitely not one for when you need characters to root for, but as a quick, insightful portrait of pretentious and self-obsessed young things, I found it pretty enjoyable.

My post earlier this month on Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark led to a discussion on the questionable decisions made by Penguin’s art department in the late 1970s/early 80s. My copy of Those Without Shadows is another prime example:

“It was a symbolic awakening, but Édouard did not realise it. He did not know that his passion for Béatrice would henceforth be reduced to the contemplation of her back, We invent our own omens which seem bad when things are going against us. Édouard was not like Josèe who, waking at the same moment, looked at her lover’s smooth, hard back in the dawn, and smiled before going off to sleep again. But Josèe was a great deal older than Édouard.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #11

The Suicide Shop – Jean Teule (2007, trans. Sue Dyson 2008) 169 pages

It’s a funny one this. I only post about books I recommend and I do recommend this quirky, gothic, post-apocalyptic tale, but something stopped me loving it as much as some of Gallic Books other offerings.

The titular shop is run by the Tuvache family, who for generations have offered people ways to end their lives. They are mournful in nature and bleak in outlook, apart from Alan, the youngest Tuvache who is bad for business.

“please PLEASE stop smiling! Do you want to drive away all our customers? Why do you have this mania for rolling your eyes round and wiggling your fingers either side of your ears? Do you think customers come here to see your smile?”

Poor Alan’s schoolwork is no better, failing to capture the environmental desolation that humans live with:

“A path leading to a house with a door and open windows, under a blue sky where a big sun shines! Now come on, why aren’t there any clouds or pollution in your landscape? […] Where’s the radiation? And the terrorist explosions? It’s totally unrealistic. You should come and see what Vincent and Marilyn were drawing at your age!”

Alan and his siblings are named after famous suicides: Turing, van Gogh and Monroe. Vincent refuses to eat and is planning a grisly theme park where people can die in various inventive ways, Marilyn is depressed and feels ugly and cumbersome. They are a perfect fit for their family; only Alan resolutely forges his own path, despite living in a shop where the carrier bags state: “Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success!”

There isn’t a plot so much in The Suicide Shop, rather we follow the family through the years as Alan proves an irresistible sunny force, exerting more influence over his family than they initially realise. Their bafflement with Alan reminded me of The Addams Family, (which I loved as a child), completely at a loss as to what to do with someone who doesn’t share their world view.

“We force him to watch the TV news to try and demoralise him”

As you’d expect, the humour in The Suicide Shop is very dark. It sells rusty razor blades with a sign that says “even if you don’t make a deep enough cut, you’ll get tetanus” but overall it’s a gentle humour, like the woman who grows attached to the trapdoor spider she buys to end her life, names it Denise and starts knitting it booties.

Looking on goodreads, there’s plenty of people who adored this story and I’m not entirely sure why I’m not one of them.  But I still found The Suicide Shop a quick, diverting read with some entertaining touches.

“Life is the way it is. It’s worth what it’s worth! It does it’s best, within limitations. We mustn’t ask too much of life either. It’s best to look on the bright side.”

The Suicide Shop was made into an animated film in 2012, directed by Patrick Leconte. Here’s the English language trailer:

Novella a Day in May 2020 #9

The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain (2014, trans. Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken 2015) 159 pages

The Red Notebook walks a very thin line and I suspect for some readers it will have crossed that line, from whimsical romance at a distance, to creepy stalker tale. Looking at goodreads most seem to have gone for the former, and that’s how I read it too, but I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the latter view.

Anyway, I’ll put my psychological reservations to one side and let you know about a charming novella that conjures Paris beautifully, features a cameo from Patrick Modiano, and plays into that old romantic trope of lovers that are destined for one another.

Laure is a widow in her 40s who mugged for her mauve handbag and ends up in hospital in a coma. Bookseller Laurent – similar name, similar age to Laure – finds her bag after the mugger has dumped it having removed ID, purse and mobile phone. He tries to hand it in but police bureaucracy means he ends up holding on to it, trying to piece together the owner from its contents:

“a little fawn and violet leather bag containing make-up and accessories, including a large brush whose softness he tested against his cheek. A gold lighter, a black Montblanc ballpoint (perhaps the one used to jot down her thoughts in the notebook), a packet of licorice sweets…a small bottle of Evian, a hairclip with a blue flower on it, and a pair of red plastic dice.”

The titular notebook is part of the contents, and it is a diary which Laurent reads to try and find clues to who Laure is:

“I’m scared of red ants.

And of logging on to my bank account and clicking ‘current balance’.

I’m scared when the telephone rings first thing in the morning.

And of getting the Metro when its packed.

I’m scared of time passing.

I’m scared of electric fans, but I know why.”

Laurent has some success in piecing together Laure’s life, and in the process we learn about them both. Laurent has a teenage daughter who is brattish but loving, and a girlfriend to whom he’s not entirely committed. He likes his job and he’s interested in literature.

He’s also increasingly interested in Laure and a sequence of events lead to him collecting her dry cleaning and cat-sitting for her (!) It was at this point I thought things had gone too far, but then Laurain manages to tip the balance of power in a believable turn of events that meant the story kept me on side.

If you’re in the mood for some escapism across the channel and some gentle romance, then The Red Notebook could be just the ticket.

Novella a Day in May 2020 #7

Monsieur Linh and His Child – Philippe Claudel (2005, trans. Euan Cameron 2011) 130 pages

I only knew Philippe Claudel as a film director until Emma’s review of Monsieur Linh and His Child put his work as a novelist on my radar. Do head over to Emma’s review as she has lots of interesting things to say about this novella. She also rightly pointed out it would be a perfect read for NADIM, so here it is!

Monsieur Linh arrives in an unspecified French port town as a refugee from an East Asian war. His son and daughter-in-law were killed, and he has fled with his baby granddaughter, Sang Diû.

“Six weeks. This is how long the voyage lasts. So that when the ship arrives at its destination, the little girl has already doubled the length of her life. As for the old man, he feels as if he has aged a hundred years.”

Monsieur Linh is a lonely and isolated figure. His fellow refugees cook for him but do so without any warmth or affection. He is deeply traumatised and lives only for his granddaughter.

One day, walking in the unfamiliar town with its cars, strange food, odd smells and a language he doesn’t understand, he meets Monsieur Bark, when they sit on the same park bench. Monsieur Bark is a widower who is grieving deeply for his wife.  He smokes and talks incessantly, although Monsieur Linh cannot understand a word.

“When Monsieur Bark speaks, Monsieur Linh listens to him very attentively and looks at him, as if he understood everything and did not want to lose any of the meaning of the words. What the old man senses is that the tone of Monsieur Bark’s voice denotes sadness, a deep melancholy, a sort of wound the voice accentuates, which accompanies it beyond words and language, something that infuses it just as the sap infuses a tree without one seeing it.”

The language barrier does not mean that there is a lack of understanding between the two men. Claudel demonstrates without sentimentality how a true friendship develops between them, affectionate and accepting and full of meaning for both. These two deeply traumatised men are able to help each other heal in a way that is wholly believable and deeply moving.

Monsieur Linh and His Child is a wonderful, heartwarming story about the nature of unconditional love, friendship, and how we can help alleviate others’ pain without words. It’s about the humanity that bonds us all, and that is a timely reminder in today’s political climate. Highly recommended.

Here is the French cover, because as Emma rightly pointed out, the UK edition is ugly:

“Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.” (Nawal El Saadawi)

August is Women in Translation month, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. Do head over to her blog to read more about WITMonth and join in!

This week I’m looking at two authors who are titans of literature: Marguerite Yourcenar and the one-woman powerhouse that is Nawal El Saadawi.

Firstly, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951, trans. Grace Frick 1954). Yourcenar worked on this novel on and off for over 20 years and spent around 3 years writing it as her main focus. It is a letter from the Emperor Hadrian to his successor Marcus Aurelius when he knows time is limited. It is not a dry recounting of Yourcenar’s extensive research though, or a cringe-making attempt to dramatise historical events: “so I said to the Roman Senate, as we sat in the Roman Forum: I’m going to build a wall to keep out those pesky Scots who refuse to be subdued under the yoke of Roman Imperialism. And Scotland’s going to pay for it.”

Instead, Yourcenar uses historical events as a frame for an extended consideration of life and death. Hadrian is about as likable as the leader of a huge oppressive military force can be; he is focussed on peace wherever possible, and interested in the arts and philosophy. At the same time, he is politically astute:

“A prince lacks the latitude afforded to the philosopher in this respect: he cannot allow himself to be different on too many points at a time; and the gods know that my points of difference were already too numerous, though I flattered myself that many were invisible.”

His humility is believable, and I think Yourcenar’s master stroke is having Hadrian know he is facing an imminent death. Staring into the void, even a Roman emperor is bound to question what impact he has had, and whether he was a force for good. Reflecting on his role as leader of imperialist suppression is a bleak business:

“It mattered little to me that the accord obtained was external, imposed from without and perhaps temporary; I knew that good like bad becomes routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself. Since hatred, stupidity, and delirium have lasting effects, I saw no reason why good will, clarity of mind and just practice would not have their effects too.”

But Hadrian-the-man comes across just as clearly as Hadrian-the-politician. His grief at the death of his young lover Antinous is never maudlin or indulgent, yet the overwhelming grief that Hadrian clearly felt (he established a cult in Antinous’ name) is very moving.

“This simple man possesses a virtue which I had thought little about up to this time, even when I happened to practice it, namely, kindness.”

Memoirs of Hadrian is only 247 pages in my edition but it took me much longer to read than a novel of that length normally would. This is not because the prose didn’t flow: Hadrian’s voice is crystal-clear and the narrative is easy to follow, being mainly chronological with some deviations. It is however, a densely written book with so much to consider. Hadrian doesn’t waste a word: he’s a dying man, and an erudite, philosophical one. He’s got a lot to say and I had to think hard about most of it.

“Death can become an object of blind ardour, of a hunger like that of love”

[…]

“the time of impatience has passed; at the point where I now am, despair would be in as bad taste as hope itself. I have ceased to hurry my death.”

Secondly, the short story collection She Has No Place in Paradise by Nawal El Saadawi (1987, trans. Shirley Eber 1987) Set in Egypt, it is another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

If you ever want absolute confirmation that you are an under-achiever who is wasting their life, go and check out Nawal El Saadawi’s wiki entry. The first paragraph alone is enough to inspire deep feelings utter inadequacy 😀

I always find it hard to write about collections of short stories, but I thought She Has No place in Paradise worked well. El Saadawi has an excellent understanding of the form and each story felt complete in itself, yet still contributed to the collection overall painting a picture of late twentieth-century Egyptian society.

Some of the stories captured the determinedly everyday. In Thirst, a young servant girl running errands lusts after a cool drink from a kiosk:

“The tarmac of the street beneath her feet had softened from the intensity of the sun’s heat. It burned her like a piece of molten iron and made her hop here and there, bumping and colliding, unconsciously, like a small moth against the sides of a burning lamp. She could have made for the shade at the side of the street and sat for a time on the damp earth, but her shopping basket hung on her arm and her right hand clutched at a tattered fifty piastre note.”

It’s a simple tale conveying just a few moments in time, but El Saadawi is able to address big issues: the position of women, the class system, economics, how and where freedom of choice is exercised, how we weigh up choices when we have very little to lose. None of this is heavily executed; El Saadawi trusts the reader to draw wider conclusions than just the immediate situation.

“She had a salty taste in her mouth, as bitter as aloes, acrid and burning. She searched for some saliva with which to wet her salty lips, but the tip of her tongue burned without finding a drop. And Hamida stood in front of her, her lips surrounding the ice-cold bottle, each cell of her body absorbing the drink.”

Other stories are more ostensibly political, like the man being tortured to reveal the location of a printing press in But He Was No Mule.

“The press turns in your head, the lead letters chatter together like teeth and the word is born. It is only a word nothing but a word, yet the point at which all things begin, the point at which his life began and stretched throughout the years until this moment which he was now living. A long thread beginning at a point and stretching up to that gelatinous minute point around which his self was wrapped, enclosed and protected like a foetus in its mother’s womb.”

By having the victim in a state of near-delirium El Saadawi avoids having to present gory, gratuitous violence, but still manages to convey the brutality of the situation and the oppression taking place.

El Saadawi manages to maintain a light touch in addressing huge themes throughout the tales. The titular story treats the position of women in society and how religion is used as a means of control with a degree of humour, but it is humour with bite: a devout woman realises that her devotion to entering paradise is to enter somewhere which does not benefit her.

She Has No Place in Paradise is a masterclass in making the personal political and in doing so simply, without being didactic or losing sight of the story. Hugely impressive, much like Nawal El Saadawi herself.

To end, I was tempted to finish with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall in honour of Hadrian, but frankly the video creeps me out. So here’s something much more pleasant: Donia Massoud, born in Alexandria, spent three years travelling all around Egypt collecting folk songs. She then toured with her band playing traditional instruments. Here she is performing in Spain:

“If you live to be one hundred, you’ve got it made. Very few people die past that age.” (George Burns)

This is my 100th post.  For more prolific, better bloggers than me this would not be a big deal but it’s taken me nearly 3 years so I’m making it A Thing:

BRAD-PITT-DORK-DANCE

For the 100 theme I thought I would pick two books from my TBR that are also on the Norwegian Book Clubs 100 Best Books of All Time list (compiled by 100 authors from 54 countries). And it was at this point that the post became derailed, because the first one I chose was Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I have no idea how to discuss this novel.  I have no idea if it’s even a novel. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever read, and I’ve read The Monk. I can only think it’s called a novel because there isn’t a genre of whale-compendium-philosophical-disquisition-on-the-state-of-humankind-tragi-farce-quest-adventure-stream-of-conciousness-homoerotic-existentialist-romance. I had no idea what I was getting into.  I thought it was a story about a monopedal seafaring lunatic’s obsession with a white whale. That’s some of it. But saying that is what Moby-Dick is about is like saying Animal Farm is about pig husbandry.

“With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I — being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude, — how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships’ standing orders, ‘Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time.’”

So you see my problem. Once upon a time one of my tutors was talking me through how to write a research proposal and the only thing I remember him saying was “don’t do what I did, and write down a tirade of barely-literate pseudo-threats”. This comment makes complete sense now, because his research was on Moby-Dick, and if I was trying to capture it in any sort of meaningful analysis I think I’d end up resorting to a tirade of barely-literate pseudo-threats.

I realise this may sound like I didn’t like it, which is not true.  Moby-Dick is beautifully written, compelling, hypnotic, thought-provoking, and completely unique. It’s full of sage counsel for life:

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

The ending is devastating, and it is without a doubt the weirdest thing I’ve ever read.

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

article-2155383-137ACAF4000005DC-780_634x481

If you’d like to read a thoughtful, useful discussion of Moby-Dick rather than the confused nonsense you’ve just waded through here, then I highly recommend that you head over to Shoshi’s Book Blog for her excellent review.

Secondly, Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert (my edition trans. Alan Russell), whose linear narrative helped me recover from my Moby-Dick book hangover. Apparently Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” I find this extremely unlikely. Madame Bovary is a silly, vain, self-pitying materialist who places value in all the wrong things. She never changes – this is how she begins and ends the novel.  Madame Bovary could never have written Madame Bovary, which is scathing in its treatment of bourgeois aspiration and acquisition. However, while she runs up debts to fill her house with things and constantly hankers after some ideal self-indulgent life that is based entirely on what she has read books, there is not a total lack of sympathy for Emma:

“Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love. But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied she must have been mistaken. And Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the words ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, ‘ecstasy’, which had looked so beautiful in books.”

So, she’s naïve, and in her naiveté has married a man whose “conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everybody’s ideas trudged past, in their workaday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.” But she is also self-pitying, believing herself so hard done by in her comfortable middle-class existence with a man who loves her: “Had she not suffered enough? Now was her hour of triumph.” that at times I really wanted to slap her.

Emma really doesn’t know what she wants “She longed to travel – or go back to the convent. She wanted to die, and she wanted to live in Paris.”, and this makes her ripe for seduction by an absolute rake.  Although I didn’t like her, I did feel a bit ashamed for laughing at seduction which involved lines such as this:

“Goodbye! I’ll go away, far away, and you’ll hear no more of me. But today, some mysterious force has impelled me to you. One cannot fight with fate! Or resist when the angels smile! One is simply carried away by what is charming and lovely and adorable!”

Emma in her vanity falls for this nonsense, spoken by a man whose “pleasures had so trampled over his heart, like schoolboys in a playground, that no green thing grew there.” Of course her appeal wanes, and she is deserted by the cynical seducer:

“Emma was like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty, gradually slipping away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, whose forms and phrases are forever the same.”

Madame Bovary is a wonderful novel, accomplished and engaging, and while the sexuality of the heroine may no longer be scandalous, it remains an entirely relevant challenge to the socio-cultural values placed on materialistic gain.  I suspect Madame Bovary is a character who divides readers, and in this instance she divided the one reader. One the one hand, I thought her utterly contemptible. But at the same time she was a woman who wanted more, at a time when women didn’t have very many choices.

“Her will is like the veil on her bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze that blows. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains.”

Very possibly if I’d been born into nineteenth-century bourgeois French society I’d end up a silly, vain, self-pitying materialist, placing value in all the wrong things (of course, I’m nothing like that now *cough*). I’ll end on a more sympathetic view of Emma than I’ve given here; this recent film adaptation seems to view her more kindly, if the trailer is anything to go by:

 

“L’anglais n’est que du français mal prononcé”/“English is little more than badly pronounced French” (D’Artagnan in Vingt ans après / Twenty Years After – Alexandre Dumas)

Sunday was Bastille Day (La Fête Nationale /Le Quatorze Juillet in France) and so in honour of my friends across La Manche I thought this week I would look at two novels by French writers.  Unfortunately, being a typical Brit, I’m useless at other languages – even one with a 60% overlap with English – and so je regrette, I will be discussing the novels in their English translations. Both are novels, classics of French literature, and both concern adolescents, but other than that they are very different. J’espère que vous apprécierez!

Firstly Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier (1913, my copy Penguin 1987).  Alain-Fournier was the pen name of Henri Alban who died in 1914, fighting in World War I.  He was only 27 when he wrote Le Grand Meaulnes, and I think this is a case where it’s very hard not to read the novel biographically with regard to the author’s own life story.  Le Grand Meaulnes has an elegiac quality, a mourning for a lost France, a golden time which has passed.  It is a story of young adulthood and sexual awakening being told by a narrator looking back on events, and as such it has a nostalgic, idealised tone.  Knowing the author died so quickly after writing it adds to this atmosphere of loss.

The novel is narrated by fifteen year old Francois, who attends the school where his parents are teachers.  He is lonely, and when seventeen year old Augustin Meaulnes arrives at the school, Francois finds a hero (hence le grand…).  Not long after his arrival, Meaulnes finds fireworks left over from Le Quatorze Juillet celebrations (apt for this post):

“He was showing me the two fuses with paper wicks which the flames had bitten into, seared, and then abandoned.  He stuck the nave of the wheels into the gravel, produced a box of matches – this to my astonishment for we were not allowed matches – and stooping carefully held a flame to the wicks.  Then, taking my hand, he pulled me quickly back.

Coming out of doors with Madame Meaulnes…my mother saw to great bouquets of red and white stars soar up from the ground with a hiss.  And for the space of a second she could see me standing in a magical glow, holding the tall newcomer by the hand, and not flinching…

Once again, she had nothing to say.

And that evening a silent companion sat eating at the family table, his head bent over his plate, paying no heed to three pairs of eyes that saw nothing but him.”

A little while after this, Meaulnes disappears for three days.  He returns without explanation, wearing the waistcoat of a Marquis.  Eventually he tells Francois what happened in those missing days, and the adventure is somewhere between reality and a dream.  He lost his way on a journey to the village, and ends up in the grounds of a large estate.  The house has the feeling of being abandoned, and he discovers a box of old clothes, rich costumes, which he dresses in.  He follows a “young dandy”, also dressed in clothes of a bygone era, into the “farm, chateau, abbey, whatever it might be” and finds himself in the middle of a fete where everyone is dressed oddly, feasting and dancing.   In the garden, he sees a young woman, and follows her onto a boat:

“And now on shore, everything fell into place as in a dream.  While children ran about shouting and laughing, and their elders broke up into groups and moved away through the woods, Meaulnes kept to the path where the girl was walking only a few steps ahead. He came up with her before he had given himself time to reflect and said simply:

“You are beautiful.””

And so le grand Meaulnes becomes the romantic hero, as he returns to school and he and Francois attempt to find the chateau, and the young woman, Yvonne, again.  As Meaulnes searches for her in Paris, Francois discovers where the chateau is. Meaulnes and Yvonne are reunited and marry, but not before Meaulnes has had a crisis over the fact that things can never be as they once were:

“Once she laid a hand on his arm gently, in a gesture of trust and helplessness.  Why was le grand Meaulnes at that moment like a stranger, like a man who has failed to find what he sought and for whom nothing else held any interest?  Three years before such a gesture would have overjoyed him to the point of terror, perhaps even madness.  Why then this present emptiness, this aloofness, this inability to be happy?”

And therein lies the rub of this novel – le grand Meaulnes can behave like a bit of an idiot.  He is the eternal romantic, but life cannot be all romance.  As he tries to live out his fantasies, he actually behaves quite badly toward the women in his life.  The women in this novel are not fully drawn, they exist as vessels for le grand Meaulnes’ romanticism, and as such this novel can be a frustrating experience for 21st century readers. But as a portrayal of the time when childhood has been left behind but adulthood is still to be realised, and of a time when a person has an all-consuming romantic sensibility before it becomes tempered by experience, Le Grand Meaulnes is brilliantly evocative.

Secondly, and with a protagonist very different to Meaulnes, Zazie in the Metro/Zazie dans le Metro by Raymond Queneau (1959, my copy Penguin, 2000). Zazie lives in the country, but when her mother wants to have a few days alone with her lover, Zazie arrives in Paris to spend time with her uncle Gabriel, a female impersonator.  Zazie is excited to ride the Metro, but there is a strike on. Undeterred, she explores Paris and has adventures.  And that’s about it, really.  But despite an outwardly simple plot, Zazie is a hugely enjoyable and compelling read.  Zazie is worldly wise and foul-mouthed, and has a great time rocketing around Paris on her own.  Here she is chatting to a police constable about her missing uncle:

“He added with a nostalgic air:

“Words don’t have the same meaning as they did.”

And he sighed as he looked at the extremity of his beetle-crushers.

“None of this gives me back my unkoo,” said Zazie.  “they’ll start saying I got a phobia again and it won’t be true.”

“Don’t worry my child,” said the widow.  “I shall be there to bear witness to your good will and to your innocence.”

“When people are really innocent, that is,” said the constable, “they don’t need anybody.”

“The bastard,” said Zazie, “I can see him coming a mile off. They’re all the same.”

“You know them well as that, then, my poor child?”

“Don’t talk to me about ‘em, my poor lady,” replies Zazie, simpering. “Just fancy, my mamma, she split open my papa’s skull with a chopper. So after that, cops, talk about getting to know them, my dear.”

“Well I never,” said the constable.

“Cops though, they’re just nothing,” said Zazie. “But judges. Well now, that lot…”

“All swine,” said the constable impartially.

“Anyhow, the cops and the judges too,” said Zazie, “I fooled ‘em.  Like that (gesture).””

This scene shows a lot about Zazie: the heroine is no idealised infant, but a manipulative, savvy, funny, independent being who seeks to please no-one.  The novel has a lot of dialogue and as such a lot of slang, like unkoo, or the opening word “Howcanaystinksotho” (how can they stink so?) which according to Wikipedia, in the French original was “Doukipudonktan”  to represent “D’où qu’ils puent donc tant” (“Why do they stink so much?”).  This gives the novel a unique voice and a real feel of stepping into a pre-teenager’s world (although we’re never told exactly how old Zazie is).  It almost reads like a script, particularly when it uses devices like “(gesture)”, and in fact it was made into a film by Louis Malle just a year after publication. But there are times when Queneau takes on a stronger authorial role, and the voice has a light comic tone that is wholly in keeping with his heroine’s dialogue:

“Perceiving her uncle a prey to the victualing mob, she bawled out: Come on, unkoo! And grabbing hold of a carafe full of water, threw it at random into the fray.  So strong is the martial spirit among the daughters of France.  Following this example, the widow Mouaque disseminated ashtrays all around her. So powerful is the spirit of imitation which can cause even the least gifted to act. Then was heard a considerable fracas: Gabriel had just collapsed into the crockery, carrying with him into the debris seven waiters who were completely out of control, five customers who had been taking part and one epileptic.

Rising to their feet with simultaneous impulse, Zazie and the widow Mouaque approached the human magma which was struggling in the sawdust and crockery.  A few judiciously applied blows with a syphon eliminated from the competition several persons endowed with fragile skulls.  Thanks to which Gabriel was able to pick himself up…”

Zazie isn’t necessarily likeable, she’s a self-serving brat, but I love her.  I urge you to spend three days with Zazie as she gets to know the great city of Paris and some of its more idiosyncratic inhabitants.

Here are the books with one of France’s greatest products, fromage bleu.  Ah, Roquefort, je t’aime, je t’aime beaucoup….

Image