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The whirlwind of life

April 14, 2012 36 comments

Heloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim. Not translated into English, unlucky non-French readers…

Let’s rewind a bit. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Promising French Women Writers and eventually decided to read Héloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim, although it wasn’t my first choice among the titles listed in this entry. As we say in French: Seuls les imbéciles ne changent pas d’avisi.

My fear came from the title, as Héloïse est chauve means Héloïse is bald and I immediately pictured a book about breast cancer. (Btw, I’m not the only one, I told someone I was reading Héloïse est chauve and the reply was “Is it about cancer?”). No, it’s not about cancer but the book title might be a put off.

It’s actually the first sentence of the novel and Héloïse is bald because she’s only five-month-old. It’s Saint Nicolas’s day and the whole family is gathered at Jeanne’s the matriarch of the family. She has two daughters, Violette and Mirabelle. I was caught from the start. I have to say that a novel that starts with a St Nicolas evening and a character named Mirabelle can only go straight to the heart of a native from Lorraine. For my foreign friends, St Nicolas’s Day is on December 6th, and only people from Alsace-Lorraine celebrate it in France. A “mirabelle” is a yellow plum that grows in this region; in Metz, Lorraine, there is a Mirabelle Festival every year. It’s very unlikely that a French writer opens a book like this.

Back to the book. Héloïse is in her craddle and falls in love with Dr Lawrence Calvagh, who is forty years old, half Irish-half French (an explosive mix?) and a close friend of the family. Actually, he dated Mirabelle and had an affair with Violette but he’s still married to Fleur. Lawrence is a paediatrician and a Don Juan. But Héloïse is a passionate and persistent lover and the novel is about their incredible love story, intertwined with the story of the family. Héloïse is an unusual character, she’s as passionate as the famous medieval eponymous heroin. She’s artistic and becomes a photographer à la Cindy Sherman or Gilbert and George.

It’s hard for me to give back the flavour of this novel, because the style is so crucial and the characters so strange. I’ll shower you with adjectives. It’s refreshing, odd, unseen, touching, pleasant, poetic, crude, inventive, international, incredible and yet plausible. In a word, quirky.

Emilie de Turckheim has a voice, a new and personal voice and her style is musical. I could hear rhythm and change of pace. Sometimes it races and clinks like the noise of a woman in a hurry, walking down a tiled hall with high heeled shoes. Sometimes it murmurs like a woman tiptoeing in with slippers in someone else’s soul. Her turn of phrases are her own, she makes a creative and unaffected use of the French language. I enjoyed the descriptions of Héloïse’s photo exhibitions, the moments in the family house in Corsica, the chapter when the authorities empty the Turtle Pond in Central Park. Héloïse is bald, the title says. I’d say she’s bold. All the time. Pushing the limits, going after what she wants, disregarding etiquette and customs. Let me help you discover her:

Elle a un don pour l’idéal excès. Ses colères, ses baisers, ses idées finement hachées, ses plaisirs de volcan, tout est à l’excès. Héloïse, habitante modèle de la minute et de la seconde, de la stupeur de l’instant. Sa peau imminente, ses caresses, sa voix mineure, éolienne. Sa façon ingénue et impérieuse de dire: Je t’aime depuis que je suis née! Et ses cheveux de ruche.

She has a gift for the ideal excess. Her angers, her kisses, her finely-chopped ideas, her volcano pleasures, everything is excessive. Héloïse, model inhabitant of the minute and the second, of the stupor of the instant. Her imminent skin, her caresses and her voice on a minor key, aeolian. Her naïve and commanding way of saying: I’ve loved you since I was born! And her hair like a beehive.

It sounds crazy but everything holds well together – I enjoyed the ending. The narrative changes of voice and gives several perspectives. It’s a find, really. Does someone know an Anglophone publisher who could translate her and bring this novel to you?

PS: I apologise to Emilie de Turckheim for the poor translation of her prose. The good news though is that most of the regular readers of this blog can read the original and won’t depend on my translation.

iOnly idiots never change their mind

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