Home > Désérable François-Henri, French Literature, Gary, Romain, Highly Recommended, Personal Posts, WWII > Fête du livre de Bron – Bron Book Fair : A certain M. Désérable

Fête du livre de Bron – Bron Book Fair : A certain M. Désérable

The 31th Fête du Livre de Bron was from March 7th to March 11th. It’s dedicated to contemporary literature and this year I was interested in hearing François-Henri Désérable talk about his book A Certain M. Piekielny. (See my billet about it here)

His book – I don’t know if I can call it a novel or if it the term autofiction fits, I’m never good with literary boxes—relates his investigation about M. Piekielny, a character mentioned by Romain Gary in the 7th chapter of his fictionalized autobiographical novel Promise at Dawn. At the time he was a little boy still named Roman Kacew.

It was a very interesting interview, F-H Désérable is an entertaining guest, always quoting one author or the other and gracing us with a scintillating conversation with Christine Ferniot, the journalist in charge of this interview.

The discussion turned around fiction and reality, how literature could give life and immortality to people. He said he can only write books based upon real events, real characters. According to him, the frontier between fiction and reality is porous. Some characters from novels sound truer than life, it is said that on his death bed, Balzac called the doctor he had created in his books. Writers can embark us on a journey they never made themselves and it still feels real. Real persons can cross the line and wander on the side of fiction.

As I mentioned in my billet, while researching M. Piekielny, F-H Désérable brings back the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno in the 1920s, when Gary lived there. This world has disappeared and as he puts it, the Nazis destroyed the people, the Soviets destroyed their architectural heritage. Nothing visible remains of them in Vilnius.

But literature has this power. It only needs a pen and a sheet of paper, as far as Gary was concerned and a computer, as far as Désérable is concerned to give birth or leave a testimony of a whole world. Both writers saved from oblivion the Piekielnies of Wilno. Fleeting memories become solid when written down and printed. They are there, they stay with us, they won’t let us forget them. As F-H Désérable pointed out, it is only thanks to literature that we were all in this room, talking about people who died during WWII and thus acknowledging their existence and their horrible untimely death. I think that’s why dictators are often afraid of books.

The journalist asked how he worked on his style, how he liberated himself from Gary’s presence to find his own voice. He explained that it was a difficult book to write, at the beginning. He wanted to digress. He thought about Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano, a writer he admires a lot. For our great pleasure, he stopped the self-censorship and gave himself permission to digress. He also felt that his natural tone was too casual, too flippant for such a grave topic as the destruction of Wilno’s Jewish ghetto. He’s right to say that this tone was possible because it’s something Gary mastered at. Humor was an armor and a weapon to overcome the atrocities of life and to prove that humanity was above them because even in terrible circumstances, it kept its sense of humor.

Gary committed suicide in 1980. F-H Désérable thinks that he did it because he had lost faith in the power of literature and that since life and literature were so entwined in his life, one couldn’t go one without faith in the other. That’s a way to see it.

Un certain M. Piekielny was also a personal journey for its author. It was an opportunity for him to wonder why he was so drawn to Promise at Dawn when he was seventeen. His conclusion is that his mother is kacewian, that she belongs to the same category of mothers as Mina Kacew, Gary’s mother. I guess mine could fit in this category as well.

It was a fascinating hour with a very young writer (He was born in 1987) who said he became a writer to have a professional justification to all the time he spends reading. His broad culture is humbling, I wonder how he managed to know all this when he’s so young.

There was a signing after the conference and I was determined to talk to him, to tell him how much I loved his book. I raced down to the alcove where he was settling and was happy to be the one and only there when I arrived. I started gushing about his book and dared to tell him that if he wanted to read what I thought about it, he could read it on my blog. I slipped him my Book Around the Corner card and he glanced at it and exclaimed: “It’s you!” I was stunned to discover that he had read my billet and had transferred it to the person in charge of negotiating the rights for the English translation of his novel. His publisher, the prestigious Gallimard, has sold the rights for a translation in ten languages and they can’t find a publisher willing to translate it into English. *Sigh* You Anglophone people should really work on spreading the love of literature in translation.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to chat a little bit with him and I was happy to discover someone very approachable and friendly. I really, really hope that they find an English translator for his book.

Of course, there’s no book fest without adding to the TBR. I wandered in the festival library and benefited from a friend’s knowledge of Arabic literature to get new books and I got two Australian books as well.

If you’ve read any of these books, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and a link to your review.

  1. March 11, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    I hope it’s translated too. It can be a small world at times, can’t it?


    • March 11, 2018 at 5:55 pm

      It’s incredible for me, of course. My blog isn’t a huge thing and this writer has had reviews in huge newspapers. He doesn’t need bloggers to promote his book, I’m surprised he even came across my billet.


      • March 11, 2018 at 5:58 pm

        I think some writers like to see what bloggers are saying, and your review was in English, yet the book isn’t translated. That must have been unusual.


        • March 11, 2018 at 6:06 pm

          The fact that my billet was in English made it stand out, that’s for sure.


  2. March 11, 2018 at 5:59 pm

    How lovely that he’d read your billet! What a great encounter and talk.


    • March 11, 2018 at 6:07 pm

      The interview was great and not too crowded. And yes, I stil can’t believe he’d read my billet.


  3. March 11, 2018 at 6:20 pm

    How marvellous! And some of us Anglophone readers are constantly praying for more translations!


    • March 11, 2018 at 6:24 pm

      I know a lot of book bloggers who love to read in translation but you seem to be a minority, not among bloggers, but in your market(s). Let’s hope it’ll change. I think Marina Sofia tweeted about the decline of learning a foreign language in the UK. (that was based upon an article) This doesn’t help opening up to other cultures and school is an important player in that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 11, 2018 at 8:56 pm

        Definitely! Additional languages used to be compulsory but there’s a shift away from that which is such a shame. Makes us a very Anglocentric culture, unwilling to look outside, which is our great loss…


        • March 11, 2018 at 9:53 pm

          I agree with you. Even if in the end you can’t speak the language, it’s still an opportunity to talk about another country, other ways of life. It’s a way to open up to other cultures.
          Here we’re going the other way round. It used to be mandatory to start a language at 11 and a second language at 13.
          Now they start at 6 (a bit of vocabulary, colors, numbers, things like that). Then the first real classes are at 11 and at 12 they start learning a second language.
          We’re still behind compared to countries like Holland. The methods to learn languages haven’t changed much and they’re not efficient. Too bad.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. March 11, 2018 at 6:43 pm

    How interesting ! This book was recommended to my bookgroup by the writer Pauline Dreyfus who came to visit us . Fascinated to hear he’s a big fan of Modiano ( my fave French writer) ….I’m definitely going to read this now .

    Sadly I’m not surprised that they can’t find an English translator. Most anglophones ( even well read ones) have never even heard of Roman Gary , let alone read any of his books. I really don’t know why !


    • March 11, 2018 at 7:06 pm

      What a bookgroup! You have writers visiting you?!

      I think you’ll like this book, really. I hope that Gary gets better known: The Kites has just been published in the USA, in Australia and it’s coming out in the UK in May.

      PS : still coming to Quais du Polar?


  5. March 12, 2018 at 1:32 am

    I don’t know the Chloe Hooper book but you will be stunned and horrified by the Palm Island story which shames Queensland and Australia to this day.

    I am writing at this moment about Holocaust fiction and your account of this interview has given me much food for thought.


    • March 12, 2018 at 11:07 pm

      On the blurb they compare it to In Cold Blood. We’ll see. It seems to be interesting for me to read.

      I’ve read your post and I do understand your point.

      Here, WWII is not the initial purpose of the book. It’s a literary investigation and it leads to discovering Wilno, the dreadful fate of its Jewish population during WWII.

      I’m also tired of books set in that era, it’s been done so much and in a way, it seems to be easy. It’s a good setting for drama, to create heroes and villains, etc. And yet, it’s still a way to make younger readers aware of what happens and make statistics become flesh and blood.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 13, 2018 at 1:22 am

        Thank you for engaging with my Anne Frank ‘billet’ (my long ago high school French translates that as ‘ticket’), I wanted to be open about how my politics might affect my literary opinions.


        • March 13, 2018 at 7:42 am

          Billet means ticket, indeed.

          But a billet is also a note written to someone. Un billet doux is a love note.
          Un billet d’humeur is a chronicle where the author gives their opinion about something.
          Now billet is used for blog posts.
          It suits me: I’m not qualified to write book reviews, I sometimes write billets d’humeur and I like to think that my blog is a love note to literature.
          See no ticket here.


          • March 13, 2018 at 10:37 am

            A billet is also somewhere to sleep and a chunk of firewood (maybe also a little Bill which I have not been this past half century), but your billets doux to literature make fine reviews.


  6. March 12, 2018 at 3:02 pm

    You are so enthousiastic about him that you’ve convinced me to read him even though I’m not usually very interested in contemporary French writers. His Evariste also sounds really up my line, I like the author’s choice of historical topics and the mix of biography/novel. Lucky you to have been able to listen to him and, even more, meet him. I feel a bit deprived in Budapest, though we’ll have Daniel Kehlmann (also a young author who abandoned a PhD to dedicate himself to writing) in April for the Budapest book festival.


    • March 12, 2018 at 11:14 pm

      I have to say I’m not much into contemporary French lit either, with some exceptions. I mostly hear about new books on the radio and I often think “not for me” even when the journalist is enthusiastic. I’ve been burnt a few times. (Christine Angot, ew…)

      I think I’d like his Evariste too.

      I don’t have a lot of time to go to literary festivals. I always attend Quais du Polar and I like this one as well. I’d like to go to the Salon du Livre de Paris but it’s always almost at the same time as the other ones. I can’t leave everything behind 3 times in a month. Oh well….

      PS: I loved Fame by Daniel Kehlman; he must be an interesting writer to hear.


  1. March 12, 2018 at 4:50 am
  2. April 16, 2018 at 9:02 am
  3. December 23, 2018 at 7:41 pm

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