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Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné – a girl’s resilience

May 15, 2022 3 comments

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné (2018) Original French title: La vraie vie.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné was our Book Club choice for April. It is set in a suburb in Belgium and since the author was born in 1982, I think she used the time of her childhood as a reference. The way of life in the novel matches with the 1990s. There’s a before and after cellphones.

The narrator is a girl who is never named. She’s ten when the book opens and her brother Gilles is six. It’s the summer holiday and the two children spend their time playing around in their generic housing development complex. Their father works at an amusement park, their mom is a stay-at-home mother.

Their father is a hunter and they have a whole room in the house for his hunting trophies. His most prized one is a tusk. Yes, the man loves to hunt and doesn’t hesitate to travel abroad and break the law if need be. I’d despise him just for that. Between hunting trips, he spends his free time at home, sitting on the couch, drinking whisky and beating up his wife. Now he’s just gone up from despicable to scumbag.

His wife is mousy and loves to spend her time with her pet goats. The Narrator calls her an amoeba. Pretty telling. She acts like a wallflower, trying to fly under her husband’s predatory radar. If it means that she neglects her children, then so be it. She devotes all her time and pours her love into her pets.

This explains why the children are joined to the hip and the Narrator feels responsible for her little brother’s safety. They’re a team and Gilles is the Narrator’s sunshine. He brings warmth in her life and she’d do anything to keep this sunshine alive.

That summer, a terrible accident happens. The children’s daily pleasure is to buy an ice-cream cone at the ice-cream truck that drives through their neighborhood. The old man who serves them always adds whipped cream to the Narrator’s cone even if he knows that her father forbids it. That day, the whipped cream maker explodes as he’s serving the Narrator. The impact is such that it takes away half of his face and he dies on the spot. The two children are witness and they are traumatized.

As their parents are faulty, they do nothing to heal their trauma. Gilles stops speaking, behaves weirdly, becomes mean. The Narrator swears to herself that she will bring him back.

The book covers several summer holidays, each worse than the previous one. The reader feels the tension building, sees the Narrator fight against her family circumstances. School is her safe place and she discovers that she loves physics.

Her mother’s distraction plays in her favor when she wants to do things on her own. She babysits some children in the neighborhood to pay for her physics lessons. She hides everything to keep out of her father’s wrath.

As things deteriorate at home, the reader feels that a dramatic event is bound to happen and dreads the conclusion of the novel. I kept wondering how it would end.

Children narrators are hard to pull off but Adeline Dieudonné made it. For her sake, I hope that nothing in her novel is autobiographical except how it was to be a child and teenager in the 1990s. It’s a powerful book, a novel that has several cousins in Betty by Tiffany McDaniel, by Gabriel Tallent, or Blood by Tony Birch.

Not a fun read, but highly recommended. As it’s not an easy book to tuck into a nice little box, we have a festival of book covers when we look at the various translations of Real Life. Ready for the show?

I don’t understand the English cover, as everything happens in the summer. The Spanish one is lovely but the reader will expect something sweet. The Hungarian is … I don’t know what to say.

I see a rabbit pattern in Germany and Finland but I don’t understand why. I’m not sure bout the Little Red Riding Hood reference of the Russian version.

I really like the Japanese cover, it fits the Narrator’s tone and it reflects the fact that she’s a child. And she’s never whining but always resilient and fighting. The Persian one is puzzling and the Polish one has the same idea as the Russian one.

What a diversity of covers! I wonder what the author thinks about that.

The Line That Held Us by David Joy – “For whom are you willing to lay down your life?”

May 8, 2022 4 comments

The Line That Held Us by David Joy (2018) French title: Ce lien entre nous.

I downloaded The Line That Held Us by David Joy after hearing his interview at Quais du Polar. He made a lot of references to Dwayne Brewster, one of the main characters of this novel, enough to push me to read his book.

The Line That Held Us opens on a fatal mistake.

We’re in Jackson County, in North Carolina. Darl Moody and Carol “Sissy” Brewster are both trespassing on Coon Coward’s land while he’s away for a week. Darl Moody is a hunter and he’s after a deer. Carol Brewster is poaching ginseng, a root that grows in the woods in the Appalachians and can be sold at a hefty price. (It’s like truffles in France, I believe).

Darl mistakes Carol for his prey and accidentally shoots him dead. Instead of going to the police, Darl calls his best friend Calvin and they bury Carol’s body in a makeshift grave on Calvin’s property. They don’t want Carol’s brother Dwayne to know what they did to his brother and Darl wants to escape any legal consequences for his action.

Carol and Dwayne come from a poor and dysfunctional family and the two brothers stick together and are each other’s family. Dwayne is the violent one who protects his soft younger brother.

Dwayne understood that his brother was not meant for this place, that some people were born too soft to bear the teeth of this world. There was no place for weakness in a world like this. Survival was so often a matter of meanness.

Dwayne starts looking for his brother when he goes missing. No one suspected that the old Coon Coward had installed video surveillance on his land. Darl and Calvin are easily recognized.

Dwayne doesn’t believe in the justice of men and despite his extensive Bible reading, he doesn’t believe in the justice of God either. He takes matter into his own hands.

The Line That Held Us is a local and universal tale. It is deeply rooted in Jackson County, in the Appalachians in North Carolina. David Joy lives there and he excels at describing the landscape with love and awe.

An unseasonable cold snap following one of the driest summers the county had ever seen brought on fall a month ahead of schedule. It was the last week of September, but the ridgelines were already bare. Down in the valley, the trees were in full color with reds and oranges afire like embers, the acorns falling like raindrops. The nights were starting to frost and within a few weeks the first few breaths of winter would strip the mountains to their gray bones.

He takes you to his home county and like he said in his interview, the old mountain way-of-life is slowly disappearing. His book is a way to give his people a voice and be a witness of the local ways. His characters are part of this land and they were raised in these customs.

Sixty-three years later, having happened three decades before he was born, Calvin knew the story the same as everyone else to ever come out of Jackson County. Things had a way of never leaving these mountains. Stories took root like everything else. He was a part of one now, part of a story that would never be forgotten, and that made bearing the truth all the more heavy.

People know each other and the family stories are carried on from one generation to the other. The police are people you went to school with. Everyone knows where people work and the places they like to go. It is small town life in secluded places, where solidarity holds hand with nosiness. Darl, Calvin, his girlfriend Angie, Dwayne and Carol all belong to a people living in a tough environment, where people love deeply but not necessarily express their feelings with words.

It’s also a land where people are rather religious. David Joy said he used to go to church three times a week with his parents and the stories from the Bible were an important part of his education. Dwayne Brewster reads the Old Testament on his own and interprets it his own way. He came to the following conclusion:

A God of mercy, they say. I look around this world and I don’t see no mercy. They talk about a God of compassion. I want you to look around. You show me a place where compassion outweighs selfishness. The only thing we might agree on is forgiveness.” Dwayne nodded his head. “I reckon He’d have to be forgiving when He’s done plenty worse Himself. A God of forgiveness. Now that I can see.”

I thought that The Line That Held Us was like a biblical tale, not that I’m overly familiar with them.

Dwayne is the one who forces Darl and then Calvin to face their fear and their selfishness. He challenges them, directly or indirectly. Darl would rather hide Carol’s death than man up and face Dwayne’s reaction and legal consequences. He convinces himself that it’s the best option since his sister relies on his help.

With Calvin, Dwayne acts like the devil or God who tempts or challenges a biblical character and forces them to make a tough choice. Dwayne makes Calvin strip his soul and reveal the raw core of his being. Think of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son.

The Line That Held Us is constructed like such a story and manages to be a social commentary of life in Jackson County wrapped in a poetical description of the surrounding wilderness.

David Vann binds his books with Greek tragedy tradition. David Joy ties his with Sunday School. In the end, both put their characters in life-changing and character-revealing situations.

We don’t know ourselves fully until we’ve had to answer the question “For whom are you willing to lay down your life?” Most of us hope to never find themselves in a position where they have to answer this question. Meanwhile, Dwayne reminds us:

“What I’m saying is that it’s easy to take the high road so long as there aren’t any stakes. But the minute you’ve got something to lose, a man’ll do all sorts of things.”

We all ought to meditate on that statement, I think. All this makes of Dwayne Brewster an unforgettable character despite his horrible actions. There will be other books by David Joy in my future and I’m looking forward to my visit to Jackson County in August.

Very Highly Recommended.

Three crime fiction books from France – three very different rides

May 1, 2022 8 comments
  • The Wounded Wolves by Christophe Molmy (2015) Original French title: Les Loups blessés.
  • Missing in Pukatapu by Patrice Guirao (2020) Original French title: Les disparus de Pukatapu.
  • Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy (2018) Original French title: La petite gauloise.

This week I’m taking you through three different parts of France with three different authors. Christophe Molmy takes us to Paris, Patrice Guirao to Tahiti and Jérôme Leroy to a suburban town in Province.

Let’s start with Paris and Les Loups blessés by Christophe Molmy (The Wounded Wolves).

Molmy is the chief of the BRI (Brigade de recherche et d’intervention), the Gang unit of the French police. In other words, he’s specialized in fighting against organized crime. Like Olivier Norek, he’s policeman and a writer.

The commissaire Renan Pessac, chief of the BRI, is exhausted by his work, the relationship with his hierarchy and working on the field. He’s recently divorced and feels rather lonely. He has a close but complex relationship with his informers, a mix between co-dependance and sometimes attraction, as one of them is a prostitute. He’s not in a good place professionally or personally and if someone offered him an out, I had the feeling he’d take it gladly.

On the other side of the law is Matteo Astolfi, a criminal, with a master degree in holdups, living on the run and running a criminal organization. Astolfi is getting older, his partner accepts less and less to live under false identities. They a have a son, he’s six and it’s getting more and more complicated to keep him out of a normal life. Astolfi wants to do a last job and stop his illegal activities. He doesn’t want to go to prison and he wants to start a life in the open somewhere.

Two petty criminals from a Parisian suburb, the brothers Belkiche decide to branch out of hashish trafficking and attack a post office. Their team included Doumé, Astolfi’s little brother. Pessac is on the case and this affair will make Astolifi’s and Pessac’s lives collide.

Les Loups blessés is a good read as we alternate between point of views and see what happens on the three sides of the affair: Pessac, Astolfi and the Belkiche brothers have their say. Pessac felt real, with a physical and mental fatigue weighing heavily on his shoulders. Astolfi sounded human, despite the killings and years of criminal activities.

Recommended to Corylus Books, they might want to translate it into English!

Now let’s go to Tahiti.

Les disparus de Pukatapu by Patrice Guirao (Missing in Pukatapu) is set on a very isolated atoll in Tahiti. The kind of atoll where a boat comes every four months for resupplying. *shudders* You’d better not forget the sugar on the grocery shopping list! Maema an Lilith, journalist and photograph landed in this remote atoll to write an article about the impact of global warming on the locals’s life. There are 26 inhabitants on the atoll and no children.

Things start to go wrong when Lilith discovers a dead hand on the beach, while she’s lying down under a coconut tree. Whose hand is this? Maema and Lilith start investigating and digging into the inhabitants’ secrets.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the ocean, a military basis is doing secret researches and their laboratory is threatened by a submarine volcanic eruption.

The reader follows what happens on the atoll, only to realize that the paradisiac setting does nothing to abate humans’ baser instincts. The passages on the mysterious (and nefarious) military basis felt like jumping from one subject to the other and didn’t mesh well with Maema and Lilith’s work.

I thought that Guirao was trying too hard to pack an investigation and raise awareness about Tahiti and the destruction brought by the French presence there. It was in Tahiti, in the Mururoa atoll that the French government did their nuclear tests, without caring much about the consequences on the local population.

Trouble in Paradise would be a good title for this book, I think, but I wasn’t convinced by the story or the construction of the plot. The sense of place wasn’t good enough for me, which is also what I’m looking for in that kind of book.

Les disparus de Pukatapu is not translated into English and let’s say it’s not translation tragedy.

Now, the next one, Little Rebel is available in English, thanks to Corylus Books. Yay!!

It’s only 141 pages long but what a ride! It draws an actual picture of a part of today’s France. It is set in an industrial town in the West of France, where the extreme right has won the city hall election.

The characters ring true and Leroy shows the implacable puzzle of various pieces that lead to a terrorist attack. What he describes feels horribly accurate and his tone based on a sharp irony and direct talk to the reader is very effective.

I don’t want to go into details about the characters or the plot because it would give too much away.

It is a social crime fiction book and the analysis is accurate. Several important pillars of our society are eaten by pests and they threaten its foundation. Political abandonment of working and middle classes. Racism and fear. School and the disenchantment of teachers. Boredom. Infiltration of suburbs by foreign extremists. Social networks and the endless possibility to spread hatred and fake news.

And things aren’t as straightforward as they seem.

You want to read about a France that doesn’t look like Provence, sun and lovely postcards? Read Little Rebel. You want to understand how the dreadful Marine Le Pen scored that well at the last presidential election? Read Little Rebel.

On top of a breathless ride on this side of France, you’ll help Corylus Book, an independent publisher who wishes to bring new voices to crime fiction in English. And, as you know, our fellow blogger Marina Sofia is part of this adventure.

Little Rebel: Highly recommended.

The Man With the Dove by Romain Gary (Fosco Sinibaldi) – a 1958 satire of the U.N.

April 24, 2022 13 comments

The Man With The Dove by Romain Gary (Fosco Sinibaldi) – 1958/1984. Original French title: L’homme à la colombe.

It’s not easy to write a billet about The Man With The Dove by Romain Gary. I tried to pull a Murakami this morning, went for a run and hoped it’d clear my head and help me write a tentative billet about this farce. It didn’t work so you’ll have make do with this billet.

First, a bit of context. Romain Gary first published The Man With The Dove in 1958 and under a penname, Fosco Sinibaldi. At the time, Gary was a diplomat and was a member of the French delegation in the UN in New York. He wasn’t allowed to publish such a book under his real name and you’ll soon understand why. A new version was published in 1984 after his death and under his real name. It’s the version that I have.

If you’ve never read Romain Gary, you need to know a bit about his literary universe and his references. He fought with de Gaulle during WWII, he was an early resistant. He’s a humanist and a promoter of French moto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. He believes in it and it is etched in his soul. He saw firsthand what communism meant as a diplomat in Bulgaria. He’s fond of the comedia del arte and loves the Marx Brothers. He uses humor as a weapon to take the pin out of mentally explosive situations. He has a wicked sense of humor and he’s the epitome of the saying “Many a true word is said in jest”.

Now that you’re aware of this, the book.

The Man With The Dove is set inside the building of the UN in New York. The tone of the book is set from the first pages. The UN is organized in such a way that it seems to take care of problems but does everything not to solve them and drag them as long as they can. That’s how the top management acts. And as always, Romain Gary thinks out of the box and points out:

A l’autre bout des longs couloirs qui unissaient le bâtiment de l’Assemblée à l’immense tour rectangulaire du Secrétariat, trois mille cinq cents fonctionnaires de toutes les races, couleurs et croyances, continuaient à résoudre tranquillement, jour et nuit, pour leur propre compte, tous les problèmes d’amitié entre les peuples, de coexistence pacifique et de coopération internationale dont leurs chefs débattaient en vain depuis plus de dix ans, dans les salles de conférences et les réunions de l’Assemblée.At the other end of the long hallways that connected the building of the Assembly to the huge square tower of the Secretary, three thousand and five hundred civil servants of all races, colors and beliefs quietly kept solving, night and day, on their own account, all the problems of friendship between nations, of peaceful coexistence and international cooperation that their bosses had been debating upon in vain since more than ten years in conference rooms and Assembly meetings.

The introduction of the book is clear: the UN works on its own, goes through the motions of taking care of international issues but does whatever it takes not to solve them. It is a theatre where the American-Russian relationship is staged and choregraphed, where everything is done to avoid any kind of escalation. It’s a comedy and the hustle and bustle is more about communication than a real attempt at efficiency.

The novella opens on a scene among the top management of the UN. The Secretary-General Traquenard (Trap) and two trustworthy members of his team, Bagtir, known for his calm and Praiseworthy, known for his prudence have a crisis meeting.

Traquenard and his men have a new problem: the building seems to have a new unofficial tenant. A man with a dove occupies a room in the building, one that is not on the map and he was seen wandering in the hallways, presenting his dove to secretaries and other staff members. They want to track him down. This mysterious character with the dove is Johnnie Coeur, supported by other outsiders of the building, a Hopi chief, three illegal gamblers who are there for the diplomatic immunity granted by the international zone of the building and a shoeshine-man. Johnnie is in search of a grand scam.

Le sourcil froncé, il rêvait de commettre, lui aussi, quelque immense escroquerie morale, quelque abus de confiance prodigieux, pour se venger de ses illusions perdues et pour montrer qu’il était complètement guéri de ses errements idéalistes.With his brow furrowed, he dreamt of committing some sort of huge moral scam, a phenomenal breach of trust that would avenge his lost illusions and would show to the world that he was totally healed of any idealistic wanderings.

And light bulb! Johnnie will simulate a hunger strike. With a little help from his friends, he’ll pull it off so well that things won’t turn out the way he thought.

The Man With The Dove was written in 1958, rather at the beginning of Gary’s literary career. It announces the themes of The Ski Bum and the ferocious tone of The Dance of Gengis Cohn. It reflects Gary’s disenchantment with the power of diplomats and international institutions.

Et oui, que veux-tu, c’est une chose qui arrive fréquemment aux Nations Unies. Les choses les plus concrètes deviennent ici des abstractions—le pain, la paix, la fraternité, les droits de la personne humaine—les choses les plus solides se volatilisent et deviennent des mots, de l’air, une tournure de style—on en parle, on en parle et à la fin, tout cela devient une abstraction, on peut passer la main à travers, il n’y a plus rien.What can I say? It’s something that happens frequently in the UN. The most concrete things become abstractions here –food, peace, fraternity, human rights—the most solid things vanish into thin air and become words, a breeze, a turn of phrase. People talk about them, again and again and in the end, all this becomes abstract, you can stick your hand through it, there’s nothing anymore.

Now you see why he couldn’t claim this book as his own when he was a diplomat. He spoke several languages, and was fluent in French, English and Russian. I can’t imagine what kind of conversations he overheard in the hallways and in meetings, with people unaware that he could understand them.

The Man With The Dove is a farce that rings true. It’s even prophetic. We saw the inefficiency of the UN peacekeeping forces during the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The UN is powerless against Putin and doesn’t help Ukraine now.

In 1958, thirteen years after the UN was founded, Gary’s analysis was that it was a cynical farce and he decided to take it at face value and actually wrote one.

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala

April 13, 2022 2 comments

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala (2010) Original French title: Photo de groupe au bord du fleuve.

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala is a book I received through my Kube subscription. It’s the tenth novel by this Congolese writer and chemist. I have to confess that I’d never heard of him before.

Group Photo by the River is set in Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo. Méréana is a divorcée who raises her two sons and her baby niece Lyra. She’s an orphan because her mother Tamara, Méréana’s sister died of AIDS. Méréana and Tamara were close and Méréana took care of her sister during her illness, causing a rift between her and her husband Tito. He started to go out a lot and when she demanded a condom before sex, he slapped her. She left him and now has to raise the children on her own, with the help of her Auntie Turia.

Méréana was a brilliant student in high school when she got pregnant by Tito and dropped out of school. Now, she’s barely making ends meet and she needs money to go back to school and get a degree in IT . She knows she’ll have a better paying job.

This is how she found herself by the road, breaking rocks to make bags of gravel. She works with a group of women and they sell their bags to middlemen who supply construction contractors. It’s an exhausting job, outside, in the sun and with low selling prices.

One day, they learn that the sale prices that the middlemen have with the construction contractors skyrocketted because a lot of gravel is needed to build the new national airport. The ladies want a part o this profit and decide to stick together and ask for a higher price, even if it means that they won’t sell their bags right away.

The novel is about this fight for a decent income and for a decent life. This group of eight women will get organized to improve their daily life. They choose Méréana as their representative because she’s the most educated of them.

We follow their struggle, their actions and their doubts. Dongala has two goals with this novel: he wants to write a feminist book and an homage to Congolese women and he denounces the corruption of the power in the Republic of Congo and the hypocrisy around grand shows designed to appease international institutions.

This is a country where you can get poisoned for speaking up and imprisoned for nothing. Demonstrations are repressed with guns and real bullets. Méréana goes to a ministry and she berates herself because she forgot to tell someone where she was going. And in this country, you need people know you’ve been to a public office in case you just vanish into thin air and never come back.

Dongala shows us the condition of women in Africa through his characters’ life stories. They include rapes during the civil war, repudiations, expulsions from their home after their husband died, accusations of sorcery and agreement with fetishes and losing their son after the power in place kidnapped and killed them. One of them is a second office, a mistress, and there is an outstanding scene in the book where she’s in a bar at the same time as her lover’s wife and they have a verbal fight over him through karaoke. Brilliant.

Dongala points out the impacts of traditional beliefs and customs on the condition of women. Ignorance and fear of otherworldly creatures pushes villagers to act inhumanly. Family traditions allow brothers and envious sisters-in-law to strip a widow of her home, her business and her belongings. Nothing is done to stop them.

The author depicts husbands and fathers who are violent, unfaithful, lazy and cowards but not all his male characters are that way. Armando the taximan and brother to one of the women of the group provides them with free rides and contributes to their fight. One of ladies explains how her husband who had a fatal illness provided for her after his death by playing on the fear of fetishes. They built a scam to make people believe that she was protected by a powerful fetish and that people should leave her alone. It was his way of taking care of her after his death, she kept their home.

Group Photo by the River is a very attaching novel and Dongala manages to balance the militant side of his book with moving the plot forward and describing the women’s fight. As a reader, you root for Méréana and her friends and hope they will get what they want.

It would make a wonderful film and I truly don’t understand why it is not translated into English. What can I say, that’s another Translation Tragedy.

For another take on this book, see Nathalie’s, at her blog Chez Mark et Marcel. (Mark Twain and Marcel Proust)

Three crime fiction books set in Africa

April 9, 2022 10 comments

Adieu Oran by Ahmed Tiab (2019) (Adieu Oran)

Hunting Down the Shrew by Florent Couao-Zotti (2017) (La traque de la musaraigne)

The Head Chopper Case by  Moussa Konaké. (2015) (L’affaire des coupeurs de tête.)

I’ve always loved to explore other countries through crime fiction. These books usually take you out of the bourgeois society and show you the dark side of a place, the one you won’t find in a tourist guide. I’m also more and more interested in reading Francophone literature, to see how French sounds in other countries. I’m not talking about Belgium or Switzerland here, their French is really close to the one from France, itt is more about French from Québec or Africa.

It wasn’t deliberate but I ended up reading three crime fiction books set in Africa in three weeks. All come from former French colonies, which explains why they are written in French.

Ahmed Tiab is an Algerian writer born in 1965. He lives in the South of France since 1990. Florent Couao-Zotti was born in Benin in 1965. He’s a writer and a journalist. Moussa Konaté (1951-2013) was a writer from Mali. These three books have first been released by independent publishers, Les Editions de l’Aube for Ahmed Tiab, Les Editions Les éditions Métailié for Moussa Konaté and Jigal Polar for Florent Couao-Zotti.

Now, the books!

Adieu Oran, as the title suggests, is set in Oran, a big city on the Mediterranean, west from Algiers. It features Tiab’s recurring character, the commissaire Kémal Fadil.

Adieu Oran is hard to sum up because the plot isn’t really straightforward. We have Chinese workers murdered in Oran and human trafficking. Fadil’s girlfriend Fatou is an emigrant from Niger and she works as a nurse for a non-profit organization in Oran. Along with other migrants, she’s kidnapped and sent to the South of Algeria to be sent back to her country.

I thought that the plot was a bit messy and we were following the murder of the Chinese and then left this case a bit behind to run after Fatou who was kidnapped. Note that, like in Yeruldelgger by Ian Manook, the crime involves Chinese businessmen who run business out of their country, import their own workers, work according to their own ways and have their ambassy meddling in the investigation, bypassing the local police.

Tiab delivers a scathing portrait of Algeria with corrupted and inept politicians. Nothing runs well and the population’s needs are never met, the country paralyzed by former military men whose resume is reduced to having fought against the French for the country’s independence. This act of glory is enough to maintain them in power and hush up any criticism.

Tiab also shows how the Islamists have set roots in the country, importing their vision of Islam from the Middle East. He sums up Algeria that way, in a pessimistic statement:

Lorsque que la génération qui a fait la guerre sera éteinte, le pays entrera alors dans le XXIème siècle avec ses rejetons imprégnés d’une idéologie directement inspirée du Moyen Age. Bonjour la modernité !When the generation who has fought in the war will be dead, the country will enter into the 21st century with an offspring permeated with an ideology directly inspired by the Middle Ages. Hello modernity!

(By the way, this use of “it’s the Middle Ages” is a very European-centered point of view because at the time, in some aspects, the Arabs were more modern that the Europeans.)

Adieu Oran also takes you to into the city’s streets where the past French colonization is still palpable with the streets’ names. Even the high school where Fadil went kept its French name. Coming from a country where the 1789 revolutionaries even changed the calendar, I’m surprised that the Algerians didn’t change the street names or the name of places right after the independence to erase all traces of the French occupation and show that they regained control on their land. For example, there’s still a Michelet market.

I discovered the issue of migrants in Algeria. I wonder why I was so surprised. How dumb of me: did I think that they arrived to the shores of the Mediterranean by magic? Of course, they had to cross other African countries to end up there and Algeria is one of them. We usually hear about Morocco because it’s close to the Spanish border or Tunisia, because of its border with Libya and its proximity to the Sicilian coasts. It never occurred to me that Algeria was a destination too.

Tiab describes the discrimination against migrants and the racism of the local population against black people, migrants or not. Some characters use the derogatory term of nigrou. He also comes back to the complicated relationship between France and Algeria since the independence, through two characters, a French colon who fought with the Algerians for their independence and remained in Algeria and a mysterious women hidden behind a veil, born from the rape of her mother by a French soldier.

Adieu Oran broaches too many topics at the same time to keep the story in a straight line and it is a book I found more interesting for its context and its characters than for its plot.

The two other books I read were more plot driven.

Hunting Down the Shrew by Florent Couao-Zotti is the story of a chase and a bad case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The book opens in a strip-club and jazz club in Porto-Novo, Benin. A Frenchman, Stéphane Néguirec has left his Brittany to settle in Porto-Novo. He’s about to leave the club with one of the dancers when she’s kidnapped on the street and he’s assaulted. His path will also cross Déborah’s, who is on the run. Stéphane accepts to hide her but they are soon attacked by criminals.

Déborah’s real name is Pamela and she left the neighboring Ghana after she participated to a hold-up that turned into a triple murder. She left with the money.

Her former partner in life and in crime, Ansah Ossey, aka Jesus Light, is the other survivor of the hold-up and he’s quite enraged that she left him and took the money. He’s after her too and we follow him on his road trip from Ghana to Benin to track her down. The novel is a double track race across Benin, Stéphane and Déborah on one hand and Jesus Light on the other hand. The reader discovers the country through the characters’ eyes.

Along the way, Stéphane, as a French, is seen as bait money by the Islamist rebels. They want to kidnap him to get a ransom and finance their war. The Islamist threat is present in this novel too, as it is in Tiab’s.

The plot was a bit confusing at times but I enjoyed the ride. Couao-Zotti has a wonderful voice, a French language that mixes the codes of Noir fiction and French from Africa.

The Head Chopper Case by Moussa Konaté is the lightest of the three books.

Set in Mali, It features Konaté’s recurring character, the commissaire Habib. The story is set in the city of Kita where several bodies of beheaded hobos are found. The local commissaire, Dembélé, is dumbfounded and doesn’t quite know where to start the investigation. They have the bodies but not their heads which complicates the identification of the victims.

A local pious man receives a out-of-the-world message about Kita being sin city and needing to atone for its sins. The souls of the ancestors are also seen up the mountain and the population, Dembélé included, is tempted to believe in an otherworldly intervention.

Commissaire Habib is more into earthly criminals and is sent from Bamako to his hometown to solve this case.

The Head Chopper Case pictures a Mali torn between traditions and modernity. Kita seems like a religious town, where the imam plays an important role, the one the Catholic church used to have in France too. Konaté describes Kita and its culture and how he and his second in command Sosso have to adapt their investigation methods to the local ways. According to the person they want to interrogate, they choose the straight police line or make a detour through polite conversation to make the person talk and not clam up in front of a policeman.

Konaté’s characters make frequent jokes about their ethnic origins. Kita is mostly of the Malinké ethnic group. The policemen Sosso and Dialo are Fulani. They throw goodhearted digs at each other but I couldn’t help wondering how this banter would turn out if the population was thoroughly manipulated by extremists.

The Head Chopper Case was written in 2015 and since then the civil war has blown up in Mali and violence seems out of control. Sadly.

So, what about these three books? I had a nice time with the three of them, they were armchair traveling. They took me to countries I’ve never been to and enriched my vision of the world.

Unfortunately, none of them are translated into English.

Quais du Polar 2022 : my festival.

April 4, 2022 11 comments

In a previous billet, I had told you about the crime fiction festival Quais du Polar, set in Lyon for the 18th time.

The whole city was full of activities dedicated to the “polar” genre, a nickname for crime fiction in French. Even the weather was committed to the cause, the temperatures were polar, we even had snow! In April. In Lyon. Only Craig Johnson and the Icelandic writers felt at home with this, I imagine.

So, what did I do? I started with a rencontre musicale autour du jazz avec Jake Lamar, ie a musical experience around jazz.

Jake Lamar is an African-American from New York who’s lived in France for thirty years. His last book, Viper’s Dream is a crime fiction novel set in Harlem from 1936 to 1962 and the story revolves around jazz musicians and how the music changed in these years. Lamar is a fan of jazz, his book includes his playlist at the end and the jazz band Les Paons had prepared several songs that agreed with his writing. They were very good and the public had the chance to hear Lamar about his love for jazz and then discover his musical preferences with Les Paons. Wonderful experience.

One of my great friends was staying with us for the festival and we decided to attend a panel, la puissance noire des éléments, about wilderness or natural elements influencing a plot to the point that they are characters as much as the human characters.

As you can see on the picture, we were not in the wilderness for this panel but in the great room of the City Hall.

The writers invited to his panel were Olivier Norek, whose last book is set in Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, David Joy and the importance of the Appalaches mountains in his work, Dolores Redondo who wrote a book about the hurricane Katrina and Marie Vingtras who wrote a novel set in Alaska. The journalist who hosted the debate was a bit prejudiced against Marie Vingtras who was the only one who had written a book about a place she’d never been to and where extreme weather plays a key part in the plot. To be honest, I’m not sure you can describe the cold in Alaska without experiencing it yourself. Unless you’re from British Columbia, Norway or Greenland. But for most French people who shiver when three snowflakes hit the ground and who live in a country that is mostly a garden, you need to have a hell of an imagination to write about Alaskan wilderness and be convincing. Maybe she’s that good.

Dolores Redondo decided to write about the Katrina tragedy because she was so shocked by what happened to people in New Orleans, how help took five days to come and rescue the poorer population who was stuck in town because they didn’t have the means to leave. She wrote a crime fiction book based on true facts.

That was the first time I heard David Joy speak and he intrigued me.

We managed to get into another panel, le Coeur noir des Appalaches. A lot of people were interested in this panel. The writers invited were John Woods, Kimi Cunningham Grant and David Joy. Covid happened and only David Joy was among us and we ended up spending an incredible hour with him.

Christine Ferniot from the culture magazine Télérama did an outstanding interview. She knew his books in-and-out and asked intelligent questions in such a calm and tranquil way that she pulled him out of his shell and made him talk about himself, his country, his Apalachees, the opioid pandemic around him, his love for literature.

We listened to him talk freely about his favorite writers, the importance of books and literature in his life and what matters the most to him. What outrages him. How he sees his mountain culture disappear. How he soaks up everything around him and feels more natural in the woods than in cities. Where his characters come from. His vision of the role of an artist and his quest to understand the human condition. What he wants to achieve with his books. We went off tracks and left the highway of book tours to meander in his inner literary garden.

We had a lovely and moving time with him and the great news is that you can have a lovely time with him too as all the conferences are available on the Quais du Polar website, on the replay part.

The next day, I went to a literary cruise with Olivier Norek.

We spend an hour with him and he talked about his new book, Dans les brumes de Capelans but also about himself, his experience as a policeman and how he writes his books. He’s a lot closer to an IT project manager than to Hemingway but it works! He was nice and friendly and being on the Saône river, seeing the city from the water added to the pleasure of this conference.

And of course, I spent time at the giant book fest and came back with several books:

The Kurkov is not a crime fiction novel but the blurb reminded me of Romain Gary. It just sounded like a book that he could have written. Obviously, I couldn’t resist. The English title is The Good Angel of Death. Have you read it?

The most frustrating part of the festival is that there are so many tempting panels that it’s hard to choose which one to attend. But everything is on the Quais du Polar website and now I just have to find some time to listen to other panels. (I’ll have to listen to the one called Marseille la noire).

According to newspapers, there were around 100 000 visitors at the festival and the independant bookstores sold for 250 000 euros of books in three days. A great success and see you next year from March 31st to April 2nd.

Crime in Québec : two books by Louise Penny

March 28, 2022 14 comments

The Cruelest Month (2007) and The Murder Stone (2008) by Louise Penny. French titles: Le mois le plus cruel and Défense de tuer. Translated by Michel Saint-Germain / Claire and Louise Chabalier.

I have read two Louise Penny in a row, The Cruelest Month and The Murder Stone, #3 and #4 in the Armand Gamache series and the two have a very different vibe. Louise Penny is famous for her village of Three Pines, nested in the Canadian Appalachians, in Québec, near the American border. Besides the team of the Sécurité du Québec, the main characters are Peter and Clara Morrow, both painters settled in Three Pines and pillars of their community.

The Cruelest Month is the darkest on two aspects. We’re in Three Pines again and it’s Easter time. The villagers are organizing an egg hunt. The bed and breakfast is expecting a medium as a guest and a séance is quickly organized at the old Hadley house, where a murder has already occurred.

The place creeps out the participants and suddenly, one of the participants dies of a heart attack. It’s as if she had died out of fear after a bird disturbed the séance. Of course, it’s not a banal heart attack but a murder. Armand Gamache comes with his team to handle the case and while they’re investigating the murder, a terrible smear campaign is organized against him. Part of the police institution never accepted that he revealed the wrongdoings of members of the Sécurité du Québec against indigenous people. Gamache has become a target.

The Murder Stone is a more classic whodunit with Poirot flavor. A rich family gathers at the Manoir Bellechasse, a holiday house by a lake and rather far away from civilization. They are there for their yearly reunion, to celebrate the donation of a statue of their deceased patriarch. We soon discover that Mrs Finney is the former Mrs Morrow and her son is the Peter Morrow who lives in Three Pines with his artist wife Clara. The Morrow children carry the scars of a dysfunctional family, all seeking their father’s love and approval at the expense of their relationship as siblings. Julia, the oldest daughter gets killed when the statue falls down on her. It looks like an accident but guess what? It’s a murder.

Like Poirot, Gamache happens to be at the Manoir Bellechasse with his wife Reine-Marie. They celebrate their wedding anniversary at the manor every year. Gamache’s team joins him on site and they start the investigation.

As in every book of the series, Gamache faces a personal challenge and this time, his relationship with his son is at stake when Gamache rejects the name Honoré for his future grand-son. It was his own father’s name and he was notorious for his behavior during WWII.

I preferred the second book as I don’t care for stories with séances and ghosts. I don’t understand why Louise Penny chose such an improbable setting. However, I enjoyed the cozy crime vibe of The Murder Stone. How to kill someone with a statue was a fun fact of the novel, I reckon.

I was happy to see Three Pines again and reunite with what makes the flavor of Penny’s books. The village is set in Québec, among the anglophone community and the little digs about each community’s habits sound authentic and build the sense of place. Louise Penny writes in English and I read the Québec translation, which keeps all the little language quirks that I love so much.

The complex relationship between Clara and Peter Morrow is well-developed. Both are painters and Clara has just been discovered by a famous gallerist of Montreal. Peter already sells well but wonders if Clara’s not a more gifted painter than he is. On her side, she’s eager to have his approval since she loves him and knows that he already won the public’s recognition.

The Murder Stone is an opportunity to explore Peter Morrow’s and Armand Gamache’s pasts. It is also a reflection on fatherhood and the way children always seek their father’s approval. The Morrow children did, in their own way. Gamache had to live with his father’s reputation and his relationship with his son Daniel hits a bump on Daniel’s road to fatherhood.

Despite the murders, a lot of kindness oozes of Penny’s books and it’s a treat to spend time in Three Pines with Gamache and his troops. There are 17 volumes in the Gamache series, and the good news is that I still have thirteen books of pleasure ahead of me!

The Awakening and Other Stories by Kate Chopin : highly recommended

March 20, 2022 24 comments

The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin (1899) French title: L’Eveil.

“One of these days,” she said, “I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think—try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don’t know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am. I must think about it.”

The main course of The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin is the novella The Awakening. Mrs Edna Pontellier is the speaker of the quote opening this billet.

We meet her at Grand Isle, where she’s spending the summer with other people from New Orleans. She’s there with her maid and her two children, her husband Léonce staying in town during the week and commuting to Grand Isle during the weekends. New Orleans’ Hamptons, so to speak.

Edna isn’t happy as a wife and a mother, not that Léonce is a bad husband. She just finds no fulfillment in taking care of the children or being a doting wife.

Léonce is a man of his time and has the common expectations towards his wife. He’s courteous and thinks he treats her well but in his mind, she’s like an employee whose performance doesn’t quite meet with her job description.

He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it? He himself had his hands full with his brokerage business. He could not be in two places at once; making a living for his family on the street, and staying at home to see that no harm befell them.

Edna, as a wife, is also a mandatory fixture of a successful man’s life, like a mansion or a carriage:

“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.

He needs to show off his children, his wife, his well-kept house and she needs to have her visiting day to entertain the network of his business circle’s wives. Sometimes, she’s more like a glorified servant than a partner. Like here, where he complains that she doesn’t listen to him…

He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation.

…but this conversation occurred at night, when he woke her up after being out! He wanted to talk about his day! It’s like calling the maid in the middle of the night to have some tea or run a bath.

That summer at Grand Isle, Edna became the center of Robert’s attentions. He’s a young flirt, the son of the inn keeper. He’s known to attach himself every summer to a woman, especially to interesting married women, and everyone knows that it is a meaningless summer thing. The ladies and Robert know the rules.

But Edna, and that’s important in the story, is not a native from Louisiana and she’s not a Creole. She doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t have the same background. She was already dissatisfied with her life reduced to maternal and conjugal duties before coming to Grand Isle and Kate Chopin sums it up nicely:

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.

Robert opens a window she had closed when she got married. Her awakening is her self as a woman, a sleeping beauty who wakes up and wants her place in Edna’s life. And suddenly, Robert leaves Grand Isle to go to Mexico on business. The reader understands that he got a little too attached to Edna. She goes back to New Orleans but she can’t fold back into her previous Mrs Pontellier box. Like toothpaste, once out, you cannot get back in.

So, she starts neglecting her wife duties: housekeeping is approximative, she stops doing her Thursdays, she doesn’t visit other wives. She takes on painting again even if she has no illusion of her gift as an artist. She knows she doesn’t have a real talent for it but she applies to it seriously. She enjoys working hard.

Mr Pontellier is worried about his wife’s mental health but chooses not to intervene. He has an important business deal to conduct in New York and is away from New Orleans for several months. The children stay in the country with their grandparents. Edna is suddenly totally freed from her daily duties.

She spends time with Mademoiselle Reisz, a pianist who was a guest at Grand Isle that summer too. She chose to remain single and enjoys her freedom. She has news from Robert and these letters help Edna understand that she loves him and that the feeling is mutual.

We see Edna taking back her freedom of movement and of thinking, getting her own money on the race field, moving out of her mansion to a smaller house that she pays herself.

How will this unfold when Mr Pontallier comes back?

I imagine that some have compared Edna to Emma Bovary. There are some similarities, since they are both bored by marital duties and motherhood. They don’t have bad husbands, just ones that aren’t what they need.

The main difference between the two is that Kate Chopin is not a misogynistic male. So, Edna is not a stupid woman who falls for the first man who pays attention to her. Chopin shows that not all women have fun changing diapers, taking care of running noses and organizing diners and she doesn’t judge Edna for that.

Edna is not uncaring, she loves her children but her life as a wife and a mother is not enough. Edna is not frivolous or impractical. She doesn’t behave as foolishly as Emma Bovary or overspend on fashion and trinkets. She wants to be herself, to be free and to exist as a separate entity from her husband and children.

I believe that the ending is not one that a male author of the time would have written and it is closer to Virginia Wolf than to Gustave Flaubert. The Awakening was published in 1899, before The House of Mirth (1905) or The Custom of the Country (1913). It is a feminist work by a writer who probably had common points with Edna and I thought it was very modern for her time.

A word about the short stories included in the book, which are:

  • Beyond the Bayou
  • Ma’ame Pélagie
  • Desiree’s Baby
  • A Respectable Woman
  • The Kiss
  • A Pair of Silk Stockings
  • The Locket
  • A Reflection

They are little gems, stolen pictures of Louisiana in the 1890s, with the scars of the Civil War and the race question. Their main characters are women who struggle with their life, who have desires they can’t fulfill and who survive as best they can.

As a French reader, I have to comment on Chopin’s style. She was a Creole and her writing is peppered with French words and sentences. See here: We’ve got to observe les convenances if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession. How does it sound to you, English-speaking natives? There’s the word “convenances” in the middle of the sentence and the whole phrase sounds French to me.

I have the same impression with this one: She made no ineffectual efforts to conduct her household en bonne menagere. It’s not the first time I read a book set in Louisiana and there’s a familiarity in the language and sometimes in the way of thinking: Mr. Pontellier did not attend these soirees musicales. He considered them bourgeois, and found more diversion at the club. It could come out of a book by Maupassant, no?

All the French words, expressions and sentences are not translated into English in footnotes. English-speaking readers, how do you fare with that?

It may sound futile but I was irritated that the publisher didn’t bother to write French properly: no accent on chérie, grammar mistakes due to missing accents (a instead of à), no cedilla on garçon. Is that so complicated to check out the right spelling?

I owe the discovery of The Awakening to Vishy and read his post here. Many thanks, Vishy, I loved it and I think it’s an important milestone in the 19thC literature. Highly recommended.

Quais du Polar 2022 : let’s get ready!

March 19, 2022 18 comments

In two weeks, the crime fiction festival Quais du Polar will open. It’s a three-days celebration of crime fiction all over the city. The program is available on the Quais du Polar website and you can download it in pdf file if you’re interested.

The organization of the festival outdid themselves. There are the usual panels with several writers gathered around a theme, the giant bookstore in the gorgeous hall of the Chamber of Commerce, the mystery to solve in the city with a booklet of clues and questions. There are also crime escape games in several museums of the city.

Last year, the festival was in June, during COVID restrictions and they had to do things outdoors. They started the “literary cruises” on the Saône River, using the city’s bateaux-mouches. I went on the cruise with Florence Aubenas last year and this year, I’m very happy that I snatched a ticket for a literary cruise with Olivier Norek.

The Opera and Théâtre de l’Odéon are also involved and I booked a ticket for a Jazz & Literature event with Jake Lamar and Les Paons. I have wonderful memories of the one with James Sallis and Michael Connelly in a previous edition of the festival.

There are tons of talks with writers, opportunities to get signed books, chat with authors and discover the city of Lyon and sneak into places where you usually don’t go, like the grand room at the city hall. Almost everything is set in the city center withing walking distance and all events are free.

The festival has a broad approach of crime and works with the police and the justice to show how things work in real life. The police organize tours at the national school for commissaires de police and police officers set near Lyon. One year, you could do a tour at a police station with police officers to explain how they work. for a tour or have police officers explaining their jobs in police stations.

Last year, I attended a panel at the tribunal with judges and lawyers specialized in cold cases. This year, the festival goes further with bus tours with CSI, police and judicial experts. People you see on the screen and hope to never meet in real life, at least, not in their official capacity.

For the rest, I’m thrilled to spend time at the festival with friends and relatives. Let’s hope that the weather cooperates and it’ll be a fantastic weekend.

Last but not least, the authors without whom this festival wouldn’t exist. Here are the authors invited to the festival. The photos come from the official Quais du Polar website. I put a book sign on the writers I’ve already read (not many, actually). Let me know in the comments which ones you recommend.

Theatre: Eve of Retirement by Thomas Bernhard – Horrifying

March 9, 2022 14 comments

Theatre: Eve of Retirement by Thomas Berhnard (1979) French title: Avant la retraite. Translated by Claude Porcell (Original title: Vor dem Ruhestand. Eine Komödie von deutscher Seele)

I’m not a total novice with Thomas Bernhard’s work. I read and enjoyed Concrete, a novella I tagged as “a beautiful grumpy rant.” I’ve seen the play Elisabeth II, where Bernhard makes fun of the Austrians and their eagerness to welcome Queen Elisabeth II in Vienna. I’ve also seen André Marcon play the main role in The Theatre Maker, (Le Faiseur de théâtre, in German, Der Theatermacher.)

The three have in common the long monologues, the rants, the old cranky man irritated by everything and everyone and especially his fellow Austrian citizen. He despises them and his characters’ rants are so outrageous that they turn out funny. Berhnard has a scandalous and dry sense of humor.

I expected the same of the play Eve of Retirement, directed by Alain Françon, with André Marcon as Rudolf, Catherine Hiegel as Vera and Noémie Lvovsky as Clara. The three actors are known to be excellent, and I was keen on seeing Catherine Hiegel on stage.

The actors and the direction were incredible. You don’t have the impression that they play a role and the direction fit perfectly with the text. Nothing superfluous, it just enhanced the power of the text and boy, how uncomfortable we felt.

We’re in the 1970s, somewhere in Germany. Rudolf Höller is a ex-SS Officer lives with his two sisters, Vera and Clara. Vera is both his mother and his lover while Clara has been stranded in a wheelchair since the war. She’s bullied by her incestuous siblings. The play happens on a single day, the 7th of October, the most important day of the year for Rudolf as they celebrate Himmler’s birthday. He’s Rudolf’s hero and everything must be perfect. This year is even more special as Rudolf is retiring from his position as president of the tribunal of their Land.

The nausea starts right away in the first act. There are only Vera and Clara on stage and as Vera describes the preparations of the clandestine festivities of the day, the spectator’s mood sets to horror. Vera casually points out how she gave their deaf-and-dumb servant her day off and why it is mandatory for them to only have deaf-and-dumb servants. They can’t afford anyone to know what’s going on in their house.

The horror grows as the play unfolds: the special diner in Himmler’s memory reenacts the “good old days”. Vera carefully closes all the curtains so that no one can peak in and see the décor of their living room for the evening. They are in hiding, well aware that their continuous fidelity to Nazi ideas is not proper anymore.

Vera chatters away, thinking ahead of all the details needed for Rudolf to have a perfect evening. She lovingly irons Rudolf’s Nazi uniforms. She’s serious when she explains to Clara that she should be happy that this year she doesn’t have to wear a deportee’s uniform. The word vomiting that comes out of her mouth is terrifying and yet normal for her. The sideration grows as Rudolf comes out as a human monster. He has absolutely no remorse, remembers with Vera how he hid during ten years in their basement, until the authorities stopped looking for him, how he changed his name and became the respected president of the tribunal.

Clara is the only sane person in the household and she’s at her siblings’ mercy because she can’t live on her own. It is awful to enter into the intimacy of a man who sleeps with his sister and is nostalgic of the Nazi regime.

As always, Bernhard writes to rip off all illusions and to show facts in their naked ugliness. Indeed, this play is based on true facts. He hates hypocrisy and bending to social standards. He wants to dismiss false historical narrative and put people in front of their actual responsibilities.

Bernhard’s play shows what a true Nazi is and why this word shouldn’t be used lightly to qualify someone or another country’s political regime. Words have a meaning. Rudolf is both ruthless and childish, which painfully reminds us that inhuman behaviors are one side of humanity’s coin.

The Traveling Companion by Gyula Krúdy – Translation Tragedy.

March 6, 2022 16 comments

The Traveling Companion by Gyula Krúdy (1918) French title: Le Compagnon de voyage. Translated by François Gachot. (1990)

Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933) was a Hungarian writer and journalist. The Traveling Companion was published in 1918 but the first French translation only dates back to 1990 and it’s still not translated into English. So, if George Szirtes doesn’t know what to do with his free time…

I’ve already read N.N. by Krúdy, also published by the Swiss publisher LaBaconnière, in the collection directed by Ibolya Virág. According to their website, LaBaconnière sounds like an independent publisher. Lucky me, Lizzy and Karen have extended #ReadIndies until mid-March…But back to the book.

The Traveling Companion has a classic opening: in a train compartment a traveler confides his story to a fellow passenger. The narrator relates the man’s story, how he settled in a small town after wandering around the country. He was forty-four, experiencing a mid-life crisis and this is how he describes himself:

Quant à ce genre de fou que son esprit chevaleresque incite à se faire secouer douze heures durant dans un wagon, si ce n’est une voiture ou un traineau, pour aller baiser la main d’une femme, écouter le chuchotement d’une voix, respirer la senteur d’une jupe ou d’un corsage, exprimer, en retenant son souffle, son adoration au fond d’un jardin sous une tonnelle ou dans un sentier où l’aimée s’est rendue, après avoir quitté subrepticement son lit, eh bien, ce genre de fou est aussi rare qu’un merle blanc. Il fut, néanmoins, un temps où j’ai été cette sorte de merle blanc. J’ai explosé d’amour, comme une charge de dynamite placée dans une carrière d’où une fumée jaunâtre s’échappe le long de la pente de la montagne, avant de se disperser sans laisser de trace.As for this kind of crazy man whose chivalrous mindset encourages him to be rocked during twelve hours in a train compartment, a carriage or a sleigh in order to kiss the hand of a woman, listen to a whispering voice, breathe the scent of a skirt or a blouse or go to a garden and breathlessly express his adoration under a gazebo or on a path where the loved one met him after secretly leaving her bed, well, this kind of crazy man is as rare as a white blackbird. However, once upon a time, I was that kind of white blackbird. I blew out of love, like a stick of dynamite set up in a quarry from which a yellowish smoke goes up the side of the mountain and disappears without leaving a trace.   (My clumsy translation.)

This is a man whose profession is to fall in love with women all over the country, but preferably in small provincial towns of Upper Hungary. This quote (pardon my clumsy translation) sounds like a long sentence by Marcel Proust where the Narrator would mull over all his attempts at getting close to one woman or the other. Except that Proust’s Narrator usually remains at the dream stage and Krúdy’s character acts upon his desires.

The man arrives in town by train and explains that he doesn’t like to stay in hotels but prefers bed and breakfasts. This is how he enters into Mrs Hartvig’s house. Her husband is often away on business, she’s at home with the children and could rent him a room. He seduces her the first day, charmed by the turn of her legs and the unexpected elegance of her shoes. Krúdy, like his character can be straight to the point. This is how he portrays Mrs Hartvig:

Eh bien, Mme Hartvig était comme une nonne qui serait née avec des jambes de putain.Well, Mrs Hartvig was like a nun who was born with a whore’s legs.   (More of my clumsy translations)

He doesn’t believe his good luck and how this lady could fall into his lap so easily. The affair doesn’t last but he stays with the Hartvigs and settles in the small town. Krúdy has a knack for the description of small-town life. We meet the local bourgeois and learn about their life, their customs and their ways. His style has a lyrical tone, he mixes the feeling of his character, who is always on the verge of falling in love with descriptions of the countryside. He’s a butterfly who flies from one woman to the other, heart fluttering and lust simmering. But he can still point out the ridicules of the provincial community.

This goes on until he really falls for Eszéna, a young girl in flower. Her mother is unmarried and she wishes that her daughter becomes a nun. Eszéna wants to know love before going to the convent and she’s ready to let herself fall for this stranger. He’s all too willing, of course.

I know I shouldn’t read books written in 1918 with my twenty-first and post-feminism glasses. But still, I was ill-at-ease with a forty-four years old man planning to meet an adolescent for a tryst. The man is a scoundrel, when you analyze things with hindsight but everything he does is genuine. He loves women, falls in and out of love, can’t help it and would rather deal with the consequences than refrain from anything.

He’s close Krúdy himself, as I discovered him in the autobiographical N.N. and I found in The Traveling Companion the same kind of old-world poetry. I suspect he’s not easy to translate into French, especially since French and Hungarian have nothing in common. (You can’t find the toilets in Budapest without a pictogram to lead you to the right direction.) Krúdy gives the impression of a man deeply moved by beauty and able to find it everywhere.

The Traveling Companion leaves you with a feeling of fleetingness, of a man passing through like a southern wind, of someone on the move and who loves to love.

Translation Tragedy.

Other books by Krúdy on this blog: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda – Budapest in 1913 and The adventures of Sindbad.

Marcel Proust & Paris Exhibition – People and characters

February 28, 2022 18 comments

I imagine that a lot of readers of In Search of Lost Time wonder who were the real people behind the main characters of Proust’s masterpiece. The characters are so striking that they stay with you years after you’ve read La Recherche and it’s natural to want to dig out who was who between the Narrator’s life and Marcel’s. It doesn’t help that the Narrator is named Marcel, it blurs the lines between fiction and autobiography.

The Marcel Proust and Paris exhibition that I mentioned in my previous billet showed real life person vs characters.

Odette de Crécy

Odette de Crécy is the courtesan who captures the imagination and the heart of Charles Swann. We meet her in the first volume, Swann’s Way. She’s also the mother of Gilberte, the Narrator’s first love.

Odette de Crécy is modelled after Laure Hayman. She was a courtesan, first the mistress of Proust’s great-uncle Weill, then of his father Adrien. The rumor says the Marcel wanted to take over the family tradition and propositioned her but she rejected him. She had a salon, 4 rue La Pérouse in Paris, where famous writers went. Some dukes too but not their duchesses. She wasn’t too happy to recognize herself in Odette de Crécy, even if Proust always denied that it was her.

Charles Swann

Charles Swann is the key character of Swann’s Way. He was friends with the Narrator’s parents, went to salons in the high society and his love for Odette led him to the bourgeois salon of Madame Verdurin. He was very cultured and refined, his love for Odette was a surprise in the higher circles.

Swann’s real-life counterpart is Charles Haas (1832-1902) He was a star of several salons, including Madame Straus’s. Like Swann, he was Jewish, well-introduced in the world and known for his intelligence, his excellent manners and his broad culture. He was the lover of several famous ladies, like the actress Sarah Bernhardt. (Herself a model for La Berma in La Recherche)

Robert de Saint-Loup

Robert de Saint-Loup is the Narrator’s dear friend. They confide to each other, spend a lot of time together. They have a really close relationship. The Narrator knows about Robert’s liaison with the actress Rachel and Robert knows that the Narrator hides Albertine in his home.

Proust had several friends from his high school days but two dear friends stand out in his life. The first one is Raynaldo Hahn. They were close friends during twenty-eight years, it ended with Proust’s death. Hahn was a musician and a composer. Their relationship started with a liaison that turned into a long-lasting friendship. I’d like to think that there is something of him in Robert de Saint-Loup. The specialists think differently.

Robert de Saint-Loup was modeled after two other friends of Proust: Prince Antoine Bibesco (1878-1951) and Bertrand de Salignac-Fénelon (1878-1914).

A scene in La Recherche, where Robert de Saint Loup goes for the Narrator’s coat when he’s cold in a restaurant has happened in real life between Marcel and Bertrand. Bertrand de Fénelon died in combat in 1914, his body was never found. Proust only learnt about his death in March 1915 and was very distressed by his loss. Specialists think that Fénelon misunderstood Proust’s love for friendship. He died the same year as Agostinelli and the grief has certainly fueled Albertine Gone.

The Baron de Charlus

The Baron de Charlus, brother of the duc de Guermantes is the most famous homosexual character in La Recherche. He’s an art afficionado, appreciated in salons for his artistic tastes. In La Recherche, we will see him in the throes of passion, we will follow him to gay brothels and discover the underground gay Paris. Proust knew it well too.

Everyone agrees to see Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921) in the Baron de Charlus. Proust and Montesquiou met in Madame Lemaire’s salon. They admired each other greatly and Proust called him “professeur de beauté” (teacher of beauty)

Montesquiou was a dandy, a poet and a novelist. He was the cousin of the comtesse Greffulhe. Like Laure Hayman, he was furious to discover himself as a character in La Recherche. I’ve never heard of him as a writer, even if he wrote eighteen collections of poems, two novels and twenty-two art and literature critics. He was very influencial in Proust’s life, for introducing him in salons and for developing his artistic tastes. He was an early promoter of lots of poets and artists, with an incredible capacity to unearth new talents and adopt new forms of art.

I haven’t read Against Nature by Huysmans, but Montesquiou also inspired the character of des Esseintes.

Madame Verdurin

Madame Verdurin has a salon that grows from bourgeois to high society in the course of La Recherche. She has around her a little clique of writers, musicians, painters and other professions. Madame Verdurin is based upon Madeleine Lemaire.

Proust was a frequent visitor in Madame Lemaire’s salon. He met there several of his close friends or acquaintances, like Raynaldo Hahn or Robert de Montesquiou. Madame Lemaire had a famous salon where numerous artists met. She was a painter herself and illustrated Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les jours, in 1896. Like Madame Verdurin, she was very peremptory in her likes and dislikes and regular visitors of her salon were expected to bow to her judgements.

The duchesse de Guermantes

The duchesse de Guermantes was the Narrator’s ideal. He dreams about her and maneuvers to go to her salon. Being a regular guest at Oriane de Guermantes’s soirees is the highlight of his society life. The enchantment lasts a moment but the Narrator quickly discovers his idol’s flaws and the duchesse de Guermantes turns out to be not so likeable after all. The duchesse de Guermantes was created after the Comtesse Greffulhe, Madame de Chévigné and Madame Straus.

The Comtesse Greffulhe was a star in the Parisian high society at the turning of the 20th century. She was a painter and played the piano. She promoted various artists and loved Wagner, whom Proust adored too.

The Comtesse Geffulhe met Proust in 1893, at a soirée at the princesse de Wagram’s. She was a lot more intelligent than La Recherche lets out. She helped artists but also funded Marie Curie, as she was also interested in science.

Proust met Laure de Sade, future comtesse de Chévigné in 1891. She’s the descendant of the Marquis de Sade and she had a famous musical salon in Paris, 34 rue de Mirosmenil. Like the Narrator with the duchesse de Guermantes, Proust used to watch out for her when she was taking her morning stroll. Proust was fascinated by her and in love with her too. They remained friends during twenty-eight years, until she was hurt when she discovered herself in Madame de Guermantes and refused to read Proust’s novel.

Some say that the duchesse de Guermantes was also inspired by Madame Straus (1849-1926)

She also had a famous salon where artists gathered. Maupassant was a frequent visitor (She’s the main character of his novel Fort comme la mort). Robert de Montesquiou went to her salon too.

This is where Proust met Charles Haas, who will become Swann. In 1898, the Straus move into their new mansion, 108, rue de Miromesnil.

The duc de Guermantes

The duc de Guermantes is a formidable character in La Recherche but he’s not as interesting to the Narrator as his wife Oriane or his brother Charlus. Indeed, he has nothing in common with the Narrator. He cheats on his wife, he’s rude, talks with a booming voice, and is not interested in the arts.

He’s modeled after the comte Greffuhle. He was fabulously rich, cheated on his wife repeatedly and as soon as they were married. He loved hunting, understood nothing to art and disliked his wife’s artistic friendships. Sounds like the duc de Guermantes to me, indeed.

Albertine

And what about Albertine? It is admitted that Albertine was modeled after Alfred Agostinelli (1888-1914) He met Proust in 1907 when he drove him to Normandy. Agostinelli was a chauffeur who became Proust’s secretary. Agostinelli was passionate about aviation and he died in a crash in 1914. Proust was in love with him but his love was unrequited. Now you know where Albertine Gone comes from.

Artists in La Recherche.

Bergotte is THE writer in La Recherche. The Narrator loves his books. Bergotte is a frequent guest at Madame Verdurin’s, which confirms her ability to detect real talents. He seems to have been made of Anatole France and Paul Bourget. Ironically, unlike Maupassant or Zola, they are not a writers that people commonly read today. The irony. Anatole France had national funerals when he died but I think that his books are unreadable today.

Elstir is THE painter of La Recherche. He’s an impressionist based upon Monet, Manet, Renoir, Helleu, Whistler and Boudin. Proust must have met Monet, Manet and Renoir through Mallarmé, who was close to Berthe Morisot’s circle. He’s also a member of Madame Verdurin’s salon.

Vinteuil is THE composer of La Recherche with his sonata. There’s no actual link with a real composer.

La Berma. This actress features in beautiful pages about Phèdre and theatre. It is notorious that Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) and Réjane (1856-1920) inspired the character of La Berma.

After writing about all these characters of La Recherche and their real-life inspirations, it strikes me that it was really a small world. The salons were very close, geografically and they all knew each other. How was it to be surrounded with so many great artists? What has become of salons today and what replaced them?

A lot of Proust’s models didn’t like how he portrayed them in his novels. Was he too harsh or didn’t they like that he saw through them so well? I suppose there are some clues in Proust’s abundant correspondence. What they didn’t foresee is that their socialite friend or acquaintance would give them a form of immortality. Truly, all these people would have been long forgotten if Proust hadn’t used them in La Recherche. So, literature gave them their immortality. The only ones who survived through their own merits are the painters who shaped out Elstir and and in a lesser way the writers who inspired Bergotte.

I hope you had fun with me in peaking at what was behind the scenes of La Recherche and read about its who’s who.

PS : Another thought. We must be grateful that Robert Proust was not the same prick as Paul Claudel. Otherwise, you bet that some serious editing about homosexuality would have been done in the volumes published after Marcel’s death. And let’s not think about what could have happened to his correspondence.

Marcel Proust & Paris Exhibition – Proust in Paris

February 24, 2022 35 comments

The exhibition Marcel Proust, Un roman parisien at the Musée Carnavalet shows the importance of Paris in Proust’s life and in In Search of Lost Time. (“La Recherche”). It explores Proust’s Paris and the fictional Paris of La Recherche.

Proust has lived in Paris all his life, except for his stays in Illiers-Combray or Cabourg and his travels to Venice. The exhibition traces his family’s origins, the apartments they occupied in Paris and the places they used to spend time in. There are even maps of them!

Proust was born in 1871 in Auteuil, a village incorporated to Paris in 1860 and which is now the wealthy 16th arrondissement. His great-uncle had a country house there and Proust’s parents found shelter there during the Commune. Then they moved to the 8th arrondissement, where Proust would spend all his life. This area of Paris was modeled by the Baron Haussmann: large avenues, trees, not far from the Bois de Boulogne.

Rich bourgeois had mansions built there. In today’s touristic Paris, it’s the Boulevard Haussmann and its famous department stores, the Garnier Opera, the La Madeleine Church, the Saint-Augustin Church. We have to remember that for Proust as a child, everything around him was rather new.

The exhibition shows all the places that were Proust’s quotidian in Paris, so there is nothing about Cabourg or Illiers, translated as Balbec and Combray in his novel.

Proust spent his early childhood in Auteuil. Laure Hayman, a famous cocotte of the time was his great-uncle mistress. Marcel went to play at the Champs Elysées and he had various crushes on girls. His father, Adrien Proust, was a gifted doctor who had a brilliant career fighting for hygiene and against epidemics (cholera). He studied how epidemics spread and how to prevent their spreading. I listened to a series of podcasts about his work and actions during the first lockdown and it was fascinating. Proust’s mother, Jeanne Weill, came from a rich Alsatian-Jewish family of tradesmen. They had stores in Paris. She was the one who shared Marcel’s interest for literature and the arts, and, as the Narrator’s mother, was devastated by her mother’s death.

Proust had his mother’s eyers, no? We can imagine that Proust’s younger brother, Robert, who became a doctor, was closer to their father.

Marcel Proust went to the high school at the Lycée Condorcet. The students there were mostly non-religious bourgeois as the others were in private Catholic schools. Imagine that he had Stéphane Mallarmé as a teacher! They say he was very influential in Proust’s youth. Personally, I find Mallarmé’s poetry unreadable, I tried again after reading Berthe Morisot’s biography. Proust met close friends during his formative years at Condorcet and was an active participant to the high school newspapers and started his first literary work during those years.

La sortie du Lycée Condorcet by Jean Béraud (1903)

Growing up, he met people who introduced him to the high society. I took pictures of all the key people who inspired the characters of La Recherche but that will be in another post. These are the years he spent in salons, translating Ruskin, writing articles for Le Figaro and gathering memories and material for his future masterpiece.

Une chanson de Gibert dans le salon de Madame Madeleine Lemaire
by Pierre Georges Jeanniot (1891)

Following the death of his father (1903) and his mother (1905), he had to move to a smaller apartment, still in the same neighborhood.

The exhibition shows what Paris was like for Proust at the time, knowing that he never left the very wealthy 8th arrondissement. Maps showed the places he used to go to, like shops and restaurants. Some still exist, like the bookstore Fontaine and the restaurant Maxim’s. The gay brothel he financed and frequented, the Hôtel Marigny was on the map too. There was a map of the theatres and operas he loved and out of the nineteen places, I counted that only three don’t exist anymore. They may have moved but they are still there and that, in itself, is a tribute to the vibrant Parisian theatre scene. See an illustration with this very contemporary street corner in the 10th arrondissement.

The most surprising thing was Proust’s subscription to the Théâtrophone service. It was a service you could subscribe to in order to listen to live theatre plays and operas over the phone. It started in 1890 and was in operation until 1932, replaced by the radio. Proust loved theatre and operas and he signed up for this service in 1911. He listened to Wagner’s operas and Debussy’s music. We’re talking about the first streaming service for music and theatre here. Isn’t that mind-blowing? Reading a bit about it, I discovered that this service was invented and sold by Clément Ader, who made a fortune out of it and used the money to finance his researches on aviation. From music to planes!

When we think about Proust, we picture the whirlwind of soirées, shows and salons, but Proust wasn’t disconnected from politics: he was a fervent support to Dreyfus and Zola. He followed closely the battles during WWI and stayed in Paris during the whole war. He was interested in the world’s affairs.

Meanwhile, in 1906, he starts writing La Recherche, as if he needed his parents gone to spend some serious time on writing. The first official recognition came with the Goncourt prize for In the Shadows of Young Girls in Flower in 1919. He finished the first draft of the whole La Recherche in 1922, and told his housekeeper Céleste that he was done and could die. He hadn’t left his bed much during the last years.

Proust’s bed, coat, cane and writing instruments

His brother Robert made publishing Marcel’s work his mission. Tough job as Proust never reviewed Time Regained and added corrections and additions with sticked bands of paper. The last volume of La Recherche, Time Regained, was published in 1927. Then, Robert published Marcel’s correspondence. Céleste Albaret’s book of souvenirs was published in 1973 and it’s a gold mine of information.

It was a fascinating exhibition with a lot of information and things on display. Paintings, posters, pictures, maps and scale models were numerous and all accompanied by useful explanations. I loved it and I’m not the only one. There were a lot of visitors, which explained the poor pictures. It wasn’t easy to take them.

I will post the pictures about people who mattered in Proust’s life and inspired characters in La Recherche and I hope I’ll have time to post about Paris in La Recherche, the second part of the exhibition.

A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux – where the author owns her working-class background

February 23, 2022 22 comments

A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux (1983) Original French title: La place.

I’ve read A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux in one sitting, drinking hot chocolate in a café in Lyon after spending my first afternoon of holiday in bookstores. Because where else would a bookworm rush to on her first glorious day of leisure? A splendid afternoon.

I had never read Annie Ernaux despite everyone’s raving about her.

She’s known for her autofiction and I’m ill-at-ease with this concept. Either it’s an autobiography or it’s fiction, the blend of the two seem to me a way to either skive off the obligation of relative accuracy in a biography or broadcast the origins of one’s fiction. Plus, it means navel-observing books, which is not a trend I love in literature. All this deterred me from picking a book by Annie Ernaux. And then, A Man’s Place was on display tables, I thought “Why not?” and here I am.

A Man’s Place was written in 1983. The author comes back to 1966, when her father died. She was 26 then and she’s 43 when she writes her book. Dates matter because she’s matured since this funeral took place and the passing of years brings a serenity to her writing. Distance helps with calm analysis too. Literature will be a way to explore the complexity of her feelings towards her father, her family background and her change of social class.

Her father was born in 1899, in the countryside in Normandy. He was hired as farmhand when he was twelve. After his military service, he left the country to work in a factory and met his wife.

Au retour, il n’a plus voulu retourner dans la culture. Il a toujours appelé ainsi le travail de la terre, l’autre sens de culture, le spirituel, lui était inutile.When he came back, he never wanted to go back to “culture”. That’s how he called farming. The other meaning of culture, the spiritual one, did no good to him.

He climbed to a middle-management position and then bought his café-grocer’s shop in a small town. All his life, he struggled with money, to pay for the shop, to keep it afloat, always scraping by and worrying about money.

When she tells her father’s story, Annie Ernaux pictures the peasant and blue-collar social classes from 1900 to the mid-sixties. Her parents were one couple in millions, living through WWI as teenagers, the 1929 economic crisis, WWII and the Post-war economic boom. She gives a voice to the masses, the ones that are rarely in literature.

Her narration reaches a universal nature in the description of her social background. She gives life to a way of thinking, a way of speaking and an attitude towards life. Even she keeps an analytical tone, it is very moving and I could hear my blue-collar grandmother’s mentality in her words.

Annie Ernaux climbed up the social ladder and landed in the academic middle-class world through school. Classic. She became a teacher of French literature and met cultured people in school. She left the world of manual labor for the world of intellectual work.

She describes the rift between her parents and her. It happens as soon as she keeps going to school and it widens with time. She doesn’t despise them but they can’t understand each other anymore. They don’t live in the same world, that’s all.

Coming from her blue-collar household, Ernaux has also a hard time reconciling her family story with her reading. For example, she doesn’t hide how squalid her father’s childhood had been and she muses:

Quand je lis Proust ou Mauriac, je ne crois pas qu’ils évoquent le temps où mon père était enfant. Son cadre à lui, c’était le Moyen Age.When I read Proust or Mauriac, I don’t think that they write about the time when my father was a child. His background, it was the Middle Ages.

She has to make her own metamorphosis from blue-collar to intellectual bourgeoisie and it is not easy as people in her new world look down on people from her old world. Her husband doesn’t go to her parents’ house, which is something I find shocking. I get that he has nothing in common with them but it’s like denying part of your partner’s identity. When you love someone, you don’t carve out of them the parts that bother you. In this case, it must have contributed to drill into her that she needed to cut ties with this humiliating world. The attitude of her new milieu makes her ashamed of her background:

Il se trouve des gens pour apprécier le « pittoresque du patois » et du parler populaire. Ainsi Proust relevait avec ravissement les incorrections et les mots anciens de Françoise. Seule l’esthétique lui importe parce que Françoise est sa bonne et non sa mère. Que lui-même n’a jamais senti ces tournures lui venir aux lèvres spontanément.Some people relishes “the picturesque of patois” and of vernacular language. Like Proust, who raved about Françoise’s mistakes and old words. Only the aesthetics matters because Françoise is his servant and not his mother. Because himself has never felt these turns of phrase spontaneously come to his lips.

The redneck bashing isn’t new, of course and I think that the metamorphosis is never complete. No one cannot fully deny their roots. I believe that changing of social class can be as violent as emigrating to a new country. New codes to learn, a chasm between the old world and the new one and the impossibility to make the old world and the new one mesh properly because they have no common ground.

Annie Ernaux chose literature to explore her ambivalent feelings towards her father and her background. A Man’s Place is also a vibrant homage to her parents, to her hardworking father and a priceless testimony of a social class ways.

The philosopher and sociologist Didier Eribon partly explores the same topic in his essay Returning to Reims (2009). Eribon is gay and his father was homophobic, which cut him from his family. I haven’t read his essay but I’ve heard radio programs about it and I’ve seen the brilliant theatre play directed by Thomas Ostermeier and based upon it. When Eribon wrote his essay, he was already successful and he was 56. He influenced Edouard Louis for his book The End of Eddy, in French, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule. The main difference between Louis and his predecessors is that his book is angrier, maybe because he was only 22 when he wrote it.

A Man’s Place is an excellent book, I was taken by Ernaux’s simple but spot-on style. Her voice is clear and pleasant to hear. Her parents’ expressions are stated in italic, to point out a way of speaking that was theirs and representative of their social class.

The original French title is La place and I wonder why they changed it in English for A Man’s Place. The meaning is broader in French and saying a man’s place discards Ernaux’s struggles with finding her own place in her new world. Maybe One’s Place would have been better?

Discover Claire’s thoughts about this book here. It was also her first Ernaux.

PS: The clumsy translations are my own.

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