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

March 11, 2018 23 comments

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.

A Certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable

February 4, 2018 11 comments

Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. (2017) Not available in English.

Romain Gary is my favorite writer and this is no breaking news for regular readers of this blog. I won’t write about his biography and literary career as I would repeat myself. For newcomers, there’s my Reading Romain Gary page and Wikipedia and there’s this extraordinary article from The New Yorker.

In France, Romain Gary is a beloved writer. One we sometimes study in class. One whose books are made into plays or into graphic novels or into special illustrated editions. One whose books make full display tables in bookshops.

François-Henri Désérable is a young writer born in 1987, seven years after Gary’s death. He used to play professional hockey, which makes him stand out here in France. The hockey league is not as prestigious as the NHL. Here, hockey is an unusual sport for children to play. I’m not even sure you can watch games on TV when it’s not the Olympic games time.

So François-Henri Désérable loves hockey and unsurprisingly, one of his friends wanted to have his stag party in Minsk, Belorussia during a hockey tournament. Four of them were going but there were only three plane tickets left for a direct flight to Minsk. Désérable decided to take a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania and to catch a train to Minsk from there. The Gary fan is already swooning: what? A trip to Vilnius, formerly called Wilno, where Gary spent his childhood? Lucky him.

Désérable got robbed in Vilnius and didn’t have any money or proper identity papers to continue his travels. He stayed in Vilnius, explored Gary’s old neighborhood and thought about a passage in Promise at Dawn. Gary mentions that his mother kept telling their neighbors that he’d be famous one day. None took her seriously but M. Piekielny. Gary explains in his autobiographical-fictional novel that this man once took him apart and asked him to tell these great people he would meet that at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka, in Wilno used to live M. Piekielny. Gary reports that he kept his promise. Désérable decides to investigate this M. Piekielny and takes us with him as he tries to find out if that man really existed and what happened to him.

This simple idea turned into a triple trip.

It became a historical research because Gary was Jewish and used to live in the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno. And the ghetto was destroyed by the Nazis during the Summer 1941. Désérable compares Wilno’s Jewish neighborhood to Pompeii.

Je commençais à comprendre qu’il n’y avait pas seulement le temps, mais aussi l’espace qui jouait contre moi. La Jérusalem de Lituanie avait été à sa façon ensevelie sous les cendres, mais elle avait eu la guerre pour Vésuve, et comme nuée ardente l’Allemagne nazie puis l’Union soviétique. Et si l’on voulait connaitre son apparence – ou tout du moins s’en faire une idée – avant l’éruption de l’été 1941, on était réduit à la reconstituer mentalement, comme ces temples romains dans Pompéi dont on ne peut qu’imaginer la splendeur, recomposant en esprit architraves, frises et corniches à partir des vestiges de quelques colonnes amputées des deux tiers. I was starting to understand that not only time was against me but so was space. The Jerusalem of Lithuania had been buried in ashes in its own way. Its Vesuvius had been the war and its glowing clouds had been Nazi Germany followed by the Soviet Union. If one wanted to know its appearance before the eruption of the Summer 1941 – or more exactly to make up a picture of it– one was doomed to piece it together in his head, like these temples in Pompeii whose splendor can only be imagined by reconstructing in your mind all their architraves, friezes and moldings from the vestiges of a few columns amputated by two thirds.  

The inhabitants were killed and their lives, their neighborhood disappeared. Wilno was erased and the contemporary Vilnius has only a few traces of its once vivid Jewish heritage. This part of the book is poignant as Désérable digs into archives and reminds us how the entire part of a country’s culture was annihilated.

from Wikipedia

The historical journey is coupled with a literary one. It turns out that Vilnius has a statue of Gary as a child in the street he used to live in. They even have a Romain Gary club who helped Désérable in his quest. His investigation leads him into digging into Gary’s biography. Promise at Dawn is not entirely reliable, so nothing says that the information about M. Piekielny is true. Did he really exist? Gary was a great inventor, an illusionist. Everything has the appearance of the truth, but he twisted it way he saw it fit. Désérable knows it but decides to play around it. Looking for M. Piekielny is an opportunity to immerse himself in Gary’s life, to reread his books and bios about him.

And all along, it’s also a personal journey for Désérable as a writer and as a man. He loves Romain Gary. He admires his writing, but he also feels a personal connection to him. Like Gary, François-Henri Désérable doesn’t have the background of the average Frenchman of his age. He spent a year playing hockey in Minnesota as a teenager before coming back to finish his high school years in Amiens. Spending a year in the USA and playing such an exotic sport make him already stand out.

He also mentions some parallels about their mothers. Like Mina, Gary’s mother, Désérable’s mother also had great things in mind for her son. He had to study law and contrary to his father, she was not so fond of the hockey career. She says that he has a name that sounds like a writer’s name, even to my ears. It’s elegant, the François-Henri sounding old erudite France, like the François-René in Chateaubriand’s name. Désérable is a vowel from désirable. Like Mina, his mother expects him to be successful to live vicariously through him and feel successful in raising him.

That’s what he says. But who knows if this autobiographical part of the novel is totally true. He may be playing with details like his mentor.

Un certain M. Piekielny is an amazing novel right in the continuity of Gary’s work. It’s witty, well-written and it has the flavor of Promise at Dawn. It brings back Gary’s past to life and the horror of the extermination of Jews, not through the horrors of the camps but through the horrors of making a whole civilization and way-of-life disappear. It shows WWII in another angle, something Gary did in his work. How does Humanity survive to such a level of hatred and self-destruction? What did it mean at human level, to be part of that time?

It’s also a wonderful trip through Gary’s multiple lives and literary career. And last but not least, it was a sort of coming-of-age novel for Désérable himself. It’s written in a tone that Gary would have approved of but the substance is a lot like Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Un certain M. Piekielny was nominated for the Prix Goncourt in 2017. I wish it had won, for François-Henri Désérable himself and his knack at writing a funny, multi-layered book but also for Romain Gary who would have vicariously won a third Goncourt. I imagine him grinning mischievously from beyond the grave, happy to get even with the literary intelligentsia.

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