Jean-Paul Kauffmann, The Black Room at Longwood, Napoleon’s Exile at Saint Helena (French, 1997)

To be frank, I’d never have even opened this book if a dear friend hadn’t sent it directly onto my Kindle while demonstrating how to use e-books.

I’m no big fan of Napoleon. Actually, I don’t know much about Napoleon, having managed to skip every class on this particular period of European/French history. Napoleon was reduced to basics, insisting on the modernization of French state before disapproving the folly of wandering towards Europe’s Russian outposts.

The sentence “Napoleon was sent to exile at Saint Helena” made us laugh and not think twice.

You see, there’s a nursery rhyme that every French child knows: “Napoleon died at Saint Helena / His son Leon burst his big belly / He was found sitting on a whale / He was licking fish bones”. (“Hélène” and “baleine” rhyme in French, as do “bidon” and “poisson”.)

It’s only fairly recently that I tried to locate Saint Helena on a map, just out of curiosity. If you don’t have a clue (I won’t hold it against you) go to Google Maps and come back.

Surprising isn’t it?

It doesn’t take long to realize that it was the kind of place you can’t escape from. The place you don’t come back from. Napoleon only survived 5 years there, slowly won over by gloom and humidity.

Kauffmann has been kidnapped as a French journalist in Lebanon during the 1980s and had spent 3 years in captivity (I read a book about his return to freedom a few years ago). So he knows a thing or two about solitude and confinement. He also loves islands. He visited Saint Helena, travelling by the only boat that make its way from Cape Town to the island.

I could empathize with the pages where Kauffmann muses over our inability to really recapture the past, but I didn’t quite get in the right mood for that. The travelogue part felt more like a magazine account than an essay. I didn’t really care for Kauffmann’s visits and his other companions.

Even if I didn’t care for Napoleon, the parts I loved best eventually were the description of the former emperor’s lonely life with his closest courtiers. The atmosphere was quite claustrophobic and led to bickering, petty jealousy and endless poring over the past, trying to analyze what went wrong.  Those who had followed the fallen emperor to the island weren’t prisoners themselves, they had come out of loyalty, maybe out of hope that the emperor would find his way back to France and/or to a powerful position. They were all vying for his attention, noting his every word and move in order to publish memoirs later on, hoping to be rewarded on the emperor’s will.

Despite its weaknesses, it was well worth spending a few hours on this book to discover these less-known points of history and geography!

Emmanuel Carrère, Limonov (French 2011, English 2014)

I’ll say it before you suspect it: I am a fan of Emmanuel Carrère. So I might not be the most objective reader for his books. But in true Carrère’s fashion, it doesn’t matter, subjectivity is part of the writing and the reading process. And writing about it too.

Bear with me, it does sound meta, but not the kind you get a headache from.

Carrère is one of the writers whose books I buy without hesitation (one other writers is Siri Hustvedt, for example). But I take my time, I’m not rushing as soon as the book gets out, because I know I need time and concentration, and I want to savour them.

By the time I get to Limonov, Carrère has already published another one, Le Royaume (the Kingdom) about early Christianity, with lots of praise. I have not yet arrived to the Kingdom, but I know I’ll get there eventually.

One of the things I enjoy about Carrère’s books is the writing. It’s just as if he was talking to me (Let me clarify, I’m not delusional, nor in love with him). Carrère’s writing voice is deceptively simple, self-aware without being overly self-centered.

So, Limonov. Carrère is always writing about life and perception, about the complex layers that make events and explain people’s behavior. It’s a biographical novel (written without his subject’s consent and with only one direct meeting when the draft was almost completed), but its ambition is wider.

I hadn’t even heard of this Limonov, a Russian intellectual who has had a very contrasted life (he’s still alive, so there’s plenty of turns of the plot that may still occur). Born in 1943 in Soviet Russia, he is deemed a dissident, but the label doesn’t even start to define him. He’s been a thug, an obscure poet in an obscure city of Russia, a jet-setter in Paris and in New York, a butler for a millionnaire, an opponent to Putin, a leader of a fascist group, a writer, a model convict, and so many other things.

Carrère crossed paths with Limonov several times for brief moments, and he is both fascinated and puzzled by this man. The result of this fascination and unending puzzlement is the book itself. As always Carrère is a character in his own novel, at times fed up with his subject, at times wondering.

It seems  that this guy has had many lives already, and it’s all too easy to dislike him. He’s arrogant, vain, always vying for attention and glory. In fact, Carrère doesn’t even try to make us like him at all, his point is to retrace the steps of many life choices, however implausible they seem. One thing leading to another, and Limonov chooses the exile from Soviet Union, presumably forever, and for a while he ends up living like a bum in New York. Does that makes him a loser? Perhaps, but he kept trying and then he somehow got back on his feet.

One thing led to another, and Limonov finds himself supporting the Serbs during the Yugoslavian war. Bad choice obviously. Does this choice make him a fascist? Perhaps. But every time Carrère  explains how complicated it is, how difficult it is for us readers to judge him knowing the complete picture.

At the end he comes out as an adventurer who tried very hard to be a genius and who has never quite reached it.

From these many lives we can also see a portrait of Russia from the sixties to the 21st century, and see how a whole world exploded at the end of Soviet Union. I remember those days and the post-1989 chaos in Russia. I didn’t understand them as they were enfolding under our eyes. I certainly enjoyed that Carrère revisited them. These made in my opinion the most fascinating pages of this bizarre literary object.

Philippe Grimbert, Memory (French: Un secret, 2004)

It’s very difficult to disagree when lots of people praise a book. It even won a literary prize! It was made into a movie! So I’m inclined to think: what didn’t I see? What is wrong with me?

It’s even more difficult when the book is a novel closely inspired by the author’s personal family history. So I don’t want readers to think that I’m criticizing a person (even less a person’s family) when talking about a book.

It’s even more difficult when the book’s subject deals with the Holocaust. I know my post here has to tread gently.

Call me suicidal, insensitive, cold-hearted, but I’m going to say it: this book didn’t work for me.

Philippe Grimbert tells the story of a boy born after the Second World War (himself) who discovers at the age of 15 a huge secret that his whole family has been keeping from him since he was born. He learns from a family friend that his family is Jewish (non-religious obviously) and has suffered persecution during the war (instead of the rosy countryside holidays atmosphere they’d told him about). Even worse, he discovers that he had a half-brother, and that his father was first married to a woman who died with him in the camps. Still even worse, he discovers that his mother used to be his father’s sister-in-law, and that his parents have fallen in love and consummated a forbidden love that only the destruction of the war have made possible.

Wow.

Philippe Grimbert is a psychoanalyst, and you can understand how he got into this career.

The story is perfectly right and very moving, but my problem lies with the writing itself. It is so flat and verbose, so overly analytical of every feeling and meaning. It is a tale told through the (grown-up) boy’s eyes, but there is no room for the action, no dialogue at all, only indirect speech and therefore no room for any other interpretation than the one the author provides. I found this overwhelming and overbearing. I could not relate to any of the characters (although from the author’s personal point of view, I could well understand why he needed to put this distance from his own parents’ actions and emotions).

I am a bit disappointed that it didn’t work for me, but obviously the book has found a lot of other, more eager readers. On very close themes and concerns, I have yet to read a book by Modiano, who has recently won the Nobel Prize of Literature, and whom I have never read, to my great shame.

Jules Valles, L’Enfant (The Child, Fr. 1878)

Reading this book during summer was a weird experience. The more I read, the more I had this feeling of déjà vu. (By the way, I love how English speakers pronounce that word. It’s even weirder than when I say it in French).

Then it came back to me. When I was a teenager, my mother had gotten some old literature classics textbooks discarded from the school library, and I remembered being bored and hot during the summer holidays, and reading my heart out. I have this tactile memory of lying on the wooden floor on the top floor of our sun-drenched home and turning the pages for whole afternoons. What else did I read that summer? No idea. As you can see, it rather entered my subconscious brain than my readily accessible culture, because I could have bet I’d never read the book before.

But indeed I had, in large excerpts. The sad tale of this awkward child plagued with a horrible mother (and a horrible father too, but I guess he’s more pathetic) is indeed memorable. All Jacques (the child, but actually Vallès himself) wants is to roam freely in the countryside, all she wants of him is to make him a proper bourgeois. She is petty, mean, cruel, and ridiculous in her social-climbing. She’s not as cruel as the other famous evil mother in French literature: Folcoche, written by Hervé Bazin in Vipère au poing / Viper in the fist (the nickname given by her rebellious son, the narrator, is the mix between folle-crazy and cochonne-pig), but Bazin’s book was published in 1948, while Valles’ was in 1878!

What surprised me most was how modern, realist and yet very funny Valles’ writing has remained. Laugh out loud funny. This is highly readable and I didn’t force myself to read at the child’s naivety and his mother’s stupidity. Valles was a friend of Hector Malot, and Malot’s book about a miserable childhood is in my experience (one or two decades ago, so I may be mistaken) a tear-jerker that had aged a lot. If readers were accustomed to melodramatic books dealing with heavy issues, no wonder that they might have been shocked when Valles was being snarky and sometimes even resorted to slapstick comics (the one being slapped being, you’ve guessed, the poor child.)

Considering the dark subject it was indeed a pleasant surprise. Of course the book has a political background of revolt (I don’t know if American readers would classify it as anarchist or very liberal) but it doesn’t pollute the flow and the brisk pace of the book. I had very little knowledge of Jules Valles’ life, although it’s very easy to guess that he’s speaking of himself there), but when I read the Wikipedia article I connected the dots with lots of other familiar names, events and places in history, centered around the 1870 Commune and its bloody aftermath. I knew of Le Cri du Peuple from distant history class, but I didn’t know this libertarian and socialist newspaper was his idea. This made me want to try the second book of his trilogy: The Graduate (Le Bachelier).

PS. You can find the English version at the ever-excellent NYRB, or in French in free electronic format from Gutenberg.org

Patrick Deville, Plague and Cholera (French 2012)

Yet another very very good surprise thanks to audiobooks!

I had never read anything by Patrick Deville before, and when I finished Plague and Cholera, I immediately bought his Kampuchea. For a person who thinks twice before getting anymore book on her shelves, that’s telling a lot!

Who would have guessed that I would read (uh… hear) the biography of the man who had discovered the bacillus responsible for the plague (that now bears his name, yersinia pestis). I’m not a science buff, but I like a good story, and if anyone had told me that I would get engrossed in the biography of a biologist/doctor, member of the Pasteur team like Roux or Calmette (1863-1943), a man with an austere youth in Switzerland, no private life to speak of, apparently not far from being a misogynist or a sociopath (although he was indeed working for the good of humanity from his lab or his desk, I don’t think that bedside manners or caring for actual living patients were his forte), I would have been more than doubtful.

And yet. The man was anything but a lab rat and as soon as he could he left the Pasteur institute to live his dream: be an explorer, a discover of unchartered territories like Livingstone. Great explorers were one generation older than he, but he took his ticket to Asia by the way of being a cruise doctor, then he left this job when he fell in love with Vietnam, especially Nha Trang on the coast and Da Lat in the mountains. His love of learning seemed endless and he dabbled his hand in lots of activities: after biology and medicine, he became an explorer who surveyed the land along the Mekong river and then turned farm developer, rubber-tree planter, anti-malaria serum manufacturer, and a lot more.

The book is a straightforward biography, except it is called a novel, as many books that I’ve recently read. I’m not sure if it’s a French fashion, or a larger trend, just like all recent US movies proclaim “based on a true story”. I guess this label gives the writer more freedom, but we are left, as readers, with many questions as to what is real and what is fictional. Sometimes we readers are inside Yersin’s head and seeing the world through his eyes, sometimes a modern narrator breaks in, following the footsteps of Yersin in modern-day Vietnam and knowing, as an omniscient narrator (but is he as accurate and objective?) how the country has changed since Yersin set his foot there.

This book got a very famous prize in France, but some readers found the tone disturbing. It is dry and blunt indeed, with many quotations from private letters that are quite banal to say the least. Yersin was nowhere near an emotional person. That’s where we readers tend to think that it’s nothing more than a normal, informative biography. Yet the omniscient narrator’s voice is often distanced and ironic, so that the mix of the two voices might seem incongruous at times. I personally loved it, especially as the audiobook was read by the author.

Yersin was not the only focus of Deville. He visibly aimed at portraying a whole generation of enthusiastic discoverers, scientists and colonialists from the turn of the 20th century, for whom the world for up for grabs and awaiting their benevolent guidance. Then we spent much of the rest of the century paying for the consequences. I remember being astonished at the last remains of the French colonial empire in Vietnam and Cambodia, and so the book spoke to me at many levels.

(bonus: it has been translated to English this year!)

Adrien Goetz, Intrigue à l’anglaise (2007)

The core of this book is the famous Bayeux Tapestry, a 70 meters-ong (224 feet) embroidery from the Middle Ages showing in dozens of small scenes the Norman conquest of England. The Tapestry itself is one-of-a-kind, a sort of gigantic graphic novel, complete with characters, plot, subplots and twists, but as its origin and content have been studied and disputed by historians for centuries, it was only a matter of time until a writer would make a novel out of it.

Here, Adrien Goetz weaves lots and lots of layers around the tapestry: a sympathetic young curator freshly arriving at the museum, Penelope, a thriller about the last few meters of the tapestry that have never been found, a mystery about the authenticity of the piece, different interpretations about who commissioned it, how they did it, what some passages mean etc. Even Princess Diana and Hitler have been thrown into the lot. I have read this novel over summer and it was very pleasant, but now I really struggle to let you know what exactly was the main storyline and the whole point of the book.

The thriller / mystery plots themselves were not very believable, just a concession to the genre. So I guess Goetz mostly wanted to be informative under the cover of fiction, which he did with some success. I am grateful for getting to learn a lot of anecdotes about the Tapestry that I hadn’t picked up when visiting the official museum a few years ago, and the book mostly made me wish to go back to Bayeux for another visit, which is not so bad after all.

I’m not saying that the book was downright bad, but the piece of art itself stands no comparison. So the best conclusion may be: the Bayeux Tapestry is wonderful, just go and see it for yourself, online or in real life if possible.

Fred Vargas, L’Armée Furieuse (2011)

Oops, she did it again… Draw me into a totally implausible story, mixing contemporary murder with an old folk myth, And I fell for it from the first few pages on, like with (all) the previous ones (I have reviewed 6 of them here).

I guess you have to love Vargas or hate it, and I stand firmly in the first group. Killjoy might argue that this is getting formulaic, that her stories are so unrealistic that there is no point in them. It just like saying Snow White  and the dwarves can’t be true so there’s no point in reading it.

In fact, it’s like a playful tale, with lots of inventive uses for language. Not only is the plot full of twists and turns, but the language itself is also fun to read. People in Vargas’ novels are contemporary, but they are so weird and one of a kind that it is agreed from the start that they only exist in fiction. Yet, they are alive and kicking! At least, for those who don’t cross the path of an evil criminal…

After a short introduction where Adamsberg solves a murder whose weapon is white bread (of  all  things!), the scene moves progressively from Paris to Normandy, where the Wild Hunt, a horde of devils, ghosts and zombies, ride through the woods by night to steal away those who have committed an unpunished crime. At first Adamsberg is tempted to shrug it off as superstition, but when a real corpse shows up in the woods, he settles down in a local hotel and investigates the local gossips and old grudges, convinced that someone is using the old tale to scare people and settle old scores in blood.

As in previous books, this myth is not invented by Vargas, it’s a popular European myth that seems to exist in England, France, Germany and Scandinavian countries as well. It was interesting to discover this story, just like many tiny bits of knowledge that Vargas likes to disseminate from page to page.

The book has been translated to English and published as The Ghost Riders of Ordebec.

Margaux Motin, La Tectonique des Plaques (2013)

I have a childish love for Margaux Motin’s girly-with-attitude designs. I have read her previous solo books (“J’aurais adoré être ethnologue” and “La théorie de la contorsion”), and I laughed out loud every single time.

Not a classy, delicate laugh. The kind that hesitates between a big belly laugh or a snort. With a quick side glance to check if your dear husband looks over your shoulder or not.

It’s actually a collection of short scenes, perfect for a blog, even though I have discovered her through books and not through her blog (which is delightful). Sometimes those scenes are poetic (especially when she mixes photos with sketches), sometimes it’s a quick everyday-life scene I could totally relate to.

She’s getting quite popular in France and has done a lot of advertising design. You can easily see why: her girls are slim with long limbs and long lashes. They are fashionable and fresh, full of energy and zing. The epitome of the Parisian 30-something urban woman with a little cute girl in tow.

But the difference between her advertising gigs and her own books is blatant when you open them: the design is very prim and proper, but you really should brace for the text: the number of f-bombs by page is quite impressive, and no large company would be ok with that.

Now, I see that reviewers are very divergent on her books: either they love it or hate it. I would say that most male bloggers I’ve seen find it totally superficial, self-indulgent and don’t see the point of it, and most female bloggers just can’t get enough of it!

I didn’t read all in one sitting, because I think it might have felt too repetitive and a tad vulgar, but browsing for a few pages at a time was just fine. It’s really the portrait of young woman who tries very hard, who goes through a divorce, new dates and breakups, single-parenthood, a cross-country move and freelance gigs, who keeps her sense of humor and her style.

Jean-Claude Lalumière, Le Front Russe (2010)

I am sure that French people are not the only ones to make fun of bureaucrats (Russians spring to mind).

This thin book fully belongs to the genre, but I think this book might appeal to a specific, rather narrow readership: diplomats, people who work at the foreign office and people who know a little about them. A kind of insider’s joke. This book came as a present from a friend who happens to work in the diplomatic workforce, so I guess I should have asked her if she recognized anyone!

Our narrator, a young man with a very dull childhood in the 1970s, enters the diplomatic workforce with lots of ambition, only to discover that it’s not all as glorious and adventurous as what he’d dreamed of.

Due to a painful mistake on his first day, he is assigned to “the Russian Front”, not at all to a foreign country, but actually to an obscure department of losers, not even at the prestigious Quai d’Orsay offices but in a cubicle in a grey business area, to “take care” of visiting foreign delegations from the most obscure countries, those countries that are not yet recognized internationally.

He is as naive as he is ambitious, but his office life is a disaster, his love life abysmal, and every attempt he makes at leaving the Russian front proves even more catastrophic.

It is very satirical and cynical when it comes to bureaucrats, but I know for certain that some parts of it are not very far from reality! It was a light read, if a bit repetitive. But normally I don’t do well with comic books, so that was a nice change.

Alexandre Dumas, Twenty Years After (1845)

It had been so much fun to read The Three Musketeers two years ago that when I looked for a fun, big book for the early months of babyhood, I knew I had to get the sequel, the story that reunites the 4 friends twenty years after their first adventures.

Twenty years are a generation, so that the dashing young men with dashing nicknames have matured, grown old(er), taken back their family names and estates and are a bit less adventurous… or so they think at first. They have lost touch with one another, and while D’Artagnan works for the Cardinal (the cowardly and greedy Mazarin, not the wicked Richelieu anymore) and Queen Anne, Aramis and Athos have ended up on the opposite side (the aristocratic Fronde). Porthos is busy getting richer and fatter in the countryside, but soon enough (for a 800 pages book), the four friends unite again for the sake of… British monarchy! I didn’t expect that the book would spend so much time in Cromwell’s England, but that was a lot of fun too.

When I say this change of scenery came as a surprise, it’s because I had big plans to investigate Parisian geography as imagined at the time of the musketeers (in this episode, during Louis 14th’s childhood). I had been charmed while reading the first book by the many references to streets and places that still exist in the city where I live, so my plan was all set for the second book: I knew I was going to live and breathe musketeers for one month at least, but it wasn’t enough, I wanted to literally walk in their footsteps too!

While reading on my Kindle, I highlighted all the street names that often came up in the plot. (Of course, I paused for a few hundreds pages while the 4 friends had crossed the Channel!). Then I transferred my Kindle notes into a list, and this list toward Google maps (I am a nerd, yes, I am). So  that at the end of the project, every single street named by Dumas, where the 4 friends are supposed to have fought, talked, eaten and plotted find themselves nicely drawn on a map. I also searched whenever possible for streets that had changed names and disappeared.

MapDumas

(if you click on the map, it should get you to Google Maps where you can zoom in)

As I worked on the map, I explored the book at a new level, but also learned about my own city, and got to see beyond real streets and places into a fictional (albeit historical), alternative world. As if I had found Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, or as if I had taken a Sex in the City NYC guided tour!

That’s what I call the ultimate staycation… while waiting for the holidays!