Pierre Assouline, Le Portrait (French, 2007)

Why would I pick a book from an author I don’t quite like?

Pierre Assouline is a famous writer-cum-literary journalist in France, he’s part of the inner circle of French (read: Paris) publishing life, one of those powerful intellectuals who can make or break a literary success. He also runs a blog (the number one French lit-blog) on the Le Monde website (the most serious newspaper around here), where crowds of admirers turn up and gush over publishing intrigues and hot intellectual novels.

I admit I have a problem with his persona, because he looks (to me) very smug and backward-looking. To be honest, I don’t think he needs a blog as yet another tribune to express his opinions. It’s not merely jealousy, it’s about the borderline between published / established literary reviews and the more personal, friendly world of lit-bloggers. But well, let’s stop here my recriminations, I also enjoyed one of his books very much, and I was hoping to find the same pleasure in his latest one.

Assouline created his own literary sub-genre of novelized biographies of the late 19C-early 20C Jewish upper-class in Paris (he wrote 3 books on this subject). I’m speaking of bankers and “grand bourgeois” who were at the same time art collectors thanks to their huge fortune, people who because of their religious background, were at the same time suspected and indispensable to society, so that they could meet with artists, writers, socialites, as well as aristocrats and royals.

The book I first read from Assouline was “Le dernier des Camondo” (the last of the Camondo), a Jewish Sefarad family from Turkey that settled down in Paris mid-19C. The family was extinguished after WWI and the Holocaust, but at the end of 19C they were important patrons of the art and huge collectors (despite constant Anti-Semitic criticism). I happen to live  close to the museum that used to be their mansion and this book truly made this place alive to me. I could imagine better how the rich and famous gathered there over a fine dinner to admire the latest Renaissance painting that Nissim de Camondo had bought for a small fortune.

This book is very close in subject: the portrait of Baroness Betty de Rotschild painted by Ingres in 1848 tells the story of its owner and its own destiny (the painting was stolen by the Nazis during WW2 and barely escaped destruction). Yet a big part of the novel is about the Rotschild dynasty and their glamorous parties at the end of 19C, and as much as Assouline seems fascinated by the upper class wit, there are so many cynical remarks that I can’t tell whether it’s Assouline’s voice or the Baroness’. At times, I was fed up with this snobbery, but I mostly put up with it because I wanted to learn about this extraordinary family and because I imagine that the Rotschilds may have been real snobs too. Just like the book about the Camondo family, this novel made some places in Paris more significant to me , but this one was not as endearing as the previous one. Maybe my grudge is taking over…?

For those interested by the Camondo museum, some interesting information here both in French and English (with a virtual visit!).

The portrait of the Baroness can be found here. She does look inspiring indeed!


3 thoughts on “Pierre Assouline, Le Portrait (French, 2007)

  1. She has quite a provocative look, doesn’t she? Not being a French speaker, I haven’t heard of Assouline — but I can see why he’d be an interesting read. You’re very open minded to give him a go, even though you have your doubts about him. I think I need to do that more often — there are writers and books I think I have no time for because of certain prejudices I harbor, and maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to test those every once in a while, just to be sure I’m not mistaken.

  2. Bergotte et son Proust n’ont ils pas depuis longtemps montré qu’il valait mieux ne pas connaitre son auteur pour apprecier un livre. Certainement matière à débat. AB.

  3. Pingback: Edmund De Waal, The Hare with Amber eyes, a hidden Inheritance (2010) « Smithereens

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