The One to Get Lost in Paris

Patrick Modiano, Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (2014) / So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood (English 2015)

This draft of mine has been lingering for more than one month somewhere in a dusty WordPress drawer waiting for the right moment, or maybe waiting for the revelation?

It’s been years since I wanted to try a Modiano, but I’m afraid I’ve started with the wrong one.

An old man, Mr. Daragane, spurred by a vague but uncomfortable phone by a stranger, suddenly remembers old memories of his childhood, names that don’t really ring a bell in an old address book, places he might have been to, people who might have taken care of him as a child. Everything is quite fuzzy, his memory is vague at best, and it’s not even clear why he (let alone I) should care.

I appreciated the reflection on memory and false souvenirs (which is exactly why I picked this one in the first place) and I liked the tone but I felt as if I was missing the point of the story. Perhaps there’s no point altogether, but this was a frustrating experience nonetheless. It’s even harder when it’s a national treasure and a Nobel Prize for literature and you feel you should a. be awed or b. just shut up about your own ignorance. I therefore choose c. try another Modiano asap.

The weirdest experience was perhaps when I visited the Goodreads page for this book (in the English version), which called the book a “haunting novel of suspense from the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature”:

In the stillness of his Paris apartment, Jean Daragane has built a life of total solitude. Then a surprising phone call shatters the silence of an unusually hot September, and the threatening voice on the other end of the line leaves Daragane wary but irresistibly curious. Almost at once, he finds himself entangled with a shady gambler and a beautiful, fragile young woman, who draw Daragane into the mystery of a decades-old murder. The investigation will force him to confront the memory of a trauma he had all but buried.

I had to pinch myself to be sure we were talking about the same book. “Threatening voice” and “shady gambler”, I got them, but the mystery of a decades-old murder? I have completely missed that one. People called the book a “noir”, and I get that the book is totally atmospheric like a 1950s movie. Paris streets and buildings are right there on the page. I could almost see the grainy cliché of a beautiful woman with impeccable lipstick who would spend hours in a café staring into the void and playing with her cigarette in her (perfectly manicured) hand. But if “noir” has some components of sadness, inevitability, slow pace that are in the book, “noir” also normally has a plot and some truth to discover at the end.

Strangely, despite its title, I felt completely lost in the neighborhood. Only the familiar street names gave me some frame of references. But again, it might have been Modiano’s intention from the start. Intriguing and unsettling.

The One on the Sweet Power of False Memories

– Moi, reprend-il, les souvenirs que je vends deviennent de vrais souvenirs. Comme si tu les avais vécus.
– Mais comment c’est possible? je demande.
– Ah ça, bonhomme, c’est mon petit secret. Et puis franchement, quelle importance de savoir comment ça marche? Après tout, quand tu vas chez le charcutier, tu ne lui demandes pas comment il arrive à rentrer un cochon dans ses propres boyaux. Le charcutier te vend du bonheur en tranches. Enfin, si tu aimes le saucisson.
” Moi j’ai eu envie de vendre des petits bouts de bonheur à ceux qui n’en ont pas eu assez, ou pas du tout. Souvent on regrette de ne pas avoir vécu ceci ou cela. La vie nous mène par le bout du nez et pas toujours où on voudrait. Eh bien moi, j’essaie de réparer un peu les oublis de la vie.

– The memories I sell, he said, become true memories. As if you had really lived them.
– How is it even possible? I asked.
– Listen buddy, that’s my own secret. Really, is it important to know how it works? After all, when you go to the butcher, you don’t ask him how he manages to fit a pig into its own guts, do you? The butcher sells you slices of happiness. That is, if you like cold cuts.
As for me, I wanted to sell little bits of happiness for those who don’t have enough, or any at all. Often people regret not to have experienced this or that. Life has us on a string, leading us not always where we want to go. Me, I try to make up for what life misses.

Ghislaine Biondi, le Marchand de souvenirs (Oskar Editeur, 2013) (my translation)

I came across this very short, very cute book at the library on the table for middle grade / teen lit new acquisitions in genre fiction. I say cute because I’m partial to round corners and getting a nice object does make the difference when choosing a book. Depending on your nerdy inclinations, I realize you might think that its either a pretty specific or a pretty broad way to discover new books.

The library I go with my youngest son is specialized in kids lit (i.e. has a very limited adult selection) and the building they’re in is very strange (a converted space under the roof, with lots of mezzanines, nooks and crannies) so I am always surprised how they have organised their sections. There’s one “room” for teen mainstream novels, but genre fiction each has its own shelf, so that I’m easily lost and prefer to rely on new acquisitions.

This book is very short but deep and sweet, and I instantly fell for it. Antoine is a teenager on his first day of summer holidays from middle school. His mother raises him on her own and he doesn’t know his father. She works as a cleaner during the day, so they can’t afford the seaside vacation he’d love, and his best friend has gone away, so that he expects his holidays to be boring and lonely. Except he finds a new shop close-by where the owner sells fake memories, objects that give to the person who buys them the experience of memories of things that he has never experienced. The boy first tries his hand on memories of seaside vacation, and they’re so good and so real, that he soon goes back to the shop to buy more and get memories of the father he never knew.

In a few sentences the situation is firmly established and the fantastic part weaves itself into the daily routine so smoothly that you can see it and believe in it just as easily as the boy himself. It doesn’t depart too much from reality, in the sense that the boy knows which memories are real or fake, but remembering things nonetheless gives a little nudge to reality and has an influence on present situations, if only through a lighter mood, a different decision to make, etc.

I’m really impressed that the writer could pack so much into a mere 55 pages and look forward to exploring more about this small press.

The One with the All-Too-Obvious Secret

Fabrice Humbert, The Origin of Violence (French 2009, English 2011)

I realize that I have finished this book a while ago and not mentioned a word about it. Probably because I was a bit embarrassed not to be able to synthesize a clean, tidy opinion about it. At times I thought it was a very interesting book, at times I thought it was voyeuristic and complacent, at times I was just unimpressed. There are just so many books about the Holocaust, sadly (and horrific mass murders justified by racial or religious hatred have just continued, even more sadly); so many books about memory and family secrets.

A young high-school teacher visits the concentration camps together with his pupils, when he suddenly sees an old photograph with a Jewish inmate that bears a striking resemblance to his own father. Upon his return the young man starts to ask questions in and around his family, to discover that his father was born from an affair between his mother and the man who died in the concentration camp, his real grandfather. (This may look to you like a spoiler, but believe me, anyone can deduce that *secret* rather early in the book). The young man becomes obsessed with this grandfather and tries to confront his bourgeois upbringing to get to the bottom of the family secrets.

Maybe I have a problem with family secrets revolving around WWII, because this book reminded me of another novel, Memory by Philippe Grimbert, which didn’t work well for me either. Too bad.

The Origin of Violence is rather messy, as is my opinion about it. There are lyrical thoughts on the nature of evil (hence the title), a part set in the camp where no details of the brutality and horrors of death are spared to the reader. This part is quite difficult to read, but as the book is quite well documented, it is the most satisfactory. This is put together with a rather navel-gazing accounts of the difficult career of the young teacher in a tough neighborhood, of his romance with a beautiful German woman, of his difficulty to write the story of his grandfather. As Humbert himself is a high-school teacher turned writer, it is difficult to not wonder if any of the story is based on actual facts. The narrator is decisively unlikable, and probably untrustworthy, but it was the juxtaposition of some many random elements that made me uncomfortable.

The One with the Lonely Curious Daughter

Marie-Pierre Farkas & Marianne Ratier, Françoise Dolto, L’Heure Juste (French, 2011)

I find myself a bit slow and stupid that it’s only after reading the third graphic novel that I realized that this small press, Naive, has set to publish a whole collection of famous women biographies in graphic form (I got Isadora Duncan to Mr S. and he got me Virginia Woolf). This time, it was about Françoise Dolto. Do I need to introduce her to you, reader?

In France anyone born from the 1960s on has been raised according to the principles of our “national pediatrician” Dr. Françoise Dolto (or against them). She’s a household name, maybe like Dr. Spock on the other side of the Atlantic (he’s not well-known here). In the 1960s she even had a radio show that helped spread her ideas nationwide. So nobody in France starting this biography comes with a blank slate. I haven’t read anything by her, but as every French I feel that I know something of the style of education that she advocated for: she considered that the child is to be listened to, trusted and respected, that parents need to talk to their babies and children about everything, even if they think their children are too young to understand. She was specialized in psychoanalysis for young children and was fiercely against lies and family secrets. She also defended women’s rights.

What I knew nothing about was her own education. And that’s what the book focuses on, from her very first years until 1939 when she finished her studies in medicine, a few days or months before the war. She was born in 1908 in a very traditional family. Her mother was a fervent Catholic and believed that educating women was a waste and damaged a girl’s marriage perspective. Her daughters were educated at home by a nanny and later by a governess. It was also clear from the start that the mother’s favorite was Jacqueline, Françoise elder sister. Françoise was short, plump and rather awkward, while Jacqueline was fair, graceful and perfect. Françoise asked difficult, impolite questions. So when Jacqueline died in 1920, not only did the mother sink into a deep depression, but she blamed 12-year-old Françoise for not having prayed hard enough for her sister. Even though Françoise was brilliant in her studies, her mother didn’t allow her to study, she even took away her graduation certificates so that she couldn’t register to university!

What a dysfunctional family! No wonder Françoise Dolto was so interested in Freudian psychoanalysis. Her family had nothing to envy to those of Freud’s Viennese clients suffering from hysteria. The graphic style of the book, with a fine, almost trembling line and lots of white space successfully convey the impression of loneliness and the stuffiness of bourgeois upbringing, where children are supposed to be quiet and behave.

The subtitle of the book is “L’heure juste”, the right time. During those years where Françoise had to fight her mother to win the right to study and choose her own life, she thought she was wasting precious time, that she was coming late. But when she finally got her professional license, it was exactly at the right time. Just two days after, a government decree forbade women to become physician.

A very interesting and thoughtful book where art and content go hand in hand. I can’t wait to see what are the other titles in Naive’s collection of women biographies.

The one from riches to rags, interrupted

Memoirs of Madame de La Tour du Pin (French: Journal d’une femme de cinquante ans, 1913)

A little while ago, I nearly lost myself into historical research. For the reader, historical fiction opens an exotic window to the reader who feels like he could see with his own eyes how others lived in another era, but for the writer, the feeling is even more powerful! Not only are you transported back in time, but it’s like a mystery investigation, when real events and accounts give you tidbits of clues, which may or may not advance the plot you have in mind. It was a lot of fun.

I got interested in life under the French Revolution, and my reading got a bit utilitarian. That’s how I came to these memoirs by Madame de la Tour du Pin, an aristocrat with Irish ancestors, who wrote in the 1830s about her life chiefly for her children’s interest. The family published the text at the turn of the twentieth century. I only read the first volume which started at the lady’s birth in 1770 and stopped in 1794 when she and her family managed to escape the bloody Terror by embarking on a boat direction the United States.

I’m not sure how much I learnt about real life under Louis XVI and under the revolution. Like many memoirs of this era (or is it not a modern thing too?), she likes dropping names: she is all about meeting the right people and telling of her impression of them in a short vignette, which to me sounds like the 180 signs of Twitter to me. She spends a great number of pages talking about her bad relationships with her mother and grandmother, which is rather candid to me (I haven’t heard of many such memoirs but I guess this is rather unusual). Also, her loving and devoted marriage to Mr De la Tour du Pin, in 1787, seemed to me like a lucky exception to the norm of the time. Her analysis of the revolution, which you can read in between the lines, is that aristocrats were depraved and had forgotten how to live morally and simply.

Naturally, she puts herself aside: she insists that her curiosity as a child led her to learn all things in every possible area, including lots of lowly household jobs for which she had servants and maids. But this proved quite useful as the Revolution deprived her and her family of privileges and wealth, and she had to start over in America with very few resources. She appears very courageous and clever, especially when she had to disguise herself as a nanny during the Terror. She was quite resourceful and managed to adapt easily to new circumstances, but she’s not one to dwell long on feelings and analysis, so that I never quite got to understand how the change of regime must have been a real trauma in French history.

(If you’re interested in learning more about her, there is a biography: Dancing by the precipice, by Caroline Moorhead. Click on the image to get to the NYT review.)

The one with the problematic translated title

Pascal Garnier, The Front Seat Passenger (English 2014, French 1997)

Oh my, two Garnier in less than a month’ time, you can tell how much I’m hooked! I liked my first better than this one, but only by a thin margin, because I could hardly put it down. Like the previous one, it’s a novella easily read in one or two sittings.

The difference is that the main character of this story has hardly anything for him. Let’s see, what are the stereotypical features of a hero? Successful, daring, loving, courageous, honest, a good son, good friend, good husband …? Fabien Delorme is the opposite of all this. He’s weak, untrustworthy, egoist, unlucky and bland, judgmental and narrow-minded. Definitely too narrow-minded to make sense of what happens to him. He just lost his wife in a car accident, a wife for whom he had no longer feelings but still remained married out of comfort and convenience, and he discovers that she was in a car with a lover. Widower and cuckold in the same instant! His life is upside down, and will be even more so when he decides to get in touch with the lover’s widow.

It’s hard to root for Fabien, while it was so easy to root for Eliette in Too close to the edge. But we can’t help but follow him and find him excuses for his poor choices. What a loser! Even when he thinks that he has all the cards in hands, he’s being played. It’s slightly ironic, very down-to-earth and very very dark. The ending is a bit hasted but it could have been way worse.

If I had one reservation about the book, it’s the English title, which is technically, literally translated from the French. Fabien’s wife was seated next to the driver, her lover, in the front passenger’s seat when she had her fatal accident. I guess it’s called riding shotgun? But in French we have a colloquial expression for this seat: it’s the dead person’s place (because it was a very dangerous place to be back when cars didn’t have safety belts and that rules were nonexistent on the road). The French title is clever because “place” has so many different meanings. More than just a car seat’s question, it can read as the dead person’s space in the widower’s life. Or it can be Fabien’s attitude, metaphorically or literally, especially as Fabien doesn’t know how to drive a car and has to be driven or take a train to go somewhere. I felt that the book’s English title was narrowing it down, but I have no clue what else they could have chosen.

Thanks to Netgalley and Gallic Books for giving me a copy of the book!

The One where Frozen doesn’t play “Let it Go”

Jean-François Parot, La Pyramide de Glace (French, 2014)

How comfy it is on rainy days to find a book whose writer you trust and enjoy, with characters you’ve known for years and who have evolved as yourself grew!

When I don’t know what I should read next, Parot is my sure-fire reading choice: excellent research, impeccable historical setting, lots of Paris location that I actually walk by, food anecdotes, a mystery and many friendly considerations about life, change and destiny.

I’m not sure I really pay a lot of attention to the plot I’m afraid. I just tag along wherever Nicolas Le Floch, a police investigator in Paris under King Louis the 16th, takes me. Sometimes he brings me to the dirty morgue of Le Châtelet, the city prison, sometimes he brings me to Versailles to greet the King and Queen. Le Floch has a career that aristocrats despise and fear, while Le Floch is himself a small-ranking aristocrat from Brittany. As every book gets nearer to the Revolution (this one is in 1784), he watches the state of the country worsen as aristocrats get into scams to get wealthier, spend lavishly to outshine their fellow dukes and counts, keep a mistress (or two), hold parties full of vices and rumors, while the rest of the country is in misery and debt. 1784 had the coldest winter in decades, and many people nearly froze or starved to death.

Of course, the king’s men are worried that the situation is ripe for unrest. After the worst of the cold is over and the river Seine thaws, a column of carved ice reveals the naked body of a woman trapped inside. Murdered, with suspicious signs at her neck, making people think of vampires and other supernatural causes. Even worse, the victim looks like the Queen herself! Luckily, Le Floch and his friends keep their cool (am I allowed silly puns?) and rather suspect some intrigue linked to the Duc de Chartres, a powerful aristocrat from the royal family but an opponent and rival to the King. This makes Le Floch’s situation all the more complex and uneasy to tread.

I enjoyed every bit of this book even if there was no big surprise. It’s not a good place to start the series, but each new installment is equally satisfying once you’re familiar with the recurring characters. I guess most readers now wonder how things will go for our beloved Le Floch once the revolution starts. But there’s still five years to go!

The one with the widow looking for excitement

Pascal Garnier, Too close to the edge (French 1999, English 2016)

I’ve never read Pascal Garnier before, which is obviously a shame, and it seems ironical that an English translation would be my first introduction to this French writer. As a matter of introduction, I have to thank Marina Sofia for her titillating review which in turn made me request the book through Netgalley.

Pascal Garnier’s text starts in a deceptively quiet and banal way. Eliette is a retired, recently widowed woman who lives on her own in the Alps. Her adult children live in Paris, far away, with their own lives and worries, and she gets along with her neighbors well. But her loneliness leaves her slightly discontent and bored. She wishes something unexpected would happen to derail her routine. It’s a classic tale of be careful what you wish for, except that Garnier pushes it to the edge, metaphorically and literally. More than once I turned the page wondering where he’d take us readers and muttering to myself “did he really dare?”. It’s a roller-coaster read and a slim book you can easily read in one or two sittings.

It’s dark and realist, perfectly right for my taste. It’s not a Scandinavian thriller but the homegrown equivalent. As I take a few days off in the French countryside, where I always wonder about those tiny villages we cross on the way, with so many closed businesses, small farms with perpetually closed shutters and a rotting 2CV in the yard. So much for romantic countryside and sunset over the mountains! It’s often depressing, but Garnier manages to make it terrifying. Those old biddies who go to the supermarket, I’ll certainly be careful not to cross them. Especially if they look nice.

The one deep into Cambodia ghosts

Patrick Deville, Kampuchéa (French, 2011)

I feel myself a bit stuck in my creative writing right now, but luckily (ahem), there are quite a few books that I’ve finished and never got a chance to talk about here…

When I read my first Patrick Deville book two summers ago, a semi nonfiction about the man who had discovered the pest bacillus, I knew I wanted to read others. Still, Kampuchéa remained on my nightstand for nearly six months and it’s rarely a good sign.

But in that case, it just reflects the leisurely pace of Patrick Deville. The book feels like a travelogue,  but Deville isn’t the kind of traveler to visit a country in three days and he doesn’t let you hurry too much.

This book is an exploration of a country’s history, and the country that fascinated Deville also fascinated me, so I appreciated all the more his attempt to write about it and the difficulties of his project. Cambodia has a complex, tumultuous, multifaceted history, especially as the last centuries are intertwined with Western history and its ideologies.

Cambodia is stuck between Thailand and Vietnam, but always had its own separate identity. At its heyday, during the 12th century, the Cambodian kings built the famous temple structure of Angkor Wat , but the kingdom fell into decadence and now it’s a maze of sublime palaces lost in the jungle. Add to this geographic and ethnic uniqueness the arrival of colonial powers seeking to extend their area of influence. Cambodia was a hot prize to be taken by either the French or the British colonial empires, and the former prevailed (barely). Deville centers his book on Henri Mouhot, a French scientific explorer who discovered Angkor Wat almost by chance in 1860 and unwittingly changed the course of Cambodia’s history by putting it on the conquest trajectories of Western colonial empires.

During and after the French debacle in Indochina, Cambodia was pummeled by bombs as collateral damage of the Vietnam War. But when the communists took over Saigon, the Khmers Rouges installed a terror regime in Cambodia that makes Vietnamese regime look like Disneyland. They destroyed their very own country by indoctrinated blindness and millions of people succumbed until the Vietnamese kicked them out (not too far, just into the jungle) to conquer the land. Wikipedia says that Khmers Rouges are “responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians (Khmer), nearly a quarter of the country’s then population”

Wow, here I am, trying to cram 2000 years of history into a blog post, while I ought to talk about the book itself. Which is not that easy.

Deville is trying to make sense of this history by being there and looking for all the layers of history, contradictory and half forgotten. Cambodian population is young and doesn’t know much of its past. It’s part a  travelogue, part an investigation, part fictional re-enactment of key history moments and figures. One question throughout the book is how the rise of Khmer rouges was possible at all. Somewhere down the line, the true question is if French colonial culture was somehow responsible for breeding monsters whose crazy ideal was to create an egalitarian utopia on earth at all costs.

But that question is very difficult to answer because Khmer rouges have left precious little information about themselves. They didn’t leave many (incriminating) documents and didn’t trust the written word altogether. During this crazy regime, people who knew how to read and write were already pointed out as a dangerous intellectual who wasn’t meant to live.

I visited Cambodia too and these questions haunted me too. It’s hard to look at this country and not to ask them. I feel lucky that I was familiar with the subject already when I opened the book, and I understand that readers with no prior knowledge may feel lost at sea, because Deville’s style is to mix past and present, images from the historical documents with scenes he witnessed on the road. Still, it’s worth sticking it out even if you don’t plan a trip to Cambodia anytime soon. Another recent and fictional take on Cambodia (with allusion to the recent past and the corruption and trauma that the country still endures) was Nick Seeley’s Cambodia Noir, which I enjoyed a lot too.

The one about an aristocratic tragedy

Gaëlle Nohant, La Part des flammes (French, 2015)

If you were a woman of some means in Paris in 1897, the place to be was where the countesses, duchesses, princesses and other aristocratic ladies gathered, at the annual charity event called “Bazar de la Charité”.

Well-to-do women aspired to be accepted at the parties of the Catholic and conservative aristocracy. In this rarefied milieu, women were a status symbol of choice. Brought up in closed religious institutions, they needed to be pure and beautiful and rich to win at the matchmaking game. Love was just an option. After the wedding the wife could show herself at parties, have the obligatory children and needed to be seen doing charitable work, the only honorable choice, but the impact of these charities on poor people wasn’t really a criteria, instead the presence of a royalty gave credit to the enterprise. The mere shadow of a doubt cast on a reputation was enough to expel you out off these gilded circles, and honor disputes were still settled between gentlemen in duels with guns or swords.

In May 1897 women who mattered all attended the bazaar, and most notably the Duchess of Alençon, sister of the famous Austrian Empress Sisi. One of the attraction was the moving pictures invented by the brothers Lumière, presented amidst fancy decors made of cardboard and wood. Unfortunately the equipment took fire and disaster ensued, because of the crowd, the poor safety regulations and the inflammable materials. Most of the 126 victims were aristocrat women, among which the Duchess of Alençon. The incident had considerable coverage in the press.

This true story provided the background inspiration for this novel full of dramatic scenes (the fire scenes are nothing short of gore, don’t read before meal times!). The common theme is oppressed women, psychologically, socially or even physically abused. The pressure to marry and follow social conventions is huge, and for those who step outside, the shunning is terrible. Those who don’t conform are pushed away, put into convents, into psychiatric wards, accused of being hysterical for speaking out inconvenient truths.

Yet the book left me a bit cold. Characters were too black-and-white for my taste, I didn’t care for them. Only the Duchess of Alençon had some depth and ambiguity. The heroines were so nice and pure that I didn’t quite believe in them.

Besides, the exclusive focus on the aristocracy and their adoring servants made me slightly uncomfortable. After all, in 1897 France had been a Republic for almost three decades, surely the aristocracy did not reflect the entire upper-class of the country?  The Dreyfus affair that split France in two just got a passing mention, yet the people at the Bazaar that day must have been pro-Army, pro-clergy and antisemitic in their large majority. Didn’t anyone feel the qualms of the turn of the century? The same year as the fire at the Bazar, Munch painted the Kiss, Monet his Giverny landscapes, Pissaro painted a city full of people busy with business and pleasure on the Boulevard, and Gauguin painted “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?“, a very modern and abstract fresco. These paintings provide me with some visual clues that not everything was so inhibited and breathless as the novel suggests.

PS. What sold me the book first was the cover painting: it’s by Jean Béraud, “After the misdeed”, currently at the Tate.