The Ones on Medea’s Youth

Blandine Le Callet (story), Nancy Peña (art), L’Ombre d’Hécate (Médée #1, French 2013) – Le couteau dans la plaie (Médée #2, French 2015) – L’épouse barbare (Médée #3, French 2016)

 

Some people have strong opinions about modern retellings of traditional myths, or classics; I have disliked some, been puzzled by some, unimpressed by some and loved others. What’s for sure is that they have never left me indifferent.

At our new library I found a graphic series about Medea, which is totally amazing. I hesitate to report it because the series is still ongoing and it’s only in French, but for what it’s worth… Just like La Bouche d’Ombre which I reviewed recently, it is a cooperation between a female writer and a female graphic artist, which makes it even more interesting!

Medea is not an attractive female figure, she’s too shocking and disturbing. She is a dark witch, she is sexually active and she becomes so hysterical with jealousy that she kills her own children: who would want to identify with her?

Yet, in this retelling, we get to learn her life from her childhood on, and things take a different meaning. The Medea we know is the product of centuries of male domination and Medea is blamed because she is daring, intelligent and does not accept her fate. I have yet to read the third volume but the first two, about Medea’s childhood and her teenaged years were great. It  shows a girl with a modern mind stuck in an antique setting, whose only freedom is the one left to her by her tyrannical father because she has special skills (witchcraft!). It may annoy some readers, but it makes her so much more relatable. She meets Jason and falls in love at first sight because he’s a breath of fresh air in an oppressive palace. I can’t wait to read the third book that will likely delve into the dark, tragic side of Medea as a wife and mother in a foreign country.

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The One with the Vengeful Spider

Fred Vargas, Quand Sort la Recluse (French 2017)

Of course I’m not talking about Spiderman!

I’m talking about the Brown Recluse Spider, a kind of nifty little arthropod that hides in woodpiles, sheds, dry cellars, etc. It has a necrotic venom (yes, this is apparently a word) and to weaker people it can be very dangerous (I am warning you right now: don’t – I repeat, DON’T look up images in Google, trust me. There are things you cannot unsee. If you want to know more, literary definitions are in my humble opinion more than enough!).

In North America, reported cases of recluse bites occur primarily in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas (or so I’m told on Wikipedia), but in this novel, the recluse spider has killed no less than 3 old men in bad shape in France! Is it global warming? Police refuses to get involved, scientists from the national science museum say it just can’t be, but Commissaire Adamsberg has one of his famously weird gut feelings: to him, it’s murder. So the question is: who has succeeded in taming these tiny, shy spiders to attack people, how and why?

Now, if you are a regular reader of this blog you know that I will read anything Vargas. And at our workplace library, we need to buy anything Vargas and the queuing starts right now. For the next one. So I’m not even trying to be objective in my review.

It was fantastic, as ever, period. I didn’t even mind that I guessed by the middle of the book who might have done it. I read on for the sheer pleasure of following Commissaire Adamsberg and his whimsical trains of thoughts. In French we say it’s “tiré par les cheveux” (the reader is pulled by his hair) to mean that it’s goofy and far-fetched, but it’s all for the good cause.

I have no idea when the book will be translated to English, but it will be done!

The One with the Red-Headed Shadows

Carole Martinez & Maud Begon, Bouche d’Ombre (French vol.1 2014, vol.2 2015, vol.3 2017, vol.4 to be released)

I’m still in the process of finding my bearings in our new town, exploring local shops and… the library! Our new library (see how proprietary I get?) is quite nice, although it has a mandatory fee for adults (it was free in Paris except if you wanted dvds). There are several self check-in / check-out machines on each floor (the kids love them!). The ground floor is for magazines, CDs and DVDs, crafts food and gardening, and art books (it feels like a huge Miscellaneous department). The first floor is for kids books, and the second floor is for adult fiction and non-fiction, and each floor has a huge selection of comics / graphic novels.

I was lucky with the first pick I had from the adult graphic novels on display. “La Bouche d’Ombre” (“the Shadow’s Mouth”, a quote from a Victory Hugo poem I didn’t know) is an ongoing series (3 tomes are already published but it’s not complete yet) and the story is just as fascinating as the art itself. Even better, it’s a collaboration between a female writer (Carole Martinez, who got many literary awards) and a female graphic artist (Maud Begon, whose blog you can visit) and this is rare enough to be highlighted.

The first tome is set in 1985 and introduces us to Lou, a high-school junior in Paris with a large group of friends and a taste for partying and hanging out. A friend suggests a spiritualist séance to conjure up dead ghosts (because it seems fun and because they study Victor Hugo in school). The session goes only too well, and after a friend of hers commits suicide, deeply upset by the séance, Lou realizes that she can see dead people. This gift does not come kindly, and Lou struggles with what she feels and sees. There are many family secrets, and it seems that supernatural gifts have been running at various degrees in Lou’s family. Hypnosis helps Lou make sense of it, and understand what the deads want from her.

The second volume, titled Lucie 1900, focuses on the complex relations between science and the occult. The present and the past intersect under Lou’s eyes and in her dreams. We still see Lou in 1985, but when she gets obsessed with a young woman without a face, a woman named Lucie who lives at the beginning of the 20th century, a second timeline opens in the novel. The year is 1900 in Paris, when a huge international exhibition was held that showed the latest in science and art innovations. Lucie is enthusiastic about science, she gets acquainted with famous scientists Pierre and Marie Curie, but she also has a secret that is both overpowering and terrifying, and that threatens the rationals of science. Lucie is actually Lou’s grandmother! The end comes back to the present day with a shocking twist that will send the reader reeling.

In the third volume, titled Lucienne 1853, we leave science for literature. Lou still presents the contemporary framing of the story. She is devastated by the events at the end of the previous volume, but she now understand enough of her gift to decide to travel back in history to try to rectify the situation (ouch, it’s tough to avoid spoilers!). We visit Jersey island at the time when Victor Hugo and his family were in exile there. Victor Hugo is obsessed with the occult and the spiritualist movement, hoping to get in touch with his deceased daughter Leopoldine. But a mischievous, red-headed little girl-spirit messes with them.

There are so many interesting layers in this story. The art is quite atmospheric, at times romantic and scary. It is never static and conveys a deep sense of mystery. It’s girly without being one bit hokey. I can’t wait for the final volume!

The One on the Murky Aftermath of Revolution

Balzac, Une Ténébreuse Affaire (French, 1841 ; Eng. The Gondreville Mystery, a.k.a. A Murky Business)

I always finish the year complaining on how few classics I read… and yet, when I try to be intentional and read one, it’s not that easy!

Although it’s a short novel, This Murky Business (there are many different translations of the title) is so rich that it’s difficult to summarize. It starts awkwardly but then after 50 pages the action and the twists of events made me turn the pages until the end. It’s gripping and surprising and well worth the effort, but…

The BIG warning to potential readers (French and foreigners alike), is that a preface AND a postface would certainly be necessary to understand the context and make sense of it all. I just read the Wikipedia page and it wasn’t nearly enough. To Balzac in 1841 the revolution and the reign of Emperor Napoleon were still fresh in everybody’s mind, but to me, I struggle to remember what I learnt in freshman college history. And I can’t imagine what it means for English readers…

Let me try, even if I might make a mess of it.

The beginning of the novel is especially… murky (you can’t say that Balzac didn’t warn us in the title, right?). It’s set in 1803 in rural France, and the power of Napoleon isn’t set yet. People still remember who was responsible for the local guillotine killings. Aristocrats who want to get the king’s family back on the throne are in exile and it’s forbidden to help them. Still, a daring, beautiful young heroine, Laurence de Cinq Cygnes, an heiress whose parents were killed during the Terror, rides her horse across the countryside, seemingly because she’s wild and lonely, but really to help her two cousins, two twin young men who are desperately in love with her and illegally back from exile. The police suspects her and shows up at her castle, but she’s warned by a faithful servant and the cousins escape. The policemen know that they have been fooled and develop a strong grudge against both families.

The second part is set a few years later when the trio are quietly living in their domain under the reign of Emperor Napoleon. They dislike the Emperor and more or less put up with the situation, until they try to retrieve the family money that has been hidden during the Revolution. A complicated conspiracy get them arrested (along with the faithful servant of the first part) and tried for the abduction of a senator. They will barely escape with their lives.

The third part is set many years later when in a Parisian high society gathering, we recognize an old lady as Laurence de Cinq Cygnes and we get to understand the deeper meaning of the conspiracy.

The book offers a fascinating portrait of France at a very complex time. We often learn history by the large political, international events and our teachers lead us from one period to the next as we turn the page of a textbook. But true life events are not so clean-cut, and people don’t know that they are living through the end of the Revolution, or the beginning of the Empire. In the countryside, they might not even know who is in power in Paris. Sometimes even, they are pawns on a larger scale, just because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, or because they have irked the wrong guys.

Laurence de Cinq Cygnes is a tragic heroine. She’s idealistic and still wants the king’s family to return to power instead of compromising with Emperor Napoleon. She will undergo a full 360 but at a very high personal cost. I liked her a lot, and looking things through her eyes made up for the intricate shenanigans I couldn’t fully understand. People who were of her generation lived under kings, emperors, tyrants, revolutions and wars and it must have been so tough.

The One with the Family Secrets in Pink and Lilac

Camille Jourdy, Juliette (French 2016)

Oh, how big a difference one day makes! When I started to read this graphic novel I was stressed out by some ongoing renovation project and I was annoyed by the main character of the book, an anxious, meek, slightly depressed, slightly aimless young woman named Juliette, who takes a break from her life and job in Paris to rest for a while in her family.

I was annoyed by the naive design of this graphic novel, all in pink, lilac, pastel tones. I feared it would be too schmaltzy, a real tear-jerker. I was innerly boiling at her passivity. Get a grip, girl! Stop your idle navel gazing! You can’t possibly have a good reason to be so anxious! In brief, I was being stupid, because if Juliette had been real, none of what I’d say would have put her out of her funk. Existential crisis doesn’t solve itself in minutes with a bullet-point epiphany over lunch.

The next day, the renovation was going well, and I was in a better mood for Juliette. Yes, she’s the meek one, but what a family! She has a big sister, Marylou, who works cleaning and caring for elderly people. She is a strong, big woman who takes care of all matters in her family, but secretly she has a lover. Juliette’s and Marylou’s parents are divorced and don’t get on with each other whenever they get together.

Short daily scenes full of humor or sadness show the tiny dramas, struggles, and quests for love and happiness. We never know exactly why Juliette has come back, but we still get to empathize with her, her friend and her whole family. She is slightly hypochondriac, clearly highly sensitive, and she’s not the dynamic super heroine à la Wonder Woman but after a few pages I had totally forgotten how annoyed I had been!

It’s a quiet, melancholy book, with no big tension but true big questions hidden behind the small details, the few words and the poetic tone. Who plays what role in a family and can one change? How do you position yourself with adult, ageing parents? What can you do with family secrets? The story is left open-ended but I liked it that way.

Camille Jourdy is the author of another graphic trilogy, Rosalie Blum, that has been made into a movie this year. I haven’t seen it, but she reminds me of Malika Ferdjoukh Four Sisters graphic novel series.

The One with the Birth of Orlando

Christine Orban, Virginia et Vita (French, 2012)

I’m getting better at stopping a book I started because I dislike it, but I’m not there yet when I am ambivalent about a book: I still want to give it a fair chance, and I always have the hope that the book will redeem itself in the end.

I was attracted to this novel by the hyped-up image of the lesbian affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. I’d known about it, but I didn’t know the details, and yes, it was probably a voyeuristic move from me to borrow this book. Similar to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf has become such a pop-culture figure in our literary world. She’s revered, not only because she wrote great novels, but because she was a rebel, she was misunderstood, she was depressed and repressed, and because she was in a close circle of equally fascinating people.

This book (that is never quite clear about which part if fiction, which part is fact, but we should probably get used to this in our era – sigh) introduced me to another Virginia. A jealous, possessive, egoist, often unlikeable Virginia. And Leonard! [deep sigh] In fact, most characters in the book are rather unlikeable, which is not really a problem if they were like that in real life, but if you tell a love story, it makes it a tough sell. We see the bitter throes of passion, but we do not see the joy of it. The gap between Vita’s upper-class standing, way of life and education, and Virginia’s middle-class situation is obvious, as is the gap between Vita’s good enough literary success and Virginia’s deeper quest for literary creation. But I missed the spark of an emotional connection.

The book gave us an intimate view on the literary creation of Orlando, and that was the best part of it, but the whole experience was sadly a bit disappointing because it was too slow and too detached. I would perhaps have been better inspired to re-read Orlando (which I read during highschool but completely misunderstood), or another Woolf novel and her biography by Hermione Lee, which I only read in part (900 pages, people!)

Have you read books on Woolf that you enjoyed?

The One with the Sadly Vicious Maid

Octave Mirbeau, Le Journal d’une Femme de Chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1900)

It’s not a good sign when you pass the 25%, then the 40% mark of a book and you don’t really know why you’re reading it, right? Well, I wanted to read a classic that I had not read in class, because there’s always a good reason that they have withstood the proverbial test of time, and after reading Belle Epoque, I was in the mood for more turn-of-the-century upstairs/downstairs drama.

Now, if upstairs/downstairs drama makes you think of Downton Abbey, think again. This is about sex (not feelings), and Célestine, the maid, is having a lot of it. It’s about hypocrisy, and Celestine is not the least of the hypocrites, even if the masters are the champions. Everybody in this book is vicious, both upstairs and downstairs. Of course, it’s a sad tale, very dark and cynical. Célestine has had an unhappy childhood, then she was trained as a maid and she got an opportunity to find a position in Paris, among bourgeois wealthy families. Bourgeois pretend to be wholesome, faithful, honest people and demand the same from their servants, but they’re mean, lying, ungenerous and vicious. The servants in turn hate and envy their masters, both when these are too strict or too lax.

The sex part is not even fun, because all the characters are such caricatures. Not only is the social criticism not very subtle (Mirbeau is rather one to underline everything twice with a yellow highlighter, if those had existed in 1900) but the political context is also important: all the evil bourgeois and servants are violently antisemitic and anti-Dreyfusards (pro-Army and pro-Catholics), in reference to the French Antisemitic scandal (l’affaire Dreyfus) that made one half of France clash against the other between 1894 and 1906. I didn’t know much about Mirbeau’s personal life or convictions before reading the book, but it is obvious that he was an anarchist. I just wished he could make his point quicker.

The One Onboard the Trans-Siberian Railway

Maylis de Kerangal, Tangente vers l’Est (French 2012)

I was determined, for once, not to let years pass before I took another Kerangal novel. After all, if I declare my love and admiration for her work, her books should bump many others on my TBR list, shouldn’t they? So when I saw this short book at the library, I jumped on it and finished it in (almost) one sitting, which is awfully rare for me.

It’s more of a novella than a novel anyway, but I was immediately sucked into Kerangal’s special style, her long sentences and inventive choice of words. The setting of the story is the Trans-Siberian Railway, this famous train line that connects Moscow to Siberia by way of Lake Baikal and many small cities in Far-Eastern Russia. The train is really a main character: we hardly leave it from page one to the end of the line, with its slow pace, days of boredom for passengers who travel for a whole week, its iconic samovar for hot water, its nasty toilets, its stops in stations where peddlers try to sell food to the passengers. Kerangal actually made the trip herself and the book was created from her experience.

As I lived in Asia, the Trans-Siberian Railway exerted its magic aura on many expats. Some French expats with no pressing business to attend to chose to return home after their stint in Asia by taking the Beijing-to-Moscow Trans-Mandchurian Railway, a variation of the Trans-Siberian. I envied them, but I’m not sure I would have been patient enough to make such a long and slow trip.

In the novella, two unlikely people meet by chance in the train. A French woman has just left her Russian lover and runs away from him, taking the opportunity to reflect on their relationship and the reasons why she came to Russia with him. A young man, almost a boy, is a conscript and the train is taking him to his military base, but he doesn’t want to go and tries to desert. Their chance encounter will impact both lives and brings a real tension in the book (I won’t spoil it here, but I hope it gets translated into English!)

Kerangal’s style is really addictive, and I can’t wait to start another one!

The One with the doomed passion in Spain

Frédéric Dard, The Executioner Weeps (Le Bourreau pleure, 1956; Eng. Pushkin Virago 2017)

I love Pushkin Press little-known European thrillers and noirs, so I was thrilled to receive the ARC through Netgalley. Yet, the story left me a bit tepid, and I remembered that I’d tried Frédéric Dard a long time ago and not found it quite my cup of “café”.

Still, it’s maybe me (or the bad timing) who’s at fault here, because it’s still a very good noir story. The narrator, Daniel Mermet, a semi-famous painter, has gone to Spain to paint alone. One night he crashes with his car into a woman. She’s hurt but not seriously, and he looks after her. The problem is that she has lost every bit of memory. The only thing Daniel knows about her is that she’s French. It doesn’t stop them from falling passionately in love. Time is suspended, but soon reality prevails. If they want to continue their love affair in France, the young woman has to get ID papers, and therefore an identity.

The premise is quite simple and thin, and yet the mystery grows by the page. As Daniel paints her beautiful model, his painting of her tells him something different from the love he feels. What is this frightening glimmer in her eye? Who is she and what is her secret?

I didn’t quite warm up to Daniel and the woman. She’s not a Femme Fatale, because she’s so passive and pitiful (or is it an illusion?). I found the amnesia and the revelatory painting a bit tricky, and without those two, the plot scaffolding starts to unravel. Yet, Frédéric Dard does a good job entertaining and titillating the reader. He was well-known for churning out cheap popular novels by the dozen. He actually wrote more than 200 novels!

On the trivia side, I was intrigued to see a French novel set in 1950s Spain, at a time where dictator Franco was ruling the country, with high level of poverty and police. Also, Daniel’s investigation brings him to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which is precisely the town we’ve moving to in less than 2 weeks!

The One with the Beating Heart

Maylis de Kerangal, Reparer les vivants (2014, English title: The Heart / Mend the Living)

Oh, how could this happen? I grumble, sigh and moan about all those books that weren’t great exactly, but when I finally read a great one, I forget to post about it? That’s exactly what happened with The Heart, which I finished in London, back in February! After Pawel Huelle’s stories, here is another post about a book that should not be forgotten.

After presenting my apologies to the book, its author and you all readers, I finally remember what stopped me from writing a post. After reading the Bridge back in 2011, I became an instant fan of Maylis de Kerangal, her unique style, her special literary project of fictional non-fiction, so I knew I would love The Heart.

And I sure did. I finished the book within two days (it was the holidays, after all). But why is it so difficult to explain why I did love it? It’s a collective book, so there’s not one main character, just dozen of them. The style is also very particular to Kerangal. Long, meandering sentences that often take the whole page or more. It’s not for everybody, but I happen to l-o-v-e it. It’s very inspiring, and then in the same breath, I know that I won’t ever be able to write as well as she does. (and I’m alright with it)

This book is about a heart. Young Simon is 21 and dies in a stupid car accident. But his young, healthy, precious heart can be saved to be transplanted to another person. Will his grief-stricken parents agree to the organ donation? Will everyone in hospitals across France be ready for the delicate intervention? Who will get Simon’s heart? Who will take care of Simon’s heart at every step of this process? It’s literally a question of life and death (no pun here) and the plot, although linear, is full of suspense.

More than the plot itself, the structure of the book is interesting, where the movement of death and the movement of life cross each other without fully extinguishing the other. Not only do we feel for the characters, all of them in their uniqueness and individuality: we learn (left-brain) about the surgeon’s secret dreams, the mother’s past, the nurse’s lover, the coordinator’s passion for music.  But we also learn (right-brain) about what it takes for a transplant to work and how organ donation is organized in France. All the way, the language adds beauty and depth, and helps the reader follow the fast pace of the book, that replicates the pace of a beating heart.

Exceptional.