Claude Izner, The Montmartre Investigation (2003)

Original Title: Le Carrefour des écrasés

I’m sure there’s a saying like “doing the same mistake over and over is stupid”, but I can’t find it. I had read (or tried to read) a Claude Izner a (very) long time ago and I had not enjoyed it, to the point that I hadn’t finished it. (But as I almost never post about DNF on this blog, I couldn’t remember exactly). I came across this old yellowing paperback in a little free library booth of my neighborhood earlier this year, when the lock-down made me a little crazy about the risk of running out of books (as if? 🙄). Surely the name Claude Izner reminded me of something, but I didn’t know what, and a historical mystery set in Paris in 1891 was just so tempting…

I found it very cute to learn that Claude Izner is actually the pen name for two sisters who work together for this mystery series. And the period is also very appealing to me, all the more as I recently started watching a (very dark) series called “Paris Police 1900“, set less than 10 years after the Montmartre investigation. The Montmartre investigation takes place, well… in Montmartre, with the Moulin Rouge, the artists and dancers and prostitutes rubbing shoulders with aristocrats… I enjoyed the sense of place and time of the book, and it is obviously very good with history and research.

Alas, the book did not work with me at all. First, this is the third book in the series, but there are way too many references to past volumes to be read as a standalone. I could not really get interested in Victor Legris and his friends. I was annoyed by the way he treated his girlfriend, and his shop assistant, and… basically everyone. I didn’t find him very clever and much of the progress in the investigation is just a matter of luck and circumstances. The plot itself seemed far-fetched and plain… weird. It was a lot more fun to learn about daily life in Paris in that period.

If you’re not afraid of very dark series, I’d recommend you skip the books and try the TV series instead. As for me, I will make an effort to remember not to try another Claude Izner. To make the same mistake thrice would be even worse.

J.C. Renoux, The Art of Telling Stories (2005)

L’art de conter: la pratique et le répertoire du conteur

I borrowed this book on a whim at the library and it was like an Internet rabbit hole, but on paper, which is way more cool in my perspective. I don’t even know where to start for my American readers, but perhaps I should explain the title of the book and it would make its purpose clearer.

“Conte” in French is more ancient than stories, it could be translated as fairy tales but the fairies are not always present. We include myths, legends, folktales from the antiquity to the contemporary period. And “conteur” is a professional storyteller. How does one make a living being a storyteller in France, you may ask? One tours the libraries and try to get subsidized to run community projects at primary schools (schools in France start at 3, the perfect age for hearing stories) or in family-friendly fairs. I’ve taken my kids to such performances, indoors and outdoors, and I love them. (I suspect that it is really tough making good money on this line of business, don’t idealize it…)

The author of this book is such a professional, operating in the South of France (which has a long oral tradition) and he insists that his art is not like an actor’s (although I do think that the ones I saw were probably actors of street theater doing this as a side gig). The storyteller works with existing myths and he knows about the structure of traditional tales, but he can use these tools to create new stories on his own or with kids.

This is where Renoux pushed me hard down into the rabbit hole: there were pages about the structure of myths and the categorization of stories done by 20C researchers. I learnt quite a bit about the Aarne Thompson index, which literally blew my mind… (inserted several hours into Wikipedia) I knew that people had collected stories, but I had no idea that people had indexed them! (I have never studied anthropology or sociology but those domains fascinate me). Apparently when a storyteller is pitching a performance to customers, he refers to this index (is that for real? I have a hard time imagining the job interview: “are you doing mostly ATU 300? We were looking for ATU 100 or 200 at most…” Or maybe that’s the way it goes?).

The book also showcases a few tales by Renoux or others (and how they fit into one or several categories of the ATU index), and some stories that he created together with some classes.

I had to give the book back early to the library because of our summer trip but I’ll dig in deeper coming fall. It also interests me as a writer, to be able to recognize patterns (one would say tropes? or is it differen?) and structures in traditional stories. In the past I have invented many stories at bedtime for my sons (often because we had finished all the available books) and I know for a fact that it’s not so easy to find a satisfactory pace and balance in a story even if you have the “right” ingredients (the prince, the dragon and the evil witch…).

Pierre Bayard, Aurais-je été résistant ou bourreau ? (2013)

Would I have been a member of Resistance or a henchman? (French, no English translation)

I continue my explorations of Pierre Bayard’s unconventional non-fiction books. In this one, he tries to answer in the most rational way (shall I say scientific?) the question that everyone (?) has wondered when watching movies about WW2: what would I have done if I had lived at that period? I always find it way too convenient and optimistic when people assume they would of course have done the “right thing” and joined the Resistance. Indeed, hindsight is always 20:20. But in reality? I personally do believe most people are in the middle and wait it out.

Pierre Bayard creates an alternate life for himself where he would have been born in the 1920s rather than after the war. He models some of his options on his father’s and assumes he would have fled to the south of France at the start of the war like so many people. He doesn’t see himself as having enough convictions and awareness to join De Gaulle in London in 1940. He also highlights how luck played a decisive role in many people joining the early Resistance. Sometimes doing what now is “the right thing” was just crazy. Sometimes it was totally out of character for those who did it. He rather guesses that he would have followed his studies in a similar way that he did in his real life, but would the Nazi regime and the French collaborationists have made him angry enough to actually do something?

Along the way he cites the Milgram experiment, the French village of Chambon-sur-Lignon that saved many Jews during the war as well as the most recent genocides where a few dissenting voices rose to defend the victims: Rwanda and Yugoslavian war. I expected those examples but they still taught me many things in trying to find a common thread among those few courageous people (many of which refuse to consider themselves as heroes). Bayard also refer to Louis Malle’s movie “Lacombe Lucien” (the script was written by Modiano, which I didn’t know), where a man turns into a collaborationist just through an unfortunate random event.

If you come to the book expecting a clear-cut answer to the title question, you might be disappointed. The path that Bayard imagines for himself is rather weak and average, not glorious nor infamous, but it is statistically possible, I’ll grant him that. He explains that from 1943 Resistance gained much more traction as people calculated that the odds of the Nazis winning the war were now really low, which explains a lot (even if it didn’t make resisting the Nazis any less dangerous)

The book’s intention is laudable, but I still believe that you can’t know how you’d react by thinking about it rationally and abstractly like Bayard does. Like 2020 showed us, you can’t tell how you’d react to a global pandemic before living through one every day for more than a year (and WW2 was 6 years long!). The friends or neighbors who took risks, the first ones who wore masks, the ones who were prudent at first but then who could bear another round of confinement, the ones who confessed that they’d washed down all the groceries and the ones who couldn’t be bothered, the ones who cheated to get the vaccines first and the ones who waited until the last minute… They were certainly not the ones I’d expected. I can also say that I’m rubbish at reading people or that I didn’t know them intimately enough, but I still wonder if 2020 would make Pierre Bayard think twice about his book’s theories.

Well, what about writing an alternate version to Pierre Bayard’s alternate life? 😜

Nathalie Léger, Suite for Barbara Loden

Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden (French 2012, English 2015)

I discovered Nathalie Léger thanks to Rebeccah Hussey’s newsletter and I loved the first book I tried well enough to want to try another of her “trilogy”. I can’t say that I fell in love with her books, because these are not so easy to love, and they are clearly out of my usual comfort zone, but I found in them something very original and a subtlety of feelings that made me want to dig deeper. Both are short and non-fiction and utterly difficult to classify.

The White Dress was about a performance artist. This book is about another visual artist, an American filmmaker who was also an actress and the wife of Elia Kazan. I had not heard of her before this book, and although her husband’s name and movies’ names are familiar to me, I haven’t watched them myself. Barbara Loden has made a very unique film, Wanda, which is about a woman who is drifting away. In Léger’s book it is sometimes difficult to separate Wanda from Barbara Loden, and also from Nathalie Léger herself.

Just as the previous book, the story is meandering and fragmentary. Léger is given the job to write a biographical notice about Barbara Loden for a film encyclopedia, something brief and to the point, and she finds it unable to achieve this goal. To describe the life of any individual in a few sentences is an impossible task. Instead she dives deep into the tenuous traces of Loden’s life, the few memories gathered here and there from people who knew her (some refuse to talk altogether). So Léger obsessively watches Loden’s movie Wanda, with the hope to understand the woman behind it. The movie, starring Loden as the main character, is based on real events, where a woman participated against her will to a bank robbery.

The tone of the book is melancholy. Wanda is helpless and unloved, she follows a tragic path on her own, she’s not the strong heroine that we would love to see. Barbara Loden will make only one movie in her life, will not meet success and recognition, and will die of cancer in 1980. Ultimately it is about loneliness and freedom, but it is still mysterious to me what Léger wanted to achieve with this series of books. We also get to read a bit more about Léger’s mother and her disastrous marriage and divorce. I still preferred the book White Dress because I felt more connected with both the narrator and the subject than in this book. I guess my reaction would have been different if I had watched the movie itself. I will gladly read the third book about yet another female artist: the Countess of Castiglione.

Alexandre Dumas, Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge (1845)

I have had this book in my Kindle since… forever. When my son was discouraged to progress into The Three Musketeers, I switched to this one in May to read a classics while waiting for his energy to return (i.e. the school holidays). Really, it’s a bit of a historical love story set during the Terror. Which is to say, it doesn’t bear well for the characters.

The weirdest thing about this book is that the Knight of Maison-Rouge is far from the main character in this story. We have the courageous and chivalrous Maurice, who sides with the Republicans (for liberties and against the monarchy). As his path crosses with a mysterious young woman who has ventured outside after curfew and who needs a savior, his passion for the Republic pales in favor of… love. He neglects his duties and searches everywhere for the beautiful stranger. We have Genevieve, the young woman, who happens to be married, and to harbor more secrets than would be safe in that period. We have the Queen Marie-Antoinette, who waits in prison with her children for her fate to be sealed. The novel takes place after the beheading of King Louis 16th, so it doesn’t look good. But the knight himself? Parisians have heard of him as one of the most daring Royalists who will try everything to free the bereaved queen, but noone knows what he looks like. He’s very much a character in the background.

How can Maurice be so naive that he doesn’t understand that he has been embroiled in a Royalist plot? That’s a bit of a stretch… Genevieve is a bit of a cardboard heroine who cries a lot. But much can be excused in the name of love. Really, I staid because of the twists and the suspense. I don’t think that Dumas could have managed an alternate version of history where Marie-Antoinette would have managed to escape, but I must say that I still hoped. It’s very much melodramatic, especially the ending (you’ll need tissues). I loved Maurice’s best friend Lorin. That said, it doesn’t reach the level of the Three Musketeers (which we have now returned to).

It was interesting to see Paris alive under the Terror. This historical period is so complex and troubled that most history manuals focus on the struggles at the top of the government and at the frontiers, but what did it mean to live and love during this period? It made me want to read some new mystery with Victor Dauterive also set during the Revolution.

The One with the Artist Bride

Nathalie Leger, La robe blanche (French, 2018; English Title: The White Dress, 2020)

I first heard of this writer and this book from Reading Indie’s newsletter, and I was sort of piqued that I’d never even heard of a French writer.

The White Dress is the sort of book that resists categorization. It’s probably an essay, although it could also be a novel intercepted with real facts. The narrator may be Nathalie Léger herself but I can’t say for sure, even though I will assume so in this post. She hears about the artist Pippa Bacca through the news and becomes obsessed with her. Pippa Bacca is a young performance artist, who left her native Italy in early 2008 wearing a bride’s white gown to travel across Europe depending on people hospitality and kindness. It was an artistic gesture of hope and trust, trying to meet people along the road from Italy to Jerusalem crossing the Balkans (just a few year after a terrible war) and Turkey. She hitch-hiked from place to place, and wherever she stopped, she met with local people and midwives and explained her artistic endeavor for peace, filming herself to document her trip.

Unfortunately, after a few months, Pippa Bacca meets a tragic death in Turkey, raped and murdered by a man who has taken her for a ride. Her idealist quest for peace has ended in senseless violence. Even worse, the murderer stole her video camera and filmed the wedding of one of his own relatives. It is both shocking and senseless, and Nathalie Léger never tries to give definite answers to all the questions that this event raises. What was Pippa trying to demonstrate? What about this wedding dress? Was she naive, religious or something else? Léger refers to a lot of other female performance artists and interrogates what is performance art and what are female artists attempting with these quests. I am personally fascinated by Marina Abramovic‘s performances, and I am aware that for most of these pieces, artists don’t provide a ready-made explanation of what they want to do, so as a reader you’re left with the mystery, even more so as Pippa is no longer alive.

The book has a second story line about the narrator’s own mother and her attempt to come to terms with a fault divorce. Léger’s father sued her mother for divorce, humiliating her publicly, and she never could defend herself. Along the book, we see the daughter and the mother getting closer to one another. It’s a bit confusing at first because the two lines of the book are apparently nothing to do with each other, but when I finished the book I could see it as an exploration of different aspects of violence against women.

I really enjoyed this book, even though it is very different from what I’m used to read. I find similarities with Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder, which is a personal inquiry into a real person, dead a long time ago, and how mysterious the life of others can remain despite our attempts. The White Dress is a part of a trilogy; I look forward to read the two other parts.

PS. The White Dress is available in English from the Dorothy Project, as are the two other books in the trilogy.

The One with the Feminist Radical Humor

Nicole-Lise Bernheim, Mersonne ne m’aime (French, 1978)

I have wondered if I should mention this book in this blog, and if so, how. It is not that this book presents anything remotely shameful, on the contrary. But it is completely, fully untranslatable, and if I attempt to explain how funny it is, I will get lost in a flurry of explanations that will be completely un-funny. This book is quintessentially French, and will surely never be translated into English. Anyway, here am I.

This book found its way into my husband’s hands in mysterious ways, as he has very eclectic reading tastes. He then had a good laugh and put it on my nightstand as soon as he’d finished it. It reminds me of another great parody mystery set in the 1970s, The seventh function of language by Laurent Binet, but the difference is that Binet’s book was published in 2015, while this one was published in the late 1970s. Far from being nostalgic, it really speaks of contemporary trends and characters and makes fun of them. I don’t think it was a huge bestseller at the time and now only few copies are still to be found.

Set in Paris in the 1970s, it is a feminist humorous sketch, in a domain that often takes itself very, very seriously. It portrays famous feminist figures and organizations, and it makes fun of it with endless puns and silly situations. Simone de Beauvoir is here renamed Brigitte de Savoir (meaning “knowledge”), the structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault makes a cameo as Foulcan (Get-the-F-out), etc. Even more sacrilegious, the book starts with the murder of said Brigitte de Savoir, whose lifeless body is discovered by a lowly female traffic warden who wanted to issue a ticket on her car.

Beyond name dropping of famous 1970s figures that have or have not remained famous nowadays, the book is not so much about a traditional mystery plot but about playing with words. Any word containing a reference to the patriarchy is replaced by a feminine equivalent. As you may know “père” in French means “father”, but “per” is a very common syllable, to be found in “person” for example. The title itself is a transformation from father to mother in the sentence “no per-son loves me”. The reading experience is not very fluid, but it is indeed memorable.

Last week, I listened to a Radiolab podcast episode about Facebook’s “Supreme court” that would give an advice on what is acceptable or not. Humor, especially when it addresses the topic of gender, is often challenged in those instances, because what one person finds funny may not be another person’s tastes. In my opinion, this book is very daring in its humor, but also radically feminist and completely respectful, a rare combination when it comes to sensitive topics.

The One with the Traitor’s Turmoil

Patrick Modiano, La Ronde de Nuit (The night watch, 1969)

I’m not sure it was the best decision to read this book so soon after Dora Bruder, which I had totally loved. This one pales in comparison, but really, it’s not bad at all. It is fiction, and it is unsettling because it’s not linear and it’s hard to find your bearing at first. It’s short (150 pages), but the first third of the book is a whirlwind of people and scenes and snippets of conversation, that seem to make no sense at all. I understand that some readers might be put off by this, especially as characters are not of the likeable kind. They are shady characters, thugs, corrupt ex-policemen, prostitutes, con men, and all have a very unpleasant common point: they’re friendly with the Nazi forces occupying France, because they are the real winners of the French debacle. They steal, they live in rich villas whose owners have fled, they do black-market and gorge themselves with high class alcohol or food that aren’t accessible legally. This book is really the mirror view of Dora Bruder, and what it shows is not pretty.

I had indeed chosen this book at the library because it is set in the same historical period (the war is one of the common themes of many of Modiano’s books anyway), but it surprised me to see that it was published in 1969, almost two decades before Dora Bruder. It is very clearly fiction, but as in other Modiano’s works real places in Paris are very important. I learnt in between that this is the second book published by Modiano and that he later worked as co-writer for the movie “Lacombe Lucien”, which has a similar story of a traitor during Second world war.

I have been watching a few classic movies lately about the Second world war: Mr. Klein (1976) by Joseph Losey, about a shady art dealer who is mistaken for a hunted Jew, and L’Armée des ombres (1969) by Jean-Pierre Melville, about ordinary French members of the Resistance, and how traitors and doubts were with them every step of the way. Modiano’s book, which is highly atmospheric and almost like a trance, was a good complement to those movies, and I intend to continue with this theme, as I bought Pierre Bayard’s book: Would I have been a résistant or an executioner?

The French title “La Ronde de nuit” has many meanings. The English title chose “The Night watch”, just like the famous Dutch painting by Rembrandt, and it’s true that the thugs that help the Gestapo and hunt Resistance members are mostly active by night, cruising the dark and empty streets of Paris to make suspects “disappear”. (There are haunting scenes in Mr. Klein about this). But “Ronde” in French is also a round dance, like the kind small kids play and sing in the courtyards with nursery rhymes. The first part of the book replicates the whirlwind of a waltz, and the repetitive, obsessive rhythm of a merry-go-round, one that would be anything but childish and innocent. The narrator is like in a nightmare, and the writing is particularly effective, but also dizzying to the reader who is suddenly thrown among dangerous strangers and in shady situations one doesn’t quite understand.

The narrator might be fictional, but among his bleak friends I recognized one name at the end of the book: Léon Sadorski, which I’d discovered in an eponymous noir thriller. Sadorski, for one, was a real corrupt and collaborator police inspector during the war, so it gave me second thoughts about everything I’d thought as fictional in the rest of the book. I normally enjoy when books speak to one another, but this coincidence is rather chilling!

The One with the Oyster Attraction

Georges Simenon, Maigret Goes to School (1954)

Last time I wrote about choosing a book for all the wrong reasons (well, not exactly wrong, but shallow at best), and today I want to tell about this weird investigation that Maigret chooses for all the shallowest reasons. It is spring in Paris (a timely book if any!), the temperatures are up, the birds are chirping, and Maigret wants to take some fresh air. He stops on his way to the police quarters to have a drink, and when he comes back, a weird guy waits for him in the waiting area. A poor guy who has run from home in rural France, taken the last train to Paris, not slept a wink the whole night in order to appeal to the famous Commissaire Maigret: only Maigret would save him, because all the villagers are convinced that he committed a murder and the local police won’t listen to him.

In truth Maigret doesn’t really care for the man, who isn’t really convincing or fascinating, but the suspicious death of a retired postmistress is set in a small village near the sea, and because Maigret remembers he had excellent oysters and white wine there, he takes a few days off to look into the case. When he arrives on site, he learns that the postmistress was universally hated because she was a gossip and a blackmailer, but that the local community hates even more the teacher who has arrived from Paris in disgrace and doesn’t fit into this village of wine merchants, farmers and tradesmen.

I tend to prefer Maigret stories set in Paris, but Simenon is also very good when describing tight-knit villages and the boredom and gossip there. I really enjoyed the slow methods of Maigret, and the care he takes to interrogate the kids who were in class at the time of the murder. The teacher got out for some admin duties just then and the kids were doing anything but studying, including looking outside… but there are as many lies as witness accounts.

As a 2021 reader I was rather shocked by the amount of alcohol that is consumed almost on every page. From morning till night, every time someone has to tell Maigret any secret, they do it sharing a glass of wine, a shot of strong spirit or even some alcohol-laced coffee. I’m just surprised that Maigret can discover the truth and not get to bed with a massive hungover. There’s a running joke about those coveted oysters and white wine that decided Maigret to take up the case: because of neap tide, he won’t even have any for the whole duration of the investigation!

Unread Shelf Challenge March Update

Sorry to hit you with the bad news first, there might be something like “reading challenge fatigue” just like Zoom fatigue or Covid fatigue. I’m not feeling so inspired by the challenge and the prompts. Don’t worry, I still want to stick to it because frankly, why buy books and let them gather dust on our (very small by US standards) home? Objectively I didn’t fare all that bad in February. I had picked 2 books I got for free. I read one of them fully (review soon), and I skimmed the other.

“Le Mystère Sherlock” by J.M. Erre is a laugh-out-loud kind of book, with OTT situations and zany characters all around. In a Swiss hotel called “Baker Street” is held a university convention of the top French Sherlock Holmes specialists. They have been all invited by the senior head of the university department who will designate his successor among the guests. But when the novel starts, a snow avalanche has been blocking all access, and when the firefighters get into the hotel, they discover all 10 guests dead.

Of course, this is a parody of Christie’s “And there were none”. We know what to expect from the start. It was fine to begin with, but the humor was a bit too much for me. A bit too… schoolboyish, even by French standards. I have already mentioned that humor books are a tough sell for me, and this one proved no different. I could take it in small quantities, but not for 300+ pages. The book is full of puns and jokes, and witty remarks on Sherlock Holmes fandom and university, but after a while it was bit repetitive, and each voice of the characters (who take turn to tell the story) was not very different from the others. I skimmed the second half of the book and I felt content with just that.

What about March? Whitney invites us to some (much-dreamed-about) travelling, she wants us to read a book we bought on a trip. Oh my, it made me so nostalgic about travel! I haven’t been traveling much or at all for more than one year, and the last book I bought on this last trip has been read and accounted for a while back. In the last few years I have purchased fewer books during our trips because either we didn’t find any bookshop in the small towns we went, or I had packed a full Kindle and I didn’t need any new reading material during our trip. With two kids and often no car, we have to keep our bags quite compact and paper books are a bit too cumbersome.

So, Whitney’s challenge left me in a quandary, and I decided to partially respect the prompt, and to ad-lib the rest: if she wants us to travel, I’d choose a book with a faraway destination. Here’s what I choose:

Maigret Goes to School by Georges Simenon, which is a book I bought on a whim last summer while we were visiting my parents on a socially distanced basis (and we were on a road trip to be independent, so no luggage worry, therefore the impulse purchase). It was one of these books you get for free when you buy a magazine, and Simenon always seemed like a good idea. Of course I haven’t even cracked the spine open yet. After Fécamp, where will Simenon take me this time?

My second book is Midnight in Peking, by Paul French, a book which sat on my wishlist for quite a while, since 2015 actually, and which I recently bought (more about that later). Peking in 1937 seems distant enough in time and geography to make me forget for a while our own present troubled times. The subtitle runs: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. I’m quite ready to be haunted!

Do you enjoy buying books while on a trip? (Remember trips?) What faraway destination do you like reading about?