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?

The One with the Disappeared Girl’s Secrets

Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder (French 1997, English 1999)

It’s not the first Modiano I get to read, but I can safely say that it’s the best one (so far?). I’m glad that I started with some other of his books to get used to his very peculiar writing style, the slowness, the melancholy, the meandering, repetitive walks through Paris. All these elements are present in Dora Bruder, but they take it to a higher level and take a whole new meaning.

Other books were more clearly fictions, interwoven with the narrator’s voice which may – or may not be – Modiano’s himself. So whenever we readers were made to walk through Paris and reflect about the past of a particular address, it sometimes felt artificial, as the whole genealogy of a building, or the anecdotes about a street or a neighborhood in Paris might all be fictional. But in Dora Bruder, Modiano is looking for a real young girl who lived in Paris. And his quest for information all across town, so difficult and fragmented, fully justifies the meandering and repetitive pace of the book.

Modiano discovers Dora Bruder while reading an old newspaper from 1941. Dora Bruder’s parents have put a classified ad in the newspaper to inquire about their daughter’s disappearance. She is 15 (as described in the ad) and Jewish (which is not apparent). Dora is totally unknown to Modiano but his curiosity is awakened and he investigates. He sees parallels between Dora’s life and his own father’s, who also survived as a Jew in Paris by hiding and doing illegal activities. Dora’s parents, both from Eastern Europe, live in a room in a poor Paris neighborhood and work small jobs. They are not in hiding and must wear the infamous yellow star. They have sent their daughter to a Catholic boarding school, but Dora runs away several times (which is when her desperate parents put the ad), and at one point, she is arrested by the police who will identify her as Jewish and send her to the Nazi camps where she is killed, in Auschwitz in 1942.

Modiano is on a quest to know all there is to know about Dora’s life (which is not much), and he also wonders about what she saw and felt, if only by citing how cold or rainy one particular day was, but she remains a ghost. He doesn’t put words in her mouth and doesn’t speculate about psychological reasons why she ran away. It is a mix between a biography and an autobiography, as he tells us about his emotions during his investigations and his memories linked to his childhood in the 1960s and his father.

It is a richly layered book set on bare-bones facts (what could be smaller than a few lines of a classified ad in a newspaper?), and it can move you to tears with melancholy and tragedy. It’s not surprising that this book has been assigned to all high-school students in France. They must write essays about it and some even have exams on it, but I hope they can still perceive the full emotional and historical value of this wonderful book.

The One with the Devon Island’s Guests

Pierre Bayard, La Vérité sur Les dix petits nègres (2019)

Let’s start with the totally inappropriate use of the N word as the title of this book. It refers to Agatha Christie’s bestselling mystery “And then there were none”, which was originally published as 1939 as “Ten Little Niggers” in the UK, as the killing of 10 guests on a deserted Devon island is based on an eponymous British (or American) nursery rhyme. It is interesting to note that right from the start it was published in the US under the title “And then there were none”, because it was offensive, and the rest of the world has been catching up ever since. This title has finally been recognized as unsavory (to say the least) by the mid-80s in the UK, and the outrage has just arrived recently to the shores of France (which is often very reactionary in this area, sadly), so that most French people have only heard of this book under the N- word title.

I have been on a Pierre Bayard binge ever since I was reminded of his existence by a recent podcast. (I had read him first in the post-baby haze, a billion years ago). So I had to borrow everything from Bayard that my library had, and then I had to order some more (2 titles should actually be coming in the post soon). Bayard is a professor of literature and a psychoanalyst. He is influenced by structuralists but don’t be intimidated by his pedigree: reading his books is actually a lot of fun!

The book is told by an unnamed narrator who plays with us readers. He starts by complaining that Agatha Christie didn’t bring the right solution to this mystery and prides himself of having committed the perfect crime. He also insists that he doesn’t even want to tell us if he’s male or female so all the sentences use s/he or his/her. After summing up the main events as told in Christie’s book, he explains why the traditional resolution is not the real one. And then he ends up explaining his own version.

Of course, if you want to go along with this book, you have to be comfortable with the idea that books characters have a life of their own outside of the pages. Which is what Bayard calls integrationism (structuralist theoreticians have created a language of their own), as opposed to Bayard’s segregationists who believe that characters are purely limited to what their creator has written down. As a writer of several short stories I am actually quite the integrationist, even before being aware of it!

It’s the perfect book for Christie’s readers who like to play amateur detectives. Christie herself said that all the elements of the solution were present in her books, but I don’t know how she would have reacted to Bayard’s books. Of course, you need to have read the original novel first, but beware, Bayard is very liberal with spoilers of other Christie’s books too.

The One with the Blue-Blood Runaway

Jean-Christophe Portes, La Disparue de Saint Maur (2017)

I’m still grieving for Nicolas Le Floch’s interrupted series after the passing of his author Jean-François Parot in 2018. But this series is a serious contender to be the next best thing when it comes to mysteries set at the end of the 18th century. Le Floch’s last mystery was set in 1787, two short years before the start of the French Revolution. Jean-Christophe Portes’ mysteries start in 1791, with the “Mystère des Corps sans Tête”, and this one, the third in the series, is set in the winter of this same year. Two years have passed since the beginning of the Revolution and already the enthusiasm and idealism of the first events have been replaced by more cynical strategies. Nothing is black and white anymore. Some want the war with the neighboring countries, some find it a folly and while some want to make good business out of it, others are manipulated by British spies. Catholic convents and monasteries have lost their privileges, and while some of them were nothing more than prisons for young women, it also means that unscrupulous businessmen can throw the nuns out and buy lands and buildings dirt cheap.

Dauterive is called to the suburbs of Paris to investigate a missing young woman, but the family isn’t keen to help. Local aristocrats, yet very poor, with two unmarried daughters still at home in their 30s, they keep away from the villagers and don’t want a policeman from the new regime to poke around. After one week they are ready to consider their daughter dead. Dauterive finds it very suspicious, but he soon has to abandon his investigation, as his mentor and master La Fayette sets him on another mission. He is to go to London to confirm a suspicion that the future Mayor of Paris would be a British intelligence asset. The trip to London proves a lot more dangerous than expected, and while Dauterive’s life is at stake, his friend Olympe de Gouges is taking up the investigation on the young runaway.

I really enjoyed the detailed atmosphere of Paris during the Revolution. It helps if you have some ideas about the general events of the period, but Dauterive, as a young and rather naive (increasingly less so) bystander, serves as a witness and participant to the historical events and he also shares his private interrogations. I’m not a specialist of the period but it feels really true, down to smells, clothes and architecture details. (Compared to Parot, Portes seems less inclined to detail whatever the characters had to eat 😉). Portes, just like Parot, likes to mix facts with fiction, and there’s an useful postface to the novel that helps distinguish the two for those who are so inclined.

I had some reservations in mixing two plot lines that are so radically different within the same book (the London trip is really a spy thriller, and the missing woman takes more of a socio-political drama mixed with a classic whodunit intrigue). But it works somehow and the pacing is good, so that it’s a real page turner! This book was part of my January selection for the Unread Shelf challence, because I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed. I really look forward to reading the next one in the series.