Laurent Gaudé, Le Soleil des Scorta (The House of Scorta, French 2004)

I have discovered Laurent Gaudé with a mythological story centered on Alexander the great, “Pour Seul Cortège”. I was fascinated by his style, a poetic, rhythmic chant that immediately elevates the story to the level of the tragedy (it’s no coincidence that Gaudé also writes for the theater). In French, we say that this style “has breath”, because you can immediately imagine someone on stage reciting such an epic poem. If it withers away, short of breath, the story soon falls flat.

I wondered how it fared with a more prosaic story, or at last with a story closer to our times. The House of Scorta (English title, whereas the original title centers on the sun) is the saga of a southern Italian family set in the Puglia over five generations from the end of the 19th century. The family is dirt poor, their origin infamous, a ruffian just out of prison mistaking an old maid for the woman he used to love. The main characters are his grandchildren, Carmella and her three brothers. After trying their luck in America, they come back and set up a cigarette smuggling business in their hometown.

Yes, it “had breath”. The story is full of sun, of heat and dust. The style was straightforward and full of images, not a word too many. As with the previous book, we soon feel that Gaudé aims at something larger  than life, something like destiny.

I had some problem with this story, but as the book won the Goncourt prize I tend to think it’s my problem and not really the book’s. I couldn’t really empathize with the Scortas, because all these notions of “blood is thicker than water”, “the family is more important”, “you can’t get far away from your ancestors sacred soil” are totally foreign to me. On my family people move, go to new places, start anew elsewhere, reinvent themselves. The Scortas, in the other hand, stay put. I don’t say it’s unbelievable, or wrong. Gaudé makes a well written saga out of it, and I enjoyed it, but it just doesn’t resonate with me. Sometimes his powerful style won me over, but at times I felt like there were too many Italian clichés.

Nevertheless, I will certainly read other novels by Gaudé.

Jean-François Parot, L’honneur de Sartine (French, 2010)

It feels weird for me to log into this place and write a post about a book (delightful, I hasten to add) as if nothing happened. I am still in shock that in my own city journalists and cartoonists were killed just because some extremists didn’t like their political cartoons. I have never bought Charlie Hebdo myself, but I looked at their weekly covers placated everywhere and I smiled at their provocative courage. They were unafraid to address every uncomfortable or controversial subject and try to make people laugh with their cartoons. They weren’t afraid, but they paid it with their lives. Freedom of expression seems easier and more accessible than ever before (just think about blogging!) and yet so challenged and endangered.

I urge you, in this period where we all make resolutions and reading plans, to not shy away from controversial books this year, and to use our freedom of expression to blog wisely and courageously.

***

This Nicolas Le Floch mystery is set in Paris in 1780. It starts when the population gets angry about disruptions due to overflowing cemeteries located at the center of the city (not only a sensory nuisance, but a real health hazard, as I read on a similar issue in the history of Victorian London by Judith Flanders). Paris population is prone to sudden flares of temper, and the 1780s French society is dancing on the brink of disaster.

After returning the peace to the streets of Paris, Le Floch is called to investigate the death of a former Navy bigwig, killed by the fall of his canopy bed (one danger we no longer need to worry about). It soon appears that the death wasn’t just accidental, and that the victim was at the heart of a state secret involving Le Floch’s former boss and current Navy State Secretary, Sartine. The victim had in his room a document that could endanger the Secretary’ position and honnor, but the whole French Kingdom in its war against England. But he also had no shortage of enemy in his own family, as they all eagerly awaited his inheritance.

The more I read by Parot, the more I love his mysteries. It doesn’t matter if I don’t read them in order (this one is the 9th, coming before the Russian investigation). The pleasure and comfort come from reuniting with familiar characters once again and see what happens to them and how they interact. Parot’s characters have depth and subtle ambiguities, there are almost too many of them. They also evolve and grow over the course of the series. I also love the language, a very successful imitation of the French that was used at the time, and I love about Paris, everyday life and food then, rendered in vivid details! I listened to this book in audio version, and I must confess that the plot was a tad too complex and full of twists and turns for me to register every detail without the possibility to flip back a few pages sometimes. But I happily got along and will certainly follow Nicolas Le Floch in about any adventure.

The added pleasure of reading this series is the parallel that we can draw to our contemporary era. France in 1780 was running close to bankruptcy, and everybody knows about the sorry state of the economy in Europe these days. Some advocated austerity, in 1780 (Necker) as in 2015, others want to spend and invest in order to reap future benefits. Some want to introduce reforms, some cling to their privileges. The comparison is uncanny, especially as we have the hindsight of what was coming ahead.

Laetitia Le Guay, Prokofiev (2012)

All is quiet and well over here, and we’ve just finished the lovely traditional chocolate “log” (the French bûche de Noël) and while the kids are playing with their new toys, I am trying to close the year without forgetting books finished recently.

This book actually was a result of a misunderstanding: my husband bought it to me believing that Prokofiev was one of my favorite composers, when I actually know very little of his music, but enjoy a lot more of his Soviet almost-contemporary “colleagues”, Khachaturian and Shostakovich.

So I found myself in the very strange position to read the biography of a man I didn’t care much about. The main reference I know Prokofiev by is Peter and the Wolf, which music teachers made me learn almost by heart. Needless to say, I’m not overly fond of it now, although I recognize its pedagogical value.

Why did I pick the book up at all? You’d wonder. (A practical precision: in France you can’t return a book at the bookshop even if it’s a mistake.) But after all, I am interested in the period, so why not? (I’ll spare you the trip to Wikipedia and the calculation, always difficult after a big dinner: Prokofiev’s dates are 1891-1953, which means that he was 26 at the Bolshevik revolution, and that he died the same year as Stalin, indeed the same very day)

I wanted to learn how a man not mainly involved or even interested in politics could live through so many upheavals just by being born in Russia: two world wars, a revolution and a totalitarian dictatorship. Of course, Prokofiev is not the ordinary man, but I have always been wondering about people swept by larger-than-life events, and it  The result was rather disturbing, because Prokofiev was so full of his own genius and so immersed in music that he could live through all this without many personal disturbances. All his life choices were dictated by music, even in a dictatorship (don’t expect high-level puns on Christmas day).

All he cared about was that his music was played and applauded, and I had a hard time commiserate with his fate. At the fall of Czar Nicholas II in 1917, Prokofiev took refuge in the Caucasus to continue writing in peace. Later, even if he was sympathetic to progressive ideas, he was afraid of Bolshevik censorship and decided to follow Stravinsky into exile, more for the sake of having time to compose rather than by ideology. In the early 1930s, being tired of exile and not as well received as expected, he listened to Stalin sirens who through pressures and material offers (a position, a dacha, a car…) tried to entice the respected composer back to the motherland. Of course we know it was a trap, but I wonder how much it was possible to guess at the time. He became a permanent resident in Moscow in 1936, but he soon fell prey of the paranoid atmosphere of suspicion, censorship (his style was soon deemed too “bourgeois”), political purges and desperate attempts to please the great leader.

Without listening to his music, it was difficult to find Prokofiev admirable. He comes out as arrogant and cold to anything other than music. All the more after he and his wife Lina who seemed to regret the Western free world drifted apart and after he left her with his two sons for a much younger woman. In 1948 Lina was arrested and sent to prison, and apparently Prokofiev did little to help her out (it might have been too dangerous or difficult for him to, anyway).

I read this book quite quickly and I regretted not learning more about his wife, as this book is very centred on musical analysis. Apparently there’s a good book about Lina, called “Lina and Serge” by Simon Morrison (reviewed here). Have anyone read it?

My next move was to pick up Into The Whirlwind, a memoir of the life in Gulag under Stalin by Evgenia Ginzburg, a recent Persephone republication. Can you see a trend starting here?

Jean-Paul Kauffmann, The Black Room at Longwood, Napoleon’s Exile at Saint Helena (French, 1997)

To be frank, I’d never have even opened this book if a dear friend hadn’t sent it directly onto my Kindle while demonstrating how to use e-books.

I’m no big fan of Napoleon. Actually, I don’t know much about Napoleon, having managed to skip every class on this particular period of European/French history. Napoleon was reduced to basics, insisting on the modernization of French state before disapproving the folly of wandering towards Europe’s Russian outposts.

The sentence “Napoleon was sent to exile at Saint Helena” made us laugh and not think twice.

You see, there’s a nursery rhyme that every French child knows: “Napoleon died at Saint Helena / His son Leon burst his big belly / He was found sitting on a whale / He was licking fish bones”. (“Hélène” and “baleine” rhyme in French, as do “bidon” and “poisson”.)

It’s only fairly recently that I tried to locate Saint Helena on a map, just out of curiosity. If you don’t have a clue (I won’t hold it against you) go to Google Maps and come back.

Surprising isn’t it?

It doesn’t take long to realize that it was the kind of place you can’t escape from. The place you don’t come back from. Napoleon only survived 5 years there, slowly won over by gloom and humidity.

Kauffmann has been kidnapped as a French journalist in Lebanon during the 1980s and had spent 3 years in captivity (I read a book about his return to freedom a few years ago). So he knows a thing or two about solitude and confinement. He also loves islands. He visited Saint Helena, travelling by the only boat that make its way from Cape Town to the island.

I could empathize with the pages where Kauffmann muses over our inability to really recapture the past, but I didn’t quite get in the right mood for that. The travelogue part felt more like a magazine account than an essay. I didn’t really care for Kauffmann’s visits and his other companions.

Even if I didn’t care for Napoleon, the parts I loved best eventually were the description of the former emperor’s lonely life with his closest courtiers. The atmosphere was quite claustrophobic and led to bickering, petty jealousy and endless poring over the past, trying to analyze what went wrong.  Those who had followed the fallen emperor to the island weren’t prisoners themselves, they had come out of loyalty, maybe out of hope that the emperor would find his way back to France and/or to a powerful position. They were all vying for his attention, noting his every word and move in order to publish memoirs later on, hoping to be rewarded on the emperor’s will.

Despite its weaknesses, it was well worth spending a few hours on this book to discover these less-known points of history and geography!

Emmanuel Carrère, Limonov (French 2011, English 2014)

I’ll say it before you suspect it: I am a fan of Emmanuel Carrère. So I might not be the most objective reader for his books. But in true Carrère’s fashion, it doesn’t matter, subjectivity is part of the writing and the reading process. And writing about it too.

Bear with me, it does sound meta, but not the kind you get a headache from.

Carrère is one of the writers whose books I buy without hesitation (one other writers is Siri Hustvedt, for example). But I take my time, I’m not rushing as soon as the book gets out, because I know I need time and concentration, and I want to savour them.

By the time I get to Limonov, Carrère has already published another one, Le Royaume (the Kingdom) about early Christianity, with lots of praise. I have not yet arrived to the Kingdom, but I know I’ll get there eventually.

One of the things I enjoy about Carrère’s books is the writing. It’s just as if he was talking to me (Let me clarify, I’m not delusional, nor in love with him). Carrère’s writing voice is deceptively simple, self-aware without being overly self-centered.

So, Limonov. Carrère is always writing about life and perception, about the complex layers that make events and explain people’s behavior. It’s a biographical novel (written without his subject’s consent and with only one direct meeting when the draft was almost completed), but its ambition is wider.

I hadn’t even heard of this Limonov, a Russian intellectual who has had a very contrasted life (he’s still alive, so there’s plenty of turns of the plot that may still occur). Born in 1943 in Soviet Russia, he is deemed a dissident, but the label doesn’t even start to define him. He’s been a thug, an obscure poet in an obscure city of Russia, a jet-setter in Paris and in New York, a butler for a millionnaire, an opponent to Putin, a leader of a fascist group, a writer, a model convict, and so many other things.

Carrère crossed paths with Limonov several times for brief moments, and he is both fascinated and puzzled by this man. The result of this fascination and unending puzzlement is the book itself. As always Carrère is a character in his own novel, at times fed up with his subject, at times wondering.

It seems  that this guy has had many lives already, and it’s all too easy to dislike him. He’s arrogant, vain, always vying for attention and glory. In fact, Carrère doesn’t even try to make us like him at all, his point is to retrace the steps of many life choices, however implausible they seem. One thing leading to another, and Limonov chooses the exile from Soviet Union, presumably forever, and for a while he ends up living like a bum in New York. Does that makes him a loser? Perhaps, but he kept trying and then he somehow got back on his feet.

One thing led to another, and Limonov finds himself supporting the Serbs during the Yugoslavian war. Bad choice obviously. Does this choice make him a fascist? Perhaps. But every time Carrère  explains how complicated it is, how difficult it is for us readers to judge him knowing the complete picture.

At the end he comes out as an adventurer who tried very hard to be a genius and who has never quite reached it.

From these many lives we can also see a portrait of Russia from the sixties to the 21st century, and see how a whole world exploded at the end of Soviet Union. I remember those days and the post-1989 chaos in Russia. I didn’t understand them as they were enfolding under our eyes. I certainly enjoyed that Carrère revisited them. These made in my opinion the most fascinating pages of this bizarre literary object.

Philippe Grimbert, Memory (French: Un secret, 2004)

It’s very difficult to disagree when lots of people praise a book. It even won a literary prize! It was made into a movie! So I’m inclined to think: what didn’t I see? What is wrong with me?

It’s even more difficult when the book is a novel closely inspired by the author’s personal family history. So I don’t want readers to think that I’m criticizing a person (even less a person’s family) when talking about a book.

It’s even more difficult when the book’s subject deals with the Holocaust. I know my post here has to tread gently.

Call me suicidal, insensitive, cold-hearted, but I’m going to say it: this book didn’t work for me.

Philippe Grimbert tells the story of a boy born after the Second World War (himself) who discovers at the age of 15 a huge secret that his whole family has been keeping from him since he was born. He learns from a family friend that his family is Jewish (non-religious obviously) and has suffered persecution during the war (instead of the rosy countryside holidays atmosphere they’d told him about). Even worse, he discovers that he had a half-brother, and that his father was first married to a woman who died with him in the camps. Still even worse, he discovers that his mother used to be his father’s sister-in-law, and that his parents have fallen in love and consummated a forbidden love that only the destruction of the war have made possible.

Wow.

Philippe Grimbert is a psychoanalyst, and you can understand how he got into this career.

The story is perfectly right and very moving, but my problem lies with the writing itself. It is so flat and verbose, so overly analytical of every feeling and meaning. It is a tale told through the (grown-up) boy’s eyes, but there is no room for the action, no dialogue at all, only indirect speech and therefore no room for any other interpretation than the one the author provides. I found this overwhelming and overbearing. I could not relate to any of the characters (although from the author’s personal point of view, I could well understand why he needed to put this distance from his own parents’ actions and emotions).

I am a bit disappointed that it didn’t work for me, but obviously the book has found a lot of other, more eager readers. On very close themes and concerns, I have yet to read a book by Modiano, who has recently won the Nobel Prize of Literature, and whom I have never read, to my great shame.

Jules Valles, L’Enfant (The Child, Fr. 1878)

Reading this book during summer was a weird experience. The more I read, the more I had this feeling of déjà vu. (By the way, I love how English speakers pronounce that word. It’s even weirder than when I say it in French).

Then it came back to me. When I was a teenager, my mother had gotten some old literature classics textbooks discarded from the school library, and I remembered being bored and hot during the summer holidays, and reading my heart out. I have this tactile memory of lying on the wooden floor on the top floor of our sun-drenched home and turning the pages for whole afternoons. What else did I read that summer? No idea. As you can see, it rather entered my subconscious brain than my readily accessible culture, because I could have bet I’d never read the book before.

But indeed I had, in large excerpts. The sad tale of this awkward child plagued with a horrible mother (and a horrible father too, but I guess he’s more pathetic) is indeed memorable. All Jacques (the child, but actually Vallès himself) wants is to roam freely in the countryside, all she wants of him is to make him a proper bourgeois. She is petty, mean, cruel, and ridiculous in her social-climbing. She’s not as cruel as the other famous evil mother in French literature: Folcoche, written by Hervé Bazin in Vipère au poing / Viper in the fist (the nickname given by her rebellious son, the narrator, is the mix between folle-crazy and cochonne-pig), but Bazin’s book was published in 1948, while Valles’ was in 1878!

What surprised me most was how modern, realist and yet very funny Valles’ writing has remained. Laugh out loud funny. This is highly readable and I didn’t force myself to read at the child’s naivety and his mother’s stupidity. Valles was a friend of Hector Malot, and Malot’s book about a miserable childhood is in my experience (one or two decades ago, so I may be mistaken) a tear-jerker that had aged a lot. If readers were accustomed to melodramatic books dealing with heavy issues, no wonder that they might have been shocked when Valles was being snarky and sometimes even resorted to slapstick comics (the one being slapped being, you’ve guessed, the poor child.)

Considering the dark subject it was indeed a pleasant surprise. Of course the book has a political background of revolt (I don’t know if American readers would classify it as anarchist or very liberal) but it doesn’t pollute the flow and the brisk pace of the book. I had very little knowledge of Jules Valles’ life, although it’s very easy to guess that he’s speaking of himself there), but when I read the Wikipedia article I connected the dots with lots of other familiar names, events and places in history, centered around the 1870 Commune and its bloody aftermath. I knew of Le Cri du Peuple from distant history class, but I didn’t know this libertarian and socialist newspaper was his idea. This made me want to try the second book of his trilogy: The Graduate (Le Bachelier).

PS. You can find the English version at the ever-excellent NYRB, or in French in free electronic format from Gutenberg.org

Patrick Deville, Plague and Cholera (French 2012)

Yet another very very good surprise thanks to audiobooks!

I had never read anything by Patrick Deville before, and when I finished Plague and Cholera, I immediately bought his Kampuchea. For a person who thinks twice before getting anymore book on her shelves, that’s telling a lot!

Who would have guessed that I would read (uh… hear) the biography of the man who had discovered the bacillus responsible for the plague (that now bears his name, yersinia pestis). I’m not a science buff, but I like a good story, and if anyone had told me that I would get engrossed in the biography of a biologist/doctor, member of the Pasteur team like Roux or Calmette (1863-1943), a man with an austere youth in Switzerland, no private life to speak of, apparently not far from being a misogynist or a sociopath (although he was indeed working for the good of humanity from his lab or his desk, I don’t think that bedside manners or caring for actual living patients were his forte), I would have been more than doubtful.

And yet. The man was anything but a lab rat and as soon as he could he left the Pasteur institute to live his dream: be an explorer, a discover of unchartered territories like Livingstone. Great explorers were one generation older than he, but he took his ticket to Asia by the way of being a cruise doctor, then he left this job when he fell in love with Vietnam, especially Nha Trang on the coast and Da Lat in the mountains. His love of learning seemed endless and he dabbled his hand in lots of activities: after biology and medicine, he became an explorer who surveyed the land along the Mekong river and then turned farm developer, rubber-tree planter, anti-malaria serum manufacturer, and a lot more.

The book is a straightforward biography, except it is called a novel, as many books that I’ve recently read. I’m not sure if it’s a French fashion, or a larger trend, just like all recent US movies proclaim “based on a true story”. I guess this label gives the writer more freedom, but we are left, as readers, with many questions as to what is real and what is fictional. Sometimes we readers are inside Yersin’s head and seeing the world through his eyes, sometimes a modern narrator breaks in, following the footsteps of Yersin in modern-day Vietnam and knowing, as an omniscient narrator (but is he as accurate and objective?) how the country has changed since Yersin set his foot there.

This book got a very famous prize in France, but some readers found the tone disturbing. It is dry and blunt indeed, with many quotations from private letters that are quite banal to say the least. Yersin was nowhere near an emotional person. That’s where we readers tend to think that it’s nothing more than a normal, informative biography. Yet the omniscient narrator’s voice is often distanced and ironic, so that the mix of the two voices might seem incongruous at times. I personally loved it, especially as the audiobook was read by the author.

Yersin was not the only focus of Deville. He visibly aimed at portraying a whole generation of enthusiastic discoverers, scientists and colonialists from the turn of the 20th century, for whom the world for up for grabs and awaiting their benevolent guidance. Then we spent much of the rest of the century paying for the consequences. I remember being astonished at the last remains of the French colonial empire in Vietnam and Cambodia, and so the book spoke to me at many levels.

(bonus: it has been translated to English this year!)

Adrien Goetz, Intrigue à l’anglaise (2007)

The core of this book is the famous Bayeux Tapestry, a 70 meters-ong (224 feet) embroidery from the Middle Ages showing in dozens of small scenes the Norman conquest of England. The Tapestry itself is one-of-a-kind, a sort of gigantic graphic novel, complete with characters, plot, subplots and twists, but as its origin and content have been studied and disputed by historians for centuries, it was only a matter of time until a writer would make a novel out of it.

Here, Adrien Goetz weaves lots and lots of layers around the tapestry: a sympathetic young curator freshly arriving at the museum, Penelope, a thriller about the last few meters of the tapestry that have never been found, a mystery about the authenticity of the piece, different interpretations about who commissioned it, how they did it, what some passages mean etc. Even Princess Diana and Hitler have been thrown into the lot. I have read this novel over summer and it was very pleasant, but now I really struggle to let you know what exactly was the main storyline and the whole point of the book.

The thriller / mystery plots themselves were not very believable, just a concession to the genre. So I guess Goetz mostly wanted to be informative under the cover of fiction, which he did with some success. I am grateful for getting to learn a lot of anecdotes about the Tapestry that I hadn’t picked up when visiting the official museum a few years ago, and the book mostly made me wish to go back to Bayeux for another visit, which is not so bad after all.

I’m not saying that the book was downright bad, but the piece of art itself stands no comparison. So the best conclusion may be: the Bayeux Tapestry is wonderful, just go and see it for yourself, online or in real life if possible.

Fred Vargas, L’Armée Furieuse (2011)

Oops, she did it again… Draw me into a totally implausible story, mixing contemporary murder with an old folk myth, And I fell for it from the first few pages on, like with (all) the previous ones (I have reviewed 6 of them here).

I guess you have to love Vargas or hate it, and I stand firmly in the first group. Killjoy might argue that this is getting formulaic, that her stories are so unrealistic that there is no point in them. It just like saying Snow White  and the dwarves can’t be true so there’s no point in reading it.

In fact, it’s like a playful tale, with lots of inventive uses for language. Not only is the plot full of twists and turns, but the language itself is also fun to read. People in Vargas’ novels are contemporary, but they are so weird and one of a kind that it is agreed from the start that they only exist in fiction. Yet, they are alive and kicking! At least, for those who don’t cross the path of an evil criminal…

After a short introduction where Adamsberg solves a murder whose weapon is white bread (of  all  things!), the scene moves progressively from Paris to Normandy, where the Wild Hunt, a horde of devils, ghosts and zombies, ride through the woods by night to steal away those who have committed an unpunished crime. At first Adamsberg is tempted to shrug it off as superstition, but when a real corpse shows up in the woods, he settles down in a local hotel and investigates the local gossips and old grudges, convinced that someone is using the old tale to scare people and settle old scores in blood.

As in previous books, this myth is not invented by Vargas, it’s a popular European myth that seems to exist in England, France, Germany and Scandinavian countries as well. It was interesting to discover this story, just like many tiny bits of knowledge that Vargas likes to disseminate from page to page.

The book has been translated to English and published as The Ghost Riders of Ordebec.