The One with the Marquis at the Postmortem

Jean-François Parot, L’inconnu du Pont Notre Dame (2016)

The historical mysteries from Jean-François Parot is about the only series I read in order, and eagerly wait for the next installment. With every episode, I love the plotting and the details of the historical background, the good food and the familiar characters, but the suspense lies elsewhere. Even if the murder mystery is quite deep (the book has many red herrings, different stories weaved together and a multitude of characters that come and go), as we’re getting closer and closer to 1789, we can’t help but wonder what lies ahead for them.

The book starts with an unidentifiable victim found in one of the houses built on the bridge of Notre Dame, houses that are being demolished because they are too dangerous (you can get an idea from the French paperback book cover). Commissaire Nicolas Le Floch, who is also a marquis in favor with the King and Queen, is dispatched to solve the mystery.

This story is set in 1785-1786, and the Commissaire has been working for the King’s police since 1761 (under King Louis XV, that has been replaced in 1774 by Louis XVI, his grandson, a much less self-assured character). One famous historical episode set in 1785 is the scandal of the diamond necklace, where swindlers tricked a powerful aristocrat/former ambassador / courtier / cardinal into believing that the Queen was in love with him and stole huge sums of money and a diamond necklace (I’m trying to sum it up but really it was an elaborate scheme). Even though it was proven that the Queen was rather a victim than an accomplice of the deed, the distrust and hatred against the Queen only grew as a result of the scandal and the trial. The idea that the Queen could have given secret love rendez-vous to the Cardinal de Rohan just popularized the idea that she was frivolous and unfit to lead a country. Royalties who were supposed to receive their indisputable authority from God himself were acting like the commonest people and could be fooled by confidence tricksters. This was just one more step towards the Revolution.

Parot’s characters certainly are aware of the popular gossips and know also the depth of French socio-economic problems that plague the country. Poverty grows and elites are decadent and scandalous, the state is nearly bankrupt, people are unhappy with their present situation but can’t abide changes, popular unrest sparks off at every incident. It’s no accident that Parot, a former high-level French diplomat, has chosen the 18th century as his era of choice, as so many things remind us of our contemporary times.

The Commissaire is loyal to the king and to monarchy itself, but his assistant, who has followed the events in America with interest, wouldn’t mind changing the regime altogether. Yet they don’t seem to understand what turmoil is actually getting closer to them. All this to say, this book is the perfect, clever comfort read and I can’t wait for the next installment!

The One with Iranian Blues in Black and White

marjane-satrapi-poulet-aux-prunes-img6Marjane Satrapi, Poulet aux Prunes (Chicken with Plums, French 2004)

Marjane Satrapi is super famous (at least in France) for Persepolis, her graphic memoir of growing up in the Persia of the Shah, that was overthrown by the Islamic revolution in 1979 when she was ten. I loved it, because it was both blunt and delicate.

Chicken with Plums is another graphic memoir, focused on Nasser Ali Khan, Satrapi’s great uncle and a famous musician in Iran, who died in 1958. It takes the form of a traditional tale, as it recounts the last eight days of his life, with both realist details and ironic distance, and a lyrical and poetic imagination.

During an umpteenth fight with his wife, what Nasser loves most in life gets destroyed: its precious tar, his music instrument. No other tar can replace what was lost, and finally Khan, heartbroken, lies down and awaits death. During eight days, he remembers key moments of his life, especially his thwarted love story with another woman.

It’s a deeply sad story because we discover that music is the only space of freedom that Nasser has left. Despite their mutual attraction, he was not allowed to love Irâne, and her father refused that marriage with a lowly musician. Full of sadness, regret and depression, Nasser’s music becomes the best, but the rest of his life is in shambles. He accepts an arranged marriage with Nahid, but he never loves her. What seemed a pretty straightforward story (especially through the choice of only black and white) becomes a complex web of regrets, untold emotions and missed opportunities.

It made me wonder what would be the taste of Nasser Ali’s favorite dish, this chicken with plums (with onions, tomatoes, turmeric and saffron), and what his tar’s music might sound like. So I could not resist a quick Youtube search!

 

The One that Makes the Controversial Intimate

Colombe Schneck, Dix-Sept Ans (French, 2015)

I set about to review a book about abortion today, but I don’t mean to be controversial, I just read it and I want to review it. I didn’t choose the topic especially for today either, it just sits on my pile of finished books and it was time.

But.

I can’t help but feel the weight of the recent events, namely the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Believe me, typing these words feels so weird I had to correct so many typos.

Anyway.

People make choices. Not the ones you expect. Not the ones you believe in. Not the ones you would have made if you were them. But you’re not them. They choose because of their personal circumstances. Because of their beliefs, of their education, of their knowledge or lack thereof. They choose because they think it’s best at a given time, or just because it’s the lesser of two evils. It’s hard not to judge. Not to make assumptions. But still one must try. And books certainly help wear the other person’s shoes.

Colombe Schneck’s book is intimate and political. It’s a very short memoir (less than 100 pages) of her abortion when she was 17 (in the 1980s) and how it shaped her life ever since. She was finishing high school, carefree and rather careless. She thought it could not happen to her. She was a teenager from the upper class, immature and a bit irresponsible. She was idealist, she had been taught that boys and girls were free and equal. She could not have the baby. It was just not possible, not thinkable. Her parents were quite liberal, so they didn’t blame her but they didn’t talk to her either. Doctors and other adults didn’t question her choice; it was all very cold and technical, and she didn’t get to talk it through. Nor did she get the chance to talk about it afterwards, but she says she can’t help but think about it ever since. Even if the choice felt easy to her at the time, the consequences still linger in her head and in her heart. The life she had after she made that choice was different from what it would have been otherwise. She also talks about the legalization of abortion in France, the long fight to finally reach it and the continuous challenges and doubts ever since.

Schneck is a journalist, she writes smoothly and she knows how to go deep and emotional too. Her style is without flourish. She tries to be honest about her 17-year-old self, without being nostalgic or patronizing. I really want to discover her other books (and in fact, at this hour, I have already another on my nightstand).

The One with the French Sherlock Holmes Next Door

Emile Gaboriau, Le Petit Vieux des Batignolles (1876) – The Little Old Man of Batignolles

Back in July I read this very slim novel by the pioneer of detective fiction, Emile Gaboriau. It was supposed to be a middle grade book for kids at school, so there were lots of footnotes on context and vocabulary, but it read quite well. I read it on a whim because I live in the neighborhood of Batignolles, where the victim is found dead. I would have loved to find a description of the place, but the book took it for granted and rather focused on the characters.

In 1867 Gaboriau created Lecoq, a policeman interested in criminal psychology and in scientific methods of investigation, who is supposed to be a strong inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, created just 20 years later.

I could see the parallel between the two heroes, two men with an acute sense of observation, a bit eccentric (Lecoq a lot less so than Holmes), proud, self-assured and aloof in the self-awareness of their unique approach. They both have a sidekick, the narrator, who looks bewildered on the sidelines ( Lecoq’s neighbor in the present case). They both see the truth when other policemen and judges all fall for the red herring.

But the link between Lecoq and Holmes remains thin and there’s no denying that Conan Doyle created a completely original hero. [That’s one reason why it took me so long to post about this book. I thought I’d muster the courage / energy to make a proper comparison grounded in fact and literary analysis. My November self is laughing at my July self so hard. Nah, sorry, not gonna happen. You’re stuck with my gut feelings, and keep in mind that they might well be wrong. Caveat : I’m a huge Sherlock fan so nobody could ever hold the candle to him. ]

Where Holmes feels upper class to me (maybe it’s only the British BBC accent and the fact that I grew up watching Jeremy Brett playing Sherlock), Lecoq is an employee, firmly middle-class. He has a nice wife who worries about his husband’s job. And he’s so weirdly defensive, where Holmes would just shrug it off!

I am one of those lost sentinels of civilization,  losing sleep and risking my life, I keep society safe and I should blush of that? That would be a hoot. You’d say there are against us policemen lots of stupid prejudices inherited from the past. I don’t care!

The book is still highly readable and the mystery is alright (by which I mean that you couldn’t guess immediately the solution, but don’t expect too much, that’s 1876 after all). It certainly is more of an interesting read when you compare it with modern or classic mysteries.

The one with the grotesquely enamored husband

Jean Teulé, Le Montespan (French 2008, Eng. The Hurlyburly’s Husband, 2011-2013)

If not for Annie from A Bookish Type, I would not have tried any of Jean Teulé’s books. In France, he has a scandalous reputation for being vulgar and using curse words to shock readers at a cheap price. Literary critics frown at his books but these are bestsellers indeed.

I was also intrigued by the word Hurlyburly which I had to look up in the dictionary, and I couldn’t guess what was the original French title. In fact, the English title and the French title have in common their focus on the woman’s husband. In France, everybody has heard about La Montespan in history class, so it’s a rather surprising twist for the French reader to name the book Le Montespan.

Madame de Montespan was a mistress of King Louis XIV, but of course she was not born so, she had a previous life. She was born Françoise de Rochechouart de Mortemart in 1640. In the novel (and I don’t have any sense of what is real or invented in the book) she married Mr. de Montespan as a true love match, which was rare at the time. Teulé makes no mystery of the couple’s formidable sex life, but as Mr. de Montespan was only a small nobility, they could not keep up with the court’s lavish lifestyle (and Françoise’ love for expensive things) and they soon fell into financial difficulties. But then, the all-powerful king Louis took a shine to Françoise, because she was beautiful and witty and charming, and he made her into the most powerful woman of the kingdom for more than 12 years, more powerful than the queen herself.

But the book is not about her, it’s about him, Louis-Henri de Pardaillan, Marquis de Montespan, the abandoned, cuckold husband whose rival is the most powerful man in the country, a rival who can throw him into prison or out of the country. The painful thing is that Louis-Henri sincerely loves his wife, is blind to her flaws, and still wants her back! Less enamored men and more ambitious ones would have turned this affair into a fortune, because the king was ready to pay off Louis-Henri. But he’s both passionate, stubborn and a bit of a rebel (a Gascon cliché) and he will pay it dearly.

The book is a tragicomic farce. There is sex and bawdy anecdotes, dirty jokes and risqué situations. The pace is swift and the language colorful. We laugh but we cannot help but feel sorry for the unhappy Marquis. Sometimes it veers towards the caricature, but sometimes it gives a surprisingly realistic (oh, the disgusting details on hygiene!) and larger-than-life portrait of the court society, where people were ready to do anything for the king’s favors.

I’m glad I tried Teulé and I understand better why so many people love his books. I’m not quite a convert, but I’ll certainly try another one!

The One with the Wrong Zip-Code

Olivier Norek, Code 93 (French 2014, not yet translated to English)

Ok, here is the challenge : I have 20 minutes before dinner time, do you think I can hit the Publish button with a whole post within this time frame? Perhaps, if I revive one of these half-finished drafts I have in my virtual drawer.

This book is definitely worth reviving a draft for. Actually, I’m a bit ashamed to post about it only now, since I read it at the end of… June (o.m.g!!) and was rather taken by it. But you know how it is. You’re 100% enthusiastic about a book and want the whole universe to discover this author, then days, weeks go by and you can’t quite put the finger on what made it so great.

Code 93 is a noir-cum-police procedural that deals with drug trafficking, seedy sex trafficking, thugs from the derelict housing estates around Paris, far from the nice neighborhoods and tourist places, but close enough that wealthy criminals and thugs at the bottom of the ladder occasionally cross. 93 is the zip code for this area, and believe me, everybody in France knows that it’s a badge of shame. Drivers with 93 on their license plate are insulted, job applications with address in the 93 are not considered seriously, the prejudice against 93 is real and causing deep injustices to the people who live there.

How did I come to pick up this particular book about this sad place? A conspiration, my friends. Not one nudge from the universe, not two, but three of them! After that, I could just pass it up.

The first one was a radio interview of writer Olivier Norek following his success at Lyon literary festival Quai du Polar. His voice was friendly, efficient, the kind of guy who knows what he’s talking about. Indeed, Olivier Norek was (or still is?) a police officer working in the toughest districts neighboring Paris. So you can’t deny the ring of authenticity that his novel has, which is all the more frightening as the crimes he writes about are not for the faint-hearted.

The second nudge came from Marina Sofia, who posted about this book in early June. Then I met her in real life and she praised the book once more, convincing me that I needed to check on it. The last nudge from the very persistent universe was to literally put the book into my hands when I had to shelve it at my workplace library. Duh!

The pace is impeccable, the main character, detective captain Victor Coste, is nice enough but complex enough to raise lasting interest (you can see it’s the first of a series) and the police office politics reminded me of the UK series “Scott & Bailey” or “No Offence” (with fewer female protagonists) both set in the difficult areas of Manchester. I’m not sure if anyone can make sense of the comparison between 93 and Manchester but you’ll get the feeling.

Very dark and gloomy. Compromises and corruption. Professionals trying to do their job in the worst circumstances. Amateurs of cosy crimes, this one is not for you, but for the others, Olivier Norek is someone to check out.

The One that Missed The (Dark) Point

Pascal Garnier, The Eskimo Solution (French, 1996, English 2016)

I fell in love with Pascal Garnier last year (all the more metaphorically that the poor guy died in 2010) when I discovered “Too close to the edge” and “The front seat passenger“. So I was ever so grateful when a nice publicist at Gallic Books contacted me for another helping of my Garnier discovery. I love that they have set to make Garnier more visible and available to English readers!

Unfortunately, this particular book didn’t quite resonate with me as much as the previous ones. There was this narrator, Louis, a loser, who is a writer in Normandy trying to finish his book for the deadline. The narrator in his book, though, is another loser, another Louis, who comes up with the idea that getting rid of elderly people could be a sort of gift to humanity – especially to his friends who have problems with their elderly parents or who badly wish to inherit some money. He compares it to the Eskimos who apparently put their old ones on ice to starve to death (I didn’t it, ugh).

As you see, this theory firmly puts the book into cynical and dark humor territory, but I didn’t really manage to follow it all the way there. Perhaps it was me, but I have the feeling that this book was a bit all over the place, and switching from one Louis to the other didn’t help. Also, I learnt that this book was his first published, so it might be an explanation. As losers go, I much rather enjoyed the pathetic one from The Front Seat Passenger.

But one occasional miss doesn’t make me less enamored with Pascal Garnier’s books, and I’m just getting ready for the next one!

The One with Proper Nostalgia

Patrick Modiano, L’Herbe des Nuits (2012 French / The Black Notebook, Eng. 2016)

Allow me to wax nostalgic for a second (or two), because as I am writing this post, WordPress just reminded me that today is my tenth blogiversary! I can’t believe I have been doing this for a decade, can you? (Dear husband, always the optimist, believed it was for longer than that). I don’t remember how we did before Google, but I am starting to not remember how I did before I had this blog!

It’s quite fitting to the occasion, actually, that I was about to post about Modiano, because he is all about memory, looking back at the past to understand new meanings or distort the actual facts. His tone is definitely nostalgic – and I’m starting to get the hang of it.

I didn’t have a great experience with the first Modiano, So you don’t get lost in the neighborhood, but this one was already a lot better, although one may say that it was sort of similar.

This time, a mature writer, Jean, revisits an old notebook he kept as a student, back when he was scribbling away in notebooks, unpublished yet and dating a girl named Dannie. She is a charming, mysterious girl and holds the young man under her spell, even if he guesses that there is a lot more to her than what she lets on. They spend time in bars, meet shady characters, go to places that aren’t Dannie’s but for whom she nonetheless has the key. She has moments of guilt, of doubt, of desperation, but then she gathers her wits and carries on under Jean’s bewildered gaze. Dannie is not her real name, nor is she a real student, but still Jean can’t help but follow her across Paris, night after night, adoringly.

As the previous book the sense of place is prevalent. Characters are drifting like shadows, but real streets, real buildings, old neighborhoods of Paris that have undergone radical transformation between the 1960s and the present time (here especially Montparnasse) are all characters in the book. I love the poetic of the French title of this book, The Grass of Nights, although the English title is more precise. Modiano invites you to revisit the places you have been in your childhood and look for new meanings. I arrived in Paris in 1994, more than 20 years ago, close to Montparnasse, and certainly the city has imperceptibly changed (not so radically than Chinese cities, but still), giving the impression to stay the same while being slightly different. That’s within this tiny gap between what we remember and what really was that Modiano builds his stories that are both thin and deep.

The One to Get Lost in Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One on the Sweet Power of False Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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