The one with the widow looking for excitement

Pascal Garnier, Too close to the edge (French 1999, English 2016)

I’ve never read Pascal Garnier before, which is obviously a shame, and it seems ironical that an English translation would be my first introduction to this French writer. As a matter of introduction, I have to thank Marina Sofia for her titillating review which in turn made me request the book through Netgalley.

Pascal Garnier’s text starts in a deceptively quiet and banal way. Eliette is a retired, recently widowed woman who lives on her own in the Alps. Her adult children live in Paris, far away, with their own lives and worries, and she gets along with her neighbors well. But her loneliness leaves her slightly discontent and bored. She wishes something unexpected would happen to derail her routine. It’s a classic tale of be careful what you wish for, except that Garnier pushes it to the edge, metaphorically and literally. More than once I turned the page wondering where he’d take us readers and muttering to myself “did he really dare?”. It’s a roller-coaster read and a slim book you can easily read in one or two sittings.

It’s dark and realist, perfectly right for my taste. It’s not a Scandinavian thriller but the homegrown equivalent. As I take a few days off in the French countryside, where I always wonder about those tiny villages we cross on the way, with so many closed businesses, small farms with perpetually closed shutters and a rotting 2CV in the yard. So much for romantic countryside and sunset over the mountains! It’s often depressing, but Garnier manages to make it terrifying. Those old biddies who go to the supermarket, I’ll certainly be careful not to cross them. Especially if they look nice.

The one deep into Cambodia ghosts

Patrick Deville, Kampuchéa (French, 2011)

I feel myself a bit stuck in my creative writing right now, but luckily (ahem), there are quite a few books that I’ve finished and never got a chance to talk about here…

When I read my first Patrick Deville book two summers ago, a semi nonfiction about the man who had discovered the pest bacillus, I knew I wanted to read others. Still, Kampuchéa remained on my nightstand for nearly six months and it’s rarely a good sign.

But in that case, it just reflects the leisurely pace of Patrick Deville. The book feels like a travelogue,  but Deville isn’t the kind of traveler to visit a country in three days and he doesn’t let you hurry too much.

This book is an exploration of a country’s history, and the country that fascinated Deville also fascinated me, so I appreciated all the more his attempt to write about it and the difficulties of his project. Cambodia has a complex, tumultuous, multifaceted history, especially as the last centuries are intertwined with Western history and its ideologies.

Cambodia is stuck between Thailand and Vietnam, but always had its own separate identity. At its heyday, during the 12th century, the Cambodian kings built the famous temple structure of Angkor Wat , but the kingdom fell into decadence and now it’s a maze of sublime palaces lost in the jungle. Add to this geographic and ethnic uniqueness the arrival of colonial powers seeking to extend their area of influence. Cambodia was a hot prize to be taken by either the French or the British colonial empires, and the former prevailed (barely). Deville centers his book on Henri Mouhot, a French scientific explorer who discovered Angkor Wat almost by chance in 1860 and unwittingly changed the course of Cambodia’s history by putting it on the conquest trajectories of Western colonial empires.

During and after the French debacle in Indochina, Cambodia was pummeled by bombs as collateral damage of the Vietnam War. But when the communists took over Saigon, the Khmers Rouges installed a terror regime in Cambodia that makes Vietnamese regime look like Disneyland. They destroyed their very own country by indoctrinated blindness and millions of people succumbed until the Vietnamese kicked them out (not too far, just into the jungle) to conquer the land. Wikipedia says that Khmers Rouges are “responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians (Khmer), nearly a quarter of the country’s then population”

Wow, here I am, trying to cram 2000 years of history into a blog post, while I ought to talk about the book itself. Which is not that easy.

Deville is trying to make sense of this history by being there and looking for all the layers of history, contradictory and half forgotten. Cambodian population is young and doesn’t know much of its past. It’s part a  travelogue, part an investigation, part fictional re-enactment of key history moments and figures. One question throughout the book is how the rise of Khmer rouges was possible at all. Somewhere down the line, the true question is if French colonial culture was somehow responsible for breeding monsters whose crazy ideal was to create an egalitarian utopia on earth at all costs.

But that question is very difficult to answer because Khmer rouges have left precious little information about themselves. They didn’t leave many (incriminating) documents and didn’t trust the written word altogether. During this crazy regime, people who knew how to read and write were already pointed out as a dangerous intellectual who wasn’t meant to live.

I visited Cambodia too and these questions haunted me too. It’s hard to look at this country and not to ask them. I feel lucky that I was familiar with the subject already when I opened the book, and I understand that readers with no prior knowledge may feel lost at sea, because Deville’s style is to mix past and present, images from the historical documents with scenes he witnessed on the road. Still, it’s worth sticking it out even if you don’t plan a trip to Cambodia anytime soon. Another recent and fictional take on Cambodia (with allusion to the recent past and the corruption and trauma that the country still endures) was Nick Seeley’s Cambodia Noir, which I enjoyed a lot too.

The one about an aristocratic tragedy

Gaëlle Nohant, La Part des flammes (French, 2015)

If you were a woman of some means in Paris in 1897, the place to be was where the countesses, duchesses, princesses and other aristocratic ladies gathered, at the annual charity event called “Bazar de la Charité”.

Well-to-do women aspired to be accepted at the parties of the Catholic and conservative aristocracy. In this rarefied milieu, women were a status symbol of choice. Brought up in closed religious institutions, they needed to be pure and beautiful and rich to win at the matchmaking game. Love was just an option. After the wedding the wife could show herself at parties, have the obligatory children and needed to be seen doing charitable work, the only honorable choice, but the impact of these charities on poor people wasn’t really a criteria, instead the presence of a royalty gave credit to the enterprise. The mere shadow of a doubt cast on a reputation was enough to expel you out off these gilded circles, and honor disputes were still settled between gentlemen in duels with guns or swords.

In May 1897 women who mattered all attended the bazaar, and most notably the Duchess of Alençon, sister of the famous Austrian Empress Sisi. One of the attraction was the moving pictures invented by the brothers Lumière, presented amidst fancy decors made of cardboard and wood. Unfortunately the equipment took fire and disaster ensued, because of the crowd, the poor safety regulations and the inflammable materials. Most of the 126 victims were aristocrat women, among which the Duchess of Alençon. The incident had considerable coverage in the press.

This true story provided the background inspiration for this novel full of dramatic scenes (the fire scenes are nothing short of gore, don’t read before meal times!). The common theme is oppressed women, psychologically, socially or even physically abused. The pressure to marry and follow social conventions is huge, and for those who step outside, the shunning is terrible. Those who don’t conform are pushed away, put into convents, into psychiatric wards, accused of being hysterical for speaking out inconvenient truths.

Yet the book left me a bit cold. Characters were too black-and-white for my taste, I didn’t care for them. Only the Duchess of Alençon had some depth and ambiguity. The heroines were so nice and pure that I didn’t quite believe in them.

Besides, the exclusive focus on the aristocracy and their adoring servants made me slightly uncomfortable. After all, in 1897 France had been a Republic for almost three decades, surely the aristocracy did not reflect the entire upper-class of the country?  The Dreyfus affair that split France in two just got a passing mention, yet the people at the Bazaar that day must have been pro-Army, pro-clergy and antisemitic in their large majority. Didn’t anyone feel the qualms of the turn of the century? The same year as the fire at the Bazar, Munch painted the Kiss, Monet his Giverny landscapes, Pissaro painted a city full of people busy with business and pleasure on the Boulevard, and Gauguin painted “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?“, a very modern and abstract fresco. These paintings provide me with some visual clues that not everything was so inhibited and breathless as the novel suggests.

PS. What sold me the book first was the cover painting: it’s by Jean Béraud, “After the misdeed”, currently at the Tate.

The one where Iceland turns revolutionary

Fred Vargas, Les Temps Glaciaires (2015) English: A climate of Fear (released in July 2016)

I’m addicted to Fred Vargas so I’m not even attempting objectivity in this post. Every time I turn towards nonchalant Commissaire Adamsberg and his team of eccentric police investigators I’m looking for comfort, to make sure that the villains get their comeuppance even in the most implausible circumstances. And implausible they are!

The set of characters is fixed, the peculiarities of each member of the police precinct already well-known to me: the one who is suffering from a sleep syndrome and had to have a cot in the office for when he falls asleep at odd times, the female constable who is quiet and big, but whose first name is Violet, a small and fragile flower if any, the alcoholic sergent (I can’t possibly get the ranks translated right anyway) who has the deepest and weirdest knowledge of all, the naive one who remembers precisely what kind of coffee each policeman likes… These are like puppets that Vargas handles in a series of expected confrontations. But still she renews her stories every single time by inserting them in new and eccentric circumstances.

This time it’s the French revolution of 1789 and Iceland. I defy anyone to guess how Fred Vargas has put those two together, and I won’t tell you how she manages to go from the first topic to the other. I have no idea if everything she writes about Robespierre is accurate, but I know that she’s a professional historian (who hates travelling) and I suspect that she only tweaked what was necessary for the plot. The story itself is a mysterious maze with lots of characters, but some have argued that like a David Lynch movie, you don’t need to understand everything to enjoy the story if you let the main characters lead you wherever they want to go.

I heard a French literary radio show host say that Fred Vargas makes a combination of Commissaire Maigret and Harry Potter. It’s true that you start with a very traditional police procedural intrigue and it’s soon infused with something mythical, magical. The scenes in the Icelandic fog are full of supernatural. The secret society of Revolution fans who spend their evenings reenacting the Assembly meetings are as weird as a sorcerers’ congress. Vargas requires you to suspend your disbelief more than most crime writers, but it’s really worth it!

The one in the snowy Russian plains

Michel Honaker, Terre Noire: Les exilés du Tsar (French, 2009)

I swear I’m not trying to rush all these books along just to finish the year. It’s just that… okay, I give up. I feel like I have an obligation to mention those books I’ve finished recently before turning the page towards 2016.

I was looking for an easy read, a YA saga but not a fantasy. I chose this one a bit at random at the library, just because of the title: Black Earth, the Czar’s exiles. It felt romantic and exotic, and indeed it was! Sometimes that’s all you need to use as a kind of… well, palate cleanser before tackling a more challenging book.

The year is 1887 in Russia, under the reign of czar Alexander III. Stepan is a talented young pianist and composer with a growing reputation. He’s the adopted soon of an old aristocrat Baroness Danilovna whose health and wealth are declining. Upon her death, the old Baroness is supposed to bequest him a land called Black Earth, but her birth son is jealous of him and plots a twisted revenge that will send Stepan to exile, or even to his death. The only allies he can count on are Baroness Danilova’s young daughter Natalia who is secretly in love with Stepan, and his faithful servant who will help him flee the country.

I liked that the story was told through letters and diaries. The pace was brisk and eventful. The only drawback was that I could guess most of the story very early on, so I didn’t quite find it thrilling. It’s probably for a middle-grade audience on the youngish side, although the intricacies of the Russian politics might escape them. It was pleasing enough, but not so much that I would try to read the second and third books of the series.

The one for the story that wasn’t meant to be

Henri Perruchot, La vie de Gauguin (French, 1948)

May I interest you in a little detour?

Once upon a time I visited Copenhagen, Denmark and I saw there several paintings by Gauguin. It was rather incongruous, but I then learnt that Gauguin had married a Danish woman in Paris and that at one point had come to Denmark for business.

I couldn’t reconcile the strict Protestantism of this Nordic country (simple lines, clean natural design, all straightforward, nothing hidden) with Gauguin’s universe of earthly pleasures, lush nature, transcendental mysteries, sensuality, exoticism, violent colors). How come these two had gotten married? How could Gauguin enjoy Copenhagen? Apparently they too had wondered about it, because I learnt in the same breath that they later had separated.

I got mildly obsessed with Gauguin’s wife. Not that he’s my favorite painter, by far. His colors are too violent for me, his Vahine women too naive. But his wife, this Danish woman, how did she come to Paris? how did she marry Gauguin, then a businessman of some sorts, and how did she react when he threw all that away for… paintings… art… Tahitian women? It must have been a shock, a disappointment… I thought it would be a good story. A story about a marriage going south (pun intended).

Until I got into the research itself. I ordered this (used) book, this huge biography by a serious biographer from the 1950s. The book was 400+ pages long, all yellow and faintly smelling of tobacco. The police size was 8 with footnotes even smaller. No margins, and no index whereby I could jump in the middle of Gauguin’s life to find the topic I was interested in.

I was in for the long run, and anyway what’s the hurry? It took me one full year, reading it bit by bit, when the mood stroke, which wasn’t all that often since I wasn’t really passionate and Perruchot’s sententious and respectful tone wasn’t making things easier. To Perruchot’s credit, he really investigated his subject’s life in details, down to the last cent of his budget (Gauguin had serious money issues, he nearly starved to death at different points, so it’s not stupid to follow this line of inquiry). But it didn’t make his subject sympathetic.

The portrayal of his wife was even worse. Mette Gauguin, born Gad, had traveled to Europe with a wealthy friend and she fell for the honest, successful financial advisor that Gauguin was at the time. She aspired to a comfortable bourgeois life, and I guess she couldn’t understand how her husband could reject all that for art’s sake. Perruchot makes her into an insensitive, selfish, superficial woman. She hated the financial hardships that followed Gauguin’s decision to stop working. She decided to take their children and herself back to Denmark, and her attempt to get Gauguin back into the fold of the traditional bourgeois values failed. Perruchot only mentions her when it comes to money, that she was very greedy about her estranged husband’s growing success at the end of his life and how she was insensitive when she announced bad news about their children (their only daughter Aline died in 1897).

Perruchot’s book is of course very one-sided and focused on understanding Gauguin’s life and artistic choices, although he’s rather objective about Gauguin being a tough one to be friend with (and even tougher to be married to, I guess). During the course of this year Perruchot almost convinced me that Mette Gauguin wasn’t a good subject for a story.

But now that I have finally turned the last page, I still wonder. What is her voice? What is her story? She obviously couldn’t follow Gauguin into his life choice, but then is she really to blame? I’m not sure I’ll write a story about it anymore, but her character will surely stay with me a long time still.

The one about the false or the faceless war heroes

Pierre Lemaitre, Au revoir là haut (French 2013, English, The Great Swindle 2015)

I’m ashamed to write about this book about four months (months!) after I’ve finished it, and probably closer to a year since I started it. Still, this book won the Goncourt prize, for heaven’s sake!

Why did it took me so long? I’m totally ready to admit that the fault lies with me. I should have been moved to tears and revolted and thrilled, but I just wasn’t that into it.

The story starts at the end of the war in 1918, when so many stories would end. Millions of men have died, but the soldiers in the battalion of Commandant Aulnay-Pradelle have managed to survive so far. Their leader, eager to get glory (and a promotion!) before it’s too late, launches a last-minute attack. It’s a miracle that the two heroes survive, and it’s the start of a friendship as deep as unlikely between those two: Edouard Péricourt, the son of a wealthy bourgeois, who has received a debilitating face wound on the battleground, and Albert Maillard, the somewhat naive young man with no wealth or education, who has saved him.

At the end of the war, France is in mourning of its dead soldiers, but the survivors are not really welcome. The traumatized and the wounded are far too disturbing to look at, and don’t really match with the glorious image that the state wants to promote. Others, like Aulnay-Pradelle, are eager to reap the benefits of the post-war opportunities, even the most grim ones, like the funeral monuments to be built all over the country, and the burial of deceased.

The historical research and the literary influence of the period are obvious strong points of the book. Pierre Lemaitre wants to imitate books of the beginning of the century, Céline most notably, yet the novel is still highly readable and keeps a brisk pace as Lemaitre’s other crime novels. The opening scenes are really great: you are put directly in the mud of the battle ground next to the foot soldiers; you can hear the shells fly by and explode; you fear for your life.

The disappointment came to me later, as I got stuck in the dreaded “sagging middle”. Characters started to feel a bit one-dimensional, especially the good guy Albert and the bad guy Aulnay-Pradelle, they didn’t expand or gain in depth. The ending fell flat with one coincidence too many to my taste.

Still, I’d recommend the book for those who want to see the dark underbelly, both cynical and amoral, of the roaring twenties in France.

The one with the potty-mouthed nun

Philippe Bouin, Revenge on the River (French 2014, 2012, English 2015)

What are the odds that I would be reunited with Sister Blandine (no less than 6 years after our first meeting) thanks to Netgalley? When I saw that one of those local mysteries set in the Lyon and Saône region has been translated to English and was available for download, I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.

The plot may not be as twisted as a Fred Vargas’, but the characters are friendly, if not totally believable or directly relatable: who can put oneself in the shoes of a female police inspector reformed into a Catholic nun working as a nurse and living in a convent? On second thoughts, who cares only about believable and relatable when it comes to choosing novels?

The son of a local industry magnate is assaulted on his way home from a party. His assailant beats him up and threatens him with these cryptic words: Najuno, remember. This is “obviously” a revenge for an old incident that involved his father’s company in Chile years ago, where toxic waste has killed an Indian tribe called Najuno. But who is the hateful avenger and what does he want? As incidents keep occurring, the question is rather, where will he stop? Sister Blandine can’t keep away from this case especially as she knows both the victim’s family and some suspects.

The fast-paced plot isn’t very deep and it didn’t really manage to convey a sense of tragic urgency despite speaking of really serious events such as an industrial and environmental disaster. But the tone of the story is light and funny and the book is designed to be entertainment more than political denunciation, so I enjoyed it despite its weaknesses. The writer has worked in industrial companies and is careful of never showing a black-and-white picture of company managers and environmental activists. The level of violence is really mild and although Sister Blandine may rise some highbrows, she surely has the proverbial heart of gold, so readers will easily extend grace to her.

One of the strengths of the novel is the local setting in the Beaujolais area where the author lives, and English readers will certainly enjoy escapism in scenes of good meals and good wines that pepper the novel. The French translator has chosen to stay very close to native expressions, especially the most colorful or visual ones, and the language definitely contributes to the boisterous, joyful atmosphere.

The one with the eerie echo

Eric Faye, Nagasaki (French 2010, English 2014)

I have been dipping my toes back into NetGalley, where I’ve had an inactive account for years (but without a Kindle it didn’t work back then), and the first book that catches my interest is a book set in Japan written by a French author (whom I’ve never read before) on a subject that I’ve been reading just a month ago. Can we agree to call this serendipity? Let me count the ways:

  • I have a stupid prejudice against weird reluctance to try prize-winning contemporary French writers; and I need a small nudge from a translated edition to confirm that this writer’s voice has reached beyond Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the tiny district in Paris where  publishing houses all compete for drama.
  • I can’t really resist the appeal of trying new Japanese literature (although this one hardly qualifies…)
  • I’m very interested about Western writers who create a story and characters in a culture completely different from their own, and who do it convincingly in my eyes (in this respect this book reminded me of Fog Island Mountains by Michelle Bailat-Jones, who is also set in Japan).
  • The story of the novel eerily reminds me of the manga series I started reading during summer, called in French the Leeches, where a young woman lives in other people’s flats while they are at work. And it seems that the novel is inspired by a real incident.

Here, M. Shimura is a textbook salaryman, a middle-aged meteorologist of Nagasaki, single, lonely and rather boring, a tidy man probably on the verge of OCD. He notices that a few yoghurts have disappeared from his fridge (would I even notice?) and takes a ruler to check that indeed a few inches of orange juice are missing from the bottle overnight. His next step is to buy a webcam, only to discover that a middle-aged woman is living in his own home, not only by day while he’s away, but in a spare room’s closet by night (I can relax, I have no empty closet and no spare room whatsoever).

The book is very short, rather a novella. It is very approachable, although the author uses M. Shimura to tell about loneliness and existential angst in big cities. I liked the low-key melancholy of his voice and his dignity, although this incident upset his whole life. I was taken aback by the abrupt change of tone and point of view at about two-third of the book, where the voice switches to the woman’s. I didn’t quite enjoy the end that felt almost unfinished and would rather have stayed longer with M. Shimura. Nevertheless, it was an interesting discovery and I’m ready to read more by Eric Faye.

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The gloomy one that leads me back to the museum

Biographies in graphic format seem to be very trendy these days, or is it just me? I had read the huge opus about Edvard Munch earlier this year, and being in the mood for more decadent end-of-the-century Viennese Secession (to go along with my Freudian mood), I turned toward Egon Schiele.

I’m not so passionate about Egon Schiele’s art as to put his drawings or paintings on my walls. Ahem, I don’t think many people would, given that a significant part of his art is erotic. But one thing you can deny is that his art is expressive and intense. The characters often stare at you and challenge you unashamedly to look at ther body, clothed or not.

The book is a classic biopic, so the graphic designer concentrated on Schiele’s life more than on his life. The result for me was mixed feelings at best. It’s nobody’s fault if Schiele’s life was really depressing and cut short at age 28 just after World War 1 by the deadly Spanish flu. Turn-of-the-century Austrian society was torn between a small innovative and rebellious minority and a huge repressed and repressive, conservative, bigot majority. Schiele’s family was middle class, his father a train station master in a small provincial tow.  Schiele was passionate about painting and art, but he also was not a very nice young man. Self-centered, interested in sex and women but not ready for a serious relationship, interested in marriage if it can bring him money to support his art, he’s a tough one to sympathize with.

The book doesn’t quite help either, because the artist has chosen a realist style (opposed to the grotesque, almost cartoony style chosen by Kverneland for Munch) and a restricted palette of greys and sepia like old faded pictures. So the mood remains gloomy and dark all the way.

Now, maybe I shouldn’t get interested so much in his life and focus on his art instead. Is it possible to like someone’s art without appreciating his life’s choices? I hoped to understand more how Schiele came to draw provocative paintings and drawings in such an original and visceral style. I probably should head to the museum instead.