The one at maximum velocity, too much for my tired brain

Pierre Lemaitre, Sacrifices (French 2012, Camille, English 2015)

Sometimes I’m just plain stupid. No, don’t be polite, just wait, let me explain.

When I heard about Pierre Lemaitre’s thrillers, most probably through Marina Sofia or Sarah early this year, I squirreled away a little note and added to my ongoing TBR list. I didn’t bother writing down the title, since it was so clever to have each volume named after each main protagonist. It never occurred to me that they were the titles chosen for the English translation, and that the French publisher hadn’t done the same clever choice.

Now when I visited the book donation shelves at work, I stumbled upon a thriller with a rather banal cover (a woman’s face behind broken glass) with a bland title (Sacrifices) and a bland writer’s name.

Something like Pierre Lemaitre, a name that didn’t. Ring. Any. Bell. A name like that is the French equivalent of Jack Miller, Fred Jones or John Doe. A combination of Peter Rabbit and Doctor Masters (yes, someone has been watching DVDs…). Seriously, didn’t any publisher tell him to change his name for something more memorable? It feels like a false name someone would give for a very bad alibi. Ok, that’s no excuse.

The opening scene was quite something. I would say mind-blowing if it wasn’t already a spoiler. The alternate voices, the breathless pace, the tongue in cheek, snarky glance towards the reader… It was highly addictive. I had a weird feeling of déjà vu.

Then I hit the bulge of the middle part and the pace kind of lost a little steam. Especially as the book referred to previous events in 2 books I hadn’t read. Which was just as well, because in the midst of all this violence and mystery, my brain was trying to tell me something. Like this book should remind me of… Like this writer’s kind of famous for…

Needless to say there was a rather embarrassing “aha” moment, not the Oprah kind, but that sounded more like “duh”. That unknown writer had won the highest literature prize in France, the 2013 Prix Goncourt, that is advertised possibly everywhere in France (even newspapers stands have it in train stations)… and it stood… on my nightstand since April (a slow read, but that’s a whole other story).

But I hadn’t made the connection. Yes, now you agree that I am stupid. Or very very tired.

I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in order, but it would have required a degree of intelligence that I hadn’t possessed at the time. It’s been a while since I read something as violent (the opening scene especially) and I normally don’t mind, but I think it wasn’t the best way to be introduced to Commandant Verhoeven, even if Lemaitre is a master at plotting and story-telling. I would add that Pierre Lemaitre is a writer to watch for, but I’m not fit to dole out lessons.

The one that was so terribly short it got lost

Balzac, An Episode under the reign of Terror (1830)

I just realized I totally forgot to write here about a terribly short book I read… back in March (awful pun, I know, but I have a 7yo who laughs at the mere mention of fart and a toddler who laughs at anything his brother does… yeah, boys…).

I just realized it as I did a small spring cleaning of my Kindle, deleting finished books and transferring a new large bounty from Gutenberg.net (ah, free books…!)

I read this novella by Balzac after I read the account of the royals fleeing Paris during the Revolution. Back then, I was kind of curious to learn more about what normal people went through during that very disturbed time. Balzac’s story is not really about normal people, but about people from the clergy who have been forced into hiding by the new regime, because it required them to swear obedience to the state (and basically renounce their faith, later on). The new regime forced the convents open and disrobed nuns and priests.

Not to excuse anything, but you’ve got to know that the new state deeply distrusted religious establishment because they sided with the nobility, the king and the traditionally God-approved old structure of the country. It was civil war, and it’s never pretty. But things got out of hand in France because of a bunch of extremists, and during a number of months there were massacres and lots of nobility or any suspect people were beheaded (I never understood everything in details, because their interpretation is very much influenced, still today, by the historian’s liberal or conservative stand).

Anyway, the novella starts with a very suspenseful scene where a frail old woman walks in a snowy street and thinks she’s being followed. It’s really a modern stalking scene! The paranoia is very well portrayed, people couldn’t trust each other and it’s an atmosphere akin to that described in books about the Stalinist regime or the Nazi regime, where people guarded their words, their looks and gestures in order to avoid betraying any genuine thought or emotion.

Of course, Balzac being Balzac, it can’t be all contained, and there’s a grand finale full of emotion at the end, centered on the trauma and guilt for the king’s death.

But how was life for ordinary people during the French revolution? I have made little progress in my quest.

I’m not even sure whether the memoir or book I’m looking for exists at all. Maybe people didn’t write about their own thoughts and feelings during historical events with such a modern sensibility, the kind that would make me understand “what it was like”. I’ve heard recently about Abigail Adams’ letters during the American revolution, perhaps I’ll try in that direction. What do you think?

The one with the weirdest anatomic trivia

Fred Vargas, Dans les bois éternels (French 2006), This night’s foul work (English 2008)

Did you know that a stag is the only animal to have a cross-shaped bone inside its heart (which is a muscle)?

Did you know that a tomcat is the only animal to have a bone in its penis?

Did you know that the pig has a heart-shaped bone inside his snout?

Well, me neither, but if you’re like me, you’ll be shrugging and muttering “so what?” under your breath (or any less polite variation thereof).

Now that you have stored somewhere in your brain these very important pieces of trivia, that you probably won’t be able to drop into any dinner conversation ever (if you succeed, let me know!), you are well equipped to follow the quirky plot of this Adamsberg mystery.

Do you want to know how Vargas was able to weave a story including a tomcat, a stag and a pig? Well, me too.

Do you want to know this story? You’ll have to read it yourself. The added challenge is that the story starts with a very standard, probably drug-related murder of two thugs in a poor Paris neighborhood. Adamsberg refuses to give up the case to the drug unit, because both men had mud under their fingernails, and everybody knows there’s no mud in Paris, duh. Highly suspicious.

Every single time I get to wonder how Vargas gets to learn those quirky facts in the first place. Does she spend her days reading the footnotes in dusty encyclopedia? Does she have a network of informers who report to her every time they find some funny, bizarre, really unplaceable fact? Is is a challenge for her to come up with weird, weirder and weirdest information in each book? Because the standard here are pretty high already.

Some of the events in this book refer to earlier episodes, but you know me, I’m genetically unable to read in order, so I’m here to confirm that it doesn’t matter, the main mystery being easy to follow, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. Why does it work for Commissaire Adamsberg while it didn’t work for Inspector Gamache? Yes, I know, life’s unfair, but I guess it has to do with the writing. Vargas’ voice is strong and recognizable, it peppers every sentence with fun words and literary tour de force (one is that Adamsberg’s lieutenant speaks in rhymes, and more specifically in alexandrines in the style of Racine).

Highly recommended, but I’m already a convert.

The one that got redeemed thanks to Leonard Bernstein

Voltaire, Candide (1759)

I wish I knew how teachers should teach classics so that teenagers are not definitely turned off by them for life.

I mean, how often does that happen that a perfectly good book gets ruined because you’ve read it at too early an age, where the average response to great literature is to roll your eyes, say “whatever” and wait for the bell announcing the break? Or because you had to dissect half a paragraph for hours and you got a bad grade?

I’m afraid there’s so magic formula, but I wish there were. Because you would then avoid the embarrassment as an adult of trying one of those classics again, just on a whim or because you have the faint feeling that you missed out on something, and then, bam, you “discover” a really great book. And you wish you hadn’t lost all these years.

That’s the literary equivalent of your mother’s “I told you so”, except that your literary class teacher had a moustache and handed out bad grades by the dozen (French education isn’t really about giving encouragement).

Anyway, back to Candide. I won’t go into details of the plot (sorry, won’t help anyone copy-paste their book report), but let me tell you I had no idea it was so explicit and blunt. I thought Voltaire was prim and proper, if not exactly wholesome and bland. I thought its irony was in the polite form of 18th century royal court flourished language (just like this cover: they kiss, wink wink, but they’re not in an X-rated movie). Anyway I was wrong. I still wonder how the teacher managed to find a paragraph to dissect that wouldn’t be explicit. Voltaire’s Candide is not politically correct at all.

I wondered if it did translate well into English and if American readers weren’t offended by all this. This touches slightly to the current debate about whether Charlie cartoons are offensive, to which the American answer seems to be a resounding “yes”, while the French answer ranges from “no” to “maybe, but get over it ah ah”. But I’m digressing.

Is Voltaire offensive? Well, it’s a satire, not subtle wit or irony, so you shouldn’t expect anything but a caricature. Is it modern and readable? Absolutely. The best proof is what sparked my renewed interest in that novella: Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, whose famous aria by Cunegonde “Glitter and Be Gay” is a favorite in our home.

I recently watched the opera in DVD and wanted to compare with the original text, believing that Bernstein had modernized the story. But the version I watched is true to the text and quite fun. And the American audience doesn’t seem offended.

The one with too many twists and turns

Hélène Grémillon, The Confidant (2010)

The problem with audiobooks is that when you don’t enjoy it much you can’t make them go faster and skip chapters: it’s black or white, either you just drop them or you have to stick with them until the (bitter) end.

What about books stuck in the middle?

The truth is that I got terribly annoyed, which came at the expense of the book. The story was so suspenseful that I just couldn’t abandon it altogether, but the more I forced myself to listen, the more my disbelief and my annoyance grew. By the end I was ready to thrash the whole thing!

To tell the story of The Confident is first to explain the construction: a box within a box within a box, all full of secrets and surprises. The first story is told by Camille, a young woman who works as a publisher in 1975. She’s pregnant from a boyfriend who doesn’t want to Her mother just died, and deep into her grief she starts receiving anonymous letters from a man she doesn’t know, Louis, who tells her about a woman called Annie. At first Camille thinks it’s a ploy to sell her a manuscript, but she’s soon hooked, especially as some details hit close to home. The moment when we switch to Annie’s voice, set between 1939 and 1943 is the start of the real story.

Annie is a young girl who has befriended the wealthy Parisian woman, Elisabeth, who lives in her village’s chateau. The woman has fertility issues, and on a whim Annie tells her that she would carry her child. If that offer was serious or not, we don’t really know, but Elisabeth takes her at her word. Drama ensues as the war is approaching fast.

I won’t go any further into the story. While it may be promoted as a book about the war, it’s more of a thriller cum romance drama, with jealousy, betrayals, heartbreak and… surrogacy. The Confident is not a bad book, but not a great one either. It’s just plain manipulative, and it doesn’t even hide from its purpose. The writing is very self-explanatory (which grated on my nerves), full of definite truths and aphorisms. The same facts are turned onto themselves as we get first Annie’s view, then Louis’, then Elisabeth’s. The more twisted it gets, the less plausible it becomes. And don’t even start me on the ending.

Given that it was quite a bestseller in France, I’m sure a lot of (French) readers will disagree with me. But it was just not the right book for me.

The one where the King of France has no backbone

Alexandre Dumas, The Flight to Varennes (1860)

M. Smithereens knew I’d had a ball with Dumas’ Twenty Years Later, so he chose this audiobook for me last time at the library, a book that’s part travelogue, part reconstitution of the 1791 King Louis 16th’ flight from Paris and his arrest in the Argonne area, halfway between Reims and the German border.

I enjoyed it, but it was clearly less fun than a real novel, especially because of Dumas’ insufferable pretension. He starts with explaining at length how all the historians who have written about this episode all had it wrong, and that he, the great Dumas, was the only one to go there and get first-hand witness to give him an account. Needless to say, he comes out as a major prick.

If you get past that tone of his, you get an interesting story about a turning point of the revolution. You follow the events mile by mile and you get to realize how big events that make it into History books (with an upper-case H) are just a string of tiny, mundane moments: at each single point, things could have gone differently if someone had just said something different. Without a series of delays and little mistakes, the flight could well have succeeded. After all, they were stopped but 30 miles away from their destination, a fortified fortress full of loyal royalist soldiers. And the perspective of alternate history is just bewildering. As Dumas states:

“Had Louis XVI not attempted to fly, or had he attempted it and succeeded, quite other events would have followed in place of those which actually transpired. There would have been no civil war, no war against neighboring states, no September 2nd, no Terror, no Bonaparte, no Elba, no Waterloo, no St. Helena.”

Dumas shows how events were messy, and that there’s no clear-cut interpretation. Even people who stopped the king and his family don’t seem all fanatical republicans. They are less moved by big ideas and ideals, and more by hesitation and improvisation and trying to do what’s proper or what looks good for them.

Even though Dumas spends time describing places he visited, the most interesting part is the portrait of the royals. King Louis 16th and Queen Marie-Antoinette come out as petty, boring bourgeois without much (any?) grandeur.

All along it seems like they can’t really make up their minds, or when they finally have, that they have never realized that they needed to change their ways or disguise themselves or make do with outside constraints. It’s a weird experience to look at them so stuck in their old habits, and at the same time, so mediocre and vulgar. For example, they delay the day of departure in order not to miss their monthly allowance. They are stuck on decorum and prefer bringing a lady higher in the protocol ladder in their carriage than an armed guard who could have come in handy. The Queen even got lost in Paris because she insisted she knew the way better than the postilion, and he couldn’t possibly challenge her.

We know that they are running for their lives, but they definitely don’t. They are afraid of any violence, and don’t want to take any risks, while basically doing the thing that will incense the whole country. Dumas explains how remote the royals were from their people, especially as they were made to marry foreign princesses from a very young age. The fact that they were basically betraying the country they were supposed to be ruling by God’s will hasn’t obviously crossed their minds.

Eventually, I couldn’t clearly understand Dumas’ feelings about the royals themselves. He seems to despise them as persons, but seem overall favorable to monarchy, especially compared to the excesses of revolution and the Terror that came after these events.

This book came timely as I had finished the awesome Swedish DVD series “Anno 1790″. It made me interested to read more about the people living during French revolution. Any recommendation?

The one where a German nun beats me up

Lorette Nobecourt, Clôture des merveilles (2013)

Don’t fear for my health and safety, the beating was entirely metaphorical. But still: where James Ellroy, his language and crowds of characters didn’t defeat me, a 12C German nun’s mystic visions left me searching for the nearest exit. I tell you truthfully, I didn’t go further than a third of the book (in audio version), and much of it with white knuckles.

On paper it could have been a good match. Hildegard von Bingen is a classic, a woman, and I like historical biographies that are on the fringes between fiction and non-fiction. She’s not exactly a household name but she’s been quite hyped up (her music! her sensitivity! a strong female figure in a men’s world! her natural, holistic approach to medical care! one of the few female saints doctors of the Church!), so I was eager to learn more.

But the experience was a total disaster for me. First I didn’t like the voice in the audiobook. The woman insisted on each word as if she was declaiming a tirade on stage and articulated each syllable especially the “H” of Hildegard. I am aware that the writer chose each word with lots of care, reminding me slightly of Marie N’Diaye’s Three Women. But Nobécourt’s writing is a lot of “tell” and very little “show”. We don’t see Hildegard as much as we get to hear a homily about her with lots and lots of poetic analysis.

The words were beautiful, but the sentences made absolutely no sense to me. On the best days I thought it was all my fault. I have to assume that the book written for a Christian reader, and even more specifically a Catholic one. I am none of those, and I don’t have an extensive knowledge of the Catholic theology. On the worst days, it nearly made me laugh, although it’s also my fault. I am by no means a mystic person, what I like most are books that remain with their feet firmly on the ground (although magical realism appeals to me), so that I found it all very pompous and frustrating. Frustrating because I couldn’t see beyond the big words and big concepts and couldn’t reach the real woman in her flesh and blood.

I just have to make peace with the conclusion that this book is not for me. Especially after I heard of another Hild, another Middle-ages woman who became a saint: Hild by Nicola Griffith, whose review at Eve’s Alexandria immediately convinced me to add it to my TBR list!

The one where the trader’s truth is bigger than fiction

Jérôme Kerviel, L’Engrenage, Mémoires d’un trader (French, 2010)

I’m not sure how famous (infamous) the name of Kerviel is overseas. But in France, he has become a generic name. He’s that guy who worked for the Société Générale bank and lost 5 billion euros (7b$) in 2008 at the start of the subprime crisis.

There was a lot of running jokes at the time (well, better laugh than cry, eh?) calling him the 5-Billion-Euro-Man in reference to the 1970s 6-Million-Dollar-Man, or even T-shirt announcing: “I’m Kerviel’s girlfriend”. But of course, it was no joke. The guy was accused by his employer of breach of trust, forgery and unauthorized use of the bank’s computers and arrested.

This book is his defense and memoir, published just before he was found guily and sentenced to 5 years in prison and to reimbursement of the €5b (on appeal, the prison sentence was confirmed but not the reimbursement).

A lot of people felt at the time and even now that his employer could not have been totally ignorant of Kerviel’s acts. In his book, he alleges that not only has he been tacitly authorized, but also encouraged by his managers. He was caught in a frenzy of speculation, totally disconnected from the reality of the amount he played with, and the management was okay with it as long as the bank could make a profit out of it. When the situation turned sour, everybody washed their hands of him and said that they didn’t know.

The book rather confirmed my previous opinion that Kerviel was not the only guilty party in this sad story, but it didn’t manage to convince me that Kerviel was completely innocent. It’s hard to sympathize with Kerviel upon reading his book. I don’t believe he’s a fraud, and he didn’t get rich with his extremely speculative operations. But I don’t buy his “look how normal I am” thing. He speaks a bit about the prejudices that people have against financial traders, as being greedy, workaholic sociopaths who earn millions each year, but the book didn’t manage to paint quite a different portrait.

Société Générale has been found guilty of lack of control by the banking authorities, but it’s rather light compared to Kerviel’s own fate. In French legal system, there is no legally binding wishful blindness. The company has since improved its control systems, but overall has recovered from the financial crisis unscathed, contrary to his one employee who is now in jail.

The best part of the book is to give us an insider look into the practices of these young men at the core of big banks, who are given the keys to international economy and stability, and who play with them carelessly. That alone is already frightening, validating the old movie Wall Street from the 1980s: nothing much seems to have changed since Michael Douglas played Gordon Gekko. Equally frightening are the chapters where Kerviel tells how police investigators and judges were out of their depth with financial techniques and so were fed arguments by SocGen’s legal team, rather than challenging their case.

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.