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.

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.


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

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!)