The One with the Family Secrets in Pink and Lilac

Camille Jourdy, Juliette (French 2016)

Oh, how big a difference one day makes! When I started to read this graphic novel I was stressed out by some ongoing renovation project and I was annoyed by the main character of the book, an anxious, meek, slightly depressed, slightly aimless young woman named Juliette, who takes a break from her life and job in Paris to rest for a while in her family.

I was annoyed by the naive design of this graphic novel, all in pink, lilac, pastel tones. I feared it would be too schmaltzy, a real tear-jerker. I was innerly boiling at her passivity. Get a grip, girl! Stop your idle navel gazing! You can’t possibly have a good reason to be so anxious! In brief, I was being stupid, because if Juliette had been real, none of what I’d say would have put her out of her funk. Existential crisis doesn’t solve itself in minutes with a bullet-point epiphany over lunch.

The next day, the renovation was going well, and I was in a better mood for Juliette. Yes, she’s the meek one, but what a family! She has a big sister, Marylou, who works cleaning and caring for elderly people. She is a strong, big woman who takes care of all matters in her family, but secretly she has a lover. Juliette’s and Marylou’s parents are divorced and don’t get on with each other whenever they get together.

Short daily scenes full of humor or sadness show the tiny dramas, struggles, and quests for love and happiness. We never know exactly why Juliette has come back, but we still get to empathize with her, her friend and her whole family. She is slightly hypochondriac, clearly highly sensitive, and she’s not the dynamic super heroine à la Wonder Woman but after a few pages I had totally forgotten how annoyed I had been!

It’s a quiet, melancholy book, with no big tension but true big questions hidden behind the small details, the few words and the poetic tone. Who plays what role in a family and can one change? How do you position yourself with adult, ageing parents? What can you do with family secrets? The story is left open-ended but I liked it that way.

Camille Jourdy is the author of another graphic trilogy, Rosalie Blum, that has been made into a movie this year. I haven’t seen it, but she reminds me of Malika Ferdjoukh Four Sisters graphic novel series.

Advertisements

The One with the Birth of Orlando

Christine Orban, Virginia et Vita (French, 2012)

I’m getting better at stopping a book I started because I dislike it, but I’m not there yet when I am ambivalent about a book: I still want to give it a fair chance, and I always have the hope that the book will redeem itself in the end.

I was attracted to this novel by the hyped-up image of the lesbian affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. I’d known about it, but I didn’t know the details, and yes, it was probably a voyeuristic move from me to borrow this book. Similar to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf has become such a pop-culture figure in our literary world. She’s revered, not only because she wrote great novels, but because she was a rebel, she was misunderstood, she was depressed and repressed, and because she was in a close circle of equally fascinating people.

This book (that is never quite clear about which part if fiction, which part is fact, but we should probably get used to this in our era – sigh) introduced me to another Virginia. A jealous, possessive, egoist, often unlikeable Virginia. And Leonard! [deep sigh] In fact, most characters in the book are rather unlikeable, which is not really a problem if they were like that in real life, but if you tell a love story, it makes it a tough sell. We see the bitter throes of passion, but we do not see the joy of it. The gap between Vita’s upper-class standing, way of life and education, and Virginia’s middle-class situation is obvious, as is the gap between Vita’s good enough literary success and Virginia’s deeper quest for literary creation. But I missed the spark of an emotional connection.

The book gave us an intimate view on the literary creation of Orlando, and that was the best part of it, but the whole experience was sadly a bit disappointing because it was too slow and too detached. I would perhaps have been better inspired to re-read Orlando (which I read during highschool but completely misunderstood), or another Woolf novel and her biography by Hermione Lee, which I only read in part (900 pages, people!)

Have you read books on Woolf that you enjoyed?

The One with the Sadly Vicious Maid

Octave Mirbeau, Le Journal d’une Femme de Chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1900)

It’s not a good sign when you pass the 25%, then the 40% mark of a book and you don’t really know why you’re reading it, right? Well, I wanted to read a classic that I had not read in class, because there’s always a good reason that they have withstood the proverbial test of time, and after reading Belle Epoque, I was in the mood for more turn-of-the-century upstairs/downstairs drama.

Now, if upstairs/downstairs drama makes you think of Downton Abbey, think again. This is about sex (not feelings), and Célestine, the maid, is having a lot of it. It’s about hypocrisy, and Celestine is not the least of the hypocrites, even if the masters are the champions. Everybody in this book is vicious, both upstairs and downstairs. Of course, it’s a sad tale, very dark and cynical. Célestine has had an unhappy childhood, then she was trained as a maid and she got an opportunity to find a position in Paris, among bourgeois wealthy families. Bourgeois pretend to be wholesome, faithful, honest people and demand the same from their servants, but they’re mean, lying, ungenerous and vicious. The servants in turn hate and envy their masters, both when these are too strict or too lax.

The sex part is not even fun, because all the characters are such caricatures. Not only is the social criticism not very subtle (Mirbeau is rather one to underline everything twice with a yellow highlighter, if those had existed in 1900) but the political context is also important: all the evil bourgeois and servants are violently antisemitic and anti-Dreyfusards (pro-Army and pro-Catholics), in reference to the French Antisemitic scandal (l’affaire Dreyfus) that made one half of France clash against the other between 1894 and 1906. I didn’t know much about Mirbeau’s personal life or convictions before reading the book, but it is obvious that he was an anarchist. I just wished he could make his point quicker.

The One Onboard the Trans-Siberian Railway

Maylis de Kerangal, Tangente vers l’Est (French 2012)

I was determined, for once, not to let years pass before I took another Kerangal novel. After all, if I declare my love and admiration for her work, her books should bump many others on my TBR list, shouldn’t they? So when I saw this short book at the library, I jumped on it and finished it in (almost) one sitting, which is awfully rare for me.

It’s more of a novella than a novel anyway, but I was immediately sucked into Kerangal’s special style, her long sentences and inventive choice of words. The setting of the story is the Trans-Siberian Railway, this famous train line that connects Moscow to Siberia by way of Lake Baikal and many small cities in Far-Eastern Russia. The train is really a main character: we hardly leave it from page one to the end of the line, with its slow pace, days of boredom for passengers who travel for a whole week, its iconic samovar for hot water, its nasty toilets, its stops in stations where peddlers try to sell food to the passengers. Kerangal actually made the trip herself and the book was created from her experience.

As I lived in Asia, the Trans-Siberian Railway exerted its magic aura on many expats. Some French expats with no pressing business to attend to chose to return home after their stint in Asia by taking the Beijing-to-Moscow Trans-Mandchurian Railway, a variation of the Trans-Siberian. I envied them, but I’m not sure I would have been patient enough to make such a long and slow trip.

In the novella, two unlikely people meet by chance in the train. A French woman has just left her Russian lover and runs away from him, taking the opportunity to reflect on their relationship and the reasons why she came to Russia with him. A young man, almost a boy, is a conscript and the train is taking him to his military base, but he doesn’t want to go and tries to desert. Their chance encounter will impact both lives and brings a real tension in the book (I won’t spoil it here, but I hope it gets translated into English!)

Kerangal’s style is really addictive, and I can’t wait to start another one!

The One with the doomed passion in Spain

Frédéric Dard, The Executioner Weeps (Le Bourreau pleure, 1956; Eng. Pushkin Virago 2017)

I love Pushkin Press little-known European thrillers and noirs, so I was thrilled to receive the ARC through Netgalley. Yet, the story left me a bit tepid, and I remembered that I’d tried Frédéric Dard a long time ago and not found it quite my cup of “café”.

Still, it’s maybe me (or the bad timing) who’s at fault here, because it’s still a very good noir story. The narrator, Daniel Mermet, a semi-famous painter, has gone to Spain to paint alone. One night he crashes with his car into a woman. She’s hurt but not seriously, and he looks after her. The problem is that she has lost every bit of memory. The only thing Daniel knows about her is that she’s French. It doesn’t stop them from falling passionately in love. Time is suspended, but soon reality prevails. If they want to continue their love affair in France, the young woman has to get ID papers, and therefore an identity.

The premise is quite simple and thin, and yet the mystery grows by the page. As Daniel paints her beautiful model, his painting of her tells him something different from the love he feels. What is this frightening glimmer in her eye? Who is she and what is her secret?

I didn’t quite warm up to Daniel and the woman. She’s not a Femme Fatale, because she’s so passive and pitiful (or is it an illusion?). I found the amnesia and the revelatory painting a bit tricky, and without those two, the plot scaffolding starts to unravel. Yet, Frédéric Dard does a good job entertaining and titillating the reader. He was well-known for churning out cheap popular novels by the dozen. He actually wrote more than 200 novels!

On the trivia side, I was intrigued to see a French novel set in 1950s Spain, at a time where dictator Franco was ruling the country, with high level of poverty and police. Also, Daniel’s investigation brings him to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which is precisely the town we’ve moving to in less than 2 weeks!

The One with the Beating Heart

Maylis de Kerangal, Reparer les vivants (2014, English title: The Heart / Mend the Living)

Oh, how could this happen? I grumble, sigh and moan about all those books that weren’t great exactly, but when I finally read a great one, I forget to post about it? That’s exactly what happened with The Heart, which I finished in London, back in February! After Pawel Huelle’s stories, here is another post about a book that should not be forgotten.

After presenting my apologies to the book, its author and you all readers, I finally remember what stopped me from writing a post. After reading the Bridge back in 2011, I became an instant fan of Maylis de Kerangal, her unique style, her special literary project of fictional non-fiction, so I knew I would love The Heart.

And I sure did. I finished the book within two days (it was the holidays, after all). But why is it so difficult to explain why I did love it? It’s a collective book, so there’s not one main character, just dozen of them. The style is also very particular to Kerangal. Long, meandering sentences that often take the whole page or more. It’s not for everybody, but I happen to l-o-v-e it. It’s very inspiring, and then in the same breath, I know that I won’t ever be able to write as well as she does. (and I’m alright with it)

This book is about a heart. Young Simon is 21 and dies in a stupid car accident. But his young, healthy, precious heart can be saved to be transplanted to another person. Will his grief-stricken parents agree to the organ donation? Will everyone in hospitals across France be ready for the delicate intervention? Who will get Simon’s heart? Who will take care of Simon’s heart at every step of this process? It’s literally a question of life and death (no pun here) and the plot, although linear, is full of suspense.

More than the plot itself, the structure of the book is interesting, where the movement of death and the movement of life cross each other without fully extinguishing the other. Not only do we feel for the characters, all of them in their uniqueness and individuality: we learn (left-brain) about the surgeon’s secret dreams, the mother’s past, the nurse’s lover, the coordinator’s passion for music.  But we also learn (right-brain) about what it takes for a transplant to work and how organ donation is organized in France. All the way, the language adds beauty and depth, and helps the reader follow the fast pace of the book, that replicates the pace of a beating heart.

Exceptional.

The One with the Temptation of Nostalgia

7cavaliersT3Jean Raspail, Jacques Terpant, Sept Cavaliers (French 1993 novel; graphic version 2009-2010)

I have started a post a while back, an enthusiastic one. Then I added a few sentences, a bit more reserved. And then nothing for a while. Now this post is nowhere to be found on WordPress, but that’s not that bad. Because I don’t quite know how to put this in writing.

I have discovered this graphic novel at my workplace library, an adaptation of a novel whose title is really unique: “Seven riders left the town at dusk by the Western gate that wasn’t guarded anymore”. Have you ever seen a book whose title is a full sentence?

The graphic story is set in 3 volumes and the art is exquisite, using the traditional French-Belgian “ligne claire” (clear line design). Except for the clear line, nothing is clear in this story. We discover a dying kingdom, a beautiful country of mountains, countryside and seaside where the population has died or disappeared. There has been a civil war, one guesses, but we aren’t told whom against whom. Except, by hearsay, we gather some evidence of terrible destructions and deaths. Children have broken loose and turned against their families. The few survivors hide and attack the passer-by in fear of new exactions. No trains arrive at the station, no boats follow the lighthouse’s indications and there are few supplies left anyway. The king commits suicide just after the seven riders leave the town, so I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler. They are a band of loyal men, young and old, who decide to try to reach a bridge on the other side of the country, both by desperation and bravado. What else can they attempt?

This story is really fascinating and charming, but it works like a spell. You can’t stop reading, and your judgment is suspended, and then when you close the book (in my case, the three books), you don’t quite know what happened.

7cavaliers-1What is the writer’s purpose? Is it only fantasy? In some moments I was really reminded of Lord of the Rings’ saga, especially the feeling that the great kingdoms of the Elves or Rohan have passed their heydays and now only doom and gloom remain. The feeling that Frodo and Sam try to do their duty even if their quest seems hopeless at some point. Not a particularly uplifting mood, but a very powerful one nonetheless.

Those seven riders are the last remnant of civilization, they stand for loyalty, aristocracy, Christian faith and moral values. It felt nice, until it started to feel icky, especially when bands of ennemies started attacking and they were distinctly African or Arabic clichés.

There was greatness to serve among the last to the rear-guards of a finished world. (my translation)

I won’t say that the graphic novel is overtly racist, but it is promoting a reactionary philosophy to say the least. When I looked up the author, Jean Raspail (born 1925), I discovered that he was indeed a deeply conservative, old-Catholic, pro-monarchy, controversial journalist, novelist and adventurer. Not really my cup of tea at all.

It’s quite worrisome when those ideas are presented with muted colors, elegant sentences and impeccable grammar rather than the yelling abuse of some recent political meetings we have grown used to. Because they seem so fine at first. Then you can understand their lure of nostalgia for some people who are taking refuge in the extreme.

Still, the end of civilization is not yet at our gates, with 65% voting for Macron yesterday. Whew!

 

 

The One with the Grief of Exile

Leonor De Recondo, Rêves Oubliés (2012)

I am going to be bold and make assumptions wild guesses (which I can’t prove or disprove): I think that this book’s author, who is also a professional Baroque violinist and who plays in orchestras led by world-class conductors, might be an INFP (or possibly an ENFP).

Yes, I can feel it. No, I never met her or even saw her. But her book is so full of feelings that I, as an ISTJ, feel a bit overwhelmed. I understand that I might have lost a good number of you readers by overtly referencing Myers-Briggs, but it’s really the first thing I thought when I finished this book.

Alright, perhaps not the first thing. This novella presents a Basque family (from the Spanish border in the Pyrenees mountains) who has to leave their home in a hurry because of the Spanish civil war in 1936. They leave so quickly, so secretly, that the meal they cooked is still on the kitchen table. They cross the border to France, and there, a life of exile awaits them, and the war in France with its dangers and suspicions, was even tougher for foreigners.

The story is told through the husband first, then through the wife. A strong love unites them both and it’s the best pages of the book. I have really not much against the book, except that it was so sentimental and I’m not used to that.

The real weakness I found was that everything was told on the same level, using the same elegiac tone. The main characters weren’t fully developed because the characters were rather introverted and didn’t show much. There was no ebb and flow between tension and release, no narrative arch. Because of its short form it was okay, but I prefer my historical novels to have more depth and more bite.

The One with the Cheeky Loner

Over the last few months our family developed a serious crush on Vincent Cuvellier. I mean, not particularly Mr. S. who seems immune to his charm, but the rest of us…

Our 3-year-old has practically robbed the library. Even the almost-9-year-old, who is practicing eye-rolling and deep-sighing before he really qualifies as a tween, quotes full sentences of several books. And I, the adult, keep finding relatable moments in my everyday life.

Before any of you starts worrying and wants to call my husband to tell him about a certain man who is leading us astray, let me clarify.

He’s not a lover, not a rock start, not a guru. Vincent Cuvellier is a kids lit author.

He has written the quite successful series Emile (well, successful in French-speaking countries, I guess). “Emile is invisible”, “Emile wants a pet bat”, “Emile takes out the trash”, “Emile invites a girlfriend”, “Emile and the boxing dance”, etc. Once you fall in love with one, you need to have them all. These are small, think books, illustrated by Ronan Badel, featuring a little boy with a very, very serious view on life. My guess is that he’s four-going-on-forty. He’s quite obstinate and a loner. He wants to decide for himself and be strong, but obviously it doesn’t really turn in his favor.

Vincent Cuvellier has also written very poetic image books (The first time I was born, or another one about a class taking a school trip to the mountains and who has a massive pillow fight in the middle of the night), and some books for middle graders. And over the weekend I also read in just one setting his autobiography “That time when I became a writer”, and I could see even more reasons to like his work.

I like how direct and straightforward his writing is. No polite words, no convoluted sentences. He writes like a kid speaks, even with some small grammar mistakes. His life hasn’t been easy, because he hated school and dropped out of school before reaching high-school. His family wasn’t wealthy at all, so he took small jobs, was broke, got on the dole, tried theater because he wanted to flirt with girls, but all the time he was writing, mainly for himself. Freedom is so important for him, and I can see it in Emile too. When he was 16, he wrote something for a contest, a very provocative text, and he got first prize. That’s “the” time when he became a writer.

It could be a bildungsroman and end on this fairy tale kind of ending, the social revenge when the high-school dropout gets noticed and famous, but no, that’s so not him. What happened next spoke to me, the adult. He struggled even more after he got published. His first success was lucky, and he took him another 15 years to write a second book.

I do think this short book should be required reading in writing retreats. Because it’s so energizing and freeing to see someone who has gotten rid of the pretense, the artificial and the guilt. Vincent Cuvellier and Elizabeth Gilbert go hand in hand.

So here you go, you have nothing to fear for my marriage. I’m in safe hands.

The One with the Fearless Dozen

Pénélope Bagieu, Culottées (French 2016)

Pénélope Bagieu is often associated in France with girly comics (Josephine, and her first bestseller called something like “my life is so very fascinating”), but she is also a feminist and she has dipped her toes in more serious work more than once. I had enjoyed her graphic novel The Blank Page that she did together with Boulet a few years back.

This book is made after a blog she published on Le Monde web page (a proof, if needed, that it was serious!), presenting a series of women who have defied conventions and have decided their own fate in times or cultures that weren’t supportive of them (which means, basically, everywhere since the beginning of times, no?).

The choice is personal and very diverse, from an Australian woman who invented the swimsuit to a Chinese empress, from a native American warrior to a Dutch woman who wanted to marry a man outside her own faith. Some are very ancient, some are still alive. Some have inspired millions of people, some have just been nearly forgotten. Some have changed the world, some have “only” changed their own life, their own gender or their own mind.

“Culottées” in French means those (females) who wear knickers, but in French it also means those who are bold, in a cheeky way, because “culottes” is now underpants but used to be breeches, worn by men, who were the bold ones as a matter of course. The subtitle is “Women who only do whatever they want to”. Pretty inspiring, isn’t it?

Bold and cheeky is the exact tone of Penelope Bagieu’s endeavor, as she finds a good balance between awfully serious subjects (sexism, prejudice, hatred, violence against women) and the light-hearted, humorous tone.

The format is the only thing that I could criticize: the blog was all about regular vignettes and the book feels like a systematic collection of them, without the added value of getting deeper into those women’s lives. For some of them, it feels dreadfully short.