Georges Simenon, La Rue aux Trois poussins (1963)

In the big volume of Simenon that I took with me in our family trip, I discovered that there was a short story collection. I had fond memories of another Simenon’s short story collection (I read “Maigret et les petits cochons sans queue” five years ago already!) and it made me pick that one, which don’t feature Maigret at all. “La rue aux trois poussins” is a translator’s nightmare. It should be easy enough: “the street with the three chicks”, but you would picture three young women, whereas we are speaking here of three preschoolers. Chicks in French is an endearing term for small kids or toddlers (rather gender-neutral or boys, I have given the book back to the library, but I sort of remember that one of the three is a girl). So what would this story title be? “The street where the three buddies play?” Can you propose anything better?

In this story, three young kids play outside while their mothers are busy with chores, and their older siblings are at school. One of them listens to what a mean older boy says about his father, and repeats it at home to his mother. A long-reaching, life-altering tragedy follows this bit of gossip and that bit of misunderstanding.

Overall, I didn’t quite enjoy this collection. The stories show Simenon in a dark mood, his characters are often pitiful and mean, and it shows the women under an overwhelmingly harsh light. They’re bitter nags, superficial airheads, scheming adulterers, gossips and liers. Only Mélie the fishmonger has a proverbial heart of gold, and it was my favorite story of the whole book. One could still argue that Mélie might be very business-savvy, but if she continues to bail her ne’er-do-well husband out, she might end up badly too.

Simenon still writes with great skills, as he can draw a street scene or a café scene in a few sentences and still render it vividly. His characters are people of little money and few prospects. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but most of these stories were first published during the war between 1939 and 1941, and it might have contributed to the gloomy, hopeless and closed atmosphere of those stories. They were published in the magazine Gringoire, which was a very nationalistic, violently anti-Communist and conservative newspaper (it also published Irene Nemirovski, so it’s not all black-or-white).

It led me into the rabbit hole of Simenon’s attitude during the war. My understanding is that he was no big hero or traitor either. He very prudently retired to the countryside where he led a wealthy and relatively worry-free life, which is already a lot better than most people in the country. His passivity and lack of support for the Resistance made him suspicious at the end of the war. Even as he was blamed for collaboration, it was a late and light condemnation that occured in 1948 and it didn’t stop him from staying at the top of the bestsellers lists. It still made me wince to learn that he was so loaded while so many of his books and stories center on poor people.

Georges Simenon, Maigret Loses his Temper (1963)

Original title: La Colère de Maigret

As the novel starts, Maigret is huffing and puffing against bureaucracy and writing useless reports. He’s way more interested when someone informs him that the boss of several nightclubs has gone missing for several days. The man is by all means respectable, his competitors (who may or may not be as law-abiding as he is) call him “the grocer” behind his back (with the meaning of “bean counter”). Something is not right.

Indeed, three days after he’s disappeared, his body is found, strangled, near the Cimetière du Père Lachaise. Maigret and everybody else scratch their heads: it is not unexpected for nightclubs regulars to get killed, but gangsters don’t strangle, nor do they keep a dead body for days before disposing of it. Who had the man an appointment with, on the evening he walked away from his nightclub?

Now, I really don’t want to spoil anything (more) but the twist of the last 10 pages is a big one, and explains the title. Otherwise it would almost be a misnomer, as Maigret is slow, a bit impatient maybe, and his investigation is decisively low-key. But those last few pages almost take the book into a different genre, and I found that Simenon hurried things a bit too much. It’s common for Simenon not to tie nice bows on everything but in this case I felt that he could have made Maigret’s decisions or thoughts a bit clearer (especially in contrast with the investigation where he basically explains his method step by step). Anyway the conclusion will leave me thinking about it for some time…

Beyond the plot and the detective work itself, I enjoyed getting glimpses on Maigret’s personal life and what it tells of this era. Maigret goes home for lunch, and Madame Maigret is really expected to have every meal ready, except when her husband decides on a whim to not show up for dinner. Investigations continue on Saturdays, but everyone takes a break for Sunday and Maigret decides to go on a weekend break, for which Madame Maigret has to pack at one hour’s notice. Madame Maigret reads magazines and looks at her husband ironically as he goes fishing and doesn’t catch much. Madame Maigret is really a saint who hasn’t heard of women’s rights yet (this is 1963 for sure, and Simenon is annoyingly patronizing to women – if not worse, in other books). I wonder if Pierre Bayard would write an alternate version where Madame Maigret wasn’t so subservient and shallow.

Right now, I’m trying to imagine if it would be feasible in 2021 to decide on a Saturday at 5pm to hop on a train before dinner, book a hotel about 2 hours away and plan a last minute weekend getaway… (no app and just a landline). That certainly would be very expensive.

(ps. Sorry for the clumsy layout, I’m currently publishing from my phone)

J.C. Renoux, The Art of Telling Stories (2005)

L’art de conter: la pratique et le répertoire du conteur

I borrowed this book on a whim at the library and it was like an Internet rabbit hole, but on paper, which is way more cool in my perspective. I don’t even know where to start for my American readers, but perhaps I should explain the title of the book and it would make its purpose clearer.

“Conte” in French is more ancient than stories, it could be translated as fairy tales but the fairies are not always present. We include myths, legends, folktales from the antiquity to the contemporary period. And “conteur” is a professional storyteller. How does one make a living being a storyteller in France, you may ask? One tours the libraries and try to get subsidized to run community projects at primary schools (schools in France start at 3, the perfect age for hearing stories) or in family-friendly fairs. I’ve taken my kids to such performances, indoors and outdoors, and I love them. (I suspect that it is really tough making good money on this line of business, don’t idealize it…)

The author of this book is such a professional, operating in the South of France (which has a long oral tradition) and he insists that his art is not like an actor’s (although I do think that the ones I saw were probably actors of street theater doing this as a side gig). The storyteller works with existing myths and he knows about the structure of traditional tales, but he can use these tools to create new stories on his own or with kids.

This is where Renoux pushed me hard down into the rabbit hole: there were pages about the structure of myths and the categorization of stories done by 20C researchers. I learnt quite a bit about the Aarne Thompson index, which literally blew my mind… (inserted several hours into Wikipedia) I knew that people had collected stories, but I had no idea that people had indexed them! (I have never studied anthropology or sociology but those domains fascinate me). Apparently when a storyteller is pitching a performance to customers, he refers to this index (is that for real? I have a hard time imagining the job interview: “are you doing mostly ATU 300? We were looking for ATU 100 or 200 at most…” Or maybe that’s the way it goes?).

The book also showcases a few tales by Renoux or others (and how they fit into one or several categories of the ATU index), and some stories that he created together with some classes.

I had to give the book back early to the library because of our summer trip but I’ll dig in deeper coming fall. It also interests me as a writer, to be able to recognize patterns (one would say tropes? or is it differen?) and structures in traditional stories. In the past I have invented many stories at bedtime for my sons (often because we had finished all the available books) and I know for a fact that it’s not so easy to find a satisfactory pace and balance in a story even if you have the “right” ingredients (the prince, the dragon and the evil witch…).

Ryan Andrews, This Was Our Pact (2019)

This graphic novel was recommended to me by my son. I’m so glad that we reached this age when we can share books and discuss (although I’m not expecting book club level conversations just yet… reactions range from grunts to emojis to wild comparisons with obscure memes or YouTube idols…). Anyway, even if we may disagree, I’m always keen to try things he recommends, and this one didn’t disappoint.

This was our pact is the story of a handful of boys who have dared each other to follow the river at night to see for themselves if the mythical tales their parents have told them are true. In this village, people gather on Autumn equinox night to let paper lantern float away on the river. At the end of their trip downhill, they’re supposed to fly off into the sky and become stars, but the kids want to be sure. The pact is: no one turns for home, no one looks back. But soon the kids break the pact, except for two boys on their bikes: Ben, and Nathaniel, whose friendship Ben is secretly ashamed of because Nathaniel is basically a nerd and the rest of the boys don’t like him.

Ben and Nathaniel embark into an adventure that will take them much farther than they’d expected. Magic things do happen on that special night, and they will also meet unlikely characters. To say much more would certainly spoil the magic. The pace of the story is slightly uneven, but there are really moments of grace hidden inside that are enough to put me in a very forgiving mood.

His website says that Ryan Andrews lives in the Japanese countryside with his family. There’s indeed an interesting mix between American and Asian culture in his art. Some have mentioned Studio Ghibli but I don’t really see it there. I particularly enjoyed his work on dark blueish pages, it gives a dreamy feeling throughout the book.

Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club (2020)

The Thursday Murder Club is not a club where murderers meet on Thurdays to commit their crimes. It’s a weekly appointment for 4 members of Coopers Chase Retirement Village in Kent, all fast approaching 80 years of age, to put their skills and brains together to investigate cold cases. The story is told by Joyce Meadowcroft, a very proper retired nurse, who has been recently invited by Elizabeth, the group leader, to join the club, as Elizabeth’s best friend Penny is now in hospice care. In a retirement community, it is expected that some members will die. But it would be from illness or old age, and not from being murdered. Soon the group of friends is thrilled (!) to learn that the village property developer has been found murdered, and of course they are very keen to provide help to the local police.

This has the perfect recipe for a great cozy mystery: quirky and endeading characters (imagine Miss Marple who would have joined forces with other nosy old people; the bonus would be that each of them used to have a career or skills that would come handy to unmask criminals). I adored Joyce, and Elisabeth. I liked that the book has a really comedic quality, but also it can venture into a more melancholy tone.

I didn’t know that Richard Osman is a British TV celebrity, and frankly, I couldn’t care less, because the mystery, setting and characters are all delightful. I understand that this is his first novel, and at some points it shows a little, as the pace is rather uneven and there are too many characters and backstories crammed between the covers. But it is a resounding success, and a great entertaining read, and I’m sure to be looking to the next mystery that our friends of the Thursday Murder Club will be investigating.

Nathalie Léger, Suite for Barbara Loden

Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden (French 2012, English 2015)

I discovered Nathalie Léger thanks to Rebeccah Hussey’s newsletter and I loved the first book I tried well enough to want to try another of her “trilogy”. I can’t say that I fell in love with her books, because these are not so easy to love, and they are clearly out of my usual comfort zone, but I found in them something very original and a subtlety of feelings that made me want to dig deeper. Both are short and non-fiction and utterly difficult to classify.

The White Dress was about a performance artist. This book is about another visual artist, an American filmmaker who was also an actress and the wife of Elia Kazan. I had not heard of her before this book, and although her husband’s name and movies’ names are familiar to me, I haven’t watched them myself. Barbara Loden has made a very unique film, Wanda, which is about a woman who is drifting away. In Léger’s book it is sometimes difficult to separate Wanda from Barbara Loden, and also from Nathalie Léger herself.

Just as the previous book, the story is meandering and fragmentary. Léger is given the job to write a biographical notice about Barbara Loden for a film encyclopedia, something brief and to the point, and she finds it unable to achieve this goal. To describe the life of any individual in a few sentences is an impossible task. Instead she dives deep into the tenuous traces of Loden’s life, the few memories gathered here and there from people who knew her (some refuse to talk altogether). So Léger obsessively watches Loden’s movie Wanda, with the hope to understand the woman behind it. The movie, starring Loden as the main character, is based on real events, where a woman participated against her will to a bank robbery.

The tone of the book is melancholy. Wanda is helpless and unloved, she follows a tragic path on her own, she’s not the strong heroine that we would love to see. Barbara Loden will make only one movie in her life, will not meet success and recognition, and will die of cancer in 1980. Ultimately it is about loneliness and freedom, but it is still mysterious to me what Léger wanted to achieve with this series of books. We also get to read a bit more about Léger’s mother and her disastrous marriage and divorce. I still preferred the book White Dress because I felt more connected with both the narrator and the subject than in this book. I guess my reaction would have been different if I had watched the movie itself. I will gladly read the third book about yet another female artist: the Countess of Castiglione.

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019)

I could lie and pretend that I’d picked this book at the library because I had heard of this up-and-coming poet or because of a glowing review in the New York Times. But the truth is that my son said that the cover art was so beautiful (the one with the golden leaves) and so I said I’d borrow it and report to him how the book was. Yeah, it was a bit random.

The story is told by a young Vietnamese-American man in his mid-twenties, who writes to his mother and reflects on his childhood. The boy is born in the U.S. but Vietnam and the war is still very much sending shockwaves into this family. There’s the trauma of war and the high cost of surviving and escaping Vietnam. But there’s also the poverty and menial jobs (the mother works at a salon doing mani and pedi) and having to deal with racism and prejudices.

Little Dog, which is the endearment name of the young man, grows up very close to his grandmother, whose mind is still stuck in Vietnam. Little Dog’s mother is not without love but she can’t read and she doesn’t speak much and she’s mostly exhausted from her job scrambling to make ends meet. There’s brutality also, and it might be tough to read because Vuong is very good at describing raw emotions. Little Dog grows up into an introvert gay young man, who falls head over heels for an All-American man, a redneck living in a trailer and working on a tobacco farm during the summer.

The best thing about this book is the language itself. It shows that Ocean Vuong is a poet. I really wanted to hold on to those beautiful sentences and images. But I didn’t really care for Little Dog. It was tragic but there wasn’t much of a compelling story. I cared about his grandmother and his mother but I learnt too little about them both. It was frustrating, and a bit embarrassing, because all along I wondered how autobiographical the story was and I felt guilty to want more. It made me think of a Vietnamese-American short story collection by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees. The language was not as gorgeous but the characters and stories packed a lot more punch.

Els Beerten, Allemaal willen we de hemel (2008)

French Title: Nous voulons tous le paradis (2015) – Paradise is what we all want

Now it’s clear that I miss a system that tells me easily where I’ve first heard about a book, but it’s safe to say that this book has been in my TBR list for years, since 2017 actually (that’s when I added it on Goodreads): a book about war in Belgium is not that common. This is a young adult novel, but I’d say it has enough complex situations and all sorts of nuances to suit most adult readers. In France it is published in two volumes but the author originally published it as one. And by the way, after having researched my blog and my notebooks for hours, I’m officially reverting to using the title of the book as the post title, because it’s just way easier. It’s probably for the best if I spare the blog world my silly puns…

The story is told in short chapters that switch narrators and timeline. The shtick is that it never says who is speaking, you have to deduce it. There are 4 characters speaking in turn: Jef – a teenager in 1942, whose family believes that if they keep their head down and steer clear from the German (Nazi) occupying forces, they will be ok, and so they don’t want to have anything to do with resistance against the Nazis either. Ward, Jef’s best friend, whose father committed suicide before the war, and whose mother manages the village’s grocery shop. Renée, Jef’s sister, is secretly in love with Ward. And last, Rémi, Jef’s little brother, who is fed up with being always “the little one”. Ward plays the saxophone like nobody else, and all are united by music and friendships, until something happens that makes even the name of Ward taboo in the family and the whole village. As we dive deeper into the story of this broken friendship, we understand that Ward has been lured into the Nazi ideology and has volunteered to join the ranks of the Flemish troops on the Eastern front, to fight against the Soviet Union alongside the German Nazis.

At the end of the war, scores are settled. Jef is the village’s hero for having helped the resistance on one special occasion, and Ward has disappeared. When he returns in 1947, after having passed as a German for years, he will be judged and sentenced for treason and collaboration with the Nazis. But nothing is as clear as it seems. Why did Ward go away? Why didn’t his friends stop him? What happened between them? Ward was heavily influenced by the local schoolmaster and the Catholic priest to enlist in the Nazis troops; they appealed to his faith and his willingness to defend his people. But he was not the only one under influence, and lies and naivety have tragic consequences all around.

Flanders is the part of Belgium that doesn’t speak French (Wallon), they speak Flemish, which is not Dutch either (don’t go and vex people all around!). Nazis considered Dutch and Flemish as almost Aryans, so that they held both countries under their direct leadership and tried to foster nationalism to enlist people into the Nazi ranks (as second class citizens nonetheless). Which worked to a certain extent, especially as Flemish had been despised by French-speaking Wallons for decades. And as a full disclosure, my husband’s family is Flemish from the French border.

The novel is a tragedy of many layers and nuances. It is really heart-wrenching and I couldn’t wait to turn the pages to understand each of the characters’ choices and destiny. It’s too bad it’s not available in English, because I feel that it would be such a good book club choice.

The One of the Last Minute Before

Florian Illies, 1913: Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts (German 2012, English: The Year before the Storm, 2013)

This is a funny book about a time that was all too serious. It borrowed it on a whim from the library, and I must say that I went in and out of it rather than reading it from the first page to the last. The premises of the book are easy: to recap month by month, day by day, what happened to people (famous ones, or people who would have some reasons to be famous later) on that innocent year of 1913, a bit more than a century ago. Of course, this is a literary ploy, as the book was ready to be read in 2013 exactly. But even if I missed the mark by… 8 years (!), it’s still very interesting.

We see Marcel Proust writing La Recherche du temps perdu, but we also see some guy learning to play the trumpet, a boy named Louis Armstrong. We see Kafka being miserable after a failed marriage proposal. We see a guy named Hitler painting rather badly. It’s a lot of anecdotes, some silly, or mundane, some marked by melancholy and a sense of foreboding. The tone is ironic and the anecdotes pivot from one to the next on a pun or a mere coincidence. And coincidences run aplenty. Famous people cross each other’s path, they go to famous painting exhibitions, react to scandalous new art performances (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), admire each other or insult each other.

It is a geological section of the world on any given year… and what a year! To enjoy this book, you need some knowledge about German writers and painters from that particular period, otherwise I’d say that it would seem rather mundane and even pointless… or you’d need to spend a lot of time on Wikipedia (well, that might be a choice for the weekend, but consider yourself warned). At that period, everyone was keeping a detailed journal, or so it seems, and so some famous writer’s toothache is reported alongside an intellectual dispute over the meaning of life, since they happened the same week of 1913. It really sent me down a rabbit hole of thoughts. In 1913, there was only 1,6 billion people on earth, now we humans are probably 7,8 billions, what kind of a book could be written about 2020, or rather 2019, if we take the same approach? What anecdotes would make it to a book written in 50 years’ time with perfect hindsight? I wonder…

The weakness of the book is that it’s awfully Germano-centric. The whole world of 1913 happens between Berlin, Vienna, Prag, and Paris. America is seldom mentioned, and Africa, Asia, South America, the Pacific are not mentioned at all. But still, it was a lot of fun.

If you want an audio companion to this book, try Radiolab’s episode: Dispatches of 1918, which looks at a special year across the globe (in Germany, but not only there), to see the aftermath of the war and of the flu epidemic. To think that this episode happened only 5 years later than the book sent me to a whole other rabbit hole… 🐰

The One with the Artist Bride

Nathalie Leger, La robe blanche (French, 2018; English Title: The White Dress, 2020)

I first heard of this writer and this book from Reading Indie’s newsletter, and I was sort of piqued that I’d never even heard of a French writer.

The White Dress is the sort of book that resists categorization. It’s probably an essay, although it could also be a novel intercepted with real facts. The narrator may be Nathalie Léger herself but I can’t say for sure, even though I will assume so in this post. She hears about the artist Pippa Bacca through the news and becomes obsessed with her. Pippa Bacca is a young performance artist, who left her native Italy in early 2008 wearing a bride’s white gown to travel across Europe depending on people hospitality and kindness. It was an artistic gesture of hope and trust, trying to meet people along the road from Italy to Jerusalem crossing the Balkans (just a few year after a terrible war) and Turkey. She hitch-hiked from place to place, and wherever she stopped, she met with local people and midwives and explained her artistic endeavor for peace, filming herself to document her trip.

Unfortunately, after a few months, Pippa Bacca meets a tragic death in Turkey, raped and murdered by a man who has taken her for a ride. Her idealist quest for peace has ended in senseless violence. Even worse, the murderer stole her video camera and filmed the wedding of one of his own relatives. It is both shocking and senseless, and Nathalie Léger never tries to give definite answers to all the questions that this event raises. What was Pippa trying to demonstrate? What about this wedding dress? Was she naive, religious or something else? Léger refers to a lot of other female performance artists and interrogates what is performance art and what are female artists attempting with these quests. I am personally fascinated by Marina Abramovic‘s performances, and I am aware that for most of these pieces, artists don’t provide a ready-made explanation of what they want to do, so as a reader you’re left with the mystery, even more so as Pippa is no longer alive.

The book has a second story line about the narrator’s own mother and her attempt to come to terms with a fault divorce. Léger’s father sued her mother for divorce, humiliating her publicly, and she never could defend herself. Along the book, we see the daughter and the mother getting closer to one another. It’s a bit confusing at first because the two lines of the book are apparently nothing to do with each other, but when I finished the book I could see it as an exploration of different aspects of violence against women.

I really enjoyed this book, even though it is very different from what I’m used to read. I find similarities with Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder, which is a personal inquiry into a real person, dead a long time ago, and how mysterious the life of others can remain despite our attempts. The White Dress is a part of a trilogy; I look forward to read the two other parts.

PS. The White Dress is available in English from the Dorothy Project, as are the two other books in the trilogy.