Tag Archives: French fiction

Exposed: Jean-Phillipe Blondel

“I have loved those who have passed through my life and left their mark on me for a few hours, a few weeks, a few years.”

Jean Phillipe Blondel’s The 6:41 to Paris  is a novel about middle aged regret and how the choices we make forge the people we become.

Exposed has some thematic similarities to the plot of The 6:41 to Paris; this is a novel which explores the hard-to-define relationship which exists between middle aged English teacher Louis Claret and his former pupil, Alexandre Laudin, now a famous artist.

Exposed

The relationship that exists between pupil and teacher is an interesting one. It’s fabricated, of course, so therefore, somewhat artificial. The teachers are static, in place, more or less, while over the years hundreds and hundreds of students pass through their classrooms. Do teachers remember their students? If so which ones do they remember and why? Which ones stand out? Can they predict who will be successful and who will not? And what of students? Which teachers do they remember and why? All these questions float to the surface of the novel. According to Claret:

I think a teacher signs a tacit contract with his students from the moment they walk into the classroom. It goes beyond a pact of nonaggression. It is an agreement that stipulates that even over the years, there will be respect between us, and … how should I put it … mutual protection. 

Claret receives an unexpected invitation to attend a gallery opening in the Alexandre Laudin’s provincial hometown. Claret has been aware of his former student’s success, “a steady ascension” but he never expected the invitation. Now 58 year old Claret, divorced, alone and close to retirement, decides to attend and get some free food at least.

I remember smiling as I studied Alexandre Laudin’s portrait in the paper. I hardly recognised him. He didn’t look like the student I had taught English to, twenty years earlier. I must have had him in première, but he made no impression of me. I smiled, the way I did every time I used the verb “to have” to describe the relation between student and teacher. Monsieur Bichat? I had him in cinquième. You’re lucky you didn’t get that old bag Aumont. This is how we define ourselves, us and them. We belong to each other for a few months. Then we set one another free again. We forget one another.

But for some reason Alexandre Laudin hasn’t forgotten his former English teacher. Why is Claret invited to the gallery opening?

Claret plans to grab some food and leave. As for the paintings, they are “disturbing, yes, but not really all that innovative.” And Claret comes to the conclusion that Alexandre “seemed to be repeating himself lately, the same themes same use of color, same brushstroke.”  Alexandre seeks out his former teacher during the opening and tells Claret that he “wanted to turn the page” in his work, then the two men part. Claret is then surprised when Alexandre contacts him a month later and asks to meet. This meeting is followed by Alexander’s request to paint Claret.

A somewhat odd relationship follows with Claret posing for paintings. These are sessions which lead Claret to meditations and memories of his life. For his part, Alexandre opens up about his troubled relationships with other students.

It’s not clear exactly what Alexandre wants from Laudin–then he asks Claret to pose without his shirt, and then the request moves to being painted in the nude….

Obviously given the title, this is being about Exposed both literally and figuratively–how hard it can be to connect with people and expose our needs. As a reader, I preferred 6:41 to Paris as I found Alexandre’s somewhat fragile ego (here he is world famous and still bruised by events of 20 years ago) somewhat tedious. But that’s just me. Others may be able to identify with Alexandre’s Bete Noire (s). It’s always interesting to read about people who push the boundaries of others–especially when it comes to comfort level. We often allow ourselves to be nudged, bending to politeness, and then when we realise how many boundaries have been crossed, we wonder how it happened without our noticing.

This is a slow, meditative read. The ending feels unsatisfactory and I wanted some sort of clearing of the air between the two main characters.

Review copy
Translated by Alison Anderson.

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Filed under Blondel Jean-Philippe, Fiction

Vintage 1954: Antoine Laurain

On the cover of my copy of Antoine Laurain’s Vintage 1954, there’s the sentence: If you could travel to the Paris of your dreams… I started to wonder which era in Paris I would pick. I’d definitely pass on The French Revolution thank you very much. Same with the Commune. I’d probably drift towards the 60s but then again, I wouldn’t mind having a gander at Napoleon. Ultimately though, I’d prefer to hang out with Balzac.

Vintage 1954

But back to the topic at hand. … It’s interesting that apparently the Paris of “your dreams” is 1954. That lands us right in there with Edith Piaf, Salvador Dali, Jean Gabin and French New Wave Cinema. The book is initially set in Paris 2017. Bob Brown, a somewhat naive yet goodhearted American from Milwaukee travels solo to Paris to fulfill the dream he and his now-comatose wife shared of travelling to see the sights. It’s a sad trip, but he’s trying his best to be optimistic, making the journey for himself and for his wife, Goldie, who can’t be there. He’s rented an airbnb in the Rue Edgar-Charellier and arrives just in time to find Hubert Larnaudie locked in the cellar by thieves. Bob enlists the help of residents restoration specialist Magalie “Abby” and mixologist Julien to rescue Hubert. After Hubert is liberated, he pulls out a bottle of 1954 wine to celebrate. They all drink and when they wake, they have been transported back to 1954.

I’ll backpedal a bit and add that Julien’s great-grandfather, swore he saw a UFO in 1954. Known thereafter as “Mr Flying Saucer,” he vanished in 1978, along with his dog, after watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The book takes off when our main characters wake and find themselves in 1954. This section of the book is really well done (reminds me of the film Visitors). Our characters can’t stop reaching for their cell phones–even though they no longer work. Euros are “funny money,” and poor Bob, as a tourist, doesn’t even realise that he’s slipped back in time. As far as he’s concerned the French “had resisted the march of modernity, happily holding onto their traditions.”

One of the questions underlying the plot is “what would you do if you were able to travel back in time?” First these misplaced characters must survive, but then the three french characters, Hubert, Julien and Magalie find themselves digging back into the past in one form or another. Hubert has a hilarious mis-adventure involving a missing relative who took off for Chile and subsequently disappeared without a trace. Magalie’s use of time is more poignant. Julien revisits his current employer: Harry’s Bar and mulls over The Corridors of Time.

Vintage 1954 is a lighthearted, playful novel, a time travel romp lashed with life lessons and a miracle or two. I prefer Laurain’s darker work where people go stark raving bonkers.

But that’s just me. Nonetheless I enjoyed reading this and I slotted this in, deliberately, as an antidote, between two extremely dark reads.

Translated by Jane Aitken/Emily Boyce

Review copy

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Hôtel Splendid: Marie Redonnet

No one ever had the idea of building a hotel so near the swamp.”

In French author Marie Redonnet’s novel, Hôtel Splendid, the narrator, who inherited the property from her grandmother, is one of three spinster sisters. The grandmother, it seems, was a woman with a vision. She built the hotel with her inheritance on the edge of a swamp, and while we’re told that the hotel was once magnificent, as the novel continues, that claim comes into question. The hotel is plagued with issues: the roof is falling apart, the furniture is riddled with woodworm, there’s a swarm of dead flies, a legion of cockroaches, an overwhelming, pervasive stench, foul water, but the biggest problem: the toilets.

Splendid

The only men in the book are the anonymous guests who come and go. The hotel has been the home of three generations of women. The narrator’s mother ran off with two of her three daughters one day, but now, after the death of their mother, the two long-absent sisters, Adel and Ada have returned. “They chose to come and live at the hotel instead of taking the allowance.” Unfortunately, Adel and Ada think that their sister “who never left” is entirely responsible for them, and the narrator picks up that role, but then again, it seems that she’s cursed with the burden of responsibility.

The Hôtel Splendid must keep lighting up the darkness, despite the cold and the lack of guests.

Ada is a perpetual invalid and seems to rotting from within. “She has spent her life going from clinic to clinic” but nothing helps. Her room smells so awful, the narrator has to open the windows.  In spite of her invalid status, Ada’s spry enough she has the energy, and malice, to sabotage the already over-burdened toilets. Then there’s Adel: a woman who must now be well into middle age, an actress who continually writes to “theater directors to ask about parts.” And while there are no parts for Adel (well there’s one pathetic role later in the book,) she wastes no time whatsoever entertaining the male guests. She “wears low-cut dresses,” sings for the male guests (a trapped audience) and then invites them, in a steady stream, back to her room for even more ‘entertainment.’ There’s a lot of black humour here as the narrator doesn’t grasp her sisters’ machinations. At one point she “wonder[s] if Adel is working seriously on her acting. It looks to me like she is only pretending. She’s always going and prowling around the work site. Maybe the future of the railway interests her more than the theater.”

It’s clear that man-hungry Adel can’t resist the proximity of the male guests:

It’s lucky for her the workmen like to listen to her perform.

While this is a tale of these three decaying, aging sisters, the swamp also plays a role in the plot. As age gnaws at the sisters, the swamp which represents untamed nature, devours all.  The hotel is built next to the swamp, so mosquitoes plague the guests and while various enterprises are attracted to the swamp for several insane schemes, the swamp will not be contained or conquered. Even the gravestones sink into the swamp.

Only a few of the gravestones are still above water, and soon they will disappear as well.

Railway workers, geologists, prospectors, all pass through the Hotel. But since “Grandmother thought big,” the hotel’s neon lights still lure guests. Just as time decimates the sisters, the swamp decimates man’s ambitions. It simply wears them out. And yet there’s also more to the swamp than even its ability to devour all change: it becomes Ada’s excuse for her chronic bad health and Adel’s excuse for her non-existent failed career:

Adel has cramps. She has stopped rehearsing. She says she will never go back to the stage, she is finished, she should never have come to the Splendid, it was fatal to her.

While the novel’s neurotic, rambling narration is at times repetitive (the lavatories, the lavatories), the misery of existence combined with the human strength of possibly misguided endurance make this an unusual, and weird, read.

There are pipes of all different sizes running along the walls. No wonder there are problems. The pipes make a real labyrinth. Even the plumber has a hard time finding his way. He says he doesn’t understand how anyone could have installed them that way.

Translated by Jordan Stump

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Article 353: Tanguy Viel

Tanguy Viel’s Article 353 explores a murder through the narrator/murderer’s ex-facto explanation of the crime. A definition of exactly what Article 353 is can be found at the end of the book. After watching 6 seasons of the French series Spiral, I can’t say that I understand the French legal system, but I have grasped that it is very different to America (and Britain). I’m glad I had the Spiral experience in order to understand a little of the French legal process.

Article 353

Article 353 is set in a dying seaside town on the Brittany coast. It’s the 90s, and middle-aged divorced, Kermeur, is expecting a 400,000 franc layoff payout. Thanks to the town’s mayor, Le Goff, Kermeur at least has a roof over his head for himself and his young son. They live in a gatehouse of what is rather grandly termed the local chateau. Kermeur maintains the grounds.

As always in these sorts of towns, places with beautiful scenic views but no industry, there’s always talk of Big Money coming in and making a splash. In this case it’s Lazenec, a middle-aged man who arrives one day at the chateau along with the mayor, Le Goff. Lazenac is new to the region but suddenly he’s everywhere in his fancy car and his fancy yacht. He buys the Chateau and the land and plans to build a resort on the land. It’s an investment opportunity:

What I should’ve thought that evening, and what I’ve learned to think since, is that it’s never a good sign to run into twice in the same day a guy you didn’t know the day before. 

I’m not revealing spoilers to say that Kermeur is arrested for the murder of Lazenac: for tossing him off of his yacht 5 miles off the coast to be exact. The novel is Kermeur’s side of things as told to the judge.

Imagine that, I told the judge, a seaside resort here on Brest Bay! And I continued reading the article line by line, with its big sentences like all the region lacked was the faith and courage to face the future, there was undeveloped potential here, it said, for generations we’ve been sitting on a gold mine covered by cabbages and artichokes, a new era of tourism and development was dawning, it was time to prepare to enter the new millennium

I was part way through the book when I looked up the currency exchange rates for 400,000 Francs in 1990. At that time, it was about 69,000 dollars and change. Now Kermeur is a man in a tenuous position: he doesn’t own a home, has a marginal job and  may lose that plus the home he lives in as a result of these swanky resort homes. Kermeur is seduced by the idea of success & wealth, and he acts foolishly. When a slick developer goes knocking on doors looking for investors, that means he DOESN’T have the money himself: he wants yours.  He’s not doing you any favours, he’s helping himself. Whether or not you think Kermeur is justified in his subsequent actions is going to be a personal decision.

I liked the book’s premise; I enjoy books that centre on people’s relationship with money. We spend our whole lives working for money, spending money, thinking about money, and not understanding money. Many of us lived through the last crazy housing boom and saw people assuming insane amounts of debt. We all read about the suicides, the marriage break-ups, the moonlight flits. People seemed to want to climb out of their established status, and use the boom to move on up the ladder–flipping houses and perhaps even becoming landlords in the process. I knew many people who were ruined and will never recoup. So who made all the money? Makes me think of Marx and The Wages of Labour. … 

I found the book’s bias … is that the right word ? … or should I say, decided moral direction, uninteresting. Someone is swindled. His life is ruined. Is murder justified? Unfortunately, the book’s structure leads the reader down a certain prescribed path of judgement. A different structural narrative (say events as they occur) would have allowed for a wider scope of issues such as morality, wishful thinking, etc. As is, we know what happened. Kermeur finally understands why he did what he did: Why he gambled with the largest amount of cash he would ever get his hands on in one lifetime–money he could not afford to lose. I felt as though I was being at best guided, at worst, told, the moral judgement I should feel about this ‘case.’

review copy

Translated by William Rodarmor

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Filed under Fiction, Viel Tanguy

Sleep of Memory: Patrick Modiano

“For me, Paris is littered with ghosts.”

Back to Patrick Modiano for Sleep of Memory. In this novel, our narrator, now in his 70s, recalls people and events from his past. This is familiar Modiano territory with his fascination for disturbing shards of memory which emerge from the past. Sometimes these shards are cocooned in other memories–some blurred and impossible to fully retrieve while others form in a connect-the-dots way.

The book begins in a bookshop when a title, The Time of Encounters, catches the eye of the narrator. It’s one of those dizzying, goosebumps moments when the past suddenly emerges with the flash of memory. He recalls his relationships with a group of people saying “you never knew where some of those people might lead you. It was a slippery slope.”

 

Sleep of memory
The narrator recalls when, in the 60s, at age 20, he is acquainted with Martine Hayward, Geneviève Dalame, a secretary at Polydor Studios, and the older, mysterious, Madeleine Péraud. The latter, who is also known as “Doctor  Péraud,” “belonged to a ‘group’—a secret society where they practiced ‘magic.’ ”  The narrator visits Madeleine Péraud who quizzes him about his life and his acquaintances:

She asked good questions. the way an acupuncturist knows exactly where to place his needles.

The narrator is a “phantom student” enrolling in college to avoid military service in Algeria, and there are nebulous references to the narrator’s father and his knowledge of Black marketeers during WWII. So here are two quagmire moments in French history, and crime, which is a seminal feature in Modiano novels, is also present.  The plot is fragmentary but Modiano’s brilliance at describing memory, as always, is impressive and evocative.

Sometimes I seem to recall the cafe was named the Bar Vert; at other times this memory fades, like words you’ve just heard in a dream that eludes you when you are awake. 

I am always left wanting more with a Modiano novel, frustrated at the bare bones of the past which are occasionally illuminated by tantalizing memory, but I continue to be fascinated by his representation of memory: how memories submerge, are dormant and seem to disappear, yet certain memories seep back into our lives often unwanted. Modiano novels delve into pasts that can’t be quite fully remembered, pasts that aren’t fully understood–even decades later, and I can’t recall a writer who represents the elusiveness and vagaries of memory so well. Modiano scholars could spend a lifetime working through the mazes constructed in his books. How much is true? How much is fiction? Personally I prefer the languid nature, the dreaminess of his tales and don’t intend to become tangled in such details.  I read this at night, before bed, and the book’s hypnotic feel was accentuated by the approach of sleep.

“No doubt, as the years pass, you end up shedding all the weights you dragged behind you, and all the regrets.”

Is that true?

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

Review copy

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So You Don’t get Lost in the Neighborhood: Patrick Modiano

After reading several Modiano novels, I decided to take a break, but a recent foray into the TBR stacks led to me selecting So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood. This is a short novel (my copy runs just over 150 pages) and it’s a typical Modiano novel concerned with memory and identity. The book opens with a strange phone call to the protagonist, Jean Daragane. We are dropped into Jean’s isolated life with no explanation, and the phone call (it’s the first time the phone has rung in months) is from a man who says he’s found an address book that belongs to Jean. The man, Gilles Ottolini, insists on meeting Jean to return the book, and there’s something here that makes Jean uncomfortable. Gilles has a slightly threatening manner, and he’s certainly pushy, but then again perhaps Jean, who isn’t used to human contact, feels that his space and privacy is invaded.

The two men meet and it soon becomes clear that Gilles wants something from Jean. Gilles begins asking about a name in the address book, a “certain” Guy Torsel, but Jean has no memory of the man that belongs to the name, and a glance at the outdated telephone number in the address book “means nothing.” Gradually over the course of a short time, Jean begins to recall, slowly, how he met Guy Torsel and the significance of the man and a circle of other long forgotten people.

Gilles and a young woman begin to penetrate (invade) Jean’s life. There’s a surreal quality here as Gilles hints that Jean knows more than he’s letting on, and Jean seems to have no idea what Gilles is talking about. Of course all the answers lie in the past, and the path to the past is through memory. As Jean’s memory gradually peels back time, details emerge from the forgotten recesses of his mind, and this is where the novel is strongest.

These words had travelled a long way. An insect bite, very slight to begin with, and it causes you an increasingly sharp pain, and very soon a feeling of being torn apart. The present and the past merge together, and that seems quite natural because they were only separated by a cellophane partition. An insect bite was all it took to pierce the cellophane. 

Jean has forgotten chunks of his past and along with those memories, he’s also let slip thoughts of people he once knew, people who inhabited Jean’s life, or perhaps passed through briefly. There’s a point at which Jean tries to search on the internet for people from his past, but he can’t find them.

The rare people whom he would have liked to trace had succeeded in escaping the vigilance of this machine. They had slipped through the net because they belonged to another age.

Modiano’s approach to memory is fascinating. He chews over this subject, noting every nuance, every angle, every sensation. Rather uncannily, I recently came across an old address book, and found a name or two I couldn’t tie to anyone I remembered. For a brief moment, I thought I was living in a Modiano novel. The author certainly nails the descriptions of memory, shards of memory, and how sometimes, in order to remember, we have to burrow into a time and a place that have long since been forgotten. Still at the end of the novel, I was left wanting a bit more plot.

On a final note, remember that Hemingway parody contest? 

Not to denigrate Modiano, but has anyone heard of a Modiano parody contest?

In the end we forget the details of our lives that embarrass us or are too painful. We just lie back and allow ourselves to float along calmly over the deep waters, with our eyes closed.

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Smoking Kills: Antoine Laurain

“It’s never a good idea for an evil bastard to imprint himself on the retina of a murderer. I don’t advise it: it might lead to an idea for a spot of entertainment on an idle afternoon.”

Antoine Laurain’s wickedly funny novel, Smoking Kills, examines the extent, drive, and unexpected consequences of addiction through the acts of a man who seeks the high of “the good fairy Nictoine.”  Middle-aged Parisian headhunter Fabrice Valantine, an avid smoker for years, isn’t ready for the smoking ban which threatens to ruin his life by depriving him of one of his greatest pleasures. The threat against his smoking addiction finds little sympathy with his non-smoking, art curator wife. Plus then there’s the little matter of Fabrice leaving the unfortunate comment “makes me want to vomit,” in a guest book following the show of “Inflammatory Art” from pretentious “artist” Damon Bricker. Bricker, nicknamed “the pigeon roaster” by Fabrice:

Cheerfully chargrilled his animal subjects, using his blowtorch like other artists use their brushes. His installation of a life-sized chicken house, complete with hens cockerels and a fox, had caused a sensation at the previous years’s FIAC art fair in Paris.

After an embarrassing incident at an art show, however, Fabrice is encouraged by his non-smoking wife, Sidonie, to seek hypnosis therapy to help him stop smoking. The hypnosis is successful, and yet … Fabrice discovers that life without a “nicotine fix,” is lacking zest. He begins smoking again, only to discover that the pleasure factor has been removed, and by a strange set of circumstances, Fabrice discovers that nicotine can once again be pleasurable under certain circumstances….

Laurain sets up his main character into a set of devilishly clever circumstances: While Sidonie flies to New York to attend an art show, Fabrice’s situation at work changes for the worse. Exiled to a windowless basement office, he’s then required to attend a pool party with the young, fit, boss. What a brilliant humiliation from the author, to place middle-aged out-of-shape office workers awkwardly into swimsuits which reveal cellulite, body hair and flab.

The sight of the entire office staff in swimsuits was certainly strange. Bizarrely immodest. Some people looked taller or smaller than usual. The women had bigger or smaller chests than one might have thought. I wondered what my colleagues thought about me. They, too, would be thinking: “Goodness, Valantine isn’t hairy at all, and he’s musclier than I thought.” Or perhaps the opposite.

The new boss has created a situation of dominance:

He was standing on the diving board, microphone in hand. His athletic musculature gleamed, but not with pool water: he must have slathered himself in oil, like a bodybuilder. He delivered a short speech about the Piscine Pontoise, a gem of thirties architecture, with its thirty-three metre pool, and about how we would all get to know each other better through the joy of sport, and other nonsense. He looked like an Aryan SS officer, glamorised in a film by Leni Riefenstahl. With his short blond slightly swept-back hair, a black and white photograph of him would easily pass for an old piece of Nazi propaganda.

I’ve read three Laurain novels to date:

The President’s Hat

The Portrait

And now Smoking Kills which is my favourite so far. How delightful that Laurain seems to be getting darker and darker. The President’s Hat was a touch whimsical while The Portrait examined the life of man who loses his sense of identity and sinks into madness. Smoking Kills is the story of  a man who, in order to recreate a nicotine high, turns to murder.  Pushed to his limits. Fabrice uncovers a talent for murder and revenge. I’m not a smoker, but I’ve known smokers so determined that even a diagnosis of lung cancer and the removal of one lung has not dimmed their enthusiasm for cigarettes.

Smoking Kills is very funny in a twisted dark way, but apart from that, it’s full of Laurain observations and wisdom:

Sidonie inhabited her world, and I mine. My world was the more real: people came with a price; they were hired for a given time, for their skills, and paid handsomely in exchange. The whole system made the world go round, and created jobs for other people, drawing on their skills in turn. My world was logical. Sidonie’s was irrational. Serious, highly serious, but irrational. Artworks were worth more than the men who had created them, often achieving colossal sums of money at sale. A single picture could be worth as much as a small business; one museum’s holdings could equate to the GDP of an African state. The galleries played the role of the big financial groups, everything was quoted on a kind of invisible stock exchange, and the dead were worth more than the living.  

An I’m ending on this poignant quote:

Fathers are unwitting objects of fascination for their daughters, and the interlude of their childhood leaves a bittersweet taste: never again, for anyone else, will we be domestic demi-gods, greeted like long-awaited saviours when we come home for dinner at the end of the working day. The years go by and their joy becomes less and less palpable, until one day they fail to greet us at all. This time is past and the countdown reaches zero. We had known it would happen, we just hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly.

Review copy

Translated by Louise Rogers-Lalaurie

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The President’s Hat: Antoine Laurain

‘The important events in our lives are always the result of a sequence of tiny details.”

Last year I read Antoine Laurain’s delightful book: The Portrait, a story of a man whose life is transformed when he buys a painting of an 18th century nobleman. I’d passed over other books by this author before, and so I decided to read Laurain’s earlier books.

The President’s Hat is somewhat reminiscent of The Portrait in its premise that the possession of an object can change lives. Whereas in The Portrait, one man’s life is changed, The President’s Hat concerns a handful of people, serially, who come into possession of a hat that belongs to François Mitterrand.

the president's hat

This short novel begins with a somewhat despondent Parisian, Daniel Mercier treating himself to a fancy dinner. His wife and child are out of town, and Daniel has a new, unpleasant boss to deal with. Daniel hopes that the dinner, ostensibly, “a bachelor evening,”  will allow him to relax and forget his work troubles for a few hours anyway. Luck seems to favour Daniel that night. Another guest cancelled, so Daniel gets a table, and then, a few minutes later, to his shock, Mitterand sits at the adjacent table.

Daniel can’t help but eavesdrop on the topics of conversation between Mitterand and his dinner companions. Dinner over, Mitterand forgets his hat, Daniel grabs it, and from that moment, Daniel becomes a changed man. …

The hat passes through various hands and each time the life of its wearer alters for the better. Daniel, of course, knows who owned the hat, so it’s fairly easy, assuming that Daniel is an impressionable person, to accept that the hat grants a sense of confidence and power. But other people who find the hat are unaware of its origin, and the hat still manages to transform the lives of those who wear it. So in that sense, the story has a thread of magical whimsy.

In one section, a man imagines a “parallel life” in which he did not discover the hat:

In this ‘parallel life’ he was still wearing his old sheepskin jacket and had his beard, had never opened the door of his study and still went every Friday to his analyst. What Aslan, called a ‘parallel life’ was actuality a perfect illustration of quantum mechanics and of applied developments in probability theory, starting from the hypothesis that everything we do in our lives creates a new universe which does not in any way wipe out the previous universe. 

(Since I am fond of the Multiverse theory, I liked that quote)

I am not overly fond, in theory, of a novel centered on an object which passes through various hands. That said, however, The President’s Hat is a light, pleasant read.  I preferred The Portrait as the latter is a shade darker, moving from eccentricity to delusion or even possible madness. The President’s Hat is an optimistic tale which focuses on the ebullient nature of a handful of Parisians. It’s fun to speculate that an object would have the ability to cause reversals in fortunes. Would that it were so easy.

Translated by Gallic Books (review copy)

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Black Sugar: Miguel Bonnefoy

“If the stars were made of gold, I’d dig up the sky.”

Black Sugar is a short novel which examines three generations of women and the tainting force of the legend of a pirate’s lost treasure. The novel begins with a chapter which describes the shipwreck of pirate Henry Morgan’s ship.  The men are in a miserable state, ill, and starving; animals that fall into their hands don’t fare well. This seems to be a cursed voyage, and of course, it all ends badly.

The novel then moves forward 300 years to a village and the Otero family. They own a farm which isn’t exactly profitable, but it came cheap with the proviso that a small room on the ground floor remain untouched. Every year, the elderly former owner comes to the room carrying an empty bucket. She stays inside the locked room all day and “would fill her bucket with tears.”

black sugar

The Oteros have one child: a daughter named Serena. Her life is dull and so perhaps it’s not surprising that she connects to the outside world through a wireless. She begins to imagine that some handsome stranger will arrive and rescue her from her boredom, but the only man to arrive is Severo Bracamonte. He’s there on a hunt for Captain Morgan’s treasure.

Over time, dreams are smashed only to be replaced by work, but when Serena and her husband, who begin making rum, adopt an orphan, life at the Otero farm starts to change.

Black Sugar begins with legend and dives into magical realism with the result that the story takes on a fable-like quality. Three generations of a Venezuelan family, are consumed, in various ways with the legend of Henry Morgan’s treasure. It’s clear that although the characters all have various relationships with the legend (seekers, hoarders) no-one escapes unscathed.  As the beginning of the book indicates, treasure brings madness, and the fate of the Otero family is tied to the legend.

With its fable-like qualities, this is a seemingly simple story, but it’s entwined with violence, greed and various other dark human emotions. Ultimately, we see people whose lives are shaped by the legend of Henry Morgan’s treasure, and it’s a negative shaping force–a curse on those who seek it.

For animal lovers, there’s a very unpleasant scene involving a brutal chicken slaughter.

Translated by Emily Boyce

review copy.

 

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Low Heights: Pascal Garnier

In Pascal Garnier’s dark, nastily funny novel, Low Heights, curmudgeonly widower Monsieur Lavenant, almost 75, is the patient from hell. A successful, former business man, Lavenant is still spry and was quite healthy until he was struck by a stroke. Now his left arm and hand are useless, and this incapacity hasn’t helped his temperament improve. Thérèse, his long-suffering private, live-in nurse, whose beatific state provokes Lavenant rather than calms him, is the recipient of most of her employer’s abuse. But after a series of jobs in which she nurses the elderly ill, she’s used to it, and her mind resides in a place where Lavenant’s insults can’t reach her.

Low Heights

When the novel opens, Lavenant has decided to leave his hometown of Lyon and relocate to a home in a village in the Rhone-Alps region. They make a pitstop in the beautiful city of Nyons, but to Lavenant the city is just another series of annoyances. Nothing makes him happy, and Thérèse can’t reason with him:

Just look at that! English, Dutch, Germans, Belgians … Do I go and do my shopping in their countries? No! You’d think we were still under the Occupation.

I could easily have done the shopping on my own; you didn’t have to come.

That’s right, you’d like me to stay shut up in my hole like a rat. I do still have the right to go out, you know.

Once at their new home, Lavenant and Thérèse’s relationship starts to shift. Lavenant begins to mellow and he warms to Thérèse. Can it be possible that all that wonderful mountain air and the peace and quiet of the countryside will improve Lavenant’s temperament? Things are looking up, and then they are surprised by a visit from a young man who claims to be Lavenant’s son.

As is usual with Garnier, expect the unexpected. Low Heights is morbidly, darkly funny with the author’s signature putrid descriptions of people and nature.

It was nice on the terrace. There was a cool breeze from the lake. The fillets of perch were excellent, the service impeccable. yet it was if something like an imperceptible odour of putrefaction hung over this perfect world, accompanied by a worrying ticking sound. 

Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge explores what happens when people move away from the suburbs, and The Islanders explores a Folie à Deux. There are elements of those themes in Low Heights; Lavenant, hardly a reasonable man at the best of times, becomes increasingly eccentric and irascible as he and Thérèse move away from civilization. Garnier seems to argue that any internal moral compass that keeps us in check when we live in cities, disintegrates and disappears the closer we go to nature–nature makes us revert to our animal selves.  The relationship between Lavenant and his nurse becomes increasingly twisted, so much so that Thérèse, a seemingly fairly normal woman (if too bovine) begins to enter Lavenant’s psychosis.

In Low Heights Garnier cynically explores how old people can get away with stuff–rudeness for example. Lavenant exploits his age mercilessly, and his behavior is constantly excused by others. Also examined here is how we bring our personalities to disease, so thoughtless, impatient people who may be barely tolerable when healthy become monstrous when ill.

I liked Low Heights a lot, but it’s still nowhere near my favourite Garnier. For those interested here’s an order of preference. Not that I expect anyone to agree, but there may be a reader out there who wants to try Garnier:

Order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Low Heights

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

Translated by Melanie Florence

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Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal