Tag Archives: French fiction

Marshlands: André Gide

Marshlands will never bore anyone as much as it bored me.”

I did not expect to find André Gide’s novel Marshlands witty and entertaining, but mix together a dilettante writer, an unhappy girlfriend, and a budding novel that sounds awful, and the result is a Metafictional romp. Marshlands is narrated by a young writer who explains his novel, Marshlands is:

inspired by two lines from Virgil: There’s a shepherd talking to another shepherd, and he tells him his field may be stony and swampy but it’s good enough for him, and being satisfied with it makes him very happy. Marshlands, then, is the story of someone who cannot travel. I shall name him Tityrus, after Virgil. Marshlands is the story of a man, who, possessing the field of Tityrus, does not strive to leave it, but rather contents himself with it.

Reminds me of Rasselas. …. So in other words, Tityrus is content with his lot–even though that ‘lot’ isn’t perfect. The narrator, at several points in the novel, says “I am Tityrus,” and states that what he’s “trying to express is the emotion I get from my life: boredom, vanity, monotony.” But Virgil’s Tityrus is happy with his lot. He apparently doesn’t experience boredom or monotony. So the narrator is a bit of a puzzle; on one hand he’s writing a novel about a man who’s content with his life, and yet even though he identifies with Tityrus, the narrator/author is far from content with his lot.

Marshlands depicts a life of frustration with our narrator believing only he can see how awful, boring and monotonous life is with everyone else in a state of blindness or delusion. On the very first page, the writer is visited by a friend, Hubert, and the novel, Marshlands immediately comes up for discussion. Hubert, a trapped audience, is subjected to a tedious synopsis of the plot. While it’s clear that Marshlands bores Hubert, he tells the narrator “you certainly know how to write.” And when the narrator reads sections of his budding novel to his friends, he’s told it’s boring (it is) and “both useless and unpleasant.”

Angela, the narrator’s girlfriend attempts to encourage her lover with his novel, and asks him to read some to her. He peevishly agrees:

“If you insist. I have precisely four or five pages of it here in my pocket.” Taking them out, I read to her as listlessly and monotonously as I could.

Angela declares the novel “might be the least little bit boring,” and the narrator blithely tells Angela:

And as for you and me. Angela, I promise you, our own prospects are even duller and more mediocre.”

“That’s not how I feel about it,” Angela said. “That’s because you don’t think about it. Precisely the subject of my book! Tityrus is not unhappy with his life, he likes contemplating the marshes, the changes in the weather impart to them a pleasant variety. But look at yourself, look at your own story! How much variety do you find there? How long have you lived in this apartment? I know, low rent. Low rent!-And it’s not just you! These windows, looking out on the street, or on backyards, and looking out you see walls or other people looking back at you … Must I go on? Your dresses, must I make you ashamed of them, too? And do you think we have ever really loved each other?”

“Nine o’clock,” she said. “I have to go. Hubert is giving his reading tonight.”

“What is he reading?” I asked, in spite of myself.

“Not Marshlands, that’s for sure!” And she left.

According to the narrator, Angela is not unhappy because she is “unaware of her condition,” and if her were to “open her eyes,” she “would no longer be satisfied.” If she became “aware” and then unhappy as a consequence of her new knowledge, then the narrator thinks “that would be much more interesting.”

The narrator’s fussiness, mostly seen through his journal entries and notes for his novel, add to the fun. He writes in his ‘daily planner,’ he admits, “a week in advance, so that I have time to forget what I wrote; surprises are always lying in wait, which are indispensable, given my of life.” In one section, he writes what he’s “going to do,” and then another section is devoted to what he actually did. Along the way he writes notes such as “devastate Hubert, (important),” “go explain to Magloire why I think he’s such as jerk,” and “be stunned at not having received a letter from Jules.” Deciding his life with Angela is lacking adventure, he declares that they take a spontaneous trip. Yet the trip is prefaced by the narrator’s “resolution” not to get up before 11, and then the trip is cut short when he hustles back to attend church. So much for spontaneity. There’s a sliver of Dostoevsky here in the narrator’s neurotic nature.

Translated by Damion Searls

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A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray: Dominique Barbéris

On Sunday–don’t you think?–certain things come back to you more than on other days.”

Dominique Barbéris’s slim, disturbing novel A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray explores the fragility of domestic contentment, the lurking dangers of extramarital romance, and just how little we know those closest to us.

The story is narrated by a young married woman, a high school teacher, who drives from Paris to the sleepy suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her elder sister, Marie-Claire. The narrator suspects that her husband, Luc, may be having an affair, and while he claims to be attending a seminar, it seems possible he’s meeting the ‘other woman.’ So the narrator is mulling over these worries on the way to see Marie-Claire, and this all-too-rare visit is an acknowledgement of Luc’s dislike for his wife’s family. He describes Marie-Claire as “boring,” and he also dislikes Ville-d’Avray, a place he finds “depressing.” Ville-d’Avray is a place, but it’s also, as we see as the book continues, a state of mind.

I’m sure that Ville-d’Avray, with its peaceful, secluded streets, its houses set back in their gardens given over to the passage of the seasons as if defenseless against time, has further increased the gap between her and reality. She has formed all sorts of outdated habits

Marie-Claire is married to Christian, a doctor, they have one child together, and share a beautiful home. The two sisters visit, and as the hours pass, the narrator recalls moments from her childhood and the way in which both girls became caught up in the romance of Jane Eyre and the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Whereas the narrator’s focus moved on to other male figures, Marie-Claire “stayed under the spell of that literary love affair for a long time.” During the visit, Marie-Claire confides that she had an “encounter” with the mysterious Marc Hermann, a patient she met at her husband’s practice. Then about a month later, Marc, ‘coincidentally’ happens to drive by Marie-Claire and offers to give her a lift home. The story is a little odd, and perhaps even odder since Marie-Claire asks her sister “what would you have done in my place?” A sure sign that Marie-Claire isn’t telling the whole story and yet wants approval for her decision to get into Marc’s car. The lift home turns into a drive to a cafe, wine, conversation, and a leisurely evening stroll. Marc claims to be a Hungarian businessman in the Import-Export trade. He gives Marie-Claire a business card and asks her to call him. It’s all very vague. A little while later, Marie-Claire thinks she may be being followed. Of course, eventually Marie-Claire calls Marc, and a relationship begins. ….

While the narrator is stunned to hear her sister’s story, and what’s more that it happened some years ago, she begins to slot pieces into the puzzle. She recalls how Marie-Claire once asked “Are there times when you dream of something else?” And while the question is dismissed at the time, the narrator admits that it needles her and awakens vague feelings of discontent.

Her question had stirred up something buried in a secret corner of my mind (or my heart), the old, vague passionate dream, the never-forgotten images of an overblown, schmaltzy romanticism: the pasteboard reproduction of the manor houses, the flames of the fire, the drama, the banks of artificial fog, and looming up from them, “Orson Welles,” the dashing cavalier, the ideal man, the tormented “master!”

This impressive lean story explores the reality of domestic boredom and the dangerous temptation that illuminates one’s discontent. Ville-d’Avray is a real place, a safe suburb, a place many of us would appreciate living in, but here it represents the choices that Marie-Claire has made. The plot is infused with regret which is amplified by quiet, dream-like Sunday afternoons. What is it about Sundays?

On Sundays, you think about life.

Translated by John Cullen.

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The Mystery of Henri Pick: David Foenkinos

“Writers are mad, everyone knows that. And ones who aren’t published … they must be even worse.”

In The Mystery of Henri Pick, Delphine, a young, ambitious book editor travels to the small town of Crozon to visit the bookshop that houses a library for rejected books. The library founded by bookshop owner Jean-Pierre Gourvec was inspired by Richard Brautigan’s novel, The Abortion:

Writers came from all over France to rid themselves of the fruits of their failure. It was a sort of literary pilgrimage. There was a symbolic value in travelling hundreds of miles to put an end to the frustrations of not being published. Their words were erased like sins.

Was the Crozon library a gimmick or a homage to those writers who slaved for years only to receive rejection after rejection? During their trip to the bookshop, Delphine and her boyfriend, Frederic, who wrote a book that failed miserably, discover a manuscript, The Last Hours of a Love Affair. The novel, authored by local pizza shop owner, the now deceased Henri Pick, is a marvel, and Delphine carries it back to Paris for publication.

A storm of controversy erupts in the publishing world, and most of it centers on Henri Pick. How could a man whose claim to fame was creating the Stalin pizza write this amazing book? His widow Madeleine and his daughter Josephine are perplexed. How could Henri have written this masterpiece without their knowledge? Just how well did they know Henri? Did he have a secret life?

The well-publicized discovery of the manuscript leads to unexpected complications as various residents of Crozon become embroiled in Henri Pick’s sudden, posthumous fame. And controversy erupts in the publishing world when someone declares the discovery a “farce.”

This delightfully frothy novel pokes fun at publishing industry and the way in which marketing can make or break a book. The ‘discovery’ of the book makes it a phenomenon and maybe it deserves to be but the media grabs onto the myth behind the novel and a publicity explosion ensues.

At one point, I thought the story would go in one direction, but it did not. The novel ultimately, for this reader, in its exploration of what makes a bestseller, became a little too coy and superficial, but in spite of this I still enjoyed the gentle comedy. After the last page, I thought this would make a great film, so it was no surprise to learn that there is a film starring Fabrice Luchini or that the book’s author David Foenkinos is a screenwriter.

Swiss authors are often the best when it comes to boredom and solitude.

Review copy

Translated by Sam Taylor

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Marlene: Philippe Djian

Philippe Djian’s novel Marlene centres on the relationship between two very different men: Dan and Richard, damaged combat veterans who return home in one piece, but still carry the shadow of war. Dan, a quiet loner, is aware of his problems–accepts some and tries to overcome others. He’s ok being alone, and prefers life that way. He’s a neatness freak and goes overboard with shouldering chores for his neighbours. The dentist next door, oblivious to his marital problems, takes advantage of Dan’s zeal for hedge trimming while the dentist’s wife offers herself, naked, through the window. Luckily (or unluckily depending on how you look at it) Dan passes up the temptation. He’s just interested in minding his own business and staying out of trouble. 

On the other hand, when the novel opens, Richard, who is having difficultly adjusting to civilian life, is in jail for a short stint. While he’s locked up, wife Nath, who’s chasing her lost youth and decades of disappointments, engages in an affair. Hardly her first but this man won’t get the message that it’s a fling. Richard and Nath’s teenage daughter, Mona, fights with her mother and Nath dumps her on Dan. 

This is not an ideal arrangement. Dan’s quiet life is disrupted and then it’s not appropriate for a teenage girl to living at his home. All kinds of trouble is heading Dan’s way even though he’s done his best to try to avoid it. He’s dragged into Richard’s messy home life, and the situation only gets worse with the arrival of Marlene, Nath’s sister. 

I’m a Philippe Djian fan. Elle is a fascinating read and my favourite of all the Djian novels I’ve read. Consequences is also recommended. I’ve also read Unforgivable and I would place Marlene at the bottom of the list.

Why?

Djian writes about messy characters with messy lives and Marlene is no exception. With this novel, however, there was a remoteness to the characters. While Dan was well-drawn, I never felt as though I got into the heads of the other characters. I also found Marlene, who is a walking disaster, annoying, and this is an entirely personal thing, but she’s pushy. Dan wants to be left alone and she pushes and pushes, gently, I’ll admit, but she still pushes. Then there’s Mona and I’m not sure why she was included to be honest. The novel is written in such a way that it was occasionally hard to follow who was doing what. No speech marks. Call me old fashioned but they help with dialogue. 

Nath sighed: her daughter was driving her bonkers. She no longer knew what to do with her; she felt as if she’d tried everything and had run out of steam.
He remained silent at the other end of the line. He knew all this.
Dan, I need a break, she moaned.
Outside, darkness was falling, and lights had gone on inside the surrounding houses. He was stuck. Fine, he said eventually. But you’d better be careful.
You’re not in my shoes. I’m just saying.

The novel opens the door into the lives of two damaged, seemingly doomed  men–one of whom may have a shot at redemption. I liked Dan but the others were forgettable. 

Review copy

Translated by Mark Polizotti

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Malicroix: Henri Bosco (1948)

Henri Bosco’s moody novel Malicroix, set in the nineteenth century, drops the reader right into the plot when the narrator, a 25-year-old man receives a letter informing him that he has been “left an inheritance: some marshland, a few livestock, a tumbled down house. ” So a modest legacy, but, Mégremut an orphan raised by his father’s relatives, is intrigued. The property was owned by his reclusive uncle, Cornélius de Malicroix, the Marquis de Malicroix. The young man’s father’s relatives, the “gentle and patient Mégremuts,” don’t want him to go, but he is drawn to the situation, partly by curiosity and partly by some aspect of his nature.

I felt myself to be a Mégremut when I was among them, for their gentleness is quite infectious. But, left to myself, I rebecame a Malicroix, with a sort of secret drunkenness and a strange fear. For this Malicroix, unknown to all, hidden within the blackest part of myself, seemed more alive than all the Mégremuts who inhabited me with ease. 

Cornélius de Malicroix’s notaire, a man called Maître Dromiols sends an “itinerary” and so Mégremut sets off to meet a coach at an “old signpost at the intersection of two poor tracks.” The scene reminded of Great Expectations when Pip meets the convict, Abel Magwitch. Not that the scenes are the same, but nonetheless, the bleakness and the loneliness of the landscape form a visual and emotional connection between the two books. 

Malicroix

By this point, the novel gains Gothic dimensions which continue as Mégremut travels to an island. There on the island, he takes up residence in his late uncle’s home, a house in which “everything was so clearly reduced to the soberest utility.” The house comes equipped with a laconic servant named Balandran and a large Briard, Bréquillet. Eventually Maître Dromiols, an unpleasant man, arrives accompanied by his strange, much abused servant, Uncle Rat. Dromiols then reads the terms of the will: Mégremut must stay in the house for three months. If this term is completed, then he will be given a letter with instructions for a “mission.” It’s all very mysterious and all very cryptic. 

It’s daunting to imagine living in this bleak area for three months, and initially Mégremut has no intention of doing so, but he gets the feeling that Dromiols wants him to fail. Mégremut, curious to discover why his uncle chose to live his life in this bleak place, decides to remain and discover the mystery at the heart of this Gothic novel of revenge and long standing blood feuds.

The novel, a slow, dense, rich read focuses on nature. There are some gorgeous descriptions here. The island is not a particularly habitable place–and that’s at the best of times. At worst, the island seems forbidding, dangerous and hostile. Nature is powerful, angry and violent. Which poses more danger for Mégremut? Nature or Man?

In the Camargue, the wind is drunk. It stamps, swirls, loses its head. Nothing can withstand its ravages. A bare land, pale water, and, on the horizon, the white-capped sea, bristling as it arrives from the distance. Everything succumbs to the law of the wind: water, plants, man, beasts. 

Translated by Joyce Zonana

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The Frontenac Mystery: François Mauriac (1933)

“Every human being has his peculiar form of suffering, the laws of which take shape in earliest youth.”

The Frontenac Mystery from François Mauriac is the second title I’ve read from this author, and now I’m committed to reading more. Another edition of this book is titled The Frontenacs which after reading the book, IMO is more appropriate. This is the story of the family bonds, the ‘mystery’ of the title,’  between the members of a gentry family who live in the Bordeaux area during the decades leading up to WWI. 

frontenac mystery

The novel opens 8 years after the death of Michel Frontenac who left behind his wife, Blanche and 5 young children: Jean-Louis, José, Danièle, Marie and Yves. Since the death of Michel, his brother, lawyer Xavier has become more involved in the lives of his sister-in- law and her children. He “renounced all his holdings” in the family estate in Bordeaux  and subsequently Blanche moved there with her children. Xavier, a bachelor visits every other week, and while he’s devoted to her children and to the memory of his dead brother, there’s an insurmountable barrier between Xavier and Blanche. She finds his lectures “extolling the splendours of sacrifice” “exasperating.” She’s very religious and is all too aware what her life will be moving forward. And, perhaps the most annoying thing of all is that “it was only in terms of the young Frontenacs that she existed for him at all.” This is one of the book’s major themes: the bonds between family, but also how individuals, some just connected to the family in various ways, sacrifice to the Pyre of the Frontenac name and property. While some of the sacrifices are meaningful, others are meaningless and are lost in the passage of time. 

This is not a tightly woven novel, and there exists a sort of gentle, ephemeral quality to the tale–languid days of childhood spent on the wonderful family estate as the Frontenacs grow up amidst the worries of a lonely, aging mother. The children are also under the watchful eye of their Uncle Xavier who keeps his mistress, Josefa stashed in another town. He keeps her hidden and imagines that his secret is unknown to anyone while in reality he’s a laughing stock for being so cheap with the poor woman who is part cook/cleaner/nurse/mistress and is devoted, even from a distance, to the Idea of the Frontenacs. But there are hints of something darker ahead–the slaughter of WWI awaits for one of the more adventurous Frontenac sons who longs for adventure, and then Blanche has constant anxiety about her children and a nagging worry about cancer. 

But all of them felt obscurely that, as the result of some singular favour shown by the gods, Time had stood still. Power had been given them to leave the train which nothing halts. In the very process of growing up, they could stand in the shallows of childhood, could dawdle while childhood slipped away forever.

The story concentrates on the 3 Frontenac boys–Jean-Louis, José, and Yves; the two girls “brood mares” are barely mentioned. Yves is a sickly child who manages, in early adulthood, to escape the yoke of Frontenac responsibility by hightailing it to Paris where he pursues a literary career, and a lot of his determination is seeded by Jean-Louis’ early entrapment in the family business. Jean-Louis, abandons his dream of an education in Philosophy and assumes the Frontenac harness, joining the family business and marrying a childhood sweetheart–a marriage which will ensure he’s cemented in place. It’s not an exciting life–it’s been chosen for him, but he shoulders the family burdens, consciously  turning away from an alternate future, while living variously through Yves. Mauriac explores maturation through the characters’ choices and how childhood may be linked forever to a physical place, such as the Frontenac estate, but childhood is also locked in time and can never be revisited.  The novel has a significant ending–the arrival of a motor car and the slaughter of WWI. If you like novels with a philosophical angle, then this may be for you.

Translated by Gerard Hopkins

Thanks  to Emma turning me onto Mauriac in the first place.

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C’est la Vie: Pascal Garnier

“Happiness for those unused to it is like food for the starving–a little too much can be fatal.”

The times are shaping my reading, and so I turned to an old friend for his signature bleakness, endless despair, death obsession and an exploration of the despicable depths of human nature. Who else could possibly cheer me up? Yes: Pascal Garnier, take me to the dark places of the human soul.

C’est la Vie is 11th Garnier novel I’ve read, and here are the rest: The Panda Theory, How’s the Pain?, Moon in a Dead Eye, The Front Seat Passenger, The IslandersBoxes, Too Close to the Edge, The Eskimo Solution, The A-26, and Low Heights. 

C’est La Vie is a rather different novel for Garnier. Yes it’s full of his signature themes but it’s also a lot lighter. 

Cest la vie

The book opens with middle aged author, Jean-François Colombier, meeting band member/drug dealer son Damian. They aren’t close, and the main point of the meeting, a rare event between these two, is so that Colombier can tell Damian that there’s a new woman in his life, journalist Hélène. Not that Damian cares. 

The book moves forward in time. Yet another relationship has turned sour, and  Colombier, who was so optimistic about Hélène, meets her in a restaurant to turn over the keys to her apartment. And it had looked so promising. 

Everyone has their little habits. You have to put up with them. We had lived together for five years, I with my nose in a glass, she with her nose in powder. Our different ways of anaesthetising ourselves. It wasn’t that I blamed her or that she blamed me but we were both upset because we had believed we would make it together. It’s not easy to escape the shipwreck of the forties, swimming in a dead sea as a thick as pea soup, with that island on the horizon that shrinks as you approach it. 

But perhaps things are looking up. Colombier’s relationship with Hélène may be dead but his new book brings him fame and fortune. He’s not “exactly rich,” but his career is paying off. Then at a book signing he meets a woman named Eve. She’s young, rich, stable and nurturing. Soon they are living together in her inherited chateau. It’s a dream come true. And yet ….

Things are just a little too rosy for Colombier, and feeling like he’s living in a “gilded dream,” he absconds for Paris–not exactly sure what he’s looking for, not exactly sure why he’s disconnected.

I would be in Paris, and then … I wasn’t sure what next. I had no plan other than to escape a life that seemed to belong to someone else and to rediscover what I was used to–a more mediocre existence.

Colombier finds adventure in the shape of a conman, a crazy old lady and a young girl he picks up at party. 

C’est La Vie is full of Garnier’s themes: an amused disgust with humanity, preoccupation with physical decay, and rampant disgust of the human body. Poor old Colombier has the humiliation of a boil on his bottom, and at one point looks at his reflection which isn’t improved by an all-night binge:

I had spent the previous evening drinking and looking in the mirror. The more I drank, the less I recognised the mottled skin dotted with blackheads, the nostrils filled with thick hair, and eyelids the colour of days-old ham that even the worst convenience store would have hesitated to sell to a blind man.

Garnier pushes the boundaries of his readers, and there are times when even I wince at some plot elements. Colombier comes off as a middle aged idiot whose angst and self-centeredness leads him to a surreal life lesson that scares him straight. We humans can have it all and it’s still never enough. This short novel isn’t nearly as bleak as the others I’ve read; it’s much less dark and is basically a middle-aged affluent man’s nightmare. It’s not my favourite, but I still enjoyed it. 

Translated by Jane Aitken

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Honeymoon: Patrick Modiano

“When was the turning point in my life, after which summers suddenly seemed to me to be different from the ones I had known up to then?”

In Patrick Modiano’s haunting novel Honeymoon, Jean, a documentary film maker checks into a hotel in Milan. He’s in the bar when he learns that another guest, a woman, committed suicide in her room 2 days earlier. There’s a certain curiosity of course–especially when he learns that she was attractive, French and drank the same drink as him. Later, thanks to a short obituary in the paper, Jean discovers that he knew this woman. Her name was Ingrid Rigaud and Jean met the Rigauds 6 years previously. It was one of those chance encounters that later takes on more significance with time. Jean, down on his luck, was hitchhiking and the Rigauds gave him a lift, took him to stay at their villa, and finally bought him a train ticket home. Jean was 20 at the time with his whole life ahead of him. He didn’t really understand that the Rigauds were damaged people.

Honeymoon

Move forward eighteen years. Jean, now established in his career and married to Annette who is carrying on, none too subtly, with a friend. His career is stale and seems past its peak:

I wanted to tell them that we were too old for the profession that can only be described by the antiquated name of ‘explorer.’ How much longer would we go on showing our documentary films in the Salle Pleyel or in the provincial cinemas that were becoming fewer all the time? When we were very young we had wanted to follow the example of our elders, but it was already too late for us. There was no more virgin territory to explore. 

Jean, obsessed with what became of the Rigauds, has been secretly working on Ingrid’s biography for years. Jean, a man whose films concentrate on explorers decides to disappear from his own life rather as Ingrid disappeared from hers, and he plans to hole up in Paris and complete Ingrid’s biography. He tells Annette and his friends that he’s leaving for Brazil, but he has no intention of taking the flight; instead he stays in Paris and disappears. Well … tries to.

Honeymoon takes the reader into typical Modiano territory. Memory of course, but since this novel is not as opaque as others I’ve read by this author, Time plays a much bigger role. The years are rolled out; the past and present, but there’s this curious sense of overlapping, circles of  time. Jean is twenty when he meets the Rigauds and they were the age he is when he ‘disappears’ from his life. He ‘misses’ Ingrid in Milan by a mere 2 days. Would her suicide have occurred if Jean had run into her? And what about that other occasion when he ran into a solitary melancholy Ingrid in Paris? Could Jean have said anything or done anything to help? In retrospect, he hadn’t even asked pertinent questions. At one point, Jean remembers his time with the Rigauds:

I saw myself again, twenty years earlier. with Ingrid and Rigaud, in the semi-darkness outside the bungalow. Around us, shouts and burst of laughter similar to those now reaching me from the terrace. I was now about the same age as Ingrid and Rigaud were then, and whereas their attitude had seemed so strange then, I shared it this evening. I remembered what Ingrid had said: “We’ll pretend to be dead.”

As so often with a Modiano novel, a telephone book plays a role. A telephone rings in an empty apartment as we call the past.

I’ve read a number of Modiano novels now and IMO this is his finest. It hit a nerve. A friend committed suicide a decade ago and I often imagine myself stepping somehow through the corridors of time to stop her. In this novel, Modiano creates the sense that the departed are there in the next room. We just have to find a way to pass through the door.

I was somewhere else, in another summer, more and more distant, and with time the light of that summer underwent a curious transformation; far from fading, like old over-exposed photos, the contrasts of sun and shade became so accentuated that I recall everything in black and white. 

(I went back and rechecked the gaps between various meetings and they seem correct but the years slide across each other and I may have made an error)

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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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Filed under Fiction, Laurain Antoine