Tag Archives: French fiction

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

Advertisements

22 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Laurain Antoine

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)

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Laurain Antoine

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.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Bonnefoy Miguel, Fiction

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

17 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal

Get Well Soon: Marie-Sabine Roger

“Maybe if you spend all day hanging out with crackpots you end up a little cracked yourself.”

In Get Well Soon, a novel from Marie-Sabine Roger, Jean-Pierre, a widower in his late 60s finds himself in hospital. He has no memory of what he was doing out late at night, and no memory of how he managed to land in the Seine. Luckily, Camille, a rent boy, loitering under the bridge, heard the splash as Jean-Pierre fell in, and although he couldn’t swim, he managed to hook the drowning man with a boat hook and reel him in. When Jean-Pierre wakes up in the hospital, he has a number of injuries, including a broken pelvis.

Get well soon

Forced to stay in bed, “zonked out by various drugs,” Jean-Pierre reminisces about his life, his career in the merchant navy, his marriage, his youth and friendships. There’s a lot that is pleasant to remember, and a lot he’d rather not think about. The latter includes his relationship with his wife–a woman he neglected for 31 years while he sailed the world in the merchant navy.  Now stuck in bed with nothing much to do, he decides to write his memoirs on his laptop, and the laptop acts as a beacon to a sulky teen who hangs about hoping to update her Facebook account.

I’ve always found it a strange idea, writing memoirs. There’s something pathetic about it. Like writing your own funeral eulogy, because you’re already bitching that if you want something done properly, do it yourself. Before exiting the building you polish what you can, dust off everything and sweep the cat shit under the rug. 

One of Jean-Pierre’s visitors is his brother Hervé and his sister-in-law, Claudine, a couple who:

don’t have much in common any more. Like a couple of knackered old dray horses, they’re pulling in different directions. He suffers from irritable bowel syndrome because she makes his life shit. She suffers from migraine because he does her head in. 

Another one of Jean-Pierre’s frequent visitors is policeman Maxime, who initially visits because he’s investigating how Jean-Pierre fell in the Seine, but after a while, Maxime’s visits cannot no longer be excused by policework. He visits Jean-Pierre for another, unspoken reason. The nursing aides like Maxime and his “brooding good looks,” and Jean-Pierre speculates that “when he leaves, they probably follow him down the corridor like a shoal of cod.”

Get Well Soon, a tale that argues that it’s never too late to change and learn from our mistakes is, in some ways, rather predictable, but the delightful story still manages to hold some surprises and insights. The novel works mainly because the narrator is a crusty (not idealized), intelligent widower who eschews company, and now, forced into bed rest and forced to form some relationships, he learns that life still has a lot to offer.  He mulls over his childhood and the incongruous nature of a hospital stay where staff either talk over you or address Jean-Pierre with a question such as ‘how are we today’ and whether or not he has passed wind. This short light, optimistic novel could so easily have been saccharine but it isn’t. Recommended.

Translated by Frank Wynne

Review copy

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Roger Marie Sabine

The Portrait: Antoine Laurain

“Had I made a mistake with my life? What was I doing as a lawyer?”

In Antoine Lauren’s witty novella The Portrait, a Paris lawyer is given the chance to reinvent himself, and through a seemingly simple act of impersonation he becomes the sort of man he believes he was intended to be.

The Portrait

Married lawyer Pierre-Franςois Chaumont has been a ‘collector’ since the age of nine. He started with an eraser collection, but over the years, encouraged by the words of a flamboyant uncle, his collection has become, at least in his wife Charlotte’s eyes, unmanageable. When The Portrait opens, “Charlotte had succeeded in exiling” the “fabulous collections to one room” of their Paris apartment, but the placement of Chaumont’s treasures continues to be an ongoing battle between the married couple.

When it comes to buying antiques, Chaumont compares himself to a gambler and has a fantasy that he’s banned from entering his favourite auction house (50 metres away from his office) even as he attempts to slip inside wearing various disguises.  This question of identity raises its head one afternoon when Chaumont buys a portrait of a 18th century nobleman. Chaumont thinks the portrait looks just like him, but no one else sees the resemblance. Chaumont enters an existential crisis, referring to the portrait as:

That portrait of me, painted two and a half centuries ago. 

When Charlotte can’t see the resemblance, her husband interprets this as a moral failing on her part, and after reading aloud to Charlotte a passage from Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas,  things go downhill:

The distant coldness that existed between us over the next few days reached its height at bedtime. I no longer desired her in any way at all. I now considered her nothing but a rival, a soul that had always refused to be in tune with mine. An enemy, in fact. As if she were aware of how I now viewed her, Charlotte rallied her troops, drawn from amongst our close friends. 

Alienated from his wife and their friends, Chaumont, a man who appreciates the past much more than the present, begins to question the validity of his existence; he becomes obsessed with the portrait and tries to track down the coat of arms on the right hand corner. …

I’ve passed over other books by this author as they sounded too sticky sweet and whimsical for my tastes. The Portrait is primarily ironically funny, a story of identity and how far we will go to get what we want, and how far some will go to ignore the facts. There are venom bombs throughout the story, so we get a very funny bedroom scene with Chaumont and Charlotte who, rejecting his mistimed advances is “totally hostile, an icy, frigid mermaid.”

But then, had everything we had lived through together just been a misunderstanding? Like an antique that you buy, love and cherish, and which for years makes you think of all the troubled times it has passed through-the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution, the Siege of Moscow-but which you notice one morning is nothing but a vulgar fake made ten years ago?

The Portrait asks what would happen if we were given a chance to walk away from a life we found tedious, crude, and worthless. Would we take that chance?

Delightful.

review copy

Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce

21 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Laurain Antoine

Elle: Philippe Djian

“There is a line that must never be crossed.”

As an Isabelle Huppert fan, I was delighted to watch her in the recent film, Elle. She excels at playing difficult, non-mainstream women who have the tendency to go nuclear when things turn south. Elle was one of the more interesting French films I’ve seen lately, but the ending was a bit disappointing. I hoped the book by Philippe Djian would bring a little more clarity to the character of Michèle, and I was not disappointed.

Elle

The film is quite faithful to the book with just a few minor differences. In the film, Michèle owns a video game company and that job allows for a great deal of visual scope when exploring violence against women (and the violence of video games in general). The book, which depicts Michèle as the emotionless owner of a production company allows us to enter Michèle’s head and offers trains of thought that arguably explain her actions.

The book opens in the aftermath of Michèle’s brutal rape at the hands of a masked intruder. The shock of this act isn’t based so much in the aggression, but in Michèle’s actions afterwards. She doesn’t call the police. Instead she picks herself up, takes a bath and orders sushi for her son and his pregnant girlfriend.

This is not to say that Michèle isn’t shaken by the attack. She is. She buys Mace, changes the locks, searches the house with a meat cleaver, and becomes increasing aware of the vulnerability of living alone in a large house now that her grown son, Vincent and her ex-husband, Richard have left.  It takes her a few days before she tells anyone, and it’s as though she hugs the information about the rape close. She can’t stop thinking about it, but at the same time she acknowledges that she’s “known worse with men I freely chose.”

I am very upset about the way I’ve reacted to this whole thing, about the confusion it’s caused in me, seemingly more unimaginable and obscure with each passing day. I hate having to struggle against myself, to wonder who I am. Not having access to what is buried, buried so deep inside me that only the tiniest, vaguest murmur can be heard far away, like some forgotten, heart-wrenching and totally incomprehensible song. 

Almost from the first page we know that Michèle is different, and that difference can be traced back to her relationship with her father who’s locked up for a horrendous crime spree, the nature of which is revealed as the book continues. Michèle’s 75-year-old mother is still alive, and although she’s supported by her daughter, she maintains a young lover and intends, to Michèle’s disgust, to marry him. In the past, Michèle has “eliminated” her mother’s suitors by telling outrageous lies, but this lover can’t be shaken off.  Michèle thinks her mother is “a real slut.”

She looks like one of those terrifying old actresses-completely plastered over, breast lift at five thousand a pair, eyes all agleam, tanned to the hilt.

The rape occurs just before Christmas, and the novel unfolds over a short period of time with Michèle arranging a Christmas dinner to which she invites Richard and his new girlfriend, a hot, young thing, and the neighbours across the street, banker, Patrick and his wife, Rébecca. We see Michèle in the context of her complicated relationships with her ex husband, her best friend, Anna, Anna’s slimy “soulless” husband (and Michèle’s lover), Robert, Michèle’s son Vincent and his pregnant (by another man) girlfriend, Josie. Michèle has unemotional, but clinically proficient sex with Robert, and isn’t troubled by the fact that she’s banging her best friend’s husband. He was there at the right time and fills a need, but now she’s bored with him and wants to move on.

Everyone in Michèle’s life wants something from her. Her ex wants her to promote his lacklustre screenplays, her son “imbecile” Vincent who’s finally got a job at McDonalds wants financial support for himself, Josie, and the baby (whose father is in a prison in Thailand). Michèle’s mother also wants financial support, and Robert wants sex on demand regardless of Michèle’s mood or their location. It’s interesting that no-one wants affection or love, and that’s just as well as Michèle doesn’t have any to give away–well except for the cat. The novel excels by hinting at various motives behind Michèle’s behaviour, and it’s possible to walk away from the novel with multiple answers for what she does. For this reader this novel is much much darker than a revenge tale. Sometimes Michèle recalls her father–a man who seemed normal until he wasn’t. Similarly her rapist has “two faces” and in certain moments, she sees “a rather unfortunate overlapping of his two faces, which makes him at once attractive and repulsive, and not far from resembling my father.” We’ll never know what motivates Michèle, but for this reader, it’s a lot darker than the ‘cat-and-mouse’ suggested by the book’s blurb. The rape unleashes something in Michèle:

It’s this other me coming out, though I fight it tooth and nail. It;s a me that invites confusion, flux, unexplored territories

Elle will make my best-of-year list.

Emma’s review

Review copy

Translated by Michael Katims

Also by Philippe Djian & also recommended: Consequences

16 Comments

Filed under Djian Philippe, Fiction

A Cage in Search of a Bird: Florence Noiville

In French novelist Florence Noiville’s A Cage in Search of a Bird, successful television journalist and author Laura Wilmot’s act of kindness towards an old friend backfires and leads to a terrible psychological game of cat-and-mouse. By a strange coincidence, I read this book around the same time as reading Delphine de Vigan’s novel, Based on a True Story. While Based on a True Story is the story of a writer whose life is gradually taken over by L., a woman who professes to be an old schoolmate and friend, in A Cage in Search of a Bird, Laura’s life is wrenched apart when C., an old schoolmate and friend declares that they are meant to be together and that nothing will keep them apart.

Here’s how the book opens:

That day I became convinced that something was wrong.

‘Look! I’m dressed as you!’

C came into the room where I was working and made that statement, her voice filled with joy.

Even today I hear her throaty voice stressing the you. I should have looked up, but I let the words sink into my brain. There was something strange about them. Why ‘as you’, and not ‘like you’? And the stress on you.

Laura and C were best friends in school, and at the time, C’s star was rising, but after losing touch for years, Laura meets C at a book signing. Laura is a television journalist in a solid relationship, and she’s doing well. C,  a freelance writer, asks Laura to help get her a job at the television station, and Laura, who feels guilty for having poached many of C’s ideas along the way, offers to give this old friend a helping hand.

a cage in search of a bird

Soon Laura’s life is a nightmare; C insists that they love one another, are meant to be together, and that Laura is denying the inevitable. C calls at 2 in the morning, she creates a facebook account in Laura’s name, and she undermines her at work. At first Laura, who’s skilled at getting into the heads of the people she interviews, sees the situation with C as raw material for a new book, and she wants to “enter C’s delusion.” She consults a therapist about C, and he basically tells Laura to run, that C has de Clérambault syndrome and that this situation will end either in death or suicide. …

A Cage in Search of a Bird is a psychological thriller, and its strengths include several cases of de Clérambault syndrome patients (including Johnny Hallyday and Patrick Bruel). These cases show just how hopeless (to cure) these obsessions, with built-in-fantasy protection, are. Also how very dangerous. Here’s a man who can’t shake off a woman who obsesses about him

We are in the realm of the unpredictable. The only thing I know is that every week I receive a letter from her. Often she brings it herself and leaves it with my secretary. She’s there in person, she wanders the halls of the university. It’s a very destabilizing situation. You control neither the beginning nor the end. You don’t know where it comes from, what triggered it, and how it might end. You don’t know what kind of fantasy you might be the object of. And you are completely outside the rational world in which you’ve existed since childhood…

On the down side, the novel became increasingly elliptical as the pace picked up, and at a couple of points, some things weren’t clear. Some paragraphs are a sentence long, and at times, the story read like an outline to a novel: in other words not fleshed out yet.

After reading A Cage in Search of a Bird,  I understand some of these celebrity “stalking” murders that make the news. Also how A list celebrities who have the $$ to have good security can haul de Clérambault syndrome stalkers into court while B list celebrities are more vulnerable and can end up dead. I’ll emphasize though that some of the people Laura talks to about de Clérambault syndrome are just regular people (like her) who unfortunately and inexplicably become the object of erotomania.

Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Noiville Florence

Based on a True Story: Delphine de Vigan

The title of Delphine de Vigan’s latest book, Based on a True Story is a bit of a teaser. Is this book fiction or not? The book’s inside flap states that “this psychological thriller blurs the line between fact and fiction, reality and artifice,” and you can’t help but wonder what is ‘true’ and what is imagined when you read the book. After all, the author writes “autobiographical fiction,” and the main character is Delphine, an author who’s just written a book about her mother (Delphine de Vigan’s book about her mother is reviewed here), and if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that there are elements of the book that are true with imagination taking flight at some point. But frankly, I’m not interested in how much is real and how much is fiction; after all, I’m sure many writers use personal experiences, in one form or another, for inspiration.

Based on aTrue Story

The book begins with Delphine (the character) describing how she became friends with a woman she identifies only as L. They meet at a party, and “profoundly, slowly, surely, insidiously” L enters Delphine’s life and, over a two-year-period, gradually takes it over. When the two women meet, Delphine is at a low point in her life, and the publication of a book about her mother has had unexpected, mostly negative results. So here’s Delphine, a successful writer who meets L, a ghostwriter of various biographies and memoirs. To Delphine, L appears to be everything she will never be, immaculate:

How much time does it take to be a woman like that? I wondered as I looked at L., as I had observed dozens of women before, on the metro, in cinema queues and at restaurant tables. Coiffed, made up and neatly pressed. Without a crease. How much time to reach that state of perfection every morning and how much time for touch-ups before going out in the evening? What kind of life do you have to lead to have time to tame your hair by blow-drying, to change your jewellery every day, to coordinate and vary your outfits, to leave nothing to chance?

Within a short time, L. is in contact with Delphine on a daily basis. Meanwhile Delphine is receiving anonymous hate mail, and having difficulties writing. While L positions herself as Delphine’s friend and staunch supporter, in reality, she’s subtly undermining Delphine’s confidence and influencing her behaviour with negative and positive reinforcement. The  gradual decline of Delphine’s confidence is in direct proportion to L’s control over Delphine’s life. Yes, a friend in need is a friend indeed, unless she has your destruction at heart–in which case you’d better beware.

The problem is that Delphine doesn’t catch on until so many things have occurred and she has had several serious warnings that L is a psycho. L is slick, but her mask occasionally slips, and there’s really no reason why Delphine doesn’t see this. For example, at one point, L is snarkily raving on about her theories of Delphine’s writing:

I sometimes wonder if you shouldn’t be suspicious of the comfort you live in, your little life that’s ultimately quite comfortable, with your children, your man, writing, all carefully gauged.

Of course, L has partially achieved this control by gradually isolating Delphine and slowly eradicating her confidence, but it’s hard not to wonder why Delphine, who is a successful writer accepts the writing advice, constantly, of a woman who make her living as a ghostwriter? Or why Delphine abdicates her personal responsibilities repeatedly? Why doesn’t Delphine punch back?

At the heart of the matter is the idea that L tapped into Delphine’s deepest insecurities, but this wasn’t entirely achieved–especially when Delphine is given a warning that cannot be ignored, but goes back for more. … Again, perhaps that says more about Delphine’s needs than L’s occasionally sloppy methodology, but if that is true, the book’s thesis isn’t quite convincing.

While I eagerly turned each page of Based on a True Story, I wished that Delphine would wake up and smell the psycho, and I felt no small amount of frustration that it took so long. However, this an interesting read and a cautionary one. Writers are, after all, on the celebrity spectrum, but they are accessible to the public, fans and, yes, even haters.

And here’s Gert’s review

Review copy

Translated by George Miller

14 Comments

Filed under de Vigan Delphine, Fiction

The Black Notebook: Patrick Modiano

Once again Patrick Modiano plays with the themes of time and memory in his book The Black Notebook. In this novel, a writer named Jean looks back on his past–partly by wandering over old familiar Paris turf and partly through thumbing through his black notebook and a report handed to him by a former police inspector. Once again there are embedded signs of France’s colonial past, and once again, the narrator recalls a brush with the criminal world.

And of course, there has to be a woman…

The woman in this case is Dannie, well, at least that’s the name she gave Jean. She has disappeared–literally and figuratively, and although the black notebook recalls some details of the narrator’s relationship with Dannie, now, years later, Jean finds himself asking questions he wished he’d asked at the time.

the-black-notebook

The Black Notebook is my fifth Modiano novel to date. Young Once is the story of an ex-soldier who gets mixed up with a criminal crowd, and After the Circus, which has a strange disembodied sense of placement in time, is the tale of an 18-year old who gets mixed up with a nomadic young woman. The words ‘tale’ and ‘story’ are to be used loosely with these Modiano novels, and both Young Once and After the Circus are not so much concerned with concrete plots–although free-floating plots exist in each book, but rather the concerns are memory and time. Through his characters, Modiano continually wrestles with these themes. Here for example is Jean mulling over the past through his notebook:

Among those masses of notes, some have stronger resonance than others. Especially when nothing disturbs the silence. The telephone stopped ringing long ago. And no one will knock at the door. They must think I’m dead. You are alone, concentrating, as if trying to capture Morse signal codes being sent from far away by an unknown correspondent. Naturally many signals are garbled, and no matter how hard you strain your ears they are lost forever. 

Walking around Paris, through old familiar locations in which he spent time with Dannie, Jean plays with the idea that he “would slip into a parallel time where no one could ever reach me.” Modiano forms the idea that time isn’t sequential as much as a series of parallel universes:

Yesterday, I was alone in the street and a veil fell away. No more past, no more present–time stood still.

This idea of time is also worked through Jean’s fascination with a handful of historical characters: Tristan Corbière, Jeanne Duval, and Baroness Blanche. At one point, Jean is so convinced that a woman in a bookshop is Jeanne Duval, that he follows her. Interestingly, however, a shady group of people all acquainted with Dannie, known only to Jean through a series of names, remain far less real than these historical characters who people Jean’s mind.

Of the five Modiano novels I’ve read so far, Villa Triste remains my unchallenged favourite, for its solid plot and tarnished glamour while Little Jewel is at the bottom of the pile. After reading 5 novels, there’s the sense that Modiano’s themes–wrestled with in each of those novels–are as much for his puzzlement as for ours. While, with the exception of Villa Triste, I can’t say I love Modiano novels, I am fascinated by his portrayal of time and memory. The events experienced by his characters are secondary to their interpretation–both at the time and now with decades of murky perspective.

Review copy

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Modiano Patrick