Tag Archives: French fiction

The Martins: David Foenkinos

This is the first time I’ve been persecuted by my characters.”

There must be a lot of great benefits to being a writer–lots of down stuff too, no doubt, but it’s the complications of authorship I thought of as I read the delightful novel The Martins from author David Foenkinos.

In The Martins, a Parisian author has hit a roadblock. He’s “struggling” to write when he decides that his fictional characters fill him with “boredom.” Desperate, he decides that the first person he sees in the street will be the subject of his next book. He expects to see the mysterious woman who works in the travel agency below his apartment, so he’s disappointed when he sees an elderly woman crossing the road “pulling a purple shopping trolley.” The woman is grandmother, Madeleine Tricot, a woman whose life on the surface seems ordinary and boring. Madeleine is only too happy to talk to the author and soon he’s soaking up details of her career in the fashion industry, a wise, steady but not thrilling marriage, and a lover who suddenly departed for California.

Madeleine’s middle-aged daughter, Valérie insists on being included in the book, and that involves the author meeting Valérie’s family: Patrick her stressed-out husband, their 15-year-old son Jérémie “lazy and lethargic,” and 17-year-old Lola who is openly hostile. At first, the author thinks that “there was something relaxing about having characters prepared to take charge of the story,” but as the author is dragged into various unsavoury situations involving the Martins, he learns that dealing with real people instead of fictional characters is a lot more work. He notes:

For the first time in my life, I am being manipulated by one of my characters.

While the author starts out seeing himself as a passive sponge, an observer, a listener, soaking up details of real life, he is, instead, written in to the Martins’ lives in various ways. As he is drawn into the Martins’ lives, each of the family members give him a role to play. Lola wants the author to have a chat with her boyfriend. Valérie wants to know if the author is married and she is eager to delve into the secrets of his love life. Authors are supposed to manipulate the characters for the plot, but in The Martins, it looks as though the author is the one filling the needs of the family. Complications escalate, and life for the author becomes messy.

I had infiltrated a tired family, trapped on the wheel of routine; passengers on the same ship who brushed past each other without ever really meeting.

The fact that the Martins may soon see their lives in print, has a ripple effect; it’s a bit like reality TV when people know that the camera is rolling. Some dramatic developments take place which may very possibly have been created by the Martins for the sake of the book’s plot. The author’s presence in his characters’ lives cannot help but impact the book that he is going to write:

I had to be careful, my characters were capable of falsifying reality to present themselves in the best possible light.

The author is a marvellous narrator, with the perfect pitch of self-analysis and contemplation. This delightful novel takes a playful approach to serious questions such the role of the author, the author’s interpretation of events, and the lines between fiction and non-fiction. The author admits “I was altering the trajectories of the lives I wanted to describe,” and thus we see that the process of writing inevitably alters the author and his ‘real-life’ subjects.

Review copy. Translated by Sam Taylor

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The Geography of an Adultery: Agnès Riva

“You have to compartmentalize.”

When it comes to Coupledom, I think of a Venn diagram of two circles–two individuals, and where those circles overlap, that’s the Couple: shared values, shared time, shared resources. After reading Agnès Riva’s short novel, The Geography of an Adultery, I still saw that Venn diagram, but now it has 4 circles, and the shared areas… well it’s complicated.

Ema and Paul are married–but to other people. Conveniently, they work together and gradually an affair ignites between them. Every marriage has limits and boundaries, but adulterous affairs I suspect, have even more. Right from the start, Paul, who is a pro at these sorts of relationships, sets the boundaries

“We’ll see each other at social gatherings, but face-to-face meetings, just the two of us–those won’t happen very often.” Having already had some experience in this sort of liaison, he also warned Ema how painful it can be for one partner to try to envision the other’s world over which he or she has no sort of control. “Spare yourself. Don’t make comparisons, don’t compile a list of all the things we can’t do. Otherwise, you’ll run into a wall.”

The novel, as the title suggests, emphasizes boundaries and space. Ema and Paul’s affair is carved out from their lives and contains a space between work and their other relationships. Their initial (cramped) meetings occur in Paul’s compact car, and then move to Ema’s house. This idea of the limitations, literal and figurative, of adultery isn’t new, but the way the author maps out the affair with its emphasis on space, underscores the pain, and the absurdity of maintaining any sort of relationship such as this–which is squeezed into odd moments and hemmed in on all sides by boundaries–set by Paul. There’s no room for the relationship to grow or expand. No room for emotional involvement. Since Ema and Paul are married to other people, and don’t seem ready to seek divorce, it’s inevitable that the affair begins to pall. The idea of the ‘geography’ of an affair is clever–occasionally it’s overworked and a little too cold and wordy–occasionally slipping into “the man” and “the young woman,” instead of their names, but in spite of that, this is an intriguing novel.

Review copy

Translated by John Cullen

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Rose Royal: Nicolas Mathieu

Nicolas Mathieu’s short novel, Rose Royal charts the life of a middle-aged woman who meets a man in a bar. The woman, Rose, nearly 50, has given up on finding love but still has relationships with men. She married young, divorced and had two children who are now adults.

She’d had various bosses, adventures, symbolic promotions, health problems, meetings in the principal’s office. These days she was entitled to an annual bonus and a company car–a white Fiat Punto that she hardly ever used. She lived in a rent-controlled apartment and her boys had found jobs and girlfriends. She slept badly and had stopped making plans for vacations. Sometimes it seemed like she was living her life on autopilot.

So a fairly ordinary life–nothing too spectacular–nothing too tragic. As a result of a recent relationship that became abusive, Rose carries a handgun in her bag “just in case.” She “wondered what had taken her so long [to buy a gun] because she had a history of ambiguous relationships with men that went way back.” Rose uses internet dating sites, but the men she meets are mostly disappointing. She hangs around in a bar at night, and she has “her happiest moments” here. One night, an incident sends a man called Luc into the bar.

(For readers, this incident includes a dying animal and it’s distressing to read. At first, I thought the scene was gratuitous, but by the time I finished the book, I saw this incident as portentous.)

Two days after the ‘incident,’ Luc calls Rose, and they meet for a drink. They hit it off right away, and exchange some basic bio information. Luc says he does a bit of “DIY” which turns out to be major property renovation, but officially he’s a real estate agent. Luc and Rose are “both good drinkers,” and by the end of the evening, “they ended up finding they had loads in common.”

Right away, though, Rose begins to carry more than her share of the relationship.

So it was that Rose, who had promised herself she would never get sucked into it again, found herself becoming part of a couple. She found comfort in their routines, someone else she could tell things to, shared meals. She started making plans for two. She rediscovered the delicate art of compromise. She learned once again how to consider another person’s needs and desire. Little by little she was lured into the swindle known as dependency.

Rose grows away from her friends, but overall she’s fairly happy. With Luc, there are issues with sex, and the longer Luc and Rose don’t talk about it, the bigger the problem becomes. The plot follows the trajectory of Luc and Rose’s relationship, but unfortunately we remain outside of the characters’ heads for the most part. However, as written, it becomes quite clear how someone like Rose ends up sucked into a bad relationship–how it happens so slowly and subtly, Rose can’t put her finger on what’s wrong. Suddenly she’s dependent, friendless and trapped.

This short, slight novel would make an excellent film,

Translated by Sam Taylor

Review copy

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The N’Gustro Affair: Jean-Patrick Manchette

As a Jean-Patrick Manchette fan, I was delighted to see that New York Review Books Classics released another title: The N’Gustro Affair. The book is described as a ‘thinly disguised’ retelling of the abduction and murder of Ben Barka who opposed King Hassan II of Morocco. This is a timely release given the revolting murder of Jamal Khashoggi; somehow the two crimes, no doubt because of despicable commonalities, seem tied together.

The book opens with a few opinions about Henri Butron; there’s not much good to say–he’s a “mythomaniac” and a “pathologically case.” From those first impressions, then the book segues to Butron “wearing a smoking jacket” as he records his version of events in a tape recorder. “His own life fascinates him,” but he is rudely interrupted by two assassins who make short work of Butron. One of the assassins calls the police saying “Butron has committed suicide,” and the other grabs the reel from the tape recorder. The assassins wait for the police to arrive and then make a cordial departure. Butron’s recording is delivered into the hands of Marshal George Clemenceau Oufiri who listens with merriment at Butron’s sordid, braggartly tale.

Butron’s tale is clearly laced with the fabrications of an psychopathic egoist. At school he confesses “I could have been brilliant had I cared to be but I didn’t.” Butron, a petty, violent thief consider himself amazingly intelligent, but he also boasts about his sexual conquests. Butron’s version of his life is interrupted with observations and facts from others. These versions meet on some salient points but diverge when it comes to Butron’s fantastically inflated opinion of himself. Butron is a dangerous thug whose submersion into right wrong politics, where he proves to be a useful idiot, creates a patina of idealism on his basic revolting nature.

It’s a commentary on society that someone like Butron, a nasty little man, should not only be tolerated but supported and used to further political aims. The N’Gustro Affair is not easy reading–full of Butron’s grubby bragging about women and violence, it’s nauseating to read about this human cockroach. The long, interesting intro goes into the Ben Barka case, but it’s one of those mixed bag situations where the intro helps you understand the background and the connection with the Ben Barka case but at the same time pulled me away from the plot. My least favourite Manchette to date.

Review copy Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

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The Impudent Ones: Marguerite Duras (1943)

“Love Contains the dregs of Hate.”

A first time translation into English brings us Marguerite Duras’ The Impudent Ones. Published in 1943, this was the author’s first novel. I’ve only read the exotic ones; The Sea Wall is my favourite. It’s been ten years since I read that semi-autobiographical novel and I still think about it (and the incredible film version). The Impudent Ones and The Sea Wall are both stories of family politics, and sisters whose sexuality may benefit the family unit, but the similarities stop there.

The Paris-based blended Grant-Taneran family consists of Mr and Mrs Taneran, their son Henry and Mrs Grant Taneran’s two children from her first marriage: Maud and Jacques Grant. Mr Taneran, who married the widow late in his life is “stooped” with “despondent eyes.” And it doesn’t take long to figure out why he looks so beaten up. For financial reasons, he’s working again after retirement, but it’s not all bad: he can “escape the tyranny of his family and felt quite pleased about it.” He’s afraid of Jacques and when he married the widow, he thought that Jacques would leave the family soon. Fat chance. Jacques is always in “need of cash,” and when he gets any he “spent recklessly.” Jacques married and lived off his wife’s money for a while, but surprise, surprise, that source went dry. Constantly sponging off the family, Jacques has all bills directed to his mother, and she gives him just enough money to keep him coming back in a co-dependent fashion.

The novel opens with the family dealing with the news that Jacques’ wife is dead, and her death opens the door for more borrowing. Maybe it’s a good excuse. Maybe it’s genuine. (I’ll go with the former.) The bank is dunning Jacques for money, and the family go to the country, to Uderan, in southwest France. The Grant-Tanerans own a property here, and since a heavy fog of lethargy hovers around the family (from page one) it’s no surprise to find out the country property is falling into decay. The family lived there years ago, but the place was in a bad state when they bought it, and since they are not farmers, the place gets worse.

In the country, Maud’s presence stirs up passions. She is courted by two men: John Pecresse, and George Durieux, but the novel’s lethargy continues to be reflected in the characters’ actions. Will Maud marry one of these men? Will her family approve?

Boredom is mentioned in the novel, and the author certainly creates that atmosphere, but unfortunately it oozes through the plot which, as a result, is uninteresting. The family is toxic, a thoroughly miserable lot who loathe each other. The characters are unpleasant and it was impossible for this reader to care. The story is told with strong exposition; imagine someone sitting opposite you telling you about these incidents, and that’s how the story feels. Makes me think of that well-worn fiction writer advice “show not tell.” Too much telling here.

Jacques began going out again and taking back the upper hand he had in the household from which the death of his wife had momentarily exempted him. Since this event, on the other hand, he had become more and more difficult, hardly being able to stand the presence of Taneran at the table. Even if Jacques went out as much as before, he did not want it to be said that he suffered less for his loss which is why he feigned an exasperation intended to simulate sorrow.

It’s the sort of story when I long for some drama–instead of this insipid behaviour of family members. The family is funded by Mr Taneran who is undermined by his wife and bullied by his stepson. Great potential. Very complicated family politics are the best aspect of the novel.

Review copy. Translated by Kelsey L. Haskett. I listened to the audio version which was beautifully read by Suzanne Toren

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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

Review copy

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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.

Review copy.

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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

Review copy

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