Tag Archives: French fiction

The Toys of Princes: Ghislain de Diesbach

England is the country of melancholy.

The Toys of Princes from Ghislain de Diesbach is a short story collection. Here are the contents:

The Toys of Princes

The Magravine’s Page

The Force of Destiny

The Devil at Stillbad

The Chevalier d’Armel’s Wedding

Iphigenia in Thuringia

On the Thunersee

The Apparitions of Kirmünster

Die Fledermaus

The Canoness Vanishes

The Divine Baroness

Of Love and Money.

Through the stories, all set in the 19th Century, we repeatedly see the excesses of the nobility. And what excesses they are!

The lead story, The Toys of Princes concerns a Prince whose father was deposed:

Imitating the bad example set by the subjects of the King of France, those of the Prince Elector of Bramberg had overturned the monarchy in order to proclaim the republic.

The Elector dreams of regaining his throne and reads the papers “hoping to learn that the cursed Corsican had been murdered.” A few days before the marriage of his son Clément, to a Countess he loves, the Emperor sends a letter which states he wishes to arrange a match between one of his nieces and Prince Clément. The Emperor promises that if Clément marries Valérie he will put Clément on the throne of Bramberg. The niece, Valérie, is in love with a hussar. but both love matches are swept aside in favour of ambition. Valérie and Clément marry, and as King and Queen they spend years in “mutual sacrifice” with esteem for one other, but the memory of their past great loves never leaves their minds. Eventually those long-lost loves die, under nasty circumstances. The thought of all they had lost weighs on the royal couple’s mind. The Queen suffers from melancholy and “indeed as time passed, regret for her broken dream spread and flourished within her like an incurable sickness.” And then the King meets a “maker of automatons” who is commissioned to make two automatons in the images of the lost loves of the king and queen. But their faces, disappointingly, don’t look real. The queen has an epiphany:

I have heard that during the great revolution in France, some people had the books of their libraries bound with the skins of guillotined aristocrats. It is reputed to be extremely durable.

In The Margravine’s Page, an aging margravine (had to look that up–it’s the wife of a military governor) basically holds a beauty contest which involves culling 30 of the best looking men from the university. The “handsomest, and most well made” wins a prize of 10,000 thalers, and it’s a surefire way to jumpstart a career.

The Force of Destiny concerns a man who is forced to take shelter at an inn during a terrific storm. He meets a stranger there who has a tragic story to tell. For this reader, the story had a feel of Hoffmann.

The Chevalier d’Armel’s Wedding is probably the strangest of the bunch. Again this is another story of misrule and decadence. This time a young handsome man marries a woman, but after the wedding, she begins acting rather strangely.

There’s a gothic feel to the tales but that is wrapped with a dash of fairytale, fantasy quality. There are some horrors here but there’s a light touch too.The stories feel as though they were written in the 19th century, but as far as I can tell the original French version was written in the 60s.



Filed under de Diesbach Ghislain, Fiction

Eastbound: Maylis de Kerangel

Siberia–fuck! […] a territory of banishment, giant oubliette of the Tsarist empire before it turns Gulag country.”

The Trans-Siberian railway evokes a romantic feel, but that feeling is absent in Maylis de Kerangel’s Eastbound. Set on the train heading for Vladivostok, the novel explores themes of loneliness and escape through two characters: conscript  20-year-old Aliocha, and Hélène, an older French woman who is fleeing from a relationship. Aliocha, in his third class compartment with other soldiers, is desperate. He had no desire to join the army but did not have the necessary connections, money, or waivers to escape conscription.

Right up until the last, Aliocha had believed he wouldn’t have to go. Right up until April 1st., the traditional day of the Spring Draft, he thought he would manage to avoid military service, to fake out the system, and be exempted–and to tell the truth, there’s not a single guy in Moscow between eighteen and twenty-seven years old who hasn’t tried to do the same. It’s the young men of means who tend to be favoured at this game; the others do what they can, meanwhile their mothers scream in Pushkin Square, in ever-increasing numbers since the soldier Sytchev* was martyred, and gather around Valentina Melnikova, President of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers–they’re fearsome, boiling mad, determined, and if the cameras turn up they rush to fit their eager faces in the frame: I don’t want my son to go, and he’s not even a drinker! When reprieves run out, the next option is the false medical certificate, bought for an arm and a leg from doctors who slip the cash directly into their breast pockets, and the families who’ve been bled dry go home and get smashed in relief. If this doesn’t work, and when anxiety has bitten down night after night to the quick, then come the direct attempts at bribery. These can be effective but slow to put into action and meanwhile time is galloping past–investigating the networks of influence within administrations, identifying the right person, the one who’ll be able to intervene, all this takes a crazy amount of time. And finally, when there’s nothing left, when it’s looking hopeless, there are women. Find one before winter and get her knocked up–this is all that’s left to do because at six months, a pregnancy will grant an exemption.

After being beaten by other soldiers, and knowing this is the beginning of the hell that awaits, Aliocha takes his fate in his hands and decides to escape.

It’s the end of the afternoon and the sky is turning to ash. The back window is free again and Aliocha leaps to it, magnetized to this unique focal point on the world–like an eye in the back of your head–captivated by the sight of the tracks that hurtle backwards into the landscape.

After his first attempt to escape fails, Aliocha meets Hélène, a French woman on the train; they share a cigarette, and even though their communications are limited, she understands, through Aliocha’s gestures, that he does not want to be a soldier, and so she hides him. Of course, she doesn’t realise the extent of the danger or grasp the commitment that she has not yet made. This is an incredibly tense novella, quite cinematic in its execution. Naturally claustrophobic due to its setting, the speeding train rushing towards Siberia accelerates the notion of freedom, taking a chance.

Thinking over the use of travel in fiction. Regular readers know I have a thing for books that involve holidays. Holiday travel in books is seen as stressful, exciting, the gateway to possibilities of new experiences, romance. But travel in books set in wartime is an entirely different animal: it’s desperation, fear, anxiety, escape, danger.

Here’s Joe’s review at Rough Ghosts.

*Dedovshchina is the practice of hazing/abusing conscripts. In 2006, Andrei Sytchev was an 18-year-old conscript who was tied to a chair and beaten. He was so badly beaten, his legs and his genitals had to be amputated.

Translated by Jessica Moore. Review copy.


Filed under de Kerangel Maylis, 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


Filed under Fiction, Foenkinos David