Tag Archives: French 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

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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

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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

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Filed under Fiction, Modiano Patrick

The Wicked Go To Hell: Frédéric Dard (1956)

“It was an eerie spectacle, for the darkness obstructed the rest of the bodies so that the prisoners looked like the heads of fallen angels nailed to a backdrop of night, with their hands for wings.”

Pushkin Vertigo continues to publish some astonishing crime novels, and this is proved once more by a second Frédéric Dard novel, The Wicked Go To Hell which follows on the tail of Bird in a Cage. The Wicked Go To Hell follows the escape of two convicts–one a spy and one an undercover cop. There’s very little down time in this gripping tale, an exploration of identity and morality .

the-wicked-go-to-hell

The novel opens with a bureaucratic scene of a cop named Mérins meeting with his chief while groans of beating and torture taking place next door provide the incongruous background noise to what should be an office meeting. The man being beaten is a spy. He’s been interrogated five times, four times too many, according to the chief, but like many ideologues, the prisoner isn’t breaking. The chief has an alternate plan–he intends to place Mérins undercover in the same cell with the prisoner. They are supposed to buddy up and then plan an escape.

“We’ll lock you both up in the same jail cell… a tough one.. the sort of place that gives kindly old ladies the shivers. The pair of you will escape!

You’ll try to hole up somewhere and you’ll wait. The breakout will be big news. The head of the organization, knowing that his man has escaped, will want to get him back… At some point or other, he’ll break cover…Then, when you’ve got your hands on him…”

He made a chopping motion with the side of his hand. The gesture meant death.

‘Got it?”

The Chief expects that guards will be killed along the way, but hey, it’s all in the name of making the escape look authentic….

 

“Your second problem: the escape… Keep telling yourself, old son, that you’re acting unofficially.”

He repeated the word, spelling it out with great vehemence:

“Un-off-icially! The minute you leave the office I shall disown you! You know what that means?”

Sure I knew. He couldn’t help taking a sly sideways look at me.

“If you run into trouble, I won’t be able to lift a finger to help you, especially since escape won’t happen without breakages…”

The novel then shifts from the first person to the third–two freshly beaten men, handcuffed together, are thrown into a cell by a sadistic warden, where they join a third prisoner, a mute. The two new prisoners, Hal and Frank exchange names, but we don’t know which one is the undercover cop and which one is the spy. Each man expresses suspicion that the other has been planted in the cell as a “stool pigeon.”

Days of beatings pass in the airless, dank, dark prison; nights are full of screams, and then Hal and Frank hear that an execution of another prisoner is planned. They hatch a plan to escape on the day of the execution, and the plan gives them hope, raising their spirits:

They had grabbed it as they would a battering ram-and in fact their idea was itself a battering ram, with which they would try to smash down the gates….

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say the men escape, and that’s when the story really begins. ..

Although this is a novel about an escape, the atmosphere is incredibly claustrophobic–running from the dank, stinking cell to the outside world, the desperate men are chased and hunted, and exchange one hell for another.

In common with other titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line, The Wicked Go to Hell is an incredibly clever novel. Author Frédéric Dard deliberately blurs the lines between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys, stripping them of their identities so that we try to guess which one of the two men is the spy and which one is the undercover cop. All we have to judge them by is their current behaviour–which really is how we should see everyone–not by their uniforms or their status. Both men lose their identities as they become dehumanized prisoners. But then after the escape, we keep waiting for the reveal, and it comes, finally at the end of the wonderful story in which right and wrong blur into escape and survival. While both men begin this journey on opposite ends of the law, there’s a greater morality here in the bonds of friendship, debt and loyalty.

According to the afterword at the end of the book, Dard wrote 284 thrillers. I’m hoping that Pushkin mines this author’s work. The Wicked Go To Hell was made into a film. I’d love to see it.

review copy

translated by David Coward

Original title: Les Salauds en Enfer (1956)

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The Eskimo Solution: Pascal Garnier

“He kills people’s parents the way Eskimos leave their elders on a patch of ice because … it’s natural, ecologically sound, a lot more humane and far more economical that endlessly prolonging their suffering in a nursing home. Besides, he’ll hardly be doing them harm; he’ll do the job carefully, every crime professionally planned and tailored to the person like a Club Med holiday.”

In Pascal Garnier’s The Eskimo Solution, an author of children’s stories decides to branch out into a different genre. On a slim advance from his skeptical publisher, he’s rented a house on the Normandy coast, and begins working on a novel about a middle-aged man named Louis who decides to start killing the parents of various friends in order to ‘gift’ his friends with premature inheritances.

Since everything goes to plan, no trouble with the law or anything, he starts killing the parents of friends in need. Of course, he doesn’t tell them what he’s doing-it’s his little secret, pure charity. He’s an anonymous benefactor, if you like.

Gradually the writer begins to identify with his fictional character and the writer’s life spirals out of control as fiction and reality mix in a deadly and disorienting fashion…

the-eskimo-solutiom

Any one reading The Eskimo Solution will have to pay close attention to the text as Garnier melts back and forth into the crime writer’s life and that of his main character and alterego, Louis. The crime writer’s tale is written in the first person while Louis’ story unfolds in the third, so if you get lost it’s fairly easy to pull yourself back and hang onto ‘reality.’ Any sense of confusion, however, isn’t helped by the fact that there’s another Louis, an elderly neighbour in the crime writer’s life. I asked myself why Garnier used the same name twice and concluded that the two characters named Louis–one real, the other fictional–serve to blur the lines between fact and fiction (in this metafictional novel). And as the novel continues with the plot taking the stance of Life Imitates Art, Garnier is clearly dragging the reader into a life spinning out of control.

I really liked parts of The Eskimo Solution; it’s classic Garnier black humour with the crime writer  bemoaning the fact that he has to wait until his parents die until he gets his hands on a meagre inheritance, hoping all the old people will be wiped out by an epidemic, and pissed off asthe fucking doctors have made them practically immortal,” but overall this is not Garnier’s best by a long shot. The novel’s premise had a lot of promise, and if the crime writer had begun following Louis’ lead, this would have been a much stronger novel. Indeed, Garnier seems to play with this possibility–he even places two elderly people in the path of the crime writer. The elderly neighbours, Arlette and (another) Louis are harmless and sweet, but since the crime writer’s fictional Louis has been bumping off people over 50 at an alarming rate, Garnier dangles the murder of Arlette and Louis as a tantalizing possibility.

Anyway, if you’re a Garnier fan as I am (and this is novel number 9) you won’t be able to resist. The Eskimo Solution shows a middle-aged man chomping at the bit to get his hands on his parents’ money, and like many a writer before him, he uses fiction to resolve the issues in his life. Given that I’ve talked to so many people in the last few years who dumped their elderly parents in ‘rest homes’ while they cleared out their estates, selling off all the parents’ worldly goods asap, this novel hit a chord for me. Garnier illuminates the dark wish of many early middle-aged children, drags it to daylight, and takes it to a typical Garnier-ish conclusion. Garnier’s work can’t all be as good as Moon in a Dead Eye, and when you start reading a large number of novels from any writer, it’s inevitable that you rank them in order of preference. While I wasn’t crazy about The Eskimo Solution, it had its merits in spite of its flaws.

Order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

Here’s another review at Words and Peace

Review copy

Translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken

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Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal

The High Life: Jean-Pierre Martinet

In The High Life from Jean-Pierre Martinet, Adolphe Marlaud (and the first name gains significance as the story plays out) is an unattractive man–a mere “four-and-a half feet tall (in heels) runt barely weighing eight-five pounds.” He lives alone on the rue Froidevaux, a “joyless” street he hates, where his main object in life is to guard and tend his father’s grave in the cemetery he can see from his window. The asthmatic Adolphe, who suffers from panic attacks, works part-time for the funerary shop on the corner. It’s a dreary existence, for this repressed, stunted man refuses to delve into life beyond its miserable surface. Arguably the most exciting parts of  Adolphe’s life are the sexual fantasies he harbours for all the widows that come into the shop, but apart from that he accepts the tedium.

My rule of conduct was simple: live as little as possible so as to suffer as little as possible.

Adolphe’s boring routine is disrupted when the morbidly obese concierge of his building, a widow known as Madame C makes it clear that they will be lovers.

It was a hostage situation. Maybe Madame C was part of a Palestinian commando group.

The widow will not be refused and so mild-mannered Adolphe whose timidity dictates his actions finds himself in this strange relationship as a phallus man”  with Madame C dominating their relations and Adolphe submitting with mixed feelings. He tries to share books which she rejects, she confides that she reads everyone’s mail (“you wouldn’t believe the filth I read.“) A crisis emerges when they attend the cinema together:

One evening Madame C wanted us to go out together to the movies. I wasn’t that keen on being seen with her, but as she insisted, I ended up giving in. It was a porno that someone had recommended to her, Barbara Broadcast, which they were playing at the “Maine,” just behind the lodge. I personally don’t have anything against pornos–quite the contrary–and I obediently followed Madame C. After all, a bad porno is better than a good film by Lelouche, or racking your brains over whether Romy Schneider is going to have an abortion or not in Sautet’s latest film. 

The High Life

The High Life, from Wakefield Press, is a slim volume. The story itself is a mere 26 pages, but don’t let the brevity deter you. Author Jean-Pierre Martinet packs a lot of subversive material into a story that another author would stretch out to 300 pages: the sordid history of collaboration, the sexual urges of a timid, unattractive man, and the pathological relationship between Adolphe and his obese mistress. The depths of the story ripple out far beyond the 26 pages. But at the same time I’ll include a few warnings for any potential readers: at one point, Adolphe attempts to serve a pert 12-year-old girl in the shop. In the hands of another author, Adolphe would be the sexual predator, but in this case, the 12 year old makes mincemeat of a drooling Adolphe. Other scenes hint as the repulsiveness of sex between Adolphe and Madame C, but I’ll emphasize hint. I found myself unfolding these scenes but then I folded them back up again–I didn’t want these images of “the ogre’s vagina,”  placed by the author in my head any longer than necessary. And finally, animals do not fare well in this tale.

My edition includes an introduction and a bio of the author who apparently only wrote a handful of novels. Jean-Pierre Martinet (1944-1993) also owned a bookshop (which failed) and I immediately felt a connection with him for stocking the shelves with “classic crime fiction.” 

Overall, I loved this transgressive story for its bleak, black, subversive humour and rather nasty outlook on one pathetic, twisted man’s life. Plus, Martinet could write. Here’s Adolphe chatting up a young widow:

I could have talked forever, the young woman didn’t know how to get rid of me, my tongue swelled in my mouth, it swelled enough to choke me, and my boss was obliged to chase me off into the back room, giving me little kicks, like I was some poodle that has had an accident in the living room.

Translated by Henry Vale

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Bye Bye Blondie: Virginie Despentes

I gave up on the film version of Baise-Moi based on the book from French author Virginie Despentes, but that didn’t stop me from trying, and loving the film  Les Jolies Choses, based on yet another (sadly, untranslated) book from the author.  It was the latter film I thought of as I read Bye Bye Blondie, the story of a tangled relationship floating on a sea of fame and affluence.

The book begins with a woman in her late 30s, Gloria, whose real name is Stéphanie, washed up, living on benefits in the town of Nancy. Gloria could be called local colour at the bar where she hangs out, drinking, and it’s to this bar she gravitates after yet another violent break-up. This time it’s with her now ex-boyfriend, Lucas, and in the aftermath of the fight, she realizes that “she could have killed him. It came that close: a centimeter, a second! She diced with tragedy. He’d have had to be just that bit less quick, agile, or strong than her.”

Bye Bye Blondie

Gloria’s whole life gravitates around the bar where she’s well known. One of her few remaining friends is Michel who is smitten with a woman,
“a château bottled bitch,” named Vanessa, and to Gloria’s dismay, this relationship may be serious. Gloria is very intolerant of other people–especially women, and yet she always expects others to accept her aggressive, destructive behaviour.

Back in the bar, she looks around for L’Est Républicain, the local paper, and sees it clutched in the pink false fingernails of the woman sitting at the bar. Classic slut. Another regular. Always lots of makeup, come-hither eyes. She’s fat, dark-haired, no great looker, but not letting on she knows that.

Of course with a character like Gloria, you have to ask where things went wrong. How did she get to this point, “addicted to pointless anger,” and the first half of the book explores those questions with the result it’s obvious that middle-aged Gloria is not in a slump, no, she hasn’t moved beyond her adolescence. She’s a trainwreck, but she’s at the age that her actions can still impress those younger than her. Since her teenage years, obessive-compulsive Gloria has enjoyed throwing fits. To her they are an effective tool:

What she doesn’t tell him is how much of a kick she gets these days out of being aggressive. How much she loves the moment when everything tips over, when the other person is caught off balance and you have to go on, attacking, screaming, and seeing his fear. That’s the moment she likes. The pleasure she gets from it is dirty, degrading, filling her with shame-a filthy and superpowerful pleasure.

Never really able to settle on her own identity, in the 80s, she latched onto the Punk rock scene. But that’s not mentioning her stay at a mental hospital where she met the love of her life, Eric, a young man from a wealthy home, who, in the years following his break-up with Gloria, has become a successful television personality.

Blurbs about the book mention the inherent violence in heterosexual relationships, and while that’s not an arguable point when discussing this author’s work, other pertinent themes include the issues of class differences, status, and fame. The very things that attract us to someone in the first place are quite often the same things that guarantee doom.

I loved Gloria; I loved her ability to self destruct and to rise from the ashes. She’s funny, intelligent, and yet as her own worst enemy, she continually launches herself into a never-ending cycle of aggression. To Eric, locked into the world of the rich and famous, Gloria is a breath of fresh air, so he takes her to Paris and is “delighted to see the way she gets up people’s noses.” Gloria gets used to living in Eric’s world, and the question is: how long can she behave before creating another “nuclear disaster?”

There are many memorable scenes to carry away from this book. In one scene, Gloria is questioned by an “ancient” male psychiatrist who dislikes Gloria’s dyed red hair. He decides she’s “refusing to be a woman,” and locks her up.

And in another scene she’s shopping in Paris with Eric.

She waits in front of the luxury delicatessen, Fauchon’s, smoking a cigarette. She looks people up and down as they go in, actively detesting them. Elderly dyed-blondes, all twig-slim with ridiculous little dogs, hordes of Japanese women, young anorexic girls with strained faces, old ladies with white hair and Hermès scarves. The clichés aren’t misleading: rich people are just like you’d imagine them, weird, ugly and pleased with themselves. They can spot each other at a glance. Even when one of them dresses down, they keep something about them that says to their equals, “I’m one of us.”

She waits for him opposite Colette’s smoking another cigarette.

“Come in with me, don’t be silly.”

“I tell you it would give me conniptions.”

“You look like a horse stamping its foot outside. You’re scaring everyone.”

She wants to run between the aisles waving her hands in the air and screaming, pushing people over into the displays. Breaking all the glass, the mirrors, the windows. Punching the old hags in the face, kicking the salesgirls, jumping up and down on the fashion victims, smashing the balls of the bouncers.”

But my favourite scene has to be Gloria, stuck in long line at the post office. There’s annoying children, a demented old lady in a dressing gown, and a disgruntled customer:

A woman complains that there’s always a line at the post office. Gloria never at a loss for something to say, looks her up and down and retorts: “perhaps that’s because you only come here at busy times, you silly bitch.”

Gloria may be a trainwreck but she’s a disinhibited one, and it’s hard to disagree with some of her outspokenness, and while Gloria seems hell-bent on destroying conventional society and all of her relationships at the cost of her own comfort, there’s a tiny voice off on the sidelines that whispers we hope she can change her cycle of self-destructiveness but still remain true to herself.

We don’t get too close to the secondary characters in Gloria’s life, nonetheless there’s plenty to entertain here–the pub customers, life at the mental hospital, and parties full of the unhappy wives of rich, “repulsive pigs.” I would love to see the film version…

Translated by Siân Reynolds

Review copy.

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Villa Triste: Patrick Modiano

“I tell myself she was living in that moment of youth when everything’s going to be at the tipping point soon, when it’s going to be a little too late for everything. The boat’s still at the dock, all you have to do is walk up the gangway, you’ve got a few minutes left…”

Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste covers a short period in a man’s life that took place over one summer twelve years earlierAs he narrates the story, he recalls how in the early 60s, at age 18, he fled Paris “convinced the city was becoming dangerous for people” like him. Immediately there’s a sense of mystery which sets the tone for this languid, moody tale. He mentions the Algerian War, dislikes the “police-heavy” atmosphere of Paris, and considers there are “too many round-ups.” He seeks a “place of refuge” in a small French resort town, “just five kilometers from the Swiss border.”

The story opens with the narrator revisiting that long-ago summer when using the name Victor Chmara, he stayed at a third-rate boarding house, avoided any news, went to the cinema, and lingered at the casinos. Then one day, he met a glamorous couple: an auburn haired actress named Yvonne accompanied by her “melancholy” Great Dane Oswald, and a gay friend who squires her to social events, Dr René Meinthe–a flamboyant man with “agitated elegance” who occasionally refers to himself as “the Queen of the Belgians.”

villa triste

Victor becomes Yvonne’s lover, and he’s quickly swept up into the claustrophobic society world of this resort town. He attends dinners, social events and parties, some of which take a decadent turn:

I keep thinking of a colonial country, or one of the Caribbean islands. How else to explain that soft, corroding light, the midnight blue that turned eyes, skin, dresses, and alpaca suits phosphorescent. Those people were all surrounded by some mysterious electricity, and every time they made a move, you braced yourself for a short circuit. Their names-some of them have remained in my memory, and I regret not having written them all down at the time, I could have recited them at night before falling asleep, not knowing who their owners were, the sound of them would have been enough-their names brought to mind the little cosmopolitan societies of free ports and foreign bars.

The novel goes back in time twelve years earlier but also appears to jump to the present with the jump in time marked mainly by Victor’s remarks about the changes in the resort town. He sees a now older rather pathetic Dr Meinthe  and appears to follow him, but after concluding the novel, I don’t think he saw Dr Meinthe at all; he imagined him.

As in Modiano’s Young Once and After the Circus, the story in Villa Triste is concerned with an older man looking back at a time in his youth. All three novels contain Modiano’s favourite themes: youth, disillusionment, time, distance and memory, yet for this reader, Villa Triste is the best of the three. I liked Young Once and After the Circus, but more than anything else, I find myself fascinated by Modiano’s writing and the way he explores his themes. This is a writer who tackles the same themes, working over various plots, honing those themes through a shifting series of characters.  In Villa Triste, the characters of Yvonne and Meinthe are people you can’t forget, and while there’s some blurriness to their stories, it’s the blurriness of Victor’s youth and his inability to ask the right questions. The distance between Modiano and his narrative, apparent in Young Once and After the Circus morphs in Villa Triste to the fogs of time. The characters of Yvonne and Meinthe, with their air of tarnished glamour, are much stronger, and much more interesting.

There are some wonderfully memorable scenes here–a visit to Yvonne’s uncle’s home and a contest to pick the most stylish couple who will win the Houligant Cup for “beauty and elegance.” Through the course of the summer, various celebrity deaths occur: Ali Khan, Belinda Lee and Marilyn Monroe. These events, now moments of history for the modern reader, serve to place the book in its context but also add flavor and historical significance to the times. This is an era that won’t return but it will live as a memory:

Time has shrouded all those things in a mist of changing colors: sometimes a pale green, sometimes a slightly pink blue. A mist? No, an indestructible veil that smothers all sound and through which I can see Yvonne and Meinthe but not hear them. I’m afraid their silhouettes may blur and fade in the end

Villa Triste, in common with the other Modiano novels I’ve read, leaves lingering questions created by very deliberate plot holes: just who is the narrator? What happened to his father? What sort of shady deals is Meinthe, who “more or less” practices medicine, mixed up in, and of course, what happened to Yvonne–yet another beautiful would-be actress who has style but probably not enough talent to launch an international film career. Villa Triste isn’t a place–it’s a state of mind and the lingering sense of loss from one summer long ago.

Review copy

Translated by John Cullen

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Young Once: Patrick Modiano

“Something-he wondered later is it was simply his youth-something that had weighed upon him until that moment broke off him, the way a piece of rock slides slowly into the sea and disappears in a spray of foam.”

Recently I read Patrick Modiano’s After the Circus, the story of a young man whose life in Paris is being uprooted for mysterious, possibly illegal reasons when he meets a driftless young woman. It’s a strange, timeless story, told, obviously, in retrospect by a much older man who is looking back on a brief, yet memorable period in his youth. That same description could apply to Young Once, a story which opens with Odile and Louis living in Switzerland, facing their 35th birthdays, and about to make a career shift–modifying their residence from a children’s camp to a sort of tea shop for tourists. They sound like a young couple who’ve done well for themselves, and then we’re back in the past.

Louis is in the army when he meets Brossier, a much older man in a Saint-Lô bar. There’s something not quite ‘right’ about Brossier who claims he “worked ‘in cars.’ He even ran a garage in Paris.” Is he just a shady salesman or is he a criminal? He takes an extraordinary interest in Louis, and once Louis’s stint in the army is over, Brossier finds him a hotel, foots the bill and even buys him a pair of new civilian shoes. Brossier tell Louis he “would introduce him-as he had promised-to ‘important friend of mine who will give you a job.'”

young once

Odile is just 19 and alone in Paris when she meets Bellune, a fascinating, sophisticated man in his 50s, who says he’ll help her with her recording career. He scouts out amateur talent for a record company, and he’s convinced that Odile can become a singer, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he convinces Odile she can become a singer. He funds the making of a flexidisc, but Odile soon finds that becoming a singer isn’t a smooth road.

Of course, Odile and Louis meet and become a couple. Louis has a job as some sort of ‘security guard,’ but just what he’s guarding isn’t clear, but as he becomes increasingly trusted by his strange employer, Roland de Bejardy, Louis assumes much more dangerous work. Meanwhile Odile has a tenuous gig in a nightclub.

There are some commonalties between After the Circus and Young Once. Both stories are about youthful main characters who don’t understand a great deal of the world that swirls around them. In Young Once, Odile doesn’t quite ‘get’ the nuances of her employment, and Louis, although warned increasingly about Roland de Bejardy, doesn’t ‘get’ just how crooked his employment is. Both novels also maintain an overriding disconnect from the characters, so we never know exactly what it going on in their heads–although Modiano conveys a sort of dreary disappointment when Odile collects a paycheck.

Nothing was left of the dream she had chased for so long except for an envelope, in which they had slipped her “the rest of your fee,” as the manager said.

There are several distinct worlds created in this book. Brossier, for example, is attempting to return to his youth by hanging out with his much younger girlfriend on a university campus, and at another point, Odile and Louis assume the roles of students attending a language course in England. We see glimpses of Roland de Bejardy’s world–some through interactions with his disaffected girlfriend and other views from those who know de Bejardy and warn Louis to move on while there’s still time.

I liked Young Once but didn’t love it, and this I think comes from the deliberate distance Modiano creates between us and his characters. Louis and Odile’s naïveté simultaneously makes them vulnerable and yet also acts as a protective seal. This young couple prove useful in the world of the older, the more sophisticated and powerful, and Modiano skillfully creates an atmosphere of imminent chaos while showing how Louis and Odile don’t understand the risks they are exposed to. The sense of emotional distancing is also apparent between the characters and their own lives. At one point, for example, Bellune describes the squashing of his music career “indifferently, as though it had happened to someone else,” and there’s the sense that de Bejardy’s  high-maintenance girlfriend would be with any man who could provide her with the lifestyle she desires.

I’m interested, very interested in Modiano’s characters, but we never get inside them. They remain remote. Perhaps this distance mirrors the distance all of us have between our youthful selves and our middle aged selves. This is a story about youthful dreams, innocence and naiveté and once those things are lost, it’s hard to recall how we used to see the world. If it’s Modiano’s goal to recreate that haunting sensation of lost youth, then that is achieved.

Review copy

Translated by Damion Searls

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The 6:41 to Paris: Jean-Philippe Blondel

“It’s crazy how once people turn forty friendships seem to disintegrate. They get transferred, they’re busy with their kids, you no longer share the same opinions–everything alienates you from people you thought would be close to you all your life. All that’s left are laconic email messages. Phone calls punctuated with long silences. Sporadic meetings.”

A few years ago, someone told me that if he’d known he’d live to age fifty, he’d have taken better care of himself. I thought the speaker was being funny–that is, until I looked over at his face and saw that he was dead serious. Anyway, that man, that comment came to mind as I read Jean-Philippe Blondel’s  short novel, The 6:41 to Paris. This story of middle-aged regrets, responsibilities  and disappointments is set on a train and told in a split narrative which unfolds over the course of the journey.

Chance brings Cécile, a successful 47 -year old business owner to take an early train back to Paris after spending the weekend with her aging parents. Cécile owns a chain of shops specializing in natural beauty products and she’s on the brink of expanding her chain even further. She’s trim, smartly dressed and has aged well. She’s sitting in the second class compartment when a faded middle-aged man sits next to her. At first she doesn’t recognise him–but then she realises that the man in the next seat is Philippe Leduc–her first love and the man who cruelly dumped her years earlier.

641 to parisIt’s not too surprising that Cécile doesn’t immediately recognize the man in the next seat. The Philippe of her youth was confident, good-looking and able to get any girl he wanted. While time has been kind to Cécile, Philippe has aged badly; he’s out of shape and seems defeated.  What happened? What went wrong in his life?

The interior voices of these two characters go back and forth as they recognize each other in horror and in Philippe’s case, in shame. Should they acknowledge their old relationship? Should they open up a past that neither of them wants to remember? As the train continues on its journey and Cécile and Philippe’s thoughts reveal fragments of their story, we see how pivotal their relationship was in forming the people that they’ve become.

While Cécile is admirable & a success, she’s not particularly likeable. There’s something rather cold and brittle about her, and while she moves efficiently through the world, there’s the sense that if you prick her carefully groomed surface, she’ll shatter into a million pieces. Sitting on the train she’s annoyed that she “wasted” a weekend with her parents, and she’s not sure if she’ll care much when they eventually die. Emotional disconnectedness is one of the things that first attracted her to her husband Luc, who now in middle age is “one of those aging, interchangeable, middle management executives–for a stationery company that is locating by the hour.” As for Philippe, he works in a superstore selling TVs and stereos, is divorced and has two children. His thoughts gradually reveal his emotional life, and the relationship he’s forged with actor Mathieu.

A great deal is made of Mathieu, the third main, yet absent character in this novel. Both Cécile and Philippe knew Mathieu in their youth, and they’re both (in their separate thoughts) surprised that this rather uninteresting, average young man became a famous actor. Here’s Philippe thinking about Mathieu:

I was only too aware of how our paths in life were heading in different directions. We had met at a time when he was merely a rough draft of the person he would later become, while I was at my zenith. He would keep rising, whereas I had begun to sink gradually. Every time I caught his face in a magazine, those were my thoughts. About failure. About destiny slipping out of your grasp.

And that’s what I enjoyed the most about this quiet introspective novel–how the choices we make forge the people we become. Some choices, as in the case of Cécile, are deliberate and life altering, whereas Philippe’s choices, although every bit as life changing, have occurred without him even noticing.

No one ever warned us that life would be long. Those easy slogans that make your heart beat faster, like “carpe diem” or “die young”–all that stuff was just nonsense.

No one told us, either, that the hardest thing would not be breaking up, but decay. The disintegration of relationships, people, tastes, bodies, desire. Until you reach a sort of morass where you no longer know what it is you love. Or hate. And it’s not as unpleasant a condition as you might think. It’s just lifelessness. With scatter spots of light.

As readers, we know that this seemingly simple novel must end with the train journey, but the author opts to leave the possibility of an unknown narrative arc stretching ahead. Both Cécile and Philippe have another choice to make. There’s Cécile ignoring Philippe and Philippe agonizing about whether or not to speak, so both characters face yet another life changing moment. The novel’s fascinating premise–two people reconnecting decades after a poisonous event–explores how incidents shape us in ways we don’t realize. In this instance, after fate threw them in each other’s path, both Philippe and Cécile are in control of the decision about how to handle this meeting. It’s not exactly a second chance, but it’s close. In some ways this aspect of the novel reminded me of Vertigo–a crime novel in which a character obsessed with a woman is given a second chance at love. Love isn’t in the cards for Cécile and Philippe but acceptance, forgiveness and closure are all possibilities.

Gert’s review

Review copy. Translated by Alison Anderson

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