Tag Archives: Paris

Monsieur: Jean-Philippe Toussaint

“Yes, Monsieur displayed in all things a listless drive.”

I’m not quite sure how I managed to have several titles from Belgium author Jean-Philippe Toussaint on my shelves, but Monsieur is the first I picked up to read. At 102 pages, this amusing tale is the story of a young executive in Paris whose private life places him in one sticky predicament after another. This is a light, airy tale dotted with absurdities and truisms, the story of a mediocre Everyman who slides by in life.

monsieur

The first thing that struck me about the protagonist is his anonymity. We know him as “Monsieur,” and when the story opens, he has a new job “on the sixteenth floor of the Leonardo da Vinci tower.” He’s a cog in the machine, but his job seems fairly useless:

Twice a week, a pile of newspapers and specialized economic and financial journals awaited Monsieur at the bottom of his in-tray. He took them into his office and read them over, leafing through them all, annotating certain articles with the fine point of his Rotring, cutting out others, which he kept in plastic folders.

Monsieur seems to have perfected the fine art of delineating being seen with not-being-seen. He joins in conversations, but in meetings he sits next to his supervisor, “scrupulously attentive to remain in line with her body, drawing back when she moved backwards, leaning forward when she moved forward, so as to be never too directly exposed.” He never seems to do much work, and his supervisor, Madame Dubois-Lacour comments, “you always seem to be bone idle,” but to her “this was the sign of the truly great worker.”

While Monsieur’s work life is stable and under control, it’s his personal life that needs reigning in. After he’s shoved by a man at a bus stop, he moves in, temporarily, with his fiancée and her parents, but after his romantic relationship goes south, he remains with his not-to-be in-laws who are too polite to tell him to move on. ….

From this moment, Monsieur’s life spirals out of control. One living arrangement after another finds him in various sticky predicaments as people expect favours, and Monsieur, naturally, is too polite to refuse. This is a man whose passivity results in some odd and funny situations, and yet, when it comes to his not-to-be future in-laws we see how passivity can also be passive-aggressive.

It’s easy to dismiss this novella as ‘fluffy’ but I have a feeling that if  when I read more Toussaint, I’ll pick up some prevailing themes.

Monsieur’s new apartment, which had three large rooms, was practically empty and smelled of paint. Only in his bedroom were there one or two pieces of furniture and a few camping chairs. All the other rooms were empty, with the exception of the entrance, where he had put his suitcases, as well as two boxes of magazines and a portable typewriter. Since the previous day Monsieur hadn’t touched or unpacked a thing. He sat in his bedroom, the light out, in a reclining chair. Dressed in a grey suit, a white shirt and a dark tie that everyone envied him, he listened to the radio and touched himself all over his body, his cheeks, or his sex, coolly, at random, but no comfort, really, came to him from having himself permanently at hand. 

Translated by John Lambert

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The Revolt: Nina Berberova

“But reality in the past and present is all twisted and smashed.”

Nina Berberova’s novella The Revolt is a well crafted gem–the story of how WWII intervenes between two lovers. The story opens in Paris with two lovers, facing an unknown future, about to be parted. Olga, a Russian émigrée, who lives with an uncle, a famous writer, is about to say goodbye to the Swedish Einar. It’s September 2, 1939, the day after Hitler invaded Poland. Einar talks of Olga coming to Stockholm, of them travelling to Brazil, of a trip to Russia. They don’t know yet how bad things will become–how travel will become much more difficult and fraught with danger. Many promises are made–promises which prove impossible to keep.

the revolt

The German occupation is marked by four very different visits made to Olga and her uncle: each visit reflects the ever shifting times. The emphasis here is in time passing with an almost dreamlike quality. Olga writes to Einar but the letters are returned unopened and marked “address unknown.” Olga never forgets Einar, and then seven years after they parted, Olga travels to Stockholm to collect an inheritance….

To say more would be to spoil this slim, subtle understated novella, but I will say that Olga who has, as we say these days, no closure, is given an opportunity for love once again. But this time the price is too high.  Sometimes second chances are not the gift they appear to be.

In everyone’s life there are moments when unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, a door that has been shut suddenly cracks open, a trellised window, only just lowered, goes up, a sharp, seemingly final ‘no’ becomes a perhaps’, and in that second the world around us is transformed and we ourselves are filled, transfused, with hopes. 

For Olga, love comes at a price, and the question becomes: is she willing to pay it or not? There’s a lot of talk in our society about ‘unconditional love’–a term, frankly, I’ve never understood. This book explores the price we are willing to pay for love–a topic that goes hand-in-hand with that twisty term: unconditional love. And while unconditional love asks how far a person can go before we stop loving them, Berberova asks how much Olga is willing to sacrifice to be with the man she loves.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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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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The Snow Kimono: Mark Henshaw

“There are times in your life when something happens after which you’re never the same.”

In Mark Henshaw’s multi-layered novel The Snow Kimono, retired police Inspector Auguste Jovert is a man with an uncomfortable past he’d much rather forget. Since retiring, he’s had the “feeling that he was lost.” With more time on his hands, “fragments from his past had begun to replay themselves in his head.” It’s Paris 1989, and Jovert, who spent some shady years in Algeria, has just received a letter from a young woman who claims she is his daughter.

It was as if, now that he was approaching the end of his life, the overall pattern of his existence was about to be revealed to him. But the moment of revelation never came. Instead, he began to have doubts, to wake up at night. What’s more, he constantly had the impression that something was about to happen. Then something did happen. The letter arrived.

The letter from the woman claiming to be his daughter is thrown away, and Jovert thinks that’s the end of the matter, but then he meets his neighbor, Japanese law professor Omura, a man with a sad past of his own. Jovert, a distinctly solitary individual, initially rejects Omura when Omura begins to be more than just a casual fixture in Jovert’s life, but there’s some thread, some commonality that ties them together, and while Jovert struggles against Omura’s friendship, he’s really struggling against coming to terms with his past. Omura’s conversations yield stories about his own life, but somehow the stories, the situations, make Jovert extremely uncomfortable.

Jovert had never liked conversations like these, conversations he did not control, which reversed the natural order of things.

But you must know, Omura said abruptly.

Why must I know? Jovert replied. It’s got nothing to do with me.

Jovert watched as a gust of wind scooped up a plastic bag lying in the gutter opposite. Its ghostly form swept up through the lamp light. For a moment, it skimmed back and forth across the façade of the building opposite, as though it was pursuing something. Then without warning, it shot up into the sky above their heads and disappeared.

Omura has a “strangely mesmerizing voice,” and he tells Jovert the story of his friend from university, the malignant, charismatic writer, Katsuo Ikeda, who has “a talent that is poisoned.” Ikeda, a user of women, a chronic seducer who left many disillusioned lovers on the way to his success is a “merciless observer of people. He had a sixth sense about a person’s weaknesses, their foibles, their fears.”  There’s tragedy in Omura’s life and as Omura, an epic storyteller, reveals his past through his stories, Jovert gradually begins to see connections with his own life, and he’s shaken to the core.

the snow kimono

The Snow Kimono is a hypnotic read, and although afterwards it feels a little contrived, Omura’s history is so well told and constructed, all contrivance is forgiven. Although both Omura and Jovert’s stories are about people who are either dead or lost somewhere in the past, nonetheless, these characters pulse with life–even in their absence. This is a complex tale–stories within stories. In one section, Omura describes the Japanese jigsaw puzzle:

Ours is an ancient tradition, quite distinct from what you have here in Europe. Each piece of a puzzle is considered individually. No shape is repeated, unless for some special purpose. Some pieces are small, others large, but all are calculated to deceive, to lead one astray, in order to make the solution of the puzzle as difficult, as challenging as possible. In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truths about the world.

After I finished the book, that seminal quote came back into my mind. Omura’s story, after all, is a jigsaw puzzle, and its “greater” truth is finally revealed.

There are two central mysteries to the tale concerning Jovert and Omura, and they are connected by moral considerations. Can one man learn from the mistakes of another? This is ultimately a story about the slipperiness of the truth, facing up to one’s actions, acknowledging the past, and assuming one’s responsibilities–no matter how unpleasant that might be.

review copy

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Mysteries of Paris: Eugène Sue Part I: Translation Comparisons

At almost 1400 pages, I’m not going to claim that I’m close to finishing the mega volume, Mysteries of Paris from Eugène Sue. This  Penguin Classics edition is the first new translation in more than a hundred years, and with free or very low cost e-versions on the internet, the big question becomes, ‘is it worth it to spring for this new version?’ My opinion: if you’re ready to commit a large chunk of your reading life to this book, then it’s worth forking out for this new edition.

the mysteries of ParisThe Mysteries of Paris ran, as a series, in the Journal des Débats from June 1842-October 1843. The Penguin edition’s excellent foreword from Peter Brooks introduces the novel with an overview of the main characters and also details the reception of the series by its French readers, stating that it  “was perceived by many of Sue’s contemporaries to be dangerously socialist in its political agenda.”

It was certainly the runaway bestseller of nineteenth century France, possibly the greatest bestseller of all time. It’s hard to estimate its readership, since each episode was read aloud, in village cafes and in workshops and offices throughout France. Diplomats were late to meetings, countesses were late to balls, because they had to catch up on the latest episode. It was truly a national experience, riveting in the way certain celebrity trials have been on our time, breathlessly maintained from one installment to the next in a manner we now know through the television serial.

Brooks goes on to explain that Sue was only a “moderately successful author of seafaring tales and sentimental fiction” before he hit his stride with The Mysteries of Paris, and that “he began his exploration of low-life Paris largely from sensationalistic motives.” As the serial grew in popularity, fans wrote to Sue and “Socialist reformers, too, began to bombard Sue with ideas and tracts.” Sue’s work became part of a feedback loop between reader and author:

Sue began responding by way of his novel, introducing such reformist schemes as a nationally organized pawnshop that would provide credit to the poor, public defenders for the accused, and a hospice for the children of convicts. A real dialogue developed, and by the time the novel drew to its close, Sue was ready to proclaim himself a socialist.

Since one of the originally unintended, inadvertent results of The Mysteries of Paris was to raise social consciousness regarding the plight of the poor and disenfranchised, it’s inevitable that comparisons must occur between Sue and Dickens. It’s certainly something to think about…

The translators, while discussing the difficulties presented in translating slang note that “all three of the 1843 translations have considerable shortcomings and inaccuracies. None of the translations have been available in book form since the early twentieth century (all current e-book translations reproduce the British translation, which is characterized by significant omissions).” **Actually The Mysteries of Paris is available in another printed book form, but the edition available on Amazon states it’s just over 400 pages and one reviewer complains that the pages appear to have been scanned from a really old edition. Not sure what’s missing there….

This matter of omissions became glaringly apparent immediately. In the Penguin Classics edition, Sue begins chapter one “The Joint,” thus:

In the slang of murderers and thieves, a “joint” is the lowest sort of drinking establishment. Ex-cons, called “ogres,” generally run these taverns; or when it is an equally debased woman, she is known as an “ogress.” Serving the scum of Paris, inns of this variety are packed with freed convicts, swindlers, thieves, and assassins. Whenever a crime has been committed, the police first cast their nets in this mire, so to speak. And here they almost always find their man.

This opening should alert the readers to the sinister scenes that await them. If they proceed, they will find themselves in strange places, foul urban abscesses that teem with criminals as terrifying and revolting as swamp creatures.

We have all read the legendary work of the American Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, whose pages describe the brutal ways of savages, their quaint and poetic language, the countless tricks they use to pursue or flee their enemies. Their readers tremble for the welfare of the colonists and town dwellers when they consider how they are surrounded by these wild tribes whose bloody ways mark them off from all things civilized. For our own readers, we are going to attempt some episodes from the lives of French savages who are as far removed from civilization as the Indians Cooper so vividly described. And these barbarians are all around us, We will spend time in their dens in which they get together to plan murders and robberies, in the holes where they divvy up their victims’ spoils among themselves

And there’s more, a lot more, I’m not adding here….

This entire preamble is missing from the earlier kindle versions (either free or low cost), so it’s up to you to decide if you think this preamble added anything to the story. I think it did. If I’m going to spend a portion of my life reading a book this big, I want to read the whole thing–not the Reader’s Digest condensed version, thank you very much. In this preamble, Sue creates a titillating atmosphere, ramping up the thrilling, delicious suspense and naughtiness, coated with a collaboration between the writer and the reader to take this mysterious “journey” into the criminal underworld together.

Thus forewarned, readers may wish to follow us on the journey we are inviting them to take among the denizens of the infernal race that fills our prisons and whose blood stains the scaffolds. We do not doubt this investigation will be new for them. Let us reassure our readers that once they begin this story, with each step on its way, the air becomes purer.

Anyway, I’m reading The Mysteries of Paris, so there will be multiple posts this year–(there are ten “books’ with an epilogue), multiple translation comparisons (or omissions as in this case). In terms of readability, so far, I’m reminded of Dumas. The pages go down like honey.

Translated by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg.

Review copy

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After the Circus: Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s moody novel, After the Circus is narrated by a much older man who recalls a mysterious time in Paris when he was eighteen years old. Many authors would have turned this tale into a predictable coming of age story, but Modiano’s novel remains a sad elegy to an all too brief, haunting time.

The novel begins with the narrator being questioned at police headquarters about his life and activities. Right away an air of confusion enters the narrative. The man who asks the questions names a café that the narrator is supposed to frequent, but he’s never been there. Does the interrogator have the wrong man?

Then he mentioned the names of a man and a woman and asked if I knew them. I answered no. He told me to think very carefully. If I didn’t tell the truth, there could be serious consequences. The threat was delivered in a calm, indifferent voice. No, really, I didn’t know those two individuals. He typed my answer, then handed me the sheet, at the bottom of which was written: “Seen and agreed to.” I didn’t bother looking over my deposition and signed with a ballpoint pen that was lying on the desk.

This sense of indifference and disconnection which begins immediately with this interview continues throughout the novel and permeates the story. The narrator asks why he’s been questioned and he’s told that “your name was in someone’s address book.” Again that vagueness which nonetheless determines the narrator’s fate–a randomness which, as it turns out, becomes a major incident in his life.

after the circusOn the way out of the office, the narrator spies a young woman in her twenties. She’s next to be interrogated, and the narrator makes the snap decision to wait for her in a nearby café. They meet and chat, and then she asks a “favor.”

At Place du Châtelet, she wanted to take the metro. It was rush hour. We stood squeezed together near the doors. At every station, the riders getting off pushed us onto the platform. Then we got back on with the new passengers. She leaned her head on my shoulder and said with a smile that “no one could find us in this crowd.”

At the Gare du Nord metro stop, we were carried along in the flood of travelers heading for the commuter trains. We crossed through the train station lobby, and in the checkroom she opened a  locker and pulled out a black leather suitcase.

I carried the suitcase, which was rather heavy. It occurred to me that it contained more than just clothes.

And so begins the mystery of Gisèle who soon moves into the narrator’s apartment. She proceeds to introduce the narrator to a stream of new acquaintances, and she begins gathering up a range of belongings which are scattered in various locations. As she takes the narrator through her circle, more questions emerge about Gisèle, and it becomes clear that she’s mixed up with some shady characters. But Gisèle isn’t the only mystery here. The narrator’s father has moved to Switzerland “to live out his days,” while the narrator’s father’s mysterious business associate, Grabley, is busy destroying papers relating to some peculiar shady business dealings. Grabley is considering dumping these files “down a manhole he’d spotted on Rue de l’Arcade.” All these trappings of mystery, disorientation, and flight yield the sense of flux, that time is running out.

After the Circus (and the meaning of the title is finally revealed) is a wonderfully atmospheric book. Don’t expect all the answers here, for the book mirrors life–everything is not tied off neatly. Instead this tale, which is told years later by a now middle-aged man, effectively recreates how things sometimes don’t make sense when we’re young. We don’t know the right questions to ask; our naiveté hobbles us. Now the narrator looks back at this period of his life, it’s too late to ask the questions that emerge in retrospect. Those with the answers are dead. The narrator doesn’t offer explanations to fill in the gaps. We can only speculate.

I was the traveler who boards a departing train and finds himself in the company of four strangers. And he wonders whether he hasn’t got on the wrong train. But no matter … In his compartment, the others start making conversation with him.

With its interrogations and hints that the narrator’s father lived a life that “in certain periods resembled a hunt in which he was the prey,” at first the story could seem to be set in WWII France and yet it’s not; it’s the sixties. This lack of firm grounding in time just adds to the mystery of Gisèle and her relationship with the young, impressionable and naïve narrator who is forever shaped by this brief time.

What I had lived through in my childhood and the few years following, up to my meeting Gisèle, gently peeled off of me in strips, dissolved; now and then, I even made a small efforts to retain a few scraps before they vanished into thin air.

This won’t be my last Modiano novel. Suggestions for another are welcome.

Review copy. Translated by Mark Polizzotti.

 

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Henri Duchemin and His Shadows: Emmanuel Bove

Lost, desperate, isolated characters inhabit Emmanuel Bove’s short story collection Henri Duchemin and His Shadows (1928). While the characters are sometimes isolated due to circumstance, it’s primarily their inner thoughts and private fears that separate them from mainstream society.  The dominant threads here are broken relationships, absorbing disillusionment and coming to terms with a less-than-satisfactory life. Naturally, most of the disillusion occurs in relationships between men and women.

Night Crime is set on Christmas Eve with the title character, Henri Duchemin, mired in a life of poverty turning desperately to a stranger for sympathy, but he’s told that if he’s that unhappy, he should just kill himself.

He closed his window and, motionless in front of the only armchair, he saw women everywhere, in the depths of the walls, standing on his bed, languidly waving their arms. No, he would not kill himself. At forty a man is still young and can, if he perseveres, become rich.

Henri Duchemin dreamed of supplicants, of owning houses, of freedom. But once his imagination had calmed down, it seemed the disorder of his room had grown, in contrast as it was with his reveries.

This is a nightmarish, surreal tale in which Duchemin is tempted by a stranger to commit a crime which will supposedly solve all of his problems.

In Another Friend, a poor man is befriended by a wealthy stranger. The poor man imagines that he has met someone, finally, who will be an understanding friend, only to discover that the stranger collects poor people and gets some strange satisfaction from giving them a meal and listening to their tales of woe.

Henri ducheminIn Night Visit, marital woes between Paul and Fernande spill over on to Paul’s friend, Jean. Paul worships Fernande and describes her in the most glowing terms, but Jean finds Fernande to be a “rather corpulent, rather common woman.” Who can explain why we love some people while we ignore others who are far more suitable? Here’s the story’s final passage which, on the surface, would seem to have little to do with the subject.

An automobile on its way to Les Halles passed very close to us. In the pure, freezing air, it left such a circumscribed scent of vegetables that when we took one step to the side, we could not smell it any more. In the middle of the sleeping city, beneath the sky, we were alone. The moon had disappeared. And without it, as if they lacked a leader, the stars seemed to be in disarray.

In What I Saw  the narrator, Jean (possibly the character from the previous tale) tells the story of his girlfriend, Henriette. While the narrator stresses how much he loves his girlfriend who is “as sweet as an angel,” we get the impression that beneath the surface, there’s an undercurrent of problems. Some of these problems are manifested in the narrator’s insufferable attitude towards females in general: “One shouldn’t ask too much of a woman,” for example.  There are hints that he’s been unfaithful perhaps, but he’s always forgiven, and when he tests her love with questions, she always gives the right responses.

 Even though she is beautiful, she recognizes that a man’s lapse is not as great as a woman’s.

Through the narrator’s description of his girlfriend, a picture of Henriette gradually builds. There’s nothing to fault in what she says or what she does, but somehow, once again, there’s a feeling of unease.

Candy, cake, fruit-she always goes without in order to offer them to me and, if I don’t take them, because I know how fond she is of them, she insists with so much love that I would be hurting her if I continued to refuse them. Nothing exists for her. She sees all of life through me.

Is this woman a saint? Or has she honed her manipulative skills to a fine point? Or is she merely holding her own in this relationship in which the narrator completely underestimates the female sex?

In Is it A Lie?, my favourite in this collection, a much older husband, Mr. Marjanne must confront his wife’s infidelity when she provides a very flimsy story excusing an overnight absence. This short story takes us through Claire Marjanne’s ridiculous version of events, and as a result we become both witnesses and participants in her fabrication. Taking the moral high ground, she grasps the power in the marital relationship and then Claire manipulates her husband, drawing him into her web of lies, liberally casting details and logic as though these will base her story in reality.

“None of that tells me where you spent the night. You had to sleep somewhere, after all.”

“If you interrupt me one more time, I’m warning you I won’t tell you another thing. You think it’s amusing to recount everything in such detail? Listen to me now. So I leave Le Printemps. It was exactly six-thirty and I say to myself “Robert must be waiting for me, I’ve got to hurry.” But instead of taking a cab in front of the store–you know how crowded it is there, I would have waited for an hour–I go on foot to boulevard Malsherbes. And right then, when I am on the corner of rue du Havre, I run into–you’ll never guess who. Who do you think?’

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, guess.”

“Maud!”

“No, no. I told you a moment ago that I had left her at Madeleine’s “

In Mr. Marjanne’s mind Claire was only trying to give the illusion of truth. To be less alone with her lie, she wanted to make her husband participate in it. But he was determined not to let himself be dragged into it and simply answered: “I don’t know” and “What can I say?”

Is he wise to accept his wife’s ridiculous story and ignore her suspected infidelity or has he just opened the door to future misery?

Bove is not a first tier writer–well at least not for this book. Some of the narrators, who suffer from a sameness in tone, ramble, repetitively before getting on with their stories. One of the blurbs connects Bove’s stories to the female characters in the novels of Jean Rhys. I’d disagree, and if you’re hoping to find Jean Rhys-type stories here, you’ll be disappointed. Bove’s main characters are lost males, and if there are women in their lives, then the women are lying to them, cheating on them, or simply moving on. The story Henri Duchemin and His Shadows gives a glimpse of café culture, reminiscent of Rhys, and a hard, acid-tongued woman who tells the title character to stop whining and just kill himself. Ultimately the women here are the tough ones–they survive and move on leaving their men wondering just what went wrong.

Resurrected by New York Review books. Translated by Alyson Waters

Review copy

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The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

I’d intended to read Fred Vargas ever since Emma first mentioned this French crime writer, so when she announced that The Chalk Circle Man was one of my Virtual Gift Exchange books, I had no more excuses. Well here it is, almost 6 months later, and I finally read the book–the first of a series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg.

The book begins with Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg freshly transferred as the new commissaire to the 5th Arrondissement in Paris. Adamsberg is originally from the Pyrenees and there’s the general impression from those he works with that he’s more than a bit strange and “primitive,”  but in reality it’s truer to say that he’s not exactly the most socially competent person on the planet. He certainly hasn’t been promoted due to any glibness or ability to swing office politics in his favour. No, he’s been promoted thanks to a wonderful reputation gained through the solution of four murders.

The Chalk Circle ManIn some ways, The Chalk Circle Man doesn’t feel as though it’s the first book in a series. There’s a definite sensation that we’ve slipped into a certain time slot of Adamsberg’s life. He’s 45,  in love with Camille, a free-spirited woman who has disappeared by choice, and even though Adamsberg had casual affairs, Camille is always in the back of his mind. The book begins with Adamsberg solving the murder of a textile merchant in his own inimitable fashion. It’s the conclusion to this case that begins to build respect for Adamsberg from his skeptical colleagues.

Adamsberg’s next case involves the appearance of blue chalk circles drawn in the wee hours in various sections of Paris. Items, seemingly random items, are placed within these circles, and while it’s the general consensus that the circles, accompanied by a cryptic message, are the work of some harmless nutcase, Adamsberg is clearly disturbed by them, and he fears the worse. With the discovery of a body inside one of the blue circles, Adamsberg’s predictions are realized. Adamsberg has a serial killer on his hands.

Series books rely on a main character strong enough and interesting enough to pull in a repeat audience. I’ve always seen the appeal of a series character–after all, if you, the writer create a really interesting character–a police inspector let’s say or a PI, why drop them once the last page is turned? The most successful series balance the crime solving with the main character’s personal life, so we readers buy the next book–not because we want to read about the next crime, necessarily, but because we want to hang out with the main character again. And again. Adamsberg is a very appealing character, and his unique approach to crime struck a chord for this reader. There’s a scene early on between Adamsberg and Inspector Danglard (who incidentally is the perfect foil for Adamsberg) in which the two men discuss the subject of murder, and Adamsberg brings up a story from his past, concerning a dog, and he tells this story to illustrate some fundamental beliefs:

“The point of this story, Danglard, is the evidence of cruelty in that little kid. I’d known for a long time before this happened that there was something wrong with him, and that was what it was: cruelty. But I can assure you that his face was quite normal, he didn’t have wicked features at all. On the contrary, he was a nice-looking boy, but he oozed cruelty. Just don’t ask me any more, I can’t tell you any more. But eight years later, he pushed a grandfather clock over on top of an old woman and killed her. And most premeditated murders require the murderer not only to feel exasperation or humiliation, or to have some neurosis, or whatever, but also cruelty, pleasure in inflicting suffering, pleasure in the victim’s agony and pleas for mercy, pleasure in tearing the victim apart. It’s true, it doesn’t always appear obvious in a person, but you feel at least that there’s something wrong, that something else is gathering underneath, a kind of growth. And sometimes that turns out to be cruelty–do you see what I’m saying? A kind of growth.”

“That’s against my principles,” said Danglard, a bit stiffly. “I don’t claim my principles are the only ones, but I don’t believe there are people marked out for this or that, like cows with tags on their ears, or that you can pick out murderers by intuition. I know, I’m saying something boring and unexciting, but what we do is we proceed by following clues, and we arrest when we’ve got proof. Gut feelings about ‘growths’ scare me stiff. That way you start off following hunches, and end up with arbitrary sentences and miscarriages of justice.”

Both men have stories to illustrate their theories about crime and murderers, and these stories, which involved early cases in their respective careers, shaped their thinking. Adamsberg has a level of intuition about crime, so for example, he immediately intuits that there’s something sinister about the blue chalk circles while everyone else think they’re just the work of some harmless nut. Adamsberg, however, does not rely on intuition alone. There were several times in the novel when one small detail doesn’t quite fit with the established narrative of crime, and even though other people are satisfied with the solution, Adamsberg is not.

The crimes in The Chalk Circle Man are conducted by a somewhat implausibly adaptable and clever killer, and the best parts of the novel are the refreshingly bizarre characters connected to the story.  Adamsberg has his own unique approach to solving crimes (which involves a great deal of solitary rumination and scribbling), and his sidekick, the melancholy Danglard, who doesn’t quite know what to think of his new boss, is a single parent swamped with children–including one dumped on him by his ex and her lover. There’s also unpredictable oceanographer Mathilde Forestier who has temporarily given up watching fish to watch humans, including the Chalk Circle Man. She believes in salvaging lost souls–not by charity or pity, but with her warm personality and  generous nature. She has already salvaged seventy year-old Clémence, a creepy spinster who obsesses over the personal ads, now employed to do a little work for Mathilde. Mathilde meets a blind man, Charles Reyer, seemingly by accident, who’s struggling with bitterness at his condition, and she rents a room to him while refusing to allow him to wallow in self-pity.  All these characters are somehow or another connected to the case, and the characters are so much fun, that they lighten the darkness of the crimes.

Lucky for me, there are 8 Commissaire Adamsberg novels in English from Vargas (including one graphic novel & the eighth in the series to appear this year). I have some catching up to do. So many thanks to Emma for choosing The Chalk Circle Man.

Translated by Siân Reynolds.

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The Pink and the Green by Stendhal

I came across The Pink and The Green, an unfinished novel by Stendhal. I’d never heard of it before–and the title, of course, echoes The Red and the Black. I was a bit hesitant to read an unfinished novel. Would I be left hanging? Was it unfinished for a reason? And of course there’s that bigger question looming in the background … should unfinished novels be published? Since I decided to read more Stendhal last year, I’ll answer a big yes to my last question. My copy of The Pink and the Green, a New Directions book and translated by Richard Howard contains the unfinished novel of the title and a complete short story Mina de Vanghel. Both are clearly connected and offer different versions of the same young woman. When I started reading this book, I thought that I’d probably prefer the short story simply because it was finished, but no, I much preferred the unfinished novel. No idea why Stendhal abandoned it, and it is a pity that this novel was not completed.

the pink and the greenMina Wanghen is the heroine of The Pink and The Green. A resident of Königsberg, and the only daughter of Pierre Wanghen, the city’s “richest banker,” Mina, as the sole heiress, is a highly desirable catch. We first meet her at a ball in the year 183_. It’s three in the morning, and Mina has no shortage of dance partners. In spite of this, she chooses to sit out some of the dances in order to listen to the stories of 45-year-old Major-General Count von Landek, recently returned from Paris:

The general was describing the magnificent fountain of Saint-Cloud as it soars skyward, those charming wooded hills of the Seine valley only an hour from the Opéra Comique. Can we say that it was this last image which caused Mina to forget everything else? In Prussia there are indeed great forests, very lovely and very picturesque, but one league from such forests there is only barbarism, poverty, and a vigilance indispensable if one is to avoid destruction. All things wretched, coarse, inconsolable–and which produce a love of gilded salons.

The general, who still smarts from the humiliations suffered by the Prussian army at the hands of the French, begins “abusing French society,” and he lists a few examples of the failings of “this frivolous people.” Mina, who is “intoxicated with France,” cannot stop listening to the general’s stories–although, of course, she believes that French society is greatly superior to that of Königsberg.

A few weeks after the ball, Mina’s father dies unexpectedly. Left with seven and a half million francs, Mina in the company of her still-young mother, is besieged by young men, and the two women are hounded by suitor’s for Mina’s hand. The Wanghen mansion is situated at the “northern end of the Friedrichstrasse,” and it’s a tradition for the young women to sit at the windows of their homes in the afternoons while they do needlework. From this vantage point, the young women can observe the males outside as they strut around on horseback, looking their best in their finest clothing. “Little romances” are created and are fed in this established courtship ritual, but Mina takes her needlework and flees to another room in the mansion as she is so tired of the men parading past her window. The poor girl can’t go outside without being waylaid by would-be suitors who even bribe the servants in order to get information about Mina’s schedule. The pressure is on….

In an aside in which Stendhal tells us that we may be “shocked,” we are told that in Prussia, the girls expect to marry for love:

Yes there are countries where on has the misfortune of not behaving precisely as we do in France.

There’s a lot to find amusing in The Pink and the Green. Mina, fed up with being pursued by the fortune hunters of Prussia, decides to move to Paris–after all, in her idealized view of all things French, she thinks that her life will be significantly improved, but the reality is far different.  Mina imagines that she’ll have peace from the Prussian fortune hunters–a rather naïve thought given her great wealth–all those novels have fed her imagination. For one thing, in Paris there’s a fresh set of French fortune hunters sniffing around, and then Mina’s idea of French society doesn’t match reality. Here’s Stendhal on the subject of Prussian vs. French marriages:

One terrible consequence of this honest freedom is that very often a rich young man will marry a poor girl on the absurd pretext that she is lovely and that he is madly in love with her, which casts a notable shadow on the respectable class of sullen young ladies possessing neither wit nor beauty. Whereas in France the basis of our unwritten legislation relative to marriage is to protect all rich and ugly young women.

And here’s poor Mina after a disappointing evening of French society:

“The coarseness of these people,” Mina sighed. “Have I been deceived?” she went on, her voice slow and pensive.
“Are these the amiable French? Does the agreeable society I have dreamed of exist on this earth?”

What a shame that Stendhal didn’t finish this novel. The introduction states that “Stendhal had no patience whatever, and his time seemed in short supply. He had waited too long before beginning fiction.” The novel may not have a conclusion but Stendhal left “several plans which suggest a possible ending.” These notes are included.

The short story Mina de Vanghel starts off in a similar fashion as The Pink and The Green. It’s still Königsberg–although there’s a different take on Mina’s father. Now instead of being a rich banker, he’s a disillusioned Prussian general “closely observed” by the Berlin police. After his death, Mina retreats to Paris–partially because she sees Prussia as “ungrateful” for her father’s service and partly due to the police surveillance. Of course, she too has an idealized view of French life thanks to novels. Part of this story just didn’t gel for me as something that Mina de Vanghel does seems out of character.

When reading The Pink and the Green, I was reminded of Turgenev’s The Nest of the Gentry and the main character, Lavretsky who is dragged off to Paris but feels out-of-place in the superficiality of its salons. Here’s Turgenev on Lavretsky’s wife, Varvara Pavlovna unleashed in Paris:

In Paris, Varvara Pavlovna bloomed like a rose and succeeded, just as swiftly and skillfully as she had done in St. Petersburg, in making a little nest for herself. She found an exceptionally pretty apartment in one of the quiet but fashionable streets of Paris, ran up a nightshirt for her husband the like of which he had never seen before; she engaged a chic maid, a superb cook and a nimble footman, and obtained an exquisite little carriage and a delightful piano. A week had not gone by before she was making her way across the street wearing a shawl, opening an umbrella or pulling on gloves no less expertly than the most pure-blooded native of Paris. And she had quickly acquired a circle of acquaintances. At first only Russians came to visit, but later came Frenchmen, extremely charming and courteous bachelors, with beautiful manners and euphonious names; all of them talked very fast and a great deal, bowed with easy familiarity and very pleasantly puckered their eyes; white teeth flashed behind their rosy lips.

That slightly predatory image comes right before Lavretsky discovers that his wife, who’s gone native, has sealed the deal by getting a young French lover.

So there are two examples of the foreigner in Paris; French Stendhal writing about a Francophile Prussian heiress fleeing from Prussian fortune hunters in Paris, and Russian Turgenev (who lived outside of Russia every chance he got) writing about poor cuckolded out-of-place Lavretsky–a native of a country whose nobility admires all thing French.  Finally, Stendhal’s most famous novel is The Red and the Black, published in 1830. Stendhal worked on The Pink and the Green in 1837 before abandoning it. Were they intended to be companion novels?  I know what The Red and the Black means, but as for The Pink and the Green…. The only meaning I can guess is love and youth. If anyone knows a different meaning, I’d like to know.

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Life is Short and Desire Endless by Patrick Lapeyre

I’ll admit that thanks to its title I wasn’t sure about Patrick Lapeyre’s novel Life is Short and Desire Endless (La Vie est Brève et le Désir Sans Fin). I’ll back up and say that I’m not much of a romantic and largely consider such storylines as twaddle, but I decided to give the book a go as I am a sucker for the complex ideas of French cinema. French books, French cinema…there has to be a common ground there somewhere, right?

While ostensibly this is a novel about two men who are obsessed with the same elusive woman, there’s much more at play here than the classic love triangle. The novel begins with forty-one-year-old married translator, Parisian Louis Blériot on his way to visit his parents who live way out in the boonies. His cell phone rings and it’s Nora, a British woman he had an intense affair with two years before. They didn’t exactly break up, but rather Nora ‘moved on,’ and as it turns out, this is an established pattern of behaviour.

Nora is, apparently, back in town. Just as she swoops back into Blériot’s life without warning, she also left her London-based, American financial services lover, Murphy Blomdale in a similar fashion. Blomdale comes home to the “chilling sense” that Nora is gone, and he’s right. So we have two men on edge: one, Blomdale, dumped without an explanation, and the other, Blériot, picked back up after a two-year-absence by Nora who acts as though she might have stepped outside for five minutes to go collect the post. She’s back, she says, to begin a career as an actress, and when she runs low on funds, there are no less than two men (Blomdale and Blériot) to fund her venture and extravagant spending.

If it sounds as though I didn’t like Nora, then you’ve guessed correctly. I didn’t. But I loved the book and the way the author competently explores complex relationships between people who are behaving badly. This is not a common variety of love triangle with two men panting over one woman. Instead the story line expands to other people who are impacted by Nora’s behaviour–Blériot’s wife, Sabine whose sangfroid is propped up by her superior financial position, and then there’s also Laura, a former friend of Nora’s who never quite recovered from their teenage friendship.

The novel goes back and forth in time to crucial moments in the relationships between the characters, including the day Blériot met Nora, the day Blomdale met Nora, scenes of Blériot’s marriage and the occasions various characters meet to try and make sense of what happens and just why, precisely, two men allow Nora to wreck their lives. Here’s Blériot trying to get sympathy from his gay friend Léonard who acts as “spiritual advisor” and “dissolute priest“:

“You see, my lovely, I’m afraid I don’t really understand your heterosexual misery,” says Léonard. “I really must be from a different species, with different pleasures and different kinds of suffering.”

“On top of all that,” Blériot continues, not believing a word of what Léonard has said, “I now find myself the proud owner of the sum total of two shirts, one pair of shoes, and fifty-seven euros in my bank account.”

“I left you some bills in the dresser drawer, but if it’s not enough, you can ask me for whatever you want.” Léonard tells him, apparently convinced this is a case of monomania.

“Would five hundred be too much?” asks Blériot at the precise moment that, in a London park, Nora’s tapping into Murphy’s pocket–they could be a couple of professional cadgers in action.

Léonard who “adores issues of conjugal sophistry” has problems of his own with desire. He’s ill for one thing, and his current lover is Rachid–a man who’s relegated to the kitchen and forbidden to talk to visitors. Having hot-tempered Rachid in the kitchen doesn’t stop Léonard from desiring other men, and he admits that as his disease progresses all he can think about is “sex and more sex,” as if he’s trying to pack in experiences in the short time he has left.

By far my favourite character here is Blériot “who amazes himself with his psychotic ability to lead this double life.” He’s arguably the most flawed of the bunch in terms of culpable behaviour–even surpassing Nora (for reasons I can’t expose). He has a good sex life with his wife–a woman who gives him a lot of rope even if it’s frozen with ice, and yet Blériot desires Nora who is unstable, unreliable, unfaithful, and a spendthrift:

he married the most intelligent and devoted of women, the one best equipped to make him happy, and if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t hesitate for a moment.

His conjugal affection has never actually been as vehement as he claims, and their relationship, despite intermittent bonds of complicity and tenderness, has become more or less incomprehensible.

Blériot describes his wife as having “her finger hovering over the red button for years.” Is part of Blériot’s problem in the marriage that his wife is wealthy and immensely successful? It’s certainly not a relationship of equals and Blériot’s erstwhile occupation as a translator is mainly hobbled together and partially serves as a cover to stay at home and do nothing much at all. We are told that Blériot has experienced “confiscated credit cards, frozen bank accounts” There’s still undeniable passion between Blériot and Sabine, and yet Nora seems to fulfill Blériot’s need to be irresponsible.

It’s incredible, he realizes, just how much damage this girl can do to him. You would think she was one of those hallucinogenic substances that dilate our perceptions while simultaneously destroying our nerve cells.

Some scenes yield glimpses of Blériot’s parents, and here’s another pathological marriage  with unaddressed complexities that in some ways echo Blériot’s relationship to Sabine. Blériot’s father experiences “expiatory humiliations constantly inflicted on him (preferably in public)” and these “have broken his last scraps of resistance.” As a result he spends an inordinate amount of time in a basement room, and Blériot suspects that “one day the old boy will sneak down there with his sleeping bag and never come back up.”

The novel explores, as the title promises, the subject of desire. Why do we desire what is bad for us? Why do we pursue someone we desire when common sense screams otherwise? Lapeyre seems to argue that desire has its own logic and its own timetable. The novel is not without wicked humour, and most of this comes from Blériot’s frantic efforts to keep both his unhappy marriage and his turbulent affair–which is not grounded in reality–afloat.

Some of the back and forth in time was a little difficult to follow, and Blomdale is not a fully realised character, but those quibbles aside, author Lepeyre captures the insanity of an affair, the pathological aspects of a marriage in crisis, and the highly addictive aspects of desire. Somehow I suspect that our reactions to the novel may say a great deal about who we are. Translated by Adriana Hunter. Review copy from the publisher.

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