Wishlist: Ten French Books

Following on from my review of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, I thought it might be a nice idea to compile a wishlist of sorts, filled with recommendations which I feel will appeal to the bookish.  I have selected ten different authors here, all of whom have published markedly different works.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.

1. Conversations with Professor Y by Louis-Ferdinand Celine 97954

‘”Here’s the truth, simply stated…bookstores are suffering from a serious crisis of falling sales.” So begins the imaginary interview that comprises this novel: a conversation between the stuffy, incontinent Professor Y and Céline himself, who rails against convention and defends his idiosyncratic methods as a writer. In the course of their outrageous interplay, Céline comes closer to explaining his controversial life and work than in any of his other books. But soon the not-so-polite conversation begins to degenerate into a bizarre farce, as all pretense to the “interview” is dropped and Professor Y reveals his true identity—leading the author on a hilarious quest through the streets of Paris toward a climax skewering pretension, celebrity, polite society, and the establishment itself.’

2. Gilles and Jeanne by Michel Tournier

‘This novella by Prix Goncourt-winner Tournier (Friday, The Ogre) recreates medieval history by exploring the bizarre love of Gilles de Rais for Jeanne d’Arc, satanist and saint respectively. The homosexual Gilles, a noble and a marshal of France, finds in the boylike Jeanne an “intoxicating fusion of sanctity and war.” He escorts and protects her in battle against the English, and later tries vainly to save her from the stake. After her death, Gilles is diabolically transformed. He seeks to raise Jeanne’s spirit by putting on the mystery play Siege of Orleans. Gilles’s subsequent crimes earn him the name of Bluebeard: young boys are lured to his castle, feasted and then torturedwith erotic refinementsto death. Gilles rationalizes his grisly deeds by invoking the martyred Holy Innocents. Obsessed with Jeanne’s memory, he burns the children’s bodies in rites of necromancy, hoping to turn them to spiritual gold. Finally, Gilles is condemned to burn, like his adored saint. Tournier’s fervent and striking meditation on these legendary figures suggests that heaven and hell are the obverse sides of a coin. ‘

3. A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex 9781904738510

‘On April 16, 1942, a handful of Swiss Nazis in Payerne lure Arthur Bloch, a Jewish cattle merchant, into an empty stable and kill him with a crowbar. Europe is in flames, but this is Switzerland, and Payerne, a rural market town of butchers and bankers, is more worried about unemployment and local bankruptcies than the fate of nations across the border. Fernand Ischi, leader of the local Nazi cell, blames it all on the town’s Jewish population and wants to set an example, thinking the German embassy would be grateful. Ischi’s dream of becoming the local gauleiter is shattered, however, when the milk containers used to dissimulate Bloch’s body parts is discovered floating in a lake nearby, leading to his arrest.’

4. The Flight of Icarus by Raymond Queneau

‘Called by some the French Borges, by others the creator of le nouveau roman a generation ahead of its time, Raymond Queneau’s work in fiction continues to defy strict categorization. The Flight of Icarus (Le Vol d’lcare) is his only novel written in the form of a play: seventy-four short scenes, complete with stage directions. Consciously parodying Pirandello and Robbe-Grillet, it begins with a novelist’s discovery that his principal character, Icarus by name, has vanished. This, in turn, sets off a rash of other such disappearances. Before long, a number of desperate authors are found in search of their fugitive characters, who wander through the Paris of the 1890s, occasionally meeting one another, and even straying into new novels. Icarus himself–perhaps following the destiny his name suggests–develops a passion for horseless carriages, kites, and machines that fly. And throughout the almost vaudevillian turns of the plot, we are aware, as always, of Queneau’s evident delight at holding the thin line between farce and philosophy.’

97819419200915. Sphinx by Anne Garreta

‘Sphinx is the remarkable debut novel, originally published in 1986, by the incredibly talented and inventive French author Anne Garreta, one of the few female members of Oulipo, the influential and exclusive French experimental literary group whose mission is to create literature based on mathematical and linguistic restraints, and whose ranks include Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, among others. A beautiful and complex love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and their lover, A***, written without using any gender markers to refer to the main characters, Sphinx is a remarkable linguistic feat and paragon of experimental literature that has never been accomplished before or since in the strictly-gendered French language.’

6. Our Beautiful Heroine by Jacques Roubaud

‘This lightweight but appealing romantic mystery in which the crime is never solved and the lovers never united is set in a bustling middle-class Parisian neighborhood replete with butcher shop, bakery, produce market and peopled with a spirited group of opinionated busybodies. These include the narrator George Mornacier, an ardent girl-watcher and astute observer of the human scene; Bertrand Eusebe, an innocently lecherous grocer; Madame Crussant, the goodhearted baker; and Monsieur Orsell, scholar and philosopher. These voluble neighbors are preoccupied with the whereabouts of the heir to the kingdom of oil-rich Poldevia, young Prince Gormanskoi, missing for two years since a state visit to France. Also dominating the neighborhood’s interest is the identity of the perpetrator of the “hardware store horrors,” acts of vandalism against 52 hardware stores carrying plaster Poldevian statuettes. When Hortense, a voluptuous student long admired by Eusebe and George, meets a young man with dark, noble features and long, delicate hands, a uniquely chronicled chain of events ensues that leads to the identification of the missing prince, a passionate liaison ending in marriage and the trial of the hardware store vandal: all with unexpected results. Although it is sometimes sidetracked by tedious digression and much of Kornacker’s translation is clumsily phrased, this is basically a vigorous and agreeable work.’

7. Happening by Annie Ernaux 41js73x1-el-_sx327_bo1204203200_

‘In 1963, Annie Ernaux, 23 and unattached, realizes she is pregnant. Shame arises in her like a plague: Understanding that her pregnancy will mark her and her family as social failures, she knows she cannot keep that child.  This is the story, written forty years later, of a trauma Ernaux never overcame. In a France where abortion was illegal, she attempted, in vain, to self-administer the abortion with a knitting needle. Fearful and desperate, she finally located an abortionist, and ends up in a hospital emergency ward where she nearly dies.  In Happening, Ernaux sifts through her memories and her journal entries dating from those days. Clearly, cleanly, she gleans the meanings of her experience.’

8. The Mustache by Emmanuel Carrere

‘”What would you say if I shaved off my mustache?” asks “The Mustache”‘s hero of his wife. Once removed, his wife and friends not only fail to recognize him, but deny the existence of the former mustache altogether. A metaphysical nightmare of the grandest kind, “The Mustache” is a stunning blend of absurdist comedy and philosophical speculation.In “Class Trip,” young Nicholas’s vivid imagination gets the best of him when a boy disappears from a school excursion. What the youthful detective finds is even more terrifying than his wildest fantasties.Brought together in one volume, the piercing early novels of Emmanuel Carrere constitute some of the most devastating psychological portraits in contemporary fiction.”‘
9. Red Haze by Christian Gailly

‘”One day unlike the others, he’ll run into a husband worse than the others, he’ll run into trouble. I often thought this. Well, I was wrong, it was a woman he ran into, a woman worse than the others, here’s what happened.” What happened is the shocking tale told deftly by the brilliant French minimalist Christian Gailly in Red Haze . It is a story at once spare and mysteriously complex, complicated by the ever odder perspective of the narrator as the details accumulate. Lucien, the narrator’s friend, is a rake, a womanizer who womanizes once too often and loses his offending member to his latest conquest. As the narrator’s interest in the mutilated man and the vengeful woman grows into an obsession, Red Haze becomes an unsettling story of how closely intertwined love and hatred, passion and cruelty can be. Winner of the prestigious Prix France Culture, Red Haze is the third of Christian Gailly’s ten novels to be published in English.’

61uots711il-_sx344_bo1204203200_10. The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

‘In this playful and perplexing book, we meet a young Parisian researcher who lives inside his bathroom. As he sits in his tub meditating on existence (and refusing to tell us his name), the people around him―his girlfriend, Edmondsson, the Polish painters in his kitchen―each in their own way further enables his peculiar lifestyle, supporting his eccentric quest for immobility. But an invitation to the Austrian embassy shakes up his stable world, prompting him to take a risk and leave his bathroom . . .’

 

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