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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Festival of Insignificance’ by Milan Kundera ***

Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Insignificance was translated from the French by Linda Asher, and was first published in the United Kingdom in 2015.  I hadn’t heard of it before I spotted it in the library, and thought it would be perfect for my Saturdays in Translation challenge.  I have largely enjoyed Kundera’s writing in the past, and the blurb certainly intrigued: ‘Casting light on the most serious of problems and at the same time saying not one serious sentence; being fascinated by the reality of the contemporary world and at the same time avoiding realism – that’s The Festival of Insignificance’. 9780571316465

Split into seven parts, and filling just over one hundred pages, the novella begins in a way that, to me, smacked of Kundera: ‘It was the month of June, the morning sun was emerging from the clouds, and Alain was walking slowly down a Paris street.  He observed the young girls, who – every one of them – showed her naked navel between trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short.  He was captivated; captivated and even disturbed: It was as if their seductive power no longer resided in their thighs, their buttocks, or their breasts, but in that small round hole located in the center of the body’.  In the opening section of the book, we meet what Kundera terms the ‘Heroes’ of the piece.  D’Ardelo, for instance, has been given the all-clear following a rigorous series of medical tests, but decides to fabricate an illness when he meets former colleague Ramon in the park: ‘Just simply, without knowing why, his fictional cancer pleased him’.

As with a lot of Kundera’s work, elaborately philosophical ideas and chapter headings have been inserted into every chapter – for instance, ‘Ramon’s Lesson on Brilliance and Insignificance’, and ‘Alain Sets a Bottle of Armagnac on Top of His Armoire’.  Many of these details are superfluous, but they do occasionally add a little humour to what would otherwise feel like quite a serious, slow-moving piece of literature.  The inclusions about Russian history were fascinating, but some of the philosophy, and a lot of the initial ideas, were repeated, often several times.  The Festival of Insignificance was, to me, a book which I could happily have not read; it was not as compelling as other works of Kundera’s, and did not really reach a favourable ending, slim as it was.  I do admire Kundera’s books, but I certainly wouldn’t count him as among my favourite authors.  It was, I suppose, rather an insignificant entry upon my reading list; one which I am relatively indifferent to.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Hilltop on the Marne: An American’s Letters from War-Torn France’ by Mildred Aldrich ****

First published in May 2014.

A Hilltop on the Marne, which was first published in 1916, presents a far-reaching account of Mildred Aldrich’s experiences during the First World War.  Aldrich, a retired American journalist who worked for several papers in the Boston area before moving to France in 1898, had just moved to an idyllic hamlet in France’s Marne Valley before World War One was declared.  In Huiry, a ‘little hamlet less than thirty miles from Paris’, she found herself adjusting to life in wartime, volunteering such services as hosting tea for and providing water to local forces.  Her farmhouse soon became ‘a safe port in a storm for the various troops stationed in the village’. 

Aldrich’s first letter in the volume is dated the 3rd of June 1914, and her correspondence goes through to the end of the war.  We do not know who she writes to, and as none of her letters carry her signature or anything of the sort, A Hilltop on the Marne feels more like a diary in consequence.  She urges her correspondent, who is evidently trying to coerce her into returning ‘home’ to the United States, to allow her to be content.  In her first letter, she states, quite frankly: ‘I did not decide to come away into a little corner in the country, in this land in which I was not born, without looking at the move from all angles.  Be sure that I know what I am doing, and I have found the place where I can do it’.  She goes on to show how headstrong she is in her decision making, writing in August 1914: ‘I have your cable asking me to come “home” as you call it.  Alas, my home is where my books are – they are here.  Thanks all the same’.

Throughout A Hilltop on the Marne, Aldrich writes beautifully; each letter is long and has been penned with such care.  Through her words, one gets the impression that she was an incredibly warm and witty woman, who valued honesty above all else.  Sincerity weaves itself into each sentence which she crafts, and it feels throughout as though her utmost wish is for her reader to understand the things which she does, and the choices which she makes.  We learn of such things as the layout of her home, the way in which she fills her days, the history of the Marne region, and the characters who live in the hamlet of Huiry.  A Hilltop on the Marne is as rich as a novel in some respects, filled with such a wealth of detail as it is.

Aldrich evokes small-town life in France marvellously.   When war begins and she is able to meet some of the soldiers stationed in her area, she begins to reflect upon what battle means for the men in the region, and in France as a whole: ‘It is not the marching into battle of an army that has chosen soldiering.  It is the marching out of all the people – of every temperament – the rich, the poor, the timid and the bold, the sensitive and the hardened, the ignorant and the scholar – all men, because they happen to be males, called on not only to cry, “Vive la France”, but to see to it that she does live if dying for her can keep her alive.  It’s a compelling idea, isn’t it?’  She goes on to write: ‘I have lived among these people, loved them and believed in them, even when their politics annoyed me’.  Aldrich exemplifies the way in which her community carries on regardless, women taking over the ‘male’ tasks like baking bread and seeing to crops.  She tells of preparations for battle, the lack of news which reaches the hamlet, the unreliability of the postal service, refugees being sent into France from Belgium, and how wounded soldiers are treated.  She touches upon the requisition of weapons, evacuations of entire French towns, and the British cutting telegraph wires.  In this way, Aldrich has presented a far-reaching account of life in wartime from a most interesting perspective.

One of the wonderful things about A Hilltop on the Marne is its versatility; it can be dipped in and out of, or read all in one go.  It is an important work of non-fiction, particularly in this, the centenary year of World War One’s beginning.  It is a chronicle of war in a rural hamlet, which is sure to both charm its readers, and make them think.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Lollipop Shoes’ by Joanne Harris ****

First published in May 2014.

I have been meaning to read The Lollipop Shoes ever since I finished Chocolat, and I am unsure as to why it has taken me about two and a half years to begin it.  I hoped that it wouldn’t be disappointing, as sequels so often seem to be.  I was a little skeptical, as the last couple of Joanne Harris books which I have read haven’t been as good as I was expecting either.  The premise of the novel is intriguing: 

“Who died?” I said, “or is it a secret?”
“My mother, Vianne Rocher.”

Seeking refuge and anonymity in the cobbled streets of Montmartre, Yanne and her daughters, Rosette and Annie, live peacefully, if not happily, above their little chocolate shop.  Nothing unusual marks them out; no red sachets hang by the door.  The wind has stopped – at least for a while.  Then into their lives blows Zozie de l’Alba, the lady with the lollipop shoes, and everything begins to change…  But this new friendship is not what it seems.  Ruthless, devious and seductive, Zozie de l’Alba has plans of her own – plans that will shake their world to pieces.  And with everything she loves at stake, Yanne must face a difficult choice; to flee, as she has done so many times before, or to confront her most dangerous enemy…  herself.”

The book is told from the perspectives of Zozie, Yanne (the Vianne Rocher of Chocolat), and her daughter, Annie (Anouk).  Subsequent chapters are told in their voices, all of which are differentiated from one another.  This technique enables Harris to build up the whole seamlessly, allowing the reader to see the same event from different perspectives.

Zozie is an interesting character construct – she has taken over many identities in her life, choosing them from those who have passed away.  In this manner, she finds it easier to do such things as to open credit accounts and rent apartments in their names.  She dresses as she believes each individual would, and is therefore vividly colourful and rather quirky in her outfit choices.  Annie is a marvellous young protagonist, and is certainly my favourite character in the novel.  I even found myself inwardly cheering for her actions at times.

As in Chocolat, there are elements of magic here, which lend themselves wonderfully to the Paris setting, which is beautifully evoked within the novel.  The storyline which Harris has crafted is both absorbing and surprising.  Although the novel did tend to feel a touch drawn out at times, it was ultimately enjoyable, and I am looking forward to seeing how the trilogy ends.

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One From the Archive: ‘Breaking Away’ (****) and ‘Someone I Loved’ (***) by Anna Gavalda

Breaking Away and Someone I Loved are both beautifully produced novellas which have recently been published by Gallic books.  Both have been translated wonderfully from their original French – Breaking Away by Alison Anderson and Someone I Loved by Catherine Evans.

Breaking Away was first published under the title French Leave.  This novella – for both books are of novella length, despite the way in which they say ‘a novel’ on their respective covers – tells the story of four siblings, the Loriats – Garance, Lola, Vincent and ‘too nice’ Simon.  The entirety of the story is fraught with the tensions of different relationships – the conspiratorial nature of Garance and Lola’s sisterhood, their adoration of Simon, and Garance’s dislike of her sister-in-law Carine taking centre stage.  In Breaking Away, the Loriats are travelling to a wedding in the countryside, Garance and Lola being driven there by Simon and Carine, and Vincent making his own uncertain way.

The differences of the siblings are set out rather succinctly by Garance, our narrator: ‘Then there’s the obvious fact that all of it – our apparent indifference, our discretion and our weakness, too – is our parents’ fault…  So here we are.  Sublime losers.  We just sit there in silence while the loudmouths get their way, and any brilliant response we might have come up with is nipped in the bud, and all we’re left with is a vague desire to be sick.’

The novella is told in a series of small vignettes, the majority of which lead into one another seamlessly.  Gavalda’s writing style throughout is most interesting, and startlingly contemporary at times.  She has used a good balance of long and short sentences, and knows by instinct which to employ at any given time, in order to give her story power, or to take it away.  The style which Gavalda has employed is rather witty, and I admired how headstrong Garance was as her tale went on.  Breaking Away is a most enjoyable novella, but it is far more fulfilling on the level of psychological character study than as a piece of plot-driven writing.  The interest lies in the intricacies of the relationships which Gavalda brings to light, and the inherent differences manifested in the siblings.

Someone I Loved was first published in France in 2002, and in the UK it made up part of the collection entitled I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere.  Again, the prose here has been split up into distinctive short sections, all of which join up with one another to create a coherent whole.  Someone I Loved also takes relationships as its main theme.  It focuses upon Chloe, whose husband has decided to leave her and their two small daughters in order to continue his relationship with his mistress.  In this novella, Gavalda ‘poignantly explores the fragility of human relationships’ – a theme which she seems eminently comfortable with, and which weaves its way through many of her stories.  Here, rather than deal solely with the breaking up of a marriage, she shows how it is possible to forge relationships too – here, between Chloe and her father-in-law.

Chloe’s father-in-law, Pierre, is assisting her through her devastation.  Chloe, our narrator, states that: ‘I think he is as unhappy as I am.  That he’s tired.  Disappointed.’  He decides to take her and her two little girls, Lucie and Marion, from their home in Paris to his mother’s house in the countryside.  This sojourn is a learning curve of sorts, in which both protagonists get to know one another, and to leave their misapprehensions behind.  Throughout, Chloe continually explains her new position in life: ‘You love a man, you have two children with him, and one winter morning, you learn that he has left because he loves someone else.  Adding that he doesn’t know what to say, that he made a mistake.’

The emotional balance has been rendered perfectly.  Chloe’s distraught feelings are balanced with happier scenes, and Gavalda uses this technique to present a full picture of her main character.  It is quite heartwarming that Lucie and Marion are used as the glue which holds their mother together: ‘What a wonderful invention little girls are, I thought as I combed her hair.  What a wonderful invention.’  Pierre too is determined to give his granddaughters everything which his own children missed out on due to his reserve as a parent: ‘”I’ve done everything wrong,” he said, shaking his head.’  Again, Gavalda’s prose and the narrative voice which she has crafted are so well done, and she is certainly an author who deserves to be read by many outside her native France.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Fine of Two Hundred Francs’ by Elsa Triolet ****

First published in April 2014.

I had been looking forward to reading Elsa Triolet’s A Fine of Two Hundred Francs for several years before I finally purchased a copy.  What could be better than a book of short stories which appears on the Virago Modern Classics list, all of which are set within the French Resistance movement during the Second World War?  Triolet herself was part of the revolutionary Russian Futurist movement, and was awarded the Prix Goncourt for this book.  She was also decorated as a heroine of the French Resistance in 1945.  The entirely important stories within A Fine of Two Hundred Francs were first published illegally by underground presses in France, and according to their blurb, they provide ‘… a moving and shocking testament to the courage of those caught up by the nightmare of war’.

Four stories in total appear in this volume – ‘The Lovers of Avignon’, ‘The Private Life of Alexis Slavsky, Painter’, ‘Notebooks Buried Under a Peach Tree’, and ‘A Fine of Two Hundred Francs’.  Each story is more like a novella, really.  I must admit that I skipped Helena Lewis’ introduction, as it did give quite a lot of the plot of the first story away, and I wanted more than anything to be surprised by the tales.

Regardless, Lewis does set out the way in which Triolet has chosen an interesting choice of settings and subjects.  In ‘The Lovers of Avignon’, it is 1942, and we meet Juliette Noel, who is working for the Resistance during the winter, trudging from one farm to the next to find places in which those she is helping will be able to stay.  In ‘The Private Life of Alexis Slavsky, Painter’, a Jewish artist has to conceal his religion, lest he be set upon, or have to face the cruel consequences of his people.  ‘Notebooks Buried Under a Peach Tree’ tells the story of an escaped woman in hiding, who seeks a safe house in which to live out the remainder of the war.  ‘A Fine of Two Hundred Francs’ wonderfully highlights the tensions which prevail in situations of such strain.

Each of the stories is as strong as the next, and they make a wonderful and thought-provoking collection.  So much consideration has clearly been woven into each, and each story is full bodied and well realised in consequence.  Interlinked details and characters meander from one story to the next, and this helps the book to be a coherent, almost novelistic, volume, which simply cannot be put down.  Triolet is gifted at using differing narrative perspectives, and has such grasp of the little details which make stories so memorable.

The details which Triolet injects into her stories are both thoughtful and startling, and the sense of place is marvellously wrought: ‘All night the rats did an infernal dance’, the fallen snow is ‘beautiful like fragile lacework’, and the slopes of mountains look like ‘badly shaven cheeks, dark and wrinkled’, for example.  She writes beautifully, and her characterisation is exquisite throughout.  She is so perceptive of each of her protagonists, and describes their thoughts and feelings with such clarity, as though she herself is living within them and experiencing everything which they do, making them feel wonderfully fleshed out.

It is so important that books like A Fine of Two Hundred Francs are read and considered.  The tales which they tell do not deserve to be forgotten, and I was surprised to discover that this volume is currently out of print.  Whilst we wait hopefully for a Virago reissue, I can only suggest that AbeBooks, libraries and secondhand bookshops are scoured for this wonderful volume.

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One From the Archive: ‘All the Way’ by Marie Darrieussecq **

‘All the Way’ by Marie Darrieussecq

The blurb of French author Marie Darrieussecq’s All the Way promises that it ‘offers an extraordinary insight into the language and obsessions of adolescence’.  It goes on to say that the author ‘offers fearless observations on sex, desire, adolescence and the moment when childhood drops away’.  Darrieussecq is the author of various books, including Pig Tales, which was published in thirty four countries.  This volume, which was first published in France in 2011, has been translated by Penny Hueston.

All the Way introduces us to a teenage girl named Solange, who is at once ‘intrigued, amazed and annoyed by the transformation of her body’, and longs to be just like everyone else around her, all of whom profess that they have already ‘done it’.  To go with this general theme, the novel has been split into three parts – ‘Getting It’, ‘Doing It’, and ‘Doing It Again’.

Solange lives in the town of Clèves – ‘where we don’t have the sea but we have a pretty lake’ with her parents.  When her mother is not working in a shop, she is ‘always in bed’, and her pilot father frankly embarrasses her.  Indeed, she believes that one of the reasons as to why she is targeted at school is because of ‘her father’s extroversion’, which seems to solely consist of his becoming naked in rather a shady incident.  A strong sense of foreboding is present throughout; nothing is quite as it should be, particularly with regard to the way in which Solange spends so much time with the family’s next-door neighbour, Monsieur Bihotz.

Whilst we learn a lot about Solange, she still feels quite distant as a protagonist, and her obsession about sexual practices and the way in which she succumbs to peer pressure feels rather overdone.  Her parents, and the other characters who come into the novel here and there, feel rather flat too.  It is as though more importance has been placed onto the arc of events in the plot, rather than those imagined beings who cause such things to happen.

The novel’s structure is relatively contemporary.  There are no chapters as such; instead, small, separate segments of writing, many of which are entirely separate from those which come before and after, make up each part.  Some of these are odd little fragments of memory; some occur in the past, and some in the present.  The story is told in a mixture of first and third person perspectives, which alters from one section to the next, and does take a while to get into.

All the Way is well written, and whilst Darrieussecq’s descriptions are nice, the whole does tend to be rather too blunt in places.  Solange’s naivety is portrayed well – for example, the times in which she looks up words which she does not understand in the dictionary – but it is lost all too quickly and abruptly.  Whilst the novel provides an interesting window into adolescence, it does sadly feel a little too predictable at times.