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One From the Archive: ‘A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France’ by Miranda Richmond Mouillot ****

First published in February 2015.

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France has been hailed both ‘a rich and evocative portrait of Mouillot’s family spanning three generations’, and ‘a heartbreaking, uplifting love story spanning two continents’.  In her debut work, Mouillot ‘seeks to confront and illuminate a shadow that haunts every family: the past, which is at once sharply present and maddeningly vague’.

9780804140669A Fifty-Year Silence presents an ‘honest account’ of her grandparents’ separation, and the consequent problems which their offspring and only grandchild, Miranda, were caused.  Anna and Armand purchased an old stone house in the south of France after surviving the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.  Five years after they had moved, Anna left, ‘taking the typewriter and their children.  They never met again’.

In her author’s note, Mouillot tells us that this ‘is a true story, but it is a work of memory, not a work of history’.  The whole has been based, for the most part, upon letters, diaries, and conversations had with her grandparents, as well as her own memories of them.  Mouillot is descended from a family of Holocaust survivors, ‘with a lot of bad memories to cope with’.  These feelings were passed down to her; she tells us: ‘I kept my shoes near the front door, so I could grab them quickly if we had to escape in a hurry, but then I’d lie awake and worry we’d have to use the back door instead’, and ‘the unspoken question that nettled me was not whether such a thing [as losing a house] could happen but how many houses you could lose in a lifetime’.

A Fifty-Year Silence begins in a manner which immediately gives us a feel for Mouillot’s grandparents: ‘When I was born, my grandmother tied a red ribbon around my left wrist to ward off the evil eye.  She knew what was ahead of me and what was behind me, and though she was a great believer in luck and the hazards of fortune, she wasn’t about to take any chances on me’.  She then goes on to say: ‘My grandmother practiced a peculiar and intensive form of self-sufficiency.  She wasn’t a wilderness type; she just knew that in the end, the only person she could truly rely upon was herself’.  Her seeming incompatibility with her stubborn, set-in-his-ways grandfather, is discussed at length. Mouillot believed that her grandparents were ‘more than opposites, or perhaps less; they were like the north poles of two magnets, impossible to push close enough together in my mind to make any kind of comparison, let alone a connection’.

From the first, Mouillot’s narrative is engaging, and she presents her voyage of self- and familial-discovery marvellously.  The flashbacks of her grandparents’ comments, and musings about their early lives have been woven along with her own youth.  She weaves in the tale of how she herself fell in love with La Roche, the decrepit, crumbling house two miles away from the nearest village, and an hour north of Avignon, whilst visiting as a teenager, and how she has now made the region her home.  A Fifty-Year Silence is incredibly interesting, and it has been so lovingly written that it truly is a treat to settle down with.

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‘The Last Life’ by Claire Messud ****

Messud is an author whose writing I greatly admire. Over the last few years, I have slowly been making my way through her back catalogue, and have thoroughly enjoyed each of her books. Messud, as an author, appears to me to be rather underrated. I rarely see reviews of her work unless I seek them out, and one of my absolute favourites amongst her novels – The Emperor’s Children – seems polarising among readers.

One thing which I love about Messud’s work is that each of her books is so different in subject matter. Everything which she writes about, from an obsessive female friendship in The Woman Upstairs, to a complicated relationship between two sisters living on opposite sides of the world in When the World Was Steady, is utterly compelling. The Last Life, her second novel, was published in 1999, and is certainly a book to savour.

The Last Life takes as its focus a fifteen-year-old girl named Sagesse LaBasse, who tells her story with a ‘ruthless regard for truth’. She comes from a family of French Algerian immigrants who own a hotel, the Bellevue, on the French Riviera. This overlooks their old homeland. The family are ‘haunted by their history’ and, early on in the novel, they are ‘brought to the brink of destruction by a single reckless act.’

Sagesse has an American mother, and muses throughout about her heritage, and what her mixed nationalities mean to her. The novel is told from a position of retrospect, from Sagesse’s apartment in New York City; it opens: ‘I am American now, but this wasn’t always so.’ A couple of paragraphs later, she reveals the following: ‘I’m not American by default. It’s a choice. But it is a mask. Who, in the thronged avenues of Manhattan, hasn’t known this?’ The grown Sagesse has reached a point in her life where she wishes to ‘translate the world inside, beginning with the home that was once mine, on France’s southern coast…’. So begins her story.

From the outset, everything about The Last Life intrigued me. Messud’s prose is rich, and characteristically searching. The many descriptions which she gives throughout to situate Sagesse and her family are luscious, and incredibly evocative. Messud’s attention to detail renders every landscape, every object, almost tangible to the reader. When living in the South of France, for instance, ‘… the days lingered like overripe fruit, soft and heavily scented, melting into the glorious dusk. We gathered by the hotel pool, on the clifftop, after supper, watching the sky falter into Prussian blue, to blue-black, and the moon rise over the Mediterranean, the sea spread out before us, whispering and wrinkled.’

In many ways, The Last Life is a coming-of-age novel; we watch the teenage Sagesse grow, preoccupied with stuffing her bra, and being around her peers rather than her family. There are moments of intrigue here, and others of surprise. The single incident, which serves to make the LaBasse family question so much, felt unexpected, as did Sagesse’s expulsion from the family home soon afterward, to stay with her aunt in America. Messud demonstrates great insight throughout, especially on the many and varied experiences of being a teenager. I found Sagesse and her reactions to be thoroughly believable.

The storyline of The Last Life is an intricate one. The feelings of displacement, of ‘otherness’, ricochet through the novel, affecting many of the characters. When with her aunt in Boston, Sagesse comments: ‘It dawned on me in those early days that I was, in this place, remarkably, a cipher. I didn’t speak much. The tidal wave of American English was tiring for me, and it took all my energy to keep up, and anyway I felt that my personality didn’t translate. I couldn’t make jokes in English, or not without planning them out before I spoke, by which time they ceased to be funny and I couldn’t be bothered to voice them… But because they didn’t know me, my cousins didn’t notice. They thought me reserved, perhaps, or pensive, or homesick (which I often was, but they didn’t ask about my home), and each projected onto me the character she wanted or needed me to have.’

I have always found Messud’s work to contain incredibly deep portrayals and explorations of the human condition. This novel is certainly no different; it is just as astute, direct, and thorough as I was expecting. I cannot fathom why Messud seems to be such an underappreciated author, and I hope that if you pick up The Last Life, or one of her books based on this review, that you enjoy her work just as much as I do.

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‘Letters to the Lady Upstairs’ by Marcel Proust ****

It should perhaps be a thing of shame that I pride myself on how many books I have read during my lifetime, but that I have never picked up anything by Proust. I’m not quite sure why this is; I am interested in his novels, and know just how inspirational his work has been to a great deal of other writers. He is regarded by many as one of the best, if not the best, writers of the twentieth century.

I can say that Proust has always been a writer on my radar, but I just didn’t know of a good starting point, and was perhaps a little intimidated by his seven-novel series, In Search of Lost Time. When I saw the beautifully designed Letters to the Lady Upstairs though, I knew that I had found the right path into his work.

Twenty-three of the twenty-six letters in this relatively short collection were written by Proust to his upstairs neighbour, Madame Marie Williams, between 1909 and 1919. the others were penned to her husband. They have been translated from their original French by Lydia Davis, and were first published in English almost a century later, in 2017. The letters were not originally dated, so these have been guessed at to the best of the ability of those working on the book. Due to new information coming to light, the order of the letters in the English edition is different to that of the French; here, they are shown ‘in the way that seemed the most logical’.

The letters here reveal ‘the comings and goings of a Paris building’; to be precise, 102 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, where Proust lived and wrote for over a decade. Marie Williams lived in the apartment above with her American dentist husband, whose practice was also in the building. A great deal about Proust’s correspondent is not known, although sadly, she committed suicide in 1931. Her responses to Proust have also been lost.

Much can be found in these letters about the day-to-life of Proust. He complains constantly, although strangely very politely, about the noise which surrounds him, and which always stops him from sleeping. There is much, too, about the characters in Proust’s fiction, which he is thrilled that Madame Williams enjoys; in the autumn of 1914, he tells her: ‘At least I would have the joy of knowing that those lovely lucid eyes had rested on these pages’. Having not read any of his fiction yet, I must admit that this meant relatively little to me, but I’m sure it might be something I come back to in future once I have finally delved into his oeuvre.

This volume also includes an afterword written by the translator, and a foreword by Proust scholar Jean-Yves Tabié. Tabié writes that some of these letters were curiously sent via the postal system, despite the proximity of sender and receiver. Tabié goes on to say that ‘the tone of the letters is that of friendship, of ever growing intimacy, between two solitary people.’

Like Proust, Madame Williams was something of a recluse, and was also suffering from an unknown ailment. In the second letter, for instance, Proust – who seems to find real pleasure in talking about how ill he is – writes: ‘It saddens me very much to learn that you are ill. If bed does not bore you too much, I believe that in itself it exerts a very sedative effect on the kidneys.’ He continues to ask her, throughout the letters which follow, what he can possibly do to alleviate her discomfort. In what is estimated to be the August of 1909, he says: ‘I am saddened to learn that you, too, have been suffering. It seems natural to me that I should be ill. But at least illness ought to spare Youth, Beauty and Talent!’

Proust comes across as an extremely gentle correspondent, aware of what is going on in Madame Williams’ life, and offering her one kindness after another. If I were Madame Williams, I must admit that I might have found his letters a little annoying at times, given the amount of time he spends being preoccupied about noise and illness. He is also rather pedantic, and there is something about him which I found rather prickly, and holier than thou. He writes to her in November 1915, for example, ‘I am a little sorry that you have not received my last letters (though they were addressed I believe quite correctly)’. He seems keen to let her know how accommodating he is as a neighbour; in the same month, he is far too ill to attend a concert, but ‘when by chance a musician came to see me in the evening, I stop him from making music for me so that the noise may not bother you.’

Although we only get to see one side of their correspondence, it is clear that there is a tenderness which Proust holds for his neighbour, and their connection does visibly grow as time passes. I personally really enjoy one-sided correspondences, and have read quite a few of them to date. I like watching how one writer’s letters change over time, and what becomes more and less important to them as years pass. It is interesting, too, to imagine what might have been included in the responses. The two seem to rarely have met in person; Proust makes veiled excuses throughout as to why he cannot meet her physically, due primarily to his ‘attacks’.

Proust is certainly an interesting figure, and one whom I would like to learn a lot more about. I enjoyed Davis’ comments offered about the building in which Proust lived, which is now part of a bank building. She writes that this was the first place in which he ever lived alone, and that when he first moved in, ‘he considered the apartment to be no more than a transitional residence.’ She goes on to say that Proust was ‘well-liked by his neighbours, on the whole, for the same qualities so evident in his letters to Mme Williams: his grace, eloquence, thoughtfulness, sympathy, gestures or gratitude.’

Letters to the Lady Upstairs is a revealing volume, which takes little time to read, but which lingers in the mind for a long time afterward. Proust captures so much of the city, despite largely staying indoors with his illness and the noise, and he relays everything – even his complaints – quite beautifully. As Davis says, ‘Follow every reference in these letters, and Proust’s world opens out before us.’

I am keen to pick up more of his work in the near future, and so would highly recommend this as a good starting point. I’m sure that if you are already familiar with Proust’s novels, this will hold appeal for you too. Overall, Letters to the Lady Upstairs is quite fascinating, and introduces one to two very interesting historical figures – one whom a lot is known about, and another who has faded quite into obscurity.

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‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr *****

Writing a review of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is by no means the most necessary thing which I have ever done. Surely, most people have read it by now; indeed, it has over 1.1 million ratings on Goodreads, and a whole host of reviews – over 80,000 at the time of writing. I came to the novel late; it received its Pulitzer Prize in 2015, and I only picked it up in the summer of 2021, after receiving it as a gift. I had wanted to get to the book much sooner but, for one reason or another, I had simply neglected to seek out a copy – as it so often goes for a bookworm, of course.

All the Light We Cannot See is set against the backdrop of the Second World War, and takes two characters as its focus. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a young girl living in Paris with her father, who lost her sight at the age of six; the world since has been ‘full of mazes’. To still allow her some dependence, her father painstakingly built her a wooden model of their neighbourhood ‘to teach her the way home’. When she first loses her sight, something which happens rather gradually, Doerr describes the way in which: ‘Spaces she once knew as familiar – the four-room flat she shares with her father, the little tree-lined square at the end of their street – have become labyrinths bristling with hazards. Drawers are never where they should be. The toilet is an abyss. A glass of water is too near, too far; her fingers are too big, always too big.’ Doerr is sensitive to the constant adjustments which Marie-Laure has to make, and the way in which her life has changed so dramatically.

Marie-Laure is drawn, eventually, to the other protagonist of the novel, a German youth named Werner Pfennig. He and his younger sister have spent much of their life in an orphanage, but due to his prowess with fixing radios and the like, he is offered a place at a prestigious technical school. Werner is sharp and clever, and one cannot help but feel for him throughout.

The novel opens in August 1944. At this time, a cascade of leaflets are dropped across Paris; they ‘blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops’, and urge all residents to ‘depart immediately to open country.’ Although settled in their Paris apartment, the advancement of the Nazis, and their invasion of the French capital city, causes them to flee to Brittany, to the seaside home of a reclusive family member, in Saint-Malo. When Marie-Laure and her father reach the walled city, much of France has already been liberated from Nazi control. Saint-Malo, though, remains ‘the last citadel at the edge of the continent, this final German strongpoint on the Breton coast.’ Her father, who works as the custodian of thousands of keys at the Natural History Museum in Paris, is tasked with taking what might be an irreplaceable precious stone out of the city with him, for safekeeping.

I really admire the way in which the author perceives the world; he writes, for instance, of Marie-Laure’s sight loss: ‘Color – that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color… She has no memories of her mother but imagines her as white, a soundless brilliance. Her father radiates a thousand colors, opal, strawberry red, deep russet, wild green… He is an olive green when he talks to a department head, an escalating series of oranges when he speaks to Mademoiselle Fleury from the greenhouses, a bright red when he tries to cook. He glows sapphire when he sits over his workbench in the evenings, humming almost inaudibly as he works.’

All the Light We Cannot See was Doerr’s second novel, and it is nothing short of a masterpiece. The novel is a highly atmospheric one from its very beginning, and Doerr is excellent at setting up various scenes. At the outset, for example, Marie-Laure ‘hesitates at the window in her stocking feet, her bedroom behind her, seashells arranged along the top of the armoire, pebbles along the baseboards. Her cane stands in the corner; her big Braille novel waits facedown on the bed. The drone of the airplanes growls.’ The novel is filled to the brim with so much detail, both sensual and historically accurate. There is so much evocative, luscious prose here, which one can really sink their teeth into. Everything has been so carefully considered, and there is a reason for every single detail included.

All the Light We Cannot See was a particularly poignant tome to come to during a pandemic, when we have seen so many selfless acts perpetuated in all corners of society, and all parts of the world. Doerr is so aware of the lengths people will go to for others, and the many kindnesses which we can extend to others.

I found All the Light We Cannot See to be one of the most immersive novels that I have picked up in ages. I loved the use of short chapters, and the way in which we follow Marie-Laure and Werner in turn, and in such a fluid manner. I also really admired the way in which Doerr chose to hop back and forth in time, an effective technique to show the histories of his characters. The use of parallel stories here works wonderfully, and I felt so absorbed within the worlds of both Marie-Laure and Werner. I’m sure you’ve probably already read it, but if not, I would urge you to pick up this glorious, achingly beautiful, and unforgettable novel, which has a real adventure at its heart.

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‘Perfume from Provence’ by Winifred Fortescue ****

I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in France since I was a child, and have always been drawn to memoirs of those who have swapped their busy lives for a slower existence in the beautiful country. Lady Winifred Fortescue’s Perfume from Provence had been high on my rather large memoirs list for quite some time, before I caved and ordered a secondhand copy; reading it on a warm afternoon was bliss when I was unable to travel myself.

In the early 1930s, alongside her husband Sir John Fortescue, Winifred left her home in Hertfordshire, England, and ‘settled in Provence, in a small stone house amid olive groves’. Their new abode, named the Domaine, was very close to the world-famous perfume making town of Grasse. They made the large move partly for health reasons, but also because between the wars, France was a far more affordable country than England in which to live. As soon as the pair arrived, they were ‘bewitched, by the scenery, by their garden – an incredible terraced landscape of vines, wild flowers, roses and lavender – and above all by the charming, infuriating, warm-hearted and wily Provençals.’

When it was first published in 1935, Perfume from Provence was a bestseller. It rose to the top of the lists again when it was reissued by Black Swan in 1992. It is not difficult to see why. Although the book seems to be relatively forgotten nowadays, it presents a wonderfully slow, amusing, and warm slice of life, which transported me entirely from the crazed modern world. Fortescue’s prose is so vivid and sumptuous that I could almost feel the golden sun upon my skin, and hear the thousands of cicadas chirping in the fields. She writes: ‘Here there is a lovely leisure in all our doings. The sun shines so gloriously, the sky is so incredibly blue, and the scent of flowers, warmed by the sunshine, so drowsy and intoxicating that there is every inducement to be lazy and leisurely.’

From its very beginning, Fortescue writes with such ambiability, and a wonderful sense of humour. She tells us about the motley crew of workmen who are extending their small house: ‘Hardly a day passed without a visit from one or other of them: the electrician with a finger cut by wire; a mason with a smashed thumb; various blessés with casualties greater or less, all howling for “Madame” and tincture of iodine.’ The house also came with a rather beligerent gardener named Hilaire, who continuously ropes both Fortescues into helping him with garden tasks. To escape this, Sir John often feigns deafness. Many of the neighbours, too, shoehorn the Fortescues into assisting them – lending their car for a local wedding, or guilt-tripping them into buying up ‘several hundreds of logs’ in the heat of summer, as the seller insists that ‘wood was very scarce, and customers who were late with their commands would not get served at all.’

Perfume from Provence has been split into sections, all of which deal with one aspect of life in Provence, and range from ‘Building’ and ‘My Garden’, to ‘Marriage’ and ‘Housekeeping’. In each chapter, seemingly endless mishaps occur: a garden wall crumbling, and ruining a recently planted rose garden; a gentleman comically slipping on a banana skin on market day, and upending a ‘heap of oranges, some of which scatter under the stalls and are swiftly prigged by alert urchins, while other marketeers roller-skate on the remainder’; and the ‘gesticulating little creature’ of the local barber dropping all of his tools over the market square, and making ‘himself an amusing nuisance’ in the aftermath. There is so much evocative detail here about customs unique to Provence, and the lively book is full to the brim with memorable characters and encounters.

There are some lovely moments here too, many of which come from their rural neighbours. One of these, Monsieur Pierre, reflectively tells Fortescue: ‘He sweeps a brawny arm out towards the majesty of mountains rising above a sea of grey-green olive foliage, and asks me why people spend their lives striving to make money when Le Bon Dieu gives them all this beauty for nothing? Is not health, and the life of a peasant in the open air, better than riches and a dyspeptic stomach in a city? The world has grown too restless and discontented, and men have forgotten that peace and happiness can still be found in woods with birds and flowers and bees.’ One night, Fortescue relays that when went to be early one night, ‘… I lay luxuriously staring out of my windows at a mass of mountains gradually fading away into opalescent dusk…’.

I am always delighted when I pick up books of this kind, and am thrilled that I have discovered a new author to enjoy in Lady Winifred Fortescue. Her account of life in France is delightful, as ‘warm and witty’ as the book’s blurb promises. Fortescue lived in Provence until her death in 1951, and released more reflections of her beloved life there, which I am most looking forward to reading. Next for me will be Sunset House: More Perfume from Provence. There is so much to like in Perfume from Provence, and I have high hopes for the rest of Fortescue’s oeuvre. Of course, this volume has made me want to book a very long holiday in France, but until I can get there again, I will read the rest of her books with joy.

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Two Novellas in Translation

I have decided to group together two novels in translation which I have read of late. They are quite different, but I thoroughly enjoyed both. I would highly recommend them if you’re looking for something relatively quick to get through, but which will linger in the mind for a long while afterwards.

Gratitude by Delphine de Vigan (translated from the French by George Miller) ****

On the face of it, Gratitude seems short, and relatively straightforward. The centre of the novel is Michka Seld, a woman who is getting older, and beginning to need help. At first, we see her in her own apartment, but as she begins to lose her speech, and cannot cope as well independently, she is moved into a home. Here, as is often the case, she begins to deteriorate rapidly. We meet two characters who circle around her – Marie, who lived in the same apartment block as Michka when she was a child, and Jerôme, the speech therapist who works with her every week.

I have read all of Delphine de Vigan’s books currently available in English translation, and have been impressed by each of them. She is an author who always surprises me with her clarity, and her understanding of the human psyche. Her characters are realistic, as are their interactions; her novels feel almost like one is watching a scene unfold in a film, so clear are they. Michka has a credible and believable backstory, which unfolded perfectly, and added another level of heartbreak into Gratitude.

The translation by George Miller is faultless, and many of the sentences ooze with beauty and anguish. Michka relates: ‘… I had a dream and all the words were there… Everything was as simple as it used to be and it was so joyful, so nice, you know. It makes me so tired, always hunting, hunting, hunting. It’s exhausting. It’s draining.’ Throughout, de Vigan balances sensitivity and understanding, and the different perspectives which she has used work effectively. Despite the brevity of the book, de Vigan tackles a lot of important issues, many of which really made me stop to consider. Gratitude is really moving, and although it can easily be read in a single setting, its characters and ideas are sure to stay with you for weeks afterwards.

The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen (translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally)

I read Tove Ditlevsen’s earliest volumes of memoir, Childhood and Youth back in 2013, and am so pleased to see that they have recently been reissued – along with Dependency, the last in the trilogy – by Penguin. They have also, quite wonderfully, published Ditlevsen’s novella, The Faces, which has been translated from its original Danish by Tiina Nunnally.

The subject matter of Faces is troubling, dealing as it does with a mother of three who is spiralling into insanity. Lise, a children’s book author, becomes ‘increasingly haunted by disembodied faces and voices’ as the novella moves forward, and is moved into an institution; here, her symptoms become worse, and the narrative is often more difficult to read. Books of this kind, in general, fascinate me, particularly as I have studied literary depictions of ‘hysteria’ and madness at length. The blurring between the real and imagined is so clever, and the hallucinations which Lise suffers are startling. Ditlevsen writes with care about Lise’s belief that she is sane, and that everyone around her is afflicted with madness.

Faces is beguiling, with a wonderful writing style that immediately appealed to me. As befits content of this kind, Ditlevsen’s writing is strange and unsettling, almost ethereal. The translation has been handled wonderfully, and there is an excellent fluidity to the whole. We are really given a feel for Lise’s tumultuous thoughts, and her struggle to exist. Faces is a sharp novella, highly visceral in what it reveals, and exquisitely searching in its quest to reveal its unsettled protagonist.

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‘Grey Souls’ by Philippe Claudel ****

French author Philippe Claudel’s Grey Souls had been languishing on one of my many to-read lists for years before I thought to check my local library for a copy.  The novel won the Prix Renaudot in France, and has been praised variously as having a ‘heart-gripping, melancholic beauty’ (Independent), and using ‘magnificent’ language (Le Parisien).  First published in 2003, Grey Souls, which is the opening volume in a loosely-connected war trilogy, has been translated into English by Hoyt Rogers.

26848591Grey Souls is set in northern France, a region which I personally know very well, in December 1917.  The small town of ‘V’, in which the entirety of the novel takes place, is close to the Front.  Here, towards the end of the First World War, ‘any lingering sense of normality is destroyed with the discovery of a strangled ten-year-old girl in the freezing canal.’  A deserter from the army is conveniently convicted of her murder, and is subsequently executed.  Years later, however, ‘struggling with the tragedies and demons of his own past, the narrator is still trying to make sense of these events.’

The opening of Grey Souls sets up the unnamed narrator’s quest immediately: ‘It’s very difficult to find the beginning.  So much time has gone by that words will never bring back – and the faces too, the smiles, the wounds.  Even so, I must try.  I have to cut open the belly of the mystery and stick my hands deep inside, even if none of that will change a thing.’  He tells us that he once worked as a policeman, and is now retired.

At the outset, the narrator describes the moment at which the child’s body was found: ‘Lying on the ground, a ten-year-old’s body seems even smaller, especially when it’s saturated with winter water…  She looked like a fairy-tale princess with her eyelids blanched and lips turned blue, her hair entangled with the grass, withered brown by morning frosts.  Her little hands had clutched at emptiness.’  This is just one example of how rich and effective Claudel’s descriptions are.  Another which struck me is the description of the nearby battle, which the town of ‘V’ is shielded by: ‘By the grace of the hill we managed to dodge it, despite the smells and noises it threw our way…  The war mounted its stylish performances behind the hill, on the other side, in a world that wasn’t even ours – in other words, nowhere.  We refused to be its audience.  We made of the war the stuff of legend, and so we were able to live with it.’

The narrative in Grey Souls moves quickly, pivoting from one year to another at will.  We learn, by turns, of the rather cynical narrator’s past, as well as that of his father.  The mystery element of the novel is also tied in, and returned to time and again.  ‘All this must seem a muddle, back and forth in time,’ the narrator explains, ‘but in fact it’s the very image of my life, made of nothing but jagged bits and pieces, impossible to stick back together.’  There is rather a cold, odd aspect to the narration, which culminates in paragraphs such as the following: ‘Words were never easy for me.  I hardly used them when I was still alive.  If I write as if I’m a dead man, or a matter of fact, that is true, true as true can be.  For a long time I’ve felt like one, just keeping up a pretence of living for a while longer.  I’m serving a suspended sentence, you might say.’

Grey Souls is a slim novel, but it is filled to the brim with intrigue and atmosphere.  The prose is absorbing, and the pace works well.  At its core, this is a mystery novel, but in reality, it feels like much more than that.  A lot of sadness and emotion is packed into Grey Souls, and the plotting adds intrigue to the story.  Claudel hints at occurrences throughout, but we only learn about them in their entirety much later.  This is a very good novel indeed, and I will certainly continue with the rest of the series at some point.

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‘The Mystery of Henri Pick’ by David Foenkinos ****

I read French author David Foenkinos’ engaging novella, Charlotte, several years ago, and whilst I intended to pick up more of his work in the interim, I somehow never got around to doing so.  The Mystery of Henri Pick, freshly translated into English, sounded like an interesting literary romp, and the fact that it is part of a new ‘Walter Presents’ series at Pushkin Press intrigued me further.

51256433In the small town of Crozon in Brittany, a library becomes home to a myriad of manuscripts, all of which were rejected for publication.  It is based on an idea of Richard Brautigan’s, and is a ‘French version of the library of rejects’ which appears in one of his novels.  This library came to fruition in Foenkinos’ novel through the character of Gourvec, whom we meet at the beginning of the story.  It is difficult not to warm to him immediately: ‘According to him, it was not a question of liking or not liking to read, but of finding the book which was meant for you…  For this purpose, he had developed a method that might appear almost paranormal: he would examine each reader’s physical appearance in order to work out which author they needed.’

When Gourvec began to collect rejected manuscripts, he found his idea a popular one: ‘Many people made the journey.  Writers came from all over France to rid themselves of the fruits of their failure.  It was a sort of literary pilgrimage.’  His single stipulation was that the manuscripts had to be delivered in person, and only then would they be added to the growing collection on the shelves at the back of the library.

Protagonist Delphine Despero, who works at a publishing house in Paris, chooses to spend her holiday in the small Breton town.  She is thrilled to discover a story which she loves in said library, and decides to ready it for publication.  The Last Hours of a Love Affair has purportedly been written by a now-deceased pizza chef from Crozon, named Henri Pick.  The book, of course, becomes a sensation.  The delighted audience, however, soon wonders how such a man could have written such a magnificent book, and suspect a hoax.  In steps journalist Jean-Michel Rouche, who is determined to investigate the mystery.

Some of the other manuscripts housed in the library sound fascinating, and were they real, they would be added straight onto my to-read list.  These include a ‘cookery book compiling every meal eaten in Dostoevsky’s novels’.  An erotic guide to raw fish, entitled Masturbation and Sushi, not so much.

There is a lot of depth here, particularly with regard to the relationships between characters, and to the keeping of secrets.  Foenkinos gives rather thorough backstories to each of these characters, and these are just as detailed as those in the present day.  Even in translation, The Mystery of Henri Pick feels stylistically very French, and has the same delightful feel to it as novels by Muriel Barbery, and A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé.  It is not as quirky as some French novels which I have read of late, but it is thoroughly engrossing from beginning to end, and every element within it has been so well handled.  The translation feels seamless.

The Mystery of Henri Pick, which was first published in its original French in 2016, and in English in 2020, is a novel well worth picking up.  It has humour and tenderness in abundance, and muses constantly about the power which books have in our lives.  Foenkinos makes use of short chapters and sections to follow different characters, all of whom eventually intersect.  The author is sensitive and understanding of his cast, all of whom are going through different things, some of which are tumultuous.  The Mystery of Henri Pick is easy to read, and highly memorable; I, for one, am still thinking about it weeks after finishing the book.

4

‘Agatha’ by Anne Cathrine Bomann ***

I had not heard of Danish author Anne Cathrine Bomann’s debut novel, Agatha, before spotting it in my local library.  Bomann’s 2017 novel became an international bestseller by word of mouth, and has been translated into over twenty languages to date.  Its English translation has been nicely handled by Caroline Waight.

50774470._sx318_sy475_Set in Paris during the 1940s, Agatha focuses upon a crotchety unnamed psychiatrist and one of his patients.  The psychiatrist is counting down the days until his retirement, quite literally marking the hours of consultations off from one day to the next: ‘Retiring at seventy-two meant that there were five months still to work.  Twenty-two weeks in total, and if all my patients came that meant I had exactly eight hundred sessions to go.  If somebody cancelled or fell ill, the number would of course be fewer.  There was a certain comfort in that, in spite of everything.’  He laments being old, and the myriad ways in which his body has altered: ‘And just as the record came to an end and the silence left me alone in the front room, came the fatal blow: there was no way out.  I had to live in this traitorous grey prison until it killed me.’

Throughout, he continues to reflect on the following, the fear which he feels in finishing work and being at a loose end: ‘Imagine if it turned out life outside these walls was just as pointless as life inside…  It occurred to me that I’d been imagining my proper life, my reward for all the grind, was waiting for me when I retired.  Yet, as I sat there, I couldn’t for the life of me work out what that existence would contain that was worth looking forward to.  Surely the only things I could reliably expect were fear and loneliness?’

His plans to wind down, however, are disrupted when a woman named Agatha Zimmermann, who has a history of rather severe mental illness, walks into his practice and demands to be seen.  Agatha is a young German woman, who has suffered from ‘severe mania after a suicide attempt a few years ago.’  She is striking to the psychiatrist; he notes that ‘Her brown eyes shone fever-bright and her gaze was so intense it felt as though she’d grabbed my arms.’

There is a moral element at play in the story.  Bomann has focused upon the ways in which the psychiatrist and Agatha help one another – the psychiatrist in terms of alleviating Agatha’s symptoms, and Agatha with regard to helping him out of his shell.  Until he met her, he kept a distance from everyone, choosing to have no friends, and to live entirely alone.

I did like the focus upon the psychiatrist, and his own foibles and problems, here.  As novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan writes, ‘it is with pleasure that we find ourselves analysing the psychiatrist rather than his patient.’ One gets the impression, from very early on, that the psychiatrist, who has been practicing for almost fifty years, has no passion whatsoever for his profession, or for his patients.  In his rather grumpy, almost offhand narrative, he tells us: ‘Many years’ training helped me to murmur in the right places without actually listening, and if I was lucky I wouldn’t have registered one single word by the time she left the room.’

I also enjoyed the structure of the novel, split as it is into very slim chapters.  The narrative is interspersed with Agatha’s patient records, a simple yet effective tool.  Agatha is a novella, really, standing at just under 150 pages.  This length does lend itself well to the story;  the compactness of the book, and what has been left unsaid, perhaps makes one consider more about Agatha than they might otherwise.

I was relatively interested in the characters, but for me, what let the book down was the sheer lack of setting.  We are told in the book’s blurb that it is set in Paris during the 1940s, but this does not come across at all in the prose.  There are very few descriptions of the world beyond the psychiatrist’s office, and no mention whatsoever of the Second World War, or the Occupation of Paris; to me, these are major historical events which should at least be touched upon, or mentioned.  The novel feels rather ‘everyman’; it could, really, be set in any historical period, or any place, as there is so little detail within it that is not focused upon its characters.  There is, consequently, very little atmosphere to be found within Agatha.  For me, this let the whole down somewhat, as did the way in which the book felt far more modern to me than it should have.  I would have liked Agatha to be better rooted in history.

Agatha is certainly readable, and I flew through it, reading it in just a couple of hours.  The story is quite a heartwarming one, and there is much reflection as to how each protagonist changes over time.  At times, though, the prose is a little light.  Agatha is sweet enough, but since finishing the book, I do not feel like I have taken a great deal from it.  It lacked a little substance for me as a reader.