1

‘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.

4

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.

4

‘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.

1

‘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.

6

Historical Fiction: France

Aside from Great Britain, where I live, I have spent most time in France.  I adore the country, and have visited every year – often multiple times – since I was a child.  I am very drawn to fiction set in France, and find its historical fiction particularly rich, due to the country’s fascinating and tumultuous past.  With this in mind, I thought I would create a list of eight historical fiction books set in France which I can’t wait to read.

 

1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas 7126
‘In 1815 Edmond Dantès, a young and successful merchant sailor who has just recently been granted the succession of his erstwhile captain Leclère, returns to Marseille to marry his Catalan fiancée Mercédès. Thrown in prison for a crime he has not committed, Edmond Dantès is confined to the grim fortress of If. There he learns of a great hoard of treasure hidden on the Isle of Monte Cristo and he becomes determined not only to escape, but also to unearth the treasure and use it to plot the destruction of the three men responsible for his incarceration.’

 

181439772. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
‘From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.  Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.  In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.’

 

3. The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg 22716467
‘A passionate and powerful novel based on the scandalous life of the French novelist George Sand, her famous lovers, untraditional Parisian lifestyle, and bestselling novels in Paris during the 1830s and 40s. This major departure for bestseller Berg is for readers of Nancy Horan and Elizabeth Gilbert.  George Sand was a 19th century French novelist known not only for her novels but even more for her scandalous behavior. After leaving her estranged husband, Sand moved to Paris where she wrote, wore men’s clothing, smoked cigars, and had love affairs with famous men and an actress named Marie. In an era of incredible artistic talent, Sand was the most famous female writer of her time. Her lovers and friends included Frederic Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and more. In a major departure, Elizabeth Berg has created a gorgeous novel about the life of George Sand, written in luminous prose, with exquisite insight into the heart and mind of a woman who was considered the most passionate and gifted genius of her time.’

 

146624. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
‘Handsome, ambitious Julien Sorel is determined to rise above his humble provincial origins. Soon realizing that success can only be achieved by adopting the subtle code of hypocrisy by which society operates, he begins to achieve advancement through deceit and self-interest. His triumphant career takes him into the heart of glamorous Parisian society, along the way conquering the gentle, married Madame de Rênal, and the haughty Mathilde. But then Julien commits an unexpected, devastating crime – and brings about his own downfall. The Red and the Black is a lively, satirical portrayal of French society after Waterloo, riddled with corruption, greed, and ennui, and Julien – the cold exploiter whose Machiavellian campaign is undercut by his own emotions – is one of the most intriguing characters in European literature.’

 

5. In a Dark Wood Wandering: A Novel of the Middle Ages by Hella S. Haasse 123091
‘This novel exemplifies historical fiction at its best; the author’s meticulous research and polished style bring the medieval world into vibrant focus. Set during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the narrative creates believable human beings from the great roll of historical figures. Here are the mad Charles VI, the brilliant Louis d’Orleans, Joan of Arc, Henry V, and, most importantly, Charles d’Orleans, whose loyalty to France brought him decades of captivity in England. A natural poet and scholar, his birth and rank thrust him into the center of intrigue and strife, and through his observant eyes readers enter fully into his colorful, dangerous times. First published in the Netherlands in 1949, this book has never been out of print there and has been reprinted 15 times. ‘This novel exemplifies historical fiction at its best; the author’s meticulous research and polished style bring the medieval world into vibrant focus. Set during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the narrative creates believable human beings from the great roll of historical figures. Here are the mad Charles VI, the brilliant Louis d’Orleans, Joan of Arc, Henry V, and, most importantly, Charles d’Orleans, whose loyalty to France brought him decades of captivity in England. A natural poet and scholar, his birth and rank thrust him into the center of intrigue and strife, and through his observant eyes readers enter fully into his colorful, dangerous times. First published in the Netherlands in 1949, this book has never been out of print there and has been reprinted 15 times.’

 

980496. Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland
‘Bestselling author Susan Vreeland returns with a vivid exploration of one of the most beloved Renoir paintings in the world.  Instantly recognizable, Auguste Renoir’s masterpiece depicts a gathering of his real friends enjoying a summer Sunday on a café terrace along the Seine near Paris. A wealthy painter, an art collector, an Italian journalist, a war hero, a celebrated actress, and Renoir’s future wife, among others, share this moment of la vie moderne, a time when social constraints were loosening and Paris was healing after the Franco-Prussian War. Parisians were bursting with a desire for pleasure and a yearning to create something extraordinary out of life. Renoir shared these urges and took on this most challenging project at a time of personal crises in art and love, all the while facing issues of loyalty and the diverging styles that were tearing apart the Impressionist group. Narrated by Renoir and seven of the models and using settings in Paris and on the Seine, Vreeland illuminates the gusto, hedonism, and art of the era. With a gorgeous palette of vibrant, captivating characters, she paints their lives, loves, losses, and triumphs in a brilliant portrait of her own.’

 

7. Paris: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd 18730321
‘From Edward Rutherfurd, the grand master of the historical novel, comes a dazzling epic about the magnificent city of Paris. Moving back and forth in time, the story unfolds through intimate and thrilling tales of self-discovery, divided loyalty, and long-kept secrets. As various characters come of age, seek their fortunes, and fall in and out of love, the novel follows nobles who claim descent from the hero of the celebrated poem The Song of Roland; a humble family that embodies the ideals of the French Revolution; a pair of brothers from the slums behind Montmartre, one of whom works on the Eiffel Tower as the other joins the underworld near the Moulin Rouge; and merchants who lose everything during the reign of Louis XV, rise again in the age of Napoleon, and help establish Paris as the great center of art and culture that it is today. With Rutherfurd’s unrivaled blend of impeccable research and narrative verve, this bold novel brings the sights, scents, and tastes of the City of Light to brilliant life.’

 

305978. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
‘This extraordinary historical novel, set in Medieval Paris under the twin towers of its greatest structure and supreme symbol, the cathedral of Notre-Dame, is the haunting drama of Quasimodo, the hunchback; Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer; and Claude Frollo, the priest tortured by the specter of his own damnation. Shaped by a profound sense of tragic irony, it is a work that gives full play to Victor Hugo’s brilliant historical imagination and his remarkable powers of description.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourite novels set in France, historical or otherwise?

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2

‘Jezebel’ by Irène Némirovsky *****

Irène Némirovsky has long been a favourite author of mine.  Sadly, I am now coming to the stage in my reading of her oeuvre where I have only a handful of books outstanding.  I have been trying to ration myself by not buying and consuming them immediately, but sometimes hers is the only writing I feel like reading.  It was at one of these points that I purchased a copy of Jezebel, first published in 1940, and translated from its original French by Sandra Smith in 2010.

51i1txvvrml._sx324_bo1204203200_Jezebel focuses on the trial of a woman, Gladys Eysenach, in a French courtroom.  She is ‘no longer young, but she is still beautiful, elegant, cold.’  She is on trial for the murder of her lover, twenty-year-old Bernard Martin, a man far younger than she, who was killed in December 1934.  As the case begins to unfold, Gladys reflects on her life, which culminates in the ‘final irrevocable act.’  This novel, says its blurb, is suffused with ‘the depth of insight and pitiless compassion we have come to expect…  Némirovsky shows us the soul of a desperate woman obsessed with her lost youth.’

Translator Sandra Smith contributes a short introduction to the volume.  She says: ‘”Jezebel”… the very name immediately conjures up a host of impressions, all negative: seductress, traitor, whore.’  She then goes on to write about Gladys as a protagonist, and the way in which she worships her own beauty: ‘To her, beauty is power; it defines her life and her worth.  As Gladys ages and her fears turn to obsessions, Némirovsky explores the fine balance between victim and criminal, and the reader is torn between sympathy and horror.’

We first meet Gladys when she is on the stand during her trial.  We are therefore launched immediately into the story.  She admits, very early on, to shooting Bernard, as she feared that he was going to reveal their relationship to her other, more official lover, Count Monti.  The initial description given of her is as follows: ‘She was still beautiful, despite her paleness and her drained, distraught appearance.  Her sensual eyelashes were pale from crying and her mouth drooped, yet she still looked young.’  We learn that she is a woman of immense wealth, who has travelled extensively, and made her home in many countries.  She is widowed, and lost her only child during the First World War.

From the outset, Némirovsky captures Gladys’ fear and uncertainty of her situation: ‘The defendant slowly clasped her trembling hands together; her nails dug deep into her pale skin; her colourless lips opened slightly, with difficulty, but she uttered not a word, not a sound.’  Those in the public gallery ‘examined the trembling, pale, haggard face of the accused, like people looking at a wild animal, imprisoned behind the bars of its cage: savage but confined, its teeth and nails pulled out, panting, half-dead…’.  In the trial, ‘only the accused woman was exciting; the victim was no more than a vague ghost.’

We learn a great deal about Gladys not from her own account, but through the testimonies of others.  One of her friends, Jeannine Percier, for instance, tells the court: ‘I’m only telling you what everyone knows.  Gladys was excessively flirtatious.  She enjoyed nothing more than compliments, adoration, but that’s not a crime.’  Jeannine goes on to remark: ‘It always seemed to me that there was something deeply tragic within Gladys.’

There is such gorgeous prose within the novel.  When we are taken back to Gladys’ early adulthood, Némirovsky recounts a sumptuous ball which she attends.  Here, Gladys ‘knew that she would never ever forget that scent of roses in the warm ballroom, the feel of the night breeze on her shoulders, the brilliant lights, the waltz that lingered in her ears.  She was so very happy.  No, not happy, not yet, but it was the expectation of happiness, the heavenly desire and passionate thirst for happiness, that filled her heart.’ At this point for Gladys, ‘Everything was bewitching; everything looked beautiful to her, rare and enchanting; life took on a new flavour she had never tasted before: it was bittersweet.’

As she moves into adulthood, we learn a lot about her relationships with various husbands and lovers, as well as the unsettling way in which she and her young daughter, Thérèse, interacted: ‘She lived in the shadow of her beautiful mother and, like everyone else who knew Gladys, she strove only to please her, to serve her, to love her.’  She goes as far as pretending her daughter is far younger than she is, so that nobody can consider her old.

Gladys’ vanity is at the forefront of her mind at all times; her first act each morning is to reach for a mirror and study her face.  She sees the world as her playground, and the men within it hers to do with as she pleases.  Whilst her wealth allows her to be a lady of leisure, Gladys is not as content with this as one might expect: ‘She would visit one friend after another.  With them, time would pass more quickly, but eventually she had to go home and still it was daytime.  There was nothing left to do but buy a dress and visit the jewellers…  Finally, night would come and she would feel as if she had been reborn.  She would go home to Sans-Souci, get dressed, admire how she looked.  How she loved doing that.  Was there anything better in life, was there anything more sensual than being attractive?’

Jezebel is a rich and fascinating psychological study, taut and tightly written.  Némirovsky achieves a great deal in less than 200 pages.  She demonstrates such depth, and one of the real strengths in this novel is the way in which the conversations between characters feel so realistic.  The novel is atmospheric from beginning to end, with striking scenes, and flesh-and-blood characters.  Jezebel is richly evocative, as all of Némirovsky’s books are.  Gladys’ story has been vividly realised.  She is not at all a likeable character, but the astute and perceptive insights which Némirovsky gives into her imagined life are fascinating.  One cannot help but feel sorry for her at points, particularly when the extent to which her own self-absorption has harmed her is revealed.  Jezebel is a captivating novel, which has a rather sad quality to it, and it offers far more in terms of plot than I was expecting.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Fires of Autumn’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

First published in 2014.

The Fires of Autumn is essentially the prequel to Nemirovsky’s most famous work, Suite Francaise.  The novel sets the historical and political scene which Suite Francaise then builds upon. The Fires of Autumn was completed in 1942, and was published posthumously in 1957, after Nemirovsky’s death in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Fires of Autumn, the eleventh novel of Nemirovsky’s to be translated into English, is split into three separate parts, covering the period between 1912 and 1941, and following the Brun family, ‘Parisians of some small private means’.  The opening scene uses a meal eaten by the whole family as its backdrop – a simple technique, but a wonderful way in which to introduce multiple characters.

9780099520368As with her other fiction, Nemirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful.  Madame Pain, the elderly mother-in-law of patriarch Adolphe Brun, has ‘hair that looked like sea foam’, and a voice ‘as sonorous and sweet as a song’.  Each member of the family is constructed of different characteristics – for instance, twenty seven-year-old Martial is ‘overly modest’ and focuses almost solely upon his studies and marrying his young cousin Therese, two of the mothers touched upon are either anxious or ambitious, and young Bernard is a dreamer, forever envisioning his future.  When viewed as a familial unit, the Bruns feel realistic.  Generationally, The Fires of Autumn is interesting too; each character is at a slightly different point in his or her life.

The view of Paris and her suburbs is built up over time, and Nemirovsky uses all of the senses to ensure that it stands vividly in the mind of her readers.  Her use of light and darkness illuminate each scene: ‘Even this dark little recess was filled with a golden mist: the sun lit up the dust particles, the kind you get in Paris in the spring, that joyful season dust that seems to be made of face powder and pollen from flowers’.  Nemirovsky’s inclusion of social and political material ensures that The Fires of Autumn is historically grounded.  Spanning such a long period also works in the novel’s favour.

As with many of Nemirovsky’s novels, The Fires of Autumn has been translated by Sandra Smith, who has such control over the original material and renders it into a perfectly fluid and beautiful piece.  She is the author of the book’s introduction too, and believes that it offers ‘a panoramic exploration of French life’.  Indeed, The Fires of Autumn is a beautiful piece of writing, which encompasses many different themes and marvellously demonstrates the way in which Paris altered over several decades, and how this drastic change affected families just like the Bruns.

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‘Disquiet’ by Julia Leigh ****

My first taste of Australian author Julia Leigh’s work was with the novella Disquiet.  It sounded wonderfully Gothic, and has been lauded by the likes of Toni Morrison, who calls its author a ‘sorceress’, and goes on to proclaim: ‘Her deft prose casts a spell of serene control while the earth quakes underfoot.’  Leigh has been compared to the likes of both Ian McEwan and J.M. Coetzee; indeed, Coetzee himself praises the film-like quality which almost every scene that Leigh creates has.  Leigh was also included as one of the ‘twenty-one writers to watch in the twenty-first century’ on a list created by the Observer.  The blurb of Disquiet, which was first published in 2008, describes it as ‘a haunting, mesmerising tale of a family in extremis’ – just the kind of story I love. 9780571238972

The protagonist of Disquiet is a woman named Olivia.  At the outset of the novella, she arrives at her mother’s chateau in rural France, along with her two children, Andrew and Lucy.  She has told nobody that she is coming, and is escaping an abusive marriage in Australia, where she and her children live.  Also at the house, arriving just after Olivia, is her brother Marcus and his wife Sophie, who has just given birth to a stillborn baby girl, Alice.  Sophie particularly is ‘struggling to overcome her devastation’, and has brought Alice with her, swaddled with a blanket, to stay in the house until she can bear to let go: ‘Sophie, in a new dress and neatly made up, had brought along the bundle and was cuddling it in the nook of her arm.  She still wore her hospital ID bracelet as if at any minute something could go horribly wrong.’

From the outset, the family dynamics are odd, and offbeat.  Nobody seems quite comfortable with anyone else.  It is soon suggested that none of the family have met Andrew or Olivia before, but this element of the story is never fully explained, or even addressed.  Although their names are divulged at the beginning of the book, they are referred to as ‘the woman’, ‘the boy’, and ‘the girl’ throughout, whereas all of the other characters are only addressed by their given names.  Olivia’s husband is barely mentioned, but when he is, she calls him ‘the Murderer’, something which goes unexplained.

When we first meet Olivia, Leigh describes her thus: ‘The woman was dressed in a tweed pencil skirt, a grey silk blouse and her dark hair was pulled back into a loose chignon, the way her mother once used to wear it.  Her right arm was broken and she’d rested it in a silk-scarf sling which co-ordinated unobtrusively with her blouse.  By her feet, a suitcase.  The children – the boy was nine, the girl was six and carrying her favourite doll – were saddled with backpacks and they each guarded a small suitcase of their own.’  Leigh’s descriptions continue in this manner, at once revealing and prudent, sparse and multilayered.  When Olivia and the children reach the house, Leigh writes: ‘The stone stairs leading to the chateau were wide and shallow and worn like soap.  The woman took hold of the doorknocker – it was a large bronze ring running through the nose of a great bronze bull – and weighed it in her hand.  Knocked.’

In Disquiet, the French countryside is not glorified in any way; there is almost a sense of grittiness, of darkness to it.  It is described as both ’empty’ and ‘ugly’, which I found an odd contrast to the descriptions given of the grounds of Olivia’s mother’s house, which are lush and green.  There is a real sense of place revealed as the novella goes on; the house is old, cold, and imposing, rather like ‘Grandmother’ who inhabits it.  I particularly enjoyed Leigh’s portrayal of the house’s interior, and the way in which it often leads to exposing her characters.  When Olivia arrives and is shown upstairs, for example, Leigh writes: ‘Her room – was never her room.  It was another guest room, similarly furnished.  She drew the curtains and loosened her hair, freed her arm from its sling.  She undressed, dropping all her clothes in a pile on the floor.  Crawled onto the bed.  Lay belly down, face on the pillow.  There was a loop in time; she was already dead.  And then she must have sensed the children standing in the doorway for – with great effort, turning her head and opening one eye – she saw reflected in the mirror that, yes, the children had been spying, how long she could not be sure, but they had no doubt seen their mother lying on the bed, the white plain of her back covered in rotten yellowed bruises.’

A lot within Disquiet remains unsaid, and there are very few neat conclusions.  For me, this made for a far more interesting read than something which has been neatly tied up.  I liked the sense of ambiguity which Leigh has included.  The structure too, which tells the story in a series of short, interconnecting snatches of prose, worked well.  There is a lot of sadness present in this novella, as is perhaps understandable given that the only action in the story revolves around baby Alice’s funeral, but there are some glimpses of tender moments too.

There is an unsettling feeling which builds as the novel progresses, and I found this effective.  I love the power which shorter works can have, and Disquiet is certainly a novella which demonstrates both strength and control.  Depth and dark humour can be found throughout, and for me, the reading experience was certainly a disquieting one.

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