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‘Winter Flowers’ by Angélique Villeneuve ****

Peirene Press has been one of my favourite publishing houses since its inception, and whilst I sadly don’t manage to catch all of their new releases any more, I still very much look forward to reading them at some point. I particularly love the French literature which they have translated and published for the first time to an English-speaking audience, and was thus eager to get my hands on a copy of Angélique Villeneuve’s Winter Flowers.

Translated by Adriana Hunter, Winter Flowers begins in the October of 1918, when the First World War has almost reached its end. Toussaint Caillet is returning home to his small apartment in Paris, to his wife, Jeanne, and young daughter, Léonie, who does not know him. He has been recovering at the Val-de-Grâce Military Hospital for many months, following a traumatic facial injury. For Jeanne, left alone for so long, Toussaint’s return ‘marks the beginning of a new battle: with the promise of peace now in sight, the family must try to stitch together a new life from the tatters of what they once had.’

Jeanne is a ‘flower-maker’, often working for hours after dark to create exquisite flowers from nasty chemicals. Her position is an incredibly difficult one; along with her poorly paid employment, she has to ensure that Léonie is fed, and is taken to school, as well as the usual chores to keep the apartment running. The pair are at the mercy of others who live in their poorly heated building: ‘The room is filled with flickering lamplight that seems to mirror Léo’s never-ending sing-song, and the smell of boiled and reboiled stew slowly rises, catching at Jeanne’s nostrils and numbing her fingers.’

When Toussaint returns home, without warning, Jeanne knows at once that he is a changed man. He is wearing a magnetic plate over his facial injury, which he never removes. He sits ‘utterly still. After the warped wooden stairs, it’s now his whole body, his nocturnal presence, that creaks as he grimaces in a silence streaked with blue light.’ Villeneuve captures the couple’s reunion with such a depth of emotion, describing it thus: ‘At first Jeanne stays rooted to her chair, entirely consumed with watching him and avoiding him. She knows what she should see, though, where she should look, but it bounces about, slips away from her. What she does grasp is that he’s taller, and handsome in his uniform, and unfamiliar too.’

Jeanne has a wealth of varying emotions, some of them conflicting. She feels lonelier when Toussaint returns than she did when he was away. Part of her feels as though he is interrupting her quiet existence with Léonie, altering the relationship between mother and daughter. Toussaint is always present, always the observer: ‘And if the man ever keeps his eyes open, he’s busy watching them from afar, her or Léo… This daughter he hasn’t seen grow up, he watches her too, with miraculous, disturbing patience… Toussaint is always there, watching or sleeping.’ The lines of communication within the family are stretched and strained; Toussaint is ‘… just there, shut down, shut away.’

Villeneuve captures a great deal in her prose. On the very first page, for instance, she writes: ‘Jeanne’s hands are dulled with work, her back is stiff. And as she closes her eyes, and relaxes her head and shoulders, all her in-held breath comes out at once in a hoarse cry that would leave anyone who heard it struggling to say whether it expressed pleasure or pain.’ I enjoyed the philosophical element which sometimes creeps into the prose; for instance: ‘What exactly was a war? An enormous grey mass, intangible and impossible. Incomprehensible.’

This novella is set during the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic. I always find this a strange parallel at present, to read about an awful, deadly disease of the past, whilst the world of the present suffers through the same thing. There is, of course, a lot of trauma here; not just from the First World War, and all of those around them who have been lost, but also the fallout from the pandemic. Villeneuve masterfully captures everything. She makes excellent use of period detail, and pays attention to everything. Movement and emotion have also been wonderfully portrayed throughout. There is tenderness and empathy within Winter Flowers, balanced with the realism of the couple’s relationship, Léonie’s jealousy at having to share her mother, and the still raging war. As Villeneuve writes: ‘The war can strike in other ways. The war can rob people of speech.’

Villeneuve is the author of eight books to date, and Winter Flowers is the first to be translated into English. This novel is beautiful, contemplative, and heartachingly tender, and demonstrates throughout the fragility of life. I savoured every single word. Winter Flowers has very deservedly won four literary prizes in France since its publication in 2014. I have a feeling that there will be many more treats in store with Villeneuve’s books, and can only hope that they are translated into English, and soon.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray’ by Dominique Barbéris ****

For me, Daunt Books are an incredibly exciting publisher. Not only are they bringing out themed anthologies with commissioned content from contemporary authors both well-known and new to me, they are also making a concerted effort to translate works from other countries. Any reader of my reviews will know that I am an enormous fan of French literature, and so Daunt’s release of Dominique Barbéris’ A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray was a title which immediately made its way onto my must-read list.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray was longlisted for the Prix Goncourt, and shortlisted for the Prix Femina, both incredibly prestigious awards in the author’s native France. This edition has been translated into English by John Cullen. Although Barbéris is a prolific author, this novella is the only one of her books currently available in English.

The novel begins on a Sunday in early September, ‘one of those days thar cross the border between summer and autumn’. Our protagonist, high school teacher Jane, is leaving her home in Paris in order to visit her sister, Claire Marie, in the western suburbs of the city, a place called Ville-d’Avray. Although it is less than an hour away from the centre, our narrator tells us that it ‘seems like another world, with its secluded streets and set-back houses.’ Claire Marie lives in: ‘One of these streets that climb the hills near the Parc de Saint-Cloud’.

The sisters do not see one another often, and Jane rarely visits. In fact, the sisters have not spoken for an entire year before Jane’s unexpected visit. Jane’s partner professes that he finds her sister ‘boring’; she tells us, though, that ‘it would be more accurate to say that he’s suspicious of her’. For Claire Marie, Sundays are a sacred time, where she can devote hours to thinking about life, and ‘whether she expected something more from it, and whether she is still waiting for it to begin.’

Interspersed with the present-day narrative are sections where Jane thinks about Sundays which she spent during her childhood in Brussels. On Sundays, ‘Night fell faster than it did on the other days of the week’, and her mother was perpetually worked up about having to run the household: ‘… she’d say that Sundays were unbearable, and that her life was a failure.’ During this particular visit, Claire Marie is also thinking about the past; she reveals to Jane an ‘encounter’ which she had several years before, with one of her doctor husband’s patients. This could have changed the entire course of her life, and she continually wonders what would have happened if she had chosen this other, different path. She muses: ‘“On Sundays – don’t you think? – certain things come back to you more than on other days.”’

The sisters are both unhappy with aspects of their lives, and are visibly uncomfortable around one another. Jane reveals to us: ‘As I waited in the garden, I also had a familiar with indefinable feeling, slightly heavy, like a mild illness. Ville-d’Avray is just a few minutes from Paris, but you’d think you were hundreds of kilometres away. That, no doubt, explains how a man like [her partner] Luc can be incapable of comprehending the universe my sister lives in.’ She tells us that she was ‘in the melancholy state of mind that often comes over me when I go to see my sister…’.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is constructed of a series of short vignettes which move back and forth in time. This is something which I love in fiction, and I felt that Barbéris controlled the technique incredibly well. The narrative, despite flipping back and forth somewhat between time periods, never feels confusing, or disjointed. The visceral descriptions throughout were also most enjoyable to read. Jane reflects: ‘I could practically see my sister stalling with her stranger in a setting composed of reflections, of beautiful trees, of leaves speckled with tiny light-coloured patches, like eye floaters, as if the blurriness of dreams interposed itself between the image and the beholder…’. Throughout, I also really liked the way in which our narrator described the physical being of her sister, and revealed snippets about their relationship.

There is something rather creepy which settles throughout this novella. When we learn about the stranger with whom Claire Marie had her ‘encounter’, we are led to put our guard up against him straight away. I think that this element of mystery fitted in well with the narrative, and I could not put the book down. A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is a striking book, which builds wonderfully to its conclusion.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘The Country of Others’ by Leïla Slimani ***

There was so much hype around about Moroccan author Leïla Slimani’s novel, Lullaby (also published as The Perfect Nanny) when it was first translated into English. However, I have not seen much written about the books which followed in translation. I very much enjoyed Adèle, which has a similar tone to Lullaby in its dark, psychological storyline, but The Country of Others seemed quite a departure.

The novel, which has been translated from the French by Sam Taylor, has been called ‘richly layered and deceptively simple’ by Claire Messud, and ‘exceptional’ by Salman Rushdie. It is a work of historical fiction, and begins in the Alsace region in 1944. Mathilde, our protagonist, finds herself falling in love with a Moroccan soldier named Amine Belhaj, who has been billeted in her small town whilst fighting for the French. Following the liberation, Mathilde follows her new husband to Morocco in 1946, where life is quickly ‘unrecognisable to this brave and passionate young woman’.

As soon as she arrives at the Belhaj family’s house, in the early stages of pregnancy, her life is beset with issues: ‘It was at that precise instant that she understood she was a foreigner, a woman, a wife, a being at the mercy of others. Amine was on home soil here: he was the one who explained the rules, who decided the path they would follow, who traced the borders of modesty, shame and decorum.’

Under the threat of violence amidst Morocco’s struggle for independence, Mathilde and Amine refuse to take sides. This causes the family to be ‘at odds with their own desire for freedom’. When they move to the family farm after the current tenant has finally moved out, she feels immediately isolated, and finds it difficult to cope with the heat, her loneliness, the suspicions which many hold against her, and the family’s lack of money. Despite this, Mathilde does grow to love her surroundings. Slimani writes: ‘Everything in this landscape was unexpected, different from what she had known before. She would have needed new words, a whole vocabulary freed of the past, to express her feelings, the light so bright that you lived life through squinting eyes, to describe the awe she felt day after day, when faced with so much mystery, so much beauty.’

Regardless, Mathilde is always aware of, and is made aware of, her differences: ‘She wished she could observe this beautiful world from afar, that she could be invisible. Her height, her whiteness, her status as a foreign woman all combined to keep her at a distance from the heart of things, from the silence that lets you know you are home.’ She is also made to feel inferior in her marriage, as Amine grows increasingly violent toward her: ‘There was something crazed about him, his eyes bloodshot and bulging from their sockets. He obviously wanted to tell her something, but all he could do was wave his arms strangely, as though throwing a ball or preparing to stab someone to death.’

As tensions grow around Mathilde, she resorts to wearing a djellaba and headscarf to hide her identity, and to blend in with the Moroccan women around her. Slimani writes: ‘Eyes lowered and veil raised over her mouth again, she felt herself disappear and she didn’t really know what to think about this. The anonymity protected her, even thrilled her, but she felt as if she were advancing into a dark pit, losing more of her name and identity with each step, as if by masking her face she was also masking some essential part of herself. She was becoming a shadow, a nameless, genderless, ageless being.’ This was an interesting exploration of identity, but it did not go anywhere near far enough, and was not mentioned again in the novel.

As time moves forward, attention is given to Mathilde and Amine’s daughter, Aïcha, who was ‘afraid of everything. Of the owl in the avocado tree, whose presence, according to the laborers, foretold death… Most of all, Aïcha was afraid of the dark. Of the deep, dense, infinite dark that surrounded her parents’ farm… The blackness swallowed up everything.’ She has few friends, and spends much of her time alone.

Slimani has definitely included a lot of detail in The Country of Others, but I never felt as though I connected with the story. I did not get to know the characters as much as I would have expected, and those around Mathilde felt almost like caricatures. The novel held my interest in some places, largely with regard to the social context, but not at all in others. The commentary on Morocco’s role in the Second World War was rather well done, but Slimani’s writing style in these sections did not gel as well with the fictional part of the story as I was expecting. Even the more dramatic moments for the family which occur fell a little flat, and pale alongside the factual elements.

The Country of Others is intended to be the first of a trilogy. Whilst I enjoyed learning a little more about Morocco as I read, for me, the story just did not hold enough interest for me to contemplate reading further. I found that the omniscient perspective, which has been used throughout, made everything feel too detached. I did not feel that The Country of Others was particularly compelling, and whilst I found it interesting to see how Slimani handled the genre of historical fiction, I think her strength lies within darker thrillers, and more contemporary settings.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘David Golder’ by Irène Némirovsky ****

Anyone who has been following my reviews for a while will know how much I adore French author Irène Némirovsky, who was tragically murdered at Auschwitz in August 1942. I have been trying to make my way through her works in translation in recent years, but have slowed this project down dramatically, as I know I only have a couple of tomes left to pick up which I can experience for the first time.

David Golder was a novella which I had outstanding, and my library kindly purchased a copy on my behalf. This, Némirovsky’s second book, was first published in French in 1929, when the author was just twenty-six. In 1930, the New York Times wrote that David Golder was ‘the work of a woman who has the strength of one of the masters like Balzac or Dostoyevsky.’

The book’s blurb describes this as an ‘astonishingly mature story of an elderly Jewish businessman who has sold his soul’. Born into poverty, by the 1920s, Golder has managed to catapult himself ‘to fabulous wealth by speculating on gold and oil’. At the outset of the book, Golder is in his enormous Parisian apartment, filled with treasures, whilst his wife and spoilt only daughter, Joyce, are ploughing through his money at their villa in Biarritz. Nothing is quite as it seems, though. Golder’s wealth is volatile, and his health precarious. The intriguing blurb goes on to say: ‘As his body betrays him, so too do his wife and child, leaving him to decide which to pursue: revenge or altruism?’

Golder’s trajectory is, of course, disrupted by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the chaos which consequently ensued all over the world. His wealth is lost almost overnight, and he is forced to make some difficult decisions. At the point at which his health really deteriorates, we realise quite how selfish and awful his wife and daughter are; they talk only about the money they feel they are entitled to, and care nothing about Golder as an individual.

When we first meet Golder, he is described as ‘an enormous man in his late sixties. He had flabby arms and legs, piercing eyes the colour of water, thick white hair and a ravaged face so hard it looked as if it had been hewn from stone by a rough, clumsy hand.’ At this point in the narrative, he has just broken off the relationship with his business partner, who goes on to commit suicide. Whilst at his funeral, Némirovsky describes Golder’s almost entire lack of sympathy, or compassion, for a man with whom he had spent so much time: ‘It was stupid, just stupid… Yesterday Marcus was sitting opposite him, shouting, alive, and now… No one even used his name anymore… “Why did he do it?” he muttered to himself in disgust, “Why kill yourself at his age, over money, like some little nobody…” How many times had he lost everything, and like everyone else just picked himself up and started again? That was how it was.’

I am always, without fail, struck by the realism in Némirovsky’s work. She successfully probes the pressure which comes with wealth, and with keeping up appearances. Golder is constantly lamenting the position in which he finds himself, where so many people expect things from him that he is not always willing to give. He is continually haunted by his loneliness. She writes: ‘How expensive this idiotic lifestyle was! His wife, his daughter, the houses in Biarritz and Paris… In Paris alone he was paying sixty thousand francs in rent, taxes. The furniture had cost more than a million when he’d bought it. For whom? No one lived there. Closed shutters, dust?’

Golder is not at all a likeable character – he is a wealthy capitalist, with many of the clichéd characteristics of such men – but by giving us an insight into his life and thoughts, Némirovsky does something quite remarkable. There are snippets throughout of how mercenary and unhappy Golder’s personal life is: ‘He pictured his own wife quickly hiding her chequebook whenever he came into the room, as if it were a packet of love letters’, for instance. He craves a good relationship with his eighteen-year-old daughter, completely in vain: ‘Every time he came back from a trip, he looked for her in the crowd, in spite of himself. She was never there, and yet he continued to expect her with the same humiliating, tenacious and vain sense of hope.’ His wife and daughter are arguably much worse than he is, and have not been given much humanity; they are truly odious, concerned only with gross wealth and their outside appearances. His wife Gloria, for example, had ‘an aging face so covered in make-up that it looked like an enamelled plate’, and insists on buying very expensive jewellery which she then laments is still not as good as her neighbour’s.

Sandra Smith’s translation is, as always, flawless. I also very much enjoyed reading Patrick Marnham’s introduction to the volume. He writes that after the novella was published by the leading French house, Grasset, it ‘impressed critics’ greatly, and catapulted the author to fame. Translations soon followed, and the story was subsequently turned into both film and play.

Marnham gives good biographical background about Némirovsky, and the autobiographical details which she has woven into David Golder. Born in Kiev to a rich, self-made banker father, she had to watch as her family lost all of their wealth, and were forced into hiding following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The family finally settled in Paris, where her father, Léon, managed to rebuild their fortune – by accepting the position of manager in a branch of the bank which he used to own.

Much of David Golder, indeed, is a consequence of Némirovsky’s firsthand experience. Markham comments that this ‘enabled her to draw such a vivid picture of the extremes to which men like Golder could be driven in order to escape their roots.’ He goes on: ‘Golder now lives in what seems to be an enviable world, a world of large apartments, spacious villas, sumptuous women and fast cars, where he is feared and obeyed. But it is an empty place. In this society of rootless exiles, money transcends all personal values and becomes the measure of everything – love, strength and self-esteem.’ He then compares David Golder to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, suggesting that Némirovsky rewrote the play by ‘showing us the vulnerability behind Golder’s mask, [and] the humanity of a powerful Jewish villain’.

Némirovsky is an incredibly astute author, and David Golder is another highly evocative and atmospheric work in her oeuvre. The narrative has been so finely tuned, and already shows a great deal of the carefully considered characters, and thoughtful storylines of her later work. There is such attention to detail here, and I found Golder’s story so compelling. Némirovsky is highly insightful about his relationships with those around him, most of which are fraught, and filled with tension. The family dynamic portrayed is fascinatingly chaotic and turbulent. Every single character in David Golder is thoroughly unlikeable, but I felt a really compulsive need to read about them. There is immense depth to be found in this novella, and quite masterful storytelling, too.

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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.

3

‘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.

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.