0

Reading the World: ‘Fire in the Blood’ by Irene Nemirovsky *****

Fire in the Blood by the inimitable Irene Nemirovsky is my first reread of my Reading the World project.  I adore what I have read of her work to date; it is both measured and incredibly beautiful.  Translated by Sandra Smith, as much of her work seems to be, Fire in the Blood is set in a rural village in the historical region of Burgundy, France – also the setting of the work which she is best known for, Suite Francaise.

Published posthumously in France in 2007, and in Britain a year later, Fire in the Blood was the second Nemirovsky which I read, whilst fittingly on holiday in the Dordogne.  The volume opens with a foreword by Olivier Philipponat and Patrick Lienhardt, who both wrote an insightful biography of the author, as well as discovering the full-length manuscript of Fire in the Blood amongst her effects.

9780099516095The novella – for a novella it is, really, running to just 158 pages in the pictured edition – tells of Sylvestre, known throughout as Silvio, ‘his cousin Helene, her second husband, Francoise [sic], and of the truths, deaths, marriages, children, houses and mills that bind them with love and hatred, deception and betrayal’.  As far as themes go within literature, this certainly covers a lot of bases!

From the outset, everything within the novella is so well evoked.  Nemirovsky opens up a vivid world gone by in the first few exquisitely measured sentences: ‘We were drinking a light punch, the kind we had when I was young, and all sitting around the fire, my Erard cousins, their children and I.  It was an autumn evening, the whole sky red above the sodden fields of turned earth.  The fiery sunset promised a strong wind the next day; the crows were cawing.  This large, icy house is full of draughts’.  Silvio then gives us crumbs of detail about himself; on the first page, he writes: ‘I am old, poor and unmarried, holed up in a farmer’s hovel in the middle of the woods’.

Unsurprisingly to anyone at all familiar with Nemirovsky’s work, the character descriptions within Fire In the Blood are excellently wrought.  Colette tells her Uncle Silvio: ‘But you look like a faun… with your wide forehead, turned-up nose, pointed ears and laughing eyes.  Sylvestre, creature of the woods.  That suits you very well…’.  Silvio’s further descriptions of his own person, too, are memorable and unflinchingly candid: ‘For I sometimes feel I’ve been rejected by life, as if washed ashore by the tide.  I’ve ended up on a lovely beach, an old boat, still solid and seaworthy, but whose paint has faded in the water, eaten away by salt’.

Nemirovsky’s use of the male perspective is realistic, and often quite profound.    Through Silvio, the reader is brought into the heart of a small and rural community as though a member him or herself: ‘… the people around here have a kind of genius for living in the most difficult way possible.  No matter how rich they are, they refuse pleasure, even happiness, with implacable determination, wary perhaps of its deceptive promise’.

Smith’s translation is faultless; there is a wonderful poetic fluidity to the piece from beginning to end.  Fire in the Blood is an incredibly human work, which has been exquisitely written.  Her descriptions are reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield’s in their vivid snapshots of beauty and clarity.  Like Mansfield’s, her work is almost entirely sensually appealing.  There is so much depth within this short, and perfectly crafted, novel.  For those unfamiliar with Nemirovsky’s work, Fire in the Blood is a great taster of her wonderful stylistic choices, and engrossing storylines.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘Reader for Hire’ by Raymond Jean ****

The French bestseller Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean has recently been published by Peirene Press, as part of their Chance Encounter series.  Published as La Lectrice in 1986, Reader for Hire has been translated by Adriana Hunter.  The blurb heralds it ‘a beautiful homage to the art of reading – light and funny.  A celebration of the union of sensuality and language’, and Cosmopolitan deems it ‘a book that will make you want to read more books’.

Marie-Constance is our protagonist.  The self-confessed owner of ‘an attractive voice’, she decides to place an advert in three local newspapers to ‘offer her services as a paid reader’.  After her first success, her ‘fame spreads and soon the rich, the creative and the famous clamour for her services’.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, writes that, ‘As you turn the pages, think of Marie-Constance as the personification of reading itself.  And I promise you an experience you will never forget’.

The introductory paragraph is at once engrossing and rather beguiling: ‘Let me introduce myself: Marie-Constance G., thirty-four years old, one husband, no children, no profession.  I listened to the sound of my own voice yesterday.  It was in the little blue room in our apartment, the one we call the “echo chamber”.  I recited some verses of Baudelaire I happened to remember.  It struck me that my voice was really rather nice.  But can we truly hear ourselves?’  The first person perspective works marvellously, and the female narrative voice which Jean has cultivated feels as realistic as it possibly could for the most part.

Marie-Constance’s first client is a fourteen-year-old paraplegic named Eric, whose mother believes that ‘he needs contact with the outside world’.  The narrator’s observations about characters are quite originally written; of Eric’s mother, for example, she tells us the following: ‘Her mouth is busy talking, her floppy lips moving very quickly, her breath coming in acidic wafts.  A touching woman, in her rather milky forties’.  The subsequent cast of characters is varied.  As well as Eric, we have a former University tutor of Marie-Constance’s, who aids her in her new endeavour; an eighty-year-old Hungarian countess with a passion for Marxism; and a frenzied businessman who desperately wants to learn how to love literature.  The protagonists are different to the extent that the social history which Jean makes use of through them is incredibly rich and diverse.  The most unlikely friendships are struck within Reader for Hire, and this is a definite strength within the framework of the whole.

Seasonal changes are well wrought, and there is a real sense of time moving on whilst experience and expertise are gained.  The whole has been so carefully translated that it is easy to forget that English is not its original language.  The novella feels rather original; I for one haven’t read anything quite like it before.  On the surface, Reader for Hire is a book about books; in reality, it is so much more than that, constructed as it is from a plethora of depths and intrigues.

Stories are nestled within stories here; portions of Maupassant, for example, sit alongside past experiences of Marie-Constance’s clients, and the circumstances which have led them to require her services.  A whirlwind tour of French literature ensues, and Jean exemplifies, above all, as to why books – and the pleasure of reading itself – matter, and how the very act of opening a novel and sharing it with a confidante can transform a life.  We are shown the power that words are able to hold.  Reader for Hire is a real tribute to the arts, and to the importance of literature.  In these times of social cuts and austerity for some of the very groups which Jean places focus upon – the elderly and the disabled – one cannot help but think that such a job as Marie-Constance’s would hold an awful lot of usefulness.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Reading the World: ‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux ****

Annie Ernaux was one of the authors I wanted to get to during 2017, and what better than to tie her together with my Reading the World project?  I chose A Woman’s Story as my first Ernaux as I had previously heard of it, and because it sounded so powerful.  Kirkus Reviews writes that A Woman’s Story is ‘as much about Everywoman as one particular woman… [which] laconically describes the cruel realities of old age for a woman once vibrant and independent.’

The slim memoir chronicles the dementia and death of Ernaux’s mother, as well as weaving in aspects of her life and character.  Translated from its original French by Tanya Leslie, the prose throughout is measured and careful.  This renders some of the more harrowing and touching scenes which Ernaux depicts far more stark and raw than they perhaps would have been had the writing been frilly or overdone in any way.  This is particularly so when coming to terms with the death of her mother: ‘I would be sitting behind the wheel and suddenly it would hit me.  “She will never be alive anywhere in the world again.”  I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that other people behaved normally.’

9781583225752A Woman’s Story is a self-confessed writing exercise which Ernaux embarked upon in order to discover; to ‘capture the real woman, the one who existed independently from me’.  In her own words, she describes the different genres which can be found within her biographical work: ‘The more objective aspect of my writing will probably involve a cross between family history and sociology, reality and fiction’.

In depicting her mother, who lived in relative poverty in Normandy and was the fourth child in a family of six, Ernaux builds a fascinating portrait of a bygone age.  She writes: ‘My mother’s youth involved trying to escape the dull certainties of her fate: inevitable poverty, the threat of alcoholism and everything else that happened to a factory girl who had slipped into bad habits’.  The structure, made up as it is of fragmented memories, works incredibly well here.  Ernaux also renders her work achingly honest, and so personal: ‘As I write, I see her sometimes as a “good,” sometimes as a “bad” mother.  To get away from these contrasting views, which come from my earliest childhood, I try to describe and explain her life as if I were writing about someone else’s mother and a daughter who wasn’t me’.

Ernaux somehow manages to be both frank and heartfelt throughout, making A Woman’s Story both an important exercise in biography for its author, and a fascinating tome for the everyday reader.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

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

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

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

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

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

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

First published in May 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

Purchase from The Book Depository