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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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Wishlist: Ten French Books

Following on from my review of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, I thought it might be a nice idea to compile a wishlist of sorts, filled with recommendations which I feel will appeal to the bookish.  I have selected ten different authors here, all of whom have published markedly different works.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.

1. Conversations with Professor Y by Louis-Ferdinand Celine 97954

‘”Here’s the truth, simply stated…bookstores are suffering from a serious crisis of falling sales.” So begins the imaginary interview that comprises this novel: a conversation between the stuffy, incontinent Professor Y and Céline himself, who rails against convention and defends his idiosyncratic methods as a writer. In the course of their outrageous interplay, Céline comes closer to explaining his controversial life and work than in any of his other books. But soon the not-so-polite conversation begins to degenerate into a bizarre farce, as all pretense to the “interview” is dropped and Professor Y reveals his true identity—leading the author on a hilarious quest through the streets of Paris toward a climax skewering pretension, celebrity, polite society, and the establishment itself.’

2. Gilles and Jeanne by Michel Tournier

‘This novella by Prix Goncourt-winner Tournier (Friday, The Ogre) recreates medieval history by exploring the bizarre love of Gilles de Rais for Jeanne d’Arc, satanist and saint respectively. The homosexual Gilles, a noble and a marshal of France, finds in the boylike Jeanne an “intoxicating fusion of sanctity and war.” He escorts and protects her in battle against the English, and later tries vainly to save her from the stake. After her death, Gilles is diabolically transformed. He seeks to raise Jeanne’s spirit by putting on the mystery play Siege of Orleans. Gilles’s subsequent crimes earn him the name of Bluebeard: young boys are lured to his castle, feasted and then torturedwith erotic refinementsto death. Gilles rationalizes his grisly deeds by invoking the martyred Holy Innocents. Obsessed with Jeanne’s memory, he burns the children’s bodies in rites of necromancy, hoping to turn them to spiritual gold. Finally, Gilles is condemned to burn, like his adored saint. Tournier’s fervent and striking meditation on these legendary figures suggests that heaven and hell are the obverse sides of a coin. ‘

3. A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex 9781904738510

‘On April 16, 1942, a handful of Swiss Nazis in Payerne lure Arthur Bloch, a Jewish cattle merchant, into an empty stable and kill him with a crowbar. Europe is in flames, but this is Switzerland, and Payerne, a rural market town of butchers and bankers, is more worried about unemployment and local bankruptcies than the fate of nations across the border. Fernand Ischi, leader of the local Nazi cell, blames it all on the town’s Jewish population and wants to set an example, thinking the German embassy would be grateful. Ischi’s dream of becoming the local gauleiter is shattered, however, when the milk containers used to dissimulate Bloch’s body parts is discovered floating in a lake nearby, leading to his arrest.’

4. The Flight of Icarus by Raymond Queneau

‘Called by some the French Borges, by others the creator of le nouveau roman a generation ahead of its time, Raymond Queneau’s work in fiction continues to defy strict categorization. The Flight of Icarus (Le Vol d’lcare) is his only novel written in the form of a play: seventy-four short scenes, complete with stage directions. Consciously parodying Pirandello and Robbe-Grillet, it begins with a novelist’s discovery that his principal character, Icarus by name, has vanished. This, in turn, sets off a rash of other such disappearances. Before long, a number of desperate authors are found in search of their fugitive characters, who wander through the Paris of the 1890s, occasionally meeting one another, and even straying into new novels. Icarus himself–perhaps following the destiny his name suggests–develops a passion for horseless carriages, kites, and machines that fly. And throughout the almost vaudevillian turns of the plot, we are aware, as always, of Queneau’s evident delight at holding the thin line between farce and philosophy.’

97819419200915. Sphinx by Anne Garreta

‘Sphinx is the remarkable debut novel, originally published in 1986, by the incredibly talented and inventive French author Anne Garreta, one of the few female members of Oulipo, the influential and exclusive French experimental literary group whose mission is to create literature based on mathematical and linguistic restraints, and whose ranks include Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, among others. A beautiful and complex love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and their lover, A***, written without using any gender markers to refer to the main characters, Sphinx is a remarkable linguistic feat and paragon of experimental literature that has never been accomplished before or since in the strictly-gendered French language.’

6. Our Beautiful Heroine by Jacques Roubaud

‘This lightweight but appealing romantic mystery in which the crime is never solved and the lovers never united is set in a bustling middle-class Parisian neighborhood replete with butcher shop, bakery, produce market and peopled with a spirited group of opinionated busybodies. These include the narrator George Mornacier, an ardent girl-watcher and astute observer of the human scene; Bertrand Eusebe, an innocently lecherous grocer; Madame Crussant, the goodhearted baker; and Monsieur Orsell, scholar and philosopher. These voluble neighbors are preoccupied with the whereabouts of the heir to the kingdom of oil-rich Poldevia, young Prince Gormanskoi, missing for two years since a state visit to France. Also dominating the neighborhood’s interest is the identity of the perpetrator of the “hardware store horrors,” acts of vandalism against 52 hardware stores carrying plaster Poldevian statuettes. When Hortense, a voluptuous student long admired by Eusebe and George, meets a young man with dark, noble features and long, delicate hands, a uniquely chronicled chain of events ensues that leads to the identification of the missing prince, a passionate liaison ending in marriage and the trial of the hardware store vandal: all with unexpected results. Although it is sometimes sidetracked by tedious digression and much of Kornacker’s translation is clumsily phrased, this is basically a vigorous and agreeable work.’

7. Happening by Annie Ernaux 41js73x1-el-_sx327_bo1204203200_

‘In 1963, Annie Ernaux, 23 and unattached, realizes she is pregnant. Shame arises in her like a plague: Understanding that her pregnancy will mark her and her family as social failures, she knows she cannot keep that child.  This is the story, written forty years later, of a trauma Ernaux never overcame. In a France where abortion was illegal, she attempted, in vain, to self-administer the abortion with a knitting needle. Fearful and desperate, she finally located an abortionist, and ends up in a hospital emergency ward where she nearly dies.  In Happening, Ernaux sifts through her memories and her journal entries dating from those days. Clearly, cleanly, she gleans the meanings of her experience.’

8. The Mustache by Emmanuel Carrere

‘”What would you say if I shaved off my mustache?” asks “The Mustache”‘s hero of his wife. Once removed, his wife and friends not only fail to recognize him, but deny the existence of the former mustache altogether. A metaphysical nightmare of the grandest kind, “The Mustache” is a stunning blend of absurdist comedy and philosophical speculation.In “Class Trip,” young Nicholas’s vivid imagination gets the best of him when a boy disappears from a school excursion. What the youthful detective finds is even more terrifying than his wildest fantasties.Brought together in one volume, the piercing early novels of Emmanuel Carrere constitute some of the most devastating psychological portraits in contemporary fiction.”‘
9. Red Haze by Christian Gailly

‘”One day unlike the others, he’ll run into a husband worse than the others, he’ll run into trouble. I often thought this. Well, I was wrong, it was a woman he ran into, a woman worse than the others, here’s what happened.” What happened is the shocking tale told deftly by the brilliant French minimalist Christian Gailly in Red Haze . It is a story at once spare and mysteriously complex, complicated by the ever odder perspective of the narrator as the details accumulate. Lucien, the narrator’s friend, is a rake, a womanizer who womanizes once too often and loses his offending member to his latest conquest. As the narrator’s interest in the mutilated man and the vengeful woman grows into an obsession, Red Haze becomes an unsettling story of how closely intertwined love and hatred, passion and cruelty can be. Winner of the prestigious Prix France Culture, Red Haze is the third of Christian Gailly’s ten novels to be published in English.’

61uots711il-_sx344_bo1204203200_10. The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

‘In this playful and perplexing book, we meet a young Parisian researcher who lives inside his bathroom. As he sits in his tub meditating on existence (and refusing to tell us his name), the people around him―his girlfriend, Edmondsson, the Polish painters in his kitchen―each in their own way further enables his peculiar lifestyle, supporting his eccentric quest for immobility. But an invitation to the Austrian embassy shakes up his stable world, prompting him to take a risk and leave his bathroom . . .’

 

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One From the Archive: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet ****

“Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich – chief of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German spells “HHhH”. 

“All the characters in “HHhH” are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up? “HHhH” is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life of one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifyingly modern, a moving and shattering work of fiction.”

Knowing my love of historical novels, particularly those set during the World Wars, my boyfriend bought this for me.  I was so very impressed by it.  I found the entire novel incredibly engrossing, and I loved the mixture of fact and fiction which Binet had used.  The different narrative structures which he made use of worked wonderfully, both singularly and together.  The translation has been rendered with such care and precision that it never feels awkward, as many pieces of translated fiction can so easily.  Binet’s writing suits the story he has crafted, and his take on the tale is really quite chilling at times.  He portrays the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime very well indeed.  His descriptions of Prague, one of my favourite cities, are exquisite.

I have never before read a book without page numbers, but I am glad that this was the first.  Odd as it may sound, the structure of the book just does not make them necessary.  HHhH is a book to be drawn into and to forget the world around you as you continue to read.  It is more interesting in such cases, I feel, to be so engrossed that you no longer wonder how many pages you have left to go until you reach the end.  HHhH is marvellously paced, particularly towards the end, and is a must read for any self-confessed history nerds out there.

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

‘All the Way’ by Marie Darrieussecq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

As 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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