15 January 2017

Bernard Chambaz: À tombeau ouvert (2016)


The title page of this book is interesting in itself, being inscribed by its author Bernard Chambaz to the sports writer for Libération, Jean-Louis Le Touzet in May 2016 (the official publication being 24 August 2016). Chambaz quotes Malcolm de Chazal here:

'une auto
n'ira jamais
aussi vite
que la route':

('a car
will never go
as fast
as the road' (or route)).

À tombeau ouvert is an expression meaning something like 'at breakneck speed', which is appropriate to the subject matter of the book, which is essentially a quirky biography of the Brazilain racing driver Aryton Senna. The first line of the back cover notes asks 'Oú étiez-vous le 1er mai 1994 ?', much as many people used to ask where they were at the time of John F. Kennedy's assassination,* or more recently (and within most people's living memory), where they were at the time of the attack on the Twin Towers.

So for many, particularly of course those people who follow the sport, the day the hero Aryton Senna – compared to Achilles by Chambaz – lost control of his car and died in Imola, Italy, was a very significant, very tragic, event. I mentioned the word 'quirky' above because Chambaz doesn't make this a straight biography, he weaves in and out of the story line, including facts about the deaths of other people – mainly but by no means exclusively racing drivers like Senna – who died in cars.

During one of his races in England, for instance, Senna was watched by Diana, Princess of Wales, who of course died in a car crash three years after Senna's death. More significantly for Chambaz, his sixteen-year-old son Martin died in Wales in a car accident in 1992. Coincidences such as these are part of the nature of the book.

Another coincidence is the number 42, which frequently follows (we could even say haunts) Senna. Wikipedia tells me many things about 42 – the vast majority of which I would never have wanted to know – although it is interesting to learn that Lewis Carroll was fascinated by the number 42. Chambaz doesn't mention this fact, and there's no reason why he should, although Chambaz and Wikipedia both state that the word is associated with death in Japan. But we have to go to Chambaz to learn that 42 is banned on number plates in Japan.

* Although JFK isn't specifically mentioned in this book, he of course died in a car too, and his brother Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated five year later: at the age of 42. (This is the kind of book that leads you to make such links.)

13 January 2017

Jamila Aït-Abbas: La Fatiha : Née en France, mariée de force en Algérie (2003)

Jamila Aït-Abbas (1954—2013) only wrote this book, which is her autobiography: it not only involves details of her enforced marriage, rape by her 'husband' and the aftermath, but also her life story up to the time of publication.

The principal issue here, the nineteen-year-old innocent born in France of Algerian parents and lured to Algeria where she was forced into a 'marriage' (including the forging of her signature on the wedding certificate) to a man whom she detested, tied to the 'marriage' bed and raped by her 'husband', ostensibly has the makings of a horror story, although it's not: there are no graphic descriptions of violence in the book, which is more concerned with Jamila Aït-Abba's struggle to free herself from the appalling fate reserved for her by relatives and 'in-laws', and her move towards a future of freedom in which she can make her own decisions, carve out her own future.

There is much drama here, particularly with Jamila escaping from her 'husband' (who even tracks her down to Rouen), being saved by a Catholic group, continuing her university education and finding satisfaction in work, later (after the annulment of the first 'marriage') finding happiness as a wife and a mother.

Not that she actually loved her second husband, a faithful, loving and hardworking man at the beginning whose behaviour becomes unsatisfactory: Jamila has shown how she has the mental strength to deal with situations she doesn't like, and her strength is shown when she (after one failed attempt to patch things up) just walks out on her second husband. The kind of book that inspires.

Below is a shot from the columbarium, with a photo of Jamila Aït-Abbas, in Père-Lachaise:

12 January 2017

Jean Echenoz: Jérôme Lindon (2001)

This is an example of a book you could read during a coffee break: it ends at page sixty-three, although eight of those pages are taken up by prelims. But this is not a 'quick read', it's a brief book to savour, a work written with love, as it's really an extended obituary, and one that tells us so much about the person who published Beckett, Duras, Claude Simon, Redonnet, NDiaye, and of course Echenoz himself. Mercifully, it's not a hagiography, but simply a portrait of a great publisher by one of his writers.

When the unknown and unpublished Jean Echenoz first met Jérôme Lindon of Les Éditions de Minuit he'd sent his manuscript to a number of publishers, could barely afford to have his manuscripts photocopied so many times, didn't even know if he'd ever write again, and certainly only sent the thing to Minuit as he was beginning to exhaust other sources, so why not send an MS to the distinguished publisher anyway? It's merely making the slush pile higher, after all.

Echenoz was married and living in Montreuil when Lindon (to the astonishment of Echenoz) agreed to publish his novel, which (although the title is unmentioned) was Le Méridion de Greenwich (1979), and Lindon thought his new author would be able to change his Renault 4L on the proceeds, although it didn't pan out that way: the book was a failure and only sold several hundred copies.

Then there's the anguish of the second novel, which Echenoz works on but Lindon strongly dislikes. All the same, he's possessive about his writers and doesn't want 'his' author to sell the second novel (eventually to be Cherokee (1983)) to another publisher. (Which makes me wonder about Lindon's refusal to publish Marie NDiaye's second novel, Comédie classique, published by P.O.L. (1987): how did NDiaye (and Lindon of course) see things?)

Anyway, this is is very much Jérôme Lindon's story: his mania over names (like initially wanting to change Echenoz's not-very-euphonious one, his dislike of the word 'usage' and Cherokee, etc.), his frequent phone calls (sometimes when Echenoz was still in bed), his fears that Echenoz would be another (forgotten and non-producing, that is) Tony Duvert, his honesty (Echenoz wasn't a Duras, but all the same his tiny book L'Occupation des sols (1988) followed Duras's tiny La Pute de la côte normande (1986)), and so on.

Unless Echenoz is exaggerating, his modesty and his essential shyness come over very strongly – his initial fear of Lindon, of Robbe-Grillet, and naturally the great Samuel Beckett. But most of all, of course, Lindon's humanity as well as his slight eccentricity shine through. A delightful little book.

Lindon's grave, close to Samuel Beckett's, in Montparnasse:



My other Jean Echenoz posts:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Jean Echenoz: Lac | Chopin's Move
Jean Echenoz: Je m'en vais | I'm Gone
Jean Echenoz: Ravel
Jean Echenoz: Courir | Running

Marie Darrieussecq: Naissance des fantômes | My Phantom Husband (1998)

Marie Darrieussecq's second novel, Naissance des fantômes (1998) (translated into English as My Phantom Husband), gained a great deal of publicity in no small part due to Marie NDiaye's unexpected and very strong reaction against the novel. In a letter published in Libération, NDiaye speaks not of Darrieussecq's plagiarism but of her 'singerie', perhaps best translated as 'mimicry'. The letter quotes JDD (Journal de dimanche) as stating that Naissance des fantômes 'irresistibly' conjures up NDiaye's universe, and also quotes L'Événement du jeudi claiming that in many places the novel can pass for a pastiche of NDiaye's La Sorcière. Darrieussecq – who several years later was heavily criticized by Camille Laurens for her novel Tom est mort (2007) – was appalled by NDiaye's reaction, which she attributed to jealousy. Darrieussecq published her first major work of non-fiction in 2010, Rapport de police : Accusations de plagiat et autres modes de surveillance de la fiction, whose Introduction starts with a quotation by NDiaye from Pierre Assouline's blog, in which in an interview she said 'Je suis sûre que Marie Darrieussecq est foncièrement malhonnête': 'I'm certain that Marie Darrieussecq is basically dishonest'. Having read both La Sorcière and Naissance des fantômes (but as yet, not Rapport de police), I make no comment either way on the statement.

Naissance des fantômes is relatively brief (only 158 pages), and reviews of it differ wildly: from the (almost always) strong but vague criticisms to the (almost always) strong but vague praises. There is one constant in the reviews, amateur and professional, which I've read: no one seems to have anything of interest and/or value to say about this novel. And I can do no better at all, apart from refuse to make glib praises or meaningless criticisms of Darrieussecq's book. It's complex, and deserves more than the single reading I've so far given it.

Certainly we're in a kind of Marie NDiaye territory, say Un temps de saison, when the (unnamed) protagonist speaks of her (equally unnamed) husband,  who for no apparent reason whatsoever has disappeared after just popping out to buy the baguette which his wife has forgotten to buy. The reader knows from the start that the disappearance is permanent, that nothing further will ever be heard of the husband, that he has just gone for good. He will never be seen again apart, of course from in visions in memory, tricks of the imagination, maybe hallucinations, or whatever. No amount of probing relatives, reports to the police, investigations into accidents at hospitals, and so on, will ever bear fruit.

We're in uncharted territory, a weird land that Modiano perhaps missed out on, hallucinatory visions of events and people. There are no pat conclusions, no conclusions at all, just a tortuous text echoing tortuous thoughts.

My other Marie Darrieussecq post:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Marie Darrieussecq: Tom est mort | Tom Is Dead

9 January 2017

Jean-Daniel Baltassat: Le Divan de Staline (2013)

I'd always believed that it was William Burroughs who said (something like) 'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you', although Google seems to pin that one on Joseph Heller in Catch 22. Which is a pity to me as it sounds very Burroughs, but it's as good a way as any to begin a few words about Jean-Daniel Baltassat's Le Divan de Staline, which doesn't seem to have been translated, and which Fanny Ardant directed as a film of the same name starring the ubiquitous Gérard Depardieu way back in, er, 2016.

I'd be tempted to translate the title as 'Stalin's Psychiatric Couch', although many people I suppose wouldn't quite agree with me. This is a fictionalization of the final days of Stalin, written by a novelist who has claimed himself incapable of writing anything other than fiction. The main characters here are of course the seventy-year-old Stalin himself, plus the young painter Danilov chosen to design a memorial fresco of Stalin, and his much younger lover Vodieva, with whom Stalin has been for twenty-seven years. OK, I suppose we can also include the dead 'character' Freud, here labeled 'the Viennese charlatan' by Stalin.

Danilov arrives at the former palace in Borjomi, Georgia, where an ageing Stalin is living a life surrounded by bodyguards, steeped in paranoia. Towards the end of the book, Baltassat has Stalin say something which not only might serve as Danilov's life there, but also that of anyone who lived under his régime. My translation:

'Man's greatest misfortune is to be afraid of everything, even his own shadow. But his other great misfortune is to lie to himself and no longer recognize that he is afraid.'

Stalin is depicted as wary to the point of obsession: he will not eat unless someone has finished the same meal before him, he is surrounded by bodyguards, visitors are searched, everyone is mistrusted. Furthermore, he is obsessed with his own power, not allowing anyone to sleep before he's gone to bed, having visitors cross-examined, maintaining a close knowledge of everyone he comes into contact with, etc. But on the other hand, although he mistrusts anything which smacks of the perceived bourgeois avant-garde, he comes across as a highly educated mass murderer.

This could almost be read as a highly entertaining cold war thriller of the twenty-first century, except that it's also quite amusing. A quick, but riveting read in just over three hundred pages.

31 December 2016

John Ruskin at Brantwood, Coniston, Cumbria

Brantwood, Coniston, Cumbria. Not the most brilliant photo of an author's home I've ever taken, but there we are. The original building (much added to later) dates from the tail end of the eighteenth century, when the land was bought by Thomas Woodville. By 1852 the poet William James Linton had bought it: his second wife was the popular novelist Eliza Lynn Linton, who wrote several of her triple-deckers here. John Ruskin (1819–1900) was recovering from an illness in Matlock, Derbyshire in 1871 when he bought the property unseen for £1500: he knew where it was and the view it commanded, and although the house itself was disappointing he was more than impressed by its actual situation.

'JOHN HOWARD
WHITEHOUSE 1873–1900
who saved Brantwood
as a memorial to
John Ruskin'


The study. Linton had knocked two rooms into one here. This was a centre of activity for Ruskin, where for instance he founded the Guild of St George to provide fair rent farms.

The wallpaper is to Ruskin's original design.

The drawing room, with the painting Zipporah to the left of the fireplace.


The bay window looking onto Coniston Water, and the septangular room leading from the drawing room, are additions dating from 1905, after Joan (Ruskin's cousin) and Arthur Severn had inherited the estate from John Ruskin.

The dining room.

Children's illustrator Kate Greenaway (1846–1907), born in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire, who was a friend of Ruskin's and who first visited Brantwood in 1883.

Plaster copy of the medallion on the Ruskin memorial at Friar's Crag, Derwent Water.

The turret, again looking out onto Coniston Water.

The bed in which Ruskin died on 20 January 1900.

Finally, images from the grave of John Ruskin in the parish church graveyard, Coniston:






30 December 2016

Dorothy Una Ratcliffe in Temple Sowerby, Cumbria

Temple Sowerby Manor, Cumbria. Originally called Acorn Bank, this building dates from around 1600 but was much renovated in about 1745 and bought by the writer Dorothy Una Ratcliffe (1887–1967) – who changed the name to Temple Sowerby Manor – in 1934, after which it was further renovated. Dorothy was born Dorothy Clough and married Charles Radcliffe (brother of the forgotten poet Victor Radcliffe) in 1909. She married her second husband Noel McGrigor Phillips in 1930, and lived with him here until his death in the 1940s. She also lived here for a few years with her third husband, Alfred Charles Vowles, who altered his surname to Phillips by deed poll. Dorothy Una Ratcliffe donated Temple Sowerby Manor (without contents!) to the National Trust, who have now (er, for purely historical reasons, or also out of spite because she took the contents?) chosen to change the name back to the original.

Drainpipe with Dorothy Phillips's initials.

'THIS
ANCIENT HOUSE
AND ITS ESTATE
WERE GIVEN
TO THE NATIONAL TRUST
SUMMER 1950
BY MRS NOEL MCGRIGOR PHILLIPS
(DOROTHY UNA RATCLIFFE)'

The room in Temple Sowerby Manor dedicated to Dorothy Una Ratcliffe. The painting is a copy of an original by Ambrose McEvoy, now (as with many of the contents of this building) left to the City of Leeds.

Dorothy Una Ratcliffe published over forty books: plays, poems (sometimes in Yorkshire dialect), travel writings, etc. She was editor of the literary magazine Microcosm.

Dorothy Phillips's etching on a window in the entrance hall.


Our National Trust guide mentioned (more than once and clearly mockingly) that Dorothy Phillips (aka Dorothy Una Ratcliffe) thought herself lady of the manor. But without her, the National Trust certainly wouldn't have her (renamed) Temple Sowerby Manor to crow about.

On a happier note: this caravan is the first structure that greets visitors: Dorothy Una Ratcliffe was a fan of gypsies – even thought that she had gypsy blood in her – and she was an early caravanning enthusiast: with her third husband, she toured Scotland in one.

28 December 2016

Sylvain Tesson: Sur les chemins noirs (2016)

After a drunken and near-fatal fall from a building, the writer Sylvain Tesson spent four months recovering. He chose an unconventional form of 'ré-éducation': walking the length of France, which was a change from Russia, Tibet, South America, or any other far-flung places he's written about his journeys through before.

He chose to begin near Tende, near the Italian border with France, and go through Provence, across the Rhône and through the Massif Central and the Loire valley to the tip of the Contentin peninsula. He often camped rough or stayed at simple hotels along the way, drinking Viandox (a meat stock product similar to OXO (ugh!)) at cafés he passes, and occasionally being joined by friends such as the writer Cédric Gras or Arnaut Humann, or on one occasion his sister. But the general rule he was following, greatly aided by IGN maps, was wherever possible to use chemins noirs – an expression once used in Provence writer René Fregni's book title Les Chemins noirs – and which are applied to old untarmacked roads or footpaths deep in rural France.

Tesson has a number of things against technology: he hates the telephone, hates the thought that the government has a scheme for 'connecting' areas that it designates as in a state of 'hyper-ruralisation'. New technologies don't simplify life but are a substitute for it, they remodel the human psyche, block out thought. We are becoming the most docile and submissive people in the history of the world. By taking the chemins noirs we go through the crack in the wall.

And Tesson certainly has a point: the chemins noirs are as much mental paths as physical ones, as much an anarchistic way of looking at life. He reminds us that Napoleon said there are two kinds of people: those who command and those who obey. But Tesson suggests there's a third kind: those who run away, refuse to accept whatever fate is preparing for them.

All the same I can't can't help thinking that Sylvain Tesson couldn't have communicated with his friends using a poste restante address and guess that he didn't use telepathy, so he surely must have made use of the dreaded new technology to let his friends know where he was. And his friend Humann – incidentally a camera enthusiast – must have used a t........ to contact medical assistance when Tesson had an epileptic fit on the way. (Just thinking aloud.)

This is a thought-provoking book which at 142 pages could easily be read in a few hours, although it's far more advisable to take your time, act as if you're on a chemin noir, and use a map while reading it so you can trace out the fascinating paths.

24 December 2016

Guy Mazeline: Les Loups | The Wolves (1932)

It hardly seems possible to mention Guy Mazeline's Les Loups without also mentioning the fact that Mazeline triumphed in the 1932 Goncourt at the expense of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's masterpiece Voyage au bout de la nuit, and how this was an outrage, a scandal, a travesty of justice, etc. And of course it was all of this: Les Loups doesn't come anywhere near the category of masterpiece. But does the novel really deserve all the opprobrium that's been thrown at it? Certainly much ink has been used over it, and in 1999 Eugène Saccomano published a novelisation of the dispute (Goncourt 32), with a publisher's band 'Le Duel Céline–Mazeline' across the lower part of the cover. Much more recently Les Loups has been called 'illisible' (unreadable) in Figaro and 'Voyage au bout de l'ennui' in a particularly sarcastic article in Le Parisien. Why all the hatred? Have the people who criticise Les Loups actually read it?

The short answer in almost all cases is certainly 'No': in fact I doubt if more than a few people alive today have read it. I resolved to come to my own conclusions, take a deep breath and dip into it. You have to take a deep breath because it's 622 pages of minutely-packed print, or a roomier 775 in the English translation The Wolves. After all the scorn that's been poured on it I scarcely expected to wade through all of it, and yet – to my immense surprise – I not only read it all but in fact really enjoyed it.

Les Loups is not a quick read, and not only due to its sheer bulk: it's so crammed with characters, shifting allegiances and subtle plotting that it demands to be read carefully – if you want to take full advantage of its subtleties, that is. And there certainly are subtleties: this is what I'd call a psychological novel, in which what is going on in the mind of the characters is all-important.

Most of the main characters, though, aren't particularly likable, or at least not a great deal of the time. Pride comes over as a central theme, as does lust for money, and in the dog-eat-dog world of this book – set in Le Havre (where Mazeline was born) towards the end of the nineteenth century – appearances are vital.

Maximilien Jobourg has inherited his father's business and at the beginning of the story lives (financially) comfortably enough with his wife Marie-Jeanne and his children Didier (a lover of the sea), Vincent (who has a limp due to a childhood accident), Benoît (who's headstrong, given to violence and of the three brothers the one most addicted to prostitutes), Geneviève (who's engaged to the wealthy Gilbert), and Blanche (who's married but still lives at home along with her ferociously ambitious banker husband Georges, whom the younger sons accurately call the 'Hypocrite'.

Maximilien has long grown tired of Marie-Jeanne, who is largely concerned with the way things look, and who is exasperated that her husband has no interest in business. Maximilien's mother Virginie hates the working-class-born Marie-Jeanne, whom she insists on calling by her maiden name 'la Bretot'  when she's speaking to Maximilien, that is, which is not often at all: the two don't get on, which seems par for the course in the Jobourg family.

In fact Virginie (it seems) hates Maximilien too, as she plots with her grandson-in-law Georges to bankrupt him by getting him to move all his money into shares which are in fact worthless: a very bad psychologist as well as a very bad businessman, Maximilien can't see through the many faces of his son-in-law: in any case, why should the banker be working against his own interests, thinks Maximilien?

The appearance of Valérie in Le Havre radically changes Maximilien's life. He believes in self-renewal, which he sees as impossible in a family: how can his own family, for instance, ever see him as anything other than lazy, incapable of holding onto his fortune and his prestige? Valérie, though, is his secret daughter, the child his lover Pauline had after she left Le Havre for Martinique twenty years before, when she married Labrête and Valérie was brought up as their child. But Labrête drowns himself on learning Valérie isn't his daughter, and now a dying Pauline has sent Valérie to her 'uncle' Maximilien in Le Havre. Maximilien hides her with a former servant of his and comes to love her more than his children by Marie-Jeanne.

The end is dramatic, with Valérie – on learning that Maximilien is her real father and being incapable of living with the fact that her previous life has been a lie – killing herself with the 'ornamental' weapon her father has unthinkingly furnished her room with, and Maximilien lining his pockets with stones and jumping into the sea.

This may make the narrative sound a little melodramatic, but it isn't portrayed that way. Guy Mazeline can write and can write well, and although we can criticise him for stretching credibility (a twenty-year-old girl not realizing Maximilien is her father, after all he's done for her?), and for writing maybe a few hundred pages in excess and creating several characters too many, but so what? OK, Céline definitely should have won the Goncourt in 1932, but that's no reason to take it out on Guy Mazeline: clearly, this is not the best ever Goncourt, but nor is it the worst by any means.

Guy Mazeline's grave in the Cimetière du Montparnasse:


16 December 2016

Michel Host: Valet de nuit (1986)

Following L'Ombre, le fleuve, lété (1983), Michel Host's second novel Valet de nuit (1986) won the Goncourt in the year of publication. Unusually for such a prestigious prize though, it only sold 70,000 copies and in spite of about twenty later publications today the name of the author means little or nothing to most French people.

This is mainly the quest for the narrator Philippe Archer's father, although at the same time it is inevitably a quest for himself. He thought his father a war hero who had died, but reality bites and he's been a long way from the truth. Philippe's being cushioned from everything (especially from material discomfort) throughout his life doesn't really help him.

Didier Decoin: John l'Enfer (1977)

Didier Decoin's apocalyptic, Goncourt-winning John l'Enfer is set in a New York of stark contrasts in fortune, now a faded glory where the skyscrapers are crumbling, the dogs are taking to the mountains and we see the city through three people.

The book begins with the fall of an Indian window cleaner from a skyscraper: the twelfth in the last six months, when Indians don't normally suffer from vertigo. John l'Enfer is a Cheyenne Indian and also a cleaner of skyscrapers in this city of his ancestors until he loses his job following a demonstration about work conditions. He is in love with Dorothy, but the relationship is only platonic.

Dorothy Kayne is a young sociology lecturer temporarily blinded and infantilised after an accident, and who wears a mask. She too is doubtless in love with John, although she's blind to it and her sexual energy is spent on Ashton.

Ashton Mysha is a Polish Jew, a naval officer now grounded due to ill health, who will love Dorothy – if that's the right word – and then leave New York city, leave life, in a well-planned suicide.

Only John l'Enfer appears to be aware of what's really happening to New York. Oddly, there's no English translation of this very incidentally cinematic tale.

10 December 2016

Félicien Marceau: Creezy (1969)

Creezy – obviously a distortion of the English word 'crazy', and the same title of which was used in the English translation – is a story of not-so-everyday madness, but certainly of the madness of consumerism and the inability of the market to supply certain demands, such as love or happiness.

Creezy begins and ends in the same place, with député Jacques waiting a half-hour for the engine noise in his car to be fixed in the garage. While he's waiting, though, the reader learns why his life is such a mess, why he no longer has a wife and of the events leading up to the death of his beloved Creezy.

Jacques first caught a glimpse of Creezy – a beautiful and famous fashion model – at the front of the audience at a show. After that he meets her at an airport, the pair hit it off very well in sitting next to each other during the flight, and Creezy seems to be another of the conquests of the député (married with two children).

A fling becomes an obsession, lust turns to love and therefore psychological dependence, and all the hell that that brings. No, Jacques can't keep two lives together and things start to fall apart quickly. There's no indication of this in the form of the book, though, which consists of eighteen sections in a single paragraph, apart from when occasionally being split to incorporate quotations.

Creezy marks my thirtieth Goncourt winner reading, although this relatively short (197-page) novel feels  – at the moment at least, although I'll definitely reread it one day for confirmation or otherwise – like one of the best of them.

The grave of Félicien Marceau (1913–2012) in Le cimetière ancien de Neuilly:


9 December 2016

Georges Conchon: L'État sauvage | The Savage State (1964)

Georges Conchon wrote the 1964 Goncourt-winning novel L'État sauvage – translated into English as The Savage State – after he had been secrétaire général of L'Assemblée législative centrafricaine in Bangui. Politically correct it certainly isn't. The epigraph, from Marcel Proust's Sodome et Gomorrhe, is instructive: 'Ils avaient l’air d’une bande d’anthropophages chez qui une blessure faite à un blanc a réveillé le goût du sang' ('They looked like a gang of cannibals for whom a white person's wound had aroused the taste for blood.') The quotation at the head of the final chapter – from Blaise Cendrars's Poèmes nègres – is no less provocative – 'Le commerce des Européens sur cette côte et leur libertinage ont fait une nouvelle race d'hommes qui est peut-être la plus méchante de toutes' ('Europeans trading on this coast and their moral dissoluteness have created a new race of men who are perhaps the most vicious of all.')

The novel is set over a twenty-four hour period in Fort-Jacul, a Central African country recently independent from French rule. It begins with twenty-six-year-old French UNESCO employee Avit landing at the airport in Fort-Jacul, and ends with him leaving it. He has spent two years recovering from his very young wife Laurence just leaving him and taking off with another man, although he finds shortly after arriving in Fort-Jacul that Laurence is in Fort-Jacul too and now living with Patrice Doumbé, the country's minister of health.

And on landing, Avit is sent to see Modimbo, the Ministre de l'Information, who in no uncertain terms tells him to go home, although he doesn't say why. It becomes quite clear that the reason is the blacks' prejudice against the whites, and this is seen throughout the book, from the killing of Doumbé whose relationship with Laurence causes anger among the population, through the increasingly violent and threatening atmosphere of the country, all the way to the thousands of black and white people following Laurence and Avit to the airport.

The book was faithfully adapted into a film whose screenplay was written by Conchon and the director Francis Girod in 1978. I'm unsure how such works would fair in a post-politically correct age though.

7 December 2016

Jean Rouaud: Les Champs d'honneur (1990)

Jean Rouaud's Les Champs d'honneur was his first novel, and he won the Goncourt with it. Reading back over the immensely enthusiastic reviews, that win seems almost an inevitability.

And reading that novel for the first (and probably not last) time I have to say that I can understand the enthusiasm. Temporarily, the book flits all over the place, but that isn't important. This novel is (the beginning of) a family saga of sorts. Deaths are important here, and some of them relate to World War I. But the three deaths of note are those of the father, the 'petite tante' or great-aunt, and the grandfather.

The book begins with the grandfather and immediately the reader is captivated. His erratic driving, the painstaking way his chain-smoking while driving is described, but most of all his old 2 CV , which is called Bobosse and which lets in water through the canvas roof, make grand-père almost more the partner of his car than his wife.  Great-aunt Marie, with her saints and her lasting belief in their triumph over science and health, is also a fascinating character, and a kind of celestial comeback kid who comes back to life but loses her senses.

But maybe the rain (especially in the département of Loire-Atlantique) is the principal character on, er, reflection: one critic called Rouaud the 'Mozart of the rain-gauge', with his ability to comically describe and differentiate between spitting, drizzling, regular raining, downpouring, etc. Rouaud was an obvious gift to French literature.