Category Archives: French Literature

Reality outwaits us all.

Bird in a Cage, by Frédéric Dard and translated by David Bellos

Albert has been away from home for six years. He returns just before Christmas to an empty apartment unchanged since his mother’s death some four years past. Albert is alone and lonely.

He heads out onto the crowded streets of his Paris suburb and goes to a grand restaurant his mother always dreamed of eating in but never dared to. Now he’ll eat in it without her. Along the way he buys “a small silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust” with a tiny velvet bird inside. He has no tree to decorate, but the tiny ornament is a reminder of the past he’s lost.


The restaurant is grand and traditional and packed with families and Christmas shoppers. Dard describes it rather well, including how it doesn’t even smell like an ordinary restaurant:

Chiclet’s smelled of absinthe and snails, and of old wood too.

I loved that little snippet of description. Near Albert’s table is a woman with a small child. He can’t help but observe them:

The woman looked like Anna. She had dark hair as Anna did, the same dark and almond-shaped eyes, the same dusky complexion and the same witty, sensual lips that scared me. She might have been twenty-seven, which is what Anna would have been. She was very pretty and smartly dressed. The little girl didn’t have her eyes, or her hair, or her nose, but in spite of that she still managed to look like her mother.

We don’t yet know who Anna was. The woman flirts lightly with Albert, but eventually their meals come to their end and the woman leaves with the girl. Albert leaves too:

Let me be clear: I was not following them. I picked the same street simply because it was the way to my flat.

Of course, Albert, of course. He follows them to a nearby cinema. They buy a ticket; so does he. The usherette thinks they’re together and sits him next to the woman.

I could feel the human warmth of the woman, and it overwhelmed me. The perfume of her overcoat shattered me.

He’s not sure if she’s inviting his attention or simply indifferent, but he ends up going home with her. After that, things get complicated.

Bird in a Cage is a little gem of a novel. It’s 120 pages just and brilliantly judged. By going to that restaurant, buying that little bird in a cage, Albert has walked into a situation that wouldn’t be out of place in a Clouzot film and I ate the whole book up in practically one sitting.

It’s actually difficult to say a lot more without spoiling this. I’ve not really touched on the plot and I’d strongly recommend against reading any kind of synopsis. This is a book where you want to be as lost as Albert and where you want to discover alongside him what’s really going on.

Bird has melancholy, regret, passion and murder. It’s very much a psychological piece as Albert finds himself trapped between the horror of an incomprehensible nightmare inside the woman’s flat and the dream of some desperately needed human connection in the form of the woman herself. It is very, very good and exactly the kind of book I look to Pushkin for.

There are some stylistic issues. Dard massively overuses exclamation marks and really doesn’t need to since his plot is dramatic enough without them. There was a point where I started to find that slightly jarring, but then the intensity of the story kicked in and I stopped noticing quite so much. It’s a flaw, but not a fatal one and certainly not one that would make me hesitate to recommend this book to anyone with a taste for psychological noir fiction.

I’m conscious this is a particularly short review, but far better here to say too little than too much. I’ve already bought Pushkin’s second Dard, The Wicked Go to Hell, and I look forward to more. Dard was one of these insanely prolific writers (over 300 novels according to Wikipedia) so he should keep Pushkin busy for a while yet.

Other reviews

Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations reviewed this here and inspired me to read it. Thanks, as so often before, are due accordingly.


Filed under Crime Fiction, Dard, Frédéric, French Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

Being a man was too difficult.

She Who Was No More, by Boileau-Narcejac and translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

A year or so back I saw Clouzot’s superb Les Diaboliques, a film which beats Hitchcock at his own game. What I didn’t know then is that it’s based on this novel, by writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who also wrote the novel Vertigo was based on.

The plot of Les Diaboliques is pretty well-known now, despite the film famously having a plea before the end credits asking audiences not to spoil the ending for others. Just in case anyone reading this doesn’t know it though I’ll avoid spoilers here. Boileau-Narcejac meant the reader to be uncertain what was going on and if you get the chance to read this cold I suspect it’ll be much more effective.


I love these Pushkin Vertigo covers.

Ravinel is a travelling salesman. He sells fishing gear, and is so good at making artificial lures that there’s an entire page in his company’s brochure dedicated solely to his creations. It’s the only thing he’s good at.

Ravinel is married to the pretty and pleasant Mireille. There’s no great reason they shouldn’t be happy enough, save for their doctor Lucienne who’s having an affair with Ravinel and has persuaded him to kill Mireille for the insurance money. Ravinel is too weak to say no or to ask why he’s planning to kill a perfectly decent woman at the behest of another he doesn’t even particularly like.

Lucienne is the driving force here. She’s cold, ambitious and greedy. When Ravinel has sex with her it’s hasty and functional. He has a poor heart and afterwards she often checks how his pulse is faring. Personally I’d find that a little off-putting. There’s little sense she loves Ravinel.

The plan is a simple one. Ravinel and Lucienne drown Mireille in a bathtub then place the body in a lavoir, an outdoor wash-hut, so that it’ll look like she had an accident. The next day Ravinel will come home and discover her there. After a suitable period of grieving he’ll claim the insurance and he and Lucienne will go off into the sunset.

Lucienne does all the hard work. All Ravinel has to do is drug a decanter Mireille drinks from so that she passes out. After that it’s Lucienne who has to push her down into a bath, load weights on her chest to keep her under, make sure she’s dead and then wrap the body in a rug for transportation. Ravinel doesn’t even have the strength to admit what they’ve done let alone do it himself.

It wasn’t he, Ravinel, who was guilty. No one was. Mireille had drunk a soporific. A bathtub was filling up. That was all. There was nothing terrible about it, and nothing which had anything to do with crime.

The murder comes off. The next part is down to Ravinel. He has to discover the body and he has to do so without Lucienne as if she’s there it’ll raise suspicion. The problem is, when it comes time to discover the body it’s gone missing. Left trying to explain the inexplicable Ravinel’s mind begins to unravel. The structure of the lavoir means it couldn’t have washed away, but there’s no reason for anyone to have stolen it and it could hardly have wandered off on its own…

As theory after theory passed through his mind, he became once more overwhelmed by a sensation of helplessness. After a while he decided that the body hadn’t been stolen after all. But it wasn’t there. So it must have been. But nobody could possibly want to steal it… And so it went on, round and round in a circle. Ravinel felt a little pain beneath his left temple and rubbed the spot. No question of his falling ill at this juncture. He simply hadn’t the right to! But what was he to do, Bon Dieu, what was he to do?

It gets a lot worse, a lot more puzzling, from there.

She Who Was is very much a novel of psychological suspense. It’s an intensely moody book, with noirish lines like “she lifted her little veil, in which raindrops had been caught as in a spider’s web.” Ravinel though is the one caught. Boileau-Narcejac fill the book with fog, thickly but effectively laying on the atmosphere. The fog lies so heavy that Ravinel can barely drive his car or find his way down the street, but it’s the fog in his head he’s really lost in.

She Who Was clocks in at a little under 200 pages making it a concentrated café noir of a book. Ravinelle is weak and confused and Lucienne’s not the sort you’d look to for comfort. She practically bullies Ravinel into murder and he never has the wit to question what his fate is likely to be once they’re married and she’s set to inherit all that insurance money. There are also hints that he might not be the only one she had an affair with – when he looks at photos of a holiday he and Mireille took with Lucienne all the photos are of the two women happy together, none are of him. Mireille’s body isn’t the only thing Ravinel can’t see.

There’s no denying that She Who Was would be a stronger book if you don’t know what’s actually going on, which I did. The ideal reader would be as lost in the fog as Ravinel himself, only emerging from it as he does. It’s still effective even so and features a particularly chilling final line which ties the book up as neatly and disturbingly as one might wish.

Other reviews

Guy Savage reviewed this at His Futile Preoccupations here as effectively as ever and there’s a very good review at the Pretty Sinister blog here that goes into a lot more plot elements than either Guy or I do (if you know the movie there’s no spoilers, if you don’t you might prefer to read that review after). My review of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo is here.



Filed under Boileau-Narcejac, Crime Fiction, French Literature, Pushkin Vertigo

yes, I was a happy porcupine back then,

Memoirs of a Porcupine, by Alain Mabanckou and translated by Helen Stevenson

One of the great joys of trying new authors is when you find one that has long been writing for you, if only you’d known it. Mabanckou with his wonderful mix of comedy, social commentary and psychological insight has long been writing for me. I just didn’t know it.


In Congolese (and some wider African) folklore certain people have spirit doubles – animal familiars which grant them powers and through which they can work magic on the world. Many of these sorcerers use their powers for good, giving healings and blessings and so on. Some however use them for evil, in particular magically murdering their enemies.

If that sounds fantastical, well it is. It’s also however still a fairly widespread idea and even now suspected evil sorcerers are sometimes killed, blamed for deaths people otherwise struggle to explain. It’s not a belief system we have in the West, but we do have fairly widespread beliefs in ghosts and clairvoyants and mediums and faith healers (in which I’d personally include homoeopathists). How superstition manifests varies, but the instinct to it is all too human.

The narrator in Memoirs is the porcupine familiar of a just-recently killed sorcerer named Kibandi. Kibandi’s father, Papa Kibandi, was a sorcerer in turn and when Kibandi turned 11 forced him to drink a secret potion which killed Kibandi’s instincts for empathy and good and granted him an all-too physical porcupine as a spirit familiar.

Doubles don’t normally outlive their humans, so Porcupine (as I’ll call him) is now sitting under a baobab tree with nothing to do other than to reflect on Kibandi’s life and his part in it. At surface level it’s what it says on the tin – memoirs of a porcupine including how the sorcerer Kibandi used magic to kill nearly 100 people before finally being defeated. On another it’s the story of how Kibandi let jealousy and resentment rule his life and ultimately destroy it.

As a young man Kibandi is a skilled roofer. He makes good money and is much in demand. He lives with his mother, his father dead some years before. When Kibandi’s mother dies, on “a grey Monday, a Monday when even the flies couldn’t get off the ground, [in which his home village of] Séképembé seemed empty, the sky so low a human could almost have plucked a cluster of clouds without even raising his arm,” Kibandi’s sole restraint goes with her.

Kibandi had been courting the beautiful daughter of a rich villager, but when the father doesn’t attend Kibandi’s mother’s funeral Kibandi realises that he along with several other suitors are just being strung along so the father can extract gifts from them. Kibandi’s pride is outraged, and he decides to get revenge on the father by sending Porcupine to “eat” the daughter’s spirit so slaying her. Porcupine finds it all a bit unfair, but it’s not his job to second-guess his human.

If you’re the sort of person who sees slights you’ll see them everywhere. Kibandi stops taking care of himself, notices every insult or harsh glance and hits back by using Porcupine. The money stops rolling in as he spends more and more of his time nursing his grievances and taking his sorcerous revenges. A young man, abused, wastes his life spending his energies on imagined feuds and blaming others for his failings. Take away the sorcery and the story remains the same.

If that were all this was that would be interesting enough, but what makes this glorious is Porcupine himself. The tale he has to tell is a simple one, but he struggles to keep to the point. As he says “perhaps I’ve strayed too far from the subject of my confessions […] it must be the human in me speaking, in fact I learned my sense of digression from men, they never go straight to the point, open brackets they forget to close”.

Porcupine reflects on village life, on the attractions of villainy over goodness, on the lessons taught him by the old porcupine who ruled his little porcupine family. Kibandi used his powers to magically learn to read and what he knows Porcupine knows, so Porcupine can read too and indulges in a little literary analysis as he looks back disapprovingly on the books read by the one man he doesn’t regret helping kill, a vain Europeanised intellectual named Amédée:

if there’s one person whose disappearance I really don’t regret it’s that young man, he was such a show-off, a braggart of the first order, he thought he was most intelligent person in the village, in the region, not to say the whole country, he wore Terylene suits, sparkly ties, the kind of shoes you wear if you work in an office, those dens of idleness where men sit down, pretend to read papers and put off till tomorrow what they should be doing today, Amédée walked around with his chest puffed out, just because he’d studied for years, simply because he’d visited countries where it snows, let me tell you this, whenever he came to Séképembé to visit his parents, the young girls on heat went running after him, even married women cheated on their husbands, they’d bring him things to eat on the quiet, round the back of his father’ s hut, they’d wash his dirty linen for him, the guy went round doing things he shouldn’t have all over the place with married women and the young women on heat,

It’s a lovely commentary too of course on the returned expat, now a big man in his home village and a great success though who knows how great a success he actually was abroad. Amédée is a big reader and seduces girls by telling them stories he’s learned from his books. Porcupine is sceptical:

novels are books written by men to recount things which are untrue, they’ll say it all comes from their imagination, there are some novelists who would sell their own mothers or fathers to steal my porcupine destiny, draw inspiration from it, write a story in which I’d have an rather less than glorious role, make me look like low life, let me tell you this, human beings find life so boring, they need novels so they can invent other lives for themselves, by diving into one of these books, dear Baobab, you can take off round the world, leave the bush in the blink of an eye, turn up in a distant country, meet foreign people, strange animals, porcupines with even murkier pasts than mine,

There are indeed some novelists who might take a porcupine’s life and make him look like low life. It’s shocking.

Porcupine also takes the time to directly critique some of Amédée’s reading. For example: “Amédée would tell the young girls all about a wretched old man who went deep sea fishing and had to battle all alone with a huge fish, if you ask me this huge fish was the harmful double of a fisherman who was jealous of the old guy’s experience,”. Most of the descriptions are less obvious than that one, and there’s some fun to be had working out which novels Porcupine is talking about since he tends to be a very literal reader.

Porcupine is a lifelong rogue, but he’s a likable one. He has charm. Whether it’s his occasional attraction to human women (he picked up Kibandi’s tastes there too, porcupine females do nothing for him), his cowardice or his all-too-human ability to rationalise away his own failings he’s one of the more human characters I’ve read recently (though he’d probably find that an insulting observation).

Memoirs is a book full of sly asides. In one scene Porcupine is sent to kill a palm-wine tapster, an old man who Porcupine kills and leaves at the foot of the palm tree he was tapping when Porcupine found him. It couldn’t be a clearer shout out to Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard and it’s a nice touch of homage to Mabanckou’s predecessors.

Porcupine then is a very funny novel, but it’s also one with an underlying serious point. Take a young man, expose him to brutal abuse (here a sorcerous potion, but the world is hardly free of more prosaic horrors), and see how his life warps and distorts in consequence. Stu in his review over at his Winston’s Dad’s Blog draws parallels between Kibandi and the fate of child soldiers and I think he has a point.

I’ll end with a short observation on style. Mabanckou writes here in a free-flowing style reflecting the Porcupine’s garrulous speech. Mabanckou partly achieves this through avoiding use of full stops (I don’t think there are any), though just as with Enard’s Zone that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have sentences but simply that they’re structured using commas and natural pauses.

Mabanckou gives Memoirs the feel of a spoken rather than written work. Like Tutuola, like Lord, he draws on the rhythms of oral storytelling to give life to the page. It works well, and allows a final little end-joke on how Porcupine’s tale found itself published in book form. It’s a typically deft touch of levity in a novel that could easily have been rather bleak, but which never is.

Other reviews

The review that put me on to this book specifically and Mabanckou generally was this one from Stu’s Winston’s Dad’s Blog, as mentioned above. Given how much I enjoyed this I owe Stu massive thanks for this one, not for the first time.

As an aside, it occurred to me that Memoirs of a Porcupine might have been an inspiration for Lauren Beukes’ rather good Zoo City given the use of animal familiars in that. I asked Lauren Beukes however on twitter and she’d never heard of it. Different writers drawing on the same mythic references clearly.


Filed under African Literature, Congolese Literature, French Literature, Mabanckou, Alain

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac

Vertigo, by Boileau-Narcejac and translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

Like I suspect a lot of people I had no idea Hitchcock’s Vertigo was based on a book. The film, if you’ve not seen it, is easily among Hitchcock’s best and is a masterpiece of mood and obsessive desire. I’m a big fan of it.

When Pushkin Press recently launched their new crime imprint they named it Vertigo, after this book (or more properly after the film, since the book’s title roughly translates as Among the Dead). No surprise then that it was one of their initial release titles.

It’s classic Pushkin material. We’re talking mid-20th Century underappreciated European fiction here, and if that’s not Pushkin’s beat what is?

I’m going to write this review on the assumption you’ve not seen the film, though anyone reading this probably has.


Before I start, that photo above doesn’t really do the book justice. The new Pushkin Vertigo range have a simple but very effective graphic design – relatively few elements but with a nicely judged off-kilter sense of unease.

Paris, 1940. Roger Flavières is a former policeman turned lawyer. His practice hasn’t taken off and his life hasn’t gone as he’d hoped. “He was one of those people who hate mediocrity without themselves being able to scale the heights.” He’s a damaged man, crippled by guilt over a colleague’s death that he blames himself for and which caused him to quit the police.

As the novel opens Flavières  is contacted by old acquaintance Paul Gévigne, a successful industrialist who needs somebody he can trust to watch his wife, Madeleine. Gévigne claims that Madeleine has become oddly distant, that she seems to go into increasingly frequent trances and extraordinary as it might seem that she may be being influenced by the spirit of a dead ancestor. Gévigne wants to take care of her, but with war in the offing he’s too busy expanding into the arms trade and putting himself in position to profit from the coming conflict.

Flavières finds Gévigne repugnant and is reluctant to get involved, but he agrees at least to take a look at Madeleine. From the moment he does so he’s sunk.

… his thoughts lingered over her eyes, intensely blue, but so pale that they didn’t seem quite alive, eyes which certainly could never express passion. The cheeks were slightly hollowed out under prominent cheekbones, just sufficiently to harbour a faint shadow which suggested languor. Her mouth was small with hardly any lipstick on it – the mouth of a dreamy child. Madeleine – yes, that was undoubtedly the right name for her. […] She was unhappy, of course.

Flavières begins to follow Madeleine, but soon moves from being an investigator to a sort of paid companion. Gévigne encourages Flavières to spend all his days with her, even when Flavières admits he’s developing feelings. Gévigne doesn’t care, argues that’s to the good as it’ll make Flavières all the more diligent. The situation reeks, but Flavières ignores the warning signs as the more time he spends with Madeleine the more he idolises her and the less he can bear the idea of being apart from her.

Let’s look back at that quote above. Flavières’ never been good with women, and now he has Madeleine with her “eyes which certainly could never express passion” and her “mouth of a dreamy child”. He loves her, but his love is worship of a goddess, not desire for a woman.

Meanwhile in the background the war continues. Early on nobody takes it that seriously – the press is full of opinion pieces about how the German army is hopelessly ill-equipped to advance and of the folly of German aggression. Both France and Flavières are in denial, but the sun is shining, Flavières is in love and the German menace is distant and not to be taken too seriously.

For me easily the most audacious part of the novel was the mirroring of Flavières’ fortunes and those of France itself. As he begins to worry how long he can protect Madeleine from herself and her increasingly otherworldly moods, the news from the front becomes more disquieting. The press remains upbeat, yet the fighting keeps getting closer to Paris. Neither situation can last.

It was known now that the German armour was advancing on Arras, and that the fate of the country was in the balance. Every day more cars drove through the town, looking for the bridge and the road to the South. And people stood in the streets silently staring at them, their hearts empty. They were more and more dirty, more and more ramshackle. With a shamefaced curiosity, people would question the fugitives. In all this, Flavières saw the image of his own disaster. He had no longer the strength to go back to Paris.

The novel then jumps forward four years, to a ruined France and equally ruined Flavières. The personal and the public are here inseparable; one a mirror to the other. Flavieres believed Madeleine long dead, but then sees her in a post-war newsreel; he’s already lost her once, he won’t let it happen a second time.

Vertigo is a clever and psychologically astute examination of desire and obsession. Flavières’ character is expertly realised, and the slow unravelling of what’s really going on with Gévigne and Madeleine is masterfully handled. If you have seen the film you’ll know much of the gist, but the film changes a lot too and there are subtleties here which it can’t equal (much as I love it).

The afterword explains that writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wanted “to develop a new kind of crime fiction”, less whodunnits and more victim-focused nightmares. On the strength of Vertigo they succeeded, and while I received this book as a review copy I’ll definitely be buying Pushkin’s other Boileau-Narcejac.

I’ll end with a small note on the translation. Generally it reads smoothly and the language is effective and evocative. I can’t say how true it is to the original, but it reads well. Very occasionally however translator Geoffrey Sainsbury leaves a phrase in French, presumably for flavour but I found it slightly jarring as in my imagination at least the whole thing is in French (and on one occasion I actually didn’t know what a phrase meant which seemed needlessly irritating). Still, despite that complaint if Sainsbury has translated the other Boileau-Narcejac I’ll still be pleased to see his name (tucked away in the copyright page as it is).

Other reviews

Lots and lots of them. I noted both Jacqui’s review from her Jacquiwine’s Journal, here and Guy’s review from His Futile Preoccupations here. Both of those are sufficiently good as to make mine rather redundant. However, I’m sure I’ve also read others which I’ve since lost the link to so as always please feel free to link me to them in the comments.


Filed under Boileau-Narcejac, Crime Fiction, French Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

“Love is a dangerous territory for athletes.”

The Man in a Hurry, by Paul Morand and translated by Euan Cameron

Way back in 2009 I read and loved Paul Morand’s memoirs, Venices. It’s an elegantly written book that’s held up well in memory and that I still recommend.

Venices is notable among other things for skipping Morand’s years as a collaborator in the service of the Vichy government. It was written in 1971 when Morand’s fascist sympathies were distinctly out of fashion, and when his pro-Nazi and openly anti-semitic views of the 1930s and 1940s were perhaps from his perspective best glossed over.

The Man in a Hurry however was written in 1941, and is therefore a rare example of a comic novel written by an open supporter of the Nazi and Vichy regimes. It’s actually pretty good, though far from flawless. Still, it’s interesting that a man could hold such horrific views, be an advocate of such evil, and yet be a talented writer. Perhaps the art and the artist truly are separate beasts, or perhaps not. I’ll return to that near the end of this piece.Morand

Pierre Niox is a Parisian antique dealer. Despite his profession he epitomises the modern man, or perhaps better the Futurist man, for Pierre is obsessed with speed above all else. He lacks all patience, drives fast and devises elaborate time-and-motion techniques to speed up his morning routine. All his trousers are fitted with zips to avoid wasting time fiddling with buttons and naturally he puts his shoes on at the same time as doing up his tie.

Here’s how he’s introduced:

At the point at which the road reached the top of the slope and was about to dip down on the other side again, the man jumped out of the taxi without waiting for the driver to brake. He went into one of those suburban taverns where in the summer you can have lunch with a view and where you can dine in the cool of the evening. With an anxious step, he charged down the path lined with box hedges and rushed over to the terrace. […] He took a seat at  a metal table and clapped his hands. Twice, he glanced at his watch, as if it were friend. Nobody chose to bring him a drink. Finally, a waiter in his seventies whose rheumatism was aggravated by working at night came to wipe the table with a duster. Why, since he had achieved his aim, did the visitor appear disconcerted?

Pierre falls into conversation with a Jewish psychologist who sees him and takes interest in this curious case of accelerated development. Their conversation sparkles, as do all the conversations in this book. Morand is nothing if not witty.

“Do you believe in the afterlife? Do you talk with God?”

“I reckon that, having tricked me by bringing me into the world, it’s for Him to get in touch first.”

Here is a later exchange with Pierre’s friend and business partner, the aptly named Placide:

Quickly and badly, that’s my motto!”

“An epitaph more likely.”

“Epitaphs are the mottos of the dead.”

Over the course of around 350 pages Pierre manages to irritate all those around him through his obsession with pointless velocity. Placide tries to balance Pierre’s mania with his own taste for leisure and the good life, but without success and so has to part ways. Pierre’s comically bad servant (servants always seem to be comically bad in novels of this sort, which strikes me as a form of snobbery) quits, and even Pierre’s cat moves on to find an owner less prone to constantly rearranging its environment.

Pierre seems a hopeless case, but then he meets the beautiful Hedwig of the Boisrosé clan, and the Boisrosé never do anything quickly. Will love redeem Pierre where all else has failed?

This then is a satire on modernity, and in many ways is still a surprisingly timely one. Pierre today would be hurrying down the street checking his emails on his Blackberry while making calls on his bluetooth headset, duly proud of his ability to multitask. You probably work with him; quite possibly you occasionally are him. I know I occasionally am.

In the  Boisrosé Pierre meets his nemesis. Madame de  Boisrosé lives with her three daughters, the four of them a tightly knit and self-reliant unit. The eldest married, but her husband soon found his home mostly empty with his wife preferring to spend her days with her mother and sisters than with him. Can Pierre adjust his speed enough to win Hedwig, the second daughter? If he does, can he keep her by his side or will she too be lured back to the comforting  Boisrosé bosom? The family matriarch is a formidable opponent, “unparalleled in her ability to use her weakness in an intimidating manner.” Hedwig won’t be prised easily away from her…

Morand couldn’t write a bad sentence if he tried, and the book is filled with neatly crafted set-pieces and encounters. Pierre is absurd, but not so much so that he isn’ t recognisable, and the satire largely hits the spot. It’s a fun little tale, and a good choice for a lighter holiday or airplane read. There are however two key problems it suffers from.

The first issue is that while I describe it as a fun little tale above, it’s not actually that little. It’s ironic that a book satirising speed should take 350 pages, and it would frankly have been more effective at 250. A friend suggested that the length was perhaps itself a comment on Pierre’s haste, but I think that’s too kind. The book sags a little in the middle and while I never got bored I did find myself thinking that less might have been more.

The second issue is more problematic. Morand isn’t, here at least, a writer of great psychological subtlety and characters tend to be somewhat stereotyped. The Boisrosé for example are Creoles with a mix of French and Caribbean blood, and that Caribbean ancestry is the reason given for their lassitude. The Boisrosé aren’t lazy and part-black, they’re lazy because they’re part-black.

Stereotyping in a comic novel isn’t of course a mortal sin any more than it is in a pulp novel. When you’re aiming for broad strokes it’s hardly surprising characters get a little simplistic, and carefully nuanced psychological portraits would have sat oddly against characters like Pierre and Placide. Still, there’s something a little ugly in a 1940s novel portraying mixed-race characters as less energetic by virtue of their blood, and generally this is a somewhat cold novel with Morand’s characters being types rather than people.

I wouldn’t describe The Man in a Hurry as a racist novel – it’s a product of its age and its author’s sensibilities and the racial elements aren’t central to it. It was however flawed for me by some of its attitudes. A surprised character is at one point described as having “wide-open eyes [that] resembled those of a Negro being taken to the circus”. Much worse, when Pierre visits New York late in the novel he discovers that “In Harlem, the centre of the darkest idleness, the Negros slept all day long.” It’s just one sentence, but it’s an unpleasant one.

That brings me back to the art and the artist. Morand is an excellent stylist. He’s funny, graceful and writes superb prose. Here at least though his art is compromised by a lack of sympathy with his characters and with a tendency to typecast them in a rather racially essentialist way, which given his real world views seems perhaps a fault not just of the work but also of the man.

On a final note, I received this as a review copy from Pushkin Press. It’s their first hardback release and it is physically one of the most beautiful and pleasing to hold books I own. They’ve done marvels with it, and Paul Morand I’m sure would be delighted with it (if not perhaps by all of my review).

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, or at least not the blogs I follow. Please feel free though to link in the comments to any you think particularly interesting.



Filed under Comic Fiction, French Literature, Morand, Paul

the miraculous possibility of their conjunction

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust and translated by Kilmartin and Moncrieff

I’m not sure why Proust is so rarely described as a great comic writer. Perhaps it’s because readers focus instead on the beauty of his prose or his extraordinary psychological insight. It could be because contemporary literary culture undervalues comic fiction. I think though the real reason is that those people who read Proust know perfectly well how funny he is, but most people who discuss or refer to him don’t actually read him. See also: Joyce.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah kicks off with Marcel inadvertently seeing a gay hookup between M. de Charlus and a tailor named Jupien. M. de Charlus is of course one of the Guermantes; at the pinnacle of the social ladder (he frequently looks down on royalty). M. Jupien is a tradesman.

Normally two men of such disparate backgrounds would never become friends or have any kind of social contact. Homosexuality though is a bridge across such barriers. When any romance you might have is already forbidden, it doesn’t much matter if the target of your affections is the wrong class.

Proust uses this apparently trivial incident to springboard a near-40 page consideration of what he considers the miracle of gaydar (though obviously he doesn’t call it that); the misery of isolated gay men living with what they consider a shameful perversion (lacking a wider gay community to contextualise their emotions); and the vagaries of gay love and life in then-contemporary France.

If that sounds modern, it’s because Proust is quintessentially modern. That’s part of his genius. Another part though is that Proust takes these topics, shocking at the time and tragic with hindsight, and just plain has fun with them.

For the two angels who were posted at the gates of Sodom to learn whether its inhabitants (according to Genesis) had indeed done all the things the report of which had ascended to the Eternal Throne must have been, and of this one can only be glad, exceedingly ill chosen by the Lord, who ought to have entrusted the task only to a Sodomite. Such a one would never have been persuaded by such excuses as “A father of six, I’ve got two mistresses,” to lower his flaming sword benevolently and mitigate the punishment. He would have answered: “Yes, and your wife lives in a torment of jealousy. But even when you haven’t chosen these women from Gomorrah, you spend your nights with a watcher of flocks from Hebron.” And he would at once have made him retrace his steps to the city which the rain of fire and brimstone was to destroy. On the contrary, all the shameless Sodomites were allowed to escape, even if, on catching sight of a boy, they turned their heads like Lot’s wife, though without being on that account changed like her into pillars of salt.

For the rest of the book homosexuality remains a major theme. M. de Charlus is a key figure in this volume, and a brilliant comic creation with his mix of vanity, snobbery and lust (I particularly liked that M. de Charlus is widely known to be gay, but utterly convinced that he’s fooling everyone and completely incognito). Lesbianism also features heavily, but I’ll come back to that separately.

From gay sex and cross-class dating (hard to know which is more shocking), Proust goes on to nearly 130 pages describing a party thrown by the Guermantes. After all that, you’re still only a third of the way through the book.

Marcel turns up at Oriane’s uncertain as to whether or not he’s actually invited. As Oriane has burly footmen present to chuck out any gatecrashers he’s naturally a little anxious, but Marcel by now is an accomplished party-goer and something of a figure in society. He is a prized guest, much in demand.

The party itself is full of wonderful comic set-pieces. Here M. de Charlus is speaking with his excellency the Duke of Sidonia. Proust has revealed they share a common vice, but it’s not the one the reader expects:

M. de Charlus and M. de Sidonia had each of them immediately detected the other’s [vice], which was in both cases that of being monologuists in society, to the extent of not being able to stand any interruption. Having decided at once that, in the words of a famous sonnet, there was “no help,” they had made up their minds, not to remain silent, but each to go on talking without any regard to what the other might say. This had resulted in the sort of confused babble produced in Molière’s comedies by a number of people saying different things simultaneously. The Baron, with his deafening voice, was moreover certain of keeping the upper hand, of drowning the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia—without however discouraging him, for, whenever M. de Charlus paused for a moment to draw breath, the gap was filled by the murmuring of the Spanish grandee who had imperturbably continued his discourse.

Marcel passes on leaving them to their soliloquies, but having made it past the door guards soon finds himself facing another social challenge. Marcel has not been introduced to the prince, M. de Guermantes, who is hosting with Oriane. Marcel cannot of course introduce himself, but equally he must greet his host. How then can he arrange an introduction?

What follows is a series of stratagems and ruses to effect an introduction to a man Marcel has previously spoken with, but who by society’s rules he has not been introduced to. After several attempts he gets M. de Charlus to agree to introduce him, but then a chance comment offends the ever-prickly Charlus and Marcel is no closer. Then he tries Mme de Souvré, who knows both him and the prince:

Mme de Souvré had the art, if called upon to convey a request to some influential person, of appearing at once in the petitioner’s eyes to be recommending him, and in those of the influential person not to be recommending the petitioner, so that this ambiguous gesture gave her a credit balance of gratitude with the latter without putting her in debit with the former. Encouraged by this lady’s civilities to ask her to introduce me to M. de Guermantes, I found that she took advantage of a moment when our host was not looking in our direction, laid a motherly hand on my shoulder, and, smiling at the averted face of the Prince who could not see her, thrust me towards him with a would-be protective but deliberately ineffectual gesture which left me stranded almost where I had started. Such is the cowardice of society people.

The party is filled with other comic vignettes, including one man who is so fawning that he has “an excess of politeness which he maintained even when playing tennis, thus, by dint of asking leave of the eminent personages present before hitting the ball, invariably losing the game for his partner)”. There are, however, darker currents also.

At this point in the narrative, evidence is emerging that Dreyfus is in fact innocent and that senior army figures lied. Until now whether you were a Dreyfusard or an anti-Dreyfusard was more a matter of tribal allegiance than anything else; a short-hand for describing your broader politics. With evidence of innocence though, that starts to change.

Some anti-Dreyfusards faced with new facts start to question their beliefs, though mostly quietly so as not to be ostracised by their friends (there is a nice sequence where a husband and wife both form Dreyfusard views, but each keep it from the other). Some however see the weakening of their case as reason to argue it all the more strongly, such as M. de Guermantes “who evidently considered that to denounce Dreyfus as guilty of high treason, whatever opinion one might hold in one’s heart of hearts as to his guilt, constituted a sort of thank-offering for the manner in which one had been received in the Faubourg Saint-Germain”.

Worse yet, as the Dreyfus case begins to unravel the anti-semitism rife in French society becomes even more outspoken. Swann is among those who become known as Dreyfusards. His views are no longer particularly unusual, but while one cannot easily condemn a prince for Dreyfusard sympathies Swann is a Jew and one may always condemn the Jews:

“I have always been foolish enough to believe that a Jew can be a Frenchman, I mean an honourable Jew, a man of the world.”

“Don’t you see,” M. de Guermantes went on, “even from the point of view of his beloved Jews, since he is absolutely determined to stand by them, Swann has made a bloomer of incalculable significance. He has proved that they’re all secretly united and are somehow forced to give their support to anyone of their own race, even if they don’t know him personally. It’s a public menace. We’ve obviously been too easy-going, and the mistake Swann is making will create all the more stir since he was respected, not to say received, and was almost the only Jew that anyone knew. People will say: Ab uno disce omnes.”

There is of course a kind of parallel here; gays and Jews both being outsider groups having to assimilate into a dominant and intolerant culture. Ostensibly, society accepts Jews and condemns gays. Proust, however, has an unerring eye for hypocrisy and is only too aware that his society will accept gays provided they are discrete but will never regard Jews as truly French.

Following the party, Marcel goes on holiday (for several months) to Balbec. It’s his first visit since his grandmother’s death, and while to date he hasn’t really felt her loss somehow being back in that context brings it suddenly home. He can no longer knock on the wall between their rooms and expect her to come round to tend to him. He can knock all day, but she will never again answer.

Proust’s description of Marcel’s grandmother’s final decline and death was one of the highlights (if that’s the right word) of The Guermantes Way. Here Proust writes of grief with the same skill. Once it emerges it’s everywhere. Even when he feels moments of happiness, the fact of feeling happy itself triggers the grief anew as he feels guilty for not feeling sad.

Grief swallows Marcel, and through it he sees too how much his grandmother’s loss has devastated his mother. No emotion though, happy or sad, can entirely consume us indefinitely even if we would wish it to. Soon, Marcel is attending such society as Balbec presents and otherwise spending his days with Albertine, whom he may or may not love but certainly desires.

Proust contrasts the glitter of Paris society, explored in the Guermantes’ party, with the more provincial and bourgois Balbec scene. Here the Verdurin’s rule. They are a family of bourgeois who rent a highly desirable house from the Cambremer family. The Cambremer’s have title and position, but no money, and Proust has great fun with the sniping and condescension between the two.

Marcel is again in high demand (hardly surprising given his status in Paris) and soon becomes part of the Verdurin set. M. de Charlus also shows up, pursuing a romance, and himself becomes a highly prized Verdurin catch (they are however so far out of mainstream society that they ask M. de Charlus if he has ever met the famous M. de Guermantes, unaware that the two are brothers and unsure whether to believe him when told).

Marcel should then be happy. He is in his beloved Balbec; he has society and he has Albertine who being of a slightly lesser family than Marcel’s and not having much by way of money is as affectionate as he might wish. Marcel though has spent his entire life with women who catered to his whims, and as we saw in the first volume when his mother did not come immediately to tuck him in at night he takes poorly to his women (the possessive is intentional) having any kind of life beyond his needs.

In particular, Marcel becomes fixated on the thought that Albertine may be a lesbian. He finds this unbearable, less because it means she is unfaithful than because it makes her part of a world utterly beyond his control. Marcel is both jealous and unreasonable, putting her constantly to the test and never satisfied for long with the answers he gets.

I could have dispensed with seeing her every day; I was happy when I left her, and I knew that the calming effect of that happiness might last for several days. But at that moment I would hear Albertine as she left me say to her aunt or to a girlfriend “Tomorrow at eight-thirty, then. We mustn’t be late, the others will be ready at a quarter past.” The conversation of a woman one loves is like the ground above a dangerous subterranean stretch of water; one senses constantly beneath the words the presence, the penetrating chill of an invisible pool; one perceives here and there the treacherous seepage, but the water itself remains hidden.

To be fair, there is some evidence that Albertine may be gay, or at least bisexual. Partly this allows Proust to discuss gay women just as he has gay men, with Marcel obsessively seeking out information about women he has heard are lesbians so as to discover Albertine’s connections to them. Partly too this shows a less attractive side of Marcel, and his obsessive and controlling nature.

I could easily keep writing, but I’ve already written far too much. In a few weeks I’ll try to write a follow-up post on the role of the car and airplane in this volume and how these new technologies epitomise the arrival of modernity, but I’m already well over 2,000 words here and I’ve not managed to say as much as I’d have liked about the relationship between Marcel and Albertine, or the dynamics of the Verdurin set, or the comic descriptions of the hotel staff (including for me the only missed beat in the book – the hotel managers wearying malapropisms which aren’t nearly as hilarious as Proust seems to think they are), or a hundred other things…

At times I found The Guermantes Way heavy going; I had to push myself through parts of it and it tested my desire to read the whole sequence. Sodom and Gomorrah though, with its insight, its humour and its sheer richness, restored me. This was the first of my #TBR20. If I have another #TBR20 after this one, volume five will definitely be among that number.

Other reviews

Emma of Book Around the Corner has a page devoted to Proust, here. She wrote three separate pieces on this volume alone, and I recommend all of them. Her main piece is here, she wrote an article on the treatment of homosexuality in this volume here, and I found this piece on the comic nature of this volume (drawing comparisons with Molière) particularly fascinating. If you read only one of Emma’s read the Molière (then read the others, they’re worth it). Emma also helpfully links to this piece from Caravana de Recuerdos and this rather good one from Vapour Trails.

Finally, Allan Massie in The Telegraph, shows here that at least some of the more mainstream commentators do get that Proust is, among much else, a great comic writer.


Filed under French Literature, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist Fiction, Proust, Marcel

fields of mud crushed under the weight of of the impending dark

The A26, by Pascal Garnier and translated by Melanie Florence

I’ve long wanted to read Pascal Garnier. He’s been well reviewed on the blogosphere, I love noir and his books sounded punchy and darkly funny. The A26 was my first. Unfortunately, I absolutely hated it.


Bernard and Yolande are brother and sister. Bernard is in advanced middle age, Yolande is elderly and hasn’t left their house in decades. They’re hoarders, nothing is ever thrown out; Yolande never leaves and she and Bernard inhabit a bizarre twilight world of their own creation. Bernard however is dying.

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up to it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. His body’s like this house, coming apart at the seams. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blocked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

Yolande’s only interaction with the outside world is peering at it through a small hole in the door. There’s a new road being constructed nearby, progress continuing in the wider world while utterly resisted in their private one. Bernard used to go out to work, but now he’s retired so mostly he just goes out for shopping and to kill strangers.

Yup, Bernard’s a serial killer. There’s no particular reason he is. He starts killing for no obvious reason other than that the plot kind of demands it, and the fact that the entire book wallows in horrible and pointless deaths. At one point one poor sod happens just to drive past a character and moments later is described as being killed in a terrible car crash. It’s post-bleak, absurdly so (but not for me comically so).

Yolande is a solipsistic narcissistic delusional psychopath. Bernard isn’t particularly narcissistic or delusional, but he still does ok on the solipsistic psychopathy front.

In the sky the dark was spreading like a pool of ink. A sprinkling of stars appeared. Bernard aimed his finger and rubbed out a few. Every second, some of them died, people said. What did that matter when four times as many were born in the same time? The sky was an enormous rubbish tip.

His attitude to people reflects his attitude to stars. We don’t matter, and there’s always more where any of us came from.

I found the characters and story here a parade of grotesqueries, utterly artificial and contrived. It reminded me in some ways of Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, with his (in that case initially credible) characters tortuously contorted, prodded and pulled into the shape demanded by his improbable plot. I also found it rather sexist (“A woman, even if she’s in her pinny and wearing a black eye, always tidies her hair in the rear-view mirror.” – seriously?).

Anyway, I hated this one too much to give it a fair review. For me it had no real redeeming features but was just 100 pages of relentless ugliness, but I’m in a minority and it’s been very well received on the blogosphere as has Garnier more generally. I’m not therefore arguing that this is a bad book, simply that it was a (very) bad book for me.

It may be that I’m not just not Garnier’s reader, or it may be that I am but not for this book. I will note however that the Melanie Florence translation read well, quite simply it wouldn’t be possible to dislike it as much as I did if the translation were weak (odd as that may sound).

Other reviews

There’s a good few, but I’ll link to two in particular and invite anyone reading to link to others in the comments. This is from Stu at Winstonsdad, because Stu is always good value and there’s nobody better informed on translated literature, and this from Tomcat of Tomcat in the Red Room because I love his blog and I don’t get to link to it as often as I’d like since we often read different books.

I suspect most reading this already know Stu and don’t need me to recommend him further. Tomcat though you may not know, in which case I’d encourage you to take a look over his blog generally as his level of analysis really is very good indeed. Frankly here I think he just gets the novel better than I did, I simply bounced off it and that was that, but Tomcat’s review is sophisticated and well-informed and a great example of why I follow his blog.


Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Garnier, Pascal, Noir, Novellas

The sound of a motorhorn separated us like thieves.

Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan and translated by Irene Ash

It’s nearly a month now since I read Bonjour Tristesse, but the memory of it still cuts through the books I’ve read since. It’s no surprise this was a massive hit when first published; it’s delicious.


Now that, that is a good cover. Brilliant even.

Cécile, “seventeen and perfectly happy”, is on holiday with her father, “a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and attractive to women.” They’ve taken a villa on the French Riviera and it’s no wonder she’s so happy, for she’s her daddy’s darling and she’s young, pretty and rich. “I dare say I owed most of my pleasures of that time to money; the pleasure of driving fast, of having a new dress, buying records, books, flowers.”

Her father’s current mistress is staying with them, Elsa, “a tall red-haired girl, sensual and worldly, gentle, rather simple, and unpretentious; one might have come across her any day in the studios and bars of the Champs-Élysées.” Cécile, emulating her father, idles her time away with Cyril, a university student who is “tall and sometimes beautiful, with the sort of good looks that immediately inspire one with confidence.”

The holiday is a sojourn in paradise. Everything is perfect, for Cécile anyway. Her days are awash with confident, spot-free adolescent sensuality.

The first days were dazzling. We spent hours on the beach overwhelmed by the heat and gradually assuming a healthy golden tan; except Elsa, whose skin reddened and peeled, causing her atrocious suffering. My father performed all sorts of complicated leg exercises to reduce a rounding stomach unsuitable for a Don Juan. From dawn onwards I was in the water. It was cool and transparent and I plunged wildly about in my efforts to wash away the shadows and dust of the city. I lay full length on the sand, took up a handful and let it run through my fingers in soft yellow streams. I told myself that it ran out like time. It was an idle thought, and it was pleasant to have idle thoughts, for it was summer.

Then however comes the “amiable and distant” Anne – “At forty-two she was a most attractive woman, much sought after, with a beautiful face, proud, tired and indifferent.” Elsa has youth and enthusiasm on her side, but Anne is in a different league. Educated, sophisticated, possessed of unquestionable taste, Anne is the epitome of bon chic, bon genre. Elsa hasn’t a hope against competition like that.

Soon Elsa’s out and Anne’s firmly in, and Cécile’s at first delighted since she likes Anne and perhaps aspires one day to be like her. Then it dawns that Anne has quite clear ideas about the kind of life she wants, and about the desirability of father and daughter leading a carefree existence of sun and pleasure (and Anne has a point, given that Cécile frequently wakes up with a hangover).

Worse yet, Cécile’s father seems actually serious about Anne, she’s not just another lover, she’s genuine competition for his interest and affections. Quite quickly Cécile decides she wants Anne back out, and the easy-going Elsa back in the picture.

The Times’ quote on the cover refers to the book as “thoroughly immoral”, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Instead I’d say it’s delightfully amoral. Cécile is like a less innocent Emma, arranging the lives of those around her in accordance with her views of how things should be, but unlike Emma she’s working to her convenience rather than their perceived benefit. In a way Cécile is something like a cat, attractive and affectionate but essentially self-interested.

Sagan was 18 when she wrote this and in part that shows. The emotions here are big emotions, this is (as the old Hollywood cliché goes) a summer that Cécile will never forget and it’s all rather dramatic. We’re definitely not in Colm Tóibín-type territory here where nothing much happens, slowly.

Bonjour Tristesse is a novel of surfaces, perhaps also reflecting Sagan’s age. Everyone here is pretty much as they appear to be, the only person with any ulterior motives is Cécile and we know those as she’s the narrator (and she’s a reliable narrator). This isn’t a novel where you’ll be spending ages considering possible meanings, symbolism and themes, it is what it fairly plainly is. That’s ok though, because it’s not trying for that kind of depth and it succeeds marvellously at what it does try for, at evoking an immediacy of experience.

The next morning I was awakened by a slanting ray of hot sunshine that flooded my bed and put an end to my strange and rather confused dreams. Still half asleep I raised my hand to shield my face from the insistent heat, then gave it up. It was ten o’ clock. I went down to the terrace in my pyjamas and found Anne glancing through the newspapers. I noticed that she was lightly, but perfectly, made up; apparently she never allowed herself a real holiday. As she paid no attention to me, I sat down on the steps with a cup of coffee and an orange to enjoy the delicious morning. I bit the orange and let its sweet juice run into my mouth, then took a gulp of scalding black coffee and went back to the orange again. The sun warmed my hair and smoothed away the marks of the sheet on my skin. I thought in five minutes I would go and bathe.

I love that quote. There’s a tremendous intensity about the sun and the coffee and the orange. Even a month later it still resonates with me, and when I think of this book that’s what I think of, Cécile sitting in the fierce sun gulping scalding black coffee and biting into an orange. It’s character made manifest through breakfast.

To an extent Bonjour Tristesse reminds me of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which is high praise given that’s one of my favourite novels of all time. It has that same sense of people playing with others’ lives without troubling themselves as to the damage they might do in the process. It has that same sense too of revelling in sheer physical pleasure and a heedlessness born of privilege without responsibility.

In case it’s not obvious I distinctly enjoyed Bonjour Tristesse. I had meant to buy the Heather Lloyd translation (I don’t recall why), but the Irene Nash was the one in stock when I went to Foyles so that’s what I read. I can’t of course compare the two translations, not having enough French and more importantly not having read both, but the Nash was a fluid read that didn’t once jar me with apparent anachronisms or odd turns of phrase so I’d have no hesitation at all in recommending it (though that doesn’t mean of course it’s good, for all I know the French text is packed with anachronisms and odd turns of phrase after all).

Other reviews

I’m not aware of any other reviews of this in the blogosphere, but if I’ve missed any please let me know in the comments.


Filed under French Literature, Sagan, Françoise

everything is harder once you reach man’s estate

 Zone, by Mathias Enard and translated by Charlotte Mandell

Zone is famously, and misleadingly, a novel in the form of a single 517 page sentence. It’s about the least interesting thing you can say about the book, and it’s not even actually true.


Francis Servain Mirkovic is travelling by night-train from Paris to Rome. He’s a French intelligence agent, formerly a Croatian nationalist fighter in the Yugoslav civil war. He’s a fascist sympathiser, a war criminal, and now arguably a traitor as his only luggage is a briefcase full of faded secrets that he plans to sell to the Vatican so that he can make a new life.

Zone follows Francis’ thoughts on the journey. Unable to sleep his mind scatters over his own past and the history of the places the train passes. Geography here is history, with near every inch of European soil the site of ancient or modern atrocities, horror and death. From time to time he dips into a novel about a Palestinian fighter, his stream of consciousness being replaced each time by the far more conventional narrative structure of that tale.

The bulk of the book, all save the three chapters where Francis is reading the novel within the novel, is stream of consciousness. Enard uses commas and natural pauses in place of full stops, so that while the narrative never quite stops (until you reach the end) it has a natural rhythm and is actually very easy to follow. Practically this means that the book does in fact have fairly clear sentences and isn’t any harder to read than most any other book, but the lack of full stops helps convey the sense of irresistible forward momentum.

History too often seems to have an irresistible forward momentum. What happens, happens, and is then left behind vanishing from view as we hurtle ever onwards into the future. If only. The reality of course is that history leaves traces that linger with us, echoes through the years and since we never learn anything from it repeats itself with changed details but a wearyingly familiar pattern.

Zone doesn’t wear its influences lightly (you really don’t need to worry much here about missing them, Apollinaire is about the only one that isn’t pretty much spelled out). Images of the Iliad in particular recur constantly, an epic poem densely packed with the tragedy and futility of war. The Trojans and Achaeans fought for money, pride and a woman, causes no less irrational than most of those which followed in future wars.

As a young man Francis was inspired by nationalist sentiment to fight in Yugoslavia, following a path of radicalisation distinctly comparable to that followed by contemporary teenagers going to join up as Jihadis in the Middle East. Francis thinks of his battles in Homerian terms, and perhaps he’s right to do so since the reality appears to have been one of lengthy waits interspersed with moments of terror and brutality, which is largely what the Iliad portrays.

Francis isn’t the cheeriest of souls:

I dreamed, sitting between two dead cities the way a tourist, swept along by the ferry that carries him, watches the Mediterranean flow by under his eyes, endless, lined with rocks and mountains those cairns signaling so many tombs mass graves slaughter-grounds a new map another network of traces of roads of railroads of rivers continuing to carry along corpses remains scraps shouts bones forgotten honored anonymous or decried in the great roll-call of history cheap glossy stock vainly imitating marble that looks like the twopenny magazine my neighbor folded carefully so as to be able to read it without effort,

By virtue of sentiment and occupation Francis looks out on the landscape and sees not the art, the social movements, the steady advances in comfort and widened opportunity, but instead the endless unmarked graves. He sees the march of industry and technology, but through the lens of two world wars, the Holocaust, the Bosnian camps and the commoditisation of carnage.

Apollo the archer of the East also guided the Turkish artillerymen near the well-guarded Dardanelles, on the banks of the Scamander, facing Cape Helles where the monument to unknown soldiers of the battle of Gallipoli stands, white as a lighthouse, you can read over 2,000 British names there for as many bodies whose remains are scattered throughout the peninsula along with the dusty bones of 1,200 unidentifiable Frenchmen from the years 1915-1916, before the Eastern Expeditionary Corps gave up and went to try its luck near Thessalonica in support of the Serbs against the Bulgarians, leaving the Dardanelles and the Bosporus inviolate after ten months of battle and 150,000 French, Algerian, Senegalese, English, Australian, New Zealanders, Sikh, Hindu, Turkish, Albanian, Arab, and German corpses, like so many Boeotians, Mycenaeans, brave Arcadians, or magnanimous Cephallenians against the Dardanians, Thracians, Pelasgians with the furious javelins, or Lycians come from afar, guided by the spear of blameless Sarpedon,

He’s right of course, ours is a bloody history. Francis was once one of those warriors, he looks back on his soldier-days and remembers companions he loved and saw maimed and killed; it was horrible but at the same time he was filled with youthful passion and purpose, he believed in something. Since then he became a bloodless functionary, recording grim secrets of uncertain importance. His briefcase is a record of testimonies of betrayals and killings across the twentieth century, lost stories destined to be locked in a Vatican archive.

Zone has been hailed as potentially one of the first truly great books of our century. I think it’s far too early to call that, but it is a thoughtful and resonant read. There’s a lot more here than statistics of slaughter. Francis’ mind turns to the three great relationships of his life, one long ended, one more recently and one that he hopes waits for him in Rome. He thinks back to his family; to his companions in Yugoslavia; to the lives and works of people like William Burroughs, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Curzio Malaparte (he has a fondness for writers of greater talent than wisdom); reflects on the daily lives and rationalisations of Nazis as they carried out their industrialised murder.

From time to time he dips into the novel he carries, about a Palestinian fighter named Intissar who has just lost her lover to an Israeli machine gun. Francis finds Intissar’s story intensely moving, its deeply personal focus on a single woman’s struggle reminds him of his own experiences in Yugoslavia but given dramatic weight, and her loss is easier to empathise with than the mass anonymity of 3,000 years of organised killing.

Defeat begins with the feet. It insinuates itself first into the same boots that were supposed to lead to victory, the ones you’d gotten ready, for years, for the last parade. Defeat begins with the boots that you polished every morning, the ones that grew misshapen, covered with dust, the ones that kept the blood from your toes as well as they could, that crushed insects, protected you from snakes, withstood stones on the path. Physical at first, like a cramp that makes you limp, defeat is a weary surprise, you begin to stumble, in war you totter on fragile feet. Suddenly you feel what you’d never felt before, your feet can no longer run, they refuse to carry you into the attack—suddenly they’re paralyzed, frozen despite the heat, they no longer want to serve the body that owns them.

Many reviews have commented on the novel within the novel having a notably clumsier technique than Francis’ own narrative, seeing it as a pastiche of banal mainstream thrillers. I think that’s a misreading, partly as I don’t think the Intissar passages are particularly badly written but mostly as Francis makes frequent literary references pretty much every one of which is to highly regarded and influential literary figures (Tsirkas crops up a lot too, and Cavafy). Instead I think the Intissar passages are showing what Francis longs for, a narrative that even if terribly sad follows a path that makes sense, that has personal meaning and that carries at the end a possibility of redemption. Francis wants to leave his own history behind, reinvent himself as a new man in Rome, trade his briefcase of dry tragedy for a life and a future that doesn’t merely continue his past.

I let myself be carried away, page after page, and although I’ve already spent a large part of my day as an ambiguous functionary reading—notes, reports, forms, on my well-guarded screen—there is nothing I desire more then than a novel, where the people are characters, a play of masks and desires, and little by little to forget myself, forget my body at rest in this chair, forget my apartment building, Paris, life itself as the paragraphs, dialogues, adventures, strange worlds flow by,

Because Zone follows the train’s route precisely we can’t of course know what happens to Francis once he disembarks. We have only his journey; his memories, fantasies and brief dreams in snatched moments of sleep. Spend 500 pages in anyone’s skull and it becomes hard not to sympathise with them, particularly if they want to reinvent themselves, to be better than they were. He has doubts himself about the possibility of what he seeks, knowing too well his own history of incipient alcoholism and mood swings as pitilessly set forth in his own personnel file held by his agency and shown to him by a friend.

I’ll have to let myself be carried to Rome and continue the battle, the fight against the Trojans great tamers of mares, against myself my memories and my dead who are watching me, making faces

The Paris-Rome train is a metal cage crossing history but never escaping it. Francis’ own history is carried with him, chained to him as he chains his briefcase to the luggage shelf. Enard avoids any easy redemptive arc; Francis may despair of the past but he can’t let go of it, he enjoys too much the minutiae of old incidents. He knows the Iliad portrays nothing worth praising, but he’s aware too of how it makes that nothing both thrilling and majestic.

I drank as I thought of Andrija’s anger of his tears after the city fell, Andi a toast for you, for your rage that day or the next I forget when Fate sent us two prisoners after an ambush, one was wounded, the other unhurt was trembling with fear he said my father has money, my father has money, if you let me go he’ ll give you a lot of money, he was too afraid to lie, we had picked them up when they were trying to desert, I was tempted to let them run, I was about to hand them over to a grunt so he could take them to Osijek, but Andrija arrived, are you out of your mind? You forgot Vukovar already? Not one of them should escape, and he machine-gunned them at length, right away, without hesitating, looking them in the eyes, fifteen cartridges each in the chest, on my bed in the Hotel Danube a toast for Andi great shepherd of warriors, a toast for the stupefied gaze of the two little Serbs when the brass pierced them, a toast for the Vukovar cemetery in the falling night, for the Ivry cemetery one spring morning, for the soldiers of ’14, the Resistants the ones condemned to death and a toast for my pater probably a murderer neither a Resistant nor a man condemned to death who is keeping them company today, as the train slows down to enter Reggio in gentle and beautiful Emilia,

I chose that final quote because while it doesn’t reference the Iliad it reminded me of it very strongly, and I think intentionally. In one scene Ulysses takes a prisoner and promises life in exchange for information, but kills as soon as he learns what he wanted to know. In another Achilles takes a young man captive who begs for his life offering ransom and who Achilles has no reason to kill, but Achilles is mad with grief for Patroclus and kills the young man anyway. Anyone who thinks the Iliad heroic in the modern sense hasn’t read it. This passage is the Iliad reduced down from myth, stripped back to needless murder.

The difficulty here with quotes is that it’s impossible to get the sense of the sheer sweep of the book. Dark as it is it’s an enjoyable read, filled with frequent diversions (admittedly mostly on rather horrible subjects) and observations. Enard’s prose rocks the reader along; you’re travelling first class here with a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

I can’t say of course if Charlotte Mandell’s translation is any good or not (it never jars, but for all I know the original could be clunky as anything), but it’s a hell of an achievement. The sheer number of reviews of this book is in part a testament to how readable it actually is and how rewarding (or to how none of us dare criticise a book so highly praised, something I’m not looking forward to when I review Nora Webster which apparently everyone loves but me).

I’ll end with a brief comment on the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions, which is a new small press publisher in the UK with so far only four books published. Zone is exactly the sort of novel I want to see getting published in the UK. It takes risks, it tackles difficult questions of memory and history, it experiments with style without losing itself into unreadability in the process. That doesn’t mean I want more Zones; but I do want more publishers like Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Other reviews

Before I give links to some other reviews, it’s worth flagging a fascinating interview with the translator here which includes some really interesting insights into the book’s structure (including the page count being equal to the number of miles between Rome and Paris, which I hadn’t realised). If you’re cautious about spoilers it may be best leaving the interview though until after you’ve read the book, though this isn’t really a book that’s vulnerable to spoilers particularly.

On the blog front this has been very widely reviewed, particularly brilliantly by Stephen Mitchelmore at thisspace here. Other reviews I found worth noting are by Stu of Winstondad’s Blog here, at 1streading’s blog here, at the ever marvellous Workshy Fop’s blog here, and at David Hebblethwaite’s blog here, There are also of course plenty of newspaper reviews, many very good indeed. The only one I’ll link to though is Nicholas Lezard’s here, because it’s by far the most ambivalent review I’ve read of the book and so provides a nice counterpoint to the others.


Filed under Enard, Mathias, Fitzcarraldo Editions, French Literature, Modernist Fiction

“Oriane is a snob”

The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust and translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enwright

Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics.

This is not the easiest volume of Proust. In fact, if you’ve never read Proust this volume is exactly what you were probably afraid he would be like – 100+ page descriptions of dinner parties in which very little happens, very slowly.

The writing here is rarely less than beautiful, and of course it’s only part of a much larger body of work, but it’s a challenge. Fortunately it redeems itself at the end, sufficiently so that it doubles my list of books I struggled with only to find the last few pages made the effort worthwhile (Antic Hay’s the other one, if you’re wondering).

As I write this my cat is occasionally jumping up and wandering across the keyboard, as cats do. Any insights of note are therefore likely hers.


Images of the covers I have, which are rather nice period sketches in red and grey, sadly appear to be unavailable online. The flower covers aren’t bad at all, but I prefer the sketch-covers.

Perhaps even more than most volumes to date, the Guermantes Way is almost two books in one. In the first the narrator begins to enter Paris society, but he is still in many ways a boy. He forms a massive crush on the noted and beautiful society hostess Madame de Guermantes, to whom he has a rather distant connection, and essentially starts to stalk her. He arranges his walks at times of day when he is sure to run into her, and exploits his friendship with the aristocratic young soldier Saint-Loup to arrange an introduction the woman plainly doesn’t want. Wherever she goes, there he is.

Just as previously the narrator hero-worshipped the painter Elstir then held Albertine up as the essence of his desires made flesh, now he again creates a fantasy in place of a person. The difference here is that he had opportunity to meet Elstir and Albertine, while Madame de Guermantes quite naturally wants nothing to do with this odd youth who seems so peculiarly fixated on her. She combines beauty with immense social cachet, and her wit (the Guermantes’ family are famed for their wit) is legendary. As long as she’s seen from afar she’s the perfect woman.

There’s more of course, vastly more. There are whole sections on the life of the family and servants at their new apartment in Paris. There’s a wonderful and painful moment when Saint-Loup introduces his mistress to the narrator, only for the narrator to recognise her as a prostitute who used to work in a brothel he once frequented. Much more painful however is the decline of the narrator’s grandmother.

That decline leads an extraordinary passage, too long to quote, where Proust meditates on how when we see people we mostly see them as we expect to. It’s only when we see them after a long absence, or in some unexpected circumstance or perspective that we suddenly see them as they are. We see where weight has been put on, where frailty has crept up, we see the signs of age or illness that normally are invisible to us because they manifest so slowly that we miss their onset. The narrator’s grandmother is old, and increasingly unwell, and wrapped in her love for him and his for her he hasn’t noticed, until suddenly he does:

I saw, sitting on the sofa beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, day-dreaming, letting her slightly crazed eyes wander over a book, an overburdened old woman whom I did not know.

The account of the narrator’s grandmother’s decline into illness and death is staggeringly well written, and because of that rather horrible. There’s no dignity in it, just frailty and pointless suffering, the body turned from ally to incomprehensible enemy. The grandmother passes from being a person to an object, but this transfiguration comes long before she actually dies as she becomes the subject of indifferent doctors and the servant Francoise who is so eager to show how much she cares that she completely ignores any evidence of the grandmother’s actual wishes. It’s difficult stuff to read.

That’s the thing with Proust. Few people nowadays have lingering illnesses at home with doctors and family in attendance. We die in anonymous hospitals. Few of us too  discover that our best friend’s girlfriend used to be a prostitute. Those are particulars though. Seeing a loved one fall into illness, losing their dignity along the way, that’s sadly damn near universal. Knowing something about someone a friend loves but not knowing whether to tell that friend or not, lots of us have had that particular experience. Part of the richness of Proust is that he reaches through his particulars to the universal human experience underneath.

Quoting Proust is particularly tricky because of his fondness for slabs of text with sentences running on, comma after comma, filled with diversions and allusions, descriptions and dialogue flowing like rivers down a rocky slope occasionally heading off in an unexpected direction and catching in eddies along the way, not always reaching the destination you expected at the outset. Here’s a lengthy excerpt from a marvellous set-piece at the theatre where the narrator continues to explore his fascination with the great actor Berma, but finds her star beginning to be eclipsed for him by the yet more glittering world of the salons:

Next to me were some vulgar people who, not knowing the regular seat-holders, were anxious to show that they were capable of identifying them and named them aloud. They went on to remark that these “regulars” behaved there as though they were in their own drawing-rooms, meaning that they paid no attention to what was being played. In fact it was the opposite that took place. A budding genius who has taken a stall in order to see Berma thinks only of not soiling his gloves, of not disturbing, of conciliating, the neighbour whom chance has put beside him, of pursuing with an intermittent smile the fleeting glance, and avoiding with apparent want of politeness the intercepted glance, of a person of his acquaintance whom he has discovered in the audience and to whom, after endless indecisions, he makes up his mind to go and talk just as the three knocks from the stage, resounding before he has had time to reach his friend, force him to take flight, like the Hebrews in the Red Sea, through a heaving tide of spectators and spectatresses whom he has forced to rise to their feet and whose dresses he tears and boots he crushes as he passes. On the other hand, it was because the society people sat in their boxes (behind the tiered circle) as in so many little suspended drawing-rooms, the fourth walls of which had been removed, or in so many little cafés to which one might go for refreshment without letting oneself be intimidated by the mirrors in gilt frames or the red plush seats, in the Neapolitan style, of the establishment – it was because they rested an indifferent hand on the gilded shafts of the columns which upheld this temple of the lyric art – it was because they remained unmoved by the extravagant honours which seemed to be being paid them by a pair of carved figures which held out towards the boxes branches of palm and laurel, that they alone would have the equanimity of mind to listen to the play, if only they had minds.

Phew! There are of course pages more. I’m not sure it’s the most illustrative quote I could have chosen, but I did rather like it. It also gives me the excuse to share a painting I love, which is housed at the Courtauld Gallery not far from where I work. It’s Renoir’s La Loggia:


What that quote does illustrate is Proust’s wit. Much of that lengthy passage is a setup for that final line. The whole thing is an exercise in absurdity. You have to go with the flow though. You have to sit down, immerse yourself in it, let it wash over and through you. Anything else and it becomes trench warfare, advancing a paragraph or so a day with an increasing sense that you’re not going to make it out of this one alive.

Speaking of trench warfare, we have the second part of The Guermantes Way. In the first section the narrator makes his first real steps in society, joining the salon of Madame de Villeparisis, which is decidedly unfashionable. In the second he finally finds himself a guest of Madame de Guermantes, Oriane given he’s now on first-name terms.

Oriane’s salon is utterly unlike that of Madame de Villeparisis. Where once the narrator attended dinners in which those present gossiped about those not present, repeated the latest stories from society and showed off their wit, now he attends dinners where those present gossip about those not present, repeat the latest stories from society and show off their wit. It’s a whole new world.

To be fair, the guests at Oriane’s salon are the most sought after in Paris. She plays host to princesses and persons of note. Oriane’s wit is sharper than most, though not perhaps quite as sharp as reputation has it, and there isn’t the nagging sense of the slightly provincial which comes through in the scenes at Madame de Villeparisis’ salon. Still, much of what’s best in this section is the narrator’s wilful refusal to even admit to himself that one salon is much like the other, that the Guermantes’ home is not the Elysium he dreamed it would be. That Oriane may, at the end of the day, be merely human after all.

Proust’s character study of Oriane is a masterpiece, not least in his examination of her comprehensive and unremitting snobbery. Oriane does not consider herself a snob, she is an egalitarian in fact, proudly oblivious to class distinctions. It is mere happenstance that she married a man of her own station, that her guests are the cream of society socially if not always intellectually, and that she treats her servants with what seems to be kindness but is in fact indifference to their actual preferences. Were she alive today she would doubtless have a regular column in the Guardian.

In the second of her four pieces on this book Emma of bookaroundthecorner said “We all know a Mme de Guermantes.” It’s true of course, it’s hard to get through life without meeting those whose values are held loudly but lightly. Oriane values artists, but not art; comment, but not analysis. She is unthinking, unreflective, cruel and petty because she swims only in the shallows. It’s not a kind comment on Paris society of Proust’s age that she represents its pinnacle, nor on the narrator that for all he can see exactly what she is he remains just as attracted by it and by the social success access to her promises.

I talked above about this volume being a challenge, but one that ultimately pays off. I’ve spent longer at the dinner parties of Madames de Villeparisis and de Guermantes than I have some dinner parties in real life. Given that part of what’s being shown is the vacuity of Paris society life, that means hours and pages spent at the table with people who can be amusing but rarely interesting.

Part of what makes all that worthwhile is the way Proust uses it to explore broader currents in then-contemporary society, in particular how the Dreyfus affair is becoming a fault-line in France in the way that say abortion is in the US today, with your position on that one issue being taken as a litmus test for where you stand on a whole range of essentially unrelated issues.

So, you’re pro-Dreyfus? That implies you’re politically liberal, anti-militarist, progressive, none of which may of course be true, you might be highly socially conservative and just think that Dreyfus happens to be innocent (or at least that his guilt isn’t proven). If you are though a pro-establishment Dreyfusard you can expect to be viewed with a certain suspicion by others on your side of the political debate, you’re off-message at minimum.

The Dreyfus case brought into conflict issues of trust in the military, the status of Jews in French society (which was horrifically anti-semitic), whether tradition has inherent value or whether it should be challenged and examined. The details of the Dreyfus case itself are now fairly obscure, particularly if like me you’re not French, but the broader sweep of the debate remains very current. It’s a specific manifestation of that age-old conflict between the forces of progressivism and conservatism. Dreyfus is an Edward Snowden, a human barometer of wider political sentiment.

On the subject incidentally of ongoing political relevance, here’s a quote which seemed to me to be as true today as it was when written:

He was, indeed, in the habit of always comparing what he heard or read with an already familiar canon, and felt his admiration quicken if he could detect no difference. This state of mind is by no means to be ignored, for, applied to political conversations, to the reading of newspapers, it forms public opinion and thereby makes possible the greatest events in history. A large number of German Café owners, simply by being impressed by a customer or a newspaper when they said that France, England and Russia were “provoking” Germany, made war possible at the time of Agadir, even if no war occurred. Historians, if they have not been wrong to abandon the practice of attributing the actions of peoples to the will of kings, out to substitute for the latter the psychology of the individual, the inferior individual at that.

The other element of payoff is watching the narrator’s slowly failing struggle to maintain his own illusions. He wants to believe in Madame de Guermantes, and through her in the world she represents and is the paragon of, but evidence is the enemy of faith. Well, generally it is. My own faith in the brilliance of Proust is being slowly rewarded and proven true, but like all faiths it’s sometimes tested and this volume is easily the most testing to date.

Emma of book aroundthecorner wrote four excellent and highly perceptive posts on this volume, all of which can be found on her Reading Proust page here. Emma also links to two articles written on the Vapour Trails blog, the first of which is here. Séamus Duggan is the blogger there, and in the second of his posts he says “Sometime I may be able to distill and analyze these books but at the moment it feels like trying to describe water in motion. Always the same but forever changing.”  I genuinely couldn’t have put that better myself (so I quoted it, blogs are a conversation after all).  There are worlds in Proust, any blog post (even four like Emma did) can only scratch the surface. You just have to dive in.


Filed under French Literature, Proust, Marcel