Category Archives: French Literature

“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

Fundamentally, this is political.

Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Fatale is under 100 pages long, and that’s including a Jean Echenoz afterword. By page two the protagonist has coolly murdered a man without hesitation or warning. Soon after she’s on a train out of town, she’s dyed her hair blonde and she’s carrying a briefcase full of money. That’s the thing with Manchette, he doesn’t mess around.


Love that cover.

Here she is, still on the train. She’s ordered food:

Next she lifted the cover of the hot plate, revealing a choucroute. The young woman proceeded to stuff herself with pickled cabbage, sausage and salt pork. She chewed with great chomps, fast and noisily. Juices dripped from the edge of her mouth. Sometimes a strand of sauerkraut would slip from her fork or from her mouth and fall on the floor or attach itself to her lower lip or her chin. The young woman’s teeth were visible as she chewed because her lips were drawn back. She drank champagne. She finished the first bottle in short order. As she was opening the second, the pricked the fleshy part of a thumb with the wire fastening, and a tiny pearl of scarlet blood appeared. She guffawed, for she was already drunk, and sucked on her thumb and swallowed the blood.

Next she’s rubbing banknotes on her naked body while sniffing choucroute and champagne. She’s an animal, unrestrained. Come morning though, as the train pulls into the small town of Bléville, “she had retrieved all of her customary self-assurance”.

In Bléville she claims to be a young widow, interested in buying a large property. She’s pretty and she has money. In no time at all she’s part of Bléville society such as it is. All the worse for Bléville.

Manchette’s work is always political. Aimée, as the woman now calls herself, is a predator disguising herself among the capitalist classes as one of their own. Is she really disguised though, or is she simply an example of their philosophy taken to an extreme? Aimée is buttoned-down, controlled and manipulative. When she’s not working though she’s an animal, her frenzy of unrestrained consumption punctuating her dispassionate search for more to consume.

Bléville is a tediously typical small French town with little to particularly recommend it. The town’s bourgois-elite guard their privileges closely, smugly comfortable and resentful of those just below them on the social ladder (who else do they have to fear after all other than those who could most readily take their place?).

The town’s rich take Aimée as one of their own. She blends in, attending their parties. In her spare time though she practices martial arts and prepares herself. She’s all business.

Lying in her hot bath, she opened the crime novel she had bought. She read ten pages. It took her six or seven minutes. She put the book down, masturbated, washed, and got out of the water. For a moment, in the bathroom mirror, she looked at her slim, seductive body. She dressed carefully; she aimed to please.

Aimée isn’t the only outsider. Baron Jules is a local, but outside the town’s rigid social heirarchy. He’s privileged by birth, but has no money. He detests the town’s old guard and he knows their secrets. He’s perfect for Aimée, who aims to bring chaos and to profit from the creative destruction that ensues. Baron Jules has never known how to strike back against the class he both belongs to and loathes. Aimée though, the perfect capitalist, can find profitable use for a man who spends his day trying to live outside of capitalism.

It’s not long before Aimée’s at the centre of the town’s tensions. As she observes to herself, it’s always the same (she’s done this before). “Sex always comes up first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes.”

Bléville has its old crimes, like everywhere else. One of those old crimes involves the local canned goods factory and a poisoning incident that led to the deaths of a “baby, two or three old people, along with thirty or so cows”. The incident was a major local scandal:

Many solid citizens pretended to be appalled; quite a few, out of stupidity, really were appalled.

Business, however, continued.

This is a blackly funny book. Aimée regularly passes a sign that exhorts the locals to “KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN!” It’s a case of be careful what you wish for, because Aimée’s passion for profit is going to wash right through and carry the town’s corruption with her. She is the logic of bourgois greed made hungry flesh.

This being Manchette it’s no spoiler to say that the final section of the book turns into a tightly-written bloodbath. Then again, how could it not? The locals can’t compromise with Aimée any more than an ailing company can compromise with a vulture fund that’s just bought up a majority holding of its stock. Aimée is liberating moribund assets so that they can be more productively deployed elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean the people currently holding those assets like it any.

I haven’t (couldn’t) read the French original, so I can’t of course say how faithful this translation is. It reads smoothly though and the sheer punch of the novel suggests that not too much has been lost crossing over into English. Certainly if I saw Nicholson-Smith’s name on the front of another book I’d count it as a positive. The NYRB edition also comes with an excellent afterword by Jean Echenoz, as I mentioned above. It sheds light on the text (not least that Bléville could be roughly translated as “Doughville”, making the town’s name a shout-out to Hammett), and is a very welcome addition. It’s also welcome to have it after the book, as opposed to Penguin who have a tendency to put essays up front even though they naturally tend to contain massive spoilers.

Guy Savage has reviewed Fatale, here, and has as ever some great insights – particularly on the politics. He’s also got a great quote regarding the town’s newspapers that I wish I’d thought to write down myself. I also found online a very interesting review from a blog I wasn’t previously familiar with, here, which is also good on the politics and on some of the background around the novel and Manchette himself.


Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir

‘Be more careful how you express yourself, my child. Calling people and things by their names has never done anyone any good.’

Gigi and The Cat, by Colette, translated by Roger Senhouse and Antonia White respectively

I grew up with musicals. As a child, staying with my maternal grandmother, I used to love watching them with her. Dazzling choreography, great songs, and all in glorious Technicolor. Singin’ in the Rain remains my favourite film.

I saw Gigi back then, the 1958 musical with Leslie Caron in the lead role, but I don’t think I understood much of what was going on. Quite recently I saw it again, and absolutely loved it. It’s a joy of a film, with some great songs (I Remember It Well being a particular standout) and set pieces. It also has a tremendous cast, including of course Maurice Chevalier (whose Thank Heaven for Little Girls remains the dodgiest song I’ve ever heard in a musical, even as a child it seemed a bit questionable to me, though at least the singer does wait for them to grow up).


Colette’s original novella, here translated by Roger Senhouse, is just as much a joy as the film was. Perhaps more so, because it can afford a cynicism that Hollywood largely had to expunge and because Colette’s observations are so utterly delicious.

Gigi is a pretty young Parisienne, still in essence a child. Her mother is a moderately unsuccessful actress who has passed responsibility for Gigi’s upbringing largely to her own mother, with whom they both live. Gigi’s grandmother has plans for the girl, and to that end is having her trained by her own sister, Aunt Alicia.

What is Gigi being trained in? Well, that’s what I missed as a child watching the film. Gigi’s aunt is a grand courtesan, her grandmother was a courtesan too, though not so grand. Gigi, the illegitimate daughter of an actress, has very few career paths open to her and the one she’s being prepared for whether she knows it or not is the life of a serial mistress.

What follows is a wonderful clash of youth and idealism on the one hand, and age and guile on the other. Gigi’s innocence and sheer spirit has captured the friendship of the most eligible young man in Paris, Gaston Lachaille, but now she’s starting to leave childhood the possibility arises that she could be something more to him than just a friend. Gigi doesn’t understand that yet, but her grandmother and great-aunt most certainly do. If only Gigi showed the slightest aptitude for their training…

Don’t ever wear artistic jewellery; it wrecks a woman’s reputation.” ‘What is an artistic jewel?’ ‘It all depends. A mermaid in gold, with eyes of chrysoprase. An Egyptian scarab. A large engraved amethyst. A not very heavy bracelet said to have been chased by a master-hand. A lyre or star, mounted as a brooch. A studded tortoise. In a word, all of them frightful. Never wear baroque pearls, not even as hat-pins. Beware above all things, of family jewels!’ ‘But Grandmamma has a beautiful cameo, set as a medallion.’ ‘There are no beautiful cameos,’ said Aunt Alicia with a toss of the head.

This is novella as macaroon, a perfectly crafted little delicacy, beautiful to look at and delightful to bite into (why yes, I do love macaroons, why do you ask?). Gigi’s lessons are full of acerbic little asides (“The telephone is of real use only to important businessmen, or to women who have something to hide.”) and pretty much every page had me laughing.

The three great stumbling-blocks in a girl’s education, she says, are homard à l’Américaine, a boiled egg, and asparagus. Shoddy table manners, she says, have broken up many a happy home.

Colette here manages to be both cynical and romantic, to have her gateau and to eat it. I could quote it endlessly, and can easily imagine rereading it. It’s just huge fun.

All of which makes it a bit of a shame that I didn’t like the other novella in the Vintage Classics edition I read at all. The Cat is actually an earlier work by Colette (1933, whereas Gigi is 1945). It’s the story of a young man who has a frankly unhealthy relationship with his pet cat and the rivalry that develops between that cat and his new bride.

I grew up with cats, and have loved them all my life. This should then be the novella for me. Unfortunately though I’ve never met a cat that behaved remotely like the cat Saha does in this story – too human to ever be convincingly cat. Then again, I’ve never met humans who behaved much like the humans do in this story either.

Alain, Saha’s owner, is an unwordly sort who is marrying more from duty than love. Here he coldly considers his new bride:

Alain listened to her, not bored, but not indulgent either. He had known her for several years and classified her as a typical modern girl. He knew the way she drove a car, a little too fast and a little too well; her eye alert and her scarlet mouth always ready to swear violently at a taxi-driver. He knew that she lied unblushingly, as children and adolescents do; that she was capable of deceiving her parents so as to get out after dinner and meet him at a night-club. There they danced together, but they drank only orange-juice because Alain disliked alcohol. Before their official engagement, she had yielded her discreetly-wiped lips to him both by daylight and in the dark. She had also yielded her impersonal breasts, always imprisoned in a lace brassière, and her very lovely legs in the flawless stockings she bought in secret; stockings ‘like Mistinguett’s, you know. Mind my stockings, Alain!’ Her stockings and her legs were the best things about her. ‘She’s pretty,’ Alain thought dispassionately, ‘because not one of her features is ugly, because she’s an out-and-out brunette. Those lustrous eyes perfectly match that sleek, glossy, frequently-washed hair that’s the colour of a new piano.’ He was also perfectly aware that she could be as violent and capricious as a mountain stream.

It’s a long quote, but an interesting one. This is his bride to be, but note the complete lack of passion. Here, by contrast, Alain considers his cat:

As soon as he turned out the light, the cat began to trample delicately on her friend’s chest. Each time she pressed down her feet, one single claw pierced the silk of the pyjamas, catching the skin just enough for Alain to feel an uneasy pleasure. ‘Seven more days, Saha,’ he sighed. In seven days and seven nights he would begin a new life in new surroundings with an amorous and untamed young woman. He stroked the cat’s fur, warm and cool at the same time and smelling of clipped box, thuya and lush grass. She was purring full-throatedly and, in the darkness, she gave him a cat’s kiss, laying her damp nose for a second under Alain’s nose between his nostrils and his lip. A swift, immaterial kiss which she rarely accorded him. ‘Ah! Saha. Our nights . . .’

Leaving aside the anthropomorphising there, we’re in distinctly creepy territory. That’s not a problem per se, though it wasn’t clear to me whether I was supposed to find Alain quite as profoundly distasteful as I did, the issue is that this is a character driven tale without a single character one cares about.

It’s about the lowest form of book criticism to say a book is bad because it has no likeable or sympathetic characters, and that’s close to where I’m getting here so I need to be a little careful. I read noir though, and it never bothers me there that frequently everyone in the story is utterly repellent.

The issue here is that Alain is so fixated on his cat he moves beyond the credible. He becomes almost an image of mental illness, but that’s not what this story is. His bride, efficient, modern, is put in the incredible situation of competing for her husband’s affections with his cat but since I didn’t believe in the husband or the cat the whole setup just became rather artificial.

As I grew distant from the story it jarred more and more. At one point, Saha becomes concerned that she’s upset Alain and so scoops “up a rusk from the table and held it between her paws like a squirrel.” Cats lack both the empathy and the grip to do anything like that. If I’d been enjoying the story I’d have read that passage generously, but I wasn’t and instead it became just another unconvincing detail.

For me then The Cat became a hugely contrived tale featuring a conflict that I didn’t believe in between characters who didn’t persuade me. It’s neat, and I don’t say that remotely as a compliment. Gigi is a vastly more accomplished tale. I’ll return to Gigi, but I doubt very much I’ll ever return to The Cat.

I should add, by way of postscript, that as I write this I’m actually surprisingly tired, my own cat having shown a distinct lack of empathy last night and having woken me repeatedly as she wanted to curl in and was annoyed I wasn’t responding. I love cats, but putting the feelings of others ahead of their own isn’t one of their core strengths as a species.


Filed under Colette, French Literature, Novellas

Does one ever write other than to preserve a moment?

In The Absence Of Men, by Phillipe Besson and translated by Frank Wynne

As an adolescent I thought that most adults were idiots, obsessed with things of no consequence and seemingly wilfully ignorant of anything that really mattered. Now I’m an adult myself, and I have many of the same concerns as the adults I once looked down on. That doesn’t of course mean that I was wrong, it could just be that I joined the idiots.

In the Absence of Men is, in part, a novel of adolescence. It’s also a novel about first love, about grand passion and undying commitment. Most of us make undying commitments as teenagers, but they tend to pass. At 16 we are all immortal, it’s easy to expect things to last forever when you know in your heart that’s how long you’ll last yourself. Here’s the first paragraph:

I am sixteen. I am as old as the century. I know there is a war, that soldiers are dying on the front lines of this war, that civilians are dying in the towns and the countryside of France and elsewhere, that the war – more than the destruction, more than the mud, more than the whistle of bullets as they tear through a man’s chest, more than the shattered faces of the women who wait, hoping sometimes against hope, for a letter which never arrives, for a leave of absence perpetually postponed, more than the game of politics that is played by nations – is the sum of the simple, cruel, sad and anonymous deaths of soldiers, of civilians whose names we will one day read on the pediments of monuments, to the sound of a funeral march.

The narrator is a boy of aristocratic, or at the very least haute bourgeois, family. The year is 1916 and and a boy born with the century is both old enough to enter into adult society and yet too young to be called to the front. It’s a privileged position, and all the more so when the boy in question is intelligent, precocious and extremely good looking.  In peacetime a 16 year old of good birth, however good looking, would be unlikely to come to the attention of a great man. In wartime however, in the absence of men, everything is possible.

The great man I’m referring to is called Marcel. In Paris, in 1916, he doesn’t need to give his surname. He and the narrator, whose name is eventually revealed as Vincent de L’Étoile, form a close friendship. Perhaps too close for propriety, but then as Vincent observes: “We live in a world in which everyone knows and says nothing.” 

Vincent is a boy filled with the vanity and self-importance of youth and beauty. He sees the friendship of Marcel Proust as no more than his due, a natural compliment to his own gifts and charms. He sees his parents as dolts, well meaning but lacking his sophistication and worldly insight. “My conception was not planned. My coming was an accident. They transformed this curse – for curse it must have seemed at first glance – into an important, long-awaited event.” He is, of course, profoundly vain: “In my bedroom mirror I face my reflection. I see my black hair, my green eyes, the hint of a smile.”

By way of aside, having a character look in the mirror and then describe their own appearance is generally an extremely lazy authorial trick for wedging in details of what the protagonist looks like. How many of us spend time pondering our own images in this way in reality? I suspect very few, except of course as teenagers when one’s own image can be the subject of doctorate-level investigation. Vincent returns time and again to his black hair, his green eyes, beautiful as he is one has the distinct impression that nobody spends as much time looking at him as he does himself. Vincent falls in love in this novel, but arguably he starts it in love too, just not with someone else.

Marcel’s friendship is deeply important to Vincent. The two meet, in cafes, in Marcel’s bedroom from which he receives all his more important guests. Exciting as all this is though it becomes almost a sideline when Vincent discovers a different and much more immediate sort of passion in the form of Arthur, 21 year old son of Vincent’s family governess. Arthur is home from the front for a brief leave, almost every night of which he will spend in Vincent’s bed.

Besson then has set up an examination of different forms of love, one based more on intellect and bonds of friendship, another which is physical and raw. As the novel progresses it switches (quite naturally) to an epistolary style which allows Besson to speak in each of the central three character’s voices, Vincent, Marcel and Arthur. It’s one of the novel’s many strengths that I never had to check which name was at the bottom of a letter, from style alone I knew who had written what.

In the Absence of Men was Besson’s first novel, and it’s hard to think of a greater statement of ambition in a first novel (particularly by a French writer) than to include Marcel Proust as a character and then to include letters ostensibly written by him. I’ve so far only read two volumes of Proust, but that’s enough to say that Besson pulls it off. For Besson Proust is a character focussed on what was, on memories and the reconstruction of a past forever out of reach. Proust goes beyond mere nostalgia though in using those memories to reconnect more deeply with the present. As Besson has Proust say:

I work with memory. Some think of it as mere nostalgia, they say I am retrospective. I study the past the better to control the present and I discover feelings in the present which I know from experience of the past. Memory weaves a connection between yesterday and today. It is as simple as that. No need to look any further. I say: time is these moments I spend with you, it is no more than that.

Arthur by contrast is not so intellectual, thoughhis use of language is at no less a level of sophistication than that of Vincent or Marcel. At first Arthur’s eloquence struck me as somewhat unlikely, but on reflection as son to the governess to Vincent’s family it may well be that he would have been highly educated even if his station wouldn’t have allowed him to do much with it.

Arthur has no desire to reflect on the past, which since his entry into the war has become filled with horror. He cannot gaze on the future either though, because all that offers is a return to the front and the likelihood of death or maiming. For him there is only the present, physical passion as an escape from a temporal Charybdis and Scylla. 

In the Absence of Men is very much a novel of language. Vincent is fond of epigrams (“Surely it is important to leave no trace behind?”, “Does one ever tell a tale other than one’s own?”), and is deeply conscious of the literary potential of his own experiences. He writes as if for an audience (naturally, since Besson in fact is writing for an audience). The letters later in the book are equally carefully crafted, even Arthur’s from the front. Each is designed to be read carefully and scrutinised for meaning.

At times the book is powerfully erotic. Although Besson has none of Hollinghurst’s fondness for explicit description, and there’s no direct portrayal of actual sex, as filmmakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age knew you can get pretty steamy without showing any actual action. Here’s one example:

 As day breaks, I study your face, turned from me and resting on your right arm; the folds at the nape of your neck; the hollow between your shoulder-blades where the sun has cast a pool of light; your back strewn with freckles, like points of reference for later use; your downy buttocks on whose crown the sheet has come to rest; your heavy sleep.  

It’s also intensely French. and at times almost archly pretentious. Whether of course that’s a question of Besson’s style, or the fact that at 16 Vincent almost certainly is a bit on the pretentious side is hard to say on the strength of one novel, but everything here is deeply meaningful and considered in a way that is ultimately quite alien to English traditions (which are often fiercely, even bumptiously, anti-intellectual). That doesn’t stop it however from often being very funny. I particularly loved how Vincent’s father becomes concerned at the time Vincent is spending with Arthur, not because he suspects their affair but because of the class divide:

Father says: you were seen with Blanche’s son. You know how fond we are of Blanche, how much we appreciate her. In fact, she would hardly still be in service with us after almost twenty years if we didn’t have some small affection for her. Her son seems a fine lad. He is honest, hard-working, he has been educated – I believe he is a schoolmaster – and is doing his duty as a soldier to defend his country. But you must understand that these people are not of our world, and it is important that we keep a certain distance from them. We have always opposed this kind of contact between the classes, this social mixing – no good can come of it, believe me. I feel obliged to discourage you from seeing the lad again, do you understand? This may seem a little harsh now, but later you will thank me for helping to preserve the purity of our class. I do not answer. To my father, this silence amounts to acquiescence. I make no attempt to contradict his repellent convictions. Mother, for her part, can accept such friendships as these turbulent times create. She is happy that her son is not alone. She says: the solitude of wartime can be very destructive. You shouldn’t deprive yourself of the company of people your own age. She could not possibly guess the nature of the company I keep with Arthur. I am grateful for her encouragement, and for her naïvety, which merely typifies her stupidity.

 In the main I loved In the Absence of Men. I found the characters convincing, the writing often beautiful and the rawness of emotion persuasive. Sadly towards the end Besson relies on what even Vincent describes as “the most bizarre coincidence” to bring various plot strands together and in doing so makes things too neat, too convenient.

It’s a shame because that neatness wasn’t necessary, books about language and emotion don’t need tidy endings and In the Absence of Men would have been a better book without one.  It’s a significant flaw in an otherwise highly successful book, but it’s a flaw some readers might well forgive and some might even admire. One reader’s excessive neatness is another’s satisfying resolution after all.

I read In the Absence of Men because Emma of bookaroundthecorner raved about it here at her blog. I bought it almost immediately after reading her thoughts on it, and while I have that caveat regarding the ending in the main I agree with Emma. In the Absence of Men is well written and perhaps more importantly is ambitious, both in the way large parts of it are written in the second person and of course in the use of Proust as a central character. It’s no wonder it made an impact on its 2001 release.

Like Vincent itself it sets out to impress, confident of its own charms, and if perhaps at times it’s not as clever as it thinks it is it’s nonetheless dazzling and quite charming. Thank you Emma, and here’s hoping that more Besson makes it into translation (Frank Wynne has already translated a second Besson in fact, but so far it’s only available in hardback. Let’s hope that changes).

While writing this I found that Stu of Winstonsdad’s blog has interviewed Frank Wynne. The interview is here, and if you’ve any interest in translated fiction and don’t already know Stu’s blog it’s well worth exploring a few of his posts while you’re there.


Filed under Besson, Phillipe, Epistolary Novels, French Literature

Everything was natural now

The Train, by Georges Simenon and translated by Robert Baldick

Before I started blogging Simenon to me meant Maigret, and since I wasn’t interested in Maigret I wasn’t interested in Simenon. As anyone actually familiar with Simenon will know though Maigret was just one part of his hugely prolific output. He also wrote noir fiction, psychological thrillers, and novels like The Train.

The Train is a story of small lives caught in grand events. Marcel Feron is a self-employed radio repairman living with his wife and their young child in an ordinary French town near the Belgian border. Their life is ordered and quiet. Marcel isn’t quite a happy man, but he’s not an unhappy one either.

The year is 1940. For some time now Marcel has been listening on his radios to reports of German troop buildups and rumours of invasion. The rumours are true. The Germans roll into Belgium and it’s clear that it will not be long before they are in France. Soon everyone in the area is deciding whether to flee or stay.

I don’t know what the two women said to each other. From the noises I could hear, I gathered that they weren’t the only ones outside, that women were calling to one another from doorstep to doorstep. When Jeanne came back, she looked pale and even more drawn than usual. “They’re going!” she told me. “Where?” “South, anywhere. At the end of the street I saw more cars going past with mattresses on the roof, Belgians mostly.”

As an aside, does anyone know why people used to take their mattresses? Were they particularly expensive back then?

Marcel and his wife, like many others, have done nothing to prepare for this day despite the many signs that it was coming. Oddly Simenon puts in a rather unconvincing psychological explanation for this on Marcel’s part – an idea that he saw himself as destined for this kind of disruption due to events in his childhood.

Given that nobody in the novel has made any real preparations for the arrival of war, and given the story’s about an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary time, the explanation seemed unnecessary and in any event wasn’t particularly persuasive. It’s not a huge flaw, and it doesn’t come up much after the opening few pages, but it did seem that Simenon felt a need to justify something that simply didn’t require it.

The decision is taken to flee with a few core possessions packed into suitcases. Lacking a car they head to the train station where they join a growing mass of terrified townsfolk. Fortunately they are able to board one of the few trains available.

It was the gendarmes who finally got tired of holding back the crowd. They suddenly broke the cordon and everybody rushed toward the five or six freight cars at the rear of the train. At the last minute I had given Jeanne, together with the food, the suitcase containing Sophie’s things and some of hers. I was left with the heavier of the two suitcases, and with my other hand I was dragging along as best I could the black trunk, which was bumping against my legs at every step. I didn’t feel the pain. I wasn’t thinking of anything, either. I hoisted myself up, pushed by the people behind me, and, trying to stay as near as possible to the sliding door, I managed to put my trunk against the side of the car and sit down on it, panting for breath, with the suitcase on my lap. Everything was natural.

The women and children are put on one carriage and the men on another. Everything is confusion though. Carriages are taken off and attached to different trains. Carriages are added on. Come the morning Marcel’s carriage and his wife’s are on different trains and he is on his own. The French countryside is awash with Belgian refugees many of whom are also being transported by train. Their transports and the French are meant to be kept separate, but soon Marcel’s train has both French and Belgian carriages. Nobody knows where they are, or where their train is headed. As another passenger says:

“If only I knew where I could find my wife and kids! Back there, they treat you like soldiers or prisoners of war: do this, do that, don’t get out on the platform. They give you an orange juice and sandwiches, the women up in front, the men at the back, shoved together like cattle. They cut the train in two without telling you, they machine-gun you, they separate you—in fact, you aren’t human beings anymore.. . .”

Although Marcel’s carriage (a cattle car) is supposed to be men only it does have a few women on it too. One of them starts a sexual relationship with one of the men, the two of them lying so close to Marcel at night on the packed train that he can feel the moment of penetration. Another woman (possibly foreign) forms a bond with Marcel after he gives her some water and he becomes her protector – seen by the others quite clearly as her man (and she as his woman). On a train adrift somewhere in France the normal rules no longer apply.

The Train then is a novel about a man swept out of his life and everything he is familiar with. As the book opens Marcel is a conservative sort living a comfortable if passionless existence. The war tears everything away and leaves him stripped and directionless, but with his context changed he changes too.

The obvious comparison is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Three to Kill. In both novels an ordinary man is separated from what he knows by events utterly outside his control. In both the result is a change in the man – the man being a product of his situation.

Three to Kill is ultimately a better novel than The Train and is certainly the more disturbing. The Train though is probably more realistic, and is interesting for its exploration of a small life caught up in world-spanning events. Marcel is a refugee; a man become an administrative problem. For him though exile from home is a form of liberation. People die in The Train. Germans strafe civilians and France of course falls. For Marcel though it is a strange form of holiday. The suggestion is that he’s not alone in that.

In the end I didn’t love The Train. I think that’s reflected in the fact this review features more description than reaction. I did enjoy it though and I don’t at all regret reading it. It’s well written and the translation flows smoothly (save at one point when a French character is identified as Jeff, was that really the character’s name in the original text?). Marcel’s connection with the woman he meets on the train is nicely realised and Simenon skilfully captures the psychology of a man caught in the paradox of being at his most alive at the very time his life is on hold.

The Train is published by Melville House as part of their Neversink Library series – “books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored”. I got my copy free for review through netgalley. The Melville House page for The Train has quotes hailing it as a masterpiece and as having “no false note”. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it certainly deserved bringing back into the light and I’m glad Melville did so.

I’ll end with one final quote. It has nothing to do with the review, though it is from The Train. I just liked it too much not to include it.

… somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much.



Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Simenon, Georges