Category Archives: French

He looks down at the dry earth and he knows that it’s been too dry for marks now for weeks

February roundup

I read fewer books in February than January, but better books. Here they are.

The Crew, by Joseph Kessel

This is a Pushkin Press release written by an author who actually served in the French air corps in World War 1. Here he draws on that experience to tell a story about a young airman, his fellow crewman, and the woman they both love.

A crew live or die by their closeness to each other – their instinctive mutual understanding. Anything which comes between them, which disturbs their bond, risks leaving them exposed and as the book more than once demonstrates death is always waiting above the battle lines. How can you maintain trust though when one of you is sleeping with the other’s wife?

It’s really very good. The air scenes are well done, the pilots and crew are convincing and the relationships work well. I particularly liked that while one never sees the woman’s perspective it’s quite evident that while the characters think of her as an essentially passive object for their affections she’s actually nothing of the kind.

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

 

This one’s a classic Greenian tale of colonialism and complicity explored through a jaded British journalist and a dangerously naive American (“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”). As with The Duel, they both love the same woman and Greene uses their relationship with her to explore the colonial powers’ wider relationship with Vietnam itself.

As with The Crew there’s again a sense that both the men are too concerned with what the woman means to them to ever consider what she might mean to herself (“One always spoke of her like that in the third person as though she were not there.”). Greene uses this to tell a tale that can be read purely as personal tragedy or as the tragedy of a nation and as a critique of an entire philosophy of supposedly humanitarian intervention. Brilliant stuff.

How many dead colonels justify a child’s or a trishaw driver’s death when you are building a national democratic front?

The Long Dry, by Cynan Jones

A sparsely written tale of a farmer struggling with an unhappy marriage and problems caused by drought and heat. On finishing it I immediately bought another by Jones.

The prose is lean and muscular, yet poetic at the same time. There’s a tremendous sense of the sheer toughness of rural life – the hard work, the speed and ease with which things can go wrong, but the beauty too. Kimbofo wrote a very good review of it here which I recommend reading.

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

I bought this because it featured on someone’s end of year list, and then promptly forgot whose. It’s a deceptively simple tale of an elderly retired soldier who now makes his living reading the news to isolated communities. He agrees to take care of a young girl recently recovered from the American Indian tribe who took her captive and to transport her back to her surviving kin.

Along the way they’ll face bad weather and worse men. It’s a really nicely realised classic Western and it might well make my end of year list too. I wrote a full review of it here.

February summary

Only four books read (and none of them very long), but all four were in their different ways excellent. If every month’s reading were as good as that I’d be very happy indeed.

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Filed under Chaze, Elliot, French, Greene, Graham, Historical fiction, Jiles, Paulette, Jones, Cynan, Military fiction, Pushkin Press, Westerns

Men are dogs, they rub against each other in misery,

Street of Thieves, by Mathias Enard and translated by Charlotte Mandell

Like most people who read it I was hugely impressed by Mathias Enard’s Zone. It was well written, structurally clever and fascinating in its exploration of some of the darker aspects of European history.

However, let’s be frank. Zone was also fairly dense going. Street of Thieves positively zips along. Zone may be the better book, but Street is more fun.

Lakhdar is a young man living in Tangiers. He spends his days hanging out with his friend Bassam while hoping to get somewhere with his cousin Meryem. He has a passion for French policiers and he and Bassam share dreams of meeting foreign girls and of one day escaping to Barcelona. He suffers deeply from “the incurable melancholy of hormones.”

It’s a pretty typical teenage life but it’s not to last. Lakhdar and Meryem end up in bed together but they’re caught in the act. She’s sent to the countryside in disgrace and he’s thrown out by his family for shaming them.

Lakhdar spends the best part of a year living rough outside Tangiers and barely surviving. This part of the book is plainly inspired by Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone (which Lakhdar later reads) and there’s a parallel between Lakhdar and Choukri’s experiences and destitution. The difference is that here this is only a small part of the book and before too long (in pages at least) Lakhdar is back in Tangiers and finding his feet again.

He’s helped by his old friend Bassam, who during Lakhdar’s absence has joined Propagation of Koranic Thought – a small Islamist group headed by the charismatic Sheikh Nureddin. They give Lakhdar a room to sleep in and a job selling Islamic pamphlets. It’s a pretty good gig as they don’t ask too much of his time, they have a small classical Arabic library which they’re happy to let him read and they don’t mind him reading his (distinctly unislamic) policiers or browsing on the group’s one laptop.

Enard is excellent at realising the small details of Lakhdar’s life and the two Tangiers he becomes increasingly aware of. Early on he realises that for foreigners Tangiers is associated:

with a permissiveness that it never had for us, but which is offered to the tourist in return for hard cash in the purse of misery. In our neighbourhood, nobody ever came, not a single tourist.

There’s the locals’ city and the international city, and there’s nothing easy in moving from one to the other. Lakhdar is becoming restless, and troublingly Sheikh Nureddin’s group is beginning to seem a bit less innocent to him. The Sheikh’s followers spend their evenings arguing angrily about injustices and start going out at night with clubs to attack businesses they consider unislamic.

Lakhdar only takes part in the group’s violence once and quickly finds that he has no stomach for it. He and Bassam begin to drift apart – Bassam is a believer while Lakhdar is only there for lack of somewhere better to be.

Then, unexpectedly, Lakhdar and Bassam finally do meet two of those fabled foreign girls, a pair of Arabic language students from Barcelona. It couldn’t be more perfect. What follows is a marvellous mixture of comedy in the mismatched dates and an exploration of the sheer excitement of being young.

The girls agree to hang out with the local boys because one of them, Judit, likes Lakhdar. He’s interesting, exotic (to her as she is to him), and he speaks some limited French which when put with her limited Arabic allows them to actually have a conversation. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Judit’s friend is less taken by her date. Bassam only speaks Arabic and she’s not got as far in her studies as Judit has. Where Lakhdar is interested in the wider world Bassam interprets it only through the lens of Islamic politics. He decides to win his date over by explaining the finer points of Islam to her in ever louder Arabic on the basis that if he keeps shouting she’ll eventually understand him.

Lakhdar and Judit make a connection, walking through the streets with Bassam behind them bellowing at Judit’s unfortunate friend:

Judit was observant and attentive; we had spoken of Revolution, of the Arab Spring, of hope and democracy, and also of the crisis in Spain, where everything can’t all be sweetness and light – no work, no money, beatings for anyone who had the gall to be ‘Indignant’. Indignation (which I had read vaguely about online) seemed a sentiment that wasn’t very revolutionary, the sentiment of a proper old lady and one that was sure to get you beat, a little as if someone like Gandhi without plans or determination had sat down one fine day on the pavement because he was indignant about the British occupation, outraged. That would no doubt have made the English chuckle softly. The Tunisians had set themselves on fire, the Egyptians had gotten themselves shot at on Tahrir Square, and even if there were real chances of it ending up in the arms of Sheikh Nureddin and his friends, it still made you dream a little. I forget if we had mentioned, a few weeks later, the evacuation of the indignados who had occupied Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona, chased away like a flight of pigeons by a few vans of cops and their truncheons, supposedly to make room to celebrate Barça’s championship win: that’s what was outrageous, that football would take precedence over politics, but apparently no one really protested, the population realizing, deep down inside, that the success of its team was, in itself, a beautiful celebration of democracy and of Catalonia, a Great Night that reduced Indignation to a negligible quantity.

Street of Thieves isn’t a long book, just 209 pages, but it is packed. It explores the Arab Spring and the European protest movements as it follows Judit and Lakhdar’s burgeoning relationship. There is a sense of possibility as their relationship gently moves forward, even if it is sometimes rather hampered by the fact their best common language is classical Arabic:

You try acting funny and charming in literary Arabic, it’s no piece of cake, believe me; people will always think you’re about to announce another catastrophe in Palestine or comment on a verse of the Koran.

Things grow more strained when the rest of Propagation mysteriously disappear shortly before a terrorist attack in Marrakech. Judit was travelling in the city at the time and saw Bassam there. She and Lakhdar fear what that might mean.

Lakhdar loses his home and job with the departure of Propagation, but soon bounces back. He gets hired to help digitise old French manuscripts (he’s cheap outsourced labour). He reads the whole of Casanova; types up ancient records of North African soldiers slain fighting for the French in World War I. Judit’s studies carry her away from Tangiers and their relationship struggles with distance. It’s life. Elsewhere the Arab Spring is in full swing, the Indignados are protesting, Occupy is occupying. For Lakhdar though “The revolution wasn’t happening anytime soon.”

I don’t want to talk too much more about the story. I’ve not yet described that much of it and there’s lots more with Lakhdar eventually finding his way out of Tangiers and later into Europe itself. The gap between West and East is one of many themes here. It’s a gulf of dreams and understanding: Europe and the Arab world; Judit and Lakhdar. Lakhdar reflects:

My country was Tangier, at least that’s what I thought; but in truth, I had realized that afternoon, Judit’s Tangier did not coincide with mine. She saw the international city, Spanish, French, American; she knew Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, and William Burroughs, so many authors whose remote names vaguely reminded me of something, but about whom I knew nothing. Even Mohamed Choukri, icon of Tangier, I knew who he was, but of course I had never read a word by him.

Here those viewpoints are switched. Instead of American or European authors dreaming of a Tangiers which is as much romantic fiction as reality here it’s Lakhdar that’s dreaming; it’s Europe that’s exotic. Take this passage, from shortly after Lakhdar’s arrival in Barcelona as he sees the city he’s so long dreamed of:

The bus went down Avinguda Diagonal, palm trees caressed the banks, the noble buildings of past centuries were reflected in the glass and steel of modern skyscrapers, the yellow and black taxis were countless wasps scattering at the sound of the bus’s horn; elegant and disciplined pedestrians waited patiently at the crossroads, without using their superiority in numbers to invade the road; the cars themselves respected the zebra crossings and, stopping carefully at a blinking yellow light, let those travelling on foot cross when their turn came.

It’s a vision as romantic as anything found in Burroughs’ own Interzone. And yet, like Interzone, it is also at least partly true. Burroughs’ Interzone is populaced by Western expat criminals and chancers who drive the action. In surely intentional parallel Lakhdar finds himself in the Street of Thieves – a Barcelona alley filled with illegal immigrants, prostitutes and dealers:

It was Saturday, streetwalking activity was at its height at the crossroads; two or three dealers were pacing in the night; a junkie in need of his fix vomited a stream of bile onto the base of a lamppost, splattering two cockroaches fat as frogs emerging lazily from the restaurant next door.

Which, come to think of it, sounds like somewhere that Burroughs would have felt quite at home in. It’s what Lakhdar’s long been travelling towards, but reality never quite matches dreams. Europe is still reeling from the aftermath of the financial crisis. As an outsider it seems to him that Spain’s progress is a mirage bought on dangerously overextended credit. Its prosperity is precarious, maintained in part by sheer complacency. Here he considers an all-day mass strike carried out to protest austerity:

On TV, they said the same thing over and over again. The unions were delighted with the strike’s great success. The government was delighted to be able, starting tomorrow, to resume its indispensable economic reforms. In the distance, the helicopter continued to circle.

There are hints throughout that Lakhdar’s story won’t end well. It’s told in past tense and Lakhdar occasionally drops vague hints suggesting that the outcome isn’t what we might hope for him. Still, at least he’s there to narrate the story so it can’t be all bad. Besides, there’s a sense too that our common story might not end so well either. Across the Arab world, across Europe and the US and the wider world people are organising, protesting, fighting for something better. There’s little sign that any of them are going to get it.

Lakhdar’s goals are smaller than those of the Arab Spring or the Indignados. He’s not political, he’s not a revolutionary, he’s not looking for a new Tangiers.

All I want is to be free to travel, to earn money, to walk around quietly with my girlfriend, to fuck if I want to, to pray if I want to, to sin if I want to, and to read detective novels if I feel like it without anyone finding anything to object to aside from God Himself.

Which as manifestos go sounds pretty good to me.

Enard’s reading recommendations

As with Zone, Enard peppers Street of Thieves with various pretty explicit literary references and recommendations. Lakhdar loves Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos and fantasises that his Tangiers is Izzo’s Marseilles. He approvingly mentions Manchette’s The Prone Gunman and comments in passing on Pronzini (new to me) and McBain. He refers to the poetry of Abu Nuwas and “the great novels of Naguib Mahfouz or Tayeb Salih”. As ever Enard is a fine literary guide, though it’s noticeable that over two novels so far he’s yet to recommend a single female writer.

Other reviews

There are loads, but mystifyingly I didn’t keep links to many of them. One which particularly influenced me to read this was Stu’s at Winston’sDad’sBlog here. Stu says among other things that “I actually loved this more than the zone this book is one of those that captured the Zeitgeist the way it was to be in the North African Arab world as the Arab spring broke” and I know what he means. As I said at the outset, Zone is the better book (technically anyway and in terms of ambition) but I think I enjoyed Street more and it’s hardly as if it lacks ambition itself. I also liked this review from Tony of Tony’s Reading List here.

As ever, please let me know of reviews I’ve missed in the comments.

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Filed under Enard, Mathias, Fitzcarraldo Editions, French

The mucus shimmered as the sun rose higher.

The Mad and the Bad, by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

The Mad and the Bad is my fourth Manchette. I’ve now read every one that I’m aware of having been translated into English so it’s fair to say I’m a bit of a fan.

Michel Hartog is a cold and arrogant businessman whose “smile resembled the coin slot of a parking meter.” As the novel opens he’s visiting a private psychiatric hospital where he’s hiring newly-discharged inmate Julie Ballanger as a nanny for his nephew Peter. Ballanger’s spent five years inside which makes her an interesting choice.

By all accounts Hartog is something of a small-scale philanthropist employing those who might otherwise struggle to find work. As his driver notes:

The cook is epileptic. The gardener has only one arm, pretty handy for using the shears. His private secretary is blind. His valet suffers from locomotive ataxia – no wonder his meals arrive cold!

In that context a former psychiatric patient as nanny seems natural enough, but Hartog doesn’t seem the sort of man who cares much about the welfare of others. Soon after her arrival Hartog is encouraging Julie to help herself to his well-stocked drinks cabinets (plural intentional) and he seems to have no affection at all for young Peter.

Peter has his own issues. On his first meeting with Julie he loses his temper and smashes his television. Hartog simply orders another. Peter can have anything he wants, can break anything and know it will be replaced, the only thing he isn’t given is affection. Julie is the first person to show him any kindness at all.

Julie is the protagonist here and it’s quickly apparent that not all is quite right with her either. She washes down tranquilisers with whiskey and her past includes petty theft and arson. She thinks she looks like a “post-op transsexual” but the reactions of others show that’s not the case. She has absolutely no experience of working with children.

Things get stranger yet when a menacing stranger named Fuentes appears and beats Hartog bloody. Hartog likes to portray himself as a gifted businessman – a visionary shaping the world. The reality is that he inherited his wealth from his dead brother and Fuentes is a former business partner so enraged by some old betrayal that his attacks have become habitual.

Add to the mix a dyspeptic English assassin named Thompson and what follows is a typically savage Manchette tale. Thompson is plagued by possibly psychosomatic ulcers and can only relieve the pain of them by killing. He’s been hired to kill Peter and Julie will soon be the only thing standing in his path.

Manchette is always political and this is no exception. On the surface Hartog is what society asks us to aspire to – he is rich, successful, he creates employment and his wealth trickles down to his employees. In reality he’s the product of unacknowledged good fortune. He hasn’t earned what he has but he’ll fight to the death to keep it.

Julie on the other hand is unhinged. She is quite genuinely dangerous (as one rather unfortunate motorist who picks her up and tries it on with her discovers). Her madness puts her beyond societal norms and ironically it’s her feral qualities that now prove essential to her survival.

Much of the book is an extended chase with Thompson and his associates pursuing Julie and Peter across France. The action culminates in a masterful set-piece where the assassins follow Julie and Peter into a supermarket where their frustration boils over resulting in a running gun battle through the aisles of this consumerist temple:

Coco watched fragments of plastic toys spraying into the air along the path of his bullet. He was trembling. In his hand was an old Colt revolver, solid, crude, and with a tendency to shoot to the right. For a split second he caught sight of Julie and Peter down an aisle and he fired again, winging a carton of laundry detergent.

The Mad and the Bad is darkly funny. The absurdity of a society which praises men like Hartog and which thinks it’s important which of variously labelled but ultimately identical soaps you buy is mirrored here in the absurdity of Hartog’s domestic arrangements; Thompson’s increasing gastric distress as Julie continues to elude him; and a brutal fight to the death amidst canned goods and product displays. The title suggests a dichotomy between Julie (the mad) and Hartog (the bad) but the reality is that the distinction isn’t so easily drawn.

This isn’t my favourite Manchette (that would still be Three to Kill), but it’s still a blazing thriller with a challenging political undercurrent. The mad may be dangerous, but it’s the sane who hire killers and profit from death.

Other reviews

Guy Savage wrote about this here and went a little more into the politics than I have. I agree with pretty much everything Guy says.

If you want to check my other Manchette reviews they are: Three to Kill; The Prone Gunman; and Fatale.

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

Why can’t we kill thoughts the way we kill people, with a gun?

Hecate and her Dogs, by Paul Morand and translated by David Coward

I first discovered Paul Morand through the Pushkin Press release of his wonderful memoirs, Venices. Sure, he skipped the period where he actively supported the Nazis and embraced fascism, but what memoir is wholly reliable? Morand’s sentences were art even if his life left much to be desired.

His novel The Man in a Hurry is flawed but beautifully written. Morand excels at the silken sentence and at coolly elegant prose (one of his books is a record of conversations between him and Coco Chanel, another fashionable fascist).

Hecate and her Dogs was published in 1954 during Morand’s period of post-war rehabilitation. It tells the tale of a colonial bank official in the 1920s who finds himself so suffocated by boredom that he embarks on an affair. That in itself is not unusual but his choice, Clotilde, proves to be anything but ordinary

In that kingdom of the vacuous, she seemed at first just another blank; everything about her lacked lustre. She wore a beige suit – simple, perfect. Her movements, so contained, barely initiated, that slightly broken voice, the uncertain colour of her eyes, the delicacy of her physique, all gave her an air of orphaned vulnerability. Women thought her ravishingly beautiful because her looks happened to conform to the current fashion: turned-up nose, eyes like a cat’s, head too small for her body, round shoulders, no hips, flat chest, long Merovingian feet, slender arms which did not spoil the line of her jackets, slim thighs which enhanced the hang of her skirts. … Clotilde was grace personified.

I love that line about “that kingdom of the vacuous”. At first it looks like the narrator (he’s never named) has chosen wisely. Clotilde is elegant and discreet and her husband is absent. The affair flourishes.

The first half of this novel follows the narrator and Clotilde as their relationship deepens without ever becoming so serious as to threaten propriety. Short chapters, each generally no more than a page or two long, slide easily by as do their days together. The text is spiced with seemingly effortless epigrams which help wash it all down:

Love is horribly time-consuming; which is why it flourishes best in the provinces;

Words are for people who have nothing to say to each other.

The initially Calvinist narrator becomes suffused with sensuality, drunk with it. Here is the entirety of chapter twelve:

XII

We wallowed and rolled in the trough of a depression caused by the confluence of two vast air flows, one oceanic, the other continental. Whenever the wind dropped, we felt light-headed, as if one of the four elements had suddenly gone missing. We surrendered to the daily hurricane which always began with the sun and ended with it.

We had allowed ourselves to be blown along towards our as yet still distant fate, up to our eyes in happiness.

I was dazzled by the freedom of our love-making and the joys of sinfulness. I felt light as a feather. I had never hoped to feel light; it came as a great surprise and gave me intense pleasure. I floated down rivers of milk and honey, dazed by the blueness of the sky, deliquescent in our all-dissolving existence.

Although (perhaps because) Morand never directly describes sex this is a deeply erotic novel. The affair is physical, intensely sexual and the narrator seeks all the time to make it more so. At one point he takes a week’s break from work and he and Clotilde simply barricade themselves in their bedroom:

The fatma would leave our dinner trays outside. The postman slipped the post from my bank under the door. The phone stayed off the hook. We never got out of bed, lathered in our own odour which coated our skins like toad spittle. We knew each other’s bodies by heart; in the dark, we ran our hands over their every detail, the way the blind read Braille. Our sheets were heavy with the carbon dioxide we exhaled; the only air I breathed in was the air which Clotilde breathed out; she still had the delectable breath of the very young.

An entire week’s indulgence is a sign that things may be getting too serious. The narrator’s staff begin to complain that he hardly ever turns up to work any more. Head office are becoming angry at the absence of proper management. The whole affair is becoming a problem. It will get much worse.

Near the half-way mark in the book the narrator and Clotilde go to the cinema. The show includes a short documentary piece about some orphan children. Clotilde becomes strangely excited and unexpectedly and loudly orgasms. The narrator is aghast – what could there be in such a film to so excite her?

From there he’s obsessed that there is a part of her sexuality he’s failed to reach. Soon he’s convinced that she is a peerless predator effortlessly able to take advantage of the impoverished children so common in the colony. Rather than reject her he decides to match her.

Hecate becomes an exploration of a descent into vice and obsession. Morand alludes rather than describes so it’s often difficult to work out exactly what may have happened, and this is exacerbated by the narrator’s tendency to take what may well be Clotilde’s masturbatory fantasies as literal truth.

In a sense it doesn’t matter whether Clotilde is the predator the narrator takes her for. Whether reality or fantasy, she has an aspect of her sexuality beyond his control and he can’t bear that. He has to have her entirely even if that means embracing the appalling.

Hecate and Her Dogs is a prime example of the decadent novel. Chapter thirty-seven reads in its entirety:

XXXVII

But I was beginning to need that disgust more and more.

The novel is written in hindsight so we know throughout that what we’re reading is an account of “the worst years of my life.” As the narrator’s business affairs fall apart, and his conduct becomes too extreme to continue to ignore, the small world of colonial society turns against him. His position becomes unsustainable.

What’s noticeable here is that the narrator never blames himself. He’s a man who literally abuses children and yet who somehow manages to blame that on Clotilde. Whether she did the same or not is irrelevant to his own guilt.

If the narrator is amoral so too is his society. Nobody cares about his conduct until he loses all discretion and restraint. As the narrator remarks to himself: “When there is a mad woman in the attic, does it not matter less that she is mad than that she stays in the house?” What a morally bankrupt statement that is.

In his review in The Guardian Nick Lezard speculated as to whether the narrator’s guilt is a metaphor for Morand’s own guilt for his wartime activities. I’m not persuaded. Partly as the narrator doesn’t show any particular guilt and partly as Morand’s main regret about World War II seems to have been simply that his side lost.

What lifts Hecate and Her Dogs above being a rather pruriently hysterical tale of colonial debauchery and ruin is Morand’s subtlety and skill. I said above that Morand alludes rather than describes and of course that’s necessary for a book like this to be published (particularly in 1954). However, beyond that it also creates a complicity in the reader.

The narrator imagines the details of Clotilde’s believed vices and the reader has to do the same. Similarly, the narrator’s rather formal description of their passion has to be thought about to be understood at which point the reader too has become part of it. Morand makes us all collaborators.

Other reviews

Here‘s the Nick Lezard review I mentioned above. Otherwise, the much missed Kevin from Canada wrote a typically excellent review of this here. Kevin says that “in many ways Hecate and Her Dogs is a masterpiece”. I’m honestly not sure if I agree or not but it’s definitely at least arguable that it is.

 

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Filed under French, Morand, Paul, Pushkin Press

Reality outwaits us all.

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

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

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

birdinacage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

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

Being a man was too difficult.

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

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

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

SheWhoWasNoMore

I love these Pushkin Vertigo covers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

 

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

“There needs to be fucking in African literature too!”

Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and translated by Roland Glasser

There’s a tendency in the UK to expect a certain kind of book from Africa. It’s a serious book, dealing with the pain of a continent and the aftermath of Colonialism. It’s hailed as an important book, but it’s possibly a little dull and hardly anyone reads it. I don’t read it.

At one point in Tram 83 a publisher says to a young author:

We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn’t all that inspire you? I’m concerned for the future of African literature in general. The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be fucking in African literature too!”

Tram 83 puts the fucking back into African literature.

tram-83

Tram 83 is the legendary nightclub at the heart of a breakaway city-state ruled by a dissident general rumoured to be a sorcerer. It’s where everyone goes and everything and anything happens. Well, anything save a quiet conversation.

“Do you have the time?”

Requiem is a local fixer and money-maker. It’s hard to say exactly what he does, but he makes money doing it. His old friend Lucien, a writer, comes to stay with him. Lucien wants to write a doorstep novel featuring twenty famous historical characters from Europe and beyond. It sounds unreadable, but his bigger problem is that he’s finding it unwriteable and Tram 83’s distractions don’t help.

“Call me Astrid. I can’t live without caresses.”

Tram 83 doesn’t have a plot as such. Instead it has sequences of incantatory prose that seems as drunk on Brazza beer and hot jazz as are the regulars at Tram 83. Requiem wants to make money, possibly by robbing a mine (it’s a popular way to make some cash in the mineral-rich city-state, but a dangerous one). Lucien wants to write his book and meets a local publisher who’s interested provided he cuts the number of characters in half, relocates it to South America and perhaps turns it into a play.

“What are you trying to do? Get me horny?”

Requiem and Lucien careen through the city, interrupted constantly by the baby-chicks and single-mamas selling themselves with the constant code-question “do you have the time?” Hardly anybody does. When you’re young you sell yourself, when you’re old you sell whatever you can find. Tram 83 is a merciless place.

“Getting drunk on wine feels like a con. Two little glasses and you lose your head. Beer, now that’s a heavenly way to get wasted.”

Tram 83 is awash with foreign workers and “for-profit tourists”. The Europeans, Americans, Russians, Canadians, now the Chinese all eager to get their own little slice of mineral wealth. Are Requiem and his crew so different? There’s money literally lying in the ground. The foreigners have government contracts while Requiem has to sneak into the mines under cover of night, but the government’s just another set of strongmen, the General a man with more guns on his side than Requiem has. What you get is what you can grasp, and why should Requiem have any less than the next guy?

It was said that in a single day dozens of sacks of heterogenite were carted off from huts and other makeshift camps. With such eroded, tampered foundations, houses threatened to collapse at the slightest rain. Will you consent to starve to death when there’s silver, copper, barium, tin, or coal lying quietly under your feet? From the area around Hope Mine to as far as the east side of Vampiretown, the city took on the appearance of an archaeological site. Even the goats and wheelbarrows smelled of the cobalt quarries.

Meanwhile Lucien tries to make art. He shuns the advances of the baby-chicks, which confuses and offends them. He ignores the pleas from his French publisher for the overdue manuscript he owes, ashamed to admit that he was forced to burn it with a kalashnikov to the back of his neck. He does a reading at Tram 83, the crowd mob him and beat him to a pulp. As the text reflects:

There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around. The City-State, an example among so many others—she pulsated with literature.

It’s a confident and persuasive paragraph, but perhaps illustrates one problem with the book. In the comments under David Hebblethwaite’s review (links at the bottom) Grant of 1st reading referenced that paragraph noting that while it sounds clever it’s not clear what it actually means. I think that’s fair. The best way to read Tram 83 is to let it wash over you, to treat it like the jazz constantly played at Tram 83 itself. It’s impressionistic, but cumulatively so and if you poke at individual elements they might not hold together quite as well as you’d think.

“I don’t like foreplay. It kills the pleasure.”

Tram 83 is ultimately a hymn to language as much as anything else. It’s no surprise to learn that Mujila is also a poet, because the book hums with poetry. I had several possible one-liner titles for this post. I considered calling this post ‘the monologues of a Kalashnikov,’ which I thought an extraordinarily evocative phrase (though I couldn’t say of what exactly). There are moments of syncopated alliteration like ‘He stepped over the sleepers stretched out on the sidewalk’ and lines that could have stepped out of a William Gibson novel like ‘The Tram retained its botched-night splendor.’

“Give me a real cuddle.”

At times it’s very funny. The exchanges between Lucien and his potential publisher are a micro-satire on the self-importance of literature and the constant tension between art and business in publishing. Lucien clearly has talent, but does anybody care? Abroad, back in France, they do but only for so long as expat African fiction remains fashionable. Back at home nobody’s lining up to buy the latest novel (a theme in Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief also).

“Take me to Bratislava and make me your dream queen!”

It would be easy to make all this bleak and angry. Foreign exploitation, political failure, violence and indifference to anything beyond surviving the next day, it’s potentially grim stuff. What makes Tram 83 different is the sense that regardless of all of this people still meet friends, go dancing, have sex, have a laugh, drink some beers, live. It’s the life as well as the language that makes Tram 83 sing.

Tram 83 knows what it’s doing. There’s clever use of repeated imagery, like the central motif of the never quite finished and war scarred rusting train station. It’s constantly referred to, a landmark both the text and the city revolve around (like the club itself), and as it gets mentioned again and again the description shortens until it becomes simply “the station whose metal structure” with no end to the description at all because none is needed – everyone including the reader knows the station by now and it’s enough merely to refer to it for the rest of its damaged history to spill forth. There’s paragraphs like beat poetry, cascading on for a page or more until you near-drown in the words, coming choking up for air on the other side:

Jalopies out of gas, deep-frozen products from the Galapagos Islands, knick-knacks, ceiling fans, oil changes, sheep, sarcastic remarks, hearses on alert, eggs contaminated with melamine, relics, minarets as far as the eye can see, bistros, baker-deli-linen-fish-lumber stores, phone booths, internet cafés, criminal records, pools of stagnant water, garbage bags at the mercy of beggars, stray dogs, no-entry signs, mountains of refuse, black market in the merchandise and its derivatives, discotheques, abandoned locomotives, born-again Christian evangelist churches, cockfights, settlings of scores, boxing galas, mosquitoes resistant to all pesticides, booing, trolleys, wimps bankrolled by mercenaries, Neanderthals, laundries, desires, beverages, arranged widowhoods of wives of soldiers declared missing, ringworms, jeers revised and corrected by the foreign press, daydreams of dissident rebels prepared to open another front because of an oilfield, magic potions to treat unidentified diseases, backwash and backwash, cannibals, bleeders, baby chicks with their “do you have the time?”, idols with feet of clay, smoking rooms, palimpsests, cathedrals, repeat offenders in custody released on bail who return to the scene of the crime with the weapon of the crime, oriental tapestries, suicidals, the comings and goings of naked-men diddlers, assorted gaffes, superfluities, prolegomena, dark looks, erections paraphrased and channeled into paper tissues…The night came on with her swimsuits and undershirts she forgot to wring out.

I’m more sympathetic to poet-novelists than some, and this is definitely a poet-novelist’s work. In that I was reminded slightly of Jean-Euphèle Milcé’s Alphabet of the Night, against which I commented that where there was a choice between sense and imagery that imagery won every time. That’s true here too. Mujila’s angel-headed hipsters aren’t strictly speaking credible characters. They’re convincing though, provided you go with the flow and don’t poke too hard at what any individual paragraph means exactly.

Tram 83 has the exuberance of late-night live jazz, sending you home blinking into daylight exhilarated and exhausted. It doesn’t play to easy narratives of African experience (as if there could be such a thing in such a vast continent). I didn’t take to it quite as much as I did Mabanckou, those prose-avalanches sometimes smother, but I think it definitely merits the attention it’s received and I look forward to Mujila’s next.

Other reviews

Tram 83 has been pretty heavily reviewed on the blogosphere. David’s Book World’s is here, Tony’s Reading List’s is here, Winston’s Dad’s Blog’s is here, 1st Reading’s Blog’s is here, ANZ LitLover’s Blog’s is here, Words without Borders’ is here and Shiny New Books’ review is here. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn I’d missed some too.

Also potentially of interest is my review here of Alain Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine. Mabanckou provides the foreword to Tram 83 and given Mabanckou’s status Mujila can hardly not owe a debt back to him.

The other link with Mabanckou is that I mention above rumours that the dissident general is a sorceror, more specifically the rumour is that he “eats” his enemies in the spirit world just as the porcupine’s master Kibandi does in Memoirs. It’s not a major plot point here (it’s a single throw-away reference), but it’s a nice reward for my having chosen to read several African novels in relatively quick succession so letting me recognise links and common references one to the other.

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Filed under African fiction, Congolese fiction, French, Mujila, Fiston Mwanza

yes, I was a happy porcupine back then,

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

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

MemoirsofaPorcupine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

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

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

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac

Vertigo, by Boileau-Narcejac and translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

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

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

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

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

Vertigo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

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

“Love is a dangerous territory for athletes.”

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how he’s introduced:

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

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

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

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

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

Quickly and badly, that’s my motto!”

“An epitaph more likely.”

“Epitaphs are the mottos of the dead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

 

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