The Foundling Boy – Le jeune homme vert

Foundling2Thank you to publisher Gallic Books, who noticing that I had recently read The Lost Domain (le Grand Meaulnes) by Alain-Fournier suggested I might also enjoy Michel Déon’s The Foundling Boy. Originally written in French Le jeune homme vert was first published in 1975 and now translated into English for the first time, is beginning to be enjoyed by readers of the English language.

Set in Grangeville, Normandy in the inter-war years prior to WWII, it is a coming-of-age story of the young Jean Arnaud, who starts his life in a basket on the doorstep of Albert, a one-legged war veteran, now a pacifist gardener cum caretaker  and his wife Jeanne, who raise the child as their own.

Jean grows up in the shadow of Michel and Antoinette, children of Antoine de Couseau, an errant landowner whose father built up a fortune, only for his son to slowly lose it all – unsurprisingly as much of the first 200 pages is spent in his company, a man who whenever challenged by his wife or confronted by business decisions, takes to his latest model Bugatti, a car he replaces every year and heads south, following what becomes a well-worn trail via Lyon, Aix, St Tropez to Menton, allegedly to see his grown daughter Genevieve, recuperating in a hospital residence from lung problems.

The visits rarely last longer than a wave from the window before he heads off to enjoy the hospitality and warm sheets of various mistresses en route and this being France of course, the husbands all take it in their stride.

There is a real fascination throughout the novel for unique cars that love to take to the road. I went back to look at the references which I probably glossed over in my first read, now much more knowledgeable about Ettore Bugatti and his racing cars, from the 1923 Type 22 here on the left through many other models to the 1938 57SC Atlantic on the right. And Antoine de Couseau is not the only character whom Jean Arnaud meets, to possess a similar fascination. For being raised a peasant, he has seen many a luxurious interior when it comes to cars.

Jean too, has a love of his bike and travel and will spend four days in London, developing a taste and allure for freedom and adventure and not long after will follow in the footsteps of the writer Stendhal to Milan, Florence and Rome, meeting up with Ernst, a German lad who is following a similar trail in the footsteps of Goethe, his father’s hero – having swapped his son’s copy of Mein Kampf for Goethe’s Italienische Reise (Italian Journey).

Arnauds JourneyThe two young men share adventures, debate philosophical perspectives and encounter the fragility of friendship in the face of prejudice and racism.

Losing everything and having almost become the amoureux slave of a restaurant proprietor, who offers him a job so he can earn enough money to return home, Jean finally returns making the acquaintance of Palfry on his way, only to discover things at home vastly changed.

Throughout all Jean’s experiences, there are the interactions with family, friends, neighbours, villagers and people he meets along the way, it is not enough to accept the wisdom of others, he wants to explore for himself, whether it is the landscapes of neighbouring countries or the social acquaintances of his friend Palfry, a man who gave him a ride in his car dressed as a priest and whom he meets at various stages in his life who teaches him that things are not always as they seem. Ultimately, this searching might also be to understand who he really is, something within him, but that he also seeks outside from those he knows, the mystery of his birth.

“What is certain is that, overnight, Jean Arnaud matured by several years, learning that a priest may also be a plotter, and that without being thieves and murderers men might have to hide from the police because they were defending a noble cause. The world was not built of flawless blocks, of good and bad, of pure and impure. More subtle divisions undermined the picture he had so far been given of morality and duty. “

Fairly early on, it occurred to me that nearly every female character was caricatured as something of an object, the neighbour’s daughter, the house-maids, the women Antoine de Courseau encounters on his travels, even his daughter Geneviève becomes a ‘kept’ woman.

While it is an engaging and entertaining read, that moves along at the rambling, colourful pace of a joy-ride in a Bugatti, it began to feel like a book written for men, for it is they who travel (with the exception perhaps of Geneviève), have adventures, engage in meaningful banter, witty dialogue and to whom much of the advice within is given.

I admit to a moment of despair in being unable to think of one woman with redeeming qualities, that a female reader might relate to, why even the landlady of the Bed & Breakfast in Dover drags the poor 13-year-old youth off to the pub keeping him there till closing, Jean’s first impression of England is certainly one that stays long in his memory.

Jean purchases himself a notebook early on in his journeys and in his letters and notes, we are witness to how he begins to see the world:

I’ve bought myself a notebook where I’ve started making a few notes:

a) Duplicity: absolutely necessary for a life without dramas. You have to harden your heart. I need to be capable, without blushing to my roots, of sleeping with a woman and then being a jolly decent chap to her lover or husband. This is essential. Without it society would be impossible.

I guess, we could just say it is delightfully French and certainly the women are not portrayed as victims, quite the opposite in many cases, but they did make this reader pause for reflection. An eye-opening, memorable journey through the European landscape whilst inhabiting a very French culture and perspective.

Michel Déon inhabits his male characters with pride and indeed enjoys himself so much, he can’t help but put himself into the narrative from time to time speaking with much enthusiasm and familiarity directly to the reader. And with good reason, for it has been said of his young hero that:

“The character of Jean Arnaud has been heralded as one of French literature’s great adolescents, alongside Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau, Stendhal’s Julien Sorel and Alain-Fournier’s Augustin Meaulnes.”

les vingt ans

Michel Déon has the last say, as he leaves Jean Arnaud in a military camp on the eve of war, a sealed envelope in his pocket with instructions not to open it unless he is in extreme need, his life full of promise yet hardly begun by telling us not to worry about those things he has not revealed, that here he was a foundling boy and in another book, he will tell the story of how his protagonist becomes a man.

The sequel, The Foundling’s War (Les Vingt Ans du Jeune Homme Vert) is due to be translated into English and published also by Gallic Books. I am intrigued to know what Jean Arnaud makes of life given his experience thus far and how war might change him. Watch this space!

Literary Blog Hop Winners!

literarybloghop

Thank you so much to you all for entering and participating in the Literary Blog Hop and visiting Word by Word and thanks to Judith at Leeswammes for hosting it.

I was happy to offer two books that I read very recently and given that I read books by authors from 22 countries last year (What Do We Read?), it seemed appropriate to offer a book that had been translated from a foreign language, alongside a shiny new book just published this month.

Therefore, I am delighted to announce two winners, firstly thanks to the Penguin Group for offering a beautiful copy of Robin Oliveira’s historical novel I Always Loved You.

This book will soon be winging its way to …

I Always Loved You

Jenna Sauber!

And for those who courageously put their name down to read this French literary gem, translated into English, Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report will soon be on its way to…

Le Rapport de Brodeck

Le Rapport de Brodeck

Susanna P!

Thanks again to everyone who visited my blog and was able to enter, happy reading to the winners and thank you to those who have decided to follow Word by Word, I hope you find some good recommendations here.

The People in the Photo – Eux sur la photo

Belgravia BooksI have been patiently waiting for this book to be published since discovering it at the same time I learned of the existence of Gallic Books, francophile publishers based in London specialising in bringing a varied collection of excellent French titles across genres to the English reading world. You can buy their books online or at Belgravia Books which specialises in books in translation (5 mins walk from Victoria train station).

I had something of a French literature binge in December, reading Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report, Alain Fournier’s classic The Lost Domain, Faïza Guène’s young adult novel Just Like Tomorrow and a couple of Albert Camus essays in commemoration of his 100th anniversary. And I am set to continue this theme in 2014, perhaps even venturing into reading a few in the original language!

The People in the Photo is Hélène Gestern’s debut novel and centres on 40-year-old Parisian archivist Hélène’s personal endeavour to learn more about her mother Nathalie, who died when she was four-years-old and about whom no-one would ever speak, not her father, nor her step-mother or any other person and she never understood why.

Gestern

Her father has passed away and now her stepmother, the last living connection between her and her mother is seriously unwell, an event that prompts her into action.
Hélène has only one photo of her mother alongside two unknown men and places an advertisement to try to find anyone who might recognise them.

It marks the beginning of a correspondence and indeed much of the novel is in epistolary form, made up of letters and emails, with the exception of extracts that describe the various photos that are uncovered by Hélène and Stéphane, a Swiss biologist, who recognises one of the men in the photo.

The letters add more than just their content to the narrative, they are an adept device for creating pace and intrigue, their length and dates are significant measuring the time that passes, the pauses, the urgency of an occasional email and yet there is an unwillingness to let go of the controlled structure and single dialogue of the letter, their preferred medium; the revealing sign-off salutations a clue to the developing relationship between the two protagonists.

LettersIt is a revelatory journey of two people into the past of their parent’s lives. Inherent in delving into the past, no matter how necessary it may seem, is the risk of deception, disappointment, even horror in enlightenment.

Hélène Gestern deftly captures the seesaw of emotions as both characters experience waves of exhilaration in their search and periods of retreat from the insinuations of discovery, suggestions they aren’t always ready to face the implications of.

At times the characters seemed extraordinarily restrained, upon receiving a box likely to contain pertinent information, Hélène leaves it unopened for days, her excuse – no time or inclination, yet there is always sufficient to write the correspondence. It is understandable in a sense, the fear of what the revelation will bring, then Stéfane does the same, after developing a set of photos, has no time to look at them, yet has time for a 2 hour walk and his correspondence as well.

Perhaps the lure of corresponding with the living, that ever-present possibility of a future still to be enjoyed, sometimes overwhelms the need to continue digging into a dusty, forgotten past that holds little promise of joy. Or it might just be the sign of a compelling read, and our impatience with characters, living or between the pages of a book, who don’t act as we might, were we in their shoes.

It is a captivating read, intensely thought-provoking and intricately plotted, revealing little by little clues to lives lived in a distant era, yet which explain much of the more recent past for two young people allowing them greater understanding and the potential for forgiveness of those who, until their truth was revealed, were to them like shadows of their former selves.

Note: Thank you kindly to Gallic Books for sending me a copy of the book to read and review.

The Literary Blog Hop – #Giveaway

Today and until 12 February, I’m participating in a literary giveaway blog hop hosted by Judith at Leeswammes’ Blog, an avid reader and blogger.

literarybloghop

All the blogs listed below are participating and offering a literary giveaway to readers. Just leave a comment below to be in the draw for my giveaway and visit any of the blogs listed below, to be in with a chance to win a book. This giveaway is open to you all, worldwide!

WIN A COPY of

Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report !

I am giving away a copy of one of the best books I read in 2013, a brilliant English translation of a contemporary French novel and winner of a French literary Prize Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel.

You can read My Review here or the brief summary I wrote immediately upon finishing it.

Quietly devastatingly brilliant. Claudel takes one village which happens to be near the border – and what is a border but an imagined line – of an occupying nation and uses the village and its resident to portray humanity and its many inclinations, when a stranger rides into town, makes himself comfortable and goes about his business, without letting anyone know what that business was.

Brodeck is tasked with writing an account of events that take place and as he does so, he simultaneously writes another account, his own, of what is occurring now and what has happened to them all in the recent past, he tries to make sense of it, as is his nature and to know what to do.

I have another giveaway running concurrently (only open to US readers), if you like historical fiction, I am offering a copy of the recently published I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira recounting the life of the artist Mary Casssat and her friend Edgar Degas in Paris in the late 1800′s. Read my review here and enter the giveaway here.

This is a great opportunity to visit blogs that review literary books and win a book! Entry into the draw via comments are open until 12 February.

Linky List:

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Seaside Book Nook
  3. Booklover Book Reviews
  4. Biblionomad
  5. Laurie Here
  6. The Well-Read Redhead (US/CA)
  7. River City Reading
  8. GirlVsBookshelf
  9. Ciska’s Book Chest
  10. The Book Stop
  11. Ragdoll Books Blog
  12. Nishita’s Rants and Raves
  13. Lucybird’s Book Blog
  14. Reading World (N-America)
  15. Journey Through Books
  16. Readerbuzz
  17. Always With a Book (US)
  18. 52 Books or Bust (N.Am./UK)
  19. Guiltless Reading (US/CA)
  20. Book-alicious Mama (US)
  21. Wensend
  22. Books Speak Volumes
  23. Words for Worms
  24. The Relentless Reader
  25. A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall (US)
  1. Fourth Street Review
  2. Vailia’s Page Turner
  3. The Little Reader Library
  4. Lost Generation Reader
  5. Heavenali
  6. Roof Beam Reader
  7. Mythical Books
  8. Word by Word
  9. The Misfortune of Knowing
  10. Aymaran Shadow > Behind The Scenes
  11. The Things You Can Read (US)
  12. Bay State Reader’s Advisory
  13. Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
  14. Lizzy’s Literary Life
  15. Books Can Save a Life (N. America)
  16. Words And Peace (US)
  17. The Book Club Blog

This giveaway is now closed.

I Always Loved You – #Giveaway

Thanks to the generous team at the Penguin Group, US and today, the day of its publication I offer one lucky reader (you must be resident in the US – sorry) a copy of this fabulous book:

I  ALWAYS  LOVED  YOU

by

Robin Oliveira

I Always Loved You

Read my review here of this historical novel set in 1880′s Paris, which the publisher describes as:

A novelization of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas’s relationship in Belle Époque Paris. It captures the golden age of Impressionism and is peopled with many prominent figures of the movement including artists Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot (the only other prominent female artist working in Paris at that time).

Robin Oliveira writes with grace and uncommon insight into the lives of artists and the passions and foibles of the human heart.

Leave a comment below if you wish to be in the draw to be held on 12 February!

This giveaway is now closed.

I Always Loved You: A Novel by Robin Oliveira

Mary SutterWhile looking at a Goodreads list of Historical Fiction due out in 2014, I noticed the name Robin Oliveira, author of the excellent novel My Name is Mary Sutter published in 2010.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but occasionally via word of mouth, I hear about a well written, compelling title that I can’t resist, particularly if it is set in France.

Well researched historical fiction in the hands of a talented writer, is my preferred method of learning about French history (or any history); engaging characters propel the narrative forward and we invest ourselves in the characters who have inhabited the period and discover the chronology of events as if we are living them. Historical events when presented without the force, nuance and characteristic dialogue of personalities that have shaped them, risk becoming dry, uninteresting, sedative and read by the few.

Set in 19th century America on the cusp of civil war, My Name is Mary Sutter chronicles the life of a midwife with ambitions to become a surgeon, something she will be thrown into with the advent of war. Her ambition requires the courage to cope with an abundance of men suffering war injuries amid dire living/working conditions plus sacrifices in her personal and family life. She is a captivating heroine, strong-willed yet vulnerable, living in an incredible pioneering era for women.

In her research, the author learned that 17 young women became physicians after their nursing experiences in the civil war. While Mary Sutter is fictional, she is a truly inspired character about whom Robin Oliveira had this is say:

“And through it all there was Mary Sutter, whose story I needed to tell as a celebration of women who seize the courage to live on, to thrive, to strive, even, when men conspire to war. Mary, flawed and intelligent, careening between desire and remorse, stumbling forward out of courage and stubbornness, hiding a broken heart, but hoping to redeem something beautiful from a life humbled by regret.”

Which is a prelude to saying that seeing a new Robin Oliveira novel coming out in 2014 and set in France, I jumped at the chance to read it.

I Always Loved YouI Always Loved You, an unfortunate and slightly off-putting title, sorry, is about the life of  the American painter Mary Cassatt, her life in Paris struggling to make her name while remaining true to her art, and enduring a life-long fractious relationship with the impressionist painter and sculptor Edgar Degas. It also brings to life another female painter, Berthe Morisot and her relationship with the Manet brothers, Édouard and Eugène.

Mary had left her home town of Philadelphia to pursue artistic ambitions and after ten years of hard work, having once been accepted by the Salon for her work Ida (or Spanish Dancer Wearing a Lace Mantilla), has now been rejected and is feeling disillusioned and on the point of giving in to her father who wants her to return home, find a husband and be with her family. Had it not been for his fascination with Ida and the subsequent encounter with Degas, she may well have fulfilled her father’s bidding.

“C’est vrai. Voilá quelqu’un qui sent comme moi.”
(It’s true. Here it is, someone who feels as I do).
Edgar Degas commenting on Mary Cassatt’s painting, Ida

Through Mary, we learn what it meant to be a painter in Paris in the late 1800′s, the restrictive, suffocating influence of the Salon Jury, purveyors of the official annual exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, known as the Salon de Paris, to whom all artists looking for acknowledgement and recognition would submit one or two paintings and then await acceptance or rejection. Those deemed successful by the Jury would be hung at the next exhibition and if lucky, talked up by the critics. Those who weren’t, were resigned to another year of work before resubmitting – and they all did, for it was seen as essential to exhibit there in order to achieve any success, a status quo that existed for almost 200 years in France.

Salon de Paris

Salon de Louvre 1787
Source:Wikipedia

This process spurned a rebel group lead by Edgar Degas who refused to submit their work to the Salon Jury and began to hold an alternative exhibition.  These artists were willing to let go of the past with their references and rules and were bold with colour, subject and loose with their interpretation. They became referred to disparagingly by the media as Impressionists, a term Degas despised. It was a brave move and not all of the groups members managed to sustain their nerve, the lure of the Salon despite its limitations, not easy to stand up against.

Degas had admired Mary Cassatt’s work without knowing who she was and after organising to meet her, invited her to exhibit with his group of artists and to one of their weekly salons, a social gathering that included Édouard Manet, his brother Eugène, Berthe Morisot, Renoir, the writer Émile Zola, Pissarro, Gustave Caillebotte, Zacharie Astruc, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé and Claude Monet among others. The evening would mark the beginning of a long relationship between two talented artists whose work came before all else and whose similarities and stubbornness would continue to attract and repel them until their last days.

“He was right. The something, the leap an artist makes so that his painting is more than its technique, he had already achieved. And she wanted that.”

Edouard_Dantan Un Coin du Salon, 1880

Edouard Dantan
Un Coin du Salon, 1880
Source: Wikipedia

I had never heard of Mary Cassatt when I began reading and was intrigued to discover her art, but decided not to go looking at her or Degas’s work until I had finished, allowing my imagination to create an image of their creations during the period of their encounters, which added an exciting anticipation to the reading, especially while Cassatt was preparing for her first showing with the Impressionists and when Degas was working on his sculpture The Dancer.

I hesitate to show any of images of their art here, as it was such a reward for me upon finishing the book. Getting to know or reacquainting ourselves with the artists work is a personal journey and we should decide in our own time when to view the oeuvres of these great artists. No Spoilers here!

They were an inspiration to each other with regard to their work and Oliveira brings the two alive in rich detail, you can almost see their respective studios and smell the turpentine, imagining the furrowed brow of concentration as these two passionate artists throw themselves into their work and block out the world around them.

What they couldn’t inject into their relationship, they gifted to each other through their work, some of the most poignant and yet ironic scenes are when Degas helps Cassatt find her subject and confirms what it is she should be painting. And then the joy of finally seeing them and seeing the energy and vibrancy of those paintings she created during that period when they responded so positively to each others influence, fact or fiction, it stands out in the work.

“I have no money to pay a model,” Mary said to Degas. “I don’t know what to do.”

“You must find your subject.”

Mary said, “Like yours? Ballet, horses, brothels?”

“Obsessions are an artist’s gift. Obsession is poetry,” Degas said.

Just as other writers have brought alive the Lost Generation of writers resident in Paris in the 1920′s, Robin Oliveira does the same for this group of painters, awakening our interest in this turning point in the history of art and the influence of this group on painters in the wider world, which continues today. It is a brilliantly told story of fascinating characters and their passion for art.

National Gallery of Art Washington

National Gallery of Art
Washington

And if you are fortunate enough to live near or visit Washington, it appears that there is to be an exhibition of Cassatt and Degas’s work at the National Gallery of Art May 14 – Oct 5 focused on the critical period of the late 1870s through the mid-1880s when Degas and Cassatt were closest, bringing 70 various works together to showcase the fascinating artistic dialogue that developed between these two major talents and friends.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Readers Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Lost Domain – Le Grand Meaulnes

Classics don’t feature too often on my list and when they do, I tend to be attracted towards the Russian and French classics, because they offer an element of the unknown and the unfamiliar. I like reading across cultures and am fortunate to live within a culture that provides me with learning opportunities every day, whether I read the literature or not. But reading it adds so much more to the experience and to interactions with local people.

West End Lane Books

West End Lane Books

I had come across references to Le Grand Meaulnes a few times and nearly brought it home with me after visiting West End Lane Books in London last October, leaving it behind on that occasion, but purchasing Brodeck’s Report, which I have since read and Alistair Grayling’s non-fiction work Friendship, of which I read a few pages and found it a little dense, not yet abandoned, but left for a rainy day.

Le Grand Meaulnes crossed my path again via NetGalley, where I learned of the centenary version below which coincides with the 100th anniversary of Fournier’s death.  This version translated by Frank Davison, published by Oxford University Press.

I decided – enough – stop reading ABOUT the book and READ the book!

The Lost DomainAnd then what joy, to find myself in the company of Hermione Lee who has written such a wonderful introduction filling us in on Alain-Fournier’s life, that I could almost write an entire post on the gems she shares her excellent essay. She writes of the unique captivation this book has held over generations of readers and the literary qualities that have allowed it to continue to survive as a modern classic.

“Alain-Fournier’s only novel maps an imaginary vision onto a real landscape. It is the story of his childhood, transformed into a romantic quest. It is set in real places which he had known all his life, with real names of villages and towns and shops and train stations, but it takes us on mysterious journeys to places that seem to belong to a fairy tale.” Hermione Lee.

The title itself and its translation present a dilemma, as it is not possible to translate all that it means in one expression, it is a play on words, for it is the nickname of one of the chief characters and a reference to an estate, a château that he will search for in vain.

For a man who died at 28, Alain-Fournier lead a full and dramatic life, making one wonder what more he may have accomplished had he not been killed tragically in 1914 shortly after being called up to fight in WWI. The drama continued after his death, as this one book that he wrote became a cult sensation and created a feud over his legacy, complicated further by the split between his parents, claims by his sister and her husband (Fournier’s best friend) and the married women Simone (whose husband he had ghost written a book for) whom he’d had an affair with, who aborted his unborn child.

Alain-Fournier_maison_natale

Birthplace of Alain_Fournier
La Chapelle-d’Angillon
Source: Wikipedia

One gets the impression having read Le Grand Meaulnes, that having addressed childhood, the author was just warming up for an entire litany of novels, drawing on the many experiences and emotions he had already encountered in such a short life.

“His longing for his childhood places and his desire to turn that emotion into writing was one of the fundamental impulses behind Le Grand Meaulnes.”

Beginning in the 1890′s, Le Grand Meaulnes is narrated by the quiet, unassuming Seurel, a boy whose life at the schoolhouse is relatively uneventful until Meaulnes, nicknamed Le Grand Meaulnes arrives and just as soon disappears, only to return again.

The arrival of Augustin Meaulnes at a small provincial secondary school sets in train a series of events that will have a profound effect on his life. Lost and alone, he stumbles upon an isolated house, mysterious revels, and a beautiful girl. Determined to find the house again, and the girl with whom he has fallen in love, Meaulnes is torn between his love and competing claims of loyalty and friendship.

It is a story of a childhood and adolescence told by one who observes, follows, understands and tries to assist, at the expense of living his own life to fulfilment. What happened to his friend in those few days he disappeared will obsess both boys thereafter, one because he wants to know what happened and the other because he wants to return there and cannot remember the way.

The books first pages are narrated when Seurel is five, the main story taking place when he is 15 and Meaulnes is 18 and will end when Seurel is almost 20. Whenever Meaulnes is present, there is an air of drama. Life and even his character take on a different aspect for Seurel when his friend is there, and when he is not, he mulls over what has passed and tries to make sense of it, and at times even do something about it.

“Meaulnes gone, I was no longer following in the footsteps of a visionary path-finder; I was once more a village lad like the rest of them – a status which demanded no effort and concurred with my own inclinations.”

alain-fournier

Alain-Fournier
Source: Wikipedia

It is a nostalgic read, somewhat melancholy, infused with an air of pending tragedy – and reminiscent of the life of the author. It creates an ambiance of short-lived joy and then loss, one that is repeated often. We don’t read for the destination, but for the journey and its distractions, for the differences between characters facing the same situations. In this, it is a microcosm of humanity on a small scale during one phase of life, youth.

It is symbolic, not just of the end of childhood and romantic notions, but the end of an era of narrative style, published at the same time as Proust’s Swann’s Way, hailed as something new and a sign of the way forward for French literature, part of the new modernist movement, whilst Le Grand Meaulnes represented the end of the romantic tradition.

Loved it.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Just Like Tomorrow by Faïza Guène

How Can Life Be So Bad When You’re Living in PARADISE?

Kiffe kiffeI came across Faïza Guène’s  Kiffe kiffe demain translated as Just Like Tomorrow by Sarah Ardizzone, a french contemporary novel for young adults, via a wonderful blog A Year of Reading the World that is being turned into a book*.

Ann Morgan, inspired by the arrival of the multitude of athletes who came to London for the Olympics, decided to read a book from every one of 196 independent countries.

Each country presented a challenge, with only 3% of books in the UK being translated, she had to call on the help of her network and followers to find an English translation for many locations.

Faïza Guène

Faïza Guène

Faïza Guène is a young screenwriter who, after being involved in a local community project, began directing her own films. Born in France of Algerian parents, and growing up in a northern suburb of Paris, she writes from the heart of a challenging suburb, in a part of the city that few from the outside know about and about which little is written in literature.

Fifteen-year-old Doria lives alone with her illiterate mother, abandoned by a father who is seeking a younger, more fertile wife in his birthplace, Morocco. The story follows Doria’s unadulterated thoughts, which for most of the narrative are quietly despondent yet noisy with attitude. She is not prone to drama, although she observes it around her, as if from within a bubble and provides a running commentary on everything in her mind,and on the page.

Peppered with teenage slang, suburban Franco-Arabic dialect, the voice is unique and easily conjures an image of what life must be like for Doria, as she waits to be thrown out of school and pushed into a career she has no desire for. Her low expectations of life make the small gains she and her mother make all the more pronounced and the humour all the funnier.

What Mum really likes watching on telly in the evenings is the weather forecast. Specially when it’s that presenter with brown hair, the one who tried out for the musical The Birdcage but didn’t get it because he was over the top…So there he was, talking about this huge cyclone in the Caribbean, and it was like oh my days, this crazy thing getting ready to do loads of damage. Franky, this hurricane was called. Mum said she thought the western obsession with giving names to natural disasters was totally stupid. I like it when Mum and me get a chance to have deep and meaningful conversations.

It is a slice of life, coming of age story, of a second generation teenage immigrant living her life far from the images of the city of Paris that come to mind for most of us. It is a book that has been widely translated into other languages and offers a unique insight into teenage life for those on the fringe and an excellent alternative to the more well-known French literature out there.

*Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker in 2015.

Brodeck’s Report

BrodeckThis book has been on my radar since I read Le Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh by Philippe Claudel last year. That was the first book I had read by Philippe Claudel and our book club decided we should read it in French. I remember at the time, one of my twitter followers mentioned Brodeck’s Report as being her favourite, and on a recent visit to West End Lane Bookshop in London, I found this copy.

Brodeck’s Report is the story of the young man Brodeck, who as a child arrived in a French village with an old woman who had taken pity on him, finding him sitting alone in the ruins of a house fire.

He becomes a protégé of the village, who save enough to send him to university with the intention of him making an important contribution to village life, as it was clear he had the capability. Their plans are thwarted by unrest in the city and Brodeck flees to the village with a young woman who will become his wife. The village soon becomes occupied, resistance is taught a harsh lesson and the community are encouraged to ‘cleanse the village’. Brodeck and one other who came from elsewhere are sent away.

InnWhen the story begins, Brodeck is home, having survived the camp and after stepping out to find butter, stumbles into the midst of a village gathering at the Schloss Inn, where those grouped have decided he will write a report about the unknown, nameless stranger who came to visit, who had now met his end.

The novel is quiet, devastating and yet brilliant. Claudel takes one village which happens to be near the border – and what is a border but an imagined, even a painted line on paper – of an occupying country, and uses the village and its resident to portray humanity and its many inclinations, including its inability to learn from mistakes – which manifest when a stranger rides into town, installs himself at the local inn and goes about his business, without letting anyone know what that is. Many of the events portrayed in the novel are the result of illusory thought, of man’s inclination to create a story when there is none and to punish the outsider, the one who has inspired their dark imagination.

BrodeckBrodeck is tasked with writing an account of the events that do take place and as he does so, he simultaneously writes another account, his own narrative of what is occurring and what has happened in the recent past. He writes to try to make sense of it, as is his nature and to know what he must do.

Reading Primo Levi adds to an understanding of Claudel’s work and having read this novel so soon after Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, it illuminates something more of that work as well, it is as if they write about the same people, only Claudel dares to take the reader deeper into the heart of his villagers forcing us to open our eyes.

“It is a strange time of day. The streets are deserted, the encroaching darkness turns them into cold, grey blurs, and the houses become shifty silhouettes, full of menace and innuendo. Night has the curious power of changing the most everyday things, the simplest faces. And sometimes it does not so much change them as reveal them, as if bringing out the true natures of landscapes and people by shrouding them in black.”

Stunning.

Are Prize Winning Novels an Indication of Readership or a Nation’s Literary Heritage?

After the BBC’s journalist in Paris Hugh Schofield asked the question about Why French books don’t sell abroad, the Cultural Attaché to the US Embassy in New York, Laurence Marie responded with an extensive list and discussion of a list of French titles that are selling abroad. She also mentions how widely French literature is being translated into other languages and her article makes fascinating and insightful reading. I have collected book covers of some of the works mentioned, plus others, below.

Sometimes we hear about literature from another country when the author wins a major literary prize. However:

Are Prize Winning Novels Really Indicators of a Nation’s Readership?

French Books That Are Selling Abroad!

French Books That Are Selling Abroad!

I don’t think so.

Literary prizes usually have an agenda, if not multiple agendas.

In the case of the UK’s Booker Prize it was set up to try to bring more literary works into the mainstream.

It is known that the prize doesn’t actually influence the reading habits of avid readers. It is targeted at those for whom books are competing against other forms of entertainment.

I like the literary prize season, not so much in anticipation of a winner, but for the longlist, where we are more likely to find something new that might appeal to our taste, because of the variety offered and the number of works screened.

So what are the French literary prizes?

Le Prix Goncourt

I don’t know the French literary prizes well, and Schofield mentions in his article that there are over 2,000 of them, but the Le Prix Goncourt is well-known and has been around over 100 years since 1896.

The last recipient was Pierre Lemaitre, whose thriller Alex  (reviewed here by Savidge Reads who said of it: “a thriller that almost made ‘Gone Girl’ look tame”), was a bestseller last year and his prize-winning novel Au revoir là-haut looks set to be the same.

Nancy, a blogger in the Netherlands whom I admire enormously, tasked herself to read only French novels last year, as an interesting way to learn the language and not only has she succeeded in learning the language, but she has not given up, she continues to read novels in French. You can read her review (in English) of Le Maitre’s Au revoir là-haut here.

The prize was established by Edmond de Goncourt, a successful author, critic, and publisher, who bequeathed his estate to establish an academy and the prize was initially created to allow talented writers the opportunity to write a second book. The prize is seen as being SO prestigious, the prize money has not changed since the early 1900′s and remains something around €10.

Le Prix Femina

Leonora MianoTen members of the Goncourt academy are responsible for the judging of Le Prix Goncourt, and in protest against this all male jury, le Prix Femina was inaugurated, an equivalent literary prize open to all sexes, however the jury is all female.

This year the prize was won by Léonora Miano, a Cameroonian author who has lived in France since 1991, for her 7th novel La Saison de l’ombre (The Shadow Season).

There is also a Prix Femina étrangere for foreign books which was won in 2013 by Richard Ford for Canada and Le Prix Femina essai, a popular genre in France, the essay; this year won by father and son duo Jean-Paul Enthoven and Raphaël Enthoven for le Dictionnaire amoureux de Marcel Proust (Marcel Proust’s Love Dictionary).

2013 Pric FeminaThere are certainly no shortage of prizes here in France (other major literary prizes are the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise, the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Interallie and the Prix Medicis), and their lists make interesting reading, for their longevity and breadth and for that fact, that they are so little known by readers in the English language.

Although prize-winning literature might be translated into English, it may also create a false perception of readership, being skewed towards that overly intellectual perception of literature that Schofield refers to as being elitist, which can alienate the average English language reader (and perhaps also the average French reader).

Every nation is proud of their literary culture and achievements and like to endow their icons of that tradition with prestigious titles, however down here at the ordinary people reading level, there is a whole other canon of literature being read, whether it is in the English language or any other.

CIMG3882To know more about what ordinary readers are immersing themselves in, it is necessary to speak to people like us, those who don’t often have a voice in the media or on a jury, they are the voices that are worth hearing from, even if what they provide is anecdotal evidence.

I am speaking to some of the French people I encounter in everyday life who are passionate readers, to find out what they think about French literature and what they are reading, to be featured in future posts.  And to find out more about all that translated fiction they love to read here.