14 July La Fête Nationale: A Salmagundi of French Literature

Prise de la Bastille by   Jean-Pierre Houël Source:Wikipedia

Prise de la Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël
Source:Wikipedia

Today is a holiday here in France, marking the celebration of la fête nationale or as we know it in English Bastille Day, commemorating 14 July 1789 when the population fearing an attack by the royal military stormed the Bastille prison and released the many political prisoners in what became a symbol of the end to the rule of the monarchy and the beginning of independence.

There will be a military parade in the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris and here in Aix-en-Provence and most towns in France there will be organised displays of fireworks to commemorate.

To celebrate the National Holiday, I am following the initiative of Marina Sofia at Finding Time To Write to highlight some recently read and upcoming French reads, now available in English, here is my salmagundi of French Literature!

Click on the title to read the review and read to the end to find the definition of that tasty word for the day Salmagundi:

Two French Books I am looking forward to reading:

Poisoning (3)

The Poisoning Angel by John Teule

translated by Melanie Florence

This book is actually to be published today 14 July 2014 and the author is a well-known name in French contemporary literature. In fact I have one of his books in French on the shelf already.

This one is based on a true but gruesome story of one of the most notorious serial poisoners that France has ever known and was described by the Sunday Telegraph as:

“a bawdy romp one minute, a gruesome tragedy the next. The writing is beautiful, witty, grisly and moving, and reeks of authenticity.”

Let’s hope all that comes off in translation.

Vatican Cellars

The Vatican Cellars by André Gide

translated by Julian Evans

This book will be published in August 2014 to mark the centenary of the book’s first publication. It is set in the 1890′s around a group of ingenious fraudsters who claim that the Pope has been imprisoned and a false Pope enthroned in his place.

I haven’t read anything by this author, but he sounds like he caused quite a sensation with this novel and others, as he took it upon himself to explore morality in his work and was a major influence on the writing of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947 and one year after he died (in 1951) his works were placed on the Vatican’s list of banned books.

Three French Books I Read This Year:

Nagasaki (2)

Nagasaki by Eric Faye

translated by Emily Boyce

A short novella, based on a true story of an event that happened in Japan, that will make you check your fridge contents and ensure you lock the door at night.

Foundling2

The Foundling Boy by Michel Deon

translated by Julian Evans

Coming of age story of a young boy left as a baby on a doorstep, who grows up and has an insatiable need to travel and experience the world. The sequel soon to be translated into English as well.

People in Photo

The People In the Book by Hélène Gestern

translated by Emily Boyce,Ros Schwartz

A wonderful epistolary novel about a young woman searching for answers about events in her mother’s life before she was born, a photo provides a clue to those she knew.

Two Great Books Set in France:

All the Light

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr

Paris and Saint-Malo pre and during WWII following the lives of two children and their growth into adolescence, Marie-Laure who lost her sight at six and Werner who lost his parents and is raised in an orphanage. An excellent story that leads to the crossing of paths of these two characters and wonderfully evocative of place.

I Always Loved You

I Always Loved You

by Robin Oliveira

An insightful historical novel about the American painter Mary Cassatt, her life in late 1800′s Paris as she struggles to establish her name in the art world, enduring a life-long though fractious relationship with the impressionist painter and sculptor Edgar Degas.

Salmagundi:

  1. a mixed dish consisting usually of cubed poultry or fish, chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, onions, oil, etc., often served as a salad.
  2. any mixture or miscellany.

 Bonne Fête!

 

 

 

Scattered Dreams

On March 4th I sent an email to Karin Crilly about a competition being run on The Good Life France. I saw this competition mentioned on twitter  @lifefrance and thought of Karin as I knew she was writing a memoir about her year in Aix-en-Provence and I thought it would be a good idea for her to send something out into the world.

The Good Life France is an independent online magazine that celebrates life in France and attracts a number of writers and contributors who write on a wide range of subjects, keeping visitors and residents informed about France and all things French. The competition was to celebrate the 2nd anniversary since their inception and they invited contributions of work up to 1000 words on France or French related.

Good Life

Karin replied and said she would be very interested in entering the competition and asked if I would like to read the extract she had chosen, from the first chapter of her book.

Unbeknown to us both at the time, it was the beginning of the two of us working together. I read her work, made some suggestions and she polished her already excellent prose into a shape resembling 1000 words of an evocative experience in Paris that did indeed wow the judges, moving some of them to tears yet uplifting them at the same time.

Earlier this week, to our great joy, we learned that Karin had won the competition, ahead of more than 100 other entries and her story Scattered Dreams in Paris has now been published on The Good Life France.

You can read the story here by clicking on the title. Watch this space for news of the book when it comes out:

Winner of 2014 Writing Competition The Good Life France!

Scattered Dreams in Paris by Karin Crilly

CIMG2976

 

Congratulations Karin and  Bonne Continuation!

la fête du muguet et du travail

Le Muguet

Le Muguet

Au mois de mai, fais ce qu’il te plait.

In the month of May do what your heart fancies.

Provencal proverb

Today is a public holiday here in France, to commemorate la fête du travail and la fête du muguet.

I wrote a little about this tradition two years ago here, sharing my experience of a neighbour knocking on our apartment door and presenting me with this small token of friendship and bonheur (happiness) le muguet. Around town, I noticed people selling the small flowers in the street.

This commemoration actually has two origins and two separate histories, one dating back to the Middle Ages and the other to Chicago in 1886.

La muguet, also known as lys des vallées (lily of the valley) is a plant originating in Japan, long symbolising the arrival of spring, and on 1 May 1561, the year he became King, Charles IX chose it as a gift to bring bonheur to the women of the royal court.

Charles IX, King of France 1560-1574

Charles IX, King of France 1560-1574

It wasn’t until 1976 that it was also associated with la fête du 1er mai, la fête du travail.

In Chicago in 1886 a movement was launched to lobby for the 8 hour working day and the 1st of May was chosen to commemorate it. A strike involving 400,000 workers on May 4, referred to as the Haymarket Riot, paralysed a number of factories, the protest became violent resulting in the death of a dozen people including seven police.

Haymarket Riot, 4 May 1886, Chicago, Illinois

Haymarket Riot, 4 May 1886, Chicago, Illinois

In June 1889 in Paris, for the centenary of the French revolution, it was decided to associate the 1st of May with the objective of attaining the 8 hour working day and in commemoration of the movement launched in Chicago on 1 May 1886.

Initially, they wore a red triangle to represent the triple objectives, 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, 8 hours of leisure. This was replaced by the flower l’églantine and finally in 1907 by le muguet.

On 23 April 1919, the 8 hour day was ratified by the French senate and on 24 April 1941, during the German occupation,  the 1st of May was officially designated la fête du travail.

8 hours

Today la fête du travail is celebrated in most countries across Europe, except Switzerland and the Netherlands. It is also celebrated in South Africa, Latin America, Russia and Japan.  In the UK, the first Monday in May is celebrated and in the US, Labour Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.

Voila! Bonne fête à tout le monde.

All The Light We Cannot See

Sea swell at Manu Bay, Raglan, NZ

Sea swell at Manu Bay, Raglan, NZ

I read Anthony Doerr’s book after finishing two books that didn’t work too well for me and so the experience of dipping into the first few pages of Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See was like exiting the murky depths of a turbulent current to float in that gentle swell of the ocean just before the breakwater, where the waves lift us up and down like a life buoy without breaking.

Reading Doerr’s words and meeting his characters Marie-Laure, Werner and Jutta caresses the mind like the sea cradling the body as if it were weightless.

That light, the gentle caress of words that uplift, that intrigue, that follow through on their promise, that warns of tragedy and provides the reader with a guide to navigate the pages that follow.

All the LightMarie-Laure and her father live within walking distance of the Natural History Museum in Paris, where he works as the master of locks, the keyholder. When she is six Marie-Laure loses her sight and every year after that her father builds her a wooden structure that is a kind of puzzle box. Using her hands, she explores the gift to finds its hidden secret and despite its increasing sophistication and difficulty, each year it takes her less time to crack its ingenious code, opening it to reveal the gift within.

He also builds her a model of their neighbourhood, every home, building, street. She memorises it until she is ready to go out and discover the area in its life-size proportion. When the Germans occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo to stay with her reclusive Uncle and his housekeeper where they must build another model she will learn to navigate.

“For a long time though, unlike his puzzle boxes, his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one represents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance; in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.

But her father’s model of the same intersection smells only of dried glue and sawdust. Its streets are empty, its pavements static, to her fingers it serves as little more than a tiny and insufficient facsimile.”

Werner and his sister Jutta are orphans in Germany, their father killed in a coal mining accident. Werner has a fascination for radio, both listening to and repairing them; the siblings discover and listen to broadcasts from as far away as France and England until war approaches, when to be in possession of a radio becomes a dangerous and illegal pastime. However, his talent has not gone unnoticed and will fast-track him into the midst of Hitler’s youth and a role as a detector of radio signals, leading him in wartime to the north of France.

“At midnight he and Jutta prowl the ionosphere, searching for that lavish, penetrating voice. When they find it, Werner feels as if he has been launched into a different existence, a secret place where great discoveries are possible, where an orphan from a coal town can solve some vital mystery hidden in the physical world.”

Radiotriangulation Scheme: Source wikipedia

Radiotriangulation Scheme: Source wikipedia

I really enjoyed this book, it made me care about the characters and interested in their lives and worry about them being on opposite sides of a great war. How could that ever be navigated safely?

Doerr describes the two different worlds of Marie-Laure and Werner with such clarity, overcoming blindness and interesting us in the intricacies of radio circuitry, pathways of electrons, amplifiers and transformer coils as if they were the most fascinating thing ever invented.

It is a story of survival, perseverance, passion and obsession set in the years leading up to and during WWII, it brings the streets, homes and sea wall of Saint Malo into the reader’s imagination where we too learn to see without seeing. And it will may make you curious to read Jules Verne if you haven’t already.

Anthony Doerr transmits an infectious enthusiasm for the story, creating endearing characters with rich, enticing prose, all the elements of great literary fiction that can entertain.

Further Reading:

New York Times Review - Light Found in Darkness of Wartime

 

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

 

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.