Claudine Married (Book 3) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

The impulsive Claudine, thinking a marriage of her own making and choice (not one chosen by her father or suggested by a man who had feelings for her that weren’t reciprocated) embarks on her marital journey which begins with fifteen months of a vagabond life, travelling to the annual opera Festival de Bayreuth, in Germany, to Switzerland and the south of France.

It might have been more enjoyable had she not had to endure the many introductions to numerous of her husband’s friends and their families, whom he made himself most agreeable to and put himself out for, something the young bride was unable to fully appreciate.

“As he explains, with impudent charm, it is not worthwhile doing violence to one’s nature to please one’s real friends, since one’s sure of them anyway…”

Claudine demands mercy and a fixed abode and thus this book of her marriage begins when they are reinstalled back in Paris, however Claudine still feels as though something is lacking. Before they returned she requested they visit Montigny and while unable to visit her childhood home (now rented), they visit the school and for a brief period she reconnects to something of her former self and notes one of the differences between herself and her husband in so doing.

“How willingly I look back over this recent past and dwell on it! But my husband lives in the future. This paradoxical man who is devoured by the terror of growing old, who studies himself minutely in looking-glasses and desperately notes every tiny wrinkle in the network at the corner of his eyes, is uneasy in the present and feverishly hurries Today on Tomorrow. I myself linger in the past, even if that past be only Yesterday, and I look back almost always with regret.”

This living in the past causes her even to forget that she now lives in this new apartment, coming out of her daydream, she readies herself to return home (to her father) only to realise she no longer lives there and ponders where her home really is.

“To go home! But where? Isn’t this my home, then? No, no, it isn’t, and that’s the whole source of my trouble. To go home? Where? Definitely not to Rue Jacob, where Papa has piled up mountains of papers on my bed. Not to Montigny, because neither the beloved house…not the School…”

Her husband decides to re-initiate his “at-home day”, a day when society friends can call to visit, Claudine isn’t too enthusiastic, but agrees as long as she doesn’t have to be the hostess. It is here she will meet Rézi, a woman she is both charmed by and fearful of, one whom she becomes attached to, visiting her daily, encouraged by her husband.

“Rézi… Her whole person gives off a scent of fern and iris, a respectable artless, rustic smell I find surprising and enchanting by contrast..”

Having achieved his objective in coming to Paris, to find his daughter a suitor, Claudine’s father announces he’s had enough of Paris and is returning to Montigny, and taking her cat Fanchette with him.

Claudine is drawn into the intoxicating intimacy of her friendship with Rézi, albeit somewhat bothered by the overly attentive encouragement of her husband.

“The violence of Rézi’s attraction, the vanity of my resistance, the sense that I am behaving ridiculously, all urge me to get it over and done with; to intoxicate myself with her till I have exhausted her charm. But, I resist! And I despise myself for my own stubborn obstinacy.”

Their relationship plays itself out, up to the denouement, when Claudine seeking refuge decides to return to Montigny, to the safety of her childhood home, the woods, her animals whose loyalty she is assured of, and the affection of the maid Mélie and her humble, absent-minded father.

She writes a letter to her husband, the last pages arrive and we are on to the next book, in English entitled Claudine and Annie, in French Claudine s’en va, meaning Claudine Leaves!

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris

Book 4 – Claudine and Annie (to come)…

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Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan tr. Irene Ash #WITMonth

Bonjour TristesseRachel Cooke in this Guardian article The subtle art of translation reflects on the importance of the right translation and relates her memory of reading Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse.

Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart.

She decides to splash out and buy a new copy to read and chooses the Penguin Modern Classics version translated by Heather Lloyd.

Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it.

Françoise Sagan

Author, Françoise Sagan

For a while she continued to read it, telling herself it was stupid to cling to one version, as if it were a sacred thing, however she gave up, it may have been an accurate translation but it lacked the magic of that fist reading experience. She ends by saying that if you tried this story and hated it, to please have another go and entrust yourself to Irene Ash’s gorgeous 1955 translation.

Having read the article, I had no hesitation in going straight for the Irene Ash translation and was transfixed from the very first pages, totally put under the spell of this charming little novella.

Cecile is looking back and recalling the summer she was seventeen, when she and her father spent 2 months on the French Riveria near St Raphael, having a blissful holiday. He is a widower who doesn’t lack for female company and she has just finished school and lives a life of privilege and indulgence, her father imposing few if any limits on her, they are in a sense like children both of them in adult bodies.

He had rented a large white villa on the Mediterranean, for which we had been longing since the spring.It was remote and beautiful, and stood on a promontory dominating the sea, hidden from the road by a pine wood; a mule path led down to a tiny creek where the sea lapped against rust-coloured rocks.

She is surprised to enjoy the company of a young man Cyril, preferring the company of more mature men and her father’s friends, and discovers she quite likes the attentions of this young man who is falling in love with her and she with him.

CalanquesIt should have been perfect, but things change when an old friend of her mother’s Anne arrives and she and her father announce their intention to marry. Although it is actually something Cecile feels is right for them and she adores Anne, part of her resents what signifies to her the end to the playful era she and her father have indulged, for Anne’s presence in their lives will certainly bring order and sensibility.

Yes, it was for this I reproached Anne: she prevented me from liking myself. I, who was so naturally meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced by her into a world of self-criticism and guilty conscience, where, unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost. And what did she bring me? I took stock: She wanted my father, she had got him. She would gradually make of us the husband and step-daughter of Anne Larsen; that is to say, she would turn us into two civilised, well-behaved and happy people.

She embarks on a plan to provoke a change in this happy little situation, instantly regretting it, but unable to halt the progress of a development she has initiated.

Tears came into my eyes at the thought of the jokes we used to have together, our laughter as we drove home at dawn through the empty streets of Paris. All that was over. In my turn I would be influenced, re-oriented, remodelled by Anne. I would not even mind it, she would act with intelligence, irony and sweetness, and I would be incapable of resistance; in six months I should no longer even wish to resist.

It is a simple storyline, but what makes it incredible are the adept insights Cecile has into herself and her behaviour and to all those around her. She acts irresponsibly as if she is unable to help herself, but with a certain equanimity, it is as if she stands outside of herself and narrates events and what is driving each character to act their part in her little drama, which will escalate into tragedy.

Utterly engaging, I was riveted, loved that ability her character had to understand the personalities around her and her own flaws, despite being unable to stop the mischief she provoked, not to mention that this was written when the author was only 18 years old.

Buy Bonjour Tristesse from Book Depository (Affiliate Link)

 

The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé tr. by Melanie Florence #TranslationThursday

Poisoning (3)A real-life character tour de force from French author Jean Teulé featuring a famous female serial killer from the nineteenth century.

Hélène Jégado is warned about and thus introduced to the deathly effects of certain plants and flowers from a young age, she learns what to watch out for, including their superstitions.

‘Maman, who’s this Ankou you’re always talking about?’

Her mother tells her he is Death’s worker, the girl becomes obsessed with this idea, and makes it her vocation to fulfill his wishes, the only way she knows how.

Beginning with the demise of her very own maman.

Ankou‘The Ankou wears  a cloak and a broad hat,’ said Anne Jégado, sitting down again. ‘He always carries a scythe with a sharpened blade. He’s often depicted as a skeleton whose head swivels constantly at the top of his spine like a sunflower on its stem so that with one glance he can take in the whole region his mission covers.’

 

A story of the travels and inclinations of a girl who after poisoning her mother, travels from household to household as a domestic cook unable to restrain herself from eventually succumbing to the desire to add that little something extra to the recipe, her speciality the infamous soupes-aux-herbes.

Her deathly intent, seemingly existed without malice or evil inclination, more of an addiction, a calling, a macabre loyalty to that voice in her head, the legend of Ankou, death’s helper, leading her on, guiding her towards the next victim.

Each chapter begins with a small map of the Breton region, indicating her journey, where she will travel to next, until finally, very much later, she is confronted and must face her accusers.

Macabre, yet told with an element of detachment that stops it from being sinister. Entertaining and fascinating, a little insight into another era and a moment of unforgettable history in the north of France.

Jégado

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher Gallic Books.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain tr. Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken

CIMG7179Antoine Laurain is the French author of five novels, including The President’s Hat, a novel that has found a popular and loyal following in the US and UK since being translated into English by Gallic Books.

Not serious literature, they’re the kind of books you reach for when you need something uplifting and entertaining. I reached for this one at the end of winter when in the grip of a terrible flu and found it the best medicine of all!

A Selection of Word by Word notebooks.

A Selection of Word by Word notebooks.

Intrigued and incensed in equal measure, as a notebook toting woman myself, I wanted to know more of this story centred around a character whose red notebook, containing handwritten thoughts and random PRIVATE jottings, has fallen into the hands of the curious bookseller, Monsieur Laurent Letellier.

Recognising it as a handbag of quality and not something intended to be thrown out, when Monsieur Letellier comes across the abandoned handbag on a Parisian street early one morning, he picks it up intending to hand it in at the police station, which he almost succeeds in doing, except, you know, French bureaucracy, it will require a one hour wait and he has a shop to open up, so plans to return later. Only later becomes much, much later and the police station is not where he will return it to.

mauve handbagThe bag belongs to Laure, a woman we meet in the opening pages as she clutches her handbag to her detriment, metres from her apartment, only to be shoved against a metal door frame, losing the bag anyway. Without keys, and despite it being 2am, she manages to check into the hotel opposite, promising to pay in the morning, by which time she will have fallen into a coma.

Once the bag comes home with the bookseller, it becomes a major temptation and much of the book is spent on various dilemmas arising as a consequence of his inaction, which in turn provoke memories of past events. The longer it stays with him, the more trouble it causes and the more intrigued he becomes by its owner, despite recognising his chances at redemption grow slimmer as each day passes.

Early morning in the Luxembourg gardens, Paris

Early morning in the Luxembourg gardens, Paris

One of the items the bookseller discovers is a signed copy of Accident Nocturne by Patrick Modiano which leads him to track down the reclusive author, known to frequent Luxembourg Gardens most mornings. As a bookseller, he knows how rare book signings by this author are, so hopes the author may lead him to the woman.

The Modiano cameo intrigued me, particularly as he’d just won The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, was that the reason to mention him, I wondered? And then I read Helen’s Mad About The Books review of Dora Bruder and found an even better reason for the reference to this esteemed author.

Paris Soir Dora BruderIn Dora Bruder, Modiano tells how in 1988 he stumbled across an ad in the personal columns of the 1941 New Year’s Eve edition of Paris Soir. The ad had been placed by the parents of 15-year-old Jewish girl Dora Bruder, who had run away from the Catholic boarding school where she’d been living.

It set the author off on an obsessive quest to find out everything he could about Dora Bruder and why during the most dangerous period of the German occupation of Paris, she had run away from those protecting her. But that’s another story and book, so see Helen’s review below for more on that extraordinary tale.

The Red Notebook has little of the hardship and tragedy of Dora Bruder, it reads more like a book that could be made into an entertaining romantic comedy, it has all the ingredients, the streets and bookshops of Paris, an artists’ workshop, handbags and their intriguing taboo contents, a jealous girlfriend and a lippy adolescent daughter. Watch this space I say!

Personally, I found it wonderful to discover an author who can do uplifting, feel good stories that push the right buttons for booklovers without becoming sentimental or too romantic. Of the ending isn’t realistic, but it was fun getting there.

If you like a glimpse of local life in Paris, characters who observe bookshelves and mention what others characters are reading, people who write in notebooks, the short form novella and an uplifting story, that could quite likely turn into a beautiful film, then keep an eye out for The Red Notebook.

Further Reading:

Review by Susan of A Life in Books  – The President’s Hat, Antoine Laurain

Review by Helen of Mad About the BooksDora Bruder, Patrick Modiano – translated into English by Joanna Kilmartin as The Search Warrant

Article by Antoine Laurain – On Patrick Modiano winning the 2014 Nobel Prize

dora Bruder

 

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher, Gallic Books.

A Journey From Hobbiton to Provence

Carolyne Kauser-Abbot is a freelance writer who has a passion for food, travel and Provence and shares many wonderful things to see and do here in the lifestyle travel magazine Perfectly Provence as well as a food and travel related blog Ginger and Nutmeg.

Recently she asked me how I came to be a writer/blogger and Aromatherapist in Provence.

If you click on the photo below you can read the article:

Claire's Christmas Aromatherapy Remedies

Claire’s Christmas Aromatherapy Remedies

I hope you enjoyed the diversion from reading a book review.

 Claire

The African Equation by Yasmina Khadra tr. by Howard Curtis (French)

Yasmina Khadra is a name I have seen and heard mention often, here in France. At first, I too thought it was a woman writer. The real Yasmina Khadra is indeed a woman, but the author of the books is her husband, the Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul, who created the pseudonym to deflect attention away from censors, as he was an officer in the Algerian army at the beginning of his writing career. His real identity was only revealed after he left the army and came to France to live in 2001.

He is known for offering an alternative narrative and perspective on the subjects he pursues in his fiction, a challenge to commonly held Western stereotypes. Whether he achieves that or not, his books fly off the shelves in France and now appear to be gathering an audience in the English language as well. It’s disturbing, compelling, likely to provoke much debate and makes me look forward to reading his next book.

KhadraFirst published in France in 2012, The African Equation was translated by Howard Curtis for Gallic Books and made available in February 2015. Two further titles will be published in late 2015 and 2016.

Kurt Krausmann, a doctor living in Frankfurt, Germany met a beautiful woman while in Paris, both were there for work purposes, attending different conferences in the same hotel, seemingly wedded to their careers, they found each other and if we are to believe the doctor narrator, 10 years of contentedness followed.

Moments from the past now arrive unbidden, a mocking assurance as his illusion of bliss is permanently scarred the evening he arrives home to discover the loving (though recently tormented by he knows not what) Jessica, has committed suicide.

The doctor’s ritualistic, clinical, predictable life is turned upside down and he experiences extremes of emotion, the like of which he would normally only ever encounter in the detached manner he has of observing patients, those symptoms he has so often downplayed in others threaten to overwhelm him.

‘Try to forget your dark thoughts, Frau Biribauer,’ I said. ‘You’re worrying unnecessarily. It’s all in your mind. Keep your spirits up. You’ve shown great courage and a clear head. You have no reason to give in now. With its joys and pains, life deserves to be lived to the end.’

His friend Hans Mekkenroth, a wealthy philanthropist throws him a lifeline, suggesting he travel with him on one of his regular humanitarian missions, they will sail across the seas in his yacht to deliver supplies to the Comoros Isles.

Hans lost his wife Paula some years before and though there isn’t a day when he doesn’t miss her, he appreciates that life doesn’t stop, he has found meaning in using his wealth to try and alleviate the suffering of others (while enjoying the element of adventure), whether it is the poor of Africa or the 1st world problems of his companion the Doctor, Kurt.

The Gulf of Aden

The Gulf of Aden

Kurt is about to discover a version of suffering and misery worse than he came with, when they are hijacked by pirates in the Gulf of Aden in the middle of the night and taken hostage. Transported inland, they are initially held in a cave, while their captors decide what to do with them and teach them a lesson or two in the meantime.

The men are moved and lose all sense of where they actually are, as they try to understand who is in charge and what is going on around them. When they meet fellow hostage Bruno, a Frenchman who has been living a nomadic existence in Africa for 40 years, they begin to understand the varying potential prices on their heads and fear for their survival. Despite his captivity, Bruno the ‘born again African’ Frenchman, refuses to let go of his love for Africa, countering every negative situation with an alternative view.

‘I don’t understand what goes on in these monsters’ minds.’

‘A goldfish can’t bring the complexity of the ocean back to the tranquillity of its bowl, Dr Kausmann,’ Bruno said with a hint of reproach.

‘I don’t live on another planet,’ I retorted, exasperated that he could still come out with these insinuations after all I had been through.

‘Neither does a goldfish. But what does it know about storms? The world has become colour blind. On both sides, everything is either black or white, and nobody cares to put things into perspective. Good and evil are ancient history. These days, it’s a matter of predators and prey. The predators are obsessed with extending their living space, the prey with their survival.’

‘You’ve been too long in Africa, Bruno.’

‘What is Africa, or Asia or America? he said in disgust. ‘It’s all the same. Whether you call it a brothel or a whorehouse, it’s the soul that’s in it that determines its vocation. Whether you say “it smells bad” or “it stinks” doesn’t change the air around you. The South Pole is only the North Pole lying on its back, and the West is only the East on the other side of the street. And do you know why, Dr Kausmann? Because there are no more shades of grey, anybody can rationalise anything, even the worst atrocity.’

The hostage experience awakens a once dormant, now seething rage in the Doctor, an equivalent madness that has been roused for some time in his captors, as they trade insults, tirades of hatred and contempt revealing how similar they all are, despite their intent to exert superiority and dominance, each striving to rise above the other. They have worn their societal labels, been perceived, and practised as a Poet(the African) and a Doctor(the Westerner) yet in this unforgiving environment, they are reduced to their despicable worst, seeing the other as their nemesis, representing the worst of those stereotypes, they reduce each other to in their respective forms of bigotry, showing themselves equally capable of the worst man can do, given the circumstances.

Yasmina Khadra

Yasmina Khadra

It is a compelling story that provokes as many questions as it answers, that at times risks falling into the stereotypical traps it seeks to avert. The Doctor had no desire to travel to the African continent, he is there by accident, thus he represents the perspective of those who come by their views through media and external cultural perspectives and his violent experience would seem only to strengthen those views, though they are challenged by some of his later encounters.

Without giving the plot away, I conclude he learns little from his experience, he reverts to his former self, seeks a form of escape from his reality, another version of the life he had before. Perhaps this is what Khadra is getting at, whether it’s a hostage experience, a safari trip or medical relief, that Westerners remain unchanged by their experience? Certainly tourism is rarely a life changing activity, but living in another country for more than 40 years might be.

We were puzzled by the suicide of the Doctor’s wife and though a reason is proffered, there is little introspection on his part to understand his role in it. Did his subsequent journey transform his character in any way? His reaction on his return and unwillingness to explore it, suggest not.

On the reverse side of this equation, we witness the horror of hostage taking and the keeping of prisoners in horrid conditions, the anger and violence of men, the arid landscape, civilian brutalities, villagers on the run and a refugee camp. They a significant contrast to the part of Africa I have been in recently through Wangari Maathai’s autobiography, Unbowed, One Woman’s Story she inhabited a woman’s world in the beginning and then through education, the Kenyan elite. Her story does more to dispel the myths and stereotypes than anything else I have read so far. She may have been an exceptional woman, but I have no doubt there are many more like her, who could teach us a lot more about the Frenchman Bruno’s favourite and frequent quote:

‘That’s Africa, Monsieur Krausmann!’

 

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, tr. by Adriana Hunter (French)

A single mother of two boys wants to take them on a little holiday near the sea. That might sound simple enough, but for this mother, it is a major life event and a challenge, as she suffers from some kind of mental affliction that normally requires her to take daily medication.

Beside the SeaThis trip is out of the ordinary and we experience it from inside the mind of the mother, the stream of consciousness narrative is so effective here, it gets inside our mind as we read. We feel her sense of anxiety acutely and become almost as sensitive as she is to the threatening hostility of the outside world, that place from which she wishes to protect her children.

She wants them to experience the wonder of the seaside, she takes them for hot chocolate and they visit a funfair, all of which present certain challenges. She observes and reflects on aspects of their characters with a poetic clarity that all mothers will relate to.

“I stopped on the sea wall, my two kids holding my hands, I wondered how to do it, how to say hello to the sea.  It was making a hellish noise, really angry, and the children cowered. I stayed there, not moving a muscle, watching it…I’d been waiting for it such a long time!”

It is an incredible novella and I appreciated it all the more, ironically, after following  recent discussion on Vishy’s review of Nabakov’s Lolita . They discuss that dilemma many readers have when they recognise an exceptional prose style but feel uncomfortable with the subject or the perceptions of the protagonist. It makes it hard to share an opinion and it takes time to understand our reactions. We observe them first and then try to understand them.

What I found most interesting in those subsequent comments actually came from the more experienced readers, those who had read it more than once and they describe what changed in terms of their own perceptions with subsequent readings. In the first read we react more to the story and character, in subsequent readings it seems the reader has greater insight into the intentions of the writer/artist, beyond surface character and plot.

Those comments made me think more about Beside The Sea and wonder if I might appreciate it more coming to it for a second time. I was in admiration of the style but uncomfortable with the journey. I would recommend it to the curious, thinking reader who isn’t quick to judge and it’s not one to read when you’re feeling fragile.

anxietyThe author does an incredible job in making the reader empathise with the mother, even though I didn’t particularly enjoy going into that state and arriving at its inevitable conclusion.

I also couldn’t help thinking about these kind of stories in the media, the short versions which usually focus on the result and not what leads people to where they end up. I don’t want to spoil the read, so you’ll just have to read it to find out what I mean by that. I think the enjoyment of this book will also be dependent on where one is on the ‘potential for empathy’ scale.

It is an interesting challenge, that an author would choose to travel inside the mind of someone like this and write in the stream-of-consciousness form.  I am sure this was one of the works that the publisher and writer Mieke Ziervogel read as background research in writing her own debut novella ‘Magda‘.

Poignant and thought-provoking given the issues that lie beneath its surface, this is the story that is almost never told and rarely understood by the public, who often only see that end result favoured by the media and judge it far too easily.

This is the first book in the Peirene Press Female Voices: Inner Realities series, all of which I am reading in January 2015.

Next Up : Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (translated from Catalan)

Female Voice Inner Realities