Ladivine by Marie NDiaye tr. Jordan Stump

Ladivine, written by the Senegalese-French writer Marie NDiaye, known for her 2009 Prix Goncourt award-winning Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Strong Women) came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

The blurb describes it as a novel about a women named Clarisse Rivière, who travels by train once a month to visit her mother Ladivine, a woman neither her husband, daughter or grandchildren, or anyone connected to her present life is aware of. They believe Clarisse, whose real name is Malinka, is an orphan and due to mixed parentage, a father unknown, she bears little resemblance to the mother she is ashamed to acknowledge.

The novel demonstrates this artifice of a life, where Clarisse spends every day trying to remove from her very essence who she really is, and while the result could be seen by some as perhaps attaining some kind of perfection, as a character she is hollow, superficial, not there. What makes it hard to accept or believe, is that there appears to be no reason for this decision, no apparent childhood trauma, no cruelty to have turned her into such a narcissist, except perhaps her isolation from normal family and social norms, being the daughter of a single, working mother who was obviously a foreigner, most likely from an African country.

“She kissed her mother, who was short, thin, prettily built, who like her had slender bones, narrow shoulders, long, thin arms,  and compact, unobtrusive features, perfectly attractive but discreet, almost invisible.

Where Malinka’s mother was born, a place Clarisse Rivière had never gone and would never go – though she had, furtive and uneasy, looked at pictures of it on the Internet –  everyone had those same delicate features, harmoniously placed on their faces as if with an eye for coherence, and those same long arms, nearly as slender at the shoulder, as at the wrist.

And the fact that her mother had therefore inherited those traits from a long, extensive ancestry and then passed them on to her daughter (the features, the arms, the slender frame and, thank God, nothing more) once made Clarisse Rivière dizzy with anger, because how could you escape when you were marked in this way, how could you claim not to be what you did not want to be, what you nevertheless had every right not to want to be?”

I admit, I found this novel strange, weird and inhuman. While I understand the author may have been trying to portray something about humanity, what results is the shadow of a human when an aspect of their humanity, their cultural and familial identity, is removed.

“And another realisation hit her at the same time, with the violence of a thing long known but never quite grasped, now abruptly revealed in all its simplicity: being that woman’s daughter filled her with a horrible shame and fear.”

Marie NDiaye by Nicolas Hidiroglou

As Clarisse, Malinka marries and has a child, who she names Ladivine, a daughter who drifts away from her family, when she moves to Berlin and who senses something missing in herself, but with no way to understand what it might be or how to resolve it. Clarisse’s husband Richard leaves her, for perhaps the same reason, again something he can’t quite communicate.

Slightly frustrated having finished the novel, which features a dog in various scenes, which may or may not be the incarnation of one of the characters, I decided to read a few interviews to discover what I was missing in understanding this weird novel by an award-winning and highly revered French novelist.

The details about Marie NDiaye’s life are telling, as are the common themes in her fiction to date. I’ll admit, I find I appreciate the novel more, for having been made aware of this background, to read it without this context, is to feel something this character, that something vital is missing!

Marie NDiaye is the daughter of a French mother and a Senegalese father she barely knows and is married herself to a white Frenchman. She, like the character Clarisse, was raised just south of Paris, and according to an interview in Le Monde, has spent only 3 weeks on the African continent, 2 of those weeks in Senegal, and was said to have felt “wholly foreign” to the continent. For me, this may explain why it feels as though Ladivine, the mother also has no heritage, it is clear she comes from elsewhere, but the author chooses not to provide the narrative any clue to that heritage or cultural reference and even when later in the book, it seems as though the daughter of Clarisse and her family visit that country, though it is never named, again the reader is kept from knowing the actual origins, except through the occasional physical description of the people, reminding us of those opening clues to her mother’s physique.

“NDiaye’s novels frequently feature biracial couples, absent or distant fathers, and strained filial relationships. Her characters often feel ill at ease within their communities, and struggle with doubts that they are not who they believe or wish themselves to be.” New Republic, The Metamorphoses of Marie NDiaye by Jeffrey Zuckerman

There is an emptiness at the core of the novel, a sad indictment of the policies of some countries in their attempt to assimilate the many cultures into one, a loss of a richness that even when unknown can be exhilarating to explore, which is why I have enjoyed so much the work of writer’s like Maryse Condé’s Victoire: My Mother’s Motherand Yaa Gyasi ‘s Homegoing who through their stories seek to explore that which they were not exposed to during their childhoods, but which they come to understand more by visiting the places or exploring through storytelling.

The article in the New Republic (linked below) is worth a read for its discussion of comparisons with Gustave Flaubert’s ‘free indirect discourse’ and how NDiaye submerges the reader into the speaker’s mind and the role of the element of fantasy, or those aspects that cause the reader to wonder whether what they just read was real or a hallucination or the product of an unreliable narrator.

Overall, an interesting read and an interesting writer and novel to read about, but that lack of a cultural heritage or interest in going there to seek it out and confront it, make me less inclined to want to read more of her work. I would however be interested in what she might come up with, should she decide to research her African roots and risk taking that inner journey that would no doubt enrich her fiction and interest this reader.

Further Reading

The Metamorphoses of Marie NDiaye, New Republic by Jeffrey Zuckerman

3 Generations Of Trauma Haunt ‘Ladivine’, NPR review by Jean Zimmerman

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.

Women in Translation #WITMonth

During August many I will be reading novels by women that have been translated from a language other than English. It’s an initiative created by Meytal Radzinski at Biblibio, Life in Letters and can be followed on twitter using the hashtag #WITMonth.

WITMonth15

Literature in translation represents less than 5% of published works in the English language, compared to nearly 50% for example in France and of works translated, approximately 30% is attributed to women.

I have gathered together a stack of books I already own that are works of translation and it is from this pile that I will be reading this month. It coincides with my interest in reading what I call cross cultural fiction, or literature from another perspective than that which we have grown up and/or been educated around, which in my case was very Anglo-focused.

WIT Month

If you have a favourite book by a woman, that has been translated, please tell us about it in the comments below so I can add it to my list for next year.

So far in 2015, I have read and reviewed the following books by women that have been translated: (click on the title to read the review)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Spain) translated Laura McGloughlin, Paul Mitchell (Catalan)

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (France) translated Adriana Hunter (French)

Tales From The Heart, True Stories From My Childhood, by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) translated Richard Philcox (French)

Ru by Kim Thuy (Vietnamese-Canadian) (read in French, available in English)

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer (Austria) translated Shaun Whiteside (German)

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) translated by Richard Philcox (French)

Happy Reading All.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

The President’s Hat is the first book of Antoine Laurain’s that was translated from French into English by Gallic Books. It appears that three translators were used for the different voices.

Daniel Mercier voiced by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

Fanny Marquant and Bernard Lavallière voiced by Emily Boyce

Pierre Aslan voiced by  Jane Aitken

In February, Gallic Books sent me a copy of his second translation The Red Notebook, which I devoured immediately and adored. Click on the link to read my review.

Thanks to that review where I indicated a wish to read The President’s Hat, Owen at The Carrot Cake Diaries sent me his copy and I returned the favour by sending him one my all time favourites, Martin Booth’s The Industry of Souls.

The President’s Hat is just as brilliant in its light-hearted uplifting way. It is the story of what happens to the people beginning with Daniel Mercier who encounter a black hat with the letters F M embossed in gold lettering inside the rim, when it is left on a restaurant seat by the former French President François Mitterand. Daniel is the first person seized by a compulsion to covet the hat and wear it until he too will leave it behind and the adventure moves on to the next person.

black hat

Each person who encounters the hat, is touched by it sufficiently to act in a way that will have a significant impact on their lives, thus taking the reader on an entertaining journey across France and into Venice in the eighties via gifted storytelling.

Although he appears only very briefly in the story, it is in a way a tribute to the man who was a popular President in the 1980’s, who ruled from 1981 to 1995 and in his last address to the people said:

“I believe in the forces of the spirit, and I won’t leave you.”

He died one year later.

mitterrand tranquille

Impossible to put down, uplifting and a joy to read, it is wonderful to come across one of those ‘turn-to’ authors when in need of a literary pick-me-up or just a fun read!

Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean tr. Adriana Hunter

CIMG7184From the 2015 theme Chance Encounters: Meeting the Other comes another novella from Peirene Press, translated from French, Reader for Hire (La Lectrice) by Raymond Jean, translated by Adriana Hunter.

The first book in the series was Finnish author Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger, a chilling tale of the necessity of abandonment to survive, when leaving behind what seems like certain death is replaced by a journey towards what is a less certain but equally probable demise, trying to escape the famine of 1867 Finland, heading for St Petersburg on foot through the snow.

This second book Reader for Hire tells the story of thirty-four year old Marie-Constance who is married, childless and unoccupied. She still regularly visits one of her literature professors at the university where she failed to complete her studies, but otherwise appears to possess little motivation to change her life or find a job.

One day a friend makes a suggestion that she at first considers outlandish, however with nothing better to do, the idea sticks and despite her general lethargy for being proactive, acts on it.

“You have a wonderful voice, it’s silly not to do something with it. A woman really needs an occupation these days…When we were at the Conservatoire you showed such talent… Why don’t you put an ad in the papers offering to read to people in their own homes?”

The man at the newspaper agency tries to discourage her, attempting to enlighten her as to what she may be exposing herself to, without being so direct to describe his exact misgivings, wishing to warn her of the kind of response she might attract, suggesting she remove the words ‘young woman’ and replace them with ‘person‘, a recommendation she rejects vociferously and thus proceeds with the advert offering her services as a reader.

Miou-Miou in the film, La Lectrice

Miou-Miou in the film, La Lectrice

It’s a social satire that attempts to celebrate the joy of reading aloud, willing it to be the life changing experience it could be, that clearly is not. Instead, it reveals just how much loneliness, desperation and depravity exists in our society and how many are looking for something that might quell the symptoms, even if that means corrupting something else offered. Despite the obvious need to use her to fulfil their empty lives, Marie-Constance is determined to turn her fantasy into a viable profession and talks of it as if it already is.

“…I mustn’t lose the few ‘regulars’ I’ve managed to hook. In fact I’m on my way to my managing director today. He’s more hooked than anyone else, we’ve all grasped that, but by something other than reading. I’ve made my decision and I’m ready. But I might still try and bring him around to literature.”

A wheelchair bound adolescent, a six-year-old girl who wants to go to the fair, not stay at home and be read to, the aging, demented communist wife of an ex General, the depressed Managing Director and the elderly magistrate, they come in all forms and guises and like a Doctor choosing the right medicine, Marie-Constance will select Maupassant, Marx, Claude Simon, de Perec and others in her quest for the best bookish match. She thinks only in terms of literary solutions, seeking out the company of her old professor for guidance, though he too appears to have other intentions.

I enjoyed most of the book, particularly while there was still some mystery and intrigue around the characters and their motivations, however I wanted the fantasy to endure, for Marie-Constance to  find more of the genuine kind and less of the erotic, sadly the fictional reality, as depicted by Raymond Jean seems to illustrate that depravity is more in abundance and women will continue to allow it.

The book was originally published in French in 1986 and was made into a film two years later starring the French actress affectionately known as Miou-Miou, a name given to her on her acting debut by French comedian Coluche, a reference to her ‘petite voix douce miaulante’ soft voice.

Contemporary European Fiction via Peirene Press

Contemporary European Fiction via Peirene Press

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.