Secret by Philippe Grimbert (France) tr. Polly McLean

Twenty years after his parents jumped from the window of their Parisian apartment to their deaths, Philippe Grimbert decided to write about the secret that had overwhelmed their lives. “I had been in mourning for those 20 years,” says the French psychoanalyst, “which is a lot more than Freud suggests is normal. The Guardian, April 2007

Secret, by Philippe Grimbert, translated from French by Polly McLean, is a haunting story of a boy who senses something held back from him from those around him, it is post-war Paris, he is an only child who imagines he has a make-believe brother, seeing things from his perspective as well as his own, even going so far as to fight with him.

He is aware of his mother’s silences, his father’s sadness, without knowing the reason why, yet knowing not to ask. They are athletic, good-looking parents, but they birthed him, a delicate child they must keep from the jaws of death.

I survived, thanks to the care of doctors and the love of my mother. I would like to think my father loved me too – overcoming his disappointment and finding in care, worry and protectiveness enough to stoke his feelings. But his first look left its trace on me, and I regularly glimpsed that flash of bitterness in his eyes.

Full of fear at school, one day after watching a particularly disturbing documentary about the Holocaust, he is overcome by emotion at the insulting comment of a boy in the class and starts a fight, an act completely out of character for him and yet he had felt an inner rage that compelled him to react violently.

The incident left me with a patch above one eye that I wore around school with great pride. But the injury brought me much more than ephemeral glory – it was the sign for which Louise had been waiting.

The neighbour Louise is the only person he tells the truth about why he got in the fight.

Louise was always my favourite, even though she wasn’t actually part of the family. Perhaps I felt a deeper complicity with her than with my blood relatives. Affectionate as they were, my uncles, aunts and grandparents seemed surrounded by an intangible barrier forbidding questions and warding off confidences. A secret club, bound together by an impossible grief.

He is surprised at how upset she becomes, not at his behaviour, but something else, something greater, the burden of which overwhelms her, something she too has known all these years, and believes now she must reveal to him.

The day after my fifteenth birthday, I finally learnt what I had always known.

He fills in the gaps of the story, imagining the narrative himself, he knows nearly all the characters, except those that have haunted him, but he seems to have known them too. However, he too guards the secret, knowing makes it easier on him, but it can’t change his relationship with his family.

To overcome the final hurdle, he needs to fill in the gaps, to find out the facts.

There remained a gap in my story, a chapter whose contents were not known even to my parents. I knew a way to un-stick its pages: I had heard about a place in Paris where I could find the information I was missing.

The narrator shares the same name as the author, and though he never knew the exact details of what happened before he was born, except by anecdote, he used fiction to explore and build a narrative that hopefully might have let some of the ghosts he had lived with for many years to rest.

Why, I ask him, did he write a novel that would involve fictionalising real events? “Because I had no choice. For me, in reconstituting this story that was so brief in terms of what I had been told, reconstituting it in all its duration, was all I could do. My sole tool was the novel. Perhaps someone else could have made a film, done a painting. Somebody else could have written a history, but I couldn’t. The only way I could pay homage was to write this book.”

The Guardian, April 2007

It’s a compelling, thought-provoking read and all the more so upon finishing when I realised there is indeed a strong link to the author’s own life. In addition to the secrets explored in the book, which I don’t want to give away as they are better left to explore in reading, they also let him grow up thinking he was Catholic, something that I think may have been quite common among survivors of WWII.

“I now think that what they did was an act of love rather than cowardice. They sought to protect themselves and me by doing these things. But discovering that I was really a Jew and not a Catholic made me into a neurotic and then into a shrink.”

The book has also been made into a dramatic French film.

Buy a Copy of Secret via Book Depository

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!

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.

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Four wives and an addiction to marriage. Despite the difficulty he had remaining faithful, Hemingway didn’t like being single, he liked his women to be contracted to him and then to have his liberty.

Though not a huge fan of his work, being more of a Steinbeck admirer than Hemingway, his connection to France and that group of Americans referred to as the lost generation, those who stayed or returned to Europe after the war, has ensured another kind of following and spawned an entire collection of literature, that which reimagines the lives of the artists, writers, their wives, mistresses and hangers-on. So I am one of those who enjoys reading more about him, than reading his actual work.

Thus far, I enjoyed meeting Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife through Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s wife in Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda and Gertrude Stein and others in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He even made an appearance in Francisco Haghenbeck’s The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo while she was hanging out in Paris with Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keefe and the Surrealists.

Mrs HemingwayNaomi Wood joins the club of authors channelling the voices of expat writers wives who lived in Paris, fascinating not just because they were the wives of men who wrote famous stories, but because they are women who made the decision to abandon the comfortable and familiar, to leave their country and family behind.

Both Hadley Richardson and Zelda Fitzgerald arrived in the shadow of their husbands dreams, without any ambition other than to be a faithful and supportive wife. As such, they encountered innumerable challenges in trying to create a satisfactory home life in a foreign country.

All of Hemingway’s wives spent time living in Paris, both the city and the man the thread that bound them together. Of the four, Martha and Mary perhaps fared better, both working journalists living there on their own terms, with their own purpose outside of marriage.

The book is structured in four equal parts, each dedicated to one wife and starts by portending the end, scenes that evoke the sense of an ending while they also contain the feminine distraction that signals the introduction of the next potential marriage candidate. Not one of the wives will be immune to the repetitive Hemingway pattern. It is a pattern he repeats all his life until the brutal ends.

With each end, we witness the beginning and each wife is witness to the new arrival and a foreshadowing of her demise. The novel centres around how he entered and exited these relationships without dwelling on the mundane, the structure keeping up the pace and instilling a sense of anticipation in the reader, wanting to know what could have happened in between times to change things.

“Sitting beside this woman to whom Ernest as already dedicated a poem, Martha recognizes Mary suddenly for what she is: her ticket out of here. This morning she saw that Ernest won’t let her break things off if there’s any chance he’s going to be alone. What he fears is loneliness, and whatever brutish thoughts he has when he is left untended. Only is he is assured of another wife will he let his present wife go.”

Like a poem, there is symmetry to the four wives and while they all love their husband and support him, none can prevent his inclination towards self-destruction, his propensity for excess. It is an insightful book in the way it presents the four relationships, carefully chosen scenes depicting the emergence and decline of their relationship.

We witness the relationships come and go like waves rising out of the ocean, resplendent at their peak, despite containing the knowledge of their inevitable destiny, to crash, disappear and reform anew. Hemingway rode the waves for as long as he could, writing prolifically, often using his own experiences as his subject matter. Perhaps he finally made it to the foreshore and saw the metaphoric waves for what they are, water rising and falling until it inevitably reaches the shore and destroys itself.

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

A worthy addition to the collection of literature that imagines the lives of Hemingway, his wives and the lost generation.

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!

 

 

 

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.