Tag Archives: Contemporary French Fiction

Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry (transl. Alison Anderson): A Flaubert homage

Cover imageIt’s been a very long time since I read Flaubert’s tale of a doctor’s wife, bored to tears by provincial life and seeking diversion in adultery, but not so long since I read Sophie Divry’s slightly eccentric debut, The Library of Unrequited Love which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s always a risky business when an author writes their own version of a much-loved classic but Divry acquits herself beautifully with this story of M.A., born in the 1950s to parents who’ve lifted themselves up a notch in the world.

M.A. begins life on a housing estate on the outskirts of a small town near Lyon. She’s a bright student, if shy and given to bouts of ennui. She takes up a course of business studies in the city where she meets and falls in love with François, an anxious young man who fails at his studies but later discovers a talent for selling insurance. She finds herself a management position, then the puts a foot on the property ladder. Before too long the couple have two children and are settled into a detached house, enjoying occasional dinner parties and annual holidays when M.A. at last relaxes, for it is she that carries the domestic burden. Boredom inevitably rears its head resulting in a passionate affair with a colleague, ending only when he is transferred. A different phase of life begins – a new child, then the departure of the older children. Soon a realisation of ageing hits home bringing with it therapy, yoga lessons and endless phone calls to her best friend. Solace arrives in the form of grandchildren, then retirement must be dealt with together with the gradual winding down of mind and body, then widowhood. M.A.’s unremarkable life ends, as it does for many, with a fall. Now it is her children who are first in line.

The idea of following a life from cradle to grave in fiction is very appealing. Robert Seethaler did it exquisitely in A Whole Life and Divry also manages it beautifully. Her writing is perceptive and insightful, laced with a gentle humour. Many readers will recognise M.A.’s experiences: the longed-for freedom of student life then the misery of loneliness before making friends; the conviction that one’s relationship is uniquely special and what child hasn’t indulged in the revenge of imagining their distraught parents at their funeral when sent to their room? Throughout it all, Divry quietly emphasises the cyclical nature of life, frequently foreshadowing M.A.’s future and her repetition of her mother’s admonishments to her own children who will later help her through her old age just as she helped her mother. This is an expertly executed novel, vividly capturing the stages of a life each of us can’t help thinking of as exclusive to ourselves as we pass through them. As with Flaubert’s Bovary, M.A. is bedevilled by her expectations, deftly summed up in her feelings of anti-climax after a meticulously prepared dinner party:

‘M.A. had failed to understand that what fills a life is a way of being, the present tense of the sentence in which one is breathing, not an event situated in the future which, after consumed, will leave us standing disappointed in front of the refrigerator.’

Many of us could learn something from that as we feverishly anticipate the next big thing.

French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain (transl. Jane Aitken & Emily Boyce): More than just a bit of fluff

Cover imageA few years ago I was sent a copy of The President’s Hat which I quickly dismissed as a piece of fluff, far too whimsical for me. Then, after a few too many literary gloomfests, I picked it up, cynical hat firmly on my head. I loved it, gave lots of copies away and recommended it right left and centre. The next Antoine Laurain to be translated into English was The Red Notebook which, truth be told, was a little disappointing. When French Rhapsody turned up I decided to give it a try more for old times’ sake than anything else. As with the other two novels, Laurain takes a mislaid object and uses it to set in train a chain of events which has surprising results. This time it’s a letter which slipped through the cracks of the French Post Office delivery system.

When Alain Massoulier receives a letter post-marked 1983 he’s first amazed then a tad put out. Alain is a doctor, fifty-two years old and beginning to look dismaying like his father. Thirty-three years ago he and his band, The Holograms, sent a demo tape to Polydor hoping, as so many young bands do, to make it to the big time: the letter is a summons to a meeting with a producer. Alain takes to his bed, ostensibly with back pain but it’s his heart that’s hurting. Once over the initial shock he decides to track down the rest of the band and, many googling hours later, sends off a series of emails. Unsurprisingly, much has changed for the erstwhile band members: the drummer is a contemporary artist renowned for sharpening 30,000 pencils into shavings and selling the result; the keyboard player is running a hotel in Thailand; the bassist is busy rabble-rousing with his new party slogan ‘To the Right of the Right’ and the manager is a respected economist and entrepreneur, unbesmirched with even a hint of corruption. Alain decides not to trace the band’s beautiful singer because she’s probably married and has changed her name – hmm, well this is France and maybe they do things differently there – but she crops up anyway. Put together these characters and you have the ingredients for an enjoyable romp, nicely bookended by a second letter from Polydor.

There’s a rich vein of nostalgia running through French Rhapsody which made me wonder if Laurain might be the same age as his protagonists. He takes cheerful swipes at the art world, middle-aged angst, technology and our preoccupation with fame, saving his sharper barbs for politicians and the far Right giving it an altogether darker edge than the feelgood The President’s Hat. Bang up to date, it’s set in a post-Charlie Hebdo, post-Bataclan – even post-Nice – world and although none of these are mentioned there’s a consciousness of a changed France throughout. Laurain’s characteristic playful humour together with an enjoyable romantic backstory sweetens the pill. Even the political thread ends well, leaving you yearning for a similar resolution in the real world. Well worth reading if you need cheering up despite that dark edge.

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood by Patrick Modiano (transl. Euan Cameron): Memory and the tricks we play on it

Cover imageThis is the first novel I’ve read by the famously reclusive Nobel Prize-winning Patrick Modiano. He’s been on my list since I read Victoria’s excellent piece on him at Tales from the Reading Room. He also made a little cameo appearance in The Red Notebook which I read a little while ago and when So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood arrived it seemed that this year was set to be my Modiano year. It’s a compelling, unsettling novella about memory and the tricks it plays on us, or rather the tricks we play on it.

Author Jean Daragane is startled from the silence of his Paris flat by a phone call. It’s at least three months since the phone last rang, disturbing his carefully maintained solitude. The caller, who identifies himself as Gilles Ottolini, has rung to tell Daragane that his address book has been found. Suspicious at Ottolini’s slightly threatening tone, Daragane agrees to meet him in a café. He’s hardly missed the address book – rarely needs such a thing – and wonders if he should ignore the appointment. When he turns up Ottolini is there with a young, ethereally beautiful woman who calls herself Chantal. Ottolini has found a number for Guy Torstel in Daragane’s address book and wants to pick his brains about the man whose name appeared in his first novel several decades ago. It seems that Daragane’s suspicions may be justified, and all the more so when Chantal rings him at 2 am then turns up with Ottlolini’s ‘dossier’ on Torstel. Odd overlaps between the couple’s story and Daragane’s past emerge. He begins to remember the woman he lived with for a year as little boy, the parade of shady figures who visited her house. What happened there? How did his ‘fickle parents’ come to leave him with Annie who several people knew had been imprisoned? Who were the people who visited at odd hours? Modiano leaves a whole string of questions unanswered in this novella, hardly longer than a short story but packing a powerful punch.

Modiano’s book is quietly understated. Its unsettling tone and shifting narrative leaves the reader constantly on edge wondering what Ottolini and Chantal are up to, then what happened to Daragane as a child. Daragane is the quintessential unreliable narrator, frequently reiterating how flimsy his memories are: drifting ‘away like bubbles of soap or fragments of a dream that vanished on waking’; ‘a faraway voice picked up late at night on the radio’. He can barely remember the first novel he wrote let alone the details of what may have happened over forty years ago but as he tells us ‘In the end, we forget the details of our lives that embarrass us or are too painful’. It’s a perplexing novel, one that will stay with me for some time, I think. It’s not a book to be read if you’re hoping for a solution to a mystery – gripping though that is – more one to read for the elegant beauty of its writing and its reflections on what we remember and what we choose not to.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (transl. by Emily Boyce): A beautifully constructed page turner

The People in the PhotoThe People in the Photo seemed an entirely appropriate novel to read after finishing Ben Watt’s reconstruction of his parents’ story. It begins with a description of a photograph from a local Swiss newspaper: three young people – two men and a woman – are bathed in sunlight against an Alpine backdrop, wearing white and holding tennis racquets. One of the men in the 1971 cutting is named as Monsieur P. Crüsten, enough to begin to reconstruct a story if you’re the archivist daughter of the woman in the photograph who died when you were four and whose memory has since been shrouded in silence. Hélène’s newspaper advertisement in Libération elicits a reply from M. Crüsten’s son, Stéphane, who identifies the third man as his godfather. A correspondence begins between these two, now middle-aged but still left with aching gaps in their own stories which need to be filled.

Hélène Gestern’s beautifully constructed novel is a detective story without a detective. She painstakingly leads her readers down a few blind alleys pulling at our heartstrings until Pierre and Nataliya’s stories are finally pieced together while delicately unfolding Stéphane and Hélène’s. Each set of letters, emails and occasional texts is prefaced with a meticulously described photograph, so detailed that you can see it in you mind’s eye, making the characters intensely real. The letters between Hélène and Stéphane are at first formal, then friendly, then flirtatious. The overall effect is to draw you into both stories until you’re desperate to know what happens. To reveal much more would be to ruin it: suffice to say that it has you longing for a happy ending.

This isn’t the first novel I’ve read which begins with a photograph, one way or another.Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance Richard Powers’ Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance uses as its starting point August Sander’s famous photograph taken just before the outbreak of the First World War and Penelope Lively’s The Photograph begins with a widower discovering a snapshot which will lead him to understand that he knew his wife hardly at all. Then, of course, there’s W. G. Sebald (mentioned in The People in the Photo), much admired by H and many others but not for me, I’m afraid.  It’s a clever framework and I’d love to know of any other novels using a similar premise.