Tag Archives: Euan Cameron

The Tree of the Toraja by Philippe Claudel (transl. Euan Cameron): Death, grief and hope

Cover imageIf you haven’t yet come across Philippe Claudel’s books you may know his work from I Loved You So Long starring Kristin Scott Thomas. Ranging from Parfums, a sensuous fragrance memoir, to Monsieur Linh and His Child, one of the saddest pieces of fiction I’ve read, his writing is as elegantly understated as his movies, a style which I find immensely appealing. His latest novel, The Tree of the Toraja, is an exploration of death and grief through the voice of a filmmaker who has lost his producer and best friend.

Our unnamed narrator begins his meditative journey with an account of the lengthy funeral rites of the Toraja, an Indonesian tribe on the island of Sulawesi where he’s been on holiday. When a child dies, the Toraja carefully place its corpse within an incision made in a tree so that the tree’s bark will heal and enclose the body. On his return, our narrator finds a message from his best friend, Eugène, announcing his cancer diagnosis. Six months later Eugène is dead. Our narrator talks to philosophers, doctors and scientists about the ways in which we open ourselves to death. He meets his ex-wife every week in the same hotel room, thinks about a new film while watching the tenants of the apartment block opposite, speculating about the young woman who seems happy to live in the public gaze, all the time remembering Eugène and their many conversations. This brief, beautiful novella ends with an unexpected new start for our narrator and the beginning of his first project without Eugène.

It would be easy to cast Claudel as the unnamed narrator given that both are filmmakers and novelists of a similar age but my brief spate of googling became a distraction from the thoughtfulness of this exploration of death, grief and how we respond to it. Suffice to say that it’s an intensely personal piece of writing. Claudel’s prose is characteristically quiet but arresting, often painterly in its evocation:

We spent our evenings drinking vinho verde in the neighbourhood cafés of the Bairro Alto, nibbling at plump violet olives and eating sardines that had been cooked on grills in small yards where the walls were covered in azulejo tiles

We who live on are enveloped by the whispers of our ghosts

Bodies fade like flowers in vases; their corollas droop one day then slump in an irreversible destruction of their colours and their scents

There are striking metaphors throughout: our relationship with our bodies is compared to a love affair; our lives to books – some neatly handwritten with smooth blank pages, others with loose, torn leaves and a multitude of deletions. But there’s more to this piece of writing than its gorgeous prose. Both a philosophical investigation into that which faces us all and a beautiful meditation which ultimately ends with acceptance and hope, Claudel’s novella is a quiet, thought-provoking triumph.

Books to Look Out For in January 2016: Part 1

Cover imageYes , I know – it’s not even Christmas week yet but if you’re a little weary of the same old titles popping up on Books of the Year lists – mine included – you might like a peek at what’s to come in 2016 which gets off to a very exciting start with a new Helen Dunmore. Regular readers of this blog will already know that I have a bit of a bee in my literary bonnet about how underrated Dunmore is alongside the likes of Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis who all get acres of coverage when she’s lucky to get a single football field’s worth. Exposure opens in November 1960 amidst the febrile atmosphere of the Cold War. Simon Callington stands accused of spying for the Soviets. His wife is determined to clear his name, unaware that Callington is hiding a damaging secret in his past.

Set at the other end of the Cold War in 1981, Francesca Kay’s The Long Room also explores the world of espionage but in a very different way. Stephen Donaldson is assigned the ultra-secret case of Phoenix, his task to assess whether or not his subject is betraying his country. Lonely and frustrated, Stephen finds himself falling in love with the voice of Phoenix’s wife.With her mastery of the perfect detail, Francesca Kay explores a mind under pressure and the compelling power of imagination.’ says the publisher. Given how much I enjoyed An Equal Stillness, I’m looking forward to this one.

The same goes for Gail Jones’ A Guide to Berlin. Sixty Lights, Sorry and Dreams of Speaking are all examples of very fine writing so my hopes are very high for this new one named after a Nabokov short story written in 1925. Six travellers – two Italians, two Japanese, an American and an Australian – meet in empty Berlin apartments to exchange stories and discuss Nabokov’s work until an act of violence splits the group apart. Jones’ writing is beautiful – elegant and delicately understated. This should be a treat.Cover image

Patrick Modiano is also a master of the understatement. I read my first Modiano this yearSo You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood and was as impressed as I had expected to be given the many fans in the blogosphere who had been singing his praises. Maclehose Press are publishing two more this year, the wonderfully named In the Café of Lost Youth which sounds as if it explores just that and The Black Notebook, in which a writer discovers a set of notes and sets off in search of a woman he loved forty years ago. There seems to be an element of mystery in both novels but if Neighbourhood is anything to go by, there will be more questions posed than answers.

Jonas Karlsson’s The Invoice appears to be the story of an unremarkable man, happy with his life working in a Stockholm video store and living alone in a small flat just a few yards away from an Ice cream stall that sells his favourite flavours. I know this hardly sounds riveting but I loved The Room with its portrayal of a man in the grips of a delusion – a wonderfully quirky novel with cringemaking descriptions of corporate office life which will be all too familiar to many, I’m sure.Cover image

Similarly, Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else was a fine read which is why I’m including Mr Splitfoot despite its slightly unconvincing premise. Two orphans decide to jump ship and attach themselves to a travelling con man who claims to channel the dead. Decades later a young woman, in the midst of a crisis, is visited by her mute aunt. Together they set off on foot, travelling across New York.Ingenious, infectious, subversive and strange’ say the publishers – I particularly like the sound of subversive.

That’s it for the first batch of January titles.  As ever, if you’d like more detail a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website. More to follow soon.

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood: 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.

Books of the Year 2014: Part 3

The ConfabulistThe last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, allCover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night ComesCold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?

Parfums by Philippe Claudel: An unusual, beautifully written memoir

Cover imageI’ll read anything by Philippe Claudel. His prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in. All four of his novels are very different, from the dystopian The Investigation to Monsieur Linh and his Child, one of the most heart-wrenching novels I’ve ever read. He’s a fine film maker, too: I’ve Loved You So Long has the same quietly understated quality as his writing. All this is to explain why I might feel delighted by the arrival of what looks like the kind of little gift book artfully placed at the till point at Christmas,  there to catch you eye and your wallet.

Most of us are familiar with the almost visceral link between smell and memory. A sudden whiff can take you instantly back to a moment in your past in the way that nothing else quite manages. In sixty-three short chapters, Claudel summons up the memories – incidents, people, a way of life – which mean a great deal to him. All sixty-three are beautifully expressed vignettes: word pictures painted sometimes delicately, sometimes vividly. It begins with a bright shining childhood memory of acacia blossoms, gathered and rushed home to be dipped in batter then hot oil before quickly consuming them – fragrance on the tongue in a burst of joy, the very essence of spring. Turkish sunbathers slathered with Ambre Solaire transport Claudel back to his ten-year-old self and his mother’s anxiety about too much sun. The smell of a campfire comforts a lonely little boy missing his mother. A whiff of cannabis takes him to the apartment of old friends where his hosts pontificate about the ineptitude of François Mitterrand while smoking a joint. More poignantly, the smell of a much-loved uncle’s pullover fades until it can no longer be detected no matter how deeply Claudel buries his nose in it. Then there are the smells I’m happy to live without – pissotières for instance, redolent of ‘rancid urine, excrement, Cresyl and Javel disinfectants’ or Munster cheese, banished to the windowsill by his mother. Pissotières, aside it’s like a gorgeous box of chocolates but to gobble it up would be to spoil it. There’s a lovely note from Euan Cameron at the back thanking Claudel and his wife for introducing him to ‘just a few of their local parfums’. I’m sure they returned the favour by thanking him for his excellent translation.

Claudel’s final vignette is entitled ‘Travels’ and it’s the one that tapped into my own memories most strongly: the spicy smell of the Marrakesh souk at Christmas; Portuguese orange blossom after a long dark UK winter; and the tang of brown coal in the winter air of Istanbul. Are there smells that transport you back to a time or place?

Jacqui at the very fine JacquiWine’s Journal has also reviewed Parfums.