Tag Archives: French fiction in translation

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.

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.

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.

The First Thing You See: A sweet meditation on the curse of beauty

Cover imageA couple of years ago I picked up Grégoire Delacourt’s The List of My Desires to read on a train on my way to meet a friend. It looked a little fluffy but the synopsis was attractive and I thought it would suit if there were no seats in the quiet carriage. I polished it off between Bath and Birmingham. It had lots to say about sudden wealth and the way in which our fantasies can turn sour once realised unless we treat our good fortune with wisdom, all delivered in a delightfully playful style. Delacourt takes a similar tack with The First Thing You See this time turning his attention to our adulation of physical beauty, celebrity and the nature of desire.

Twenty-year-old car mechanic Arthur Drefuss lives alone, spending most evenings quietly watching boxed sets or movies. When he hears a knock on his door he hauls himself off the sofa – mid-Sopranos – only to find Scarlett Johansson on his doorstep. Granted she looks a little bedraggled but she’s as stunningly beautiful both in face and figure – about which Arthur has a bit of a thing – as she is on screen. She tells him she’s been visiting the Deauville Film Festival. Desperate to escape the glare of the spotlight for a few days, she’s stumbled upon Arthur’s village, hoping to find someone who would take her in. Of course, it’s not Ms Johansson. Jeanine Foucamprez unmasks herself after a day or so and tells Arthur that she’s longed for him since she saw his kindness to a young girl when modelling for a supermarket advertising campaign. These two are wounded souls: Arthur’s family is devastated by the loss of his little sister, his father taking off one day never to be seen again and his mother taking refuge in drink, while Jeanine has been cursed by her beauty since childhood, abused by her stepfather, endlessly slavered over by men and distrusted by women. Over the course of seven days, these two will find a way to love and trust each other, baring their souls and their hearts.

Delacourt uses a lighthearted, mischievous style to deliver quite a punch with his fable-like novel. Jeanine and ‘Ryan-Gosling-only-better-looking’ Arthur are both emotional casualties. She’s a prisoner of the voluptuous beauty which no one seems capable of seeing beyond but has brave hopes for Arthur. Everyone wants her to be their fantasy, sexual, or otherwise, but she longs to be loved for herself. Delacourt’s characterisation is affectionate and funny – PP, Arthur’s boss, likes to look at well-rounded ladies on the internet but is thrilled by the prospect of Arthur finding true love. Both Arthur and Jeanine’s stories are poignantly told but Delacourt avoids the maudlin, keeping his tone light and witty apart from rare moments of sadness. It’s a powerful message which begins with the novel’s title – a meditation on our obsession with beauty, celebrity and the consequences for those lumbered with one or both, delivered in a deceptively simple package stuffed full of filmic references and peppered with poetic quotations. It’s a little gem and it’s been a long time in the offing in translation. Shortly after I wrote this review the Guardian enlightened me as to just why: Ms Johansson was not amused, apparently.

Birth of a Bridge: All human life is here

Cover imageI’d not heard of Maylis de Kerangal before I came across Birth of a Bridge which says more about my ignorance than her obscurity as the novel comes garlanded with praise from all and sundry. It also won the 2010 Prix Médicis, adding to several other literary prizes awarded to her. All this is should stem my self-congratulation at having read more fiction in translation this year– I’ve obviously got a long way to go. It’s an ambitious novel that follows the construction of a massive bridge which will join two disparate communities in the back of beyond

The bridge is the brainchild of Coca’s new mayor, John Johnson – aka the Boa – whose trip to Dubai has turned his head. He plans to use it to bring ethanol in from the countryside, earning Coca gleaming green credentials. Even the international consortium which has won the bid to design the bridge is called Pontoverde. The towering red construction with its six traffic lanes, he believes, will catapult his bright new city into the future, burnishing his own reputation as it does so. Workers from across the globe flock to the site including Georges Diderot, engineer and veteran of many grand projects who will run this one, and Summer Diamantis, the only woman on the management team. The bridge takes nearly a year to complete during which affairs will be had, people will die, a way of life will be threatened, strike action averted and an opening ceremony conducted.

De Kernagal’s style takes some getting used to – I nearly gave the novel up in its early stages. Its rat-a-tat pace with few paragraphs makes it hard to read slowly but reading too fast means details missed. It’s this pace, however, which gives it an overwhelming feeling of a mass of people working at a furious lick. It brought to mind those astonishing pictures of workers in Sebastião Salgado’s epic series of photographs, grubbing away in a gold mine. It’s also very cinematic: perhaps it was the mention of ‘a modern-day Babel’ in the book’s blurb but that film popped into my head several times. Back stories are cleverly woven through the project’s progress – from the main protagonists to a doorman sending money back to a home he hasn’t visited for many years – all contributing to a powerful impression of a project teeming with a multitude of people from around the world. Striking language reinforces all this, sometimes giving the novel a fable-like quality. Lots to admire, then, and a good deal to think about. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the book but it’s undeniably an outstanding achievement, and kudos to Jessica Moore for what was clearly a taxing task in translating it so ably.

The Red Notebook: A sweet indulgence

Cover imageBack in 2013 I was sent a copy of The President’s Hat. I wasn’t at all sure about it – a bit too much of the whimsy for me it seemed – but it turned out to be one of my favourite books of that year. Not a literary masterpiece but clever, witty and uplifting. So, when I heard that another of Antoine Laurain’s novels had been translated you can imagine my expectations were high. Did the book live up to them? Well, perhaps they were a little too high.

Coming home one morning, in the early hours, Laure is mugged – her stylish handbag, filled with precious irreplaceable things, ripped from her arm. She fights back but is dashed to the ground and hits her head, only managing to get up when the thief is well beyond her reach. What to do? Her keys are gone, along with her money. She manages to persuade the night porter of a local hotel to let her stay there but the next day is taken to hospital, unconscious. Meanwhile, Laurent, a bookseller – divorced but of a similar age – finds an abandoned handbag and takes it to his local gendarmerie where they’re far too busy to deal with the problem but make a few helpful suggestions. Laurent takes the bag home and looks through its contents, a little squeamish at examining a stranger’s private possessions. In it are a red notebook, some photographs, lip balm, a recipe, a few pebbles, a dry cleaner’s ticket for a dress and a signed copy of Accident Nocturne by the notoriously reclusive Patrick Modiano, to name but a few of the capacious bag’s contents. As he examines these, hoping for clues to their owner’s identity, Laurent begins to feel an affinity with her. He wants to give the bag back but with no name and address what’s he to do?

I suspect no one will be surprised by The Red Notebook’s ending but the fun is in how we get there. Laurent proves himself ingenious in his attempts to track Laure down. There are some delightful bookselling passages and a great cameo featuring Patrick Modiano.  The novel ventures once or twice into darker territory but this is a book of sweet indulgence, something to curl up with when you need a bit of cheering up.

A quick scan of the comments below will show you that Claire from Word by Word can share some light on that Modiano connection, and if you’d like to read her review of The Red Notebook replete with a picture of a luscious handbag just click here.