Tag Archives: Gallic Books

Little by Edward Carey: Only in stature

Cover imageEdward Carey’s novel arrived through my letterbox so far in advance of publication that I’d forgotten all about it, only picking it up when I felt the need for something long enough to lose myself in. Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Little worked a treat, taking me first to eighteenth-century Switzerland then to Revolutionary Paris before its final Baker Street destination.

When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who barely knows what to do with a child but welcomes her help in modelling the organs brought from Berne hospital’s anatomy department. She’s a quick learner, adept at wax modelling, but tiny and unprepossessing with her sharp chin and pointed nose. Their work gains such a reputation that soon Berne’s worthies are commissioning busts of themselves. Marie wonders if she might be paid. When a rather pompous Parisian visits, Marie gains a new name, Little, from this man who will later become her friend. Bailiffs appear on the horizon when Dr Curtius falls out of favour with the hospital, precipitating a move to Paris where they find a billet with a tailor’s widow. Marie ricochets back and forth between Dr Curtius, who conceives an unrequited passion for the widow, and the widow who insists she’s a servant, asking when she will be paid until she’s engaged to teach Elisabeth, sister of Louis XVI, a relationship that will end in disgrace. Soon, the bustling business gained from Marie’s work at court will be replaced by the grisly modelling of the Revolution’s victims. The feral boy who once guarded their home will become the Revolution’s chief executioner. Grudges will be borne and scores settled in the worst of ways. When it’s all over Marie is alone, but – sharp and resourceful as ever – she finds her own pragmatic way.

Carey tells his tale through Marie’s distinctive voice, illustrating it with her drawings for which she has a prodigious talent. She’s an engaging narrator who unfolds her blood-soaked, heartrending story with sharp insight and a pleasingly sly wit, leading us through a life begun in poverty which ends as the proprietor of one of London’s most visited attractions. Carey’s writing is as precise as his illustrations, and wonderfully evocative.

Ernst finally halted at a house thinner and smaller than the rest, squeezed in between two bullying neighbouring residences, poor and neglected

Here is a truth: people are very fascinated by themselves

Look at you, the newest children in the overstuffed toyshop!

There’s a touch of the Dickensian about Little – playfully acknowledged in Marie’s professed annoyance with that author’s notetaking close to the end of the book – although the novel that sprung to mind for me was not A Tale of Two Cities but Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet which charts another orphan’s journey through French history. Carey’s novel was an unexpected treat for me. Entertaining, erudite and absorbing: it’s one to add to your Christmas lists.

French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain (translated by 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.

Books on Prescription for Dementia: A very fine initiative

From thenReading Agency's websiteAround this time last year I mentioned the Reading Agency’s Reading Well initiative in a post on Vintage’s Shelf Help promotion. They’d just launched their second list of books aimed at people suffering from depression. Since then I’ve been keeping an eye open hoping for the chance to vote for titles on a third list, eager to get my old favourite The President’s Hat in with a chance. Instead I spotted a new scheme: Books on Prescription for Dementia, launched a week or so ago. The list associated with this particular initiative includes twenty-five titles ranging from books offering information and advice on living with dementia, support for carers and personal stories about the disease. All are endorsed by health professionals and all should be available from your local library if you live in England. A quick trip to the Reading Well website will explain the way the scheme works better than I can.

This seems an excellent idea to me. The initiative is estimated to cost taxpayers around a mere £1 per person on average – peanuts given the help and support it offers. What an innovative and imaginative use of public money.

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.

Monsieur le Commandant: a wartime confession

Cover imageRomain Slocombe’s epistolatory novel, Monsieur le Commandant, is the most difficult novel I’ve read in some time. It’s published by Gallic Books whose wonderful feel good The President’s Hat has been top of my list of books to press upon other readers this year. Monsieur le Commandant also deserves a wide audience but for entirely different reasons. Prefacing Paul-Jean Husson’s confession to the German SS officer to whom his letter is addressed with a publisher’s note explaining how it was found and following it with documents of French collaboration – some real, some imagined – adds a chilling verisimilitude to a novel so powerful that it evokes a visceral response. Husson is an acclaimed writer, a member of the Académie française. He has an estate in a delightful Normandy village and a house in Paris. A decorated First World War veteran, he is an ardent supporter of Marshal Pétain and has enthusiastically embraced Nazism, welcoming the Occupation as a corrective to what he sees as French decadence. The commandant is a friend, Husson’s chess partner, of whom he is asking a favour: merciful and humane treatment of his daughter-in-law with whom he has become passionately infatuated and whom he has found to be Jewish. Husson is vain, arrogant, lecherous, snobbish and virulently anti-Semitic. It’s a tribute to both Slocombe and his translator Jesse Browner that he gets under your skin so effectively. His views are utterly repugnant, expressed in nauseating language, but argued in an articulate and educated fashion making them all the more shocking. His actions towards his daughter-in-law are monstrous and therein lies a problem for me. It’s a little too easy to write off as aberrant those prepared to countenance appalling acts when the less palatable truth is that extreme circumstances can make monsters of many of us. That said this is a brave, compelling novel, made all the more so by the knowledge that it was inspired by the story of Slocombe’s mother who hid her Jewish identity from her husband’s family until she died. Given that collaboration is still the great unspoken in France it makes me wonder how it was received there. There’s an interesting interview with Slocombe about why he wrote the book and its background at the Gallic Books website. Well worth a visit.