Tag Archives: Philippe Claudel

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 July 2018

Cover imageBack from my travels (more of which next week) with a look at July’s nicely varied bunch of new titles taking in Native American culture, Indonesian customs and genre-defying Icelandic fiction to name but a few disparate themes. Quite some time ago, having spent several holidays in the Four Corners area of the US, I went through a phase of reading Native American fiction which is what attracts me to Tommy Orange’s There There. It revolves around the Big Oakland Powwow, following several celebrants not all of whose intentions are good. Described as ‘a propulsive, groundbreaking novel, polyphonic and multigenerational, weaving together an array of contemporary Native American voices into a singularly dynamic and original meta-narrative about violence and recovery, about family and loss, about identity and power’ it sounds both ambitious and enticing.

Philippe Claudel’s The Tree of the Toraja also explores cultural traditions, this time through the experience of a filmmaker fascinated by the Indonesian custom of interring the bodies of deceased infants in the trunks of trees which grow to encase them. On his return to France he finds that his dearest friend is dying. ‘Like the trees of the Toraja, this powerful novel encloses and preserves memories of lost loves and friendships, and contains the promise of rebirth and rebuilding, even after a terrible tragedy’ say the publishers of what sounds like a very personal exploration of death and our attitudes to it. Claudel’s writing is often very beautiful, as measured and contemplative as his filmmaking, so hopes are high for this one.

They’re also high for Philip Teir’s The Summer House which sees Erik and Julia taking their children off to the west coast of Finland for what may well be their last family holiday. Erik has just lost his job while the presence of Julia’s childhood friend and her charismatic environmental activist husband throw a further spanner in the works. ‘Around these people, over the course ofCover imageone summer, Philip Teir weaves a finely tuned story about life choices and lies, about childhood and adulthood. How do we live if we know that the world is about to end?’ say the publishers. I enjoyed The Winter War very much a few years back.

It’s the gorgeously written Moonstone that’s whetting my appetite for Sjón’s Codex 1962 in which a character is fashioned out of clay carried in a hatbox by his Jewish fugitive father in WW2 Germany. The woman his father meets in a smalltown guesthouse nurses him back to health and together they mould the clay into the shape of a baby. It’s not until 1962 that Joseph enters the world, growing up with a rare disease which will attract the attention of an Icelandic geneticist fifty-three years later. ‘At once playful and profoundly serious, this remarkable novel melds multiple genres into a unique whole: a mind-bending read and a biting, timely attack on nationalism’ say the publishers of this beautifully jacketed novel

Jordy Rosenberg’s debut Confessions of the Fox also features some eye-catching characters. A professor has stumbled on an obscure manuscript telling the story of Jack Sheppard, a transgender carpenter’s apprentice who fled his master’s house and Bess Khan who escaped the draining of the fenlands. These two find themselves caught up in a web of corruption at the centre of which is the Thief-Catcher General. ‘Jack and Bess trace the connections between the bowels of Newgate Prison and the dissection chambers of the Royal College, in a bawdy collision of a novel about gender, love, and liberation’ say the publisher which puts me in mind Cover imageof Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree, setting the bar very high indeed.

Still in London, but moving on several centuries to the 1970s, Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney explores the relationship between a twenty-five-year-old composer and the nine-year-old daughter of the man with whom he hopes to collaborate. ‘It is not until years later that Daphne is forced to confront the truth of her own childhood – and an act of violence that has lain hidden for decades. Putney is a bold, thought-provoking novel about the moral lines we tread, the stories we tell ourselves and the memories that play themselves out again and again, like snatches of song’ say the publishers of a novel that could prove to be unsettling reading.

A M Homes takes us to twenty-first-century America with her collection of short stories, Days of Awe. These thirteen pieces explore ‘our attachments to each other through characters who aren’t quite who they hoped to become, though there is no one else they can be. Her first book since the Women’s Prize-winning May We Be Forgiven, Days of Awe is another visionary, fearless and outrageously funny work from a master storyteller’ say the publishers. Looking forward to this one very much.

Jen Beagin’s Pretend I’m Dead brings this selection geographically full circle to the Four Corners and Taos, New Mexico where twenty-four-year-old Mona hopes to make a fresh start along with sundry other truth seekers. ‘The story of Mona’s journey to find her place in the world is at once fearless and wonderfully strange, true to life and boldly human, and introduces a stunning, one-of-a-kind new voice in American fiction’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for some entertainment combined with a little trip down the memory lane of holidays past with this one.

That’s it for July’s new titles. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…

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.