Adventures on the Bookshelf is heading off on its summer holidays. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be picking out some recommended reading from our archives to keep you busy on the beach. We’ll be back with new posts from the first Wednesday in September.
One of my very favourite French authors writing today is Marie NDiaye. Her stories of ordinary people and everyday situations heading disturbingly off-kilter are like a gradual slide from reality into anxiety dreams. (If you’re familiar with the work of the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, like the novel or film Never Let Me Go, you have some idea of what I mean).
I was planning on putting NDiaye’s La Sorcière in the book club at some point, since it’s short and accessible, funny and terrifying by turns, and has the most chilling pair of teenage girls in it that you’re ever likely to come across. I will do at some point, but since NDiaye is currently making rather a splash in the English-speaking world with a more recent novel, let’s start instead with her 2009 best-seller, Trois Femmes puissantes (Three Strong Women).
Trois Femmes puissantes won France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in the year of publication, and its translation was a runner-up for the Man Booker International Prize. It’s not so much a novel as three interlinked stories. The three women of the title, Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba are connected tangentially but lead very different lives. Norah is a successful French lawyer who visits her estranged father in Senegal to find her brother accused of murdering her stepmother. Fanta’s story is seen through the eyes of her husband, haunted by another Senegalese murder and the disintegration of his marriage. And Khady Demba, glimpsed in the first story as Norah’s father’s maid, sets out in her own story to start a new life in Europe, putting her life in the hands of ruthless men who promise to smuggle her across the Mediterranean.
The plots of the three stories are less important than their atmosphere, which builds a sense of foreboding that terrible things may occur, and disorients the reader with unexplained events, such as the sudden appearance of Norah’s French family in Senegal, or hints of magic in the uncanny behaviour of birds that may or may not betray the presence of a human soul.
With migration into Europe more on people’s minds than ever, it’s worth seeking out these haunting stories of what it might be like to struggle to reach Europe, to live here as an immigrant, and to leave Europe as a European in search of a former home elsewhere.
You get to lose yourselves in the worlds created by some of the greatest authors in history, and venture into other lives and other minds awaiting you between the pages.
You get to shed a tear for Emma Bovary as her dreams of romance are slowly crushed.
You get to cheer on Julien Sorel as he climbs slippery social ladders up into high society and regular ladders up into other people’s bedrooms.
You get to hiss the judge who condemns a man to death because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral.
And you get to do all three at the same time, and feel oddly confused about why you’re doing that, as the Marquise de Merteuil weaves her clever schemes around the love-lives of unsuspecting innocents.
Yes, your language confidence and your knowledge of French culture and history will come on in leaps and bounds as you read these stories.
Yes, you’ll develop your skills in critical thinking, researching for evidence, building and defending arguments, and articulating your ideas as you analyse these texts, and you’ll take all of these vital skills away with you to the workplace, where they are much in demand.
But a Modern Languages degree at Oxford offers more than that. It offers the opportunity to to be charmed…
to be provoked…
to be moved to tears…
to be shaken in your beliefs…
… as you link minds with some of the great men and women of European culture and encounter their greatest masterpieces. Some of these masterpieces — let’s not get carried away here — won’t really grab you, and you’ll slog through them dutifully before writing a tidy essay about them. But then you’ll open some other book on the course, and who knows which one it will be, and it will speak to you deeply and drag you down into itself. And when you finally look up from it, you’ll feel like you’re looking at the world with fresh eyes.
Discovering literature with us is an experience that will stay with you the rest of your life, and an experience that will leave you changed.
I was pleased to see that No et moi, the marvellous novel by Delphine de Vigan about a lonely teenager whose life takes a strange turn after she starts a school project on homelessness, is on the new A-level curriculum. It’s a great book (and movie) and well worth your time to read, whether or not you’ll be studying it at school. We’ll take a proper look at it soon.
For now, though, I thought it might be nice to introduce another book by Vigan,Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit(Nothing holds back the night), which is actually her own story, or, more precisely, hers and her mother’s. When you discover how extraordinary Vigan’s own family background is, it’s hard to believe she held it back while writing six novels before telling her own story.
The story starts with Vigan’s mother’s suicide. In the aftermath, Vigan embarks on an investigation among the surviving family members to reconstruct her mother’s early life, and try to understand what led her to her final act. We soon pick up hints of dark secrets in the family’s past and serious mental illness to come.
The first half of the book reconstructs the mother’s childhood and teenage years. Part of a large and lively family, in demand as a fashion model for children’s clothes, it seems from the outside to be a charmed life. But, we become increasingly aware, not everything is as it seems in the family. Early on, Vigan gives us a list of family birth and death dates, copied from her grandmother’s house, and it’s with apprehension that we see each of these dates approach as the story unfolds, sometimes bearing down on lives that seem to have barely begun.
The worst of all, though, remains hidden. It is only much later, as an adult teetering on the far edge of sanity, that Vigan’s mother makes the shocking accusation that will make you reconsider all you’ve read up to that point. Tragically, the response from the family only sends her further into her mental illness. The book, which is by now a memoir of Vigan’s own childhood, becomes gripping and sometimes terrifying, as the mother’s increasingly erratic behaviour puts Vigan and her little sister in ever greater danger. One particular moment, when Vigan glances from across the street through the apartment window to where her mother is home alone with her sister, is enough to give you nightmares.
As you’ll have gathered already, Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit is sometimes upsetting book, with traumatic themes, although there’s dark humour too (as when the mother decides to solve her problems by lying in wait for world-renowned psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, and leaping out to attack him). It’s also hard to put down once you’re into it, even though you know from the first page where it’s all leading. And if you’re reading or studying Vigan’s fiction, it’s fascinating to learn about the person who wrote the novels, and how her own life sometimes reflected those of her best-known fictional characters, sometimes departed from them radically.
Let’s start off with a quick game of spot the difference: how many differences can you find between these two images?
How about between these two?
In the first set, you might have noticed that in Figure 2, the seated woman with her back to us is wearing a different hat and dress. In the second set, you can clearly see that the whole scene in Figure 4 is reversed, and the standing woman with the parasol and the kneeling woman have been removed –not to mention the odd-looking baby!
So what exactly is going on here?
This was the question I set out to answer through some detective work for my History of the Book class. The second image in both sets is taken from an unusual book in the Bodleian Library at Oxford: a copy of Rétif de la Bretonne’s Monument du costume physique et moral de la fin du dix-huitième siècle, Ou Tableaux de la vie (translated as A record of manners, physical and moral, on the close of the eighteenth century, or pictures of life) published in London in 1793.
This copy is fascinating for several reasons: it belongs to a counterfeit edition of the Monument, an illegal version published across the Channel without permission from the patron who commissioned the original book. The first edition of the Monument was published in 1789 in Germany and featured illustrations by a famous French illustrator, Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune (Figures 1 and 3). The Bodleian version was published four years later in London with illustrations by an unknown artist. These illustrations are copies of Moreau’s engravings, but with a series of interesting changes, as you can see in Figures 2 and 4.
My task as a book detective was to discover why these changes were made, and what they can tell us about the people who would have bought and read this book. Some of the changes were technical: the artist of the Bodleian copy clearly wasn’t as talented as the original artist, Moreau, so some differences like odd-looking babies or clumsy changes in perspective were likely a result of his lack of skill. The reversal of the scene in Figure 4 also indicates that the image was copied from the original: the artist would have traced or copied the scene in the original illustration and then made his own print from this copy, which would reverse the scene in the printing process.
However, the most obvious changes are changes in fashion. We can see this in the seated woman with her back to us in Figure 2, where the artist has changed her outfit to a style of dress called the redingote.
Why would the artist have chosen this type of dress in particular? I believe there could be two reasons. First, the redingote was an English fashion, so this change could indicate that because the book was published in London, the publisher wanted it to appeal to an English audience. Secondly, the redingote was a more recent fashion. In the eighteenth century, just like today, what was in style at one moment could be out of style the next, so this could have been an effort to update fashions that had changed in the four years since the original edition of the Monument was published.
Finally, there was another element I had to take into consideration: these fashion changes could have had a political motive. In the years between the original publication of the Monument in 1789 and the publication of the Bodleian copy in 1793, there was a major political event –you guessed it, the French Revolution. By 1793, there were many French refugees living in London who had escaped the Revolution, and anti-French sentiments had begun to spread. Changing the fashions to make them more English and/or more contemporary could have been a way for the publisher to distance the book from the French way of life under the ancien régime that was recorded in the Monument, especially in images of glamorous clothing and life at court like Figure 7.
At the same time, however, the French refugees living abroad in London might have wanted a reminder of their previous way of life, so the re-publication of the book could have been intended for this French audience living abroad. Would this version of the Monument, published in England after the French Revolution, have used the changes in its illustrations to criticize or celebrate the French culture it represented? We may never know the exact answer, but it was a fascinating process of detective work to try to uncover why these changes might have been made, and what they can tell us about the audience who might have read this book.
Ultimately, this project was an exciting opportunity to study a book that no one had examined closely before, all thanks to a lucky trip to the library. When I began my research, I found this copy of the Monument on the online catalogue for the Bodleian, but it wasn’t until I went to see the book in the library that I realized how unusual its illustrations were and set off on my own investigation. It just goes to show what might happen when you go for an adventure on the bookshelf!
P.S. Who was Rétif de la Bretonne?
While my project focused on the illustrations of the Monument, not its text, it is worth briefly mentioning the author of the book, Nicolas-Edme Rétif de la Bretonne. Rétif (or Restif) was infamous for writing scandalous novels in eighteenth-century France and for his interest in a very particular type of female beauty: the women portrayed in the illustrations to his books always have strangely elongated figures and tiny feet. Aside from the strange appearance of the women in them, the illustrations in Rétif’s books are also particularly interesting because he was one of the first French authors to work directly with an artist (usually Louis Binet) to illustrate his books, an unusual choice for an author at this time.
If you would like to learn more about Rétif de la Bretonne, you can visit the site of the Société Rétif de la Bretonne (in French), or view digitized copies of several of his works online through Gallica.