Category Archives: Recommended Reading

No et moi: Who lives in the Invisible City?

posted by Simon Kemp

‘La ville invisible’ (the invisible city) is the metaphor that introduces the final section of Lou’s presentation to her class in Delphine de Vigan’s No et moi. The novel reproduces the section in full (in fact, it’s the only part of Lou’s speech that the book does include). Here’s what she says:

Il y a cette ville invisible, au cœur même de la ville. Cette femme qui dort chaque nuit au même endroit, avec son duvet et des sacs. À même le trottoir. Ces hommes sous les ponts, dans les gares, ces gens allongés sur des cartons ou recroquevillés sur un banc. Un jour, on commence à les voir. Dans la rue, dans le métro. Pas seulement ceux qui font la manche. Ceux qui se cachent. On repère leur démarche, leur veste déformée, leur pull troué. Un jour on s’attache à une silhouette, à une personne, on pose des questions, on essaie de trouver des raisons, des explications, et puis on compte. Les autres, des milliers. Comme le symptôme de notre monde malade. Les choses sont ce qu’elles sont. Mais moi je crois qu’il faut garder les yeux grands ouverts. Pour commencer. (p. 70)

 à même le trottoir : (right) on the pavement

recroquevillé : huddled up

faire la manche : to beg

se cacher: to hide

repérer: to spot, notice

la démarche : the way [they] walk

déformé: stretched out of shape

troué: with holes in it

 

So the ville invisible is the same city in which everyone else lives (Paris, in Lou’s case), but it is the city made up of homeless people. Her first examples are those we might expect: people sleeping on the streets surrounded by their belongings, under bridges, in stations, lying on cardboard or huddled on benches. Begging for small change. They’re invisible because people choose not to see them: embarrassed, afraid or indifferent, we walk past without acknowledging the presence of the homeless, acting as if there was nobody there.

But these are not the only people Lou is talking about, and this is not the only kind of invisibility in the invisible city. The homeless are not just the people we avoid looking at, but the people we see without realizing they are in distress. The second part of Lou’s paragraph focuses on the people who hide their homelessness, but whose status can be betrayed by small clues in their appearance:

On repère leur démarche: You can spot them by the way they walk (because of drugs or alcohol? untreated injuries? or simply the fact of having nowhere to go?)…

On repère […] leur veste déformée: You can spot them by a stretched-out jacket (bulked out by extra layers of clothing beneath it for warmth?)…

On repère […] leur pull troué: You can spot them by the holes in a worn-out jumper.

Lou has found herself starting to ‘tune in’ to the presence of these people, people like No, and she’s here encouraging her classmates to try to do the same thing. The first step is to see the invisible people, to start to realize just how many of them there are. Then you can try to do something to help them.

The idea of the invisible city crops up several more times in the course of the novel, for instance on p. 76 and 119. As Lou thinks more about it, it develops into an image of a parallel world, occupying the same space as ours but treated as if in a different dimension: ‘ce monde parallèle qui est pourtant la nôtre’ (p. 119). Lou refuses to accept that her world must remain separate from No’s. The story is her quest to find ‘un endroit où les mondes communiquent entre eux’ (p. 76).

No et moi: What’s with the kitchen gadgets?

posted by Simon Kemp

Here’s an odd little detail from No et moi, Delphine de Vigan’s novel about a thirteen-year-old genius who befriends an older homeless girl. Towards the end of the novel, Lou (the thirteen-year-old) is feeling overwhelmed by the situation. A few weeks earlier, the story almost seemed to have reached a happy ending, with No installed in Lou’s family home, happy, sober and in employment, and Lou’s mother lifted out of the long depression caused by the death of Lou’s baby sister Thaïs by the experience of helping No put her life back on the rails.

Now, though, all of this has fallen apart. No’s drinking and pill-stealing have seen her thrown out of Lou’s home, and Lou has reason to believe that the temporary refuge she has found with Lucas is now under threat. Lou’s own secret crush on Lucas is running up against the harsh reality of their four-year age difference, and she is filled with jealousy at his attention to other girls his age. When No gives Lou an expensive thank you gift, Lou is struck by the contrast between the bleakness of No’s situation and the fake glamour of the perfume advertisement on a poster that forms the backdrop to the scene.

She heads home in a black mood, slams her bedroom door in her mother’s face, and later tells her father:

Depuis que Thaïs est morte maman m’aime plus. 

(The scene, by the way, is pp. 221-22 in the Livre de Poche edition.) Her father tells her she’s mistaken:

Lou, tu te trompes. Maman t’aime, elle t’aime de tout son cœur, elle ne sait plus très bien comment faire, pour le montrer, c’est un peu comme si elle avait perdu l’habitude, comme si elle se réveillait d’un long sommeil, mais dans ses rêves elle pensait à toi, beaucoup, et c’est pour ça qu’elle s’est réveillée.

Lou says ‘d’accord’ to show she’s understood him, and even smiles. But inwardly, she’s thinking… what?

She’s thinking about kitchen gadgets:

J’ai pensé aux vendeurs devant les Galeries Lafayette, perchés sur leurs petits stands, ceux qui font des démonstrations avec des machines incroyables qui découpent les trucs en cubes, en tranches, en rondelles, en lamelles, en roses des vents, qui râpent, pressent, broient, mixent, bref qui font absolument tout et qui durent toute la vie.

N’empêche que moi je ne suis pas tombée du dernier RER.

And there the chapter ends. What does it mean?

Galeries Lafayette is a deluxe department store in Paris, and these salespeople are in the street outside it. (Do they work for the department store, or are they just hoping for a little reflected glory on the product they’re selling?) The kitchen gadget they’re demonstrating is a kind of miracle all-in-one food preparation device that can dice, slice, grind, mix and do all of the other things listed above, plus more besides, and which will never break down as long as you live. Or at least, that’s what they claim.

Lou’s comment on this loosely translates as ‘Even so, I didn’t fall off the last RER’, the RER being the Paris crossrail linking the suburbs to the city centre. Even if you don’t spot the similarity to the more usual French expression, ‘je ne suis pas tombée de la dernière pluie’, you can probably guess from the context that this is Lou’s urban version of the expression meaning ‘I wasn’t born yesterday’.

With that, things start to become clear. The gadgets are just too perfect: they do everything, you can rely on them for ever. Clearly, the salespeople are lying, and the thing will spend a couple of weeks grinding when it’s supposed to grate and slicing when it’s supposed to dice before breaking down completely and spending the rest of its life at the back of a cupboard.

If the kitchen gadgets are a symbol, then, they must symbolize the idea that Lou’s father’s reassurance is also a lie, that the picture he paints of a mother who loves her daughter dearly but just needs a little more time to recover from her depression is also too perfect to be true.

Lou has witnessed how No managed to bring her mother out of her shell, make her smile again and engage with the world, in a way that Lou herself has never been able to. Earlier, Lou was left ‘très en colère’  (on p. 157) when her mother shared a bottle of wine with No and opened up to her about Thaïs in a way she never had with Lou. So Lou is jealous of her mother’s relationship with No, and resentful that her mother hasn’t shown so much closeness to her for years.

It’s never clearly expressed, but we can also speculate about what may lie beneath these feelings: is Lou secretly afraid that her mother would rather that she, Lou, had died and Thaïs had lived?

And if so, is she right to be afraid of that?

We’re left to make up our own minds about these questions. My own view is that Lou’s father is largely right: Lou’s mother has behaved like she has because she has been suffering from depression, not because she does not love her daughter. Lou’s sceptical thoughts about food-processors tell us more about her own (understandable) feelings of insecurity, than they do about her mother’s true attitude towards her.

You may read it differently. However you interpret it, though, it definitely forms a part of the novel’s deeper story about how Lou slowly comes to understand that in real life there are no fairy-tale happy endings, and that broken people cannot be easily fixed.

Why is there an earthquake in Candide?

posted by Catriona Seth

As the ship on which Candide is sailing nears Lisbon at the end of chapter 5, the sky becomes gloomy : ‘l’air s’obscurcit, les vents soufflèrent des quatre coins du monde, et le vaisseau fut assailli de la plus horrible tempête’. Candide, Pangloss and ‘ce brutal de matelot qui avait noyé le vertueux anabaptiste’ are the only ones on board who survive the storm and as they set foot in town, they feel the earth quake beneath their feet. Voltaire gives a graphic description of what happens. He was drawing on a recent historic event.

An 18th-century engraving of the Lisbon earthquake

 

On November 1st 1755, Lisbon, at the time the third largest port in Europe, was hit by a terrible earthquake and tsunami. Much of the city was destroyed. In the following days, reports speaking of 100 000 deaths reached Geneva where Voltaire was living. These were certainly excessive, but they bear witness to the magnitude of the catastrophe, which is still considered to have been one of the deadliest earthquakes ever.

Voltaire was so distressed by the news that he set about writing a long poem. He called it Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne ou Examen de cet axiome ‘Tout est bien’. He speaks of the innocent lives lost and can find no justification for why Lisbon should have been wiped off the face of the earth rather than similar cities like Paris or London.

‘Tout est bien’ refers to the doctrine of optimism: thinking that on the whole ‘tout va pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles’, as the fictional Pangloss would say. Optimism was defended by the German philosopher Leibniz in his 1710 Theodicy, which justifies the existence of evil. He claimed the world could not have been better: to suggest it was imperfect, he believed, was like accusing God of not being up to the task he had set himself.

Following the earthquake, the philosophy of optimism no longer seemed defensible to someone like Voltaire. As he wrote to a correspondant on November 30th 1755, ‘Vous savez l’horrible événement de Lisbonne […] voilà un terrible argument contre l’optimisme.’

Candide was published four years after the terrible events, in 1759, and with the subtitle ou l’optimisme’. In the book, the earthquake comes hot on the heels of a battle-scene. The slaughter is a manmade disaster. The earthquake is a natural one. You cannot blame anyone for it, in the way you might accuse a bellicose general of making his troops fight. The generous and virtuous Anabaptist drowns at the beginning of the episode set in and around Lisbon, whilst the wicked sailor survives. There is nothing moral about this. It clearly shows that all is not well.

During the whole of the ‘conte’, Candide, whose name means he is candid or naïve, is made to learn through experience (and through unlearning what Pangloss has erroneously taught him). Here he is shown that the force of nature cannot be controlled and that sometimes innocents die when criminals survive. This is an illustration of the fact that Pangloss’ philosophy (optimism) does not offer an acceptable explanation of the world. A number of other passages in the text show this in different ways, like the encounter with the ‘Nègre de Surinam’, a slave mutilated by his nasty owner.

Illustration by Norman Tealby for a translation of Candide (1928)

 

Just after the earthquake in Candide, the Lisbon authorities organise an auto-da-fé: literally an ‘act of faith’, supposed to ward off any future disasters by torturing heretics. Voltaire is very sceptical of such actions. Since earthquakes have physical causes, there is no way that burning criminals will have any effect on their occurrence. The university of Coimbra’s supposed pronouncement that ‘le spectacle de quelques personnes brûlées à petit feu, en grande cérémonie, est un secret infaillible pour empêcher la terre de trembler’ is obviously ironic. Voltaire shows us (and this is a subject to which he frequently returned in his writings) that too often punishments do not fit the crime.

Even the severity of the alleged ‘crimes’ is called into question. One of the people put to death before Candide’s eyes has married his godchild’s godmother—an arcane rule of the Catholic Church said that if you were godparents to the same child you were technically related and therefore could not marry. The two others are executed because they removed the bacon in which some chicken had been cooked: this is thought to reveal their fidelity to the Jewish faith. Though Voltaire believed in God, he thought that established religion served to divide and not to unite people. This scene, depicting the public burning of people who simply failed to conform to what seem to be arbitrary and even insignificant ‘rules’, allows him both to condemn superstitious attitudes to natural catastrophes, and to imply that the world would be better off if reason—rather than blind faith and a slavish adherence to religious doctrine—were to triumph.

An example of an auto-da-fé

 

So, to recap, there are several reasons why the earthquake matters:

  • It is a historical event which would have been familiar to Voltaire’s contemporaries.
  • It is a way of showing that natural disasters are not selective in the victims they make.
  • It forces Candide to start facing facts: all is not always for the best.
  • It demonstrates that optimism is a fallible philosophy.
  • It provokes the the auto-da-fé, which shows that religion can be bloodthirsty, and that by encouraging superstitious actions, the Church is clearly pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes.

Candide is known in French as a ‘Conte philosophique’, a philosophical tale. This is because it is a fictional story which is often quite amusing, but one which sets out to teach us something profound and not just to entertain us. Candide’s learning curve is meant to function for the reader too. Like him, we should be asking ourselves what conclusions can be drawn from his different adventures.

L’Étranger: When does Meursault tell his story? (Part Two)

posted by Simon Kemp

Last week we saw the slippery way in which Meursault tells his story from different points along the way, without drawing attention to the fact that he’s doing it.

I left you with the opening lines of the story, which contain the first of Meursault’s time-slips, with an invitation to look at the verb tenses and catch him in the act.

Here’s the passage again, with all the verbs in different colours used to highlight the présent, futur, passé composé, imparfait and futur antérieur (‘will have done’) tenses:

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile: “Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.” Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.

L’asile de vieillards est à Marengo, à quatre-vingts kilomètres d’Alger. Je prendrai l’autobus à deux heures et j’arriverai dans l’après-midi. Ainsi, je pourrai veiller et je rentrerai demain soir. J’ai demandé deux jours de congé à mon patron et il ne pouvait pas me les refuser avec une excuse pareille. […] Pour le moment, c’est un peu comme si maman n’était pas morte. Après l’enterrement, au contraire, ce sera une affaire classée et tout aura revêtu une allure plus officielle.

J’ai pris l’autobus à deux heures. Il faisait très chaud.

You can see first of all just how complex it all is when you use tenses to work out how everything relates to everything else in time. In the first two paragraphs, the present tense is used to set the scene with facts (L’asile de vieillards est à Marengo) and to tell us Meursault’s current situation (he doesn’t know when his mother died, the line in the telegram doesn’t mean much, it is a bit like she’s not dead). From that present tense anchoring us in now, we head back to events in the past: his mother died, he received a telegram about it, he asked his boss for some leave. With the imperfect we get a situation in the past (his boss wasn’t able to refuse), and a hypothetical alternative present (it feels as if she weren’t dead). We look ahead to a future in which Meursault will get the bus, will arrive at the old people’s home, will watch over the body, will come back home, and the whole business will be over and done with. And finally Meursault imagines looking back to the past from the future, from which point everything will have taken on a much more official air.

So, as you see, the opening lines establish a knot of past and future events around Meursault’s now, from which he’s telling his story, a point after getting the news of his mother’s death and speaking to his boss, but before heading off to the funeral. Straight away, though, when we get to the third paragraph, this now has shifted. The action that Meursault got on the bus and the situation that it was hot are now in past tenses, which means the events are in Meursault’s past, and his storytelling now must have shifted some way into the future.

There are other odd little references to the storytelling now in the book. In Chapter Four, as Meursault is telling us about the day Raymond’s attack on his girlfriend brought a policeman to the flat, he starts by saying what happened ‘ce matin’ suggesting that he’s narrating the chapter from later the same day. And the last chapter of the novel seems to pull a similar trick to the first: the opening lines are narrated from a now before the prison chaplain has come into Meursault’s cell, and then at some point we jump forward, and the chaplain’s visit is told in the past tense. That means there are at least five different points from which the story is told, and probably more — perhaps every chapter is told from a different moment in time.

So what’s the point of doing this?

One important effect is that it makes the novel immediate. Meursault is always telling his story from a point close to the action, either in the heart of events or shortly afterwards when they’re fresh in his mind. This makes the novel much more vivid, and allows us to share Meursault’s experience much more closely, than we would if he were telling us the story retrospectively from a point after it was all over.

Secondly, a related effect is that the story being told feels raw. Because he’s telling us the story more or less as it happens, he hasn’t had much time to process or analyse it. That means he gives it to us straight, without having really thought deeply about what things mean, but also without trying to present things in a way that might put him in a good light. This makes the storytelling seem honest and sincere.

And lastly, the intermittent time of narrating means that Meursault has no hindsight. As he’s telling us about the funeral, he doesn’t know the terrible consequences that his trivial actions will have when they’re brought up at his trial as evidence of his heartless nature. As he agrees to write a letter for Raymond, he doesn’t know that he’s taking the first step along the road to his own conviction for murder. Camus’s philosophy of life, like that of his friend, Jean-Paul Sartre, emphasised the randomness of life. For them, life, unlike stories, was not heading for a particular conclusion and had no meaning or message to impart along the way. Camus’s way of telling his story as it goes along is part of his attempt to capture a vivid sense of life as unplanned and unpredictable.

As a guy who takes life as it comes, going with the flow without too much thought or effort, Meursault doesn’t seem the type to keep a diary. Nor is he the sort of person who’d be writing an autobiography for publication, or even someone likely to recount his story to friends over a drink. This might be why the novel keeps its unusual storytelling in the background. We’re meant to feel that the narration is close to the action, but perhaps not enquire too closely as to how, why, and to whom Meursault is telling his story.

 

 

L’Étranger: When does Meursault tell his story?

posted by Simon Kemp

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.

It’s one of the most famous opening lines in modern literature. And it sounds like it answers our question right away. If Meursault says his mother died today, then, clearly, that’s when he’s telling us his story: on the day that he gets the telegram from the old people’s home informing him of her death.

Except that can’t be right, because everything in the story happens after that moment, and he can’t tell his story before it happens. We follow Meursault through the funeral, through work and leisure back home in Algers, through the shooting on the beach, imprisonment, trial and verdict, and by the time we reach the end of the story, a year has passed and summer has come around again. The last sentence of the book is narrated in the past tense (‘il me restait à souhaiter…’) from a point some time after Meursault has thrown the chaplain out of his prison cell and (we presume) before he gets his head chopped off by the guillotine. So the Meursault telling the story on the last page of the novel is at least a year older than the one who started it on page one.

Most stories that are told in the past tense by a first-person narrator, as L’Étranger is, pick a moment some time after the whole tale is finished and make that their time of narrating (the ‘now’ of the storytelling voice). One of the unusual things about L’Étranger is that Meursault seems to tell his story from several different points during and after the events he’s telling us about. To use the precise terms, it’s narrated intermittently (from time to time through the course of the story) rather than, as is usually the case, retrospectively (looking back from after it’s all over).

You do see first-person narrators in other novels who, like Meursault, tell their stories intermittently. Greg Heffley is one. Bridget Jones is another. Antoine Roquentin is a third. All these stories, though, draw attention to their intermittent narration by using the diary form. Greg, Bridget and Antoine let their reader know clearly when the time of narrating changes by marking a new entry in the diary. (As well as diary entries, a similar effect can be used by telling a story through letters, probably the most famous example of which in French literature is Les Liaisons dangereuses.)

Meursault, though, slips between different times of narrating without always making it clear when he’s doing it… or why.

Here’s the first time it happens, in the very first lines of the story:

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile: “Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.” Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.

L’asile de vieillards est à Marengo, à quatre-vingts kilomètres d’Alger. Je prendrai l’autobus à deux heures et j’arriverai dans l’après-midi. Ainsi, je pourrai veiller et je rentrerai demain soir. J’ai demandé deux jours de congé à mon patron et il ne pouvait pas me les refuser avec une excuse pareille. […] Pour le moment, c’est un peu comme si maman n’était pas morte. Après l’enterrement, au contraire, ce sera une affaire classée et tout aura revêtu une allure plus officielle.

J’ai pris l’autobus à deux heures. Il faisait très chaud.

Take a look at the tenses of the verbs in this extract, and see if you can unravel how the events fit together in time, and how the time of narrating changes. Next week, we’ll pick it apart in detail together, and think about why Meursault, and Camus, might choose to tell their story this way.

Un Sac de billes: What does the bag of marbles have to do with anything?

billes

posted by Simon Kemp

Joseph Joffo’s memoir of his time as a Jewish ten-year-old on the run with his older brother in Nazi-occupied France is justifiably famous, and it seems to be a popular choice among the set texts on the new A-level syllabus. As the first in our series answering questions about these texts, let’s see why the book has the title un sac de billes, given that marbles don’t feature in the book beyond the opening chapters.

Marbles are, of course, where we start in the story, with the game being played in the street between Jo and Maurice. Why start the story at this moment? Well, the episode is filled with foreshadowing of the story to come:

  • Maurice and Jo will return from the game to find two S. S. officers at their father’s barber shop, leading to their first real encounter with the Nazis and their antisemitism.

 

  • The game of marbles itself is watched by Mémé Epstein, who, Joffo mentions, is a Jewish woman who has found safe haven in Paris from the pogroms, attacks on Jewish people in Russia and Eastern Europe earlier in the century. A repeated theme in the story will be the fact that this kind of mass persecution of the Jews has happened before (including to Jo’s Russian grandfather), and that means it could happen again in the future.

 

  • And, most clearly, marbles come to symbolize the bond between the brothers. Maurice wins Jo’s last marble off him, fair and square, but, knowing how much he likes it, gives it back to him:

 

Un frère est quelqu’un à qui on rend la dernière bille qu’on vient de lui gagner.

 

The bond between the two boys is a central theme of the story, and their concern for each other is what will allow them to survive the coming ordeal.

 

The returned marble itself is also rather special. It looks a little like a miniature globe, and Jo likes to pretend he has the world in his pocket:

 

Il est bon d’avoir la Terre dans sa poche, les montagnes, les mers, tout ça bien enfoui. Je suis un géant et j’ai sur moi toutes les planètes.

 

There’s not much in the way of symbolism or metaphor in Joffo’s memoir, but this is one definite symbol. The world-marble gives Jo a fantasy of immense power, which is ironic as his extreme powerlessness is about to be brought home to him. But there’s also the fact that there actually is now a giant holding the whole planet in its grip, metaphorically at least. Fascism’s influence over the  world, its threat to humanity as a whole, and its pervasive power that can’t be escaped, no matter how far you run, is implicit in the image.

 

But hang on a minute… what about the bag?

 

There’s no bag of marbles in the opening scene. In fact, Joffo specifies that the marbles are in Maurice’s pockets, which are bulging with them : ça lui fait des poches comme des ballons.

So where’s the bag of marbles?

billes2

It turns up in Chapter Three, in a much briefer scene than the opening marbles game, but one that reinforces many of the same themes. Jo has gone to school with a yellow star sewn onto his clothes for the first time, and as a result has found himself insulted by his classmates, ignored by his teacher, and finally, beaten up in the playground. His non-Jewish friend Zérati, who feels guilty at having drawn attention to Jo’s star in the first place, runs after him and proposes a trade:

 

Mon étoile. Pour un sac de billes.

 

The marbles are handed over in another act of kindness : not between brothers this time, but between Jo and a non-Jewish person, foreshadowing the unexpected kindness the brothers will encounter from French people as they travel, and perhaps showing a better world of common humanity that the coming years will very nearly snuff out entirely.

billes3

So the marbles play a double role in the story, covering the twin themes of the book: on the one hand, immense power holding the world in its grasp in Jo’s fantasy, and its flipside of vulnerability in Jo’s real status, and on the other hand, the solidarity that will enable Jo and Maurice to survive the années noires of the Occupation.

 

And as well as all this, the marbles are just what you know marbles are: a children’s game. Perhaps that game in the street, just before meeting the S. S. officers at their home, is the last true moment of childhood in Jo’s life. Certainly, his childhood is over a little while later as he leaves home with his brother. Looking back, Joffo remarks of that night:

 

C’en était fait de l’enfance.

 

His childhood is over, not only because he will lose the security of home and the care of his parents, as he has to fend for himself in the world. It’s also over because any childhood illusions he may have had – that grown-ups are wise and good, perhaps, or that the world is a safe and predictable place – are about to be brutally dispelled.

 

There’s a reason marbles don’t feature in the book beyond the opening pages. They’re for children, and Joseph Joffo’s childhood ended at the age of ten.

Book Club – Hélène Gestern, Eux sur la photo

arton927posted by Catriona Seth

Published in 2011, Eux sur la photo (translated into English in 2014 as The People in the Photo) is the first novel by Hélène Gestern who has published three more since, all to critical acclaim, including her most recent one, L’Odeur de la forêt (2016), which is on the longlist of the prestigious ‘Fémina’ book prize. Eux sur la photo, which won several literary prizes in France, is about a young woman’s quest for her origins. She was only a very small child when her Mother died and she wants to learn about the woman she hardly knew. She finds a photograph and her hunt for clues starts there. As the story unwinds, we get to know more about her and about Stéphane who recognises his Father next to Hélène’s Mother on the snapshot when she has it published in a newspaper column in an attempt to get to gather information. The characters join forces to fill in the blanks as they face the fact that they have a common background about which they knew nothing. Their investigation of their parents’ past becomes a voyage of self-discovery as they learn to trust each other and their feelings. The book is also a reflection on memory and memories as well as on the power of photographs both to reveal and to conceal scenes and sentiments. There are descriptions of different pictures and various documents like letters, text messages and emails. This means the pace is varied but also that there is never a dull moment and the chapters are short and compelling.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book—what the French call the ‘quatrième de couverture’:

Une petite annonce dans un journal comme une bouteille à la mer : Hélène cherche la vérité sur sa mère, morte lorsqu’elle avait trois ans. Son seul indice : deux noms sur une photographie retrouvée dans les papiers de famille. Une réponse arrive : Stéphane a reconnu son père.
Commence alors une longue correspondance, parsemée de détails, d’abord ténus puis plus troublants. Patiemment, Hélène et Stéphane remontent le temps, dépouillant des archives et cherchant dans leur mémoire. Peu à peu, les histoires se recoupent, se répondent, forment un récit différent de ce qu’on leur avait dit.

Parsemer : To scatter
Ténu : Tenuous
Troublant : Unsettling
Dépouiller : Here, it means to scrutinise or to examine something thoroughly.
Se recouper : Here, to overlap.

This is the first paragraph of the book itself:

Le photographe a fixé pour toujours trois silhouettes en plein soleil, deux hommes et une femme. Ils sont tout de blanc vêtus et tiennent une raquette à la main. La jeune femme se trouve au milieu : l’homme qui est à sa droite, assez grand, est penché vers elle, comme s’il était sur le point de lui dire quelque chose. Le deuxième homme, à sa gauche, se tient un peu en retrait, une jambe fléchie, et prend appui sur sa raquette, dans une posture humoristique à la Charlie Chaplin. Tous trois ont l’air d’avoir environ trente ans, mais peut-être le plus grand est-il un peu plus âgé. Le paysage en arrière-plan, que masquent en partie les volumes d’une installation sportive, est à la fois alpin et sylvestre : un massif, encore blanc à son sommet, ferme la perspective, en imprimant à la scène une allure irréelle de carte postale.

This scene of three people with their tennis rackets on a sunny day in the mountains is the photograph which sets Hélène’s thoughts in motion and makes her decide to find out more about her Mother’s past.
Bonne lecture !people-photo146-2

Summer Reading: Un secret

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.

 

posted by Simon Kemp

If you’re looking to read a novel in French that’s fairly short and accessible, but a serious piece of literature that will stay with you long after you finish it, then Philippe Grimbert’s Un secret would be a good choice. It won the Prix Goncourt des lycéens when it was published (France’s only literary prize to be awarded by a panel of sixth-formers), and has since been made into a film by Claude Miller.

The autobiographical novel is about the terrible family secret Philippe uncovers during his childhood. The story begins with his unusual quirk, as a child, of having not an imaginary friend, but an imaginary brother:

 

Fils unique, j’ai longtemps eu un frère. Il fallait me croire sur parole quand je servais cette fable à mes relations de vacances, à mes amis de passage. J’avais un frère. Plus beau, plus fort. Un frère aîné glorieux, invisible.

[An only child, for a long time I had a brother. You had to take my word for it when I served up this tale to people I met on holiday or casual acquaintances. I had a brother. Stronger, more handsome. A glorious, invisible older brother.] 

 

But not only does Philippe have an imaginary brother, he also knows the brother’s name, Simon, and owns the cuddly toy dog that once belonged to him. Simon, it begins to appear, is not so imaginary after all, but pieced together from half-remembered whispers and silences about Philippe’s parents’ lives before he was born. And the mystery seems somehow connected to the fact that their real name isn’t Grimbert at all, but the Jewish surname, Grinberg. What Philippe finally discovers is a history of love and betrayal among his parents and their circle of friends during the German Occupation of France in World War II, culminating in a dramatic event, the ‘secret’ itself, which, once you learn it, you won’t forget for a long time.

Summer Reading: D’Argile et de feu

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.

 

affiche-finale-agathe-212x300 [55473]

posted by Catriona Seth

This recommendation comes via the pupils of Culham School. They visited Oxford for a session at the wonderful Maison Française which is a sort of French cultural centre, open to academics, students and the general public. They had spent time working on a recent novel of which I knew nothing, D’Argile et de feu (Of Clay and Fire). They invited the writer, Océane Madelaine, over to talk about her craft. The session at the Maison Française was the culmination of their preparatory work. They were obviously fascinated by the text which involves two characters both called Marie, one of whom lives nowadays and sets out on a long walk towards the South to try and recover from a traumatic experience, that of a huge fire she witnessed. The other is a long-dead potter, Marie Prat, based on the nineteenth-century folk potter Marie Talbot. The modern Marie hurts her foot and takes refuge in an abandoned hut. She discovers the historic Marie’s art and this gives her renewed strength and energy.
Océane Madelaine was born in the Drôme in 1980, read French literature at university and went on to study pottery in a town near Bourges which is where she came across Marie Talbot’s productions. Here is the beginning of the novel:

J’écris les yeux dans le feu, à me cramer les sourcils, le front, les joues. Je regarde et j’écris, chaque mot vient de la braise. Et chaque mot cuit comme ont cuit les pots de Marie Prat dans le four immense du village. Je regarde encore. Autour de moi il fait jour, il fait nuit, la brume de septembre vient, s’en va, revient, je suis au milieu du monde entre nord et sud, au milieu d’une forêt qui m’a donné de l’argile noire et plus encore, je traque les mouvements des flammes douces ou retorses et une chose est sûre : je sais autrement la sauvagerie du feu. Quinze ans durant je l’ai fui, maintenant à mon grand étonnement il brûle à nouveau et c’est moi qui l’alimente, entasse les bûches et enlève les cendres, c’est moi qui fais.

You probably understand most of it.

“Cramer” is a colloquial way of saying to burn. It has the same root as the much formal term “crémation”.
“La braise” is what the French call the embers (it can also be used in the plural—les braises).
“Retors, retorse” is an adjective which means twisted and is often used metaphorically.
“Sauvagerie” is a noun based on the adjective “Sauvage” and is the equivalent of the English term savagery.
“Alimenter” is to feed, and can be used whether you are feeding a fire or a person.

The students’ enthusiasm made me want to read the novel so it is on the top of my pile! And for those who are fluent in French, here is a digest of some of the questions and answers from Océane Madelaine’s Oxford meeting.

Quels sont les trois mots que vous choisiriez pour décrire votre roman ?
C’est une question très dure. Le premier mot ce serait « pieds », le deuxième, « ferveur » et le troisième, « espace ». Ce sont trois mots assez différents.
Pourquoi les pieds et pas la marche ?
Quand on parle des pieds, on parle vraiment du corps. C’est quelque chose qui me tient vraiment à cœur. La marche, c’est l’activité.

Pourquoi la marche est-elle si importante dans votre livre ?
D’Argile et de feu est mon premier roman. Le départ de ce livre, c’est l’envie urgente d’écrire un personnage qui marche. J’ai avancé avec un plan très flou qui s’est affiné et affirmé au cours du travail d’écriture. La chose à laquelle je me raccrochais, c’est cette envie d’écrire un personnage qui marche.
C’est l’histoire de deux cahiers, un blanc, un rouge. L’histoire de la Marie d’aujourd’hui est dans le cahier blanc. La marche est le début du livre. L’autre cahier contient l’histoire de la potière du XIXe siècle, l’autre Marie. Je me suis demandé ce que moi, humblement, je pouvais ajouter à la littérature. J’ai voulu faire la place au cœur même de l’écriture à la sensation. Ce qui m’intéresse, c’est de faire revenir dans l’espace abstrait du langage le corps, la marche.

Quel est le lien entre les deux Marie ?
Les deux Marie sont les deux personnages. J’ai un peu compliqué les choses en leur donnant le même prénom. Le livre est né de l’envie d’écrire sur un personnage qui marche, mais je voulais aussi parler d’une potière du XIXe siècle, Marie Talbot, qui a travaillé en céramique à une époque où c’était un métier d’hommes. Marie Prat est inspirée par le personnage de Marie Talbot dont j’ai vu certaines pièces.
Le lien entre les deux Marie est multiple. Il y a une espèce de filiation. Elles ne se rencontrent qu’à travers les traces. Marie Prat est un personnage fort, une potière, liée à l’argile. Il y a une filiation symbolique, comme si l’une aidait l’autre, sans que ce soit si net. C’est tout ça qui se joue entre les deux Marie. La Marie d’aujourd’hui choisit son héritage. Elle avait au début des souvenirs pesants, très forts, l’incendie. Elle aura l’envie de choisir son héritage, ses souvenirs. On est au niveau symbolique.

Comment les sensations et les éléments interviennent-ils dans le livre ?
Les sensations interviennent de tous les côtés. Il faut que ça circule à partir du corps, vers l’extérieur. Je vois une porosité entre les corps des deux Marie et la forêt. On est dans le personnage et on est dehors. La sensation se situe à l’articulation entre le dehors et le dedans.

Pourquoi vous avez choisi ce titre ? Quel est le lien entre poterie et écriture ?
Parmi les quatre éléments, je suis spontanément attirée par la terre et le feu. L’air et l’eau sont comme des invités. Le titre est venu petit à petit. On a cherché longuement avec mes éditrices. D’Argile et de feu s’est imposé. C’est une histoire de matière. Je voulais laisser la place au corps. J’avais besoin d’accueillir l’argile et le feu qui sont des éléments puissants. Je les connais bien. Je suis céramiste. C’est aussi mon métier. Cela me ressemble bien. Cela ressemble à mon texte. J’appréhende les mots comme je pétris l’argile. Ils deviennent des matières. Dans le texte, la Marie d’aujourd’hui écrit des cahiers. Vers la fin du texte, elle s’adresse à la Marie d’avant : « Je cuis des mots. Il faut qu’ils soient ardents et justes. » Elle met cela en parallèle avec la cuisson des pots par la potière du XIXe siècle.

Pourquoi y a-t-il si peu de ponctuation dans le roman ?
Enlever de la ponctuation me donne une grande liberté dans la phrase. Parfois on ne sait pas qui parle, c’est pour cela qu’il n’y a pas de guillemets. C’est aussi une volonté de laisser de la place au lecteur.

Pourquoi avez-vous choisi d’alterner le présent et les souvenirs ?
C’est une question abyssale. Ce sont aussi des choix. C’est ainsi que les personnages acquièrent une épaisseur. Ils sont dans un présent très fort, mais sont aussi constitués de mémoire, de souvenirs.

Est-ce que vous avez des projets futurs ? Et est-ce que les rencontres avec les lecteurs vous motivent à écrire un deuxième tome ?
Bien sûr, il y a des projets futurs. D’Argile et de feu continue sa route et a pris une certaine autonomie. Cela me laisse la place de me plonger dans un second texte. Pour moi, le travail d’écriture a un rapport assez fort à la solitude. C’est toujours une fête de rencontrer des lecteurs. C’est l’inverse. Ça me nourrit. Un auteur doit amener son texte au plus loin. L’écriture, c’est un artisanat.

Combien est-ce que vous écrivez par jour ? Est-ce que vous écrivez tous les jours ? Est-ce que vous écrivez d’une traite avant de retravailler le texte ?
Chaque écrivain invente sa discipline. Moi le travail d’écriture c’est le matin, souvent tôt, avant la journée d’atelier.

Pichet Marie Talbot [55474]
***

With thanks to Océane Madelaine, but also to Alexandra, Maud, Clémence, Cassandre, Anaïs, Camille, Pauline, Lucas, Agathe, Jean, Lallie-Rose, Euan, Fanny, Elie-André, Brieuc, Giulia, Nicolas, Tomas, Lydia and their teacher, Céline Martin.

Summer Reading: Le Horla

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.

 

‘Il nous faut autour de nous des hommes qui pensent et qui parlent. Quand nous sommes seuls longtemps, nous peuplons le vide de fantômes.’ 

‘We need thinking, talking men around us. When we are alone for a long time, we fill the emptiness with ghosts.’

French literature may not be as well-known for its ghost stories as English and German, but it has produced some real spine-chillers, particularly among nineteenth-century short stories  by writers like Théophile Gautier, Prosper Mérimée, and Guy de Maupassant. ‘Le Horla’ (1887) is a story by Maupassant, whom you might have heard of for his Prussian War satire, ‘Boule de suif’, or the novel Bel ami, filmed a couple of years ago with Robert Pattinson in the title role.

‘Le Horla’ takes the form of a diary written by a man who lives alone, but who comes to believe that he is not alone. Gradually, he begins to sense an invisible, malign presence shadowing him. He names it the horla, a made-up word that suggests hors-là, a creature from the beyond. Evidence for the entity’s existence is slight: a full glass of milk at the narrator’s bedside at night is empty when he wakes, without his remembering having drunk it, and other small, uncanny incidents. But in his mind, the narrator has all the evidence he needs: he is overwhelmed by the insistent feeling of a demonic being in the room with him. Unless, that is, in his mind is the only place the creature exists…

‘Le Horla’ is a superior chiller from one of the great masters of French literature, and an excellent choice of reading material for a dark autumn night when you’re alone in the house. In French, you can get it in a stand-alone volume or as part of a collection, as well as in English translation or in a helpful French/English parallel text version. There’s also a lesser-known earlier version from 1886 which doesn’t use the diary form; the 1887 story is the one you want. I take no responsibility for any subsequent sleepless nights, and just remember, you can’t see the horla, so leaving the lights on won’t help at all…