Category Archives: Recommended Reading

Summer Reading: L’Etranger

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

L’Étranger (usually translated as The Outsider) is probably the most widely read of all twentieth-century French novels. Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past) may be more famous, but not as many people get to the end of its 3000 pages. L’Étranger is short, intriguing, and written in such simple French (not a passé simple verb in sight) that it’s often the first choice for non-native-speakers wanting to try a real work of French literature in the original language. It’s the most-mentioned text on UCAS forms from prospective candidates by some margin — a fact that put me rather in two minds about including it in the book club. It’s already read by almost as many candidates as all other French literature put together, so it hardly needs my recommendation to find any more readers.  But there is something special about its combination of accessible language and thought-provoking content that fully justifies its popularity.

The novel is set in colonial-era Algeria (it was written in the 1940s) , and the story is told by Meursault, a French-Algerian colonist. He likes warm sunshine and swimming in the sea. He doesn’t like damp towels in the bathroom. Most things he has no opinion on at all. ‘Ça m’est égal’ (‘I don’t mind either way’) is his constant refrain.  He gets on with his life, enjoying small pleasures, and staying largely detached from other people.  We meet him as he is told of his mother’s death and summoned to the old people’s home for her funeral. After that event, during which he smokes a cigarette by the coffin and sheds no tears at the graveside, we follow him on a trip to the beach with a girl,  and through the events of an ordinary day.

Everything changes when Meursault is drawn into a feud between his disreputable neighbour, Raymond, and the family of Raymond’s Arab girlfriend, who is in an abusive relationship with him. Following a brawl at the beach with the girlfriend’s brother and other men, Meursault shoots one of them, in an act for which he offers no motivation other than that he was dazzled and disoriented by the sun.

The second half of the novel deals with Meursault’s trial. To Meursault’s bemusement (and here the novel takes on a slightly surreal air), the circumstances of the shooting are largely disregarded by the investigators and lawyers dealing with the case. Rather, it is Meursault’s behaviour during and after his mother’s funeral that attracts the interest, and condemnation, of the establishment. In their eyes, Meursault’s greatest crime is failing to weep at his mother’s funeral, further compounded by enjoying life in the days that followed. Meursault, we realize, is being condemned for not playing by society’s rules, and for refusing to play-act emotions he does not feel in order to make other people feel comfortable.

Meursault’s story is simply told. He gives us the facts of what is said and done, but offers few interpretations of his own or anyone else’s behaviour. The novel offers more questions than answers, and challenges the reader to take sides in a moral debate that’s not easy to settle (its hero is, after all, a killer without remorse,  who’s also complicit in Raymond’s abuse of his girlfriend). It’s an uncomfortable read, deliberately provocative, and if you like being provoked then it’s well worth your time. It will also introduce you to the idea of the Absurd, the tragi-comic mismatch between our need to find meaning and purpose in life and the world we live in that often seems to have neither. It’s an idea that has a lot of influence on twentieth-century French literature, and is also explored, for example, in Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot and Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée. So do go ahead and give Camus’s little masterpiece a try. But do also remember that Other French Novels Are Available.

Summer Reading: Trois Femmes puissantes

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

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).

 

Marie NDiaye

 

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.

 

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages: Reason 91

3522651_3_21ec_selon-les-observatoires-les-francais-liraient_04f52e348f609e5529a180eabf1a35f7

posted by Simon Kemp

You get to read.

You get to read stories, poems, novels and plays.

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.

Are you tempted at all?

Evening Sun
Evening Sun

Bookshelf Book Club: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit by Delphine de Vigan

rien ne s'oppose

posted by Simon Kemp

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.

vigan-intexa1

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.

maxresdefault

Bookshelf Book Club: D’Argile et de feu

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.

Bookshelf Book Club: Meursault, contre-enquête by Kamel Daoud

livre-en-gros-caracteres-meursault-contre-enquete

posted by Simon Kemp

Last summer, Waterstones bookshops in the UK found themselves with an unlikely bestseller among their holiday beach reading. It was the English translation of the French-language debut novel of an Algerian journalist. What’s more, it was a novel that would make almost no sense to you unless you’d previously read a mid-twentieth-century French philosophical novel by a writer who’s been dead for over fifty years. The novel is Meursault, contre-enquête by Kamel Daoud (translated as The Meursault Investigation), and it’s our choice for the Bookshelf book club.

The novel has caused a great kerfuffle on the French literary scene. It’s been showered with accolades and prizes, including the Prix Goncourt for the best first novel of the year. It has also earned its author an islamist death threat for its outspoken criticism of the role of religion in Algerian life since independence. If you’d like to read a novel in French from outside France, you won’t find one with more impact, culturally and politically, than this one.

Meursault, contre-enquête has a simple, brilliant idea at its heart: what if Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, perhaps the most famous French novel of the last century, was non-fiction? What if it was the autobiography of a real person called Meursault, who really did shoot an Arab man dead on the beach in the 1940s? And what if that Arab man had had a brother…?

Camus’s novel tells us almost nothing about the man Meursault kills, not even his name. Daoud’s novel starts out by setting us straight on that score, sketching a hazy portrait of the dead man through the eyes of the child his brother was, and the memory of the old man he has now become. Haroun, the narrator, starts out by condemning Meursault for leaving his murdered brother’s name out of the story. It looks a little like Daoud the author might be condemning Camus for the same omission. But if you know Camus’s work, you can see there’s already something odd going on. The set-up of Daoud’s novel, as if the reader were being button-holed by an old man in a bar to listen to his story, is the exact same premise of another of Camus’s novels, La Chute. It seems a strange kind of homage in an novel meant as an attack on its subject.

And things are indeed more complicated than they first appear. As the years go by, the ‘investigation’ stagnates, and Algeria changes around Haroun beyond all recognition, Haroun finds himself starting to resemble Meursault in unexpected ways…

This recommendation comes with a few provisos. Meursault contre-enquête, although it’s short, is quite a challenging read, in French or English, so don’t let the ‘investigation’ of the title fool you into thinking you’re in for a page-turning detective story.  It’s also not scared of controversy where religion is concerned, although its thoughtful critiques are a world away from the inflammatory provocations of 2015’s most notorious novel about Islam, Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission. And thirdly, as I said at the beginning, there’s no point at all in reading it unless you read L’Etranger first. If you think you can deal with all that, though, you have a remarkable reading experience in store for you.

 

 

Tolerance: Beacon of the Enlightenment

posted by Caroline Warman

You might have seen that in the vigils and marches that followed the Charlie Hebdo assassinations on 7 January 2015, posters of Voltaire like this one appeared everywhere, along with some of his polemical slogans about the importance of religious tolerance.

voltaire

Dozens of university lecturers in France who teach Voltaire and other eighteenth-century writers, and who were all as distressed by the events and by the increasingly polarised politics that followed as anyone else, decided to put together an anthology of texts from the Enlightenment. This anthology would make available to everyone what writers of the time said about liberty, equality, and fraternity, about the importance of religious tolerance, about the rights of women, about the abomination of slavery, about the exploitation created by a system of global capitalism, and so on. It would contain the original text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, enshrined in the French Constitution since 1789, and it would also contain the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen drawn up by Olympe de Gouges, which was roundly rejected in an atmosphere of general hilarity. Some of the extracts would be witty, some would be serious or even tragic, some might even seem objectionable to us now, but all would be arguing their point with great passion, and the collection as a whole would shine a light onto a world and a century which have many more connections with us than we would ever have thought. This anthology, entitled Tolérance: le combat des Lumières, was published in April 2015 by the Société française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle.

 

We in the UK wanted to support and applaud this initiative, and we wanted to extend its readership. So we decided to translate it. And we thought, who better to translate this texts than our students? They are the citizens, female and male, of today and tomorrow, they are deeply engaged in our world, and they are brilliant at languages.

 

At Oxford we do a lot of translation anyway – we translate about half a page of French into English, and the other way round, every week.  We do that because it develops our language skills immensely – it challenges us to be linguistically inventive while never letting us off the hook in terms of grammatical accuracy and syntactical fluency. It is quite hard, but we love it, not least because we all do it together in college classes. You’d never believe how many different ways of translating a single sentence there are. Translation is also a particularly intense way of reading, because to translate something you really have to get inside the text. It’s incredibly stimulating, because you’re both reading and writing at the same time.

 

So, one hundred and two of us – tutors and their second-year students (who don’t have any exams) from lots of different colleges – translated the anthology this past summer term. And we published it on 7 January 2016, the first anniversary of the shootings. We launched it at the annual conference of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, which supported the project, and it has received some nice coverage in the press and online. On the first day it was downloaded more than 4000 times. We were amazed!

 

So here it is, free to download. Every single text has a link to the original French, sometimes in the original eighteenth-century edition. Have a look! Because if there’s one audience we really want to reach, it’s you! You are our future, and our future needs open-minded thinkers, and it needs linguists. Go for it!

TOLERANCE: BEACON OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT

Summer Reading: Dora Bruder

As promised, a reading recommendation from the works of France’s newest Nobel laureate. Unusually for Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder(1997) is actually non-fiction, but it reads so much like his novels that many of its early readers thought it was one.

The story begins when Modiano comes across a brief article in an old French newspaper, dated 31 December 1941, at which point France was under Nazi Occupation. The article was a plea for information about a missing girl, with a description of her appearance and the clothes she was last seen wearing. Here it is:

PARIS
ON RECHERCHE une jeune fille, Dora Bruder, 15 ans, 1 m. 55, visage ovale, yeux gris marron, manteau sport gris, pull-over bordeaux, jupe et chapeau bleu marine, chaussures sport marron. Adresser toutes indications à M. et Mme Bruder, 41 boulevard Ornano, Paris.

PARIS. A young girl, Dora Bruder, is missing, 15 years old, 1 m. 55, oval face, grey-brown eyes, grey sports coat, dark red jumper, navy blue skirt and hat, brown sports shoes. Any information to M. and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.

 

For some of Modiano’s readers, this petite annonce was already familiar, since it had appeared in an earlier novel of his, with no indication at that point that it was a genuine newspaper article. As Modiano explains in Dora Bruder:

 

Je n’ai cessé d’y penser durant des mois et des mois. (…) Il me semblait que je ne parviendrais jamais à retrouver la moindre trace de Dora Bruder. Alors le manque que j’éprouvais m’a poussé à l’écriture d’un roman, Voyage de noces.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months and months. (…) I felt that I would never manage to find the slightest trace of Dora Bruder. So the lack that I was feeling pushed me into writing a novel, Honeymoon.

 

In returning to Dora’s story in non-fiction, Modiano isn’t simply writing her biography. Indeed, the story of the troubled Jewish girl who runs away from home, returns, and some months later is arrested, interned in Paris, and finally sent to her death in a concentration camp, has left so little mark on history that Modiano struggles to find the barest details of who she was and what she experienced.

Rather, he gives us the story of his investigation, exploring archives for mentions of her name, revisiting the places she lived to absorb their atmosphere. In the  course of his research, he discovers police reports on the arrests of French Jews, desperate pleas in letters from the relatives of those taken, and letters home from the internment camps on the eve of deportation. Many of these find their way into Modiano’s book verbatim, so that at some points Modiano’s own account fades behind a collage of documents from the Occupation. And intertwined with these strands of Dora’s story, the story of Modiano’s research, and the fragments of other stories of those caught up in the Holocaust, comes one further narrative strand, which is Modiano’s own story, and the roots of his obsession in his own troubled family background. Modiano’s father, we learn, was a Jewish man who survived the Holocaust through his close association with a band of collaborationist thugs, the Rue Lauriston Gang, who at one point intercede after he has been arrested to save him from deportation to the death camps. This difficult legacy of a father who was both Jew and collaborator, victim and accomplice in the Holocaust, lies at the root of all Modiano’s writing, but rarely as clearly shown as here.

Like all Modiano’s books, Dora Bruder is short, written in simple, accessible French, and a very powerful piece of writing.You’ll find no better introduction to France’s années noires, and the uneasy memories of those years in contemporary French society. Here, to finish, is a short extract from the book, in which Modiano visits the military barracks where Dora was held with other Jewish people, before being sent to Drancy, and thence to Auschwitz:

 

Le boulevard était désert, ce dimanche-là, et perdu dans un silence si profond que j’entendais le bruissement des platanes. Un haut mur entoure l’ancienne caserne des Tourelles et cache les bâtiments de celle-ci. J’ai longé ce mur. Une plaque y est fixée sur laquelle j’ai lu :

ZONE MILITAIRE

DÉFENSE DE FILMER

OU DE PHOTOGRAPHIER

Je me suis dit que plus personne ne se souvenait de rien. Derrière le mur s’étendait un no man’s land, une zone de vide et d’oubli. Les vieux bâtiments des Tourelles n’avaient pas été détruits comme le pensionnat de la rue de Picpus, mais cela revenait au même.

Et pourtant, sous cette couche épaisse d’amnésie, on sentait bien quelque chose, de temps en temps, un écho lointain, étouffé, mais on aurait été incapable de dire quoi, précisément. C’était comme de se trouver au bord d’un champ magnétique, sans pendule pour en capter les ondes. Dans le doute et la mauvaise conscience, on avait affiché l’écriteau « Zone militaire. Défense de filmer ou de photographier ».

The boulevard was deserted that Sunday, and lost in such deep silence that I could hear the rustle of the plane trees. There is a high wall around the former Tourelles barracks which hides its buildings. I walked along this wall. There’s a sign on it, on which I read:

MILITARY ZONE

NO FILMING OR PHOTOGRAPHY

I said to myself that nobody remembers anything any more. Behind the wall stretched out a no-man’s-land, a zone of emptiness and oblivion. The old buildings of Tourelles hadn’t been destroyed like [Dora’s] boarding school in the Rue de Picpus, but it came down to the same thing.

But under this thick layer of amnesia you could still feel something now and then, a distant, stifled echo, although you couldn’t say what exactly. It was like being on the edge of a magnetic field, without a pendulum to capture its waves. In doubt and troubled conscience, they had put up the sign: “Military Zone. No Filming or Photography.”

 

Dora Bruder

Dora Bruder is available in French, as a paperback or e-book, or inEnglish translation.

Summer Reading: Un coeur simple

posted by Simon Kemp

Is it time for a classic? After a couple of recommendations of recent novels, I think it’s time we had a go at one of the great masters of French literature, Gustave Flaubert.

The French novel, like the English one, had a real golden age in the nineteenth century, when writers like Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, Émile Zola, and Flaubert wrote novels of sweeping social panoramas and vivid details of everyday life which have come to be known as French Realism. There are many masterpieces among them, including Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir and Zola’s Germinal, but at many hundreds of pages, they can be a daunting prospect, particularly if, as a learner of French, you’re tempted to tackle these authors in the original language. We’ll come back to them some other time, but for now, I’d like to recommend a more modest way in to discover Realist literature: Flaubert’s short story, Un cœur simple (A Simple Heart).

Flaubert said he wanted to write ‘un livre sur rien’ (‘a book about nothing’), and in Un cœur simple he’s not far off. Félicité is a poor and uneducated woman in rural France, who, after disappointment in love, takes up service in a middle-class household.

She is loyal to her widowed mistress and devoted to the children of the house. Her life has small pleasures and larger sorrows; she is generous with her kindness, which is not often repaid. In later life, her dearest love is a parrot.

Later still, her dearest love is a deceased parrot, stuffed and mounted on a perch.

Then, a gang of international art thieves mount an operation to steal the parrot, which they mistakenly believe to be an ancient Maltese statuette of inestimable value.

(Actually, not that last one.)

The story is funny, sweet and sad, and has the most beautiful ending. If you’d like a little introduction to the world of the Realist novel, and are prepared to consider that there might be more ways to write a great story than dramatic incident, extraordinary people or complex plotting, then you should give it a try.

You can get it as a single volume, as one of Flaubert’s Trois contescollected together, or, of course, in English translation. If you like it, there are two places to go from here. One is Julian Barnes’s brilliantFlaubert’s Parrot, the tale of a Flaubert obsessive’s attempt to track down the actual stuffed parrot Flaubert used for inspiration while writing Un cœur simple.

The other, of course, is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, most famous of all nineteenth-century French novels, where the same setting of humdrum small-town life in northern France is the backdrop to a rather more eventful life story, as the young heroine’s dreams of romance, passion and high-society glamour cannot be reconciled with her apparent fate as the wife of a country doctor whose only aspiration is a pair of slippers by the fireside.

 

Summer Reading: Un secret

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.