Category Archives: Recommended Reading

Bookshelf Book Club: Un secret, by Philippe Grimbert

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.

Bookshelf Book Club: Antéchrista by Amélie Nothomb

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One of the aims of this blog is to point interested readers in the direction of French books which are worth your time, and which are accessible to language learners who are prepared to make a bit of an effort to get to grips with a real French novel. In schools, when novels are recommended or (increasingly rarely these days) set as part of a course, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger is the go-to option, followed some distance behind by Joseph Joffo’s Un sac de billes and Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour tristesse. Good novels all, with Camus’s book in particular in a league of its own for its combination of accessible language and thought-provoking content. I’ll be getting round to pointing out a couple of interesting things about it in a later post. But I’d like to take you a little off the beaten track, and introduce you to novels and writers you’ll hopefully enjoy, but which you might not otherwise have come across.

First up, cult Belgian author, the award-winning Amélie Nothomb, who attacks the French bestseller lists every September with a new short novel. All her books are spiky, funny, attention-grabbing reads, often built around a high-concept premise: Métaphysique des tubes purports to be her autobiography from the womb to age three; Attentat is a love story between the ugliest man and the most beautiful woman imaginable; the prize-winning Stupeur et tremblements (now a film by Alain Corneau) recounts the descent of the hapless ‘Amélie’ down the hierarchy of a Japanese corporation from office-worker to lavatory attendant as she repeatedly fails to grasp the niceties of Japanese etiquette. Any of these is worth reading, but what makes her particularly popular with young people is her writing about the dramas of adolescence in novels like Antéchrista, which lay out in often blackly comic fashion the teenage hell of social anxiety and loneliness, or problems with body-image and eating disorders.

Despite the title, Antéchrista has nothing to do with religion, beyond the fact that it’s about a girl called Christa who makes life hell. The novel’s heroine, Blanche, is a shy sixteen-year-old, unhappy in her skin, who is flattered and astonished to find herself suddenly friends with the prettiest, boldest, most popular girl in college, Christa. Christa, though, lives far away, and could do with a place to crash on Monday nights before the girls’ 8 a.m. class on Tuesday mornings. Blanche’s parents agree to let her stay over in the family’s flat, on a camp bed in Blanche’s room. She’s a delightful house guest and a hit with the parents. Only with Blanche herself, when the two are alone in their room, does Christa begin to show a darker side to her personality.

Then she moves into the family home full time.

Charming and helpful, graceful and sophisticated, she’s the kind of the daughter Blanche’s parents must have dreamed of having. Already she’s starting to seem as much a part of the family as Blanche herself, maybe even more so. By the time Blanche learns the true nature of this cuckoo in the nest, it may already be too late to fight back.

At only 150 pages long, it’s a fast-moving story, with a twisting plot that will keep you turning the pages, but it’s also a memorable description of what it’s like to feel an outsider in life, and ultimately even in your own family. You can find it here, and find out more about Amélie Nothomb and her other novels here.

posted by Simon Kemp