Watching paint dry

This is my review of Fields of Glory by Jean Rouaud.

This English translation of the original Goncourt Prize winner, "Les Champs d'honneur" is useful for deciphering some of the obscurer French paragraphs, but I found the style intolerably stiff and unnatural. Is the translator a German speaker? This might account for what seemed like the over-literal translation which cries out to be edited line by line to create some semblance of natural flow.

The story itself may resonate for French people with memories of taciturn chain-smoking grandfathers driving leaky Citroen 2CVs through the interminable drizzle of the Lower Loire. With the admitted extra handicap of being an English speaker reading the original French version "Les Champs d'honneur" in translation, I found the whole chapters devoted to driving a beaten up 2CV, the rain, or the religious mania of a spinster aunt the literary equivalent of watching paint dry.

There were some striking descriptions, say of the landscape of Provence, and the book culminates in some haunting scenes on the experience of a gas attack in the First World War, or the exhumation of a brother, hastily buried by a stranger after a battle, but for me the build up to this was too slow and tortuous.

I gradually realised that the book was a study of how the First World War blighted the lives of not only the generation who suffered it directly but also their descendants. However, in "working backwards" through a series of in the main very mundane incidents with attention to minute detail of little interest, not to mention the endless digressions, I felt that I was reading fragments of a story in a fog.

I was always unclear in exactly which decade the narrator's boyhood was set and I was left quite confused by the last chapter at the cemetery (it's an unremittingly gloomy book) as to the blood relationship between the various characters, which until then I thought I just about understood.

⭐⭐ 2 Stars

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