“Un monde à portée de main or “Painting Time” by Maylis de Kerangal

An indulged only child, Paula Karst cannot settle to any course of study until she discovers “trompe l’œil”, the visual art used to trick the eye into perceiving a painting as a three-dimensional object. She is captivated by the hallway of the Institute where she is to study (based on a real college in Brussels): the marble pillars, wooden panels, a sparrow in the foliage of the tree outside the window – all turn out to be on flat, painted surfaces.

This is an unusual, ambitious and daring novel in that it has no plot, focusing instead on Paula’s development as an artist, the details of the materials and techniques she learns to use, her various commissions and the locations where she is employed. Commencing with painting neighbour’s nursery ceiling to resemble the sky, a project her worried parents may have negotiated for her, she progresses to working eventually on “Lascaux 4”, which has combined advanced technology and the skill of artists to produce the latest replica of the famous caves so damaged by the passage of tourists and exposure to the air that it has been necessary to close them to the public.

The written style is hard work with few paragraphs and sentences which may run over more than a page of stream of consciousness, leaping frenetically between loosely linked images, present and past, merging descriptions and internal thoughts with dialogue. This approach may be quite creative in its impressionistic effect, although I was struck afterwards that it is at odds with the discipline of learning how to copy precisely patterns and colours of particular types of marble or wood, which is what Paula’s first contracts tend to involve.

I was put off by the opening chapter which catapults us into Paula’s evening out with her two former college flatmates, Kate and Jonas. They all them self-absorbed, and immature, describing their work in technical terms before one has had a chance to “tune in” to the situation. Finding the frequent lists of materials used quite tedious , and references to unfamiliar subjects meaningless, all that prevented me from giving up was the fact I had purchased the book to discuss at a French book group. It would have been much easier to read in the English version “Painting Time”, but I suspect that would lose too much in translation.

Un monde à portée de main (French Edition) by [Maylis de Kerangal]

Eventually, I found that the key to appreciating this book is to look up the references. In the process, I learned a lot about different types of marble, and wood grains. I was also fascinated by Cinecittà, the Italian Hollywood of which I was shamefully unaware. One evening, Paula looks through a gap in the wall of a former set for “it could be any medieval north Italian town”, across a wasteland to a modern Rome suburb, with its noisy car horns and lighted windows. “Which side is the real world?”

The detailed information on the Lascaux grotto is also fascinating. It is probably a minority view, but I would have preferred the author to have applied her impressive research to a non-fiction, illustrated account of all this, using the style employed to write about Lascaux, which contrasts with the overblown excess of much of the rest.

There are some striking, moving or poignant scenes involving the characters which occasionally appear like treasure chests from a shipwreck, bobbing in a sea of verbiage. For instance, the scene where Paula’s apparently brilliant but unfriendly flatmate Jonas, takes a sudden interest in her work and helps her to understand how, to paint successfully a rock like cerfontaine (otherwise known as “fromage du cochon”!), she needs to think of it in context, how it has been formed, the lives of those who have lived in the places from which it comes. Later on, Jonas and Kate are shocked by Paula’s “unwise” choice of tortoiseshell as the subject for her “final exam” painting, unaware of her beautifully described childhood encounter with a tortoise, so strange in appearance that it seemed to her fertile imagination to have come from another ancient world. The visit of Paula’s father’s to Lascaux when it was still open, which turns out to be true, provides a rare moment of humour, via the drama in which his mischievous brother almost manages to carve some graffiti alongside the priceless prehistoric paintings. Other sections, such as Paula’s liaison with a predatory teacher “the Charlatan”, seem more like padding for the novel, which at times seems meandering and uneven.

One of those books which probably needs to be read more than once to appreciate fully, despite finding it pretentious at times, I would rate it as “good in parts”.

“Mon Traître” by Sorj Chalandon – Still looking for answers

This novel is the memoir of Parisian violin-maker and repairer Antoine or “Tony” who in the 1970s, is inspired, by the photo of an Irish patriot shot by the British in the 1916 Easter Rising, to become passionately involved in the IRA cause, about which he previously knew nothing.  So he bones up on Irish history,  assumes a taste for Guinness, and works his way into the Belfast Catholic community with the aid of one-time gun-runner Jim O’Leary, willing to offer him hospitality on tap. This brings him into contact with Tyrone Meehan, a charismatic IRA leader who in turn takes a shine to him. We know from the outset that Meehan is the “traitor” of the title, so the intriguing mystery lies in the nature of the betrayal, and the reasons for it.

Having read and greatly admired two of Sorj Chalandon’s books, “Le Quatrième Mur” and “Profession de Père”,  I was disappointed by “Mon Traître” for a number of reasons. It is hard to understand why Tony is so drawn to a Belfast he describes as having “cet air épais de tourbe et de charbon” – this thick air of peat and coal, the same in winter, automn, even in summer with the freezing rain, and the distinctive odour of burning hearths, children’s milk, earth, frying food and humidity. Why is he so enamoured by a man  so bent at their first meeting on showing him how to use a urinal without wetting his shoes? In turn, what does Meehan see in “Tony”, a man who comes across as an “oddball” loner, naïf and, as several incidents suggest, mentally unstable? Sporting his symbolic Irish Claddagh ring  and spending hours  at the wake beside the open coffin of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands, Tony seems desperate to gain a sense of belonging to a cause which is not his own.

There is a lack of depth in the tale which seems to romanticise the IRA, with the Protestants and British soldiers cast as villains,  and to show no awareness of an alternative viewpoint, apart from a single reference to the youth of a murdered soldier. The ultimate disappointment for me was the fact that, once Meehan’s treachery to his cause is exposed, the book focuses on  Tony’s own sense of bewilderment, anger and personal betrayal. There is no exploration or convincing explanation of Meehan’s behaviour.

My Traitor by [Sorj Chalandon]

Since the story did not ring true to me, I was surprised and perhaps chastened to learn it is based on reality  in that Sorj Chalandon, when employed as a journalist in Ireland, actually formed a strong friendship with Denis Donaldson, a senior Sinn Féin member who was revealed as a British secret agent, subsequently assassinated after his treachery was exposed.  Chalandon wrote this book while he was still alive, in a sense coming to terms with his own emotions. A few years later, following Donaldson’s death, he produced a sequel, “Return to Killybegs”, from Tyrone Meehan’s perspective.

From a “dramatic” viewpoint, I would have preferred a single book interweaving the contrasting stances,  but it is helpful to understand the background to the two novels. Chalandon is a talented writer   who creates a strong sense of place and portrays conflicted emotions,  drawing on real  people and events about which he clearly feels deeply, but in this instance he does not provide any fresh insights. Was I more impressed by his other works because they  are based on situations about which I know less?

“A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry: “A passing drama of the earth”.

In the way that “All Quiet on the Western Front” stands out by portraying the First World War from a German perspective, “A Long Long Way” is distinctive in portraying an Irish viewpoint.

The young hero Willy Dunne is eager to join up as a  means of compensating for the short stature which has made it impossible for him to join the Dublin police force, to his father’s all too evident regret. In the trenches, Willy soon experiences the squalor and tedium alternating with the terror of being the continual target of snipers and deadly gas attacks which gradually bring him to a realisation of the futility of war.

The details of the Irish political crisis which was coming to a head at the same time  are a little hard to follow without prior knowledge, but the fragmented details probably give a very accurate impression of Willy’s own limited understanding of the situation. About to board a ship at the end of a brief period of leave, Willy is caught up in the Easter Rising of 1916, the civil war which pitted rebel Irishmen against their pro-British compatriots. The sight of a young man, very like himself, dying at his feet on a Dublin street  makes a deep impression, but when he tries to express his feelings in a letter  home to his fiercely loyalist father,  the latter disowns him, unable to empathise with the evolution in attitudes that life at the front has brought about.

By turns lyrical and poetic, or filled with “a touch of the blarney” when the soldiers are joshing in the trenches to keep their spirits up,  this is probably the most explicit and visceral, “blow by blow” imagining of a young soldier’s  experiences  of World War 1 that I have read. It captures Willy’s numbed acceptance of fate: on one hand his vulnerability to being struck down at any moment, on the other his apparent indestructibility as comrades die, often before he has a chance to get to know them properly,  to be replaced by others in a seemingly endless cycle.

There is the surreal contrast of the occasional visits home where those closest to him have no inkling of the horror of the trenches. For the most part his girlfriend Gretta serves as a symbol of love and normality for him to cling to in the surreal world of war.  Even when his ordeals in the trenches are  compounded by unexpected and somewhat unjust rejection on a personal level during his final visit home,   all this is offset by one of the most moving and subtle scenes in the book, when Willy bravely makes a point of visiting the family home of Captain Pasley, his first officer in command  who sacrificed his life so pointlessly.

There were times when all seemed so bleak and graphic that I questioned whether to read on, but although the end  was something of a contrived anticlimax , “A Long, Long Way” is worth reading, particularly if one’s first encounter with a novel of the First World War.

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok: an outstanding novel which must not be forgotten

Growing up in the New York of the nineteen fifties and sixties, Asher Lev belongs to a strict, tight-knit Jewish Hasidic community presided over by the benevolent dictatorship of the Rebbe, whose interpretation of the Master of the Universe’s wishes is not to be questioned. From an early age, Asher is obsessed with drawing every detail observed in his small world. While his gentle mother urges him to draw “pretty pictures”, and is in due course sufficiently sympathetic to buy him paints and accompany him to art galleries, until driven away by the shock of seeing “forbidden” Christian art, his serious-minded father impatiently dismisses a fad he hopes will soon pass. Frequently absent on trips to Europe where he sets up Jewish schools and helps Jews escape from Russia, he is angered by Asher’s poor grades at school and bemused by the Rebbe’s pragmatic decision to allow Asher to be taught by an eminent artist, completely secular despite being Jewish. The parents’ dawning admiration when some of Asher’s art is acquired by a major museum is outweighed by their refusal to attend any exhibition displaying his portraits of nudes.

As the novel builds to a tense climax bewildering and shocking or sadly comprehensible according to one’s viewpoint, some may find it too slow-paced. Yet the repetition reflects the narrow world in which Asher feels trapped and the often minute detail gives a profound understanding of his development as an artist and a fascinating psychological study of the main characters. It also conveys a strong sense of place, convincing dialogue, and many moments of wry humour amidst the angst.

I am not sure how a deeply orthodox Jewish reader would respond to this novel, and the author himself was intriguingly both a rabbi, inspired to become a writer by reading “Brideshead Revisited” as a teenager, and an artist. However, for an atheist reader like me, it portrays very vividly the tension between religion, ritual and duty on one hand contrasted with and tending to stifle or drive to extremes creativity and personal freedom on the other. In its perceptiveness, it shows how achievement as an artist may require a single-minded dedication which at times appears utter selfishness and self-absorption. There is also the ironic contradiction that art is often exploited for financial gain, the value of an artwork may be artificially inflated and it may be purchased as an investment or trophy by someone who cares nothing for art.

The novel draws on Potok’s own experience in that he was also a painter, like Asher producing Chagall-like portraits of dreamlike Jewish ritual scenes and animals. So Potok’s painting career somewhat paralleled the journey of Asher Lev: a young man, very creative and very religious, who does not fit with his community. “I began to paint when I was about nine or ten years old,” Potok once said in an interview. “It really became a problem in my family, especially with my father, who detested it.” Potok even painted a Brooklyn Crucifixion of his own, resembling the painting in his novel.

This reminded me of “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, the autobiography of the early life of Amos Oz, yet despite being a portrayal of fictional characters, Potok’s novel feels more authentic and and in some ways more insightful, perhaps because it is in fact an exploration and development of his own situation, than a simple account of it.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz: often maddening but brilliant

A Tale of Love and Darkness by [Amos Oz]

This is the kind of “modern classic” which cannot be read quickly. One simply has to “go with the flow”. At first I was so overwhelmed by this vivid evocation of a small boy growing up in 1940s Jerusalem when Hitler was still a looming menace in the Europe his family had felt forced to leave that I recommended it for a book group to complement “Mornings in Jenin”, the moving and informative memoir of a Palestinian childhood by Susan Abulhawa, and “East West Street – the forensic analysis of the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity” by Philippe Sands.

Only a few chapters later, I was regretting my decision, having realised that my Kindle concealed the 528 page tome swollen with repetition as the storyline swirled in all directions round the stones of memory, burdened with factual detail of at times mind-numbing tedium, including lists which could never be confined to two or three examples when twenty-seven came to mind. A particular low point for me was the description of the lengthy walk to his great-uncle’s house, forcing the reader to consider every lamp-post and cracked paving stone en route. Admittedly, this captures how very long a walk may seem seem to a small child, and how every detail becomes engraved effortlessly on the mind through sheer familiarity.

It could also be that the Hebrew in which this was originally written lends itself to this kind of flowery excess which at times sits uneasily in the the brilliant and it seems painstakingly accurate English translation by Nicholas De Lange. Despite considering giving up, I am very glad to have persisted, since so much of this book is rich in anecdote and insights, combining poignancy with humour, and a strong underlying thread of irony and self-mockery. As a reader with a strong sympathy for the Palestinian cause and little patience for the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-semitism, this book helped me to understand the viewpoint of the settlers who formed the new state of Israel, particularly after the bloodbath and privations which followed the Arab uprising against the UN ruling that Israel had the right to be established 167 days later in in 1948.

I could accept the fact that, despite his precocious understanding, remarkable powers of observation and recall, there is no way much of the detail from his childhood, including his father’s definition of words, could not have been embellished or researched years later to verify the facts. As a twelve-year-old, did Amos really disrupt a speech to a large audience by Menachem Begin with his hysterical laughter over the leader’s unwise use of the word “arm” which had in Hebrew an embarrassing double meaning? Yet even if it contains a strong dose of “faction” at times, this novel has an undeniable authenticity when it comes to describing feelings and motivations.
I enjoyed some of the humorous moments, even if they highlighted his parents’ lack of understanding of their imaginative young son: fascinated by the carp kept in the bath until ready to be cooked, he tried to provide it with a bit of variety by filling the bath with “islands, straits, headlands and sandbanks” made from kitchen utensils, to be discovered by his bemused parents in a Buddha-like trance trying to see the world through the eyes of a fish.

The pace quickened in coverage of the years following the shock of his mother’s suicide, in which he was obliged to grow up quickly. His conflicting emotions of anger that she could have abandoned him, guilt that he must have been somehow to blame are conveyed with a moving, vivid power, yet the author has also identified the probable true causes, including the trauma of his mother being driven out of a once comfortable life in Ukraine, full of promise, forced to leave behind friends and relatives who perished in pogroms, and the disappointment of her narrow, impoverished life in Jerusalem, with a well-intentioned but insufferably tedious pedant of a husband. We see how the adolescent Amos “saw through” some of the prejudices of his social group, rejected both their reverence for Menachem Begin and the academic life which his father hoped he would follow and went off to join a kibbutz inhabited by the down-to-earth, muscular left-wing pioneers he had always admired. Here he was given food for thought by the older man who accepted sentry duty on the lookout for attacks from aggrieved Palestinians, while fully understanding their point of view over being dispossessed of their land.

I believe it would have been a greater work if more ruthlessly edited, but the author’s habit of circling a topic, analysing it, dropping it to return later, is all part of his attempt to return to a past he may not have considered for years and to make sense of it – essential aspects of good autobiography.

“A coup in Turkey” by Jeremy Seal: Repeating history

Since the decaying Ottoman Empire’s collapse after the First World War, Turkey has been dominated by autocratic, ambitious leaders with differing visions apart from a common penchant for grand infrastructure projects, from Kemal Atatürk’s creation of a new capital in Ankara, to Erdoğan’s airports, high-speed railways, and Çamlıca Mosque, the largest in Turkey, complete with art gallery, library, and a conference hall.

Travel writer Jeremy Seal has drawn on a deep knowledge and love of the country to focus on the long-forgotten decade of the 1950s in which the rise and fall of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes – Adnan Bey – reveals a good deal about the tensions which have led Turkey from Atatürk’s dream of a modern, progressive secular republic to the current reality of Erdoğan’s nominal democracy with revived support for Islam, probably reflecting the wishes of the majority, but which has also suppressed free speech and slipped into corruption.

A charismatic, successful cotton farmer, Menderes risked helping to found a new Democrat Party in the aftermath of the Second World War. Attacking an authoritarian Republican Party which had been Atatürk’s legacy, he asserted, “governments that do their work well have no reason to fear freedom of the press”. Gaining power as Prime Minister, Menderes prioritised improving the lives of villagers subjected to secular education when what they really needed was clean water, electricity and more productive farms. Although he was loved for “restoring to right-thinking religious folk the things they wanted, like mosques”, to paraphrase Erdoğan, who has followed his example, perhaps from the same desire to increase political support, the practical reforms unfortunately misfired. Imported steel ploughs led to soil erosion, and unrealistic price guarantees for wheat crops bankrupted the Treasury.

Menderes compounded his errors: relying on popular support to the detriment of Turkey’s “influencers”, academics, journalists and military leaders; arguably wasting money on vanity projects such as mosques; laying himself open to charges of immorality through his many affairs in Istanbul, neglecting his loyal wife. Under pressure, he sadly went the way of too many other politicians in becoming authoritarian. The last straw was the granting of special powers to seize the property and order the imprisonment of those who resisted the work of a commission set up to investigate the “destructive and illegal” activities of the rival Republican Party.

Although Atatürk had theoretically banned the army from involvement in politics, it conducted the 1960 coup in which Menderes and many other Democrats were imprisoned on an island prior to a prolonged trial of questionable legality, leading to his rushed execution in a bungled “compromise” in which most of the other death sentences were commuted in the face of international condemnation. Before imprisonment broke his health, Menderes insisted that he had been democratically elected, and was supported by the “National Will”. Certainly, he retained widespread support, although some must have been turned against him by the distortion of facts, such as the creation of “false martyrs” – claimed to have been massacred” during protests against his regime , but in fact killed by “failures of the army’s own safety practices”.

The author contrasts this with the failed coup of 2016 in which the “National Will” of public pressure in the streets helped to foil the attempted military takeover of the news media.

This novel has been widely praised and contains interesting information which should be better known. So why was I disappointed? Frequent digressions and anecdotes are no doubt intended to flesh out an appreciation of Turkish society, but combined with the continual dodging back and forth in time, they create a disjointed, even confusing effect. Imagined conversations at dramatic points prove stilted and jarring. In his evident sympathy for Menderes, Jeremy Seal may have let him off too lightly. For instance, did he really “secretly stoke a demonstration in Istanbul in favour of Turkish claims on Cyprus, to the point of instructing local police and military units “not to intervene” and was he “behind the Salonica bomb” explosion? I would have liked less on the Gatwick air crash he survived, and the grim details of his last days, and more analytical overview of the fascinating period which brought Turkey from Atatürk to the present situation.

“Les oubliées du dimanche” by Valérie Perrin: overwrought?

Twenty-something Justine and her younger cousin Jules, still studying for the “Bac”, have been brought up as siblings by their paternal grandparents following the horrific death of both their parents in a car crash. The trauma of this event may be what has reduced both Justine’s self esteem and ambition, leaving her content to work as a care assistant at “Les Hortensias”, the local old people’s home in her French village. Clearly full of empathy for the residents, Justine is particularly drawn to Hélène, who lives mostly in her imagination, on a Mediterranean beach with her long dead lover Julien, yet retains the ability to recount so many of her reminiscences that Justine is able to make a detailed record of her life. It is unclear how much of this she has embellished, but does it matter?

With the chapters switching between past and present, this often seems an overcomplicated tale. When Hélène and Lucien are separated by war, what keeps them apart and how will they be reunited? Their story has a dreamlike quality, larded with sentimentality and melodrama, without flinching from some grim events. The verging on magic realism in the form of Hélène’s guardian seagull, ever-present except when reassuringly absent looking out for Lucien, makes other implausible incidents seem par for the course.

The thread based on Justine and her family forms a more authentic psychological drama which I would like to have seen developed in greater depth to form a larger part of the story. This gradually takes on the character of a crime novel. A malicious caller keeps contacting the relatives of “les oubliées du dimanche” (residents whom they don’t bother to visit) with false notifications that the latter have just died – ironically a way of inducing the relatives to rush to the care home! Then Justine begins to realise that foul play may have been involved in the deaths of her and Jules’ parents.

The portrayal of the care home rings true, and there are insightful portraits of some characters, observed with flashes of wry humour. Others are two-dimensional, like Roman, Hélène’s grandson, an unnerving image of Lucien with his startling “blue” gaze, too often a parody of a woman’s magazine hero.

A screenwriter and photographer, the author is focused on portraying intense repressed emotions and strong visual images. Too much is stirred into the resulting brew. Although there are sections where the narrative drags, it is mostly a page turner by reason of creating the desire “to know what happens”, although as is too often the case the denouement proves unconvincing on several counts.

I read this in French for a book group, and the fulsome praise of most reviewers leaves me feeling too much of a cynic!

Les Années (The Years) by Annie Ernaux: An individual perspective on “collective” memory

This is an autobiography which aims to avoid “sentiment”: “The point is not to speak of the personal”. Instead, referring to herself in the third person, or writing collectively as “we”, Annie Ernaux adopts a fragmented approach which tends to distance the reader from her.

As implied by the choice of quotations at the outset, she is preoccupied with our insignificance in the scale of things – not only shall we be forgotten as individuals, but matters of great importance to us will seem trivial to our descendants, and our way of living may come to seem ludicrous, even blameworthy. This has become very topical since our materialist way of life, justified by “the need for growth” is now under criticism for destroying the planet for future generations.

Annie Ernaux’s attitude may explain her tendency to give more importance to fleeting, often banal memories than to major events in her life. The opening pages are a list of ephemeral images, some from before she was born, reflecting her insight that, influenced by our parents’ talk, we may have a kind of false memory of events which happened to other people in the past before we even existed. Many of the images are sordid or grim, and it would seem quite arbitrary – a woman urinating behind a café, the glimpse of a thalidomide victim with no arms. This sets from the outset a somewhat depressing, negative, joyless tone which is never fully dispelled.

She often seems more interested in the social history through which she has lived than in recounting the main events of her life. So, on one hand she writes a good deal about the impact of the 1968 riots, the social revolution resulting from the availability of the pill or the arrival of a consumer- driven society which also discarded the taboos and traditions which constrained our childhood until the 1960s. On the other, I never learned, for instance, whom she married, nor when and how the couple parted. She makes no allowance for the reader’s frustration if significant details are hinted at but kept hidden. She writes about a woman’s desire for divorce, mixed with fear of rupture and independence, in an abstract, generalised way. In just one poignant scene, which reveals complex feelings during what may be the last family holiday with her husband in Spain, she becomes an individual with whom one can sympathise, suggesting that a little more “sentiment” in the book would not have gone amiss.

I formed the impression of a bright girl from a narrow, working class background, who “escaped” via the encouragement of her teachers and a good education. However, breaking the taboos over sex outside marriage just a few years ahead of “the pill” and loosening of the abortion laws, she joined the ranks of those obliged to marry and start a family before they would have chosen to do so. She seemed dissatisfied with her lot as a teacher, perhaps because of her long-held desire to be a writer. Drawn to left-wing movements, uneasy over consumerism and the faceless development of new urban areas, Annie Ernaux nevertheless comes across as an “academic” socialist, actually rather contemptuous of workers in the unappealing new suburbs built for them, where she would never willingly set foot.

It is not her style to discuss explicitly her frustration over being diverted by family responsibilities from achieving the ambition to become an admired author. Instead, it is revealed when, oppressed by the annual ritual of the Christmas celebrations in which she now occupies the head of the table, she imagines the crazed action of overturning the table and screaming. Perhaps because she is a writer, a recurring theme is her panicked sense of only having one life, which she has allowed to slip by, without realising it: the living of her past life amounts to a book, but one that has not yet been written – until now.

I found the book hard-going at times. The repetition and lists of people and events are quite tedious and I was not familiar with many of the cultural references. It was fascinating to learn about, say, Ranucci, the last French citizen to be sentenced to death as recently as 1976 by guillotine, which seemed particularly barbaric and antiquated although it was originally seen as more humane than other methods, but the need to look things up continually fragmented the reading of an already disjointed text which rambles on for over two hundred and fifty pages in short sections with no chapters to form natural breaks.

Annie Ernaux has said: “This is the story of events and progress and everything that has changed in 60 years of an individual existence but transmitted through the “we” and “them”. The events in my book belong to everyone, to history, to sociology”.

Yet this approach only works if the events are clearly explained in context to those who did not experience them at the time, and may be ignorant of them now. Admittedly, those who can share her experiences may derive a nostalgic pleasure from being reminded of them.

Les Rêveurs (Dreamers) by Isabelle Carré: Stages of Life

Well-known award-winning French actress Isabelle Carré’s autobiography adopts a style which seems popular with French writers. It is fragmented and anecdotal, often putting more emphasis on minor rather than major incidents, fictionalising events without making it clear when this is the case. The author sometimes writes about herself in the third person, sometimes adopts the viewpoint of a third party to imagine or interpret the memory of an occurrence, even from before she was born.

So it is that she begins with a description of the unmarried pregnant teenager who turns out to be her mother. Forced to hide away alone in a Parisian flat by her hardhearted aristocratic parents, she refuses to hand the child over for adoption, and is “saved” by marriage to the young art student, son of a railway worker, who has become infatuated with her resemblance to a Fra Angelico madonna. This gives a flavour of an unorthodox upbringing in the 1970s, when conventions were breaking down anyway.

Isabelle Carré may devote a whole chapter to a stranger in the Metro who reminds her of someone she once knew, or to the behaviour of a family on the beach compared with her own, without ever explaining how she established herself as an actress, or whether she has a husband. This approach seems to stem from creative writing advice that it is better to select memories, rather than attempt to “cover everything”, since in childhood in particular, one’s impressions tend to be partial and subjective.

In interviews, she speaks of the importance she attaches to dreams, since real life without them can seem too “brutal”. She is fond of the image of one’s life as an iceberg, in which only a small part is visible. Another preoccupation is the eternal tantalising question of “what might have been”, inspiring her to play with a situation and develop it along a different path from what really happened. Yet in what is essentially an autobiography we are not told when this is the case.

French readers will no doubt gain a warm sense of nostalgia from the frequent cultural references. I found looking them up a good way of maintaining my interest in a narrative which often seemed quite tedious, despite some dramatic incidents. So it was that I discovered the “Les Neiges du Kilimanjaro”, rated one of the best French pop songs of the 1960s. The author’s tendency to express her feelings in snatches from past pop songs or quotations from plays became rather trying after a while, also giving the sense that she conceals herself behind the words of others, that is, forever acting.

Clearly a highly imaginative child, she injured her leg badly jumping out a window in an attempt to fly. Was the overdose which landed her in a psychiatric hospital aged fourteen, a result of “nature” or dysfunctional “nurture” or a mixture of the two?

Her mother seems clinically depressed, perhaps through a combination of her own mother’s neglect, living in an apartment with a red décor and large collections of African masks, and a husband who comes out as a homosexual when it is still barely legal. This culminates symbolically in his painting the outside of the front door with the naked figures of two men, running to freedom along a beach, which unsurprisingly arouses the neighbours’ wrath even more than his elder son’s loud piano-playing.

Isabelle seems to harbour resentment against her mother’s coldness and lack of maternal feeling, and show more of a rapport with her father with whom she chooses to live when her mother eventually insists that he leaves. Alone aged fifteen in the flat he buys her, holidaying with him in situations where she is the only female present with his gay friends, could have destabilised her further, but perhaps simply fed her versatility as an actress, finding consolation by immersing herself in acting out imaginary lives.

Following up the reference to her father’s design of a spherical record player used in a film starring Serge Gainsbourg, revealed that her father is the well-known French designer, Alain Carré. Since in later life he went on to run a successful company employing 90 people, one wonders how he reacted to her descriptions of his previous Walter Mitty-type loss-making projects, his quest for happiness with a male lover, his imprisonment for fraud, and subsequent alcoholism.

In interviews, Isabelle Carré appears somewhat intense, but charming, charismatic and humorous. Admitting that she wrote the book primarily for herself, is discussing it really just another role for her to play? Quoting a playwright she explains, “J’écris pour qu’on me rencontre”, but to what extent is this true? How much of her do we actually “meet”?

“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet: Winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction 2020 by [Maggie O'Farrell]

This is an original and inventive take on Shakespeare’s relations with his family, whom history has it lived in Stratford while he was for the most part working in London. The playwright is described as the father of Hamnet, the husband of Agnes (better known to us as Anne), the son of John: in never naming him as Shakespeare, Maggie O’Farrell creates the freedom to take all the dramatic licence she chooses to interpret his life.

The chapter alternates between two different periods of time. Firstly, we meet Hamnet, bright eleven-year-old with a tendency to daydream, in search of an adult to look after his frail twin sister Judith who has been taken ill suddenly. Then we are switched fifteen years or so back in time to his father, an unfulfilled youth, bullied by his father, a Stratford glove-maker who has lost his good reputation through shady deals. Forced to work as a Latin tutor to help pay his father’s debts, he becomes infatuated with Agnes, an intriguing older woman who flies a kestrel hawk and is skilled in the use of herbs to cure ailments. She in turn sees something remarkable in him, the dilemma being that he can only realise his talent as a playwright in London, a place where she cannot live, ostensibly because the plague-ridden capital is too risky for Judith’s fragile health, but in reality because Agnes is only at ease in a natural world of trees, wildlife and herbs.

This is essentially an exploration of the nature of grief and how people are affected by it, with Agnes the central character. Hamnet’s role is to be the source of that grief. The back cover blurb in the paperback edition reveals the boy’s fate, perhaps on the assumption that it is common knowledge that Shakespeare’s only son died, raising the tantalising question of whether, and if so how, this tragic fact led to the production of a play called Hamlet only a few years afterwards.

Some may find the slow pace and minute detail tedious at times – as in the description of the layout of John’s house in the opening chapter, but this serves to give strong visual images of a vividly imagined Elizabethan world, as lived by ordinary people, which must have involved a good deal of research. Similarly, the focus on Agnes’s psychic powers – her ability to divine so much about a person simply by pressing the muscle between thumb and forefinger – may not appeal. Ironically, when it comes to foreseeing the future for her twins, these powers let her down. Yet, combined with a style which is often reminiscent of a folktale, the supernatural element recreates a sense of the superstition which dominated people’s lives in Tudor times, in the absence of a scientific way of explaining their situation. The presence of ghosts is easier to imagine when death is so common, and all this chimes with the magical themes running through Shakespeare’s plays including of course the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

The style is often expressive and poetic, as in the case of Anne’s hawk as first seen by “Shakespeare”: “Its stance is hunched, shrugged as if assailed by rain”. Descriptions are complemented with sharp dialogues and thoughts which reveal rounded personalities: Agnes’s surprisingly supportive brother Bartholomew, her stroppy teenage daughter Susanna, her mother-in-law Mary with whom a mutual understanding grows despite their different natures – and moments of insight and humour in all the sadness.

My main reservation is that moving passages too often seem overwritten, although I feel guilty in saying this, after reading of the acute sickness and brushes with death which the author herself and her own children have suffered. I also found the contrast somewhat jarring between her “literary” passages and those with a child’s story book repetition and turn of phrase: “Three heavy knocks to the door…..boom, boom, boom”. Admittedly, when Anne’s husband returns home unexpectedly after a long absence, and “booms in his biggest, loudest voice” this reflects his other extrovert life on the stage of the London Globe.

Overall, it is an absorbing, thought-provoking read, with even the foreknowledge of the intolerable loss of an appealing child one wants to see survive made bearable in time by the reminder or realisation that inevitable sorrow and joy are inextricably linked in life, in which all things pass.

Along with “The Plague” by Camus, this is a timely book to read during or in the aftermath of a pandemic. Perhaps recent experiences make us more attuned to the feelings of past generations who had to live with a vulnerability to disease and untimely death which we thought we had overcome.