Ne Lâche pas ma Main – Don’t let go

This is my review of Ne Lâche pas ma Main by Michel Bussi.

On holiday in the French tropical paradise of Réunion, Liane Bellion disappears from her hotel room, leaving only evidence of a struggle. As the damning evidence against him mounts, her husband Martial decides to go on the run with the couple’s pampered but bright six-year-old daughter Sopha. This being a novel by Michel Bussi, Martial is unlikely to have murdered his wife, but is unable to prove his innocence, plus he could well have committed some other crime, or be about to do so.

In the same vein as Bussi’s excellent “Nymphéas noirs”, this novel has a remarkably convoluted plot in which the reader can be sure of nothing, except that the author is capable of switching from corny mawkishness to moments of brutal violence or tragic fate from which no character may be spared. Once again, he develops a strong sense of place, in this case a volcanic island with some striking landscapes of deep craters, lava fields encroaching on fields of sugar cane and palm-fringed beaches, scenic tourist spots, which he describes in detail along with the local vegetation and birdlife – all of which can be checked on google images. Even the route Martial takes can be located on “street view”, and the Hotel Alamanda at Saint-Gilles-les-Bains exists in reality.

Bussi also fleshes the story out with details of the social background: the Créoles, descendants of slaves and still exploited as cheap labour in the hotels, the Zarabes, muslims of Indian origin like the driven police officer, Captain Aja Purvi, and the Zoreilles, the “top dogs” from the French mainland.

This is a page-turner until the accumulation of implausible plot twists becomes too much to swallow and by then it is too late to give up. There is also the odd dud scene, such as the clunky debate on the effects of rum on the local population conducted by the hypocritical drinking mates of unlikely police lieutenant Christos. Even more toe-curling are the sex scenes with his voluptuous lover Imelda.

Most of the characters seem somewhat overdrawn: ageing hippy Christos, with his grey pony-tail, smoking pot he has confiscated from Imelda’s borderline-criminal teenage son Nazir; Imelda herself, a Creole Miss Marple to out-class the detectives, but not wise enough to avoid having five children by different feckless men, nor keep clear of danger in her sleuthing; Aja Purvi, humourless in her single-minded ambition, throwing the furniture round in bursts of unprofessional frustration, exploiting her long-suffering husband’s seemingly inexhaustible good will as he somehow combines a teaching career with caring for their two daughters.

The slightly jokey tone perhaps makes one take the occasional bloody murder too lightly. The strongest aspect of the book is the creation of a sense of tension as Martial and Sopha maintain their freedom against the odds. The only subtle relationship in the book is the complex bond between the two as Martial tries to connect with the daughter whose care has always been provided by his overprotective wife, with the constant nagging suggestion that Martial may in fact be even more of a monster than the police believe.

This reads best in the original French and proves a good source of vocabulary for a foreign reader. For the reasons given above, it is not as effective as “Nymphéas noirs”.

Des Hommes – The Cost of Denying the Past

This is my review of  Des Hommes by Laurent Mauvignier.

Of all the novels on the fraught topic of the struggle for Algerian independence from France, this is unusual in its focus on the trauma of young men sent out to fight a colonial war without understanding the situation into which they were thrown and unprepared for the violence they were about to witness and perpetrate. The English title of “The Wound” for this novel, to be found in the opening quotation from Genet (“As for your wound, where is it?……”) seems more apt than the original one of “Des Hommes” (“Men”) in that it suggests the long-term mental injury they suffered, but were often unable to relieve by talking about it. Perhaps they felt instinctively that those who had not shared their experiences would never understand, or they repressed memories too shameful, painful or shocking to express, or simply lacked the words to confide in others. Yet “Des Hommes” is also a meaningful title in conveying how a group of males may tend to interact, responding to an attack with aggression, also using it as a means of avoiding expressing emotion.

Starting with “afternoon”, this novel covers a twenty-four hour period split into four sections, but also makes extensive use of flashbacks and recollections to reveal the lives of two cousins from a rural French community: Bernard, nick-named “Feu-de-Bois”, a dishevelled alcoholic who sponges off his long-suffering sister Solange, and Rabut who narrates parts of the story. Both in their sixties, the cousins were called up to fight in Algeria in the early ‘60s, but have never spoken about this part of their lives which clearly haunts them both. For Rabut, Algeria has an unreal dreamlike quality, alien and exotic in its sunshine, scenery and Arab culture, shocking in the incidents of brutality.

The fragmented, stream of consciousness style can be very powerful, but also hard to follow, particularly if one is reading it in the original French as a foreigner. The opening pages are particularly obscure as we see Feu-de-Bois antagonising his whole family by a particularly crass action, before “going off the rails” in what seems like a racist attack. Rabut seems to have some empathy with his cousin, yet it becomes apparent that there is also a deep-seated hostility between the two men. The explanation for all this is gradually revealed in an impressionistic novel with a strong sense of place – one can see the fields in the snow versus the desert barracks – , minute descriptions of physical sensations, snatches of dialogue and intense action, or sharp flashes of insight in all the bleak obliqueness.

I found it necessary to read up some background history to understand the book better, and some aspects could have been developed more fully, like the invidious position of the Harkis, native Muslims who volunteered as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War. Yet perhaps Mauvignier is more interested in the feelings aroused by a colonial war in which one does not have a stake, rather than the details of the Algerian conflict in particular. This is likely to be a novel which divides opinion over its distinctive style, unusual structure and inconclusive plot. It repays rereading, is somehow absorbing without being a conventional page-turner, but certainly gives food for thought over the psychological impact of the Algerian War, particularly on individuals, ordinary French people caught up in it.

Le Premier Homme

This is my review of  “Le Premier Homme” by Albert Camus .

When forty-year-old Jacques visits his father’s grave, he is taken aback by the realisation that he was only twenty-nine, far younger than his son is now, when killed in the First World War. The compulsion to find out more about his father takes Jacques back to Algiers where he was brought up, but the visit fails to provide many clues as to what his parent was really like. Jacques realises that he will never know his father, who will remain a mystery resulting from his poverty, being one of the anonymous masses despatched in waves to develop North African territory between the sea and the vast expanses of desert. So Jacques must be self-sufficient, “le premier homme”, learning to grow up without a sense of roots and recollections from the past.

The book develops as a moving account of Jacques’ childhood in a close-knit but impoverished family, starved of opportunity, lacking books, newspapers, even a radio, too busy in the struggle to survive to communicate much or reflect life. He craves the affection of his widowed mother who is clearly proud of him, but cannot express her emotions. Isolated by her deafness and illiteracy which means she can only earn a living as a cleaner and washerwoman, the nearest she gets to escape is to sit by the window, watching the world go by. A brief attempt at romance is destroyed when her brother beats up the suitor who threatens the family unit. Jacques’ formidable grandmother’s belief in character- building includes sending him out at the night to catch a chicken in the coop before forcing him to watch its execution. At thirteen, he is denied the pleasures of roaming free in his summer holidays by her insistence on his earning money in the accounts office of a hardware store.

At first I was disappointed to find that this fictionalised autobiography of Albert Camus, in which he sometimes reverts to the characters’ original names, is incomplete – an unedited stream of conscience found at the scene of his fatal car crash, a draft which so dissatisfied him that he intended to burn it. My initial impressions were of a disjointed, often banal and indigestible read, with long sentences in interminable paragraphs of I counted up to eight pages.

I became hooked at the point where Jacques is taken under the wing of primary school teacher M. Bernard, the father figure when he needed one, who sees the boy’s potential and goes out of his way to prepare him for the entrance exam for the lycée, his escape route from a life of grinding poverty, not to mention charming the boy’s grandmother into letting him continue his studies when he could be contributing to the family’s meagre earnings. It is fascinating to see how schools have changed: overhearing Jacques called a “teacher’s pet”, M.Bernard readily admits this, announcing it is the least he can do for comrades killed in the war to favour one of their deserving offspring. When, as honour among pupils requires, Jacques beats up the boy who has mocked him, and the parents complain, Jacques is mortified to be forced to stand in the corner of the school yard for a week with his back to the ball games he loves. M. Bernard sidles up and gives him permission to look across to where the other boy is being punished in the same way.

There are wonderful descriptions of the oppressive, prolonged heat of Algiers in the long summer months, suggesting the germ of the idea for “L’Étranger”, or the joys of childhood, as when Jacques brandishes a palm branch to revel in the feeling of the wind vibrating through his body. A recurring background theme is the effect of colonisation where a centralised French cultural curriculum is imposed without any concessions, together with the uneasy relationship between Arabs and residents of French origin. Also, Jacques’ intense introspection, examining issues from all angles foreshadows Camus’s philosophical writing in later life, as in “La Chute”. In short, this book is not only a vivid portrayal of the life of a bright but emotionally repressed boy in a poverty-stricken but close-knit family, but also a key to the literary works which brought the author fame and criticism.

It repays rereading to tease out the mass of insights and ideas. Invaluable for any student of Camus and his work, the power of its spontaneous flow compensates to some extent for the lack of editing.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying: Look back in anger 1930s style

This is my review of  “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” by George Orwell

Since history repeats itself, Orwell’s caustic parody of capitalism in 1930s London still seems remarkably relevant in our post-financial crisis, commercially manipulative world of making people want things and often paying them too little to produce them.

Orwell’s anti-hero Gordon Comstock is not just trying to escape the clutches of what he calls “the money god” but is also a mouthpiece for the author’s own pet hats and self-doubt over his ability to succeed as a writer. In the first chapter which could stand as a short story in this own right, Gordon painfully perfects the first verse of a poem during a boring shift in a bookshop, in between raging at the adverts in the street which remind him of the better paid job in copywriting which he has abandoned on principle to get out of what he regards as a corrupt system. He despises most books on sale for being “turned out by wretched hacks at the rate of four a year, as mechanically as sausages and with much less skill.” With only twopence halfpenny left until the end of the week, not enough for the cigarettes he needs – like Orwell? – to be able to write, he is beginning to realise that “you do not escape from money by being moneyless. On the contrary, you are the hopeless slave of money until you have enough of it to live on”.

Gordon is frankly rather tedious and unlikeable in his negative view of the world and borderline mentally ill in his desire “to lose himself in smoke-dim slums of South London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness… great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal.” Yet it is revealing to be transported back to the 1930s, beginning to emerge from a deep Depression, with the poignant wisdom of hindsight that the destructive war which Gordon claims to welcome is in fact imminent.

People tolerate appalling bedsits with repressive landladies, but expect to receive in the evenings letters posted earlier in the day. It’s a remarkably cheap world to modern eyes, where Gordon can take his girlfriend Rosemary on a trip to the country for only fourteen shillings (seventy pence). But it’s also riddled with social divides and casually-voiced prejudices that make us wince: Gordon comes from one of “those depressing families, so common among the middle-middle class, in which nothing ever happens”; his landlady is obsessed with “mingy lower-middle-class decency”; a poverty-stricken old couple, in a society with no proper pension system, are “the throw-outs of the money-god. All over London, by tens of thousands, draggled old beasts of that description: creeping like unclean beetles to the grave”.

Gordon’s upper class friend Ravelston is unusual that “in every moment of his life” he is “apologizing, tacitly, for the largeness of his income” but still adores his girlfriend Hermione who remarks, “Don’t talk to me about the lower classes….. I hate them. They smell”. As narrator, Orwell often seems guilty of unconscious flashes of snobbery and prejudice – anti-semitic comments or cruelly amusing descriptions of a dwarf, but all this seems part of what was acceptable at the time. Ironically, advertising of specific brands, mention of real people or companies and “alleged obscenities” all had to be edited out at the last minute, leading Orwell to resist reprinting of a book he felt had been “garbled”.

There is in fact a good deal of humour in the book, not least in the aspidistras, symbols of “lower class decency” which refuse all Gordon’s efforts to kill them off. When Gordon stops moaning there are some striking descriptions: “the mist-dimmed hedges wore that strange purplish brown, the colour of brown madder, that naked brushwood takes on in winter.”

Apart from hoping that the likeable Ravelston and Rosemary might “get together”, there is the impetus to find out whether the book will end in tragedy or something will make Gordon surrender to “the money-code”.

The Dawn Watch: When fiction trumps history?

This is my review of The Dawn Watch by Maya Jasanoff.

Beneath Maya Jasanoff’s breezy style, stuffing cash into her shoes for safety as she retraces Joseph Conrad’s route along the River Congo, lies a perceptive portrayal of “what made the writer tick”, although of course we can never really know. She succeeds in distilling from clearly thorough research a telling selection of incidents, quotations, and her own insightful conclusions in a biography of only 315 pages, rather than the ever more frequent 800 plus page doorstopper.

It is unnecessary to have read much Conrad to be fascinated by him: the author admits to having struggled to read what some regard as his work of genius, “Nostromo”, and what most struck me when first reading Conrad is his remarkably fluent grasp of the English language, which he only began to learn when he went to sea as a young man.

What is really interesting about Conrad is his acute observation of human nature in a changing world where the romantic hardship of sail was giving way to the more profitable transport by steam, while European powers and the United States vied for control of resources in “less developed” areas, bringing the hell of exploitation, destruction and corruption with their good intentions to establish Christian culture, education, law and order. Maya Jasanoff finds in his life and fiction, “a history of globalisation seen from the inside out”, a grappling with “the ramifications of living in a global world”.

Conrad’s cynical, questioning approach must have been shaped by the hardship of early childhood in the exile to which his Polish parents, members of the landed gentry, were sentenced for his idealistic and unworldly father’s political activism against Russian domination. Yet it was typical of Conrad’s contradictions that years later he refused to sign the petition against the execution of his onetime colleague the Irishman Roger Casement for his part in the Easter Rising: “by emotional force he has made his way and sheer emotionalism has undone him”.

Being orphaned very young, a solitary only child with no stable home, may have triggered Conrad’s wanderlust, the desire to get as far possible from landlocked eastern Europe onto the open sea. Perhaps because his father had been a writer who taught him reams of patriotic Polish poetry, he developed the motivation to jot down stories about places “beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines”…”among human outcasts such as one finds in the lost corners of the world”.

Since Maya Jasanoff is a historian rather than a literary biographer, her main interest is in how he dealt with “the moral and material impact of dislocation, the tension and opportunity of multi-ethnic societies, the disruption wrought by technical change”, with only passing reference to his writing style or any real literary evaluation of his work. Two interesting maps, which could have been superimposed, show the clear overlap between the far-flung countries he visited as a seaman and the settings for his novels: five months spent as captain of a steamship on the Congo inspired “Heart of Darkness”; service as first mate of the steamer Vidar plying between the ports of Borneo and Sulawesi led to “Lord Jim”. Yet, “Nostromo”, set in the imaginary South American republic of Costaguano, was based totally on the knowledge of an obliging friend.

Conrad was a man of strong opinions: although his son only once saw him pray over his own father’s grave, Conrad believed that “even the freest” is to some degree hemmed in by “fate”. Sickened by the fact that his later work, which he regarded as “second rate efforts”, which are no longer read, earned him so much more than such works as “Heart of Darkness”, he refused honorary degrees or a knighthood, but would have valued the reward of the international Nobel Prize, which was never offered. Even his humour was caustic: in his final years of belated fame after years of struggling as a writer, he remarked that Esperanto was “a monstrous jargon” but people could translate his work into it if they so wished.

Despite the earnest bleakness of much of his work, his periods of depression as a struggling middle-aged writer and his frequent illnesses, he clearly possessed a charm which drew a wide circle of friends, including well-known authors. After years of desultory flirting on shore-leave with attractive, highly respectable young women, and an intriguing correspondence with a widowed aunt only a few years his senior, he married a “to tell the truth rather plain” teenage typist called Jessie, perhaps as ever shrewdly realising how she could support him on a practical and emotional level – yet he clearly developed a strong affection for her to the end.

Minor criticisms: most of the historical maps included are too small-scale to be legible, the evocative photos embedded in the text would have been better if larger. Maya Jasanoff’s long, somewhat clunky resumés of Conrad’s better known works seem like padding, questionable since they include too many “spoilers” for those wishing to go on to read them. Although the chapters are mainly in chronological order, the thematic approach fragments Conrad’s life story so that a time-line would be useful. Despite all these reservations, this is an absorbing and very readable treatment of a complex and interesting man, flawed yet impressive.


Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived Loved and Died in the 1940s – Less would be more

This is my review of Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba.

Although much has been written about France under German occupation in the 1940s, “Les Parisiennes” takes a fresh angle on how women in particular were affected, describing the part they played in resistance, collaboration, or simply “getting on with life”.

The book is thoroughly researched with a six page “cast of characters” at the front, detailed notes on each chapter and an extensive bibliography at the end. However, I felt bludgeoned by the unrelenting spate of prose, since the basically chronological approach not only flits breathlessly between characters, but keeps digressing into a flood of often gossipy and gushing details or condensed potted biographies which seem of only marginal relevance.

Perhaps inevitably in view of the author’s interest in fashion, there is a clear preoccupation with the wealthy and glamorous who could afford to patronise the fashion houses which managed to flourish under Nazi rule. I suppose it is mildly interesting that gas mask holders were made into fashion items (but for how many women?) or that designer clothes had to be purchased under a “couture ration card” system with Balenciaga forced to close for exceeding the quota of seventy-five outfits (a year?) imposed to ration the amount of fabric used. It is made to sound like “a good thing” that of the 20,000 passes issued to attend fashion shows during the Occupation, only 200 were given to the wives of German officers, but weren’t the French women who attended to some extent collaborating? There is too much emphasis on people having a good time when for others basic food was in short supply and Jews were being dragged off by French police to the Vel d’Hiv (Vélodrome d’Hiver) en route for concentration camps. Also, can one really believe the example of so called “refugee-chic” in the tale of a woman fleeing from the fall of Paris who left her vehicle in search of petrol to remove the nail varnish which did not match the colour of her hat? Wouldn’t she have worried more about the smell and risk of catching fire?

The effect of this emphasis on celebrities and the privileged, is to trivialise events and create a sense of unease over being compromised oneself as a reader. In just one paragraph, we are told how “by the end of the forties”, the Marshall Plan had improved conditions, but not exactly how, except that a New Yorker journalist’s “Parisian friends had stopped griping about the black market (which they could presumably afford).. but are back to discussing passionately….the heady mysteries of La Grande Cuisine which, next to women, has always been their favourite topic of conversation”. The paragraph ends as follows. “Not only were the Parisians eating well again, but Wallis, Duchess of Windsor and her friends were buying jewels and couture clothes once more.”

If this book is best read by “dipping in and out”, there is the danger of missing some of the best passages, as in the chapter “Paris Returns” on the immediate aftermath of war, which actually includes some analysis, such as whether the death penalty was too harsh for the anti-semitic literary critic Brassilach (who gets very little mention elsewhere in the book, much less than Wallis Simpson). Simone De Beauvoir supported the punishment, perhaps swayed by De Gaulle’s view that “in literature as in everything, talent confers responsibility” but Anne Sebba points out with uncharacteristic tartness that De Beauvoir was also complicit, having claimed to be an anti-Nazi whilst eating well because her lover’s mother Jean-Paul Sartre took pains to obtain the best black-market foods. There is effective coverage on the practical problems of returning from the hell of the concentration camps and the guilt of those who came back alive: as a memoir recalled seventy years later, “”to survive it was necessary to destroy memory”. The author also considers the complicated relationship between the women who risked their lives in the resistance and were later rewarded as heroines, and those like the equally courageous Simone Veil who felt great bitterness over the lack of recognition of her suffering as a victim, deported to the camps.

Yet overall I was disappointed by the oppressive weight of excessive detail and too often superficial approach to a potentially fascinating subject matter – but the photographs are evocative.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars


Love in a Cold Climate – “Having our lovely cake and eating it too”

This is my review of Love in a Cold Climate (Penguin Modern Classics) by Nancy Mitford.

Nancy Mitford applied a sharp wit and first-hand experience of eccentric aristocrats to this well-known parody of upper class life. Palmed off on upper class aunts and uncles who have “relieved” her “divorced parents of the boredom and the burden of bringing up a child”, narrator Fanny recalls the quirky conversations and unperceived bubble of inter-war privilege in which they float She is preoccupied with the lovely Polly, daughter of the caricature of an earl, Lord Montdore, who, in his ageing ineffectiveness “might just as well have been made of wonderful old cardboard, and his wife, whose “worldly greed and snobbishness, her terrible relentless rudeness..formed the subject of many a legendary tale”. Expected to make a great marriage, Polly’s total lack of interest in any eligible suitors puzzles Fanny and drives Lady Montdore to despair which turns to rage when she discovers the true object of her daughter’s affection.

Many readers still appear to find this book highly entertaining, a harmless piece of escapism, although it is likely to seem dated to younger readers. Opinions will differ as to what is most amusing in Fanny’s inexhaustible gushing flow. I laughed over the ludicrous digression into “the Chubb Fuddler”. “He came. He walked along the river bank, and sowed upon its waters some magic seed, which soon bore magic fruit, for up to the surface, flapping swooning, fainting, choking, thoroughly and undoubtedly fuddled, came hundreds upon hundreds of chubb, The entire male population of the village… fell upon the fish….and the contents were taken off to be used as manure for cottage gardens or chubb pie, according to taste”.

There is a gossipy bitchiness which I disliked, such as the description of Lady Montdore’s curtsies which “owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind” as she “scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost like a cow, a strange performance….her knees crackled like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly”. Descriptions of the formal socialising are quite tedious as it may well have been in reality, as when, for instance, everyone waits for the guests of honour at a dinner party, “a very grand Sir and Ma’am indeed” ,which can only be trite code for royalty.

In the current climate of concern over sexual harassment, some passages may reflect Nancy Mitford’s times, but arouse a sense of unease: it seems to be common knowledge that Polly’s uncle, “the Lecherous Lecturer” preys on his young female relatives, but everyone turns a blind eye. Nancy’s precocious cousin Jassy says, “The fascinating thing was that after the lecture he gave us a foretaste of sex, think what a thrill. He took Linda up on to the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her, at least, she could easily see how it would be blissful with anybody except the lecturer. And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing.”

Many of the characters seem to be caricatures of the author’s relatives and acquaintances, living in a world of froth, with no real emotion beneath brittle, articulate facades as they drift to an abrupt, contrived and somewhat unsatisfactory ending.. The most extreme example of this is the male heir to Lord Montdore’s Hampton property, the Canadian Cedric, who hales from Nova Scotia –clearly Nancy Mitford’s idea of the back of beyond, who turns out to be a highly manipulative, flamboyant gay, apparently modelled on the famously decadent socialite Stephen Tennant, one of the “Bright Young Things” along with the Mitford sisters.

Obliged to finish this for a book group, I was resentful over the time diverted from a more worthwhile read. In yet another case of truth being better than fiction, I would have preferred an intriguing biography of the Mitfords and their circle.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars