Article 353 du Code Pénal” by Tanguy Viel: Utter conviction (Article 353 in English Translation)

Despite its dry title, this short, unusual novel is a riveting masterpiece.

Under French law, a suspect in initially examined by a “juge d’instruction”, who gathers and evaluates the evidence to decide if it is sufficient to go to a trial. In this case, how can the suspect’s guilt be in doubt? We know from the outset that the narrator Martial Kermeur has pushed his unsuspecting companion Antoine Lazenec overboard during a fishing trip on the latter’s boat, left him to drown and calmly submitted to police arrest, thinking how he would have committed the action anyway, even if the police had been watching him at the time.

Closeted together for several hours, Kermeur recounts slowly to the judge , in great detail how he came to meet the flamboyant property developer Lazenec, and be ruined by him, alongside others in the remote, economically depressed community on the Brittany coast. Kermeur seems to have suffered a tidal wave of misfortune (there being many references to the sea): he has been made redundant, his wife has left him and, manipulated by the wily and ruthless Lazenec, in a foolish moment of pride Kermeur invests his redundancy money in Lazenec’s ambitious scheme to demolish the local chateau and convert the grounds into a holiday resort. When the scheme fails to materialise, Kermeur is left destitute and ashamed in the presence of his young son Erwan, who has always looked up to him.

This is not only a detailed psychological study of the interplay between the main characters, in which the details are skilfully revealed and the tension ratchetted up but also a vivid and moving portrait of a tight-knit community under pressure. Tanguy Viel presents Kermeur’s thoughts in a kind of stream of consciousness, often going off at a tangent, but very expressive. Kermeur often seems simple and garrulous, but he is also sensitive and perceptive, with a wry humour. He does stupid or unwise things, including a serious crime, and yet he arouses one’s sympathy. Justice must be applied to him, but in what form? Is the judge’s final decision justifiable?

Highly recommended for a good read and an interesting discussion. This is definitely best read in the original French, but I understand that the English translation by is good.

“Les Années” or “The Years” by Annie Ernaux: an individual take 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.

“Love is Blind” by William Boyd – a little off-key

When Ainsley Channon finds that his son is not unexpectedly making a hash of running the Paris branch of his piano manufacturing and sales company, he sends his protégé, young Scottish piano-tuner Brodie Moncur to use his initiative to improve business. In the process, Brodie becomes infatuated with Lika, a beautiful Russian aspiring opera singer. Their relationship has to be conducted in secret, since she is the mistress of the once celebrated but now physically declining and alcoholic pianist John Kilbarron. From the outset it seems doomed to fail, owing not only to Kilbarron’s jealous and unstable character but also the menacing presence of his “minder” brother Malachi, who may have designs on, even some hold over Lika as well.

It was never quite clear to me why Brodie loves Lika so much, in what seems like a purely physical relationship. She seems dull and devious, dragging Brodie down the same path, changing him from a purposeful, outgoing individual into a passive, moping drifter with his life on hold – but of course, as the title states, “Love is Blind”. Admittedly, Brodie has occasional insights, such as the fact that being in love does not guarantee happiness, while we can never truly know another person, even when there is supposedly mutual love.

I was disappointed by some aspects of the early chapters. The book opens with a detailed description of how to tune a piano, which made little sense to me in the absence of a labelled diagram or two, clearly out of place in a novel. It read like a piece of research conducted to give the story authenticity, but dumped rather clunkily into the text. Then there are the potentially interesting situations which do not lead anywhere, such as Brodie’s visit to the family home, where his widowed father “Malky” dominates eight of his children into adulthood, reserving particular venom for Brodie, the only one to have escaped so far. A charismatic preacher in public, Malcolm Moncur degenerates somewhat implausibly into a gross, drunken bully behind the scenes. Like too many of the characters, he comes across as a caricature. It is never clear why he detests Brodie so much. Is there any significance in the fact that he is so dark compared to his siblings?

The pace is slow as if an essentially thin plot is being padded out, until the novel reaches a dramatic climax at the end of Part 3, two-thirds of the way through. After this, the tension is more sustained, and some past threads are pulled together more, to reach a passably satisfactory ending.

With its varied locations, from Scotland to Russia and the remote Andaman Islands, and the extensive cast of characters, this is an original if rambling take on a well-worn romantic theme but it did not really move or engage me, although many critics and general readers have clearly found it entertaining and engrossing.

“Sea of Poppies” by Amitov Ghosh – cast out on the Black Water

The first book in the “Ibis” trilogy, named after the sailing ship which is the setting for some of the action, “Sea of Poppies” focuses on the C19 opium trade operated by the ruthless East India Company. It begins in rural India, where Deeti struggles to make a living from the poppy harvest which has replaced the crops which at least guaranteed a level of self-suffciency. She is resigned to marriage with a man who has become addicted to opium to ease the pain of his wounds, gained in fighting for the British colonialists. The fact he is employed in an opium factory does not help.
At the other end of the social scale is Neel, the unimaginably privileged native landowner, so complacent in his sense of entitlement that he has allowed himself to be trapped into debt by the hard-nosed employee of the East India Company, Mr Burnham. Aided by his eccentric Indian agent Baboo, Burnham is prepared to do whatever is necessary to gain full control of Neel’s lands.

Flitting between an at times confusing horde of characters, some larger than life and stereotyped, reminiscent of a Dickensian novel, the storylines gradually merge to bring the main players together on the Ibis, a converted former slave ship, which is scheduled to transport a group of criminals and unlucky migrants rejected by their families to provide cheap labour for the East India Company.

One of the most likeable and straightforward characters is Zackary Reid, the American carpenter-turned-sailor who, being the son of a slave girl and the master who freed them both, has a natural sympathy for some of the disadvantaged Indians he encounters. Another is Paulette, the spirited and frankly quite devious daughter of a deceased European botanist.

There is a good deal of humour, often somewhat heavy-handed, along with considerable violence and degradation. Despite the frequently implausible, exaggerated to the point of ludicrous events, with people on the brink of death miraculously saved, the novel provides vivid descriptions and creates a strong awareness of the nature and implications of the opium trade, and the attitudes and values of the various parties concerned. For instance, with the risk of an imminent war between Britain and China, Burnham, despite claiming to be a devout Christian, has no understanding of why Chinese rulers might wish to end an exploitative trade which is wreaking havoc on their population, and is over-confident that the conflict will be short-lived.

His Indian roots may make it easier for the author to identify with and portray a period perhaps understandably neglected by western writers. He has certainly undertaken an impressive amount of research on every aspect of the story, including opium manufacture and the operation of sailing ships. A downside of all this is that the presumably authentic language used by, for instance the Lascar and British sailors or even Burnham’s wife is so peppered with native language, jargon or slang as to be virtually incomprehensible at times. I found this very distracting, and would have liked a glossary, together with a map and list of characters for quick reference.

I do not mind the abrupt ending of the story, clearly akin to a cliff-hanger to encourage us to read on, although the novel could be regarded as free-standing, leaving one to imagine “what happens next”. However, for the time being, I do not feel sufficiently engaged to read the rest of the trilogy, I think mainly because I find some of the drama needlessly overdone.

The Body Lies by Jo Baker – “When the trick is to make the whole thing up and still to tell the truth”

The Body Lies by [Baker, Jo]In this slow-building psychological thriller, a young creative writing lecturer discovers to her cost that she has become the obsessive focus of her most talented student Nicholas Palmer’s work, with the risk that he may move from “merely” recording his close observation of her, intrusive as that is, to actively manipulating her to fit his story, in his belief that, to be authentic, writing must be based on real experience.

It is also a study of how, even in these days of increased equality, men continue to dominate and exploit women in a number of ways, often without being aware of it. It was not until after I finished the book that I realised the writer who narrates this novel is never named, perhaps with the aim of making her a kind of microcosm of women’s lives in general.

At the outset, pregnant and walking home from work in London one dark evening, this young woman is mugged by a stranger, and makes her injuries worse by trying to resist. Three years later, she is still sufficiently traumatised to seize the opportunity to escape in the form of a lecturing post in a northern university, offered on the strength of her success in publishing a novel.

It is perhaps implausible that she should choose to rent an isolated country cottage a bus ride from the campus, or that she should so readily leave her husband behind to continue with his school post until the end of the year, expecting him to make regular week-end commutes to visit her. Of course, these factors are necessary to the plot.

With what some readers have described as irritating passivity, she takes on a mountainous workload, not appearing to have learnt the knack of “saying no”. The boss responsible for this is supposed to be her mentor, doubly ironical in view of the fact he seems perpetually on the brink of sexually harassing her.

I am not sure to what extent Jo Baker is trying to be facetious, but she neatly debunks some recent attempts to ensure equality and respect in academic life. The disruptive student Nicholas objects to the failure to issue a “trigger warning” before a fellow-student’s description of a crime scene. Yet his own writing is far darker and more sinister, bearing in mind that he claims only to write “what happened…the truth”. Also, isn’t it a contradiction in terms to apply censorship to a creative writing course?

Since finishing this I made a start on “A Country Road, a Tree” and realised that Jo Baker is a writer who seeks to avoid any kind of “typecasting”, but rather to create a different style and theme in each work. Comparisons between her books are therefore hard, but “The Body Lies” suggests she has developed in marshalling her material and honing her style. There may be the odd inconsistency in the sequence of events, the skilfully constructed sense of menace may peter out into the damp squib of a somewhat trite ending, and there may not be any very profound fresh insights into the female condition, but she has produced a well-written and neatly plotted page-turner, via a wry parody of the current state of academic life.

Galileo Watcher of the Skies – obscured somewhat by the fog of academia

Galileo: Watcher of the Skies by [Wootton, David]My fascination with Galileo, the brilliant thinker who was eventually gagged by a bigoted Inquisition, was fed by Michael White’s absorbing biography, “Galileo Antichrist”. Although very strong on childhood influences, personality, dealings with friends and family, his inventions and the tortuous path by which he fell foul of the priests pulling the strings behind an insecure and neurotic Pope, the biography seemed a little thin on the all-important scientific theories to do with motion and astronomy, and to have gone too far into trying to make ideas accessible by “dumbing down” the details.

In seeking out David Wootton’s much denser and more academic work, I got both more and less than I bargained for. Following an essentially chronological but more thematic approach, the author devotes lengthy passages to, for instance, experiments dealing with specific gravity, the physics of the motion of falling objects, or mathematical calculations to evaluate the respective merits of the theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy versus the more “heretical” Copernicus, and “fudged” Tycho Brahe. My lack of basic scientific knowledge made it hard for me to understand some of the author’s explanations and arguments, but I also suspected that, himself a historian, he may have strayed out of his own comfort zone. He certainly seems to make things overly complicated and long-winded.

Despite many examples of Galileo conducting practical experiments, Wootton is at pains to stress that these were mainly to demonstrate the truth of his real love, abstract theories, which is what led him to mathematics. Although he sometimes seemed too arrogantly confident, or perhaps simply busy, to put a theory to the test, he seems to me to have combined the two approaches, so that to suggest otherwise is hair-splitting. How could Galileo have done otherwise at a time when the words “experiment” and “scientist” were not used, and it was common for inquisitive thinkers to be polymaths.

Wootton concedes the limitations placed on historical research by the loss and corruption of data. So, we learn that much of the writing from Galileo’s most fertile period of invention was used by a butcher to wrap meat, or sold off as scrap paper. Similarly, his former student Viviani, who did so much to foster a positive legacy for Galileo, was not above fabricating appealing myths, such as the claim that he devised “the law of the pendulum” from observing the swinging of a lamp in Pisa Cathedral. However, in the absence of hard evidence, Wootton seems to me to indulge in too much academic conjecture as to, for example, the extent to which Galileo was a Catholic or even a Christian. For a man born in 1564, I see no contradiction in the fact that he, with unconscious male chauvinism, sent his two daughters to be nuns, that he paid lip service to Catholic belief when there was an Inquisition actively engaged in torturing and executing alleged heretics, but was dedicated to the pursuit of scientific enquiry which some Jesuits themselves pursued, yet could not deny what his reason told him to be true, unless his own life was at risk.

Not until two-thirds of the way through does Wootton state that his “primary purpose is to provide an intellectual biography of one of the world’s greatest scientists-to reconstruct the development of his ideas over time”. At the same time, he observes that, ”Amongst professional historians, biography is not an intellectually respectable genre”. He then makes what seems like a self-evident case for what he calls “a characterological approach to biography” to enable us to understand the study of scientific progress and cultural change, fitting themes for a historian, it would seem. This line of argument appears unnecessarily tortuous. However it explains why Wootton glosses over Galileo’s childhood and career, and why references to his family often seem awkwardly squeezed in, sometimes so condensed as to be hard to follow. I was troubled by the subjectivity of a chapter suggesting out of the blue that a bullying and devious mother may have been to blame for his reluctance to get married, his lack of communication as regards his emotional attachments and private beliefs, and also explain his aggressive, driven personality. In his summing up, Wootton writes, “the paternal conflict between experience and reason and the maternal conflict between power and influence shaped Galileo’s internal life and constitute the cosmography of his self” but I could not find clear and convincing passages in the book to support this.

Similarly, I was surprised by the author’s sudden break from the build-up to Galileo’s trial in order to speculate on his frustration over a missed opportunity to consummate a relationship with some married woman, Alessandra Buonamici who had not clearly figured in the story before. I would have preferred more along the lines of the moving account of Galileo’s close relationship with his daughter Marie-Celeste, a nun, to provide a more fleshed out picture of the man.

Although the work is informative and gripping in places, it continually frustrated me by failing to provide the further insights and deeper analysis I was seeking. The above factors make it an unnecessarily hard and opaque slog at times.

“Elle par bonheur et toujours nue” par Guy Goffette – in painting when many small lies make a great truth

With a quirky title perhaps including a pun on “bonheur” and “Bonnard”, these linked short stories form a poetical, fragmented fictionalised biography of the post-Impressionist painter who made a lifelong companion of Marthe, the young woman who captivated him in a chance encounter on a Pairs street, and provided the model for hundreds of paintings and sketches of her, often in the bath, dressing or relaxing on the bed, but “toujours nue” (“Forever Nude” in the English translation).

We learn that Marthe was really Marie, a poor farmer’s daughter who adopted a false name including an aristocratic “de” when she escaped to Paris to make her fortune. Bonnard did not discover this until he came to marry her more than thirty years later. He had his own share of secrets, in particular his liaison with a vivacious young blonde, Renée Monchaty, a marked contrast to the apparently more passive Marthe, increasingly shrewish and sickly as she aged. Renée’s suicide, perhaps sparked by his marriage, shocked Bonnard to the core. All this could have been worked into a dramatic novel, together with Bonnard’s legal problems after Marthe’s death, which led eventually to a change in the law guaranteeing an artist’s rights of full ownership to his or her entire body of work. However, Goffette is much more interested in writing about Bonnard’s art as a form of visual poetry, using colour in place of words, and in portraying the artist as a man who shunned “la gloire imbécile”, wishing only to paint what he pleased, when and how he wanted.

At first, I found the style overblown as in the opening chapter, where Goffette describes entering a gallery hot and flustered, only to be refreshed by encountering a painting of the toujours nue Marthe spraying herself with eau de Cologne. Written from a male viewpoint, the lengthy sensual, even erotic description of Marthe made me uneasy. It seemed voyeuristic and sexist, akin to a man assuming the right to impose himself on a pretty stranger who has caught his eye in the street.
However, gradually, the writer won me over, mainly in helping me to view Bonnard’s paintings with new eyes. This was only possible since I had access to a computer and was able to find images of most of the paintings he describes. It would actually be a better book with photographs of these works included.

Goffette showed me how the use of a black blind, cutting off my view “comme une guillotine”, made it fall “brutalement” to a sleeping Marthe and cat: in fact, it drew my attention to the view outside the window, another theme Bonnard loved to explore. I was also struck by the vivid colours in his last painting, an almond tree in blossom. On his death bed, with his nephew’s help, he still felt the urge to change a patch of ground from green to bright yellow.

Although the flowery style is not to my taste, there are a number of telling insights, and I have also discovered a large number of paintings by Bonnard which I like, and am now able to appreciate why he was and is so highly regarded as a painter, if not by Picasso.