A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan

Bored with her law degree course in Paris, drifting through a comfortable but passionless relationship with somewhat possessive fellow-student Bertrand, Dominque is intelligent and introspective, with a sharp wit, yet at around twenty still quite inexperienced and immature. So she is ripe for seduction by Bertrand’s attractive, worldly-wise uncle Luc, who claims to see in her a kindred detached, cynical spirit and suggests they embark on a short affair. She cannot resist the temptation, despite not wishing to hurt either Bertrand or Luc’s kindly wife Françoise who wants to buy her smart clothes and generally mother her.

All too predictably, Dominique gets more than she bargained for. Will the affair end in tragedy, or leave her wiser, shaken out of her pose of treating life as absurd, living as she does in the 1950s existentialist Paris of Sartre and his friends? With her spare, skilfully honed prose, Sagan captures a sense of place and the spirit of the times, also managing to evoke empathy with Dominique, despite her rather unappealing passivity at times and perpetual self-absorption. She sustains an underlying sense of nihilism buoyed up with moments of wry humour and false gaiety, ending on an upbeat philosophical note, which may prove short-lived.

Already a bestselling author at the age of eighteen with “Bonjour Tristesse”, Sagan is impressive in her precocious ability not only to construct a sharply observed, tight novella, but also to portray the psychology of a young woman without a clear sense of direction, who finds herself wanting what she cannot have, yet dissatisfied by what is available. The fact Sagan was so close in age to her subject gives the novel authenticity, although she was adamant at the time that her books were not autobiographical, rather captured moments of life.

Reading more about her life I learned how Sagan became addicted to alcohol and drugs, had a string of unhappy relationships, apart from with the fashion designer Peggy Roche, had to give up recorded interviews in later life after turning up once too often haggard, emaciated and in a confused state and died with heavy debts at the age of only 69. Perhaps she had more in common with her characters than she cared to admit, as regards an aching void beneath the brittle hedonism.

This novel is best read in French to appreciate the style, which adds depth to an otherwise slight tale.

“Un certain sourire” by Françoise Sagan

Bored with her law degree course in Paris, drifting through a comfortable but passionless relationship with somewhat possessive fellow-student Bertrand, Dominque is intelligent and introspective, with a sharp wit, yet at around twenty still quite inexperienced and immature. So she is ripe for seduction by Bertrand’s attractive, worldly-wise uncle Luc, who claims to see in her a kindred detached, cynical spirit and suggests they embark on a short affair. She cannot resist the temptation, despite not wishing to hurt either Bertrand or Luc’s kindly wife Françoise who wants to buy her smart clothes and generally mother her.

All too predictably, Dominique gets more than she bargained for. Will the affair end in tragedy, or leave her wiser, shaken out of her pose of treating life as absurd, living as she does in the 1950s existentialist Paris of Sartre and his friends? With her spare, skilfully honed prose, Sagan captures a sense of place and the spirit of the times, also managing to evoke empathy with Dominique, despite her rather unappealing passivity at times and perpetual self-absorption. She sustains an underlying sense of nihilism buoyed up with moments of wry humour and false gaiety, ending on an upbeat philosophical note, which may prove short-lived.

Already a bestselling author at the age of eighteen with “Bonjour Tristesse”, Sagan is impressive in her precocious ability not only to construct a sharply observed, tight novella, but also to portray the psychology of a young woman without a clear sense of direction, who finds herself wanting what she cannot have, yet dissatisfied by what is available. The fact Sagan was so close in age to her subject gives the novel authenticity, although she was adamant at the time that her books were not autobiographical, rather captured moments of life.

Reading more about her life I learned how Sagan became addicted to alcohol and drugs, had a string of unhappy relationships, apart from with the fashion designer Peggy Roche, had to give up recorded interviews in later life after turning up once too often haggard, emaciated and in a confused state and died with heavy debts at the age of only 69. Perhaps she had more in common with her characters than she cared to admit, as regards an aching void beneath the brittle hedonism.

This novel is best read in French to appreciate the style, which adds depth to an otherwise slight tale.

In a time of monsters – Travels through a Middle East in Revolt by Emma Sky

Encouraged to read this by Emma Sky’s sharp analysis in BBC radio interviews of the unintended consequences of the Iraq War, I realised too late that to find out more about her role as political advisor to the American commander General Ray Odierno in its aftermath, enabling her to give damning evidence at the Chilcot Enquiry, I should have started with her book “The Unravelling”.

“In a Time of Monsters” proves as is often the case with travel books to be very anecdotal and episodic, often revealing some telling insights through a chance encounter, but also frustrating, even confusing at times, in what it omits or glosses over. The background history of the Shias versus Sunni is a little too fragmented, while the explanation of the Caliphates from the death of Mohammed up to the recent attempts of Daesh to create a single Islamic state probably comes too late in the book, some two-thirds of the way through.

“Bored, bitter and twisted”, with an acute sense of anticlimax and loss of purpose after her return to London in 2010, perhaps even a little traumatised by her experience in Iraq as she suggests most westerners are, she resolves to make sense of events by visiting countries affected by the Arab Spring: Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kurdistan and so on.

Making use of what seems like an inexhaustible network of obliging high level political contacts prepared to engage in boozy debates, Emma Sky has no difficulty in striking up conversations with strangers prepared to chat at length . Perhaps her childhood as the matron’s daughter at a boys’ boarding school gave her the confidence to act with such ease in “a man’s world” and also to embark on risky, physically tough journeys, solo or with a male guide for the reward of seeing beautiful, remote areas, like the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Skimming along the river on a jet ski, white-water rafting, swimming into caves to scale waterfalls: sometimes, the socialising and exciting activities, seem too much of a digression from the lives of ordinary Arabs.

It is no surprise that Emma Sky criticises the US for allowing Daesh (or ISIS) to gain a foothold in Iraq in the anger over government corruption and discrimination against Sunnis following the fall of Saddam Hussein. She also condemns the failure to take early action against Assad in Syria to force him to negotiate. It is perhaps more of a surprise that she is so harsh on Obama, described as “leading from behind” and being too passive. However, she does not really provide convincing evidence that continued use of direct force by the West would have yielded the desired results without unacceptable levels of bloodshed, not to mention resentment over apparent attempts to dominate . She is also very critical of Iran as a somewhat malign and destabilising force, reaching tentacles even to the borders of Israel, but was perhaps unable to make the visit to the country which would assist a clear and more objective analysis.

There is a logical progression, in that, being in date order, the visits reflect the passage of events, so that by 2014 Emma Sky is at the refugee camp of Zaatari, close to the border in Jordan, which has become the fourth largest city in the country owing to the flood of refugees from Syria. By 2016 she is in Greece and Eastern Europe tracing the destabilising pressure of Arab refugees pushed out by the devastation in parts of the Middle East. She even visits London to suggest, perhaps too simplistically, that the Brexit vote itself was largely the result of concerns over migration triggered partly by the instability of the Middle East.

The Epilogue finds her on the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a time of acceptance of her past naïve over-optimism, but clinging to the belief that “this is not a time for cynicism or despair” in the hope that her students will manage to leave the world a better place than they found it.

The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

Published in 1958, this modern classic, a subtle psychological drama which manages to be both poignant and amusing about the loss of childhood innocence in a confusing adult world, was inspired by the author’s own experiences on a family visit to France in the early 1930s. Whereas the well-known film of 1961 has dated, the book retains the power to hook both teenagers and older readers.

With a botanist father who spends most of his time travelling abroad, and a mother who struggles to cope, narrator Cecil Grey and her four siblings chafe against the tedium of life in the pebble-dash suburbia of “Southstone”. Their mother’s impulsive plan to shock them out of their self-centred moaning by showing them the French battlefields, goes awry when she develops septicaemia from a horse-fly bite, and has to be hospitalised. This coincides with the eldest sibling Joss being perhaps somewhat implausibly struck down with acute PMT for several days. It is a plot device to free the other children to run wild in the French hotel where they are reluctantly accepted as second-class guests. Superficially charming and characterful it is in fact the scene of some shady goings on, as gullible foreign visitors to the nearby battlefields of the Marne are conned with a regularly maintained bloodstain on a carpet, and a human skull buried daily in the garden to be dug up by the hotel’s dogs.

Gorging themselves on the windfall greengages in the orchard so that they are too full to eat them when served up at dinner, only Cecil who knows some French (from having to write out French poetry as a punishment at school) realises that they are being used as “camouflage” for the scandalous relationship between the proprietor Madame Zizi and her charismatic English lover Eliot. A kind of unofficial guardian for the children, who adore him, he is a complex character, showing empathy for them, as when he gives Willmouse, the only boy in the family, an art book to feed his precocious interest in fashion design, but the suspicion grows that Eliot is mainly motivated by his infatuation with Joss, a beautiful sixteen-year-old who is beginning to grasp and exploit the power of her sexual attraction.

Deeply evocative and nostalgic in its descriptions of life in a historic French town on the banks of the Marne, and lightened with many humorous moments, this slow-burn study of human interaction morphs into a faster paced, tense crime story with one of those abrupt endings which leaves one reflecting on events and deciding for oneself what happens next.

Very successful in her day, Rumer Godden is one of those now forgotten authors who repays revisiting.

“The Greengage Summer” by Rumer Godden – growing pains

Published in 1958, this modern classic, a subtle psychological drama  which manages to be both poignant and amusing about the loss of childhood innocence in a confusing adult world, was inspired by the author’s own experiences on a family visit to France in the early 1930s.  Whereas the well-known film of 1961 has dated, the book retains the power to hook both teenagers and older readers.

With a botanist  father who spends most of his time travelling abroad, and a mother who struggles to cope, narrator Cecil Grey and her four siblings chafe against the tedium of life  in the pebble-dash suburbia of “Southstone”. Their mother’s impulsive plan to shock them out of their self-centred moaning by showing them the French battlefields, goes awry when she develops septicaemia from a horse-fly bite, and has to be hospitalised. This coincides with the eldest sibling Joss being perhaps somewhat implausibly struck down with acute PMT for several days. It is a plot device to free the other children to run wild in the French hotel where they are reluctantly accepted as second-class guests. Superficially charming and characterful it is in fact the scene of some shady goings on, as gullible foreign visitors to the nearby battlefields of the Marne are conned with a regularly maintained bloodstain on a carpet, and a human skull buried daily in the garden to be dug up by the hotel’s dogs.

Gorging themselves on the windfall greengages in the orchard so that they are too full to eat them when served up at dinner, only Cecil who knows some French (from having to write out French poetry as a punishment at school) realises that they are being used as “camouflage” for the scandalous relationship between the proprietor Madame Zizi and her charismatic English lover Eliot. A kind of unofficial guardian for the children, who adore him, he is a complex character, showing empathy for them, as when he gives Willmouse, the only boy in the family, an art book to feed his precocious interest in fashion design, but the suspicion grows that Eliot is mainly motivated by his infatuation with Joss, a beautiful sixteen-year-old who is beginning to grasp and exploit the power of her sexual attraction.

Deeply evocative and nostalgic in its descriptions of life in a historic French town on the banks of the Marne, and lightened with many humorous moments, this slow-burn study of human interaction morphs into a faster paced, tense crime story with one of those abrupt endings which leaves one reflecting on events and deciding for oneself what happens next.

Very successful in her day, Rumer Godden is one of those now forgotten authors who repays revisiting.

 

“The improbability of love” by Hannah Rothschild – pas pour “Moi”

Whereas the prologue to a novel is usually a short, sharp dramatic incident to “hook” the reader,  this starts with an indigestible litany of the caricatured stereotypes of super-rich clients converging on the Monachorum auction house, and the staff baited to lure them into bidding up the price of “The Improbability of Love”,  a painting hyped as likely to sell for a record sum. The storyline then switches back six months to the lovelorn Annie buying the painting for only £75 on an impulse, thus rescuing the masterpiece in its neglected and unrecognised state from half a century spent in a rundown antique shop.

The author is undeniably articulate with a vivid imagination,  her professional knowledge of how paintings may be cleaned, dated, attributed and interpreted is quite interesting, and the book seems to have delighted many reviewers, but I found it almost unreadable, a frothy confection with a hollow centre.

Part farce, part Mills and Boon romance, past crime thriller, it falls short for me by reason of its ramshackle plot, with implausible twists and many niggling inconsistencies in the basic telling. It is too long, by reason of the continual wordy digressions. Even the painting, which adopts the irritating habit of addressing us, has to remind us in a gimmicky seven line Chapter 11: “Hello. I am still here…….Moi”. Arch and snobbish after spending centuries in gilded salons, it cannot identify modern cars by name but has somehow acquired some knowledge of modern life despite being stuck in a shop for fifty years.  I would rather have had a thread about the painter’s creator Antoine Watteau running through the book.

Was this written as a ludicrous parody of the art world to amuse friends “in the know”?  I was struck by the chapter which, instead of creating an exaggerated stereotype, dissects a real-life artist in the form of Damien Hirst.  When boorish exiled Russian oligarch Vlad visits the Tate Modern retrospective, he encounters sharks in formaldehyde in glass tanks, rooms full of medical equipment and a piece made of dead flies and diamonds. “Suddenly he got Hirst: the man was a brilliant comedian making a joke out of life and the art world and all those who took it seriously……you can encase anything, add jewels and precious metals, but it’s still the same old s***.”  (This is a quotation from th book). Presumably, Hirst is happy about this representation, as a form of free  publicity.

In contrast to the turgid detail of earlier chapters, the ending feels quite condensed and rushed, as if the author has bored herself and grown anxious to finish it.

Truth seems stranger and more entertaining than fiction, also provoking a real debate over the value we put on works of art.

A recent example is the purchase at the record price of $450.3 million dollars of  the long lost “Salvator Mundi” which may well be, though possibly only in part, the work of Leonardo da Vinci but claimed to have been so heavily restored that the Louvre Abu Dhabi postponed its initial plan to display it.

I am also  reminded of the excellent and highly recommended “The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez” by Laura Cumming,  who  demonstrates some of the problems of attributing paintings correctly to their creators. It is also disturbing to read about the dealer who, having cleaned up a “Velasquez” to make it more attractive to a buyer, had it darkened and aged to fetch a better price.

“Death and the Penguin” by Andrey Kurkov – modern Kafka’s comic black art imitated by life

What is on the surface the whimsical tale of a lonely failed writer who forms a bond with the penguin he saves from Kiev Zoo when it can no longer afford to feed its exhibits, is underlain by the bleakness and black humour of the searing indictment of a state recently emerged from communism but still bedevilled by acute shortages and corruption.

Viktor is initially delighted to be given what seems like a well-played sinecure writing “obelisks” or obituaries of influential people for a newspaper, until the realisation dawns that he is somehow implicated in the premature demise of the subjects involved. In a modern take on Kafka, he is not quite clear about the nature of the crime to which he is turning a blind eye, but grasps that if ever it is explained to him, it will mean that he too has become dispensable and his own life will be on the line.  The fact that, as a reader, one feels frustrated and a bit wanting in not fully understanding what is going on only adds to the surreal nature of the story.

It is not surprising that everyone seems to consume so much alcohol to deaden their feelings in this grim society. This provides one of the many examples of dark comedy, in which Sergey, the kindly district militiaman who becomes Viktor’s only true human friend, assures a drunken angler that he is “seeing things” when Misha the penguin pops up out of the ice hole in which he is fishing: “Perhaps he’ll ease off the drink a bit” he quips, unable to give  up  policing people’s habits even when off duty, and somewhat hypocritically since he too knocks back large amounts of cognac.

The Ukraine is portrayed as a country in which ambulance drivers have to be bribed to take a sick man to hospital where there is a lack of medicine to treat him anyway, and potatoes seem to be the staple diet, while wealthy criminals will pay $1000 to hire a penguin as a gimmick at the fashionable funeral of a contract killing victim featured in one of Viktor’s obituaries – the irony is endless.

The author does not judge Ukrainians who have been driven to a pragmatic acceptance of corruption,  but describes the lonely penguin, by nature a creature evolved to work in a supportive community, as a metaphor for people living in a post-communist society who suddenly find themselves cut adrift from a mutually supportive community, and alone in a world with new, unfamiliar rules of life.

Having written the novel in 1996, Kurkov has been only temporarily gratified and ultimately depressed to find his art imitated by life in the recent moral and political chaos of the Ukraine. With first-hand experience of  artistic friends liquidated by contract killers, one hopes that this perceptive writer will be safe.

The dramatic climax of this book seems unduly rushed and the ending abrupt, but also quite neat, leaving at least one striking loose end but paving the way for a sequel, or two.