“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.

 

“Forever nude” by Guy Goffette

I read this in French, but presumably my comments still apply, although it is hard to imagine how the distinctive French “stream of consciousness” style could have been translated without something being lost.
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.

“Les Sauvages” by Sabri Louatah – flawed ambition

If you have not read Tomes 1 and 2 of “Les Sauvages”, the following review contains spoilers. Also, Tomes 3 and 4 will make little sense if you have not yet read the first half of the series. This review refers to both Tomes 3 and 4, which I bought combined in one volume.

This is the second half of the ambitious saga revolving round the Nerrouches, a family of Algerian “Kabyle” origin who have settled in the declining industrial French town of St. Étienne. Their excitement over the possible election of the first French President of Algerian origin, the charismatic, westernised and liberal-minded Chaouch, is shattered when he is not only seriously injured in a gun attack, but the would-be assassin turns out to be Krim Nerrouche, a basically decent but disaffected, drug-addicted teenager who has gone off the rails since the death of his father. A further twist is that he seems to have been somehow manipulated and groomed into committing the atrocity by his sinister, mysterious cousin Nazir, possibly a fundamentalist saboteur bent on destroying the prospect of a moderate Arab leader who might actually succeed in bringing together the opposing factions in French society.

As the plot developed in Tome 2, one began to suspect that Nazir may himself have been the stooge of ultra right-wing French fanatics seeking to eliminate Chaouch for their own ends, and stir up a state of emergency in which they can claim victory through restoring order.

The very ordinary Nerrouche family are also linked to “movers and shakers” through the fact that Nazir’s brother Fouad, a handsome actor who has gained national recognition and popularity through a TV soap, is going out with Chaouch’s daughter Jasmine. The brothers are pitted against each other rather simplistically as “evil” and “good”, although Fouad’s halo slips somewhat under the stressful situation in Tomes 3 and 4.

All this forms the basis of a promising and topical drama. Sabri Louatah is at his most authentic and engaging when creating scenes of family life, showing the relationships between characters caught between Kabyle tradition and very different modern French culture. He also provides a strong sense of place, particularly for St. Étienne and in the scenes set in Algeria. Critics have noted the book’s cinematic nature and, with film rights quickly sold, perhaps it was always the author’s aim to write “a TV series in book form” like one of his favourite authors Balzac, who of course had no option but to create drama in the form of novels!

Louatah has also spoken of his passion for American soaps like “ER”, which may account for the way “Les Sauvages” is made up of short scenes, often focusing on the relationships between individuals in quite banal situations, with much of the high drama conducted off-set, explained or implied after the event. This results in a somewhat fragmented plot, hard to follow at times, ironically defusing the potential for tension which is often such a strong aspect of a good film. The approach also enables Louatah to gloss over the implausible aspects of Nazir’s and right-wing Montesquiou’s scheming . Too often, with the clear exception of Fouad and to a lesser extent Chaouch, who is given to pontificating, the characters seem two-dimensional and too ludicrous to be either convincing or to arouse much emotion – the cane-tapping Montesquiou being a case in point, and Nazir another. By and large, the “baddies” are pantomime figures.

Although covering only a few weeks, the plot loses momentum continually, so that I often found the books tedious. My flagging interest was sustained by the author’s use of a hook at the end of each Tome to keep me reading, although I feared Tome 4 would fizzle out in an inconclusive ending, leaving the way open for Tomes 5-10……. Despite seeming something of an anti-climax, with one of the villains supplying an information dump which is not entirely necessary, since one has in fact already deduced or been told the salient details, the ending ties up sufficient loose ends to reach a satisfactory stopping point.

Louatah claims to be more interested in “fiction” than in “literature”, but, bearing in mind that I think he has a serious interest in portraying the problems of modern French society, “Les Sauvages” would have been more powerful and effective if presented as a single shorter, tighter novel, with fewer characters, more fully developed. As it stands, it will need a lot of work to convert to an effective film script anyway.

“Profession du père” by Sorj Chalandon – in this case Larkin was right.

At the funeral of André Choulans there are only two mourners: his long-suffering wife and son Émile, an artist who sketches the crematorium with an odd lack of emotion as they await the coffin. Narrator Émile then proceeds gradually to account for this tragic situation, going back to his childhood, the France of De Gaulle and the stirrings of rebellion in Algeria in 1961. As an impressionable youngster, Émile craved his father’s approval, believing his web of lies and fantasies, but fearing the violence which he might at any moment unleash on his child and wife. Émile suffers the embarrassment each year of being asked to write his father’s profession on a school form. How can he say that he is a secret agent? This is the latest in a string of professions he is too young to question: pastor, pilot, parachutist, judo expert and singer to name a few.

It soon becomes apparent that the bullying, manipulative André is paranoid but somehow manages to avoid exposure and medical treatment by keeping his little family unit in an isolated bubble. By turns amusing, heartrending, farcical, this is an intriguing psychological study. Émile’s mother is not simply a wife battered into submission, the victim of “coercive control”, but also seems to connive in the situation to avoid trouble. “You know what your father’s like” is her mantra, and years later she asks Émile: “Was your childhood really so awful?” So she occupies herself in making vegetable stews, abdicating responsibility for protecting her son if not herself.

Similarly, as he grows older, accustomed to André’s continual broken promises, to what extent does Émile really believe that his father is serious in involving him in a plot to assassinate De Gaulle, allegedly the former colleague who has ignored his advice and broken his promise to the French colonists in Algeria? Is the idea that another of his father’s friends is a high-ranking CIA agent called Ted, who is his god father too appealing an idea to debunk – even when Ted feels he should be punished for his poor grades?

Another intriguing aspect is the way Émile’s behaviour begins to mirror that of his father. Just as André wants his son to be an admiring acolyte to be subjected to rigorous military drills, a willing stooge prepared to risk daft escapades like delivering death threats, Émile seeks out a friend to share these exploits with, one who can be controlled and dominated as he is. Unfortunately, he chooses a “Pied Noir” boy who really does have a grievance against De Gaulle. To avoid crazed beatings and confinement to “the correction unit” of his parent’s wardrobe, Émile shows a convoluted ingenuity equal to his father’s when it comes to fabricating excuses.

It was hard at times to understand why Émile does not simply hate his father. Instead there seems at times to be, if not exactly love, that mysterious family bond, consisting in part of shared experience, conditioning and duty.

This novel is in fact quite autobiographical, in that Sorj Chalandon’s father was also a violent fantasist. The author has spoken of the “poison” in his system arising from the abuse he suffered, and the catharsis obtained from sharing his experiences by writing about them. He also suggests that the fantasy world was often exciting and enjoyable at the time, but for the violence.

I thought the novel lost dramatic momentum when it reached the stage of Émile’s adult life. However the tale would be incomplete without an account of how Émile eventually establishes his own life as an artist with the talent his parents failed to recognise and nourish. The contrast between his distorted childhood and the love he gives his own son is moving.

Chalandon is a brilliant novelist who deserves to be better known abroad.

“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones – perceptive and poignant

An American Marriage: WINNER OF THE WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION, 2019

 

Review of “An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

A bright working-class boy from a small town in Louisiana, Roy has managed to escape the usual snares for black teenage youths: drugs and jail sentences. Pragmatic about accepting “leg-up programs” he is a graduate set on a promising career as a salesman and entrepreneur. Clever and beautiful, but also indulged, perhaps a bit neurotic and self-centred, Celestial comes from a more middle class background. Although the son of a sharecropper, her chemist father has managed to make himself a millionaire through the invention of a popular soft drink. Despite being unusually close since childhood to doggedly devoted “boy next door” André, Celestial is strongly attracted to his college friend Roy. Clearly in love, the two may have got married “too young”, particularly in the case of Celestial who is much less keen than him to “start a family”, being mainly driven to make her mark as an artist. A foolish tiff sets in train a series of fateful events ending in Roy receiving a long prison sentence for a crime that Celestial knows he did not commit. How will this disaster affect their marriage?

I was disappointed by and critical of the author’s glossing over the dramatic potential of the period between the arrest and the sentencing, but concluded that it was her intention to focus on the relationships between the “triangle” of Roy, Celestial and André, and the parents’ reactions in the aftermath of the tragedy.

The story is told from three different viewpoints: Roy, Celeste and to a lesser extent André, which often portray the same situation from opposing angles. Whilst agreeing with readers who found the style of the letters exchanged when Roy is in jail somewhat unrealistic and too contrived, overall the novel is very readable and compelling.

Roy aroused the most sympathy in me: a basically decent man who suffers unjust blows from various quarters. He may be an unreliable witness in playing down the philandering during his short marriage, but he has essential integrity and an endearing sense of dry humour which expresses itself even in his darkest periods. Although I was untroubled, as other reviewers have been, by not much liking Celestial and André, towards the end I found myself not caring enough about the outcome of their drama: whatever happened, Roy had the resilience to survive, André was accustomed to disappointment, and Celestial seemed emotionally immature and too self-absorbed to worry for long about hurting someone else. Although somewhat ludicrous, the dramatic climax of this book is very effective in dissecting people’s behaviour and emotions under pressure. I was satisfied that the author reached a conclusion which I had broadly predicted, suggesting that I had understood what she wanted to convey, although others may interpret it differently.

Tayari Jones clearly wishes to explore the theme of racial inequality in America, but this is also a very perceptive, moving and often wryly funny study of marital relationships, and a commentary on American society from a black perspective, which is enlightening for a white British reader. I could not understand all the American idioms and cultural references, but this did not matter unduly.

I cannot decide to what extent this winner of the “Women’s Prize for Fiction” will appeal to male readers. For me, it is occasionally overly sentimental, but this is countered by unflinching descriptions of raw, bleaker events when needed.

Highly recommended overall.

“Blood Orange” by Harriet Tyce: the consequences of actions

Harriet Tyce draws on her experience of working as a barrister in this gripping but unsavoury debut psychological crime thriller.

Remotivated by the chance to lead her first murder case, Alison intends to have only one drink with work colleagues before returning home to Carl, convenient house-husband and part-time therapist since being made redundant, and six-year old daughter Matilda. It soon becomes clear that, not for the first time, Alison will get horribly drunk and have rough sex with handsome but unpredictable and manipulative lawyer Patrick with whom she has drifted into an adulterous “secret” affair. At first, it is hard to believe how such a dysfunctional, often cringe-making and weak-willed individual in her personal life could possibly be an effective and respective barrister. How has kept his patience with her for so long?

However, as the tale progresses, one begins to develop another perspective. Apart from the fact Alison is paying the bills, Carl often seems something of a control freak, unduly quick to criticise her efforts to be a good mother, even in front of Matilda, or denigrate her efforts at cooking – can it really be as bad as he implies? He seems over-protective of his daughter, keen to monopolise her affections. Is he really trying to undermine Alison’s relationship with her child, even demoralise her to the point of doubting her sanity?

The novel also touches on deeper themes concerning the problems for women seeking to succeed “in a man’s world”, or to hold down a complex job with irregular hours without neglecting their children. Has Alison become a “high-functioning” alcoholic, apparently on the brink of total collapse, because of the training which meant spending time in the pub after work getting on good terms with the senior colleague who could put vital work her way? If she were a drunken, adulterous man, would she “get away” with it more easily?

Reminiscent of “Appletree Yard”, I imagine this being made into a television mini-series. Yet although I understand the critical acclaim and popularity gained with the public, it would have been a better book for me if it had been more subtle, rather than laying on the drama with a trowel in ludicrously exaggerated dollops. When Alison picks her daughter up from school very late, an officious teacher, “a solid barrier of dun-coloured knitwear”, blocks her exit, demanding an instant fine of £20 cash which will increase to £30 if not paid until the next day. Tell me if I am wrong, but I cannot imagine any modern-day school imposing such a penalty. Also, is it likely that Alison would interview her client suspected of murder, not in her office but at a busy restaurant, where the waiter almost pours red wine over her confidential paperwork and the medium steak ordered proves so bloody that it seems the one thing that is apt, if ghoulishly?

Creative writing classes seem to plug the use of a dramatically violent or sinister prologue as a “hook”, but apart from making modern novels seem “formulaic”, in this case it amounts to a spoiler for readers with memories of a past scandal and would have been more effective if presented as one of the twists in the somewhat contrived conclusion. To be more than a smutty romp in the wake of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, this novel needed to have less emphasis on, I quote, “booze”, “shit”, “vomit” and sex, and more character development. It amounts to a simplistic theme in which essentially well-intentioned women rise above their flaws to win out over dominant but irredeemably vile men who deserve to pay with their lives. But what made them so bad, and are there no extenuating factors, as in real life? Also, it may well be that some barristers are drunken and unethical in real life, but this book seems to condone some very ambiguous moral values, quite casually suggesting that “wrong actions” are readily acceptable if taken for the “right” reasons.

“The Accident on the A35” by Graeme Macrae Burnet: “in world that is neither true nor false, what is real?”

To get the most impact from this book, I would advise readers to leave the potentially slightly distracting “Foreword” to the end. Advertised as a sequel to “The Disappearance of Adèle Bédeau”, also featuring Inspector Georges Gorski, this can be read as a stand-alone novel. Reading the two books “in order” may help to clarify Gorski’s personal situation, but I think “The Accident on the A35” has a better pace and more interesting characters and wry humour.

When local lawyer Bertrand Barthelme, an influential figure in the provincial French backwater of St. Louis in Alsace, is killed in a road accident one Tuesday night, foul play is not suspected. Unable to resist pleasing Bertrand’s pretty and surprisingly young widow Lucette, Gorski goes beyond standard procedure in an attempt to check on Bertrand’s final movements, discovering in the process that he has been lying to his wife for years for some unknown reason. Meanwhile, Bertrand’s seventeen-year-old son Raymond embarks on his own sleuthing exercise, intrigued by the discovery in his father’s desk of a scrap of paper bearing an address for the nearby centre of Mulhouse, in what looks like a woman’s flamboyant handwriting, quite out of keeping with his father’s stern image.

The detective story proves incidental to the essence of the book, which is the in-depth psychological study of the two main characters, Georges and Raymond, together with convincing little portraits of the supporting cast, bringing them alive as authentic characters with recognisable foibles. Added to this is the strong sense of place: the claustrophobic, inward-looking conservatism of a small town where mediocrity is expected and dullness is the comfortable norm. Yet this being set in , I think, the early 1970s, there is a flicker of dangerous revolt in the reference to Sartre, whom Raymond is absorbed in reading: a novel is “neither true nor false” but is must seem “real”.

Reminiscent of Simenon, the strong sense of being in France is heightened by the author’s skill in producing what purports to be a painstakingly precise translation of a French novel, clear, concise and vivid in style but also constrained, rather like the main characters themselves. Although very different in theme from the author’s prize-winning “His Bloody Project”, both the “Gorski” books continue the common factor of a sensitive, troubled adolescent boy denied affection and empathy by a harsh or uncommunicative male figure. Raymond cuts (sometimes literally) an often amusing but poignant figure, secretive and observant, easily embarrassed, desperately worried about what people think of him, unable to prevent himself from antagonising those whom he likes or loves, with occasional bursts of short-lived euphoria when, no longer controlled by his father, he manages to kick over the traces with some “real”, however bizarre, action in a dull “unreal” world.

Gorski seems similarly emotionally stunted, the son of a deceased pawnbroker who “plays the part” of a detective, potentially very successful with his perceptive, persistent approach, but oddly passive in his personal life, and like Raymond, finding it hard to engage with others, estranged from his wife, and frequently the butt of mockery, dismissed as a plodder.

I found this book a page turner, ramping up a high degree of tension towards what seemed likely to be a fateful but unpredictable end. Both very abrupt, and leaving a great deal to my imagination, the ending disappointed me initially, despite some ingenious twists. On reflection, I decided it is actually quite subtle and effective.

I was also irritated at first by the repeat of the quirky device used in “The Disappearance of Adèle Bédeau”, namely the claim that both books are the work of the author Raymond Brunet – not a spoiler since we are told this in the Prologue. There is speculation as to the extent to which “The Accident on the A35” is autobiographical, accounting for Brunet’s own trouble personality. Since the two novels would stand quite well without this extra twist, I am not sure it is beneficial, particularly since it serves to distance the reader somewhat from the drama.

Having said this, Graeme Macrae Burnet manages to engage us with the characters by the sheer quality of his writing, saved from bleakness by moments of humour, and the promise that there may be a third book in the trilogy – another manuscript also having come to light in 2014.