La promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn) by Romain Gary: when fact needs no fiction

Romain Gary was a popular and prolific author, the only writer to win Le prix Goncourt a second time, by dint of assuming the pen name Émile Ajar, an imaginary person whom he persuaded a young relative to impersonate. The deception was not revealed until after his death.

This autobiography proves to be a version of his childhood and wartime experience as an airman in which it is impossible to distinguish embellished fact from fiction. Its central theme is the intense relationship with his mother, a volatile, overemotional former actress of Russian-Jewish descent. Abandoned by her husband between the two World Wars, she was obliged to slave away at a variety of jobs, from flogging fake jewellery at one extreme to running a successful upmarket dressmaking salon and later managing a hotel at the other.

As her son came to realise, all her frustrated ambition was channelled into him. From an early age, she parroted her unfailing belief that he would become famous, the only question being in what field. A fortune was spent equipping him with skills as a musician or singer, until his lack of talent became undeniable. Instruction in riding, fencing and shooting came into play. Painting was discouraged since she viewed artists as generally penniless and often syphilitic. She condoned her son’s desire to become a writer, but predicted the only remaining areas of achievement she could conceive: to become a great soldier, or a diplomat. In due course, Romain was decorated for his wartime service, and gained employment as an ambassador, thus providing evidence for the importance of having unfailing belief in one’s children and encouraging them to aspire to great things – but in this case, at what cost?

There was a further self-serving aspect of his mother’s love. Struck by his resemblance to a former lover (his real father?), she constantly urged him to look upwards in a certain manner. Even as a small boy, dressed in the silk shirts and velvet suits from a previous age to accompany her to the opera, he was instructed in all the etiquette required to be her future escort, in the absence of a husband.

It is astonishing that he did not become the laughing stock of his peers and emotionally damaged by all this. Yet perhaps he was. Apart from the many occasions when he was embarrassed by his mother’s effusive love, or furious over being obliged to depend on her financially while he was trying to write his masterpiece, when she became seriously ill, he was clearly stressed by the need to succeed while she was still alive, all the more difficult since World War ll had broken out. His emotional ties to his mother ran so deep that he even described her as if physically present, by turns approving and admonishing, during his wartime spell with the Free French in Africa.

The novel is packed with amusing, if far-fetched anecdotes. As a small boy seeking to impress eight-year-old Valentine, did he actually consume snails in their shells, and chunks of his own rubber sandals, which landed him in hospital? Did he and the rival for her affections really take turns to push each other onto a fourth floor window with just sufficient pressure to swing their legs over the edge, without falling to a certain death? Meeting by chance years later, both by then diplomats, was he really on the point of repeating this mad exploit, just before he was fortunately called away?

There is a brilliant description of his mother, in her role of hotel manager in Nice, terrorising the stallholders on her daily visit to the marché de la Buffa, a she passes judgement on their produce: elle “tâtait une escalope, méditait sur l’âme d’un melon, rejetait avec mépris une pièce de bœuf dont flop mou sur le marbre prenait un accent d’humiliation” and so on.

Yet this account of a life sufficiently interesting not to require any spicing up soon began to pall owing to the repetition, the verbosity, the odd mixture of exaggerated self-denigration and conceit, the frequent digression into an issue like his need to achieve, expounded in a paragraph of two pages or more of overblown prose. All this made for an exhausting read.

If it is to your taste, and you can stomach Gary’s somewhat sexist behaviour, which is what some reviewers may mean when describing the book as “dated”, you can read this to be entertained by the succession of implausible and at times unsavoury vignettes and exploits. I am most intrigued by the psychology behind all this. He wrote, to quote the English translation, “I do not often indulge in lying, because, for me, a lie has a sickly flavour of impotence: it leaves me too far away from the mark.” Yet the account is full of lies and deceptions, which he may have slipped into as a way of dealing with his mother’s overpowering love and belief that France was the model land where he would succeed.

It is hard to know how much he was traumatised by the shocking death rate amongst his fellow wartime pilots. Despite observing more than once how, no matter how bad things are, he keeps smiling, this is the man who, at the age of sixty-eight, decided to shoot himself fatally.

“Le Nœud de Vipères” by François Mauriac – cutting the knot of vipers.

An ageing and embittered miser, Louis is obsessed with his determination to ensure that not a single member of his family inherits a penny of his considerable wealth.  Why does he hate his wife and offspring so much? Is he right to believe that he is loathed in return? To what extent is this situation his fault? Has his miserly, domineering behaviour brought out the worst in his  children.  As his tortuous plans begin to unravel combined with a sense of his mortality, Louis begins to see life a little differently.  Questions arise as to whether people can really change, or is it a case of merely wishing to do so, or even self-delusion?

After a slow start to set the scene and explain Louis’ upbringing and early love for his wife Isa after a childhood and youth of loneliness and isolation, this becomes an intense and gripping psychological study in the context of the snobbish, self-satisfied, devoutly Catholic bourgeois families of the Bordeaux region whom Mauriac does not seem to have tired of dissecting.  His flowing prose is a pleasure to read, his sharp irony contrasting with almost poetical descriptions of the countryside – the smell of burning pines on the air and mists over the vines, trees and wine forming the basis of the economy.

There is a double tragedy at the heart of this novel. Although it may be hard to credit, Louis’ love for his wife is destroyed by his devastation over the discovery that she had a previous lover, even though it was probably only the passing infatuation of a very young girl. His inflexible nature combined with a lack of experience prevent him from adopting a sense of proportion.  His inability to “forgive” his wife drives a wedge between them, probably causing her a degree of unhappiness of which he is unaware, and blinding Louis to a love for him she may have had to suppress. Mauriac contrives to make us feel some sympathy for both these characters in due course, if the not for their son and their daughter’s husband.

Mauriac was content to be called “a Catholic writer” and the essence of this novel is that Louis, a freethinking atheist, is repelled by the smug hypocrisy of the Catholic family into which he has married. He is further infuriated by what he sees as his wife’s indoctrination of their children against his wishes, poignantly perceiving this as a way of alienating them from him.  Yet Mauriac would have us believe that, despite his flaws, Louis may be more truly spiritual than the rest of them, and if he really is the sinner they make him out to be, he is all the more deserving of “God’s grace”.

Even if the reader is also an atheist, it is possible to find the story moving and thought-provoking. Although most of the characters are unappealing, with a tendency to create their own unhappiness, this novel is not depressing by reason of its psychological insight and the quality of the prose. I prefer this novel to the other two famous works of Mauriac, his favourite “Thérèse Desqueyroux” and “Le Mystère Frontenac” which I believe he wrote as an antidote to the intensely emotional “Knot of vipers” but which seems somewhat bland in comparison.

Les Pantoufles by Luc-Michel Fouassier:”Je préférais ne pas” – a fable on nonconformity

We can probably all relate to the predicament of the narrator, who in an absent-minded moment as he leaves home for a work meeting finds himself locked out, wearing a suit with a pair of tartan slippers. Very quickly, he notices how passers by react to him differently, with surprise, concern and often derision.

The “charentaises”, as these particular soft, felt-soled slippers are called in France, also alter his own behaviour, making him feel more at ease, able to slip past the office receptionists unnoticed, since his feet make no sound. His slippers often work to his advantage – in a game of tennis, the opponent who normally beats him hollow is so distracted that he loses and departs, a bad loser, “un petit côté Agassi-agaçant”. When a group of artists at a party want him to explain his wearing of slippers, he is able to play the game, likening his presentation of the slipper as an artistic object to Duchamp’s famous exhibition of a lavatory bowl.

By this point, the reader’s patience may have worn thin, for by this time he would surely have found a locksmith, rather than book into a hotel and subject himself to a succession of farcical situations. Perhaps he has been traumatised by the fact his wife has recently left him, but that plot line is not developed. So the novel’s appeal rests increasingly on the fact it is very short, and presumably provides a light, quirky couple of hours of escapism for a French reader. For others, it is quite informative, with a brief history of the charentaise slipper, some useful vocabulary for French footwear – I learned that “les santiags” are cowboy boots, and every conceivable pun and idiom to do with feet- “faire des pieds et des mains” translating as “to move heaven and earth” to achieve an objective.

It is possible to read this at a deeper level: not only as a reminder to avoid judging others too quickly by their appearance, but also as a fable on the merits of non-conformity. Here, the author may become a little pretentious in having a hotel receptionist who resembles Buster Keaton read “Bartleby”, which I cannot be the only reader not to know without looking it up, was a novel by the American Hermann Melville. Trainee lawyer Bartleby causes consternation by refusing one of his boss’s instructions, on the grounds, “I prefer not to”.

This is the kind of novel which may improve on a second reading, but I remained a little disappointed by the rather hurried and trite ending.

Les Possibles by Virginie Grimaldi: French hen lit

When a carelessly discarded cigarette end sets fire to his home, Jean takes it for granted that his daughter Juliane will take him in indefinitely. Her stolid husband Gaëtan tolerates the situation, five-year-old Charlie is delighted by his grandfather’s childlike antics, but Juliane is exasperated by the often implausibly eccentric and inconsiderate behaviour which in the past drove her mother to divorce Jean.

It is only when he begins to show signs of dementia, likely to advance rapidly, that Juliane begins to appreciate Jean’s zest for life, and freedom from the constraints of caring what other people think. With her own lack of self esteem, she could benefit by learning from this. So she can laugh nostalgically with her sister of the time when, to slay a child’s nightmares, he vanquished an imaginary dragon in the downstairs loo with the aid of the garden hose.

Largely “rave reviews” from readers extol this novel’s humour and “feel good” factor, while the darker aspects are airbrushed. So the last chapter (in the original French), «Stairway to Heaven» – Led Zeppelin, is a clear reference to the inevitable outcome, but Jean’s last days are completely glossed over. This milking of a potentially moving situation, with its focus on sentimentality and denial of painful reality seems superficial, even dishonest.

Published in 2015, French author Virginie Grimaldi’s first novel was an instant bestseller and by 2022 she had produced eight more, heading up the list of “the most read” novelists in France. Reading “Les Possibles” for a French book group, I gained some useful vocabulary, but the novel seems quite formulaic: eighty-two short chapters, often barely three pages in length; a string of incidents padded out with “tick box” modern issues to which readers can relate – narrator’s eating disorder, dysphasic son (who displays little evidence of this) lesbian sister and so on. The final chapters which focus on a US road trip along Route 66 are each titled with the gimmick of the name of a pop song in English, linked to the story line, such as «Little Girl Blue» – Janis Joplin, a cue for the sisters’ shared recollections of Jean from their childhood.

L’Enfant de Noé (Noah’s Child) par Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt: The Art of Survival

Six-year-old Joseph’s carefree life in Brussels is shattered when his mother hears rumours of an imminent Nazi round-up of Jewish families in the neigbourhood. A means of escape comes in the form of the wily, eccentric Catholic priest, Father Pons who procures false papers to enable Joseph to be concealed in an orphanage, the Villa Jaune.

This short novel is part of a series, “The Cycle of the Invisible”, which explore religious themes from a child’s viewpoint, in this case the links between Christianity and Judaism in a situation where followers of the former are perpetrating the terrible crimes of the Shoah, or genocide, against the latter.
What could prove unbearably grim is leavened by the author’s fertile imagination and dry wit, as when Father Pons muses whether it would have been better for him to be Jewish, causing Joseph to insist, “Stay Christian, you don’t realise how lucky you are!” The priest explains that the Jewish insistence on respect is more practical than the Christian emphasis on love, demanding, “Would you turn the other cheek to Hitler?”

Despite the widepread popularity of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novels and short stories, I find myself in ageement with a reviewer who suggests that the author has augmented his sales by producing short novels of less than a hundred pages, with tear-jerking themes, leaving the reader crushed beneath an “avalanche” of worthy sentiments, with a vague sense of guilt over expressing any criticism on this score.
Perhaps because I read this in a French edition designed for students, with “tricky” words defined, comprehension questions and background analysis, this seems like a book written for adolescents, to raise their awareness of the Holocaust, and grasp its impact on those who survived it. Particularly if viewed from an adult perspective, some scenes appear too far-fetched, such as the priest’s implausible scheme to hide the Jewish children when the Gestapo finally came to arrest them. Some descriptions seem too exaggerated as in the opening description of the parlous state of Joseph’s footwear.
Despite his understandable naivety, Joseph often seems too advanced for his age, as he plays the role of confidant to Father Pons, and mentor for the shamblng Rudy, ten years his senior in age. Joseph’s relationship with the priest sometimes seem too mawkishly sentimental.

The most interesting part of the novel for me was the final part with its focus on the unexpected problems of dealing with the sudden freedom of liberation, and the problems of returning to a “normal” family life and switching back from an assumed Christian to a practising Jewish life. Unfortunately, the final section appears too rushed and underdeveloped, as if the author is anxious to move on to another project. The device of Joseph eventually following in Father Pons’ footsteps, marking the modern-day Israel-Palestinian conflict by collecting two items- a Jewish kippah and Arab scarf left behind after a fight – is a little corny, but makes for a neat ending.

I found the author’s tone in an interview which concluded my edition somewhat condescending and pretentious: “the novelist makes a contract with the reader, he tells him ‘I’m going to interest you, take you by the hand and lead you on a voyage that you will not make without me; you will come across new places, unfamiliar, which perhaps frighten you, but have confidence, I will not let go of your hand and perhaps you will thank me on arrival. Courageous, delicate and firm, such must be the grip of the storyteller.’ ”

“Pour le sourire de Lenny” by Dany Rousson: “When it’s all for the best……….”

Titi is a charming young man who has fallen on hard times after being rejected by his family for having fallen into bad company. When some drunken gang members turn on him, he is rescued by Savate, a surly character, quick to anger, who has been ruined and embittered by some past traumatic events, but does not like to see a lone man outnumbered and beaten to the ground.

When the two tramps wander into the picturesque old Provençal city of Aigues-Mortes in search of work, they meet with rejection, are reduced to begging, even their tent is destroyed. Against the odds, a few charitable inhabitants, who turn out to be acquainted in some of the books too frequent coincidences, are prepared to help and give them the benefit of the doubt.

A young skateboard fanatic called Lenny strikes a lost chord in Savate who teaches him acrobatic skills learned in some previous, repressed life. When tragedy strikes, is it chance or destiny? To what extent is Savate responsible, and how will matters turn out?

Judging by the cover of the edition I read, which made me think my French reading group must have chosen a children’s book, you may be reasonably confident of a happy ending, with loose ends tied in overstated knots. Despite themes of marital breakdown, suppressed ambitions, dead-end jobs, and some appalling misfortune, this is a “feel good” book in which unpleasant events are sanitized and deep emotions are airbrushed. Characters are stereotyped into two-dimensional “good” and “bad”. Even the descriptions of the Camargue horses, the bullfights and the historic landmarks of Aigues-Mortes seem like a plug for the tourist trade.

The “do as you would be done by” dedication says it all. “To all the Savates and Titis, to the invisible people whom we could all become, you and me, if fate decided to play a dirty trick on us. To those who stretch out their hands to them and open their hearts. To hope, to life”.

If only it were so simple! It’s escapism for adults, perhaps justifiable in grim times.

“Des gens comme eux” (People like them) by Samira Sedira – “On est plus criminel quelquefois qu’on ne pense”.

In this short novel, based on a real-life shocking crime, Samira Sedira explores what could motivate “normal”, decent, mild-mannered Constant Guillot to murder five members of the Langlois family, recently moved to the fictional village of Carmac, a close-knit, insular community in rural France on the banks of the aptly named river, “La Trouble”.

The narrator, Constant’s wife Anna, begins with a lulling description of the peaceful, orderly way of life in Carmac, only to break the spell with a shocking reference to the carnage which erupted while unheeding neighbours tidied up after their evening meal. The succeeding chapters alternate between scenes of Constant’s trial, and flashbacks to reveal gradually the events leading up to the crime. These create a degree of sympathy for Constant, who has suffered some major setbacks of which the sharp practice of Bakary Langlois proves the last straw. However, acute resentment, a sense of injustice, and envy of the newcomers’ apparent wealth and flashy lifestyle provide scant mitigation for acts of such disproportionate violence. There is the suggestion that, as in real life, some of the antagonism towards Bakary was because he was black, but this theme is not developed.

There are some well-observed scenes: an awkward Christmas party to which Bakary invites his less prosperous neighbours, apparently having left it too late to arrange for his “old” friends to visit; the evening fun fair at Carmac where everyone is briefly brought together dancing to the old hit ABBA song “Dancing Queen”. Yet these do not shed much light on what led to the crime, and tend to reduce the dramatic tension.

The plot is quite disjointed, with the unsatisfactory omission of the major events, apart from Constant’s account of the murder, made all the more chilling by his dispassionate delivery at the trial. So we have to infer too much from what is implied as to, for instance, how Constant comes to be charged, how those who know him react, how Anna chooses to act when the trial was over, and so on.

Some telling insights emerge. Anna feels herself to be blamed as the wife of murderer almost as much as he is himself. She has failed to see her husband’s true evil nature in time to prevent his crime. After the event, she is criticised continually for her failure to act appropriately, for being too coldly lacking in sympathy or hysterically self-centred, too intrusively present or lacking the decency to show up when she should.

I was most struck by the observation at the end that none of those around Constant is innocent, “We all collaborated”. Perhaps it is the author’s intention to leave it to the reader to reflect on exactly what part each individual plays in triggering Constant’s violence. However, it seems a weakness that this was not more fully explored as the novel moves to its abrupt and rather weak and nebulous ending.

The idea that we are all more criminal than we think, even capable of a savage act if “pushed to the limit” may lie at the heart of this novel. However, it left me feeling somewhat unengaged and unconvinced. I was at least motivated to read about the rather different real life case of the fate of the Flactif family in Haute-Savoie in 2003, which proved quite intriguing.

Published in English as “People like them”

13 à Table! – Nouvelles: short stories by well-known French writers, written for charity

This is a collection of thirteen short stories by different well-known French writers, published annually to raise money for “Les Restos du Cœur”, the system of providing meals for those in need during the winter months, established in France by the comedian and actor Coluche.

I suggested the 2014 edition for a book group, thinking this would give ideas for future reading, including as it does the works of Pierre Lemaitre, Marc Levy, Guillaume Musso, Tatiana Rosnay and Éric-Emanuel Schmitt.

In fact, I was initially put off by the second story, Maxime Chattam’s macabre horror fantasy “Maligne”. This put me in a mood to abandon each successive story as too banal, and to wonder whether the requirement to base each theme on some aspect of food (which not every writer adhered to) and perhaps to produce the work to a deadline, not to mention a reluctance to “waste” a meaty idea for a future novel, had led to some rather mediocre contributions. When I lit on the idea of trying the stories at the end, which gives the illusion of having made progress, and picking them at random, I warmed to this book.

At least the stories are quite varied, ranging from from Marc Levy’s “Dissemblance” which is like the dialogue for a philosophical play, through Guillaume Musso’s “Fantôme” (ghosts figure a good deal in the plots) which proves to be a condensed crime thriller, Gilles Legardinier’s “Mange le dessert d’abord”, an apparently autobiographical recollection of unexpectedly memorable meals from the past , to Bernard Werber’s quirky “Langouste blues” from the viewpoint of a lobster called Bob who finds himself on the point of being cooked and eaten.

There should be something to appeal to every one. I particularly like stories which are original, focused and reveal a situation gradually, giving readers the space to form their own impressions. So I would rate among the best “Gabrielle” by Franck Thilliez. This is on the theme of a married couple, who for the past twenty-five years have travelled to a remote spot, probably in North America, to observe the hungry grizzly bears which descend from the mountains annually to eat the salmon which migrate to the bay nearby to breed in huge numbers. But what if the salmon fail to appear, or there is a failure of the generator which powers the electricity in the protective barrier round the couple’s camp? The story builds with a sense of menace, but the narrator’s tone is calm as he observes and reflects on the situation.

“Aux animaux la guerre! by Nicolas Mathieu – “Of Fangs and Talons”! – in the wake of Émile Zola?

In the Vosges, an economically depressed part of north-east of France, the loss-making Velocia car plant is due to close, adding to the problems of union leader Martel who has been embezzling funds to pay for his mother’s care home. Desperate for money, he takes the unwise step of joining with Bruno, a coke-snorting bodybuilder on a temporary contract at Velocia, to kidnap a girl on behalf of the Benbarek brothers, a pair of ruthless gangsters. Predictably, the plan goes awry.

Available in English as “Of Fangs and Talons”, in its original form the novel is a challenge for a non-French reader, by reason of the large amount of slang and colloquial speech. The initial scenes are not in chronological order, which adds to the confusion. “I owe as much to Proust as to the Sopranos”, Nicolas Mathieu has observed in an interview. By this, I assume he is referring to the lengthy passages devoted to minor events or everyday situations described in minute detail, as opposed to those of extreme, often gratuitous violence. He also seems fascinated by the psychology of bored, disaffected teenagers, whom he portrays rather well. Overall, he is clearly more interested in character, ambiance, an ironic take on the inequalities, injustices and prejudices of modern French society, than in plot.

The prologue set decades earlier in the Algeria of 1961 is presumably meant to provide the usual overused hook of violence in the form of the brutal execution of those suspected of involvement in the movement for independence from France. This has little relevance to the rest of the novel, except to indicate the unflinching lengths to which some of the characters will be prepared to go. The fragmented structure of the novel results in some major incidents being implied, or never made clear. Some banal scenes make frustrating reading since they break the dramatic tension, although in the case of the most brutal events this could be a relief. The inconclusive ending may be a stroke of genius in reflecting what real life so often turns out to be, while paving the way for a sequel, or perhaps it is simply a disappointing “cop-out”.

The debut novel of an author who went on to win le prix Goncourt for “Leurs enfants après eux”, “Aux animaux la guerre” has been made into a French TV series. I imagine the latter might “work better” in dramatic terms, but perhaps lose some of the irony which is the saving grace of this bleak, overlong novel.

“Le Dit du Mistral by Olivier Mak-Bouchard – according to the mistral…….

Mont Ventoux hikes: what not to miss | Provence Guide
Mont Ventoux

In this original, quirky novel, the unnamed narrator, let’s call him “N”, is steeped in every aspect of the Luberon, the part picturesque, part wild and dramatic mountainous area of central Provence where he has always lived: the landscapes, wildlife, legends, customs, local recipes, Occitan language and writers – and continual presence of the mistral, the unpredictable, often violent wind from the north-west.

When his retired neighbour, M. Sécaillat discovers what look like archaeological remains in his cherry orchard, N manages to persuade him not to bury them quickly in order to avoid the hassle and red tape involved in reporting them, as the law requires. Instead, taking advantage of his wife’s timely trip abroad, N somehow arranges extended leave and works with Sécaillat on a full excavation of what proves to be a hot spring with apparent healing powers, presided over by the carving of an enigmatic stone goddess. To salve their consciences, N leaves on the doorstep of the local museum cases of the “toutouros”, the clay horns which the two men have painstakingly glued together.

Will they be tracked down by local council officials or the police and fined, even imprisoned? If, on the other hand, they destroy the evidence, will they arouse the wrath of Vintur, the ancient god of the mountains, and his capricious son, “Le Mistral” wind, and if so, what form will revenge take?

Midway, this novel changes tack, drifting into a surreal mix of weird incidents, waking dreams and fantasies linked to legends, which a cynical reader might attribute largely to the narrator’s disturbed mental state and possible autism. I enjoyed the vivid sense of place supported by the possibility of locating many of the landmarks on Google images: the rare short-toed snake eagles to be glimpsed at the Madeleine Cliff, or the summit of Mount Ventoux, sometime finishing post for the Tour de France, with its memorial to the British cyclist Tom Simpson who died of heat exhaustion there. The Provençal recipes and customs are intriguing, like the tradition dating from pagan times and adopted by the Catholic church, of sowing on Saint Barbara’s Feast Day (December 4th) the seeds of corn, chick peas and lentils to represent the Trinity, destined to form part of the Christmas decorations.

I found the second part overlong, and at times too “off the rails” for my taste. I kept reading because, apart from some powerful descriptions, flashes of wry humour and learning a lot about the Luberon which I would now hope to visit, the novel is packed with useful idioms for a student of French. Although the narrator himself is not, as a few readers have noted, a particularly likeable character, who does not deserve his long-suffering wife Blanche, his well-observed white pet cat, Le Hussard (by reason of his striking black legs, which resemble the knee high military boots of a hussar), is a very appealing presence.