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.

“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.


“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.

“Le cordonnier de la rue triste” by Robert Sabatier – looking on the bright side

At first, I was put off by the twee sentimentality and the continual interjections of the coy narrator, who suggested that he might be one of the inhabitants of “la rue triste”. Yet although this short novel is not a page turner, it sucks the reader into the evocative atmosphere of a 1940s Parisian street where life goes on despite the Occupation. The last novel of the prolific French author Robert Sabatier, written in his eighties, this seems to draw on his own memories of growing up in Paris, orphaned young, apprenticed to the printing trade, drawn to literature and poetry, largely self-taught and ending up a writer.

Perhaps there is something of himself in the central character Marc, an unusually handsome boy who becomes a skilful cobbler, but loses the use of his legs as a result of an accident when pursuing his passion for running. This tragic event is somehow lightened not only by Marc’s spirit, but also the help given by an assortment of local characters: Jack-of-all- trades Paulo, resembling a comic strip character but with a talent for inventions, not least a workable wheel chair for Marc; Madame Gustave, the kindly manageress of a local bistro who keeps Marc supplied with food, or Rosa la Rose, the tart with a heart.

Every now and again, events begin to take a dramatic turn, but tend to subside like small waves on a beach. What makes this book worth reading is the poetic style, with occasional insights, such as how attempts to reconstruct the past often lack something “impalpable”, like “un reflet dans un miroir déformant”, whereas the strongest witness comes from the first-hand experience of writers like “Erich Maria Remarque”, author of “All quiet on the Western Front”. More than sixty years later, with an old man’s perspective, Marc observes with irony the individuals walking along “la rue triste” like automatons, a mobile phone to one ear, as preoccupied as if their lives depended on the call”. The gift of a TV from a grateful customer introduces him to the ludicrous world of shows in which the audience laugh at the presenter’s inane comments, and applaud not only the rights answers to simple questions but even seem to applaud themselves, like so many “performing seals”.

The novel is like an adult fairy tale, just about saved from mawkishness by some sharp dialogues and ironic humour. It also reminds me of the highly regarded “Stoner”, in its ability to capture the thoughts of “ordinary” people, and what it means to be alive.

“Le Blé en Herbe” by Colette – growing pains


Almost a century after this was written, it seems like the charming, bitter-sweet tale of Phil and Vinca, two adolescents who have been close friends and playmates since infancy. On their summer holiday in the shared house rented by their parents every summer on the Normandy coast,  there is ample opportunity for the inevitable unsettling change in their relationship mixed with the general tensions and confusion of moving from childhood to becoming an adult. The appearance on the scene of the sensual, predatory thirty-something Mme Dalleray serves to bring matters to a head.

The story is perhaps unusual for a female author in adopting for the most part the viewpoint of Phil. Insofar as I  can judge, it provides a convincing portrayal of a sixteen-year-old boy – obsessed with the female body, worrying about his future studies, frustrated by the unimaginably long time he must endure before he can reach twenty-five and be considered fully a man. We know less about Vinca’s inner thoughts. Mostly still a tomboy, she can switch rapidly to wearing a pretty dress and flirting demurely with a male visitor who admires her. Capable of strong emotional outbursts, she seems generally more self-controlled, and mature in her reasoning but also more passive than Phil, playing mother to her little sister,  prepared to stay at home and help her own ailing mother until she gets married. In this attitude, she is the natural product of the 1920s when the book was written.

Apart from the fact that it is quite well-constructed, what sets this story apart is the vivid evocation  of the shoreline and changing weather along the Normandy coast. Colette’s style is quite poetical, so difficult to translate well, but the meaning is striking and clear. The same goes for the minute description of complex chains of thought and  shifts in emotions. There are also moments of humour mixed with irony, as when Phil brings Mme Dalleray  the gift of a bunch of thistles, of a blue the colour of Vinca’s eyes. I was amused by the way Phil and Vinca viewed their parents as aimiable, unreal “shadows” (les Ombres),  to be pitied for never having been in love, and in Phil’s case finding it hard even to focus on what his father was saying.

Perhaps because the scenario is dated, the examination of Vinca-and-Phil’s love sometimes becomes overblown and cloying, verging on Mills and Boon. There is an element of chauvinism as in Phil’s sense of his right to sexual adventures,  while expecting Vinca to be “pure”, together with a kind of reverse sexism in the idea that women, whilst appearing to be dominated, may in fact manipulate men, or take the lead in the case of an older woman initiating a boy.

When first published as a novel in 1923, and later distributed as a film in 1950s America, where it was temporarily banned, this  was widely considered shocking, “immoral and obscene” because it broke taboos in dealing not only with the awakening of physical attraction between adolescents,  but also with sexual acts, although in such oblique and lyrical language that it is unlikely to cause modern readers any offence.  There is the further twist that the plot was “inspired” by Colette’s own affair with her sixteen-year-old step-son, which reduces one’s respect for her as both a person and an author, although it may contribute to the book’s ring of authenticity.

“Quatre Murs” by Kéthévane Dvarichewy – They mess you up your family….

As is often the case, although very close as children, four siblings have drifted apart into adult life. All they seem to have in common is a tendency to be troubled, even neurotic, perhaps owing to past repressed events which are gradually revealed.

In the prologue, they are brought together physically by the final visit to the childhood home which their widowed mother has decided to sell. This inevitably triggers nostalgic memories, but tension is aroused by the mother’s wish to give some of their inheritance in advance to her two younger and less successful children, the twins Elias and Rena.
The “four walls” of the title seem like a metaphor for the four adult siblings who need to decide whether they want to rebuild their relationships to prevent their family group from crumbling, once it has lost the “anchor” of the family home. To do this, they have to understand their relationships in the first place, which is hard in view of all the unspoken resentments, real or imagined guilt of the past.

A reunion with their mother two years later at the Greek holiday home purchased by elder son Saul creates a situation in which the four can reflect on the past, perhaps make a few confessions and ultimately begin to rebond. The author uses the device of taking a different view point in each chapter: that of Saul, the “intellectual”, successful but troubled former journalist; then Hélène, the internationally known creator of perfumes who has perhaps erected a false screen of not wanting either children or a man in her life; Elias, who has not achieved his potential as a pianist and is separated from his wife, and Rena who has suffered a crippling accident, leaving her dependent on a crutch, perhaps another metaphor for emotional clinging to others.

Is perception of the past changed by the passage of time, or does each individual see it in his or her own way? Memories take root differently, with hate linking us as much as love. Do only children, like their parents, make a fantasy out of having a large family, thus creating a heavy burden for their own brood of children? People worry how their children will turn out, what they can do to avoid mistakes in their upbringing, all the while finding it hard to see themselves as parents. Such are the observations produced by the characters’ continual navel-gazing.

There are some strong dialogues (sometimes hard to keep track of who is speaking), leading me to wonder if this might have worked better as a film which could also have captured visually the ambience of the childhood house, or Saul’s Greek retreat. Critics have noted the subtlety and “non-dits”, unspoken words, of this novella, so perhaps I missed some of the revelations. For me, these proved too fragmented, the details sometimes hard to follow, except when delivered in a melodramatic outburst. One could argue that the real drama lies in the reader’s freedom to speculate over what may really lie behind all the obscure hints and allusions. For instance, do incestuous feelings lie at the root of a character’s malaise? Can it be hard for the siblings in general really to love anyone outside the charmed circle of their childhood bonds, now broken without being fully satisfied by anyone else?

The French author may have been inspired by her Georgian heritage to create a family with parents who were originally Greek immigrants, one of Jewish extraction, but it was unclear to me how being immigrants influenced the essential exploration of family ties, except that feeling a little rootless may have encouraged the mother to foster excessively tight bonds between her children.

A potentially promising novella left me rather bored and disappointed with its underdeveloped characters, thin plot, and somewhat tame conclusion.