“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.

“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.

“Sombre Dimanche” – a real life in Budapest

 

This is my review of “Sombre Dimanche”  by Alice Zeniter.

Although not explained by the author, the title “Sombre Dimanche” is inspired by the famous Hungarian song of that name, written in the 1930s with lyrics at first despairing over war, later portraying a man considering killing himself following his lover’s suicide. This song was widely banned in Hungarian jazz clubs for fear of driving people to copycat deaths, and later censored in its English version by the BBC, as likely to depress people too much in wartime.

Alice Zeniter’s novel is unlikely to have quite such a drastic effect, since the chapter of accidents which befall the main characters often seems too ludicrous to be taken seriously. Had this been written consistently as a social satire, or black family comedy, it might have been more effective. In fact, it is a hotpotch of “genres”, in addition to the above: part historical novel covering the period from World War 2, through the imposition of Soviet communism, abortive Hungarian uprising of 1956, collapse of Russian domination in 1989, and resultant messy embrace of western capitalism and “democracy”; part family saga; part “coming-of-age” novel from boy to manhood – interesting challenge for an ambitious young female writer; part literary tragedy.

The limitations of this novel disappointed me after having been so impressed by the author’s subsequent novel “L’Art de Perdre” or “Art of Losing”. This saga of a “Harki” Algerian family forced to take refuge in France after Algeria gained its independence because the head of the family had fought briefly for the French in WW2, gave me a more vivid grasp of the history of this traumatic period than I had gleaned from other sources.

“Sombre Dimanche” is by contrast quite disjointed. With the fundamental shortcoming of “telling” rather than “showing”, it flits confusingly between time periods and characters, lacking a clear narrative drive. Political events form a fragmented, unclear background. The overwhelming impression is of the passivity and what seems like spineless resignation to their fate of the main characters: Imre Mandy, his sister Ági and disconnected father Pál, offset by the cantankerous grandfather, who loathes the Russians, but the Germans marginally more. It could be that their wooden house, more suited to a rural setting and so incongruous in its triangle of garden in central Budapest, surrounded by rail tracks from which thoughtless train passengers hurl their empty plastic bottles, is a metaphor for a landlocked Hungary subject to waves of marauding invaders. However, one is mostly irritated by Imre’s lack of maturity and Ági’s lack of resilience, and left with the sense that they find a kind of contentment and security in their self-imposed isolation and narrowness of vision and life.

There are a few striking or insightful passages, as when the pubescent Imre becomes fascinated by a woman at the public baths, even when he realises that she is in fact quite old. Years later, the profound gulf between him and his German wife is indicated by her delight in having found the “real” Hungary in the vigorous men performing traditional dances in their native costume, whereas Imre can see the dangerous right-wing nationalism akin to Nazism in their behaviour. However, what may be intended as the climax of the book in the form of a self-exculpatory letter written by the grandfather fails to convince. Having been rendered speechless by a stroke, how could he write so lucidly at such length, and how can he show such empathy and humility after years of ranting, boorish tyranny?

Whereas Alice Zeniter’s Algerian heritage gave “L’Art de Perdre its authenticity, living and working in Budapest for a few years has given her the ideas for an interesting novel, but promising ingredients seem half-whipped into a flat soufflé.

Year of the Drought: rural cataclysm

This is my review of Year of the Drought  by Ronald Buti.

During the intense summer drought of 1976, which all who lived through it can never forget, thirteen-year-old Gus is growing up on the family farm in French-speaking Switzerland. In what seems at first like a slow-burning, even somewhat bland “coming of age” novel, narrated years later by Gus himself, what really held my attention was the expressive clarity of the writing: the vivid descriptions of the merciless, monotonous heat, the parching of the countryside; the close observations of the working of a farm, the unrelenting hard labour, and vulnerability of the business, in particular the chicken shed in which Gus’s father has borrowed heavily to invest; the gradual revelation of relationships within what initially seems a stable family, seen through the eyes of an unusually thoughtful and perceptive boy, still too young to understand fully what is going on.

For Gus, his father Jean is a rock, unflagging in his physical and mental strength. A peasant at heart, there is a certain rigidity in his attitudes, yet also signs of his essential decency in, for instance, his decision to employ a simple-minded relative Rudy, who would otherwise have been consigned to an asylum which would have driven him totally mad, whereas on the farm he can at least be useful. Jean clearly loves his graceful, child-like wife, yet fails to see her needs, as, married too young, she slaves away at household tasks, too busy to show Gus the love and attention he craves, and with tell-tale sign of stress in the perpetual respiratory problems which may well be psychosomatic.

Apart from helping on the farm, Gus spends his summer caring for the stray dove which has lost its wings in a mishap, exercising Bagatelle, his grandfather’s semi-catatonic, incontinent old draught horse (whose droppings he has to collect), sparring with his disdainful elder sister Léa, half-playing, half-fumbling with the quirky adolescent Mado who pursues him with persistence, all the while slipping into a cartoon-like fantasy world. There is a good deal of irony and humour in all this, as when Gus imagines that the giant, windowless chicken incubator is a mysterious distant planet whose toxic atmosphere contains mutant bacteria with the power to penetrate his tissues in the cunning intention of assuming his appearance.

In reality, it is his stable world that is penetrated by the arrival of his mother’s new friend Cécile, the provocative, opinionated sun-tanned hippy, supposedly needing a place to stay after splitting up with her husband. The story then gathers pace and builds inexorably to a crisis worthy of Thomas Hardy in his darkest mood, or a Greek tragedy. I found the final chapter something of an anti-climax, but perhaps as “the calm after the storm” it was effective. If it struck a note of resignation, a sense of our insignificance in the scale of things, that is maybe what the author intended.

Le Train by Georges Simenon


This is my review of  “The Train”   by Georges Simenon.

This slim novel, not part of the Maigret series, establishes Simenon’s right to be considered one of the last century’s greatest writers, in fact Belgian rather than French as commonly supposed. With great clarity and concision, making the process seem effortless, he paints a vivid portrait of an unplanned snap decision to flee in advance of the German invasion of Belgium and France in 1940. He explores both the general sense of unreality, in which one’s past life recedes rapidly, perhaps to the point of appearing never to have existed, and also the freedom to experiment and to live in a new and different way that a disruption like war can bring. At least some of this authenticity must result from the time Simenon spent organising Belgian refugees in France.

Despite having a heavily pregnant wife and young daughter, with little experience of life outside the quiet, conventional small town of Fumay, Marcel Feron does not hesitate to abandon his radio repair business to join the hordes at the railway station clamouring to board the next available train. When the family is separated from the outset, wife and daughter sent to a carriage with the atmosphere of a dentist’s waiting room while Marcel is consigned with the other men to one normally used to carry livestock, he is not unduly concerned. Even when the train is split in two parts, and he has no clue as to his family’s whereabouts, he does not lose his cool. In fact, his calmness seems implausible, even unnatural, until one grasps that he has a fatalistic attitude to life, it would seem owing to previous traumatic experiences on a par with war, such as the memory of his mother brought home naked and head shaved as a punishment for fraternising with German soldiers while her husband was absent fighting in World War 1. Four years as a teenager in a TB sanatorium have also made him innately something of a self-contained loner.

At the same time, the experience of being a refugee en route to an unknown destination, of being abruptly uprooted from everything and everyone familiar to him, is in a strange way liberating. So, without ceasing to love his wife and daughter, he is able to enter easily and without any torturing sense of guilt into a relationship with Anna, the enigmatic, penniless young foreign woman who is clearly vulnerable without his support. He knows that their love has no future, but accepts the situation, simply trying to make the most of it. “Ce qui arriverait, je l’ignorais. Personne ne pouvait le prévoir. Nous vivions un entr’acte, horse de l’espace, et je dévorais ces journées et ces nuits avec gourmandise”. Quite what Anna thinks we are never told, although her own past troubles seem to have made her expect very little, other than to survive.

In later life he writes a secret journal of these events, kept under lock and key. He wants his children to read it one day, to realise he was not the conventional, unadventurous man, incapable of passion that they may imagine.

A final shocking twist at the end leaves one with a sense of ambiguity, uncertain and conflicted as how to judge him as a man. It seems that in real life, Simenon may have been a bit lacking in courage if not exactly a collaborator in France, which may have made him well-placed to invite us to empathise with a flawed man who puts pragmatism and self-interest above bravery and risk-taking.