“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.

Ulysse from Bagdad: Rendez-vous with nowhere

 

This is my review of  Ulysse from Bagdad by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.

When a relative is tortured for no reason by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, teenager Saad Saad decides to become a rebel on the basis that if he is to be punished one day, it might as well be for a cause. On learning this, his eccentric librarian father introduces him to the store of “subversive” banned books he has hidden away rather than destroy as instructed. Following the violent deaths of his father and three brothers-in-law, Saad Saad abandons his law studies to support his family, until his mother orders him to travel abroad to earn enough money to keep them. So begins his Odyssey of trials and tribulations from Baghdad to his goal of London, loosely modelled on the voyage of Odysseus or Ulysses, with heroin-guzzling companions in the role of “Lotus eaters”, a one-eyed jailor for a Cyclops, a deafening heavy metal girl pop band for Sirens, the blonde Sicilian who, Circe-like, might just deflect and so on, the difference being that Ulysses was travelling away from war to reach home, whereas Saad Saad is obliged to leave his war-torn country to build a new life in an alien land.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is one of the most widely read French writers in the world. A graduate in philosophy, he has a talent for applying this in popular terms to a variety of moral themes of current concern. I admire Schmitt’s skill as a wordsmith, no pun intended, and the quirky originality of his short stories in “Concerto à la mémoire d’un ange”, but here, in employing black farce to ease the bleakness of the theme of illegal migration into Europe, he has strayed too far into absurdity for my taste. An example of this is the dead father’s tendency to pop up at odd moments to deliver jocular homilies and wisecracks to his son. When the two hydrophobic natives of landlocked Iraq have to cross the Red Sea, the father relies on the spirit world to get him across, while Saad Saad resorts to demanding a massive dose of the heroin he has previously rejected to get himself to the far shore.

The author is apparently widely used for teaching texts in schools and colleges, and I agree that this novel could be an effective way of introducing teenagers to the moral dilemmas posed by the pressures for modern mass migration. Even what Schmitt fails to cover could be brought into the analysis. As it is, his focus seems to be on the artificial nature of current boundaries, the dangers of the nationalism they tend to create, the debt which the wealthy West owes the poorer countries it has exploited. The over-arching case for migration is found in the prologue and repeated continually, namely “the lottery of birth” which dictates whether one is born into peace, prosperity and opportunity or the reverse. At no point does the author consider the conundrum of how to implement controls on migration to prevent the destruction of the stable culture which draws people in the first place. The nearest he gets to questioning migration is the portrayal of the kind of London district in which a migrant is likely to end up: an overcrowded room with a view of wet, black chimneys coated in greasy pollution , surrounded by sex shops, smelly dustbins and vomit outside pubs.

The book strikes me as somewhat formulaic and contrived, in that it strings together, admittedly with some imaginative flair, widely known facts about the state of Iraq or the ruses and perils migration. So we have the toppling of Saddam’s statue, the attempt to escape from the country via a fundamentalist band or shipping stolen artifacts, the ploy of losing one’s papers, the frustrating limbo of the refugee camps and ordeal of overloaded boats in stormy seas.
Most of the characters are caricatures, implausible, like the father, or two-dimensional as in Saad’s sketchily drawn relationship with Leila. Too often, the players express their ideas in a kind of condensed rant. Saad appears to be a vehicle for the author’s ideas and wit: his “voice” is too westernised and objective in lines of thought and observations , perhaps because Saad has read so many “subversive” foreign books.“Ulysse from Bagdad

Chanson Douce or Lullaby by Leila Slimani – nanny state


This is my review of   Chanson Douce“Lullaby” in its English translation) by Leila Slimani Ground down by motherhood, despite loving her two small children, Myriam eagerly accepts a former colleague’s offer of a high-flying position in his law form. The problem of finding a suitable nanny is easily resolved in the form of Louise, who not only forms an immediate bond with the children but proves a superb cook, even producing delicious dinner parties for the envious friends of Myriam and her husband Paul,  also bringing order to their Paris apartment with her efficient juggling of laundry, cleaning and tidying up.

We know that this C21 Mary Poppins is too good to be true, since it is no “spoiler” to reveal the opening chapter, in which the two children are found dead or dying, having been stabbed by  Louise before turning the knife on herself.  If one can get past this harrowing debut, the novel is an absorbing psychological “whydunnit”, which explores the chain of events leading to Louise’s mental disintegration,  even enabling us to feel some sympathy for her in the process.

This gruesome theme is apparently triggered by real events: a Dominican nanny’s brutal murder of her charges in New York plus the author’s own memories of her parents worrying that a nanny had insinuated herself into their family to an alarming degree. As a former journalist, Leila Slimani clearly likes to base her novels on real events, and the comparisons made between Chanson Douce  (meaning Lullaby) and Gone Girl in terms of a shocking, drip-feed page-turner suggest that she has an eye for a money-spinning yarn.

Yet, this novel also has deeper underlying themes which I found of greater interest than the perhaps stereotyped portrait of a growing psychosis. There is  the examination of the tensions involved in how many couples with children find themselves living now. The nightmarish scenario is rooted in the guilt felt by many professional women over their attempts to combine a career with a family, in the face of the disapproval  often expressed by older women – parents and school teachers, who  perhaps having stifled their own aspirations to devote themselves to their offspring suggest that being raised by a string of nannies, subjected to after-school clubs and channelled into “quality time” may damage a child’s emotional development.

Another thought-provoking  aspect of the book is the plight of the nannies themselves,  effectively working class servants in a middle class home, often young immigrants coping with an unfamiliar culture. The relationships exist in a precarious balance which may  be upset by too much playing at friendly equality on the part of the employers, to be clumsily retracted if the nanny’s  care suddenly conflicts with their attitudes and values  – as in the case of Louise inadvertently enraging Paul by making up his little daughter to look like a tart in his estimation. Often, the nannies’ personal problems are of no interest to their employers, frankly an irritation if these get in the way of their work. Only when it is  too late does an unexpected sighting of Louise arouse in Myriam for the first time an intense curiosity as to what she does when she is not with the family.

Although I understand why this is a best-seller, the failure to portray the parents’ reactions following the tragedy seems an omission.  I was disappointed by the weak, abrupt ending, as if the author did not know how to conclude it.

“Les Sauvages” – The Savages

This is my review of  Les Sauvages , (Savages  translated into English) by Sabri Louatah.

Fatherless cousins Krim and Slim are off the rails in Book 1 of Sabri Louatah’s black farce, a four part saga of the French Algerian Nerrouche family of Kabyle origin – be prepared to look things up to get the most out of this novel. The focus is on Slim’s traditionally flamboyant wedding into a somewhat contemptuous Arab family. It is not explained how this union came about, although I may have missed this, and a good deal more, through reading it in French. In scenes peppered with untranslated Kabyle phrases, Wollah! Allouar!, the family members seem blind to the plight of gay Slim, plagued by a transvestite Romanian gypsy lover.

Krim, who is the main character if one is to be found in the meandering plot as it deviates down apparent cul-de-sacs, which may of course become relevant in a future sequel, is permanently stoned, a casual thief, who has fallen under the control of a sinister fundamentalist cousin, Nazir. His menace is perhaps strengthened because he remains an obscure figure throughout, but the narrative would be more coherent if we were gradually fed more about him and the reasons for the break-down in relations with his charming, westernised brother Fouad.

In a blend of real-life characters with fiction, the wedding takes place against the background of a ground-breaking election which is gripping the public, for Nicolas Sarkozy seems likely to be beaten by the first Arab to become President of France, namely the charismatic Chaouch. Native French voters are not the only ones to be apprehensive or aghast. Although wildly popular with those of Arab origin, Chaouch is clearly anathema to some Islamic groups.

The decision to have the book’s action take place over the course of the wedding seems an unnecessary straitjacket. It could be argued to increase the tension, but in fact makes for a sense of disjointed confusion, with chapters digressing into unlikely, even ludicrous interludes as characters leave the ceremony, or indulge in lengthy contrived conversations to “set the scene”.

The author’s first-hand knowledge of Kabyle culture creates a sense of authenticity and his love of American series like ER gives a filmic, televisual feel to “Les Sauvages” which some may enjoy. However, I was initially worn down by the tedium of indigestible exposition and the plethora of stereotyped rather than three dimensional characters, often with confusingly similar names (Farid, Farés, Fouad etcetera).

Krim comes the closest to arousing some sense of engagement and empathy, despite his actions: he is clearly musical, appreciates the traditional singing of Lounis Ait Menguellet (which can be heard on YouTube) and has genuine feeling for his extended family. But perhaps the sense that he has been “driven mad” by some yet-to-be explained situation, rather than “become bad”, could have been implied more clearly yet subtly. When genuine feeling is shown between characters, it is too often sentimental and corny, as in the affectionate scene between Chaouch and his glamorous wife.

The plot gathers momentum if not plausibility towards the end, but for the most part seems out of kilter, with too much time spent on “minor” characters and events for which the circumstances are unclear. The novel has a raw energy, but I wonder how much time the author spent on refining it. There are plenty of ingredients for an impressive novel, but that would have been much harder to craft. I find Houellebecq’s novel about an Arab French President superior, partly because it is better written, but am I being a literary snob and does it lack the vitality of “Les Sauvages”?

Television-series style, the ending leaves multiple loose threads for the sequel which I may read, if only because it appears to have a tauter structure.