“Cheri” by Colette: a question of age.

Cheri (Vintage Classics) by [Colette]

Although I read this in French, I bought the English version featured here to help me cope with some of the more obscure passages in the original French, and as a translation it captures the spirit of the classic novel.

With her wry wit, strong sense of place, concise, vivid descriptions and minute dissection of her characters’ shifting emotions, Colette was a talented writer, even if her novels now seem dated, perhaps in particular this novel set in the Paris of the idle rich around 1900. Too handsome for his own good, both neglected and indulged from birth by his ghastly mother Charlotte, a courtesan who has done well for herself, Chéri (aka Fred!) has for six years been the lover of her rival and friend of a sort, the beautiful, high class “tart with a heart”, Léa, twenty-four years his senior. So what will happen when Charlotte marries him off to a “suitable” young girl? Does Chérie love Léa mainly as the caring mother he never had? Does Léa love Chérie as a means of keeping at bay the physical decline into old age which she does not want to face? Is this the tragedy of two people who, beneath all the banter and bickering, have a genuine love for each other, more than just intensely physical, yet the great difference in their ages makes it impossible for them to make a permanent life together?

I found this quite hard to read in the original French, because of the old-fashioned vocabulary relating to the past culture and fashions of the day, so had to resort to an English translation to check on a few points. For instance, “pneumatiques” turned out to be the “petits bleus” telegrams sent round Paris in metal tubes (via the sewers!).

Apart from Léa and the unfortunate young wife Edmée, the characters are fairly unappealing, not least the petulant, capricious Chéri, clearly unfulfilled, bored and desperately in need of some useful occupation. The dialogues are often quite funny, and the emotionally charged climax in which Léa and Chéri finally express themselves honestly is powerful and revealing, but there is a shallowness to their lives which is rather depressing. Since Colette’s own life was clearly often driven by strong physical passions, I have probably not interpreted the book in the way she had in mind.

An intriguing footnote is that Colette herself had an affair in her late forties with a teenage step-son, I believe after having written this book which perhaps enacts a long-held personal fantasy. This relationship apparently inspired “Le Blé en Herbe, which I would recommend more. The work by Colette which I most admire is the semi-autobiographical, “La Naissance du Jour”.

“Un brillant avenir” by Catherine Cusset: “bitter sweet”

Un brillant avenir (Folio t. 5023) (French Edition) by [Cusset, Catherine]

As an opening hook, the portrayal of Helen, an elderly woman frustrated by her husband’s dementia but traumatised by his sudden death and apparent suicide, may not seem at all compelling. It turns out to be a family saga, with the focus on Helen, née Elena in post-war Communist Romania and destined to marry Jacob, a handsome young Jewish man, in the teeth of the ingrained anti-semitism of Ceaușescu’s bigoted, inward-looking regime, which drives her to seek emigration first to Israel and then the United States to obtain a better future for her adored only son, Alexandru.

Written in a clear and simple style, with a strong focus on the minutiae of daily life, this novel feels very authentic, but too often also banal, even boring. This contrasts with the complexity resulting from the decision to alternate chapters back and forth in time, which proves a little disjointed and confusing at times, giving the reader the benefit of additional insight into events, but at the cost of destroying some of the potential for dramatic tension.

Although Helen is not a particularly likeable character, given to emotional, hysterical, manipulative behaviour, the author develops a detailed character study which enables one to empathise with her at many points in the story and to understand the forces which have shaped her. The same applies to her French daughter-in-law Marie, much more laid back and unconsciously thoughtless with a sense of entitlement born of a more relaxed and free upbringing. The tension between the two women and the relationship which they eventually achieve weaves a strong thread through the narrative.

For me, this reads like a series of short stories based on the same characters, which gradually caught my interest through a few striking incidents. For instance, there is the irony in how, having battled and plotted to get married, Helen and Jacob commit the same error as her parents in trying to prevent their son Alexandru’s marriage to Marie, because she is French, so it is assumed will take their son away to a distant land where he will find it harder to realise his “brilliant career”. Then there is the poignant moment when Helen, in the violent grip of labour, waits in a taxi en route for the hospital while her mother takes an inordinate time to appear: it as this point that Helen decides that her adopted mother cannot, as rumour has it, be her birth mother, since the latter would never let her suffer in this way. Another striking scene is when, having taken advantage of Jacob’s Jewishness to escape to Israel, Helen realises that her precious son is destined for a spell in the Israeli army, where her overactive imagination leaves him in no doubt that he will either be killed or maimed. There is also a convincing and moving portrayal of widowhood.

The novel seems to contain “jewels” of insight and observation, together with some realistic experiences, set in a somewhat tedious paste.

“Mourir sur Seine” – a tall ship tale

Mourir sur Seine: Best-seller ebook (ROMAN) (French Edition) by [Bussi, Michel]

This is the third novel by Michel Bussi which I have read partly as a relatively painless way of practising my French, but also because I was so impressed by the originality and ingenuity of “Nymphéas Noirs”.

Trademark features of his works seem to be a strong sense of place to which one can readily relate from firsthand experience, or simply by googling images, and development of some historical theme to trigger or embellish a modern-day crime. In this case we have the Seine at Rouen as the setting for the excitement and visual feast of the “Armada”, the five yearly display of sailing ships from around the world which draws millions of visitors. This is a cue for tales of the pirates, buccaneers-cum-explorers from the past with their “chasse-partie” codes of honour, and dreams of utopia to be funded by booty which too often ended up lost overboard or stolen, to tantalise modern treasure hunters. Added to the mix are the quaint half-timbered houses of Rouen’s historic centre, including the macabre symbols of the plague carved into the ancient beams of the “aître” of Saint-Maclou, together with, in nearby Villequiers in a meander of the Seine, the statue of Victor Hugo, head in hand, and the remarkable stained glass church window portraying pirates boarding a ship.

With the Armada in full swing, a charismatic young Mexican sailor is found stabbed to death, his body marked with five curious tattoos (of a tiger, shark, crocodile etcetera), and branded with a hot iron. Led by Commissaire Gustav Parturel, who had banked on a crime-free period in which to enjoy the Armada with his two young children, the police make heavy weather of what soon becomes an escalating conundrum. Due to a mixture of foolhardy risk-taking and improbable luck, highly sexed journalist Maline Abruzze obtains vital information to help them to identify the arch-villain and avert a worse tragedy.

This may well sound a little hackneyed and corny. Certainly, the characters tend to be either stereotypes like the irascible Parturel whose family life has broken down under the pressure of his devotion to solving crime, or highly caricatured, such as the impossibly handsome Olivier Levasseur (named after a pirate ancestor, needless to say), Director of Press Relations for the Armada, whom the supposedly liberated Maline sets out to seduce before he can take the initiative himself.

The highly contrived and at times rather tediously written plot with its stilted dialogues relies heavily on coincidences, people arriving simultaneously at the same spot, or on highly implausible events which it would create too many spoilers to reveal. It is formulaic in revealing early on a mysterious puppet-master with a female accomplice, and in following the clichéd path to a climax in which he brags about his crimes (just in case we had failed to work them out) with arrogant complacency before carrying out his planned coup de grâce.

The novel seems to be mainly highly rated, presumably by those who in their addiction to crime thrillers are prepared to overlook these shortcomings, but I think that my secondhand copy of “Maman à tort” may well be my last Bussi novel.

“Le Monte-charge” or “Bird in a Cage” by Frédéric Dard: the fickle finger of fate

Le monte-charge (FREDERIC DARD) (French Edition) by [DARD, Frédéric]

Four years after his mother’s death, narrator Albert Herbin returns to her flat in which he has not set foot for six years and is filled with nostalgia for his childhood and their close relationship. What is the reason for his long absence? Why has he not cleared the place, even to the extent of removing a dead branch from a pot? Why is he so alone, half wanting to be recognised and half fearing it as he wanders the local streets while everyone else is celebrating Christmas? Daring to enter a post restaurant, his attention is drawn to the small child and attractive woman at the adjacent table who reminds him of his past love Anna – but how did she come to die?

As the details of Albert’s life are revealed, he is drawn inexorably into a fateful series of events which make him accessory to a serious crime, but how will it all end?

Bird in a Cage by [Dard, Frédéric]

Reminiscent of Hitchcock, this is one of the most ingenious just about plausible plots I have come across, full of twists leading to an unpredictable outcome, sustaining a powerful sense of anticipation and tension, yet managing at the same time to develop characters, create sympathy for those who have committed horrific acts, and conveys a strong sense of place. Even the abrupt, ambiguous open ending is masterful when you come to reflect on it.

The French title is a play on words, linking the “monte-charge” or cage-like lift, which plays an important part in the tale, to the Christmas tree trinket of a little velvet bird in a spangled cage which Herbin buys on an impulse. This has been translated in the English version as “Bird in a Cage” which has a further double meaning which it would be a spoiler to explain.

The French is so clear and expressive that I imagine it translates easily into a compelling read in English, all contained in a short, well-constructed story which could be read in a single sitting. Made into a film in the 1960s, the book has a cinematic quality, although I think it must lose some of its tension, subtlety and irony in the process.

“Mersault, contre-enquête” by Kamel Daoud – just existence. Translated as “The Mersault Investigation”

It is not an entirely original idea to reverse a situation found in the plot of a famous classic, as did Jean Rhys when she wrote “Wide Sargasso Sea” from the viewpoint of Mr Rochester’s wife Bella in “Jane Eyre”, before she married him and was incarcerated in his house as a lunatic.

In this novel, the Algerian author has focused on the younger brother of the anonymous Arab shot by the Frenchman Mersault in the disorienting, blinding sunlight over the shimmering sea off an Algiers beach in Camus’s exploration of absurdism in the context of a pointless murder.

Kamel Daoud portrays the victim’s brother whom he names Haroun, to be found, several decades after the shooting, reminiscing in a local bar to the visitor from France who has come to probe him about the murdered Arab in the novel.

Haroun is embittered by the appalling effect of the death on his life. Not only did he lose the kindly young man who supported him after their father had abandoned the family, but their mother was clearly driven mad by the event, continually searching for the body, the lack of which to provide irrefutable evidence of her son’s death meaning that she has been unable to claim a pension. She appears emotionally cold towards the surviving son whom she seems to have resented for being the one to survive. The discovery that the murder has become the topic of a best-selling novel, bringing fame and fortune to the writer, only adds to the sense of outrage. Yet the ultimate insult is the failure to give the victim a name, remedied here by the information that it was in fact “Moussa”. ( It seems that the brothers names are Moses and Aaron in English).

Strictly speaking, this is not a counter-enquiry into a murder, but a somewhat cynical portrayal of Algeria, post the trauma of civil war and independence, casting an absurdist light on the religious bigotry used as a tool of social control, the enduring poverty, stagnation, corruption and betrayal of vision .

It is beneficial to have read “l’Étranger” first because of the frequent references made to it. When I reread it after finishing “Mersault, contre-enquête”, I was struck by how often Daoud mirrors events in the earlier novel: in “L’Étranger” (The Outsider), the opening sentence tells us that “maman” has died today, whereas in the later novel, “maman” is still alive. Just as Mersault describes his close observation of the comings and goings in the street below the balcony of his apartment, Haroun portrays the view from his overlooking the busy square which represents a microcosm of life in Algiers. In this, both create a strong sense of place.

Similarly, Mersault’s expression of his atheism, and his existentialist view of the absurdity of life (although he does not use these terms), reactions which so outrage both his defence and the prosecution, are imitated by the narrator Haroun’s ranting against God and the influence of the mosque. This led to the issue of a fatwa against the real-life author for blasphemy, which rather seems to justify his criticisms.

Note the parallel irony: whereas Mersault’s essential crime seems to be that he did not show grief at his mother’s funeral, for Haroun it is that he killed a Frenchman in symbolic revenge after Algeria gained independence rather than before.

Although this book has won much praise, I was sorry to find it extremely repetitive, too meandering, with a frequently somewhat overblown style as read in the original French. There are a few striking passages such as the description of the narrator’s mother’s face in old age: a kind of amalgam of the faces of all his ancestors, passing judgement on him. Although only about 150 pages in length, the novel seems too long for its thin substance. Each time I returned to it, I kept losing interest after a few pages, and had to force myself to read to the end for a book group. The failure to appreciate its style may be a fault on my part because I am more accustomed to and prefer a spare and concise approach more common in “western culture”.

This novel also reminded me of the much more engrossing “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, perhaps because it employs the same device of a narrator button-holing someone to unburden himself, Ancient Mariner-wise.
Based on an interesting premise with great potential, this novel could have been executed better. Prompted to reread “L’Étranger”, the clarity of the prose, narrative drive and tighter structure defined for me why that is the superior novel, even though Mersault’s almost autistic lack of emotion and engagement in an absurd world is less explicable than Haroun’s very understandable anger over his lot.

It also struck me that, for Camus, the book is located in Algeria, his country of origin but existentialism is the main point, whereas for Douad, the tragedy of the failed project of Algerian independence is a major concern. His novel misses the mark partly because the author seems to lose sight of his fundamental aims.

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.