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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in English as “People like them”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Le pays des autres” by Leïla Slimani – “Other People’s Country”

The first part of a planned trilogy, this  family saga draws  on memories of Leïla Slimani’s own Franco-Moroccan heritage. 

Le pays des autres (French Edition) by [Leïla Slimani]

Mathilde, an impulsive, immature young  Frenchwoman who has grown up in Alsace,  falls in love with Amine, a Moroccan who fought for France in the Second World War, enduring captivity as a POW in the process.  A relationship which seems largely based on physical attraction is strained at times almost to breaking point by the inevitable cultural differences  which neither has anticipated.  “You can’t be serious” Mathilde exclaims on learning that they will have to live with Amine’s mother for months before he can gain access to the land he has inherited. “Here, that’s the way it goes,” is Amine’s stern response, having sat down to mask his wife’s height advantage, which might sap his authority.

When the land proves poor,  further stress hastens  Amine’s metamorphosis into a  dour workaholic, finding occasional relief only in drinking sessions with friends in local bars, his frustration too often exploding into violence which may be justified to some extent by the norms of his society .  Mathilde, it has to be said, is quite an irritating woman, yet one’s sympathy is aroused when the white colonial wives openly disparage her for “being pregnant by an Arab”.  The resilience and stoicism she develops over time are admirable, although her passive acceptance, even complicity in some of Amine’s worst actions is troubling. She goes beyond  a fleshed-out character to one who seems a mass of contradictions.

Amine  has some redeeming features. Brought up as a muslim, he shows tolerance in letting their daughter Aïsha attend a Catholic school, where the bright little girl is horribly bullied and perhaps  as a result becomes excessively pious. In the ferocious battle for Moroccan independence Amine tries to avoid taking either side, literally grafting orange on to lemon trees in the novel’s recurring metaphor. Even when at risk of losing everything during a general torching of the locality, he is able to teach his daughter that  in wars, the concept of good and bad people, along with justice, cease to apply – people we have grown up with become our enemies.

The Country of Others by [Leïla Slimani]

Yet, overall, the book is too long, laboured, repetitive and somewhat disjointed, so that the reader is left wondering what happens to a particular character, or has to  assume that certain key events have taken place. For instance, from being grindingly poor the family seems to become suddenly better off, but the process of change is unclear. Mathilde’s development as provider of an unofficial local medical centre seems implausible in the light of her other well-intentioned but half-baked projects. Conversely, some quite minor incidents are given undue coverage, before drifting away to nothing. As is often the way with French novels, there is too much “telling” rather than “showing”. So we have to receive a mini history lesson on  1950s Morocco at one point – useful, but the facts could have been woven more subtly into the  tale.

For me a shorter novel with a stronger narrative drive would have proved more engaging. As it stands, it may improve on a second reading.

“La Belle Créole” by Maryse Condé or “The Belle Créole”: No escape?

La Belle Créole (French Edition) by [Maryse Condé]

Set on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, officially an overseas department of mainland France, but with the legacy of past colonial exploitation, and ongoing tensions between former slaves and the descendants of their economic masters, the White Créoles or “békés”, the action takes place in the 1990s. This is a period of particular unrest: demands for independence from France, union-led strikes cause power cuts, mountains of waste fester uncollected, and ferocious packs of wild dogs terrorise the streets, while the rich rely on fierce hounds to protect their villas from thieves.

The novel opens with the unexpected acquittal of Dieudonné, a young black gardener charged with the murder of his middle-aged, wealthy, white employer Loraine. Since it appears unquestionable that he killed her, and he unfortunately shares a name with an infamous real-life French comedian, the reader may feel uneasy about sympathising with him. In this highly publicised case, Dieudonné is recognised wherever he goes, and opinion is divided, with some of his own relatives reluctant to give him shelter.


Covering the twenty-four hours after his release, Maryse Condé gradually reveals the circumstances of his crime, together with details of the past which shaped him. Perhaps it was the love and care for his mother Marine, crippled by an accident, which led him, after her death, to transfer his affections to Lorraine. A once beautiful woman, ambitions thwarted by poverty, Marine grew embittered after her abandonment by the wealthy man who has never lifted a finger to help their son Dieudonné. He was given a brief taste of “the good life” when the Cohens, a family visiting from abroad, took a fancy to him, taking him on trips aboard their boat, “La Belle Créole”, even letting him steer, until all contact abruptly ceased after their return home. The boat is left to rot in the marina, a refuge for Dieudonné’s criminal friends or his eccentric mentor, the penniless poet Boris – one of the novel’s larger than life characters.

The novel is peppered with Créole words which are explained in a glossary at the end of the English translation, but unfortunately not in the original French version. It is well worth making the effort to look these up in order to appreciate the book fully.

Apart from his acquittal, a series of unfortunate coincidences seem to dog Dieudonné. Yet he also makes a frustrating anti-hero in that, partly through being so damaged by life, he seems incapable of pursuing opportunities when they arise. The snare of his obsession with Loraine, his plight of how to deal with an unexpected freedom when he has lost the one person he loves, weave the at times wearisome thread binding this novel together.

Beneath this lies what is for me the essence of the novel: the vivid portrayal of Guadeloupe, with its strong sense of place combines with the searing parody of a range of often exaggerated characters to raise our understanding of life there and arouse sympathy for those like Dieudonné whose existence has been blighted by circumstance.

“La Révolte” or “The Revolt” by Clara Dupont-Monod: like father, like son or sons and mothers?

Prized for her beauty and prosperous lands, Eleanor of Aquitaine showed remarkable independence for the C12, divorcing the pious King Louis of France, to marry only a few weeks later the virile and dynamic Henry 11 of England, eleven years her junior. This relationship proved stormy: infuriated by Henry’s brutal tyranny over the nobles of Aquitaine and humiliated by his public affair with the much younger, “fair” Rosamond Clifford, Eleanor incited her three eldest sons to lead a revolt against their father. This was only the first in a series of tortuous struggles in this dysfunctional family, which we know are doomed to end badly since the youngest child is of course destined to become King John of Magna Carta fame.

The tale is mostly narrated by Eleanor’s favourite son, Richard the Lionheart. Clara Dupont-Monod’s poetic prose can be quite powerful, as in the description of the perilous crossing of the Channel to England which Henry insisted on making during a violent tempest, with a seven months’ pregnant Eleanor and her ailing infant son in the hold, pitched and tossed in a pool of seawater mixed with wine the broken barrels rolling around them. Another vivid description is Richard’s siege of the great fortress at Acre, where the catapults alternate a barrage of stones with the putrid carcasses of cattle and horses, which must land inside the walls in order to trigger an epidemic.

Yet I often felt unengaged in the narrative, largely because the focus on describing past events reduces the dramatic tension. It is so disjointed and sketchy in places that it seems essential to have some prior knowledge of the background history. Yet this creates the problem that Eleanor is not as one expects. Although clearly clever and highly educated for a woman, with her retinue of admiring troubadours, she is portrayed as cool and controlled, concerned about her children but showing them no affection (except grief for the first-born she lost), manipulating her sons to perform the acts she cannot, as a woman, carry out herself.

The Revolt by [Clara Dupont-Monod, Ruth Diver]

The lack of dialogue also distances the reader from the characters. Their rare speech tends to take the form of contrived monologues. When the new young French king Philippe offers Richard his support and soldiers to fight Henry, “Plantagenet”, yet again, it takes up more than two pages. Only near the end is there a touch of dramatic menace to imply Philippe’s dubious motives, “Look, here’s my falcon. His beak is red.”

In many ways this novel is more about Richard the Lionheart than his mother Eleanor. His acts of brutality in war, excessive even by the standards of the day; the violent rages to match those of his father; his complex relationship with his mother, in which even his wife clearly takes second place, all combine to form what could be an intriguing, if inevitably speculative psychological study, but in this, the book falls short.

I have at least been left with a strong interest in finding out more about the characters and events described, and the impressive crusader castles in the Middle East at least some of which hopefully still exist.

“Les Choses Humaines” by Karine Tuil – What price justice?

Much of this novel resembles a soap opera, with a cast of somewhat stereotyped characters in a formulaic world of the Paris media. Jean Farel is a celebrity TV presenter, a charismatic Rottweiler of an interviewer who entertains the public with his fearless attacks on famous politicians, yet behind his façade lies a terror of ageing and enforced retirement. To preserve his image, the separation from his much-younger high-flying journalist wife Claire has been concealed. Her new love is a Jewish teacher who has been fired from his job at a strictly orthodox school because of this affair. Meanwhile, Jean and Claire have failed to take on board the degree to which their academically brilliant son Alexandre has been emotionally damaged by his upbringing.

The plot is punctuated with reference to real-life sexual scandals, beginning with the “hook” of the Monica Lewinsky affair while Claire was supposedly employed as an intern at the White House although this may mean little to readers too young to remember the Clinton presidency. Would-be French president Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s career-destroying encounter with a hotel maid, and the attacks on young women in Cologne, supposedly by young muslim men recently given sanctuary there under Merkel’s controversial acceptance of a million refugees, underpin the theme of how men tend to exploit and abuse women, at what cost, and how society should respond.

I never grasped the relevance of the short prologue which describes the process of preparing to shoot a gun, which seems to take too far the technique of trying to “hook” the reader from the outset. Beginning Chapter 1 with some rather overblown scene-setting descriptions delivered via indigestibly overlong sentences, the drama builds gradually with a string of cliffhangers, some strong dialogues, and moments of black farce. It culminates in a court case, sensationalised by the media, over what appears to be a serious sexual crime, in which the person in the dock turns out to be not the only one on trial. Right to the last page, it paints a somewhat bleak and cynical picture of western society – at least in middle-class Paris and New York.

At times, some quite profound reflections on, for instance, the definition of rape, the penalties which should be imposed for it, and changing attitudes, as with the impact of recent movements like #MeToo and #Balance ton porc, rise up through the plot twists of a steamy soap designed to entertain. The most powerful, even moving, chapters are those where the prosecuting and defence lawyers sum up their respective cases.

I suspect that this novel may fall between more than two stools by offending some feminists on one hand, those who find some details too sordid on another, and also disappointing readers who judge the disconnection between spiced-up satire and insightful analysis too great. Although this novel did not entirely work for me, apart from providing some useful practice in reading French, it did prompt me to reexamine my own gut feelings and prejudices.