Hiver à Sokcho or Winter in Sokcho by Elsa Shua Dusapin – “When the rain-hammered sea rises like spikes on the spine of a sea urchin”

I did not expect to be so gripped by this choice for a French book group, which has also been highly praised in its English translation.

A twenty-five-year-old narrator whose name we never learn, so I shall call her “N”, returns from studies in Seoul to her home town of Sokcho, a seaside resort more dead than alive in the winter snows near the grimly surreal border zone with North Korea. N seems to feel a perpetual “outsider”, through being only half Korean, her father a French engineer “passing through” of whom she has no memories. Since the author is also half-Korean and half-French, one has to hope that this is not too autobiographical.

Into the rundown hotel where she skivvies for the grumpy Park, there appears Kerrand, a successful creator of graphic novels, with the added attraction of being French, who immediately uses N to help him buy art materials and guide him around. From the outset they are drawn to each other: both introverted, troubled and unfulfilled, which drives Kerrand to drift round the world seeking a purpose for the cartoon hero who may be his “alter ego”, while N tries to avoid facing up to her feelings by burying herself in routine tasks and clinging to the mantra that “her mother needs her”. Although on the same wavelength when discussing Kerrand’s art, they find it impossible to express, perhaps even acknowledge their emotions, as they keep making tentative advances and then withdrawing, always out of phase.

I admire the deceptive simplicity with which the author subtly conveys so much in such a short novel, with chapters rarely more than two pages, written in a clear style, switching between minute description and a kind of poetry to create vivid pictures. It is necessary to read every word to avoid missing some vital point.
Unable to predict the ending, I was not surprised that it proved ambiguous and in some respects sad, yet still somehow the right outcome of this skilfully crafted novel.

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Reading between the lines, N’s incongruous engagement to the self-absorbed male model Jun-Oh, seems most likely to be a failed attempt to ward off her mother’s continual badgering for her to get married. Repressing her frustration, N’s at times almost bulimic stuffing of food to please her mother indicates her mental distress. Portrayed as a robust character less in need of help than her daughter, her mother runs a fish stall and takes pride in her cuisine, including her licence to remove the poison-filled liver from the puffer-fish, a Korean delicacy. Food, particularly of a fishy nature, plays an important role in this book as it does in Korean life.

We are given an intriguing insight into Korean life outside the westernised bubble of Seoul: the celebration of Seollal, the Korean New Year; the social life round the jjjmjilbang, or segregated Korean bathhouse; the “haenyeo”, hardy female divers with the unfamiliar (to us) range of edible creatures they cull from the sea.
Since Kerrand is keen to be driven to the border with North Korea, N visits it for the first time, because “only the tourists come here”. “Forbidden to leave the marked track, forbidden to raise one’s voice, forbidden to laugh” they pass through no man’s land “beige and grey as far as the eye can see”, where N can only tell that the grey-uniformed figure behind the souvenir counter is alive from the blink of her eyelids. The threat from the North even extends to the beach where a summer tourist who strays over the border risks being shot by an enemy machine gun.

N guides Kerrand round the Buddhist temple at Naksan, prompted by the stone statues to relate the folktale of the serpent which the dragon, guardian of the spring, must find to make the tortoise, guardian of the winter, cede his place.

Many phrases stick in the mind: “Pavane of dead leaves in the wind” or a striking description of fishermen preparing to catch squid: the slow rhythm of their boats on the swell, the switching on of bulbs attached to cables stretched from poop to prow to attract the molluscs, the pagoda at the end of the jetty from which N can watch their “light traps part towards the open waters, a slow and proud procession, the Milky Way of the sea” – all much more beautiful in the original French.

“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.

“Kiosque” by Jean Rouaud: when trying too hard is trying

For seven years in the 1980s, Jean Rouaud financed his dream of becoming a published author by working at one of the newspaper kiosks which form such an iconic part of the Paris street scene. These kiosks seem better suited as the subject of, not a book, but a Sunday colour supplement article, illustrated to show how their design has evolved over the years: the domed roof with a curvy green frieze round the edge designed for Haussman’s Paris; the stark angular plexiglas version of the type in which Rouad worked, and the most recent, controversial version of a “walk-in” green structure shielding customers from the elements.

Rouaud has needed to pad the book out, initially with descriptions of the eccentric anarchist friend who ran the stall, the rather sad ageing men employed to run errands, the motley stream of locals who came by for their favourite paper or magazine. He includes chapters on some of the controversial modern architecture of Paris 1980s, to which he seems opposed: the famous pyramid at the Louvre or what we call “The Pompidou Centre” with its pipework displayed on the outside. He writes about his family, but bearing in mind they have been the subject of five previous books, commencing with “Les Champs d’Honneur” which eventually made his name, this seems repetitious.

Having exhausted these themes, he turns more frequently to navel-gazing, wondering why he has such an urge to write, fearing that he will be as unsuccessful as the painter who is reduced to serving on the stall as well, deriving encouragement from other writers who achieved success late like Henry Miller. He tells us how sorting the newspapers has made his writing more organised and controlled, which makes one wonder what on earth it was like before. He continues to agonise over the style he should adopt, clearly wanting both recognition and the freedom to plough his own furrow.

I found this memoir particularly hard going, not just because French is not my first language. Despite implying that he has “toned down” his preferred style, Rouaud’s sentences remain long, sometimes lasting for an entire page, and tortuously garrulous, often performing mind-boggling flits without taking a breath between several tenuously linked ideas – from an Elvis lookalike with his banana-shaped hairstyle to “primitive” Flemish painters. The style seems like a throwback to the past, pretentious and laboured, larded with heavy-handed attempts at humour which invariably turn out overdone. The subject matter oscillates between the banal and the obscure. One minute he is describing in tedious detail the process of sorting magazines, the next referring to some anecdote about an obscure writer from the past, or to an artist with whom we are assumed to be familiar. Are Chardin’s painting of a skate, for instance, or Jan Van de Meyer’s unfinished portrait of Saint Barbara so well known that there’s no need to include photos of them – and why has he digressed into writing about them anyway?

Some themes are interesting, such as Rouaud’s fascination with haiku, and his habit of recording impressions using this form, in his attempt to engage more directly with realism in his first love of poetry (although he cannot abandon the belief that “l’irréalisme poétique” can be the most effective approach). The section on how Flaubert made a transition from romantic writing to “le mot juste” of Madam Bovary could also be quite enlightening, but all these disjointed topics are jumbled together in a mentally exhausting fashion. The whole book seems to be a rambling mess of ideas which needs to be reorganised.

I suppose one could regard this book as a French equivalent of “Flaubert’s Parrot” but Julian Barnes has the knack of doing it much better. Yet this style is clearly an acquired taste which some will enjoy.