Category Archives: France

The School for Misfit Children: Such Fine Boys by Patrick Modiano

The Modiano titles that I’ve read so far, Little Jewel, Suspended Sentences, and this latest novel published by Yale University Press, all have a mysterious yet emotionally languid quality to them.  It is both odd and compelling to mix these tones in a narrative but the author does it, quite successfully, in all three of these books.

Such Fine Boys describes a French boarding school for boys in the mid-twentieth century.  Modiano’s description of The Valvert School in the first few pages of the book is strange and even a bit dark:

The Valvert School For Boys occupied the former property of a certain Valvert, who had been an intimate of the comte d’Artois and accompanied him into exile under the Revolution.  Later, as an officer in the Russian army, he fell at the Battle of Austerlitz, fighting against his own countrymen in the uniform of the Izmailovsky Regiment.  All that remained of him was his name and a pink marble colonnade, now half ruined, at the back of the park.  My schoolmates and I were raised under that man’s morose tutelage, and perhaps some of us, without realizing it, still bear the traces.

The fourteen chapters in Such Fine Boys each contain a different story about a boy who attended the school.  The young men that attend Valvert come from wealthy, aloof families who don’t have very much time to spend with their children and as a result they become melancholy, feckless adults.   Most of the stories are told from the first person point-of-view by a man who is a former student at the school named Patrick.  The author shares more than a name with his protagonist since Modiano also spent most of his young life in a French boarding school and saw very little of his parents.  Another oddity of the novel is that two of the stories are told by a different narrator, another former student named Edmond who becomes a minor actor in a traveling theater troupe.

The narrator’s interaction with each of the boys at Valvert is overshadowed by a mysterious set of circumstances.  A boy named Michel Karve, for example, is described as having a cold and formal relationship with his parents who don’t visit very often.  Even though Michel’s parents are wealthy, the boy wears badly fitting clothes and is fed simple meals while his parents dine out with friends.  Michel sends the narrator to his parent’s apartment to retrieve his few belongings and never wants to have anything to do with his parents again.  As is typical in all fourteen vignettes in the book, the narrative raises many questions about Michel’s circumstances that are never fully explained.

The chapter that best illustrates the languid tone of Modiano’s stories is the one which describes an old schoolmate named Alain Charell. When the narrator meets Alain by chance at the Gare du Nord he reminisces about the boy he knew at school: “What had become of his parents? His father, with his saffron-yellow hair and mustache, looked like a major in the Indian Colonial forces.  Had they disappeared, like their lawn and their Trianon?  I didn’t dare ask.”  Alain and his wife, Suzanne, have a bizarre open marriage and have sex with random strangers while the other spouse listens in the next room.  They both seem to take quite a few drugs and one night, in particular, Suzanne suffers from the affects of whatever substance they are ingesting as she must be held up and taken to the restroom by her husband.

One night while the narrator is sleeping he receives a startling phone call from Alain who insists that he and his wife must see him. Alain says on the phone, “Come right away.  It’s urgent.”   When the narrator arrives at a brassiere, no details about the importance of such a sudden meeting are given; they sit for a while in the crowded restaurant and they eventually take a walk around the deserted city.  The only word I could think of to describe these bizarre events and the tone with which they are conveyed is languid, unexpectedly languid:

After a while, Suzanne rested her head on my shoulder.  They surely didn’t want me to leave, and I suddenly thought we might spend the entire night on this bench.  On the other side of the empty street, from a tarpaulin-covered truck with its lights out, two men in black leather jackets were unloading sacks of coal with rapid, furtive movements, as if on the sly.

What was so urgent that the narrator was suddenly woken out of a sound sleep?  Why didn’t he ask his friends these questions immediately?  Perhaps, once again, it is something he didn’t dare ask.

Trevor at “The Mookse and the Gripes” has also reviewed this title as well as Modiano’s other latest release, Sundays in Augusthttp://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/30/patrick-modiano-such-fine-boys/

 

 

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Filed under France, French Literature, Literature in Translation

Review: Like Death by Guy Maupassant

I received an advanced review copy of this title from NYRB via Edelweiss.  This English version has been translated from the French by Richard Howard.

My Review:
like-deathOlivier Bertin is a painter in late nineteenth century Paris and his most famous work, his Cleopatra, has earned him enough fame to be sought out by the rich and famous of high society.  He is not interested in any romantic relationships with the bourgeois women he paints because he feels that are insipid and boring.  At a party one night, however, he meets the Countess Ann de Guilleroy and is immediately captivated by her beauty and charm and decides he must do her portrait.  As Bertin paints the Countess in his studio, the two have stimulating conversations and enjoy one another’s company more and more.

Like many romantic relationships, Anne and Bertin’s starts with great conversations and friendship.  Slowly, feelings of love overtake both of them until the painter can stand it no longer and decides he must have her.  When they consummate their relationship, Anne feels very guilty at first because she has had a good marriage to the Count de Guilleroy for seven years and they have a five-year-old daughter.  But she quickly realizes that Bertin makes her happy and she welcomes the painter into her inner circle so that they can have daily contact.

Henceforth she felt no remorse, merely the vague sense of a certain forfeiture, and to answer the reproaches of her reason, she now credited to a certain fatality.  Drawn to him by her virgin heart and her void soul, her flesh vanquished by the slow dominion of caresses, she gradually became attached, as tender women do who love for the first time.

There is no suspicion among Parisian society that they are having an affair and it simply appears that the Countess and Bertin are the best of friends and both share a love of the arts.  Bertin even becomes great friends with Anne’s husband, the Count.  Their affair carries on for twelve years and settles into an easy comfort, similar to many long-term marriages and relationships.  In two simple lines, Maupassant’s sublime prose describes the deep and abiding affection achieved by the lovers:

Months then passed, then years, which scarcely loosened the bond uniting Countess de Builleroy and the painter Olivier Bertin.  For him, this period was no longer theexaltation of the early days but a calmer, deeper affection, a sort of anitie amoureuse to which he had become easily and entirely accustomed.

The central crisis in the book occurs when Anne’s daughter, Annette, who has been growing up outside of Paris, makes her entrance into Parisian society at the age of eighteen; Annette is the exact image of her mother at that age and everyone, especially Bertin, notices the striking resemblance between mother and daughter.  Maupassant takes a lot of care in his writing to develop the contrast between the youth of Annette and the growing age of her mother and the painter.  He uses the seasons as a backdrop which  mimic the painter’s feelings and observations about mother and daughter.  For example, when Bertin first realizes that Annette is a younger, more energetic version of her mother it is springtime and Bertin has accompanied Annette to the park where children are playing and mother nature is in her first bloom.  The brighter, fresh weather and Annette’s youth give Bertin feelings of energy and passion that haven’t been stirred in him for many years.

At first it seems that the appearance of Annette has just reminded Bertin of the early stages of his relationship with Anne, that all-consuming, passion that marks the beginning of an affair.  But Bertin’s feelings gradually become deeper for Annette and he soon realizes he is even jealous of her fiancé.  Bertin doesn’t acknowledge his love for the young Annette until Anne detects them and points them out to the painter.  At this point in the book, Anne and Bertin both become hopelessly wretched because the painter has fallen in love with Annette, the younger, prettier version of Anne.  At times Anne and Bertin are a little hard to take because their feelings of misery are so intense and  they make frequent allusions to death which seemed a bit melodramatic.

Maupassant weaves an interesting commentary throughout the book on beauty, age, youth and the standards of beauty upheld by society.  Anne notices her increasing wrinkles and sagging skin and believes her appearance is to blame for Bertin’s lack of affection towards her.  And instead of being proud of her daughter she is jealous of Annette’s complexion yet unblemished by time and age.  Anne takes more time to apply make-up, takes extreme measures to make herself thin and only greets her lover in the dim light of the drawing room.  Olivier, too, suffers from an obsession with his aging appearance.  His white hair and paleness are particularly emphasized.  When a Parisian newspaper calls his art work old-fashioned, he becomes particularly distraught about his advancing years.  Maupassant’s meditations on the impossible standards of beauty to which we hold ourselves are just as relevant now as they were in the nineteenth century.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read because of Maupassant’s prose which perfectly captures the extreme and conflicting emotions of love and suffering.  The ending is rather dramatic, although not at all surprising given the title and other elements of foreshadowing that Maupassant scatters throughout his text.

 

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Filed under Classics, France, French Literature, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books

Review: The Heart of the Leopard Children by Wilfried N’Sondé

leopard-childrenThe Heart of the Leopard Children is Wilfried N’Sondé’s first book to be translated into English.  It was written and published in French and this English edition has been translated by Karen Lindo.  This title is part of the Global African Voices series by the Indian University Press whose mission is to publish “the wealth and richness of literature by African authors and authors of African descent in English translation. The series focuses primarily on translations of new works, but seeks to reissue longstanding classics that are currently out-of-print or have yet to reach English-speaking readers.”

The unnamed narrator in this novella emigrated to Paris from the Congo when he was a small child.  His parents were hoping to escape poverty in Africa, but the deplorable conditions in the housing project where they live with many other immigrants is not much better than their original home.  The narrator is sitting in a jail cell because he has been accused of a violent crime.  In between beatings from the police, he reminisces about his younger days which he spent with his best friend Drissa and his girlfriend Mireille.

My full review appears in the January 2017 issue of World Literature Today.  To read my full review click on the link: http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2017/january/heart-leopard-children-wilfried-nsonde

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Filed under France, French Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella, Uncategorized

Two Reviews: Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi and A Greater Music by Bae Suah

I am very pleased to announce that I have two reviews in the November/December issue of World Literature Today.  This literary magazine, which has been in continuous print for 90 years, is dedicated to bringing a wide range of literature in translation to the English speaking world.  Each issue contains fiction, poetry, essays and book reviews from writers around the world.  The magazine is available in both print and digital subscriptions.  I feel very honored to have reviewed two excellent books for this issue which is dedicated to women writers.

My first review is Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi.  This title was published in the original French in 2006.  This English edition has been translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman and published by Deep Vellum.

Click this link to read my review:  http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2016/november/eve-out-her-ruins-ananda-devi

eve-out-of-her-ruins

 

My second review is A Greater Music by Bae Suah.  This title was published in the original Korean in 2003.  This English edition has been translated by Deborah Smith and published by Open Letter Books.

Click this link to read my review:  http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2016/november/greater-music-bae-suah

a-greater-music

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Review: Trysting by Emmanuelle Pagano

I received a review copy of this title from Two Lines Press. This book is also being published in the U.K. by And Other Stories. The book was written and published in the original French in 2013 and this English version has been translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis.

My Review:
trystingTrysting is one of those rare books that defy description it in any sort of a review.  At its core, Pagano’s book presents us with a series of writings in various lengths that deal with the human experience of love.   Her musings in this book range from short, one line epigrams to longer two page narratives that read like flash fiction.  Pagano attempts to capture all of the stages that being in love and having a lover encompass—meeting someone special for the first time, spending time together, learning the habits of another person, breaking up, getting over a lover.  She intersperses within these events things that lovers leave behind like feathers, rubber bands, a bicycle.  Some of the vignettes are shocking, some are tender and sweet.  But at their core, they all try to delineate the mysterious and illusive sensation of love.  Senses—touch, site, smell, sound, taste are all described within the context of love.

The shorter pieces, which are only a line or two, read like epigrams and feel as though Pagano is trying to capture a moment in time between lovers.  They read like a caption on a photograph:

“He sprays a mist of water onto his newspaper to stop the pages rustling as he reads next to me while I sleep.”

“His breathing, even during the day, even when he’s busy doing something, is like that of a person asleep.  Regular and calm.  I like this peace.”

“No one sees what I see when I look at her.”

“He has a serene way of being in silent moments.  I was never afraid of having nothing to say to him.”

The longer pieces, which range from two to three pages in length, read like flash fiction stories and provide a frame for which the reader can fill in the rest of the picture.  In one story, for instance, a couple moves from apartment to apartment, like vagabonds constantly on the move living in different places.  The couple pretends to be interested in renting an apartment and gets the key from the estate agent and spends as much time as they can get away with at each rental: “The estate agents never notice a thing, nor do the landlords.  We make love in their apartments, we sleep in them, we live our shared life in them and it’s as good a life as any.  We change location, move to a different town, everyday.”

In another story, a musician who plays the saxophone is always annoying his upstairs neighbor even though he uses a mute for his instrument.  She leaves him terse little notes and knocks on his door whenever he is practicing.  The only noise he ever hears from her apartment is the dull sound of her squeaking bed when her boyfriend stays over:  “They always screw to the same rhythm, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s definitely screwing, not making love, because it’s always the same dogged, dreary, binary rhythm.”  The musician wants to invite the woman to his apartment and get to know her and introduce her to a whole new world of rhythm: “I’ll tell her to let herself go, be carried by my breath, by my sax, my mouth, my lips, my melody.”

One final aspect I want to mention that is integral to the writings in this collection is their sensual nature.  Pagano manages to represent all the senses and put them in the context of lovers:

Touch: “It was very cold.  I hadn’t put gloves on.  I defrosted my fingers between my thighs before letting them touch her.”

Sound: “I met him when I called a wrong number.  His voice was so lovely, saying I must have made a mistake, that I couldn’t bring myself to hang up.”

Smell: “I used to sniff her all the time.  Odours are always stronger when they’re damp.  Perfumers dampen thin strips of paper to sample their scents.  Dampening an area, an object, or a body helps us to smell it and get to know it fully.  I moistened her all over with saliva to get to know her off by heart.”

Hearing: “The things I miss most are the sounds, the sounds of our love, the noises of lovemaking and sleeping together, the noises of waking up.”

Sight:  “We are getting old.  I like the signs of ageing on him, the wrinkles and folds, the emergence of moles and liver spots.  I wonder if these marks appear all of a sudden or little by little.  I look out for signs of these blossomings.  Tine is pollinating his skin with flowers, with speckles with stars.”

This book is a truly unique literary experience that can be read like a collection of poetry, slowly, a little bit at a time when one has quiet and the mood strikes.

About the Author:
paganoEmmanuelle Pagano has published over a dozen works of fiction, which have been translated into German, Hungarian, Italian and Spanish. She has won the EU Prize for Literature among other prizes and lives in the Ardèche region with her family.

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