Category Archives: France

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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Review: Little Jewel by Patrick Modiano

I received a review copy of this title from Yale University Press  via NetGalley.  This book was published in 2001 in the original French and this English version has been translated by Penny Hueston.

My Review:
Little JewelThérèse  thought she had put her horrible childhood behind her until one day when she is on the metro in Paris she sees a woman with a faded yellow coat whom she thinks might be her long lost mother.  The brief narrative which is written from the point-of-view of this nineteen-year-old woman has multiple layers of imagery and themes which showcase Modiano’s great talent as a writer.

As we gradually get to know Thérèse through her own thoughts and words, we learn that she is alone in the world and is trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.  She takes on temporary jobs such as babysitting and she lives in a tiny room in an apartment building that used to be a hotel.  When she sees the woman on the metro who resembles her mother she wanders around the streets of Paris looking for this woman again.  As she wanders through the city she replays her unhappy childhood memories in her mind and she is overwhelmed by emotions that she thought she had left in the past.

Thérèse’s mother had the intention of coming to Paris and being a prima ballerina but an injury to her ankle ended her career very early on.  Thérèse’s birth seems to have been a mistake or a surprise for her mother who never showed any affection, kindness or maternal love for her daughter.  Even the nickname she gives her daughter, “Little Jewel,” is meant as a stage name for the television appearance she forces upon her daughter.

Thérèse has no idea who her father is and the only family member she meets is a man who watches her once a week and is told that he is her uncle.  At the age of five Thérèse is left alone for days on end as her mother suffers episodes of depression and locks herself away in her bedroom.  Her mother abandons the poor child for good by putting her on a train bound for the suburbs where Thérèse comes to live with one of her mother’s friends.   After a few years pass Thérèse is told that her mother died in Morocco but she is not given any details as to how she died or why she was in Morocco.

This sense of abandonment never leaves Thérèse as she continues to have very few emotional connections into her young adulthood.  The past weighs on her so heavily that she cannot move forward and make a fulfilling life for herself that is distinct from her early years.  She does manage three important connections with other people throughout the course of the story and it is this tenuous and fragile contact with other humans that saves her in the end.

Modiano is a master of imagery and he does not disappoint even in this short narrative.  Images of light keep appearing to  Thérèse and Modiano hints in the text that his character will see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel after the events of this story have concluded.  The little girl whom she babysits for always keeps a light on in her bedroom so she won’t be afraid in the dark.  One night when Thérèse is wandering around Paris in the dark and is at her wits end, she sees a solitary light from a pharmacy and the pharmacist provides physical and emotional support.  Finally, the most brilliant and subtle imagery of light in the story is connected with a man whom Thérèse also meets by chance on the streets of Paris.  This man is a translator of radio programs from around the world; he brings Thérèse back to his apartment and when his radio is on a green light appears which makes Thérèse feel calm and connected to a world of voices that she can hear but cannot see.

Readers seem to have a love or hate reaction to Modiano’s writing and I would most definitely put myself in the former category.  I also reviewed his collection of short stories entitled  Suspended Sentences which was also published by Yale University Press.  I would love to hear what other Modiano books that others have enjoyed.

https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2014/11/16/review-suspended-sentences-by-patrick-modiano/

About the Author:
Patrick Modiano is the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature and an internationally beloved novelist. He has been honored with an array of prizes, including the 2010 Prix mondial Cino Del Duca by the Institut de France for lifetime achievement and the 2012 Austrian State Prize for European Literature. He lives in Paris.

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Filed under France, Literature in Translation