Category Archives: France

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.


Filed under France

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.

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.


Filed under France, Literature in Translation

Review: Soft in the Head by Marine-Sabine Roger

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press via Netgalley.  The book was first published in the original German in 2008 and this English version has been translated by Frank Wynne.

My Review:
Soft in the HeadThis story is told in the first person by a forty-five year old man named Germain who describes himself as being “soft in the head.”  Germain tells us about his current circumstances and his life as well as his childhood and early years.  He vividly describes his experiences in primary school with his teacher, “The strong get off on walking all over other people, and wiping their feet while they’re at it, like you would on a doormat. This is what I learned from my years at school.  It was a hell of a lesson.  All that because of some bastard who didn’t like kids.  Or at least he didn’t like me.  Maybe my life would have been different if I’d had a different teacher.  Who knows?  I’m not saying it’s his fault I’m a moron, I’m pretty sure I was one even before that.  But he made my life a misery.”  I don’t include very many quotes in my reviews, but when I read this part of the book I had tears in my eyes and I felt like someone punched me in the stomach.

Germain has been treated like he is a worthless moron his whole life, not only by his cruel teacher, but also by his mother and some of the other kids at school.  Germain tells us that his mother get pregnant when she had a one time tryst with a much older man at a summer carnival.  Germain’s mother was labeled a “slut” and an outcast; she takes out her unwanted pregnancy on her poor son, Germain.  She is never affectionate, kind or motherly to him and she hits him at the slightest provocation.  Although Germain is very forthright about his mother’s treatment of him, he never uses her as an excuse for not accomplishing what he wants to do in life.

Germain does, indeed, carve out for himself a rather happy path in life.  He moves out to the caravan in his mother’s backyard so he doesn’t have to deal with her and argue with her everyday.  He feels autonomous and quite content living in a caravan even though it is rather small.  He spends his days tending his large, bounteous garden, visiting with his friends at the local pub, and spending time with his girlfriend, Annette.  One of his favorite daily activities is spending time in the local park where he counts the pigeons.  It is a chance meeting on one of these outings that has a profound impact on Germain’s life.

While on his usual visit to the park one day Germain meets a small and kind elderly woman named Margueritte.  As they start talking they realize that they both enjoy feeding and counting the pigeons.  Margueritte always has a book with her and one day she decides to start reading it outloud to Germain.  His bad experiences at school have made him hate and dread anything to do with reading.  But Margueritte’s book, The Plague, by Camus captivates Germain and it plants the seed of learning in him like nothing else has before.  Margueritte never treats Germain like a moron so he starts to gain some confidence by asking questions and discussing and reading more books with her.  Germain says, “When people are always cutting you down, you don’t get a chance to grow.”  It is Margueritte who serves at the compassionate and encouraging teacher that Germain has been yearning for all of his life.

This is a great read for those who love books about books.  Germain and Margueritte read several books together as they explore the world of literature.  Margueritte also gives Germain a dictionary which becomes his prize possession.  A good part of the story further describes Germain’s growth in other areas of his life.  His experiences with Margueritte have made him a more compassionate and confident friend and boyfriend.  This book serves as a reminder that each and every day we all have the capacity and the choice  to either cut someone down or build someone up.  I absolutely loved this book and was smitten with Germains story and for this reason I think it should be on everyone’s “must-read” summer book list.

About the Author and Translator:
Roger-Marie-Sabine-NB-Libre-de-droits-Cécile-Roger-copy-e1467216344165-1024x1024Born in Bordeaux in 1957, Marie-Sabine Roger has been writing books for both adults and children since 1989. Soft in the Head was made into a 2010 film, My Afternoons with Margueritte, directed by Jean Becker, starring Gerard Depardieu. Get Well Soon won the Prix des lecteurs de l’Express in 2012 and will be published by Pushkin Press in 2017.

Frank Wynne is an award-winning translator from French and Spanish. He has won the IMPAC Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Scott Moncrieff Prize. He has translated a number of Spanish and Latin American authors, including Tomás Eloy Martínez, Isabel Allende, Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Tomás Gonzalez, whose In the Beginning Was the Sea is published by Pushkin Press .


Filed under France, German Literature, Summer Reading

Review: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers by Fouad Laroui

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Deep Vellum via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original French in 2012 and this English version has been translated by Emma Ramadan.

My Review:
TrousersThis book contains a series of short stories told by a group of men sitting around at café in Morocco.  It appears that they have been friends for quite some time as there is a lot of teasing, interrupting, and jocularity mixed in with their stories.  Their tales range from the funny to the rather serious and I found that the theme of being an outsider in a foreign land pervades the entire collection.

The funniest tale is the title story in which a man is sent to Belgium by the Moroccan government to make a very important deal to import grain to his starving country.  The man checks into a hotel and is very nervous that the fate of his country hangs on his ability to negotiate this most important deal.  Since he is only visiting for one day he packs lightly and brings a single pair of nice trousers.  He is awakened during his first night in his hotel room by a horrible noise and gets out of bed to find that an intruder has come through his window.  At first glance it seems that nothing valuable has been stolen from him; but further inspection by the light of day reveals that his pants, his only pair of nice pants have been taken!

The man absolutely panics and goes does to the front desk of the hotel in his pajamas to ask for help.  The clerk directs the man to a charity shop which has a single pair of pants that are just his size; but the pants are a ridiculous pair of golf pants.  The events of his meeting, while he is wearing these pants, are hilarious but everything does work out for the best for him and for the fate of Morocco.

By contrast, there are two rather serious stories that I would like to describe from the collection.  The first one, entitled “Dislocation,”  is particularly fitting for what is going on in the world as far as refugees seeking asylum and people displaying xenophobia to anyone who seems foreign.  I found his use of repeating the same lines in the story very Homeric but instead of repeating epithets he repeats the entire beginning lines of his story over and over again.  Each time he repeats his story he begins with the phrase, “What would it be like, he asked himself, a world where everything was foreign?”  Each time he repeats these lines he adds more details about his life.  We discover that the man does, in fact, feel like a foreigner because he is a Moroccan who feels more French than Moroccan and is living in The Netherlands.  He is treated as a foreigner, an outsider and his walk home becomes slower and slower as he contemplates his feeling of dislocation.  This story showcases Lauori’s talents as a writer as he uses an array of unique styles throughout this short collection of stories.

The final story I would like to mention is story about a couple who are from different countries and having a long distance relationship.  John is traveling from The Netherlands and Annie is traveling from France and they are on their way to Brussels to spend a long weekend together.  They speak different languages, grew up in different countries with different cultures but for a while they have made their relationship work.  But they have both arrived in Brussels with the intention of breaking up with one another.

The language barriers and cultural differences have taken their toll on the relationship and they both want out.  The best example of their communication issues is described by John who says that Annie never easily gets his dry sense of humor and by the time he has to explain all of his jokes to her they are no longer funny.  This story has a surprise ending which I don’t want to give away.  But I will say that this is one of the best stories in the collection.

Overall this is a unique collection of stories that I can recommend to anyone who wants to experience a wide range of literary styles in a single collection of stories.

About the Author:
LarouiFouad Laroui (born 1958) is a Moroccan economist and writer, born in Oujda, Morocco. Over the past twenty years, Laroui has been consistently building an oeuvre centered around universally contemporary themes: identity in a globalized world, dialogue/confrontation between cultures, the individual vs. the group, etc. With ten novels and five collections of short stories written in French, plus two collections of poems written in Dutch, a play, many essays and scientific papers (written in French or English), his on-going ambitious literary output has been recognized with many awards, including: Prix Albert Camus, Prix Mediterranée, Prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle, Grande médaille de la Francophonie de l’Académie française, Prix du meilleur roman francophone, Premio Francesco Alziator (Italy), Samuel-Pallache-Prijs (The Netherlands), E. du Perron Prijs (The Netherlands)


Filed under France, Humor, Literature in Translation, Short Stories

Review: Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press.  This English version has been translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

My Review:
Her Father's DaughterFrance is a four and a half year old little girl, growing up in war time France with her mother.  Her father left to fight in World War II when she was an infant, so she only knows him through photographs.  In fact, the very concept of a father is alien to her because there are no other examples of fathers to which she is exposed.   I was immediately captivated by this short book and drawn into this small child’s recollections about the war and its lasting effects on her family.

Despite the fact that there is war raging on around her, France’s world is very small and happy.  She lives with her mother in a two room apartment in occupied Paris and as a spoiled and indulged child she does whatever she pleases.  She draws on the walls of her apartment, draws in books, sings at the top of her lungs and has awful table manners.  Her mother showers her with constant attention and affection and calls her “my darling.”  Her grandmother, who seems to the chid like a cold-hearted disciplinarian, visits France and her mother often but the child has no affection for her.  In fact, the child gets rather jealous when her mother and grandmother are talking privately to each other the child does everything she can to interrupt them.

One day France’s mother causally mentions that daddy is coming home.  France goes into a panic because she knows, rightly so, that her cozy world with her mother will never be the same.  When she meets daddy for the first time she is reticent and fearful.  Her father was captured by the Germans and spent years in a German prisoner of war camp.  When he is finally able to come home from the hospital, all of France’s routines are completely shattered.  Her father loses his temper easily at the ill manners of his small child.  When she refuses to finish her dinner he slaps her and when she throws a fit he makes her sit out in the hallway of the apartment by herself.  France develops a contempt for her mother for her once beloved who does not intervene on her behalf.  But at the same France gradually develops a fondness for her father.

Once he is able to settle his anger and impatience, France’s father is able to show her affection and attention.  He begins painting with her and telling her stories.  The transformation of this heartwarming father-daughter relationship was my favorite part of the book.  As France begins to trust her father, she confides in him a secret about her mother that has been bothering her for a long time.  This secret is what finally manages to break apart what was already a fragile marriage.  When France’s father moves out and remarries, she must once again navigate the world without a consistent father figure in her life.

I found this book to be clever in its dealing with the point of view of a child.  The entire story is seen through the child’s eyes, yet the narrator also interprets for us the underlying feelings and emotions of the child, so we get a deeper glimpse into the thoughts of her life and her surroundings.  The sentences are short and sometimes only a word or two which is fitting for a narrator who is a small child.  And throughout the book she is rarely called by her name but instead she is referred to as “the child,” as if she were unimportant, a non-entity to the adults around her.  This is another beautiful and powerful book from Peirene Press and it gave me a new perspective about the tragedies of war and how they affect the youngest and most vulnerable among us.

This is the second book in the Peirene Fairy Tale series.  I am always eager to read another Peirene and this book was absolutely fantastic.  I can’t wait for the third, and final book, in the Fairy Tale selections.  Please visit the Peirene website for more information on this book and to read a sample:

About the Author:
M SizunMarie Sizun is a prize-winning French author. She was born in 1940 and has taught literature in Paris, Germany and Belgium. She now lives in Paris. She has published seven novels and a memoir. Marie Sizun wrote her first novel, Her Father’s Daughter, at the age of 65. The book was long-listed for the Prix Femina



Filed under France, Historical Fiction, Novella