Other People’s Stories

Recently someone asked as I live in France, was I reading any French authors, which prompted me to look on my shelves and reflect on this question. There were the two Irène Némirovsky books, ‘All Our Worldly Goods’ and ‘Fire in the Blood’ I read earlier this year and after discovering one of my French students was reading Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’, one of my favourite classics and an excellent study of character, we exchanged books, he lending me Stefan Zweig’s ‘le voyage dans le passé’ (in French and an Austrian author so translated from German) while I gave him Paul Durcan’s epic poem ‘Christmas Day’.

Manger Square, Bethlehem, Nativity Church beyond

I have read a couple of Amélie Nothomb books, ‘Fear and Trembling’ a factional account of her year spent in Japan, which was very funny in an excruciating way and I adored Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’, a book I’d put off reading for years and finally read it during a two month visit to Bethlehem, a welcome reward following Karen Armstrong’s
excellent but gruelling ‘A History of Jerusalem’
– One City, Three Faiths after which I had a feeling of absolute awe that there were ANY people left living in that part of the world, having endured one crusade after another as successive peoples carried out their quest to occupy that Holy Land. I also became more wide awake as to how this current generation of people carry the blue eyed gene.

I digress. Back with contemporary literature, my book buddy had mentioned Emmanuel Carrère’s ‘lives other than my own’ to me a few times and her creative writing class are about to be introduced to it, so I found a window of opportunity to read it this week. And what an extraordinary thing it is. Familiar with the phrase ‘truth can be stranger than fiction’; here I am left with the feeling that ‘truth can be as compelling as fiction’.

Emmanuel Carrère was on holiday in Sri Lanka with his girlfriend when the tsunami struck, they had been considering separating and then found themselves in a whirlwind period where the relative significance of these reflections was crushed by that incoming wave and the devastation it wreaked on others.

“Everything that has happened in those five days and was ending then, at that precise moment washed over us. A dam opened, releasing a flood of sorrow, relief, love, all mixed together.

I hugged Hélène and told her, I don’t want to break up anymore, not ever.

She said, I don’t want to break up anymore either.”

The couple return to France only to learn that Hélène’s sister is on a downward spiral with the return of a cancer that she had thought she was rid of when she was a teenager. Juliette, now in her thirties, is a juge d’instance (a judge of small claims and grievances) and has three girls, the youngest only fifteen months old. Through Juliette, Carrère meets her colleague Etienne, a cancer survivor, who shares with the author an insight into both the world of being a cancer survivor and their realm as judges in the small town of Vienne, where they strive and indeed succeed to make a difference.

What makes this recount all the more extraordinary is the sense of the author’s narcissism, long time chronicler of the tormented self, he readily admits this and while I wouldn’t say that being witness to these events resulted in an absolute cure, it certainly lead him, as the book title suggests, to explore and find some empathy in lives other than his own.

While on the French theme, I would like to mention Patricia Sands, author of ‘The Bridge Club’, another story inspired by the lives of others, Patricia is an advocate of the premise that everyone has a story to tell and she does this not only through her novel but via her blog. Each Friday she posts about France and this week, she has very kindly written a post about this blog, which you can view here. So thank you Patricia and do check out her book.

15 thoughts on “Other People’s Stories

  1. Dear Claire – It was absolutely my pleasure to feature you on my blog and I value the friendship we are building. My faith in your reviews is something I treasure as I feel your instinctive and articulate voice is one not frequently evident on many review sites. Now I am adding Carrère’s book to my toppling TBR pile … right at the top!


  2. I cannot imagine what it was like in those conditions, and what they faced.

    I mentioned a while back I’d not read any works by French novelists, but I erred… I did read Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.


  3. Have you read anything by David Foenkinos? I read Delicacy in English, but I imagine it lost quite a lot of nuance in translation. I heard it’s done crazily well in France, especially now Audrey Tautou is in the film adaptation. Worth a read, I’d say. I did a mini review of it here in case you’re interested! http://proseandconsbookclub.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/delicacy-by-david-foenkinos-quirky-frenchness-at-its-best-mini-review/

    I vaguely remember reading Amelie Nothomb’s Sabotage Amoureux at uni, which is a fictional account of three years she spent in China as a child. I wonder how it compares to Fear and Trembling.

    J’adore ton blog et je suis tres jalouse de ta vie en France!


  4. Lives Other Than My Own arrived this morning in the post, it’s the next book club read and I’m looking forward to it.
    Have you read Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel? Very good indeed.
    I think it was you who recommended A Moveable Feast by Hemmingway – thank you so much, I read it in one evening in Paris and wouldn’t go out to dinner until I’d finished it.


  5. I continue to marvel at what you pack into a post . . . . from the stories of French authors to a detour via Bethlehem/Jerusalem and back to the heart of it all, the lives of others. The Carrère book sounds every bit as profound as you say it is.


  6. I’ve lived in France nearly six years but read very few books by French authors, in either language. However, this year is the year! I shall add your recommendations to the list, so thank you for those. I’m currently a few pages into Pastel by Olivier Bleys about the woad trade in the Albi region of France. I suppose suitably it’s rather flowery writing, but I shall persevere since it’s good for my French!


    • I know just the feeling, I am enjoying both the classics and getting some recommendations of more contemporary titles (even if I do read them in English).

      I don’t know Olivier Bleys, but I will be interested to hear what you think at the end. I was contemplating Standhal’s ‘Scarlet and Black’ and read the lengthy introduction last night, but think I may wait a little before tackling it, I feel drawn to more contemporary stories presently.


    • I agree, she is as interesting a character as those she has fictionalised. ‘All Our Worldly Goods’ was even discovered by her biographers are lying undiscovered for 5 years. I’m looking forward to reading the biography and more of her fiction as well.


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