The Statement by Brian Moore (1995)

Political thriller set in France war crimesMuch like his final novel The Magician’s Wife (1997) this is another of Brian Moore’s novels, that is more than just a political thriller, it is a work of historical fiction that brings together both his lifetime pursuit for challenging the Catholic Church  (here, for harbouring a fugitive war criminal) and his curiosity for elements of a country’s history that often go undetected by the world at large.

The Magician’s Wife came about, after the random spotting of a historical fact in the notes of  The Correspondence of Gustave Flaubert and George Sand that mentioned a famous French magician sent on a mission to Algeria by Napoleon II to advance the cause of mal-intended colonial interests, he was to perform to locals to undermine their faith in their marabout (mystical men).

A Chapter in France’s Dark History

Brian Moore 1995 novel to film Tilda Swinton

In The Statement, published in 1995, he writes a story of Pierre Brossard, a French fugitive on the run, pursued by an unknown group of assassins and the gendarmerie, sheltered by various monasteries and clergy. Having previously been condemned to death in absentia by French courts for the murder of 14 Jews during the war, he has been in hiding for over 40 years.

The book felt made for its script conversion, which Moore no doubt had in mind, although its dialogue often reads more like rants against the secretive and hypocritical nature of his religious characters, rather than using the opportunity for his fugitive to be confronted by those who have taken issue with his relative freedom.

While the story itself races through the south of France, from Salon de Provence, through Aix to Nice and Villefranche, (made into a film in 2004 featuring Michael Caine and Tilda Swinton); it is the underlying history that had me ‘stop and start’ reading, looking up the many references he uses or alludes to.

Like the use of the word milice (his protagonist the fictional Brossard, was milice) a reference he does not translate from the French, a word I was not familiar with, but one that lead me down a labyrinth of links related to the military history of France during World War II. At the end of the war, in August 1944 a court martial was held against 98 milice francaise of whom 76 were condemned to death by firing squad. They rest in unmarked graves at Le Grand Bornand.

The First Frenchman Ever Convicted of Crimes Against Humanity

Crime contre l'humanite Brian MooreIn real life, Paul Tourvier (1915-1996),a former officer of Vichy France, was a wanted war criminal condemned in absentia for treason and collusion with the Nazis in September 1946 and given the death sentence. Though arrested in 1947 for armed robbery he escaped and evaded capture for 40 years.

In 1966 his death sentence could no longer be upheld due to the statute of limitation and lawyers applied for a pardon. He was given this controversial pardon in 1971 by President Georges Pompidou, but remained in hiding while a new effort was made to charge him with crimes against humanity. Eventually captured, tried and convicted to a life sentence in 1994, he died two years later in prison at the age of 81.

One of the assasins in the novel, referred to only as T is the son of an Algerian Harki, another buried subject that Alice Zeniter researched in her family inspired work of historical fiction l’art de perdre (The Art of Losing).

Brian Moore described his novel The Statement as “a novel with a knife in it” – it made me wonder, who exactly he had the knife out for. Openly referring to that dark, suppressed element of French history and war crimes perpetrated by Vichy France, it pits the French police as pro-Pétain (Chief of State, Vichy France) against The gendarmerie, sympathetic to the Resistance and De Gaulle, adding in hypocritical, anti-Semitic attitudes of the Catholic church in France. But a quick glimpse into his own family history, reveals that it was more than just the Church he took issue with.

Moore’s Personal Vendetta

Living in the south of France, I noticed detail that indicated knowledge and some that was skewed, like the 13100 postcode for Salon de Provence, when it is the postcode for Aix en Provence; it made me go back and look at when it was that Moore spent time in France that gave him both that intimate knowledge and personal interest in the history, to be still writing about it just five years before his death in 1999. So, I digress.

Northern Ireland TroublesMoore was born in Belfast in August 1921, shortly after the partition of Ireland that created the southern Free State, eventually the Republic of Ireland. His parents and childhood were traditional middle class and his early years relatively protected from the sectarian conflict violence that often erupted around them, despite being a member of the Catholic minority.

Setbacks in adolescence led to his open rejection of the Church and the stifling, provincial, class -bound Belfast atmosphere, including his parents’ religious and ideological affiliations.

Celia Nichols writes in the The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (CJIS):

Some conservative Irish Catholics, Dr Moore among them, initially supported Hitler’s march across Europe as a protest against the British Empire. Yet Brian Moore, in his independent pursuit of intellectual stimulation joined socialist youth groups, read modern authors such as James Joyce and W.H. Auden, and cultivated interests detached from the predominant Catholic ethos he had been subjected to both at school and at home.

He joined the war effort in 1939 and his knowledge of French had him willingly posted to North Africa and then to posts in Naples, the Cote d’Azur and Paris as the Allied forces advanced. These early travels and the people of many nationalities he would have encountered, contributed to his first hand knowledge, unique perspective, continued curiosity and audacious daring, in terms of the subjects he was willing to explore and confront through his ficiton.

Dedicated to “those who stayed”, “those who left” and “all those who were lost”

Like the young boy and his family, in the excellent film Belfast, Brian Moore became one of those who left, but the effect of his upbringing meant that Belfast was somehow always present, no matter what the subject of his novels.

French Presidential Elections 2022

French Presidential elections 2022

Photo by Atypeek Dgn on Pexels.com

It’s an interesting and strange tale to be reading this, as France prepares to elect a new President in the coming months, with first round voting on April 10 and the final vote on April 24, 2022 at a time when politics has become more divisive than ever.

I’m left pondering Moore’s own prosaic statement:

“I don’t think novels do change the world.”

They may not change the world, but they can lead us to look further than storytelling to understand the real life tales they are inspired by, that might serve as a warning.

If the true writer is an outsider, few have perfected this role as subtly as Brian Moore, whose finest work was always marked by his surest personal qualities: intelligence, curiosity and an abiding sense of justice. – extract from an article by Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux tr. Tanya Leslie

A book that can be read in an afternoon, this is my first read of Annie Ernaux’s work, one I enjoyed and appreciated. I did find myself wondering why the French title La place was changed to A Man’s Place. I find the change in title unnecessarily provocative and limiting.

La Place autofiction memoir French literature women in translationAt only 76 pages, it is a brief recollection that begins in quiet, dramatic form as she recalls the day her father, at the age of 67, unexpectedly, quite suddenly dies.

Other memories arise as she recalls this shocking one and it is this same recollection she will end the book with, albeit alongside a few other now restored memories, once she has written her way through many others as she attempts to create a tableau of anecdotes that describe the man her father was, their family, social status and surroundings.

A child who will rise into and feel comfortable within a middle class environment, marrying into it, she then tries to look back, remember and understand the characteristics and desires of her family – her father in particular – now that she dwells on the other side, among the petite bourgeoisie.

Having decided she has no right to adopt an artistic approach to write about him (the novel), she embarks on a more neutral tone.

I shall collate my father’s words, tastes and mannerisms, the main events of his life, all the external evidence of his existence, an existence which I too shared.
No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral way of writing comes to me naturally, it is the very same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents the latest news.

Neither fiction or nonfiction, this work has  been described as an autosociobiographical text, one that explores their lives and the social milieu within which they are surrounded, dwell and evolve.

Though she only met her grandfather once, she sketches him through overheard comments, a hard man that no one dared quarrel with, a carter for wealthy landowning farmers.

His meanness was the driving force which helped him resist poverty and convince himself that he was a man. What really enraged him was to see one of the family reading a book or a newspaper in his house. He hadn’t had time to learn how to read or write. He could certainly count.

French memoir autofiction nonfictionErnaux’s father was fortunate to remain in education until the age of 12, when he was hauled out to take up the role of milking cows. He didn’t mind working as a farmhand. Weekend mass, dancing at the village fetes, seeing his friends there. His horizons broadened through the army and after this experience he left farming for the factory and eventually they would buy a cafe/grocery store, a different lifestyle.

Ernaux shares memories, observing her father and her own growing awareness of the distance between his existence and way of being and that witnessed at the homes of friends she becomes acquainted with, as she straddles the divide, living in one world, familiar with the other, neither judging or sentimentalising the experiences as she notes them down.

In front of people whom he considered to be important, his manner was shy and gauche and he never asked any questions. In short, he behaved intelligently. Which consisted in grasping our inferiority and refusing to accept it by doing everything possible to conceal it.

They are a snapshot in time and of a place and way of life of a certain social class and milieu, one she is able to preserve by collecting these memories in a kind of obituary to both her father and the places he lived and worked, the people he loved, the mannerisms and behaviours he engendered.

His greatest satisfaction, possibly even the raison d’être of his existence, was the fact that I belonged to the world which had scorned him.

Annie Ernaux, Author

Annie ErnauxBorn in 1940, Annie Ernaux (née Duchesne) was born in Lillebonne and grew up in Yvetot, Normandy, where her parents ran a café and grocery store. She was educated at a private Catholic secondary school, encountering girls from more middle-class backgrounds, and experiencing shame of her working-class parents and milieu for the first time. After studying at Rouen University she became a school teacher.

Her books, in particular A Man’s Place (La Place) and A Woman’s Story (Une femme) have become contemporary classics in France.

One of France’s most respected authors, she has won multiple awards for her books, including the Prix Renaudot (2008) for The Years (Les Années) and the Marguerite Yourcenar prize (2017) for her entire body of work. The English translation of The Years (2019) was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize International and won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation (2019).

The main themes threaded through her work over more than four decades are: the body and sexuality; intimate relationships; social inequality and the experience of changing class through education; time and memory; and the overarching question of how to write these life experiences.

Fitzcarrraldo Editions have now translated and published seven of her works into English.

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve tr. Adriana Hunter

Winter Flowers Angélique VilleneuveWinter Flowers (Les Fleurs d’hiver) by Angélique Villenueuve, translated by Adriana Hunter is published Oct 7 by Peirene Press, a boutique publishing house, specialising in high-quality first-translations of contemporary European novellas that can be read in an afternoon.

Review

A young woman in 1918 Paris is considered one of the fortunate, when her husband returns from war injured. Wearing a face mask. He lived. He is not the same man who left. When Toussaint Caillet was transferred from the department of facial injuries at Val-de-Grâce military hospital, he sent Jeanne a one sentence note ordering her not to visit.

They have a 3 year old daughter who only knows her father by the portrait of the soldier on the wall of their cramped quarters. She has two fathers, the Papa who left and the man who returned.

Of course she’d expected that the war and his injury would have changed him, but she’d never tried to imagine the scale or even the nature of this disruption. The letter he’d sent her in January 1917 had been a dark window and, once she’d stomached the pain of it, she’d made a point of not reopening it.

Jeanne works from home making artificial flowers, she is trying to be patient and understanding, but her husband’s refusal to engage inflames her.

Sitting at her table, Jeanne senses nothing. It has to be said that the huge red dahlias, whose wound-like qualities are accentuated by the light of the oil lamp, completely absorb her in a swirl of scarlet. The repeated gestures gradually steal over her body, leaving no part of her in which she can drift. When Jeanne sleeps or closes her eyes, when she’s most absent in mind or body, she knows this much: the flowers are still there and always will be.

red dahlia winter flowers angélique villeneuve wound like

Photo David JakabPexels.com

When he finally leaves the room, she follows him. It is not the first time.

Her neighbour Sidonie, a seamstress, has lost almost everything, they support each other. She is about to be tipped over the edge.

Winter Flowers exquisitely renders a situation many lived through and few understood. The silence and destruction of men who survived, who came back traumatised. Who never spoke of what happened. Who may or may not have healed. And the women who stood beside them, who persevered, who sacrificed and learned to live with the reality of what they too had lost.

Like all women whose husbands or sons had been mobilised, though, she’d heard countless stories about men’s homecomings. Poor women. Those who entrusted a sheep to their country  were given back a lion. Someone who’d sent out a young lad was said to have come home an old man, or mad.

And there were so many, Jeanne was well aware, who would never come home at all.

Despite the terrible events and circumstances, the hopes and fears, the woman too must participate and receive the words of recognition from those in power, despite their grief, unable to express their truth.

The mayor’s words are incomprehensible they come and go and sting. Jeanne doesn’t know whether it’s up to them, the women here, these workwomen, to tame the words and arrange them in the correct order, whether it’s really to them that they’re addressed. They flow too quickly. They fly too high. There are too many of them.

Thunder and fire, men freezing and caked in mud and half poisoned by noxious gases, heroes, brothers, love, defeat, hope, victory, history peace, blood, martyrs, children. His speech is riddled with these impassioned fragments. And, just like the battles experienced by those who are now dead, these official words accumulate terrifyingly, chaotically over the gathering. It’s a bombardment, and Jeanne, busy as she is shoring up her neighbour’s faltering frame, struggles to withstand its fire for more than a few minutes.

It is a lament, a form of consolation, a living mourning, of how a family rebuilds itself after an event that has wreaked devastation on them all. Day by day, acknowledging the small wins, with patience, forgiveness, empathy and imagination.

I loved it.  A heart-rending, visceral account of loss and the accompanying overwhelm of steadfast perseverance. The tidal-like edge of madness and the surreal act of continuing despite it. Women.

Every few pages, I marked passages, highlighted sentences and rereading them as I write this, felt like going back to beginning and reading it over again, so rare is it to encounter this perspective, to share how it might have been for those who waited and wailed, who persevered and attempted to recreate a new life from the wreck of what returned.

Angélique Villeneuve writes with great empathy, sensitivity and understanding in narrating a story from the little explored perspective of the young working woman dealing with the aftermath of war, in which they have all changed and must live in a post traumatic world, with little knowledge of how to navigate it.

Angélique Villeneuve, Author

Born in Paris in 1965, Angélique Villeneuve lived in Sweden and India before returning to her native France. The author of eight novels, she has also written numerous children’s books and poetry.

Les Fleurs d’hiver, originally published in 2014, won four literary prizes: the 2014 Prix Millepages, the 2015 Prix La Passerelle and Prix de la Ville de Rambouillet, and the 2016 Prix du Livre de Caractère de Quintin.

Villeneuve’s novel Maria (2018), won the SGDL Grand Prix for fiction. Her most recent work, La Belle Lumière (2020), is a fictional account of the life of Helen Keller’s mother.

Winter Flowers is the first of her books to be translated into English.

Adriana Hunter, Translator

An award-winning British translator, Adriana Hunter has translated over ninety books from French, mostly works of literary fiction. She won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize for her translation of Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (Peirene Press, 2010) and the 2013 French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Hervé Le Tellier’s Electrico W. Her translations have been shortlisted twice for the International Booker Prize.

N.B. Thank you to Peirene Press for providing me a review copy.

Winter Flowers Angélique Villeneuve French Literature

Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin tr.Hildegarde Serle

“If life is but a passage, let us at least scatter flowers on that passage.”

cemetery keeper changer l'eau des fleursWhat a refreshing read to end 2020 with, a novel of interwoven characters and connections, threaded throughout the life of Violette Touissant, given up at birth.

When I was born I didn’t even cry. So I was put aside, like a 2.67kg parcel with no stamp, no addressee, while the administrative forms were filled in, declaring my departure prior to my arrival.
Stillborn. A child without life and without a surname.

We first meet Violetteas an adult. Having been a level-crossing keeper she is now a cemetery keeper. She introduces her neighbours and their characteristics in common, they are an intriguing lot, who we are going to get to know better.

Those neighbours she lives among are the dead, while she lives in the heaven of the living, at the mid-range of life having been through plenty of pain and suffering to get there. Now rewarded, she has found her place, her people and those who deserve to be part of it, have found her too.

My present life is a present from heaven. As I say to myself every morning, when I open my eyes.
I have been very unhappy, destroyed even. Nonexistent. Drained. I was like my closest neighbours, but worse. My vital functions were functioning, but without me inside them.

Level Crossing Keeper

The 94 short chapters all begin with a thought provoking quote, the narrative seesaws back and forth to moments in that life, sometimes revisiting the same moments, but seeing them from the point of view of Violette, her husband Philippe and the many other pairs of characters we encounter, through their connection to those dead neighbours of hers.

Since taking on the job of cemetery keeper, after meeting one of the most life-changing characters, Sasha, she has been recording details of the events that take place in the cemetery, making diary-like entries, references that she is able to refer back to when people stop by to have a cup of tea or something stronger, looking for the resting place of someone important to them, not always family, but people with connections that weren’t always able to be fully expressed in life.

Death never takes a break. It knows neither summer holidays, not public holidays, nor dentist appointments…It’s there, everywhere, all the time. No one really thinks about it, or they’d go mad. It’s like a dog that’s forever weaving around our legs, but whose presence we only notice when it bites us. Or worse, bites a loved one.

The narrative returns to her early adult life, at 18, already married, she discovers the 821 page novel L’Oeuvre de Dieu, la part du Diable a French translation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, a book known to open minds and hearts, eliciting compassion for a set of circumstances no one really thinks about, making the reader look at the world in a slightly different way.

Which is perhaps what Fresh Water For Flowers does, taking characters in unconventional circumstances and sharing their stories, watching how those stories shock, enlighten, end and change lives.

Violette too will have to deal with death. A death that develops into the more significant mystery at the core of the novel. And with it, innumerable twists and turns, suspicions and revelations.

Life is but an endless losing of all that one loves.

Every summer she stays in the chalet of her friend Célia, in the calanque of Sormiou, Marseille. A place of refuge and rejevenation, that Perrin too brings alive, eliciting the recovery and rehabilitation this nature-protected part of the Mediterranean offers humanity.

It’s a gentle novel because even though there are moments of tragedy, they are seen through the eyes of the most empathetic character, so even the most villainous, unlikable characters are given a generous, understanding hearing.

The details of the life of a keeper, whether it’s the level crossing or the cemetery are so realistic, evocative and visual, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that this book may be turned into a series; it’s too long for a movie and with so many interconnecting lives, it  feels like it could have continued on, just as life and death does, always someone arriving, someone departing, and someone there to soothe the way through those transitions.

It’s not a book I have heard anything about until now, but it’s going on my list of favourites for 2020 and is one I highly recommend.

Not a day goes by without us thinking of you.

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy for review.

The Long Goodbye

A Musical Interlude

I wasn’t planning on posting anything today, but on Friday night one of my friends sent me a clip of another song he has written during our now 55 day confinement, which is about to move to the next level on May 11, finally.

The songs he has been composing have been made at home, without the accompaniment of his band of musicians, but it makes me hopeful that there will be a third album coming out in the near future.

I remember being at a party for his son, when he turned two, Trevor played a few covers and asked the audience if they had any requests. I used to often play his CD in the car when I was taking my son to and from rugby practice, so he was familiar with his original songs. So you can imagine the artist’s delight when a request came from my son for ‘Mademoiselle‘, one of his own original songs.

So here is the song I’ve spent most of my evening listening to on repeat: The Long Goodbye by Trevor Barrett from the album Pulling On The Devil’s Tail. It feels very relevant to what we have been through, and in anticipation of what’s to come soon.

They are a little known band, so given them a ‘like’ or a comment if you enjoy it.

Happy Saturday!