Transit by Anna Seghers tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo

I have wanted to read this novel for a while, ever since reading Jacqui’s review a few years ago. With August focused on #womenintranslation and being asking for a suggestion for our upcoming bookclub, it seemed the perfect moment to read it.

It is an incredible novel, written in a surreal time, while the writer was living in exile in Mexico, Anna Seghers (having left Germany in 1933 to settle in France) was forced (with her husband and two children) to flee from Marseille in 1940, the only port in France at that time that still flew the French flag, the rest under German occupation.

With the help of Varian Fry, (see his autobiography Surrender on Demand) an American journalist who came to Marseille for a year and helped 1500 artists, writers, intellectuals escape Europe; they found safe passage to Mexico, where they stayed until able to return to East Berlin, where she lived until her death in 1983.

While in Mexico she wrote this thought-provoking, accomplished, “existential, political, literary thriller” novel narrated by a 27-year-old German man who has escaped two labour camps (in Germany and France) before arriving in Paris where he promises to do a favour for a friend, coming into possession of a suitcase of documents belonging to a German writer named Weidel, who he learns has taken his own life.

There is an element of the absurd in many of the encounters throughout the entire novel, and one of the first is when the young meets the hotel proprietor, inconvenienced by the death of this man in her establishment, which she’d had to officially register and arrange for burial, she complains that he’d caused her more trouble than the German invasion and that they hadn’t ended there and goes into detail.

“Don’t think that my troubles are over. This man has actually managed to create trouble for me from beyond the grave.”

Our unnamed narrator offers to assist, requiring him to travel to Marseille, where he hopes to stay indefinitely. To avoid checkpoints, he leaves the train a few stops early and descends into the city.

Walking down from the hills, I came to the outer precincts of Marseille. At a bend in the road I saw the sea far below me. A bit later I saw the city itself spread out against the water. It seemed as bare and white as an African city. At last I felt calm. It was the same calm that I experience whenever I like something very much. I almost believed I had reached my goal. In this city, I thought, I could find everything I’d been looking for, that I’d always been looking for. I wonder how many times this feeling will deceive me on entering a strange city!

Descending into Marseille today

Alongside many others genuinely trying to flee, we follow him to hotels, cafes, consulates, shipping offices, travel bureaus and stand in line as he apples for visa and stamps that he has little vested interest in, observing the absurd demands made of people trying to find safe passage to what they hope is a free world. He is given a one month residency and then settles in to watch the world go by, ignoring that he must still establish his intention.

By now I felt part of the community. I had a room of my own, a friend, a lover; but the official at the Office for Aliens on the Rue Louvois had a different view of things. He said, “You must leave tomorrow. We only allow foreigners to stay here in Marseille if they can bring us proof that they intend to leave. You have no visa, in fact not even the prospect of getting one. There is no reason for us to extend your residence permit.”

The man he knows is dead, has a wife widow waiting for him in Marseille, her story becomes part of the young man’s quest, in this transitory city that holds a thin promise of a lifeline to the fulfillment of desperate dreams for so many refugees.

The complexity of requirements means many more are rejected than succeed and all risk being sent to one of the camps that the authorities without hesitation dispatch those whose papers are not in order.

Our narrator is independent, without family and not in possession of a story that invokes sympathy in the reader. A drifter without purpose, he likes the city and wants to stay. His circumstance removes something of the terror and tragedy of what people around him are going through, allowing the reader to see the situation outside of the tragic humanitarian crisis it was.

Instead we witness the absurd situation people have been put in, the endless, near impossible bureaucratic demands refugees encounter, when they are forced to flee homes they don’t want to leave, to go to a safe(r) place equally they don’t necessarily wish to go to, but will do so to survive and in an attempt to keep their families together. And the irony or blindness of those around them who continue with their lives as if nothing has changed.

Sometimes you find real Frenchmen sitting in the Brûleurs des Loups. Instead of talking about visas, they talk about sensible things like the shady deals that go on. I even heard them mention a certain boat that was sailing for Oran. While the Mont Vertoux customers prattle on about all the details of booking a passage on a ship, these people were discussing the particulars of the cargo of copper wire.

I highlighted so many passages that I will go back and reread, it’s a fascinating book that could perhaps only have been written from the safety of exile and from the perspective of the everyday man and woman, without going into detail about the reasons for their haste, for even a safe place can become unsafe, and a manuscript sufficient to sign a death warrant. And even though this book was written 77 years ago, there is much about the bureaucracy that continues to ring true for immigrants in Europe today.

Marseill’s thoroughfare, Le Canibiére

The depiction of Marseille, though in a time of terror is evocative too of that city today, only the places mentioned here are now frequented by people from a different set of countries, those who have fled or left in search of something better in the last 30 years, from parts of Africa, Vietnam, Lebanon and those who just need to disappear for a while, finding anonymity and comradeship in the small alleys and cafes of Marseille, a city of temporary refuge, where everyone has a story that begins elsewhere.

Immigrants of the 21st century – Balade de Noailles

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago, I visited a quartier of Marseille, just off Le Canibiére, called Noailles, with a small group of university professors, looking to know the city’s immigrant population and influence a little better in anticipation of further developing their teaching classes to incorporate the reality of today.

Bénédicte Sire & One of the Legends of Noailles

The personal tour was guided by local comedien/actress/director, Bénédicte Sire, who introduced us to a new generation of immigrants who’ve adopted Marseille as their home. We visited them in their shops tasting their food while listening to personal family stories, which were narrated either by Bénédicte taking on the persona of a relative, or a combination of her oral storytelling and the shop owner narrating.

It was perhaps the most informative and personal visit I’ve ever made to Marseille, and was like a live version of the many novels I’ve read, translated from countries far away, only here they are living in a city 25 minutes away, facilitated by a warm, cheerful, empathetic woman who has developed authentic relationships with her fellow residents, gently opening them to trust in sharing their often traumatic, personal stories with outsiders genuinely interested to know.

Highly Recommended if you ever visit the city of Marseille and wish to see it from within.

Buy a Copy of Transit via Book Depository

Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain tr. Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce

French Literature

Another satisfying light read full of laughs from Antoine Laurain. It’s so rare that a book actually makes me laugh out loud, but this one did, quite a few times.

It’s far-fetched, but knowing he writes an uplifting tale and creates such fun characters makes me want to read everything he writes.

Here, its 2017 and we meet a Parisian man named Hubert who lives in a building that has been in his family for generations, though now he owns only the apartment he lives in. His wife and daughters are away, he had just attended the management committee meeting for residents and on entering his cellar afterwards discovered a dusty 1954 Vintage Beaujolais.

Accidentally locking himself in, he is rescued by Bob from Milwaukee, who’s rented Madame Renaud’s apartment on AirBnB, an activity forbidden by the committee (say you’re the American cousin if anyone asks) so in a gesture of appreciation Hubert invites Bob and two tenants Julien (a cocktail waiter at Harry’s Bar) and Magalie (a restorer of antique ceramics) to join him to open the bottle.

1954 was a special year and the novel has already taken us to the Saint Antoine vineyards in the Beaujolais wine region, just north of Lyon where the grapes may have been infused with a touch of magic from a low flying unidentified object.

Monsieur Pierre Chauveau (Julien’s great grandfather) gave a witness statement on 16 September 1954, describing what he had seen. His unusual testimony was classified by the police as follows:

Report of an unidentified flying object by one Pierre Chauveau, a wine grower residing in Charmally-les-Vignes.

Though mocked locally, the police weren’t as surprised, by the end of 1954 more than 1,000 witness statements and over 500 reports of UFO sightings had been received by the police across the country. No explanation for this phenomenon was ever found and gradually the number of reported sightings fell back to normal levels – between fifty and one hundred a year.

One evening shortly after, he consumed a bottle of the 1954 Beaujolais, gave some to his dog (as was his habit), went out for a walk and they were never seen again.

The morning after the four in Paris drink the vintage wine, they wake up in 1954.

Hubert loosened his tie and walked rapidly back home, trying as best he could to make sense of the morning’s events. Unless it was a dream, Salvador Dalí was staying at the Hotel Meurice, all the buses were vintage, street sellers had reverted to using hand-drawn carts and the large moustachioed man surveying his building work whom he’d greeted as he left this morning was none other than Monsieur Bouvuer himself, the founder of the charcuterie of that name. The charcuterie that had opened in 1954. Hubert stopped. 1954. The same year as the wine.

As they head out into their day, we too are taken back in time and see the city and people’s habits as they were back in the 1950’s. Bob, who had never been to Paris took the longest time to realise he was no longer in 2017.

The four of them have various interesting encounters, Hubert with a long lost relative whose charred diary he finds in the apartment he left empty for 24 years, Julien meets the original Harry MacElhone, founder of the bar he works in and Magalie seeks out her now thirty-one-year old grandmother Odette.

They meet up at Harry’s to discuss their situation and to come up with a plan on how to get themselves back to their present, which will lead them on another adventure to the wine region of Beaujolais.

It’s an entertaining ride, as they journey across old Paris bringing back to life a few memorable characters and places in Paris of a bygone era.

Along the way, we encounter Jean Gabin, Edith Piaf, Salvador Dali, Robert Doisneau, Marcel Aymé, Jacques Prévert, Hubert de Givenchy, Audrey Hepburn, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, the duke of Windsor and the infamous Scotsman of the winebar where the Bloody Mary was said to be invented, Harry MacElhone.

In a blog post Millésime 54 Antoine Laurain briefly mentions that readers will come across these characters in his book and if you click through you’ll see a collection of portraits of some of them.

Le Baiser de l’hotel de ville (The Kiss), 1950
© Robert Doisneau

These encounters reminded me of Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, except here, Antoine Laurain pays tribute to more renowned French celebrity characters of Paris, and its the 1950’s not the 1920’s, inviting the reader to discover who they were and where they used to hang out.

In an interview, Laurain explained that the idea of writing a story where his characters travelled back to the 1950’s came to him long ago, before he wrote The President’s Hat. He adored the work of Doisneau and Brassaï, but he needed a way to bring them back to era. The wine became the way and that surge in UFO sightings that actually occurred in 1954, his point of departure.

Vintage 1954 is an invitation to the reader’s imagination to join Laurain’s adventure in 50’s Paris, to discover the vineyards of the Beaujolais region, and is as pleasurable, if not more than the wine itself.

A full-bodied, sweet novella, with depth, elegance, it is expressive, connected, ultimately one of finesse.

Further Reading

Interview Q&A with Antoine Laurain by Gallic Books – Wine and time travel with Antoine Laurain

The Book Trail Vintage 1954 – a few of the book locations in Paris mapped out with explanations (also links to locations in his previous books)

The President’s Hat (reviewed here)

The Red Notebook (reviewed here)

Smoking Kills (reviewed here)

Buy a Copy of Vintage 1954 via Book Depository

Drawing Lessons by Patricia Sands

Seven years ago I read The Bridge Club by Patricia Sands, which I loved. Her ability to immerse the reader into the emotional lives of her characters is thoroughly engaging and insightful and the stories of those women characters and the event that brings them all together to share parts of their history together has long stayed with me.

Her latest novel, Drawing Lessons offers something a little different, in that this time the main character, 62 year old Arianna, leaves her Toronto home, family and troubles behind, somewhat reluctantly, but with the blessings and encouragement of those she’s left behind, to try and heal a little from the heartbreak of what she has left behind her.

It is an interesting an provocative premise. Her husband has been diagnosed with a debilitating form of dementia and her family have encouraged her to go on a two week artist’s retreat just outside Arles, the same countryside and landscape that inspired Van Gogh to produce over 300 works of art in the frenzied sixteen months he spent there, until driven out by the locals.

“In his letters to his brother Theo, he said drawing helped him combat his depression. He knew, as we do, that working en plein air, we are able to capture light and images more quickly and from that create our interpretation.”

Arianna hasn’t painted for a long time and is wracked by guilt at leaving. Slowly she will find her way, through the surroundings and with the eclectic band of artists that have come together to reaquaint with their inner muse. And then there is the strange allure of the man from the Carmargue.

The beautiful cover art couldn’t be more appropriate to today, it being May and everywhere you go at the moment, the poppies are in full bloom.

Living in this area and knowing how much the author loves the south of France and how much of her writing is informed by her own experiences of living a few months of every year here, I wasn’t surprised to feel how immersed in the area this book made me feel. She really does capture something of the essence of being in this region of Provence, in the landscape and the town of Arles, adding something of the fantasy of a mysterious artist, horseman, the romance element. Not to mention the markets and the collection and preparation of the food.

“Winding past olive groves, beside vineyards, and through fields dotted with poppies and other wildflowers, from time to time they’d comment on the pastoral beauty. They could imagine artists through the centuries setting up easels along the way.”

It’s a timely read if you’re interested in Van Gogh, as this year there was the film At Eternity’s Gate that came out and he is also the subject of the new show running from March 2019 – January 2020 at Carrieres de Lumières in Les Baux de Provence, a truly spectacular and original depiction of works of art, set to music, displayed on the inner walls of an old stone quarry.

If you haven’t been here and have an interest in open air painting, it’s a read that transports you to the Provençal landscape, ignites the imagination and all the senses and is likely to make you wish to indulge in a visit to the region yourself.

And although her upcoming tour is now sold out, if you want to imagine what it might be like to visit the area and visualise the area where this story takes place, check out the itinerary of The Memories Tour 2019, run by Patricia and co-host Deborah Bine, The Barefoot Blogger and visit Patricia’s blog, or sign up to her newsletter on France related writing news and tips on visiting the south of France and the culture.

Buy a Copy of Drawing Lessons via Book Depository.

Total Chaos (Marseilles Trilogy #1) by Jean-Claude Izzo tr. Howard Curtis

I’ve been looking forward to picking this novel up, because it’s set in and around the streets and coastal inlets of Marseilles (our local city) and even ventures into Aix-en-Provence and Vauvenargues (the scene of a murder in the novel – though known locally because Picasso lived in the château there). It was originally published in French in 1995, when Izzo was 50 years old, a mere five years before his premature passing.

Fabio Montale used to hang out with his friends Manu and Ugo, when they were growing up in the same neighbourbood of Marseilles. They were eyeing up his cousin Angèle as he escorted her home after a family visit. That first time he encountered them, they insulted him, he lashed out and got into a scuffle. He didn’t see them again until September, when they found themselves in the same class. They became firm friends.

Fast forward, they’re separated during compulsory military training, on their return they’ve become men.

Disillusioned and cynical. Slightly bitter too. We had nothing. We hadn’t even learned a trade. No future. Nothing but life. But a life without a future is better than no life at all.

Discovering that even hard work doesn’t promise fast, easy money they think about opening a bookstore, but need funding, it’s the beginning of the slippery slope into a criminal life. They soon forget about the shop, having too much fun chasing danger and celebrating its rewards. Until it gets serious and someone gets hurt.

Looking at the city from my balcony. I could hear my father snoring. He’d worked hard all his life, and suffered a lot, but I didn’t think I’d ever be as happy as he was. Lying on the bed, completely drunk, I swore on my mother, whose picture I had in front of me, that if the guy pulled through I’d become a priest, and if he didn’t pull through I’d become a cop.

They haven’t seen each other for years and now Manu has been killed. Fabio has become a cop but hasn’t been put on this case, regardless, he makes it his personal responsibility to find out what happened.

They promised to stay true to one another and swore that nothing would break their bond. But people and circumstances change. Ugo and Manu have been drawn into the criminal underworld of Europe’s toughest, most violent and vibrant city. When Manu is murdered and Ugo returns from abroad to avenge his friend’s death, only to be killed himself, it is left to the third in this trio, Detective Fabio Montale, to ensure justice is done.

Vauvenargues, scene of a murder

As the story unfolds, he identifies who is involved in local criminal factions, the mafia, and attempts to unravel how his friend had come between them.

We meet an immigrant family, a father and his three children, whose mother died giving birth to the youngest. Having encountered them over a skirmish in a shop in one of the projects, Fabio befriends them. When a member of the family disappears, the two stories begin to overlap and Fabio has another more immediate crime to solve.

Each chapter takes us to another corner of Marseilles, each car ride and return home to the fishing village of Les Goudes (my pictures below) introduces us to a segment of music and the women in his life; while there may not be a peaceful solution to the pervasive bitterness and revenge laced throughout Izzo’s fragmented world, one thing offers him temporary respite and hope is music. It represents the cultural richness and diversity of this city, populated by a mix of African, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern immigrants.

(If you’re interested in what those musical instruments are doing in Les Goudes, read my post here – Champ Harmonique MP2013)

All this creates not just the plot of a crime story, but a picture of a man immersed and entangled in his complex city, attached to his familial village, his boat, the sea his refuge and his reliable motherly neighbour Honorine, who makes up for some of the lack in his life.

Although I was a good listener, I was never any good at confiding in anyone. At the last moment, I always clammed up. I was always ready to lie, rather than talk about what was wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the courage. I just didn’t trust anyone. Not enough, anyhow, to put my life and my feelings in another’s hands. And I knocked myself out trying to solve everything on my own. The vanity of a loser. I had to face it, I’d lost everything in my life.

It’s a journey through the senses, that penetrates the heart and soul of an unforgiving city whose inhabitants love it fiercely, in the pursuit of keeping a promise made in youth.

In a moving eulogy transcribed in the front of the book, Massimo Carlotto pays tribute to Izzo over his adept mastery of  Mediterranean noir, different to French noir:

His use of the noir genre is not limited simply to description but penetrates deep into the heart of the incongruities, leaving room for sociological reflection and for a return to his generation’s collective memory, and above all, gives sense to the present day.

Jean-Claude Izzo when asked about the phenomenal success of his trilogy, characteristically chose to shine the light on the city he loved:

“Essentially, I think I have been rewarded for having depicted the real beauty of Marseilles, its gusto, its passion for life, and the ability of its inhabitants to drink life down to the last drop.”

N.B. Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions for providing a review copy.

Buy a Copy of Total Chaos via Book Depository

The Complete Claudine, by Colette – An Introduction by Judith Thurman tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

Every summer I choose to read one chunkster, a big fat book, and this year knowing August would be the month that many others are reading books by women in translation, I decided to combine the two things and so chose to read a book translated from French to English, a classic, by the renowned author and personality Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, referred to by her surname and pen name Colette.

The book I chose The Complete Claudine, is in fact four books combined in one volume, however I’ve written them up separately, including this first post, which is an introduction to the extraordinary personality behind the writer.

Introducing Colette

The book begins with an intriguing introduction by Judith Thurman, which I found helpful as I really knew little about Colette which she used as her writing pen-name.

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette by Leopold Reutlinger

She was a colourful, eccentric, driven character, a woman way ahead of her time, who wanted it all and seems to have pretty much lived her life, pursuing that goal, ignoring societal stereotypes and rejecting all labels about who, what and where a woman’s place should be,  attracting as many admiring fans as scathing critics. She detested labels, and while her attitude may be thought of as feminist, she was far from abiding by political correctness or aligning herself with any kind of women’s group.

“Me, a feminist?” she scoffed in a 1910 interview. “I’ll tell you what the suffragettes deserve: the whip and the harem.” She saw no contradiction between supporting conservative positions and living her life as an “erotic militant” in revolt against them. Better worlds and just rewards were of no more consequence to her than the prospect of an afterlife. – Judith Thurman, Introduction

She was born in the Burgundy village of Saint-Saveur-en- Puisaye on January 28, 1873, a countryside upbringing that informs the autobiographical Claudine at School; the first volume in this book. Her own school years were likely more conservative that those expressed in her novel, which was influenced by her husband Willy, the pen name she would use when these books were first published, as it was he who introduced her to avant-garde intellectual and artistic circles while engaging in sexual affairs and encouraging her to do the same. It was he who suggested the idea of  “the secondary myth of Sappho…the girls’ school or convent ruled by a seductive female teacher” (Ladimer, p. 53)

Her mother, “Mme Colette – the splendid earth mother known to Colette’s readers as Sido” came from a family of mixed African and Creole descent from the colonies (Martinique) and:

had boundless ambitions for her youngest daughter and “second self,” Gabrielle, and these never included domestic – or sentimental – drudgery. Sido called marriage, only half-ironically, a “heinous crime,” and would rejoice in Colette’s liaison from 1905 to 1911 with a cultivated and melancholy lesbian transvestite (transgender man), the Marquise de Morny, largely because “Missy’s” generosity and solicitude were so wholesome for Colette’s fiction. Nor was Sido’s “precious jewel,” childless until forty, ever encouraged by her mother to procreate.

She published nearly 80 volumes of fiction, memoir, drama, essays, criticism, and reportage, Gigi the best known to readers in the English language, though unfortunately so according to Judith Thurman as its promise of happiness so misrepresents Colette’s view of love.

The character Claudine was Colette’s invention of the century’s first teenage girl, one who was rebellious, secretive, erotically restless and disturbed, free-spirited and determined to carve her own path. Her rebellion was against convention not family, she had free rein at home, her single parent father poring over his slug manuscript left her to her own devices, though somewhat constrained by the maid who took care of her basic needs.

 

“It is not a bad thing that children

should occasionally, and politely,

put parents in their place.” Colette

Colette married at twenty(1893) and moved to Paris, separating from Willy in 1906 though with no access to royalties for her books as she had penned them in his name, leading her to a stage career in the music halls of Paris, her experience of that way of life informing her novel The Vagabond (1910).

“a novel that anticipates by ninety years, the contemporary fashion for wry, first-person narratives by single, thirty something career women. Its heroine examines her addictions to men with amused detachment, and flirts, alternately, with abstinence and temptation. Is there love without complete submission and loss of identity? Is freedom really worth the loneliness that pays for it? These are Colette’s abiding questions.”

Her move to Paris heralded the beginning of a public personality, as she would go on to become one of the most notorious and exuberant personalities of fin-de-siècle Paris. Her subsequent divorce and the years working on the stage exposed her to a poverty consciousness she’d not until then experienced and induced in her a steely determination to be independent and earn her own living at all times. After his death, she sued to have his name removed from her earlier books.

“The frugality of Virginia Woolf’s five hundred a year and a room of one’s own had as much allure for her as the ideals of Woolf’s feminism, which is to say, none at all. Colette’s models were never the gentlewomen of letters living on their allowances but the courtesans and artistes she had frequented in her youth, whose notion of a bottom line was fifty thousand a year and a villa of one’s own – with a big garden, a great chef, and a pretty boy.”

She would have a child (a daughter) at forty, though her maternal instinct never developed sufficiently for her to spend much time in the role of mother, allowing her to be raised by a nanny, though she marry the baby’s father Baron Henry de Jouvenel, an influential, flamboyant political journalist in Paris.

Below is a summary of Lessons We Can Learn From Colette, written by Holly Isard on the anniversary of her death, 3 August, do click on the link to read the lessons, they provide an interesting insight into the individualist character Colette was and lived according to. Each lesson has a wonderful anecdote connected to it.

Famous for her free spirit as much her style of writing, Colette was a chronicler of female existence, a precursory feminist who pushed against the bounds of sexuality for women in Paris. To the abhorrence of Parisian society, Colette experimented with androgyny on and off stage. She also frequented the spaces where marginal sexualities were beginning to find some visibility, in the cabarets and pantomimes. Even 142 years after her birth, Colette remains an icon and an indisputably formidable woman. Here, we consider five key lessons we can learn from the great lady herself.

1. Continue on in the face of controversy 

2. Stick with your gut instinct

3. Don’t underestimate a woman’s influence 

4. “Perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.”

 Next Up:

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx’s second novel The Shipping News (1993) won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for fiction. Her short story Brokeback Mountain from the collection Close Range was made into a powerful film, directed by Ang Lee.

She is now 80 years old and has just published the novel Barkskins, a historical family saga that follows the descendants of two Frenchmen who arrive in the King’s newly claimed territory of New France (an area that today is made up of parts of Canada, the US and two islands that remain under French control).

BarkskinsProulx hasn’t published a novel since 2002 and has spent the last ten years researching, studying, writing about and travelling to visit trees and forests of the world. Her novel has at its heart, the theme of deforestation and uses the two families to illustrate her thinking, that there is no greater protector or more harmonious dweller of a lands natural resources than those who are native to the area.

One of the characters Rene Sel, marries a native Indian woman, the other Charles Duquet, marries the daughter of a Dutch shipping magnate and from then on their destinies and the generations that follow, will navigate different paths, one family struggling to survive and to retain their identity and ways, the other creating a family empire, intent on finding a renewable resource to ensure the business continues to grow and expand.

Again Duquet saw the great weakness of the trade – surplus or scarcity. Beaver might disappear from over trapping or disease or for no discernible reason. Or the Indians took too many. He now regarded tales of immense profits in the fur trade as fables. He wanted great and permanent wealth, wealth for a hundred years. He wanted a fortune to pass on to his sons. He wanted his name on buildings. He was surprised to discover in himself a wish for children, a wish to establish a family name. The name Duquet would change from a curse to an honor.

Rene and his children learn from his Mi’kmaq wife, their mother Mari, who was a repository of answers to their many questions, for her people had ‘examined the world with boundless imagination for many generations’ already.

Over the months and years he learned from her. His relationship to Mari became a marriage of intelligences as well as bodies. They stood opposed on the nature of the forest. To Mari it was a living entity, as vital as the waterways, filled with the gifts of medicine, food, shelter, tool material, which everyone discovered and remembered. One lived with it in harmony and gratitude. She believed the interminable chopping of every tree for the foolish purpose of “clearing the land” was bad.

Parts of the novel are riveting and in particular, Proulx inhabits in an engaging manner, the characters of Charles Duquet and one of his descendants Lavinia Duke, who becomes the head of the family empire and is as ruthless as the men who became before her. It is she who Proulx sends to New Zealand in search of the enchanted kauri forests.

Yes. They have trees. Especially do they have certain ‘kauri’ trees, which experts describe as the most perfect trees on the earth, truly enormous trees that rise high with all the branches clustered conveniently at the top. The wood of these trees is without blemish, light, odourless, of a delightful golden colour, easy to carve and work, strong and long-wearing.

However, at just over 700 pages and spanning 300 years and multiple generations, it is a challenge to keep the characters in mind and as a result some make more of an impression than others, which both quickens and inevitably often slows the pace of reading, a necessary compromise perhaps when illustrating such a significant era of history through the narrative form of fiction.

It is a book of a writer’s indulgence, this is Proulx doing what pleases her; a trained historian spending her time indulging a subject that fascinates and rouses her interest which is also a major concern to her. Her book is a wake-up call, even if its lessons sadly, have been learned much too late.

“Nobody can visit the big trees again; the huge forests do not exist. The understorey has gone, and the smaller plants and animals – the ecosystem has been damaged. Change is right with us, and you can get frightened.” Annie Proulx – The Observer, 5 June 2016

I reviewed this book for Bookbrowse and also wrote an article Beyond the Book on the territory of New France, where it is currently Editor’s Pick and available to read by clicking on the link below:

Read Claire’s Review and Article at Bookbrowse

To buy a copy of the book via Book Depository, click on the link below:

Buy Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

 

 

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

The President’s Hat is the first book of Antoine Laurain’s that was translated from French into English by Gallic Books. It appears that three translators were used for the different voices.

Daniel Mercier voiced by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

Fanny Marquant and Bernard Lavallière voiced by Emily Boyce

Pierre Aslan voiced by  Jane Aitken

In February, Gallic Books sent me a copy of his second translation The Red Notebook, which I devoured immediately and adored. Click on the link to read my review.

Thanks to that review where I indicated a wish to read The President’s Hat, Owen at The Carrot Cake Diaries sent me his copy and I returned the favour by sending him one my all time favourites, Martin Booth’s The Industry of Souls.

The President’s Hat is just as brilliant in its light-hearted uplifting way. It is the story of what happens to the people beginning with Daniel Mercier who encounter a black hat with the letters F M embossed in gold lettering inside the rim, when it is left on a restaurant seat by the former French President François Mitterand. Daniel is the first person seized by a compulsion to covet the hat and wear it until he too will leave it behind and the adventure moves on to the next person.

black hat

Each person who encounters the hat, is touched by it sufficiently to act in a way that will have a significant impact on their lives, thus taking the reader on an entertaining journey across France and into Venice in the eighties via gifted storytelling.

Although he appears only very briefly in the story, it is in a way a tribute to the man who was a popular President in the 1980’s, who ruled from 1981 to 1995 and in his last address to the people said:

“I believe in the forces of the spirit, and I won’t leave you.”

He died one year later.

mitterrand tranquille

Impossible to put down, uplifting and a joy to read, it is wonderful to come across one of those ‘turn-to’ authors when in need of a literary pick-me-up or just a fun read!

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain tr. Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken

The Red Notebook Antoine Laurain Paris Light Translated FicitonAntoine Laurain is the French author of five novels, including The President’s Hat, a novel that has found a popular and loyal following in the US and UK since being translated into English by Gallic Books.

Not serious literature, they’re the kind of books you reach for when you need something uplifting and entertaining. I reached for this one at the end of winter when in the grip of a terrible flu and found it the best medicine of all!

My Review Notebooks The Red Notebook Antoine Laurain

A Selection of Word by Word notebooks.

Intrigued and incensed in equal measure, as a notebook toting woman myself, I wanted to know more of this story centred around a character whose red notebook, containing handwritten thoughts and random PRIVATE jottings, has fallen into the hands of the curious bookseller, Monsieur Laurent Letellier.

Recognising it as a handbag of quality and not something intended to be thrown out, when Monsieur Letellier comes across the abandoned handbag on a Parisian street early one morning, he picks it up intending to hand it in at the police station, which he almost succeeds in doing, except, you know, French bureaucracy, it will require a one hour wait and he has a shop to open up, so plans to return later. Only later becomes much, much later and the police station is not where he will return it to.

mauve handbag The Red Notebook Antoine Laurain ParisThe bag belongs to Laure, a woman we meet in the opening pages as she clutches her handbag to her detriment, metres from her apartment, only to be shoved against a metal door frame, losing the bag anyway. Without keys, and despite it being 2am, she manages to check into the hotel opposite, promising to pay in the morning, by which time she will have fallen into a coma.

Once the bag comes home with the bookseller, it becomes a major temptation and much of the book is spent on various dilemmas arising as a consequence of his inaction, which in turn provoke memories of past events. The longer it stays with him, the more trouble it causes and the more intrigued he becomes by its owner, despite recognising his chances at redemption grow slimmer as each day passes.

Jardin du Luxembourg Antoine Laurain The Red Notebook

Early morning in the Luxembourg gardens, Paris

One of the items the bookseller discovers is a signed copy of Accident Nocturne by Patrick Modiano which leads him to track down the reclusive author, known to frequent Luxembourg Gardens most mornings. As a bookseller, he knows how rare book signings by this author are, so hopes the author may lead him to the woman.

The Modiano cameo intrigued me, particularly as he’d just won The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, was that the reason to mention him, I wondered? And then I read Helen’s Mad About The Books review of Dora Bruder and found an even better reason for the reference to this esteemed author.

Paris Soir Dora BruderIn Dora Bruder, Modiano tells how in 1988 he stumbled across an ad in the personal columns of the 1941 New Year’s Eve edition of Paris Soir. The ad had been placed by the parents of 15-year-old Jewish girl Dora Bruder, who had run away from the Catholic boarding school where she’d been living.

It set the author off on an obsessive quest to find out everything he could about Dora Bruder and why during the most dangerous period of the German occupation of Paris, she had run away from those protecting her. But that’s another story and book, so see Helen’s review below for more on that extraordinary tale.

The Red Notebook has little of the hardship and tragedy of Dora Bruder, it reads more like a book that could be made into an entertaining romantic comedy, it has all the ingredients, the streets and bookshops of Paris, an artists’ workshop, handbags and their intriguing taboo contents, a jealous girlfriend and a lippy adolescent daughter. Watch this space I say!

Personally, I found it wonderful to discover an author who can do uplifting, feel good stories that push the right buttons for booklovers without becoming sentimental or too romantic. Though the ending may not be realistic, it was fun getting there.

If you like a glimpse of local life in Paris, characters who observe bookshelves and mention what other characters are reading, people who write in notebooks, the short form novella and an uplifting story, that could turn into a beautiful film, then pick up a copy of The Red Notebook here.

Further Reading:

Review by Susan of A Life in Books  – The President’s Hat, Antoine Laurain

Review by Helen of Mad About the BooksDora Bruder, Patrick Modiano – translated into English by Joanna Kilmartin as The Search Warrant

Article by Antoine Laurain – On Patrick Modiano winning the 2014 Nobel Prize

Dora Bruder Patrick Modiano The Red Notebook Antoine Laurain

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher, Gallic Books.

 

A Journey From Hobbiton to Provence

Carolyne Kauser-Abbot is a freelance writer who has a passion for food, travel and Provence and shares many wonderful things to see and do here in the lifestyle travel magazine Perfectly Provence as well as a food and travel related blog Ginger and Nutmeg.

Recently she asked me how I came to be a writer/blogger and Aromatherapist in Provence.

If you click on the photo below you can read the article:

Claire's Christmas Aromatherapy Remedies

Claire’s Christmas Aromatherapy Remedies

I hope you enjoyed the diversion from reading a book review.

 Claire

“All Paths Lead to Rome” – The Vatican Cellars by André Gide tr. by Julian Evans

Vatican CellarsOriginally published in the summer of 1914, this year is the 100th anniversary of André Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican otherwise known as The Vatican Cellars and sometimes as Lafcadio’s Adventures in English.

André Gide had quite a reputation and was adored and detested in equal measure in the French literary community during his time. He was a provocative writer, not sensationalist by today’s standards, but he rocked the foundations of robust entities in the early 1900’s and tested some of his friendships with his provocative, satirical works, that challenged the solemnity of the novelistic form and bourgeois attitudes of the time.

He declared the book not to be a novel, but a sotie, a medieval farce in which the players freely mock the powers that be, more often than not, the Church.

“Even in the authentic soties of the Middle Ages there was the attempt to demonstrate the madness of the real world by showing it capsized and lead by fools.” Wallace Fowlie, Andre Gide: His Life and Art

He did this to stand apart from that tradition of European fiction, characterised by its extreme seriousness. Many chose to judge it at face value, or to apply an interpretation that wasn’t his own and cause him to be ostracized by some.

A Young Gide Source: Center for Gidean Studies andregide.org

A Young Gide
Source: Center for Gidean Studies
andregide.org

He wasn’t looking for recognition or accolades, but he was a writer who wasn’t afraid to take on a subject and look at it through a symbolic, metaphorical lens even if it did court contempt in some quarters. Though still highly controversial in France, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, he died in 1951 and a year later his works were placed on the Vatican’s list of banned books.

That act was certainly provocative and no doubt helped to heighten the author’s popularity as negative publicity tends to do. So when this book arrived unsolicited in my mailbox, I was curious to find out more, not just about the story, but André Gide, a writer previously unknown to me. In a strange coincidence, this week I see that Papal controversy – or is it just rumour, continue, when I read this headline in The Independent.

God isn’t a magician with a magic wand according to the pope and there are non-believing vicars 

The basic premise of The Vatican Cellars centres around the members of one family, whose connections are slowly revealed, whether by blood or marriage, the first three books (more like parts as the book is only 300 pages) are portrayed from each of the main characters point of view and running throughout the narrative is the effect of a rumoured plot that a gang has kidnapped the Pope and placed him in the Vatican cellars, an imposter installed in his place. The fourth book introduces us to the gang, referred to as The Millipede and the final book is dedicated to the young man Lafcadio and brings all the characters to Rome.

Book One introduces us to Anthime Armand-Dubois, a crippled freemason devoted to scientific research, an atheist who leaves France to settle in Rome to be near a specialist in rheumatic diseases. His departure causes his brother-in-law Julius De Baraglioul great sorrow and his wife Véronique small joy.

“As one of those people who fill their flat disappointed lives with countless small devotions, in her sterility she offered up to the Lord every attention that a baby would have demanded from her. Sadly she entertained almost no hope of leading her Anthime back to Him. She had known for a long time how much stubbornness that broad brow, knitted in perpetual denial, was capable of. Father Flons had warned her.”

Julius, his wife (Véronique’s sister) and their 9-year-old daughter Julie visit, during which Anthime experiences an apparition of the Virgin Mary and the miraculous healing of his affliction. He converts, but loses his freemason and lucrative research contacts and must move to Milan to await compensation promised by the Vatican.

André Gide Source: Centre for Gidean Studies andregide.org

André Gide
Source: Centre for Gidean Studies
andregide.org

Book Two is Julius De Baraglioul, a novelist who arriving back in Paris receives a letter from his father, who is on his deathbed and wishes him to anonymously make the acquaintance of a certain Lafcadio Wluiki to check out his ambitions and character. Julius visits the Lafcadio’s lodgings, meets Carola Venitequa and snoops around his things reading a private notebook since the room is unlocked and uninhabited. He eventually meets him and gives him a copy of his latest novel, one that has been panned by critics. Recognising the book is based on the author’s father, Lafcadio eyes the dying man as a potential new “Uncle” and goes to see him.

In Book Three we meet Amédée Fleurissoire, debated by some to be the true hero of this story; within these pages the entire plot to kidnap the Pope is unveiled. A priest calls on the widow Countess de Guy de Saint-Prix, Julius’s younger sister just after her return from her father’s funeral in Paris and regales her with the extraordinary tale of the Pope’s demise. And here there is an author interjection, a sidestep of the story plot to tell of the factual plot, as the story was inspired by real events that occurred in 1893 by a gang of fraudsters, taking advantage of the Pope’s sympathies toward the French Revolution.

“Whether God’s representative on earth could have been abducted from the Holy See and, by the intervention of the Quirinal, stolen from all of Christendom as it were, is an excessively thorny problem which I do not have the temerity to raise in these pages. But it is a historical fact that, around the end of 1893, rumours were circulating to that effect. It goes without saying that numerous devoted souls became deeply agitated. A pamphlet on the subject appeared in Saint-Malo and was suppressed. …There is no doubt that countless pious souls made financial sacrifices, but it was dubious whether all those who received donations were genuine campaigners, or whether some were perhaps fraudsters.”

The priest wishes the Countess to make a significant donation, so she rushes off to see Madame Fleurissoire, the younger sister of Véronique and Marguerite and wife of our genuine hero Monsieur Amédée Fleurissoire. Hearing about all the fuss Fleurissoire decides he must leave Pau and travel to Rome himself to see what can be done.

Book Four is The Millipede (the centipede) which continues to follow the travels of Amédée, the presence of the gang undetected. He is intercepted at the station and brought to slovenly rooms, where we again meet Carola and he is taken on a bit of a wild goose chase to Naples and back, bumping into Julius who has also appeared in Rome.

Then Book Five brings us back to Lafcadio, raised by his mother and five uncles, across different European countries, he is at home everywhere, but belongs nowhere. After his encounter with Julius’s dying father, he too decides to take the train south, but he is heading for adventure, his destination Borneo. He is the anti-hero, the free spirit, parentless, he lives without obligation or restraint, he can do as he pleases, provided he has the means. His charm takes care of that.

And what happens when they all find themselves in Rome? For that you’ll need to read the book.

As the literary critic Albert Guerard said:

“Perhaps only the maligned casual reader sees that les Caves du Vatican is above all a very funny book.”

It is a book that Gide had in the back of his mind for 20 years before writing it and many of the scenes were inspired from aspects of his own life or those close to him. For example, Anthime’s conversion is said to be based on Emile Zola’s Freemason cousin, who abjured his atheism in a public ceremony at a church in Rome.

The Vatican Cellars is an entertaining, easy read and can be intellectually stimulating if you are interested to analyse it further. I enjoyed it very much and all the more for having read around it, dipping into some of the published literary essays to understand the intentions of the author and the responses of the critics.

He was a humble author with a fascinating intellect who refused to accept literary prizes and acknowledgement at home, until it came to the Nobel, which he felt would have gone to Paul Valéry, if not for his untimely death and accepted it without reserve, though he was too ill to receive it in person.

In an open letter to several leading Swedish newspapers which had sought interviews, Gide confessed that he had received the Nobel Prize:

“with deep emotion, with tears in my eyes, like a schoolboy who has won a prize.”

I leave you with this very funny anecdote that I picked up from an essay by the critic George D.Painter.

“On 7 January 1930 Gide was returning by train from Toulon to Paris with Jacques de Lacretelle. At the opposite table, which was covered with flowers, sat a honeymoon couple, the husband engrossed in The Vatican Swindle. It was the first time Gide had ever seen a stranger reading himself. ‘Here’s your chance,’ said Lacretelle, ‘Tell him who you are – write him a dedication!’ But to do this, Gide would have had to feel sure that the unknown liked the book. Suddenly the young man pulled out a penknife. Good heavens, was he about, like Lafcadio, to plunge it in his thigh? But no, worse still, he seemed to intend to cut the book itself in pieces, and Lacretelle was seized with a fou rire. With great care the bridegroom cut the threads of the binding, detached the part he had read, handed it to his young wife; and both buried themselves in their reading.”

train reading

Note: Thank you most kindly to Gallic Books for sending me a copy of the book.