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

Waiting for the Waters to Rise by Maryse Condé (2021) tr. Richard Philcox

This story (originally published in French in 2010 as En attendant la montée des eaux) follows the character of Babakar, a Doctor from Segu, Mali who delivers babies. In the opening chapter while it pours with rain outside, he is called to attend a birth of a young woman he does not know but recognises, who does not survive the birth. Understanding that the man who accompanies her Movar, is not the father, he claims the baby as his own, seeing it as a sign, a return.

It does occasionally trouble him, what he has done and sure enough, one day Movar returns and tells him of the promise made to the young mother, to return her child to her family in Haiti, from where she had fled. The novel begins in Guadeloupe and moves to Haiti, while also travelling to other places through the backstories of the adjacent characters.

Waiting For the Waters to Rise Maryse CondeThough the story follows Babakar, each time we encounter a new character, there is this digression into their backstory(s), so we learn of all these male characters stories, Babakar (in Mali and the often present apparition of his mother Thécla Minerve), Movar, (in Haiti) Fouad (in Lebanon, though being Palestinian he dreams of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwich) who all come together in Haiti, and underlying the visit, this search to find family and learn why the young mother had fled.

Although the story is about the search for Anais’s (the baby) family, for all that this is an employed man raising a young baby on his own, she was remarkably absent, as were her carers, creating a bit of a disconnect, considering the entire motivation for this grand journey was supposedly her well-being, or the pursuit of this promise. The baby seemed to pose no great inconvenience, which seemed strange, the story centred solely on the male characters.

With so much of the novel told in backstory, there was a lot of ‘telling’ and I found myself reading over parts of those narratives quite quickly as they didn’t seem to progress or relate to the story itself. Perhaps there was something universal in the stories of the three main men, in the collapse of their earlier lives that found them seeking solace in each others company, but it didn’t work for me as well as I had hoped.

The family that Anais came from had its own complicated history and political associations, but was less in the foreground.

It was interesting, having just read Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy by Marie Vieux-Chauvet, to be back in Haiti and to understand more of the references and pick up on the atmosphere of the location, the unpredictability and quasi-fear around certain people, never quite knowing if they are safe or not and that metaphor of the title, suggesting disaster not far off.

close up water drop photography

Photo by PixabayPexels.com

As the novel came to a close, those waters began to rise and there is yet another opportunity to enter into an interesting story as the two characters make a plot direction changing decision and enter into an aspect of the story we will never know. And what about the baby, I wonder, not for the first time?

Maryse Condé is a Guadeloupean author writing in French, the author of many novels including the historical fiction masterpiece Segu and I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem.

She remains a favourite author and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work, last year’s Crossing the Mangrove was just brilliant as were her childhood essays in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood.

Gratitude by Delphine de Vigan (France) tr. George Miller

les gratitudes French literature AgeismI’ve read one other novel by Delphine de Vigan, which was auto-fiction and delved into lives affected by a bi-polar parent. A later novel also sat on the edge of fiction and real life, a novel of suspense where a friendship becomes obsessive and perhaps dangerous.

Gratitude feels like a departure from that style of writing, there’s nothing haunting or tense here, no tactics to turn the page faster.

More reflective, it considers the dilemma of ageing on three people: childless, unmarried Michka who was orphaned at the age of seven, near the end of her life; Marie, a young woman who lived upstairs, who has become like family to her; and Jérôme, the resident speech therapist who visits and is touched by Michka’s way of being, as he attempts to retrain her mind to find the lost words.

It’s a relatively simple tale told from the perspective of two people, one whose connections go back many years, the other who meets her for the first time in the care home. Both are equally important, reminding me of the beginning of that saying…

People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. When you figure out which it is, you will know exactly what to do.

How To Express Gratitude

It is Marie who in the opening pages questions what it means to have gratitude and how to show it to someone who has been important in one’s life. She reflects on Michka’s life and their final interactions, in search of evidence of her  gratitude. Jérôme wishes there was a forewarning system, to let us know when someone’s time is imminent, even though he works with the elderly, he suffers from the shock of their departure.

The narrative switches between the two as first Marie recalls the day everything changed, when Michka lost her independence and then moments are shared while she is in care, Michka’s conversation affected by her aphasia, the impairment of her use of language, other words jump ahead pushing out the one she wishes to say.

The admission interview for the nursing home demonstrates the terror and horror of entry, as if going for a job interview for a job you never wanted in the first place, made to feel like you might be rejected. The director reminds her that it’s the same with everything in life – whatever you do, there are tests, interviews, competitions, exams, assessments, evaluations, grading. It is necessary to show your dedication, commitment, motivation and determination.

In the second half as more and more words disappear or malfunction, a sense of urgency arises.

Attaining Completion, Resolution

It is a slice of life and a look into that part of it that is imperfect, that part when some have to be at the mercy of others, in a facility that diminishes the end, possibly brings it on more quickly.

Michka has an unresolved matter to deal with and in her sessions with Jérome, which she often sabotages to question him about his father, she tells him of her regret, the thing she is unable to do for herself. Time is running out.

Gratitude is a life-affirming read, even if there are sad undertones, showing there exist all manner of souls around, those that want to hurry us along, and those that without expectation of reward, are willing to go out of their way to help another. And the importance of fulfilling those wishes for another.

My Review Of:

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

gratitude Maya Angelou Delphine de Vigan

N.B. This book was an ARC ( Advance Reader Copy) with thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing provided via Netgalley.

 

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 Party Wall by Catherine Leroux (2016)

translated by Lazer Lederhendler (from French-Canadian into English).

Reading Women in Translation

French Canadian literature in translationMy final read of August for WITMonth was The Party Wall, French Canadian author Catherine Leroux’s third novel. It was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which annually recognizes the best in Canadian fiction – and has just announced its 14 strong long list for 2020. The translation by Lazer Lederhendler won the Governor General’s Literary Award for translation (French to English).

This novel is told in chapters about paired characters; mother and son, brother and sister, husband and wife; so it stops and starts as we leave one pair and move to the next. There doesn’t initially appear to be a connection (although there is) between the lives so the stories are quite different, creating the effect of reading short stories with the expectation that the threads will come together to reveal the tapestry.

The novel opens with Madeleine (actually it doesn’t but it’s the more memorable opening chapter), a woman who has lost her husband; she visits the spot where his ashes lie beneath a tree and talks to him often. Her son has left home and she hears of him through the many travellers who arrive looking for a bed for a night, people he has given her address. There is a sadness of loss of the other in her, an affliction which is given a bizarre (but true) cause when she is told she is not a biological match for her son, when at last he does return.

The Party Wall Catherine Leroux lighthouse

Photo by Kristina Gain on Pexels.com

From the window of her office, Madeleine looks at the watchman doing his rounds. This is what she does when her eyes need a rest. There’s the sea, of course, but it isn’t at all restful. It’s a struggle, a call, a mystery whispered with every rising tide. The watchman, on the other hand, is calm and predictable. Afflicted by gout, he has never taken a day off. He circles around the lighthouse like a grey satellite; his hobbling in no way diminishes his reassuring presence.

As their lives move forward, the theme of separation becomes apparent, its inherent wounding manifesting in different ways in each pair of lives.

Oddly enough, it was a long time before they realised they had both been adopted. Marie, haunted by her origins, preferred to wait before broaching the subject and kept the truth sealed inside her chest. As for Ariel, his sense of belonging to the Goldstein family was so powerful that he rarely gave any thought to the fact he had been born elsewhere, welcomed into the world by unknown hands, which had passed him on to someone else like a baton in a relay race that was to lead to as yet unseen heights.

Silence as a Familial Weapon

graveyard shift cemetery ghostly presence

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Carmen and Simon are siblings and we meet them around their mother’s deathbed, a woman who never revealed to her children who their father was, controlling them through withholding, keeping them attached through the sliver of possible revelation. Carmen runs marathons to forget, while Simon tries to avoid witnessing his marriage fall apart, removing himself by choosing to work the graveyard shift.

The term “graveyard shift” is perfectly apt: the darkness and silence of a cemetery always mask a ghostly existence, the invisible dramas of the dead and their mourners.

It’s a thought provoking and cleverly constructed novel, however the disjointed stories inevitably expose the weaknesses of one against the strengths of another, and so writing about it a week after reading highlights that which was memorable and that lost to the river of stories who are lost in the current.

Ultimately, what stays with the reader is the importance of the connections we do make, those we choose and those we pursue, for better or worse. A couple of the stories could have evolved into novels in their own right.

The Party Wall has its own logic and its own internal structure and systems: four stories that become intertwined as the book progresses. Three of those came about from extraordinary news stories I had come across. Catherine Leroux

Further Reading

Article CBC/Radio Canada: Catherine Leroux on the literary value of loose ends

Article: How Catherine Leroux ripped fiction from the headlines in The Party Wall

Article: 14 Canadian books make the 2020 longlist for $100k Scotiabank Giller Prize, 8 Sept 2020

Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani

translated by Sophie Lewis (from French)

Reality bites.

Sex and Lies Leila Slimani MoroccoThe last nonfiction book I read was also set in Morocco (at the time referred to as the Spanish Sahara) written by a foreign woman living openly with her boyfriend, it couldn’t be more in contrast with what I’ve just read here – although Sanmao does encounter women living within the oppressive system that is at work in this collection.

In Morocco the ban on ‘fornication’, or zina, isn’t just a moral injunction. Article 490 of the penal code prescribes ‘imprisonment of between one month and one year [for] all persons of opposite sexes, who, not being united by the bonds of marriage, pursue sexual relations’. According to article 489, all ‘preferential or unnatural behaviour between two persons of the same sex will be punished by between six months and three years’ imprisonment’.

Leïla Slimani interviews women who responded to her after the publication of her first novel Adèle, a character she describes as a rather extreme metaphor for the sexual experience of young Moroccan women; it was a book that provoked a dialogue, many women wanted to have that conversation with her, felt safe doing so, inspiring her to collect those stories and publish them for that reason, to provoke a national conversation.

Novels have a magical way of forging a very intimate connection between writers and their readers, of toppling the barriers of shame and mistrust. My hours with those women were very special. And it’s their stories I have tried to give back: the impassioned testimonies of a time and its suffering.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

In these essays Leila Slimani gives a voice to Moroccan women trying to live lives where they can express their natural affinity for love, while living in a culture that both condemns and commodifies sex, where the law punishes and outlaws sex outside marriage, as well as homosexuality and prostitution. The consequences are a unique form of extreme and give rise to behaviours that shock.

It’s both a discomforting read, to encounter this knowledge and hear this testimony for the first time, and encouraging if it means that a space is being created that allows the conversation to happen at all.

However, overall it leaves a heavy feeling of disempowerment, having glimpsed the tip of another nation’s patriarchal iceberg. We are left with the feeling that this is a steep and icy behemoth to conquer. Article 489 is not drawn from sharia or any other religious source, it is in fact identical to the French penal code’s former article 331, repealed in 1982. They are laws inherited directly from the French protectorate.

In a conversation with Egyptian feminist and author Mona Eltahawy about the tussle between the freedom desired and the shackles forced upon women, Eltahawy responded by using words attributed to the great American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who devoted her life to persuading slaves to flee the plantations and claim their freedom.

She is meant to have said: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew were slaves.” Emancipation, Eltahawy told me, is first about raising awareness. If women haven’t fully understood the state of inferiority in which they are kept, they will do nothing but perpetuate it.

Women are stepping out of isolation and sharing their stories everywhere, finding solidarity in that first step, sharing in a safe space, being heard, realising they are not alone.

May it be a stepping stone to change.

I read this book as part of WIT (Women in Translation) month and was fortunate to have been gifted it by a reader, since I participated in the gift swap, so thank you Jess for sending me this book, you can read her review of it on her blog, Around The World One Female Novelist at a Time.

The Red Sofa by Michèle Lesbre

translated by David Ball, Nicole Ball

An Unexpected Trans-Siberian Railway Trip

le canapé rouge the red sofa michèle Lesbre

A French novella that I read in an afternoon, we accompany our Parisian protagonist Anne, on a train journey towards Lake Baikal, in Southern Siberia, a journey she makes on a local train, having spontaneously decided to find out why her friend Gyl is no longer responding to her letters.

For the first six months he had written often, telling me he had time to go fishing for omul in the lake and make kites for children.
And then, silence.

Once on the train and it’s a long journey, she has time to think and recall their friendship, they were lovers many years ago and while she holds no flame for him, the journey allows her to reflect on the highs and lows of their union.

I knew that the return trip is the real journey, when it floods the days that follow, so much so that it creates the prolonged sensation of one time getting lost in another, of one space losing itself in another. Images are superimposed on one another – a secret alchemy, a depth of field in which our shadows seem more real than ourselves. That is where the truth of the voyage lies.

Get To Know Your Neighbour

What she does spend time thinking of, is her recent past and another spontaneous decision, to knock on the door of a neighbour whom she has never seen, an elderly woman.

I had never run into her in the lobby of the building, not on the stairs. I knew all the other people who lived there, or at least their names and faces, but Clémence Barrot remained a mystery. No sounds would ever reach me when I walked by her door, and if I asked questions about her, all I got were laconic answers and knowing looks…A character!

The door is opened by a young girl and peering inside she sees the older woman sitting on a red sofa by a window. As an excuse for her curiosity she mentions there might be noise as she has people coming for dinner that evening. The woman asks her a favour in return for the anticipated inconvenience.

With a big smile, she retorted that she would rather we proceeded differently: for all past dinners, for this one and the next ones, she would only ask in exchange that I occasionally read to her a little, if I had the time.

Passionate French Women Who Faced Death Unflinchingly

And so we meet some bold French female heroines of the past, sadly a number of whom for their feminist inclinations in the wrong era, lose their lives at the guillotine.

“Tell me about that gutsy girl again,” Clémence Barrot would sometimes ask about Marion de Faouët and her army of brigands. She had, just as I did, a real affection for that child who had not grown up to become a lady’s companion despite all the efforts of the Jaffré sisters. No, she became a leader of men instead, an avenger of Brittany which had been starved during the 1740’s.

A wild beauty, faithful to her village, her loves and her ideals, Marion had been imprisoned several times before dying on the gallows at the age of thirty-eight.

While these stream of consciousness thoughts pass through her mind, various locals enter and exit the train. She is happy to be immersed in the languages of the area and in two books she has brought with her, Dostoevsky’s War and Peace and a book by the philosopher Jankélévitch.

Travel To Exotic Destinations Through Story

le canapé rouge the red sofa Michèle Lesbre WIT Month

Becoming particularly interested in one man whom she can’t communicate with – Igor – she imagines things about him from the little she observes and seeks him out more than one time when he disappears.

I had just read ‘There are encounters with people completely unknown to us who trigger our interest at first sight, suddenly, before a word has even been said…”

It’s an engaging read considering not much happens, but there is just the right mix of action and reflection and indeed, by the end a build up to a couple of dramas and quiet resolution.

I really enjoyed the read and was surprised at how captivated I was by the journey. I do love long train journey’s and hers was such an indulgent whim, that the suspension of what she will encounter is enough to keep the reader interested, and the relationship with her elderly neighbour provides a brilliant counterpoint and empathic adjunct, becoming the more significant event to the ‘thousands of miles’ distraction.

N.B. This was one of the many Seagull Books offered weekly to readers during the period of confinement.

Further Reading

Reviewed by Rough Ghosts 

Seagull Books: More of their extensive collection of titles by Women In Translation

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

La Tresse (The Braid) by Laetitia Colombani (France)

This novel La Tresse by Laetitia Colombani was a birthday gift from a friend, at the time I was given it, it wasn’t available in English, however it has since been translated and published in 2019, available under the title The Braid.

It tells the stories of three women living different lives in three countries, each facing a monumental change, each determined to confront that change in their own way, once they overcome the obstacle that stands in their way, and the discrimination that exists in their society, that causes some not to support their efforts.

It’s written in simple language and has the air of a story being told, almost one I can imagine listening to, or watching on film, rather than being lived in the moment.

There is little description, little of the mundane, there is a superficiality to it – almost fable-like, they don’t seem like real lives, there’s an element of cliché in what they each represent. There is a symmetry to the stories, a correlation that creeps up on the reader as we become aware of the pattern that makes these three situations similar and the ‘tresse’ that will create a connection between them.

India – we meet Smita, a young mother from the lowest caste, who is determined that her daughter will not follow in her footsteps, in the disgusting job she and her mother before her have had to do, she has a plan to enable her daughter to obtain an education, that confronts the expectations of her caste.

Sicilie – Guilia left school at 16 to work in her father’s atelier, as he lies unconscious in hospital she discovers he was hiding something from them and it is she who must save the day – through an arranged marriage as her mother suggests – or by stepping up and being courageous, helped by an outsider the community doesn’t accept.

Canada – Sarah is an ambitious lawyer and mother, her private life exists behind a wall of her own making, one she attributes her success to, a wall that comes crumbling down when an illness breaks through it and exposes her.

All three women take on their respective challenges despite the discrimination and obstacles and each will find solace in something unexpected.

I hesitated to read this for some time, just because it was in French, but I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to read and how little I had to look up new vocabulary. I enjoyed it when I did as I discovered new words and scribbled them in pencil in the margins. And then how I come across those words in the external world, resulting in me thinking I really would enjoy to read more of these works that are available in French but not yet in English.

Despite the satisfactory linguistic journey, I’m not sure it is a book I would have picked up normally. It touches on subjects that warrant further exploration, that are a little too conveniently side-stepped or imagined to be easily resolved, which left a quiet discomfort in accepting the outcomes proposed. The author chooses not to delve into the significant issues raised and instead provides this three pronged tale that ties things up a little too neatly at the end.

Any one of these stories could have been developed, their issues explored to raise awareness and encourage discussion; ignoring them feels like a mild form of cultural appropriation. I tried to find out whether the author had a personal connection to any one of the cultures she uses in the novel, but apart from visiting the countries, there doesn’t appear to be.

Yesterday I was in Marseille and visited a number of fabulous exhibitions in the MuCem (Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean) and was inspired by what I encountered there to wish to read more French books, like Frères Migrants by Patrick Chamoiseau, La pesanteur et la grâce by Simone Weil though they may challenge my comprehension. It is a city with a rich history and a wonderful cultural offering that I shall explore more. Perhaps I may try to share some of that here.

Buy a Copy of Laetitia Colombani’s book in French or English

 

Secret by Philippe Grimbert (France) tr. Polly McLean

Twenty years after his parents jumped from the window of their Parisian apartment to their deaths, Philippe Grimbert decided to write about the secret that had overwhelmed their lives. “I had been in mourning for those 20 years,” says the French psychoanalyst, “which is a lot more than Freud suggests is normal. The Guardian, April 2007

Secret, by Philippe Grimbert, translated from French by Polly McLean, is a haunting story of a boy who senses something held back from him from those around him, it is post-war Paris, he is an only child who imagines he has a make-believe brother, seeing things from his perspective as well as his own, even going so far as to fight with him.

He is aware of his mother’s silences, his father’s sadness, without knowing the reason why, yet knowing not to ask. They are athletic, good-looking parents, but they birthed him, a delicate child they must keep from the jaws of death.

I survived, thanks to the care of doctors and the love of my mother. I would like to think my father loved me too – overcoming his disappointment and finding in care, worry and protectiveness enough to stoke his feelings. But his first look left its trace on me, and I regularly glimpsed that flash of bitterness in his eyes.

Full of fear at school, one day after watching a particularly disturbing documentary about the Holocaust, he is overcome by emotion at the insulting comment of a boy in the class and starts a fight, an act completely out of character for him and yet he had felt an inner rage that compelled him to react violently.

The incident left me with a patch above one eye that I wore around school with great pride. But the injury brought me much more than ephemeral glory – it was the sign for which Louise had been waiting.

The neighbour Louise is the only person he tells the truth about why he got in the fight.

Louise was always my favourite, even though she wasn’t actually part of the family. Perhaps I felt a deeper complicity with her than with my blood relatives. Affectionate as they were, my uncles, aunts and grandparents seemed surrounded by an intangible barrier forbidding questions and warding off confidences. A secret club, bound together by an impossible grief.

He is surprised at how upset she becomes, not at his behaviour, but something else, something greater, the burden of which overwhelms her, something she too has known all these years, and believes now she must reveal to him.

The day after my fifteenth birthday, I finally learnt what I had always known.

He fills in the gaps of the story, imagining the narrative himself, he knows nearly all the characters, except those that have haunted him, but he seems to have known them too. However, he too guards the secret, knowing makes it easier on him, but it can’t change his relationship with his family.

To overcome the final hurdle, he needs to fill in the gaps, to find out the facts.

There remained a gap in my story, a chapter whose contents were not known even to my parents. I knew a way to un-stick its pages: I had heard about a place in Paris where I could find the information I was missing.

The narrator shares the same name as the author, and though he never knew the exact details of what happened before he was born, except by anecdote, he used fiction to explore and build a narrative that hopefully might have let some of the ghosts he had lived with for many years to rest.

Why, I ask him, did he write a novel that would involve fictionalising real events? “Because I had no choice. For me, in reconstituting this story that was so brief in terms of what I had been told, reconstituting it in all its duration, was all I could do. My sole tool was the novel. Perhaps someone else could have made a film, done a painting. Somebody else could have written a history, but I couldn’t. The only way I could pay homage was to write this book.”

The Guardian, April 2007

It’s a compelling, thought-provoking read and all the more so upon finishing when I realised there is indeed a strong link to the author’s own life. In addition to the secrets explored in the book, which I don’t want to give away as they are better left to explore in reading, they also let him grow up thinking he was Catholic, something that I think may have been quite common among survivors of WWII.

“I now think that what they did was an act of love rather than cowardice. They sought to protect themselves and me by doing these things. But discovering that I was really a Jew and not a Catholic made me into a neurotic and then into a shrink.”

The book has also been made into a dramatic French film.

Buy a Copy of Secret via Book Depository