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Archive for the ‘My Year Of Reading French Literature’ Category

This year is French writer Romain Gary’s centenary and Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’ is hosting ‘Romain Gary Literature Month’ to celebrate the occasion. I have wanted to read a Romain Gary book since I discovered him last year and so I decided to participate and read Gary’s memoir ‘Promise at Dawn’. Here is what I think.

Romain Gary Centenary

‘Promise at Dawn’ is Romain Gary’s memoir from the earliest time he can remember till the time around the end of the Second World War. The book starts with Gary sitting in the beach alone in the company of birds and seals and looking back at his life. Gary then describes his early life from the time he lived in Russia where his mother was an actress in the theatre circuit. It then charts their journey from Russia to Poland where they lived for a few years in between and then their move from there to Nice in France. Gary talks about his mother’s love for him, the dreams she had for him (should study to become a lawyer, should become an officer in the airforce, should become an Ambassador of France, should be popular among women, should become a famous writer and win the Nobel prize – Gary managed to achieve all of it, except the Nobel prize winning part, but in his defence he won two Prix Goncourt). The early scenes in which Gary describes his family’s poverty and how his mother tries her best to make ends meet while always making life comfortable for him, are very moving. The way his mother shows him gentle maternal love when it is needed and the way she shows him tough love when it is required is beautifully portrayed. Gary’s prose is simple and beautiful. There are long sentences – positively Proustian in their length – but they pull us inside the story and so they don’t feel long. I sometimes found myself resisting the pull of the story and putting myself outside it and trying to find out how long some of the sentences were (and they were long, very long). I think it is a tribute to his mastery that he makes long sentences accessible to a general reader.

Promise At Dawn By Romain Gary

 

There are beautiful passages throughout the book which I lingered on when I read the first time, and which I went back to again and again and re-read many times. Some of my favourites were these : 


The Sea

My first contact with the sea was unforgettable. I had never met anything or anybody, except my mother, who had a more profound effect on me. I am unable to think of the sea as a mere “it” – for me she is the most living, animated, expressive, meaningful living thing under the sun. I know that she carries the answer to all our questions, if only we could break her coded message, understand what she tries persistently to tell us. Nothing can really happen to me as long as I can let myself fall on some ocean shore. Its salt is like a taste of eternity to my lips, I love it deeply and completely, and it is the only love which gives me peace.

How Goethe Lied

I also feel it is time that the truth about Faust be made known. Everyone has lied before, Goethe worse than anyone; he has lied with genius. I know that I should not say what I am going to say, for if there is one thing I hate doing, it is depriving men of their hope. But there it is : the tragedy of Faust is not at all that he sold his soul to the devil. The real tragedy is that there is no devil to buy your soul. There is no “taker”. No one will help you to catch the last ball, no matter what price you are willing to pay. There is, of course, a gang of smart phonies, who give themselves airs and claim they are prepared to make a deal, and I don’t say that one cannot come to terms with them with a certain amount of profit. One can. They offer success, money, the applause of the mob. But if you have had the misfortune to be born a genius, if you are Michelangelo, Goya, Mozart, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Malraux, you are destined to die with the feeling that all you have ever done was sell peanuts.

The Attraction of Endings

I was sitting in my room on the ground floor in front of the open window, writing the last chapter of the great novel I was working on at the time. It was a great last chapter. I regret to this day that I somehow never got around to writing the preceding chapters. I have always had a certain tendency to do last things first, a feeling of urgency, an eagerness for achievement that always made me very impatient with mere beginnings. There is something pedestrian and even mediocre about beginnings. In those days I had written at least twenty last chapters, but I somehow could never bother to begin the books that went with them.

 

There is an underlying sense of humour throughout the book. The fairytale picture of France that Gary’s mother paints when they live in Russia and Poland, telling him that one day they will reach there and become truly French, are touching but also make us smile. One of my favourite funny scenes was when a girl suddenly arrives by taxi to Gary’s home rushes in and hugs his mother and starts crying and tells his mother that Gary made her read all the volumes of Proust and now no one would marry her and so he should marry her immediately. There were also many touching and beautiful scenes in the story. One of my favourites was about his friend from the airforce called Bouquillard during the Battle of Britain. It goes like this :

 

      He became the first French “ace” in the Battle of Britain before being brought down after his sixteenth victory. The roof of his cockpit jammed and he couldn’t bale out, and twenty pilots standing in the operation room, their eyes riveted on the black maw of the loudspeaker, heard him sing the great battle hymn of France until his Hurricane exploded…

      No Paris street has been christened after him, but for me all the streets of France bear his name. 

 

That passage brought tears to my eyes when I read it the first time. It brings tears when I type it now.

 

There were mentions of writers in the book, some of whom are my favourites, which made me happy – the poètes maudites Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire and Walter Scott, Karl May and Robert Louis Stevenson. There is also mention of a delicious biscuit called Les Petits Beurres Lulu (At the time of the writing of the book, Gary says that this biscuit is still available. It has been fifty years since the book was first published. I hope Les Petits Beurres Lulu is still available. Because I want to try that.) Gary also mentions Russian dill pickles many times and says that his favourite thing to do was to buy them from a vendor put them on a newspaper and sit somewhere and eat them slowly and peacefully. One of my biggest regrets was not trying them when I was strolling the streets of Moscow. Maybe I should make a trip again just to try them. Or maybe I should make it at home. The ingredients mentioned in the recipe look like ones I could get.

 

The ending of the book was like the climax of a novel or a movie. It was surprising and heartbreaking, though Gary leaves some clues before and I could see it coming.

La Promesse De L Aube By Romain Gary

I loved ‘Promise at Dawn’. It is the story of a mother’s love for her son and her dreams of a new country and a new future for him. It is a beautiful song that Romain Gary sings for his mother and it is sweet to hear, though it talks about both the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful things of the world. Definitely one of my favourite reads of the year and one of my favourite memoirs ever.

 

Have you read ‘Promise at Dawn’? What do you think about it?

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I recently read Claire’s (from Word by Word) interesting post on Hugh Schofield’s provocative article in BBC News – “Why French Books Don’t Sell Abroad?” Claire shared her thoughts on French literary culture and she was also kind enough to share Laurence Marie’s wonderful reply to Schofield’s article (aptly called ‘Why Do French Books Sell Abroad?’), in which Marie quotes facts and figures which are totally at variance with what Schofield says and gently lobs the kitchen sink at Schofield as any self-respecting window-smashing French intellectual would do. I thought I will also add my little thoughts to the debate and do my bit to bolster Marie’s case and undermine Schofield’s 🙂 A debate is always fun, isn’t it?

 

One of the first sentences in Schofield’s article starts like this.

 

France once had a great literary culture, and most French people would say it still does. But if so, how come their books don’t sell in the English-speaking world?

 

The implication here, of course, is that because French books don’t sell that much in the English-speaking world as they used to, French literary culture is no longer great. In my opinion, that is an extremely weak and spurious argument. Using sales of a book to judge literary merit – when did literary critics start doing that? If this were the case, romance novels and crime fiction would occupy the top positions in terms of literary merit. Because they always sell well and will continue to sell well. Critics can just forget about every other kind of novel.

 

In a later sentence, Schofield says this :

 

And how come the French themselves read so many books that are translated from English and other languages?

 

This seems to imply that if a person reads a lot of translated fiction, it means that the literature of their own language is not great. This is another spurious argument. French readers and writers have always promoted good literature, irrespective of the language in which a book was originally written in. For example, Edgar Allan Poe was virtually unknown in his own country and he died penniless, while he was translated in France by the poet Charles Baudelaire and his works were celebrated. The first ever European translation of the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ (‘Arabian Nights’) was done by Antoine Galland into French in the early 18th century. English translations followed only more than a century later. You can’t blame a reader or a country for loving good literature, irrespective of its origin.

 

Schofield’s article quotes David Rey (who manages the Atout Livre bookshop in eastern Paris) in which Rey says this :

 

French books are precious, intellectual – elitist. And too often bookshops are intimidating. Ordinary people are scared of the whole book culture.

 

This seems to imply that French readers don’t read French books and are intimidated by French books. This sentence is a total contradiction to a sentence which comes earlier in the article, which goes like this :

 

The French take huge pride in their literary tradition – it’s been calculated that the country has a staggering 2,000 book prizes.

 

How can the French be very proud of their literary tradition, have thousands of literary prizes, buy a lot of books (the article says that Marc Levy’s books have sold more than 40 million copies) and probably read most of them and also be scared of the whole book culture and find bookshops intimidating and refuse to step into them? (Did the editor check this article for inconsistencies?)

 

The article also talks about the French policy of not allowing the sale of discounted books. This is what it says :

 

The French have preserved a nationwide network of small bookshops, mainly as a result of a system of protection. Books cannot be sold at a discount

 

A law passed earlier in the year that prevented online retailers from discounting books led to complaints from Amazon that it was being discriminated against.

 

From my perspective, I understand what the French government is trying to do here. It is trying to help the publishing industry and writers. Writers have been poorly paid across the years and the centuries and there is nothing wrong in protecting their interests by not allowing discounts on their books. To buy books at a discount, French readers visit secondhand bookshops and bouquinistes. Personally, when I buy a new book at a discounted price, there is always a conflict going on in my heart – I love the fact that I got a beautiful book at a discounted price, but I also know that books which are discounted are typically books that don’t sell well, which means that the concerned writer is already not making money, and this makes the situation worse and there is a deep pain in my heart when I think about that.

 

I also found this sentence totally irrelevant to the main topic of the article :

 

the sale of e-books is a fraction of what it is in the US and UK.

 

What is the connection between this and the question asked by the article – ‘Why French Books Don’t Sell Abroad’ – I have no idea on that. This sentence just implies that French readers like reading paper books over e-books. I find nothing wrong in that. This situation is true across the world – inspite of the e-reader phenomenon, a majority of readers across the world still prefer reading paper books.

 

The article also makes this interesting comment about French book covers.

 

The books themselves are not made to look appealing. New novels have the same cream cover, with a standardised photo of the author. Design does not seem to be at a premium.

 

I have no idea how this is connected to the main topic of the article on why French books don’t sell abroad. I won’t say anything more about this, but I will point you to Claire’s wonderful reply to this point in her post in which she beautifully explains why French books have a similar cover and what could be the reason behind that.

 

The article also says this about French nonfiction books :

 

And compared to the UK, there is a glaring lack of offer in certain genres – popular history, popular science, biography, humour, sport.

 

Here too, I have no idea on how this is connected to the main topic of the article. However, I would like to add a comment here. One of my favourite historians is French. His name is Fernand Braudel. He was one of the important members of the Annales school, which pioneered the use of social scientific methods in history and published books on history from the perspective of the normal man / woman. Though Braudel was a ‘proper’ historian, his works are accessible to a general audience. His work ‘The Mediterranean is brilliant and his ‘Civilization and Capitalism’ and ‘Identity of France are masterful works. If you love history, these are all must reads.

 

The article also quotes writer Douglas Kennedy as saying this :

 

French novel-writing has never recovered from the experimentation of the post-war era.

 

“It’s ironic because it was the French who invented the social novel in the 19th Century. But after World War Two, that tradition disappeared. Instead they developed the nouveau roman – the novel of ideas – which was quite deliberately difficult.”

 

This is the kind of wrong perception which is prevalent among some people now, and I have to write a long rant about it. But I will try to make it brief.

 

Some of the writers who pioneered the ‘nouveau roman’ were the OuLiPo writers. I have read a few of them and know about a few of them.

 

Raymond Queneau was one of the founding members of the OuLiPo group and he mostly wrote experimental novels. One of them is ‘The Flight of Icarus’. From what I know, it was the first instance in which a character from a book steps out into the real world and talks to real people or disappears from the book and the writer goes in search of that character. (If I am wrong in this, please do let me know, because I am not able to discover this idea in a book which pre-dated this.) This idea later inspired Woody Allen when he wrote his short story ‘The Kugelmass Episode’ in which Madame Bovary steps out of the book and falls in love with a reader. Allen later used this concept in his movie ‘Purple Rose of Cairo in which a character steps off the screen into the real world – a scene which has been copied in countless advertisements. This idea has inspired countless books which were published recently, including Jasper Fforde’s ‘The Eyre Affair’ (and other books in that series), Cornelia Funke’s ‘Inkheart’ (and other books in that series) and Jodi Picoult’s and Samantha van Leer’s ‘Between the Lines’. Of course, no one gave credit to Queneau. Queneau also wrote another book called ‘Exercises in Style’, in which he told one short story in one page and then retold it in many different ways 98 more times. ‘Exercises in Style’ is totally unique and the first of its kind and it is used as a textbook in creative writing courses today.

 

Other famous OuLiPo authors include Georges Perec, who didn’t use the letter ‘e’ in his famous novel ‘A Void’  and Italo Calvino, who told a whole story in the second person, in his book ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ – probably the first time it has ever been done (Calvino wrote in Italian though). Marguerite Duras also wrote in the nouveau roman style. She pioneered the minimalist novel form in which two characters have a conversation for the entire duration of the story, a structure which was unheard of before, and which has subsequently inspired countless novels and movies including the Richard Linklater movies ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Before Sunset’. (if you know of a writer who wrote in this style before Marguerite Duras, please do let me know. I will be glad to change my thoughts on this.)

 

In my opinion, the ‘nouveau roman’ didn’t lead to the decline of French literature. Because other writers borrowed the ideas first introduced by the ‘nouveau roman’ writers and used them in their own popular novels. Jasper Fforde did that. So did Cornelia Funke. And Jodi Picoult. The popular success of their novels shows that the ideas first explored in those nouveau romans are alive and kicking and thriving today. And readers who read in English love those ideas first explored in the nouveau roman form which is why these popular novels are successful today. Readers who read in English are not just plot-loving-readers as the article seems to imply. They are more complex and more interesting than that.

 

French writers have always been pioneering in exploring new ideas, new ways of telling a story, experimenting with plot structure, extending the definition of the novel and exploring themes which are controversial and which haven’t been explored before. French literary culture has always given them the freedom to do that.

 

For example, from what I could tell, the first novel to explore adultery from a woman’s perspective was ‘Madame Bovary’. (Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’ tells me that ‘Madame Bovary’ was inspired by ‘La Femme de Trente Ans’ by Honore de Balzac. That doesn’t change my main argument though –  Balzac was still French 🙂) It probably inspired other books which came later and which explored the same theme like Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, Theodor Fontane’s ‘Effi Briest’ and Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’.

 

Another example is the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique. Though the stream-of-consciousness narrative mode is synonymous with the writings of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf today, the first person in modern times to use that was the French writer Édouard Dujardin in his book Les Lauriers sont coupés. James Joyce is reported to have read that, years before he wrote ‘Ulysses’. Marcel Proust also used this narrative mode in his magnum opus ‘In Search of Lost Time’. Of course, critics have written papers to show why Marcel Proust’s style was not the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style 🙂

 

The surrealist style novels were pioneered by French writers, the most famous of which was Andre Breton’s ‘Nadja’. My own favourite is Boris Vian’s ‘Foam of the Daze’, which is a beautiful, surreal, aching love story.

 

Modern science fiction was pioneered by French writers. Jules Verne is the father of modern science fiction. I sometimes laugh when I read that H.G.Wells and Hugo Gernsback are also regarded as fathers of modern science fiction. Jules Verne wrote his first science fiction novel before either of them was born (Wells was born in 1866 and Gernsback was born in 1884. Jules Verne wrote his first science fiction novel in 1863.) His only sin was that he was French and so he has two other Anglo-Americans competing for the honours. In my mind, there is no doubt. Jules Verne is the father of modern science fiction. Thank you very much.

 

J.K.Huysmans’ fin de siecle novel, ‘Against Nature’, is one of its kind and is regarded as the ultimate example of ‘decadent’ literature – a novel in which the main character shuts himself up in his castle and admires his works of art and his possessions and treasures and lives a rich interior life and avoids human contact.

 

I want to conclude with one last example. Patrick Modiano’s ‘Missing Person’ is about a man who can’t remember his past. When he goes on a quest in search of his true identity and his past story, he discovers first that he is one person and then he is another. This continues till the end of the story. We, of course, are familiar with this story, through the Bourne series by Robert Ludlum. Modiano’s book was published before Ludlum’s. I suspect that Ludlum got inspired by Modiano’s book.

 

The French literary landscape and culture has also inspired writers from other countries to come and write in French and experiment in their works. One famous example is the Irish Nobel prize winner, Samuel Beckett. Beckett wrote most of his famous works in French. His famous absurdist play ‘Waiting for Godot’ was written in French and was first performed in front of a French audience. More recently, Jonathan Littell, who was born American but who now holds French citizenship also, published his first novel ‘The Kindly Ones’ in French. It went on to win the Prix Goncourt. In case you are curious, it is a holocaust novel told from the perspective of a German SS officer who worked in the Eastern front. As you can guess, that would be pretty controversial.

 

Schofield’s article also ignores French books which are written by authors who are not French – typically authors who are Canadian or North African or Caribbean. Two of my favourite authors who write in French are Canadian. Nicole Brossard has written some very beautiful novels including ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’, which is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read. Nancy Huston, who was born Canadian and who lived and wrote from there before she moved to France, wrote the beautiful ‘The Mark of the Angel’ – a novel about love, war and the Holocaust, a novel which has a German heroine who is married to a French musician and who falls in love with a Hungarian Jewish man.

 

One other thing that the article is silent on is French comics. French readers love comics and even though I am an outsider, I have loved French comics since I was a child. (When I say ‘French’ with respect to comics, most of the time I mean Franco-Belgian, because the comics were created by Belgian writers with various European artists and published in French) And I am not talking about just the Tintin and the Asterix series which are world famous. But also the ones which are less famous among English-reading readers – like ‘XIII’, the Lucky Luke series, the Blueberry series, the Largo Winch series, the adventures of Ric Hochet, the Wayne Shelton series and others. Two of my recent favourites are these : the first one is ‘Western’ which is by my favourite comics writer Jean Van Hamme and is an achingly beautiful ‘western’ love story. The second one (which I am still reading) is ‘Batchalo’ which tells the story of the Roma community in France during the Second World War. Unfortunately, this has not been translated into English.

 

The article also says this :

 

French authors routinely appear in the English-speaking world’s lists of the best novels ever – Voltaire, Flaubert, and Proust… sometimes Dumas and Hugo too. But when it comes to post-war literature, it’s a different story. Even voracious readers often struggle to name a single French author they have enjoyed.

 

Well, this is not true. Though I am not a French literature expert and I am just a fan, I have my own list of favourite French authors from the post-war era. Here are some of them (Take that, Schofield 🙂 This is me throwing the kitchen sink!) I have added links to my reviews of these novels with brief excerpts from my reviews of what I thought of them.

 

(1)   Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon by Nicole Brossard“The thing which I totally loved while reading the book was Brossard’s gorgeous prose. It was sublime, lush, delightful, transcendent, luscious, intoxicating. After reading a particular passage and falling in love with it, I thought that this was it. Now Brossard will get back to business and get on with the story. And then followed another intoxicating passage. And then another. And another. It was the kind of intoxication that one gets while listening to classical music, the kind which is pleasurable but on which one never gets drunk. Nicole Brossard is also a poet and it shows in her prose. I want to read this novel again just for Brossard’s prose.”

 Yesterday At The Hotel Clarendon By Nicole Brossard

 

(2)   The Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston“Nancy Huston’s prose is very conversational and in many places she talks to the reader directly while telling the story. It is like sitting in front of the fire on a winter night, listening to a story told by our favourite aunt. There is also a gentle sense of humour throughout the book, even when it talks about serious topics like war, the holocaust, violence and death. The way the book weaves the stories of Saffie, András, Emil and Raphael and the people in their lives with the story of the fight for Algerian independence and the way it shows how the weight of history changes and distorts individual lives is quite interesting. It also made me feel sad, because it showed how difficult it is to find happiness and freedom in the world, even if we try our best.”

 The Mark Of The Angel By Nancy Huston

 

(3)   The Square by Marguerite Duras“I liked the way the story explored the characters’ interior worlds through conversation and dialogue and when we think that there is nothing happening in the story – there are no events, only conversations – we realize, when we reach the end of the story, that a lot has happened in the characters’ interior worlds and the characters have undergone subtle and sometimes strong changes which have transformed them in very important ways. The way Marguerite Duras brings out the intensity of emotion and feeling of her characters not by describing them but through conversations and how through this conversational window she gives us a peek into the core of her characters’ hearts is a defining feature of this story.”

 Four Novels By Marguerite Duras

 

(4)   Foam of the Daze by Boris Vian“‘Foam of the Daze’ is a fascinating, surrealistic, fantastic love story with a heartbreaking ending. It addresses all the great themes – youth, loss of innocence, love, loss, death, the soullessness of mind numbing but inevitable work – and it does all this in an inventive, imaginative, novel, unique and original way. If you like stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new, you should give Boris Vian’s book a try. It will reward you for taking the risk with a rich reading experience.”   

 Foam Of The Daze By Boris Vian

 

(5)   Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux“‘Simple Passion’ is an interesting book. There is not much of a plot here – the plot can be told in two lines. The book is mostly about the narrator’s thoughts on life, love, longing, waiting, the agony of parting. Annie Ernaux’s prose is spare and simple, but there are beautiful sentences in every page. Though I read it in one sitting, I read it very slowly and enjoyed lingering over those beautiful sentences. ‘Simple Passion’ is a beautiful, slim gem. It is a book to be savoured over a winter evening warming oneself next to a fire having a drink. Or alternately, it can be savoured on a warm summer evening, watching the sun set, while sitting outdoors in the garden and sipping a delicious cup of tea.”

 Simple Passion By Annie Ernaux

 

(6)   Missing Person by Patrick Modiano“‘Missing Person’ is not just the search of the main character for his past, but it is also a meditation on identity and what makes a person who he or she is. It asks interesting questions on what and who we are – whether we are the products of our past, or whether we are what we do and think in the present or whether we are a summation of our future potential. It is a fascinating philosophical question that is explored in the book through the search of Guy Roland for his past.”

 Missing Person By Patrick Modiano

 

(7)   Trap for Cinderella by Sebastien Japrisot“‘Trap for Cinderella’ is a page turner. It is not very thick – the edition I read had 171 pages – but I read it slowly and enjoyed reading each page and passage and sentence. The revelations come slowly and suddenly. We see the story and the world through an amnesiac’s eyes and mind and it is quite surprising and scary. The mystery gets revealed in the last page…It is a noir thriller, which holds its own when compared with the best works of James Cain and James Hadley Chase. It is a masterful exhibition of what can be done with just a few characters in a crime novel, and a masterclass in crime fiction writing.”

 Trap For Cinderella By Sebastien JaprisotGR

 

 

I want to write about one last thing. Most of the time when I want to explore new French writers, I ask Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ for suggestions. You can find her reviews of French books here. Sometimes I also check the reading lists of Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’. You can find her French reading lists here – Reading List 1 and Reading List 2. You can also find Emma’s reviews of French books here. Stu from Winstondad’s Blog mostly reads and reviews translated fiction. His blog is a rich source of reading suggestions of not just French fiction, but also translated fiction from all languages. You can find his reviews of French books here. I also sometimes check the book ‘One Hundred Great French Books’ by Lance-Donaldson Evans. It is a rich source of reading suggestions spanning the entire history of French literature. You can find my review of the book here.

 

In conclusion, French books are not elitist but are accessible. French books come in all sizes and shapes and genres as do books in English and in other languages. French readers read translated fiction. That doesn’t mean that they don’t like fiction written in their own language. They love French fiction. French writers are pioneering innovators and in many cases others are just catching up with them. It might be true that less French books from the post-war era are getting translated into English. It doesn’t mean that they are not good. They are brilliant. If they are not translated it is a big loss for English-reading readers. It is not a loss for French writers. French books are written not only by French writers. They are also written by Canadian, North African and Caribbean writers. Comics are a big part of the French literary tradition. French writers and publishers are supported by the policies of the French government.

 

That is all I have to say 🙂

 

What do you think about this topic? I would love to hear your thoughts. Even if you have a different point of view, I would still love to hear it.

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After I read Andrè Breton’s ‘Nadja earlier this year, I was thinking of reading more surrealistic novels. Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat suggested Boris Vian’s ‘Foam of the Daze’. I have never heard of Boris Vian or his book. So, I thought it will be nice to try a new author. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Foam Of The Daze By Boris Vian

I don’t know how to write about ‘Foam of the Daze’ because it is a complex book. The basic story is simple. Colin and Chick are friends. Nicolas is Colin’s butler. Colin is in love with Chloe and Chick is in love with Alise. Colin and Chloe meet at a birthday party hosted by another of Colin’s friends Isis. Chick and Alise first meet at a talk given by writer-philosopher Jean Sol Partre (doesn’t that name sound suspiciously familiar J) The main characters are all in love and they are all very happy. Colin has enough money to not work. Chick has to work and earn his living, but he is happy because he is in love. He also loves books, sometimes obsessively. He collects any book written by Jean Sol Partre and many times buys books that he cannot afford. (Chick reminded me of myself years back when I used to spend all my money on books and even ended up in debt because of that. It felt strange seeing a fictional version of myself in a 1947 novel.) Of course, this perfect scenario cannot continue forever. If it does, then the story would be boring, wouldn’t it? Colin and Chloe get married. And one day Chloe starts coughing. And her health starts getting worse. The doctor comes and does some tests. He tells Colin and Chloe that there is a flower growing in one of Chloe’s lungs. (I am guessing that the flower stands for cancer). He says if the treatment that he is giving doesn’t work, then an operation has to be done to remove the flower. The doctor’s medicines don’t have much effect. Chloe goes through an operation. Things seem to become better. But then one day she starts feeling weak again. The doctor comes and does tests. He tells her that a flower is growing now on the other lung. Colin’s world collapses. He spends all his wealth in treating his beloved Chloe. Now he has to go to work to make ends meet. On the other hand, Chick spends all his money in buying books and literary memorabilia – first editions, the pipe smoked by his favourite writer and things like that. He loves Alise, but he feels that with his obsessive book-buying habit and lack of wealth he can’t make her happy.

 

Is Chloe able to come through the crisis? What happens to Chick and Alise? Will Colin and Chloe and Chick and Alise live happily ever after? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

 

If we just look at ‘Foam of the Daze’ from a plot perspective, the book is a beautiful love story with sad events which keeps us wanting to turn the page to find out whether the ending is happy or sad. But ‘Foam of the Daze’ is not just about the plot. It is an inventive literary work. It is also surrealistic. Or should I say fantastic (I am using ‘fantastic’ here as the adjective form of ‘fantasy’). Some readers would classify it as science fiction. There are many interesting scenes in the book which we might be used to, today, after reading Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, but which must have been quite new and novel when Vian’s book was first published in 1947. Like, for example, the room changes shape based on the mood of the people in it – when Chloe becomes sick, her room becomes smaller, the walls start moving closer towards each other, the roof starts moving down, her window becomes smaller, the carpet becomes plain and the room starts resembling a sick person’s room in a very physical way. In another scene, the room becomes round after a particular musical piece is played. This is depicted when the doctor first visits Colin’s and Chloe’s home. The passage goes like this :

 

Colin led him as far as the door of the room and suddenly remembered something.

          Be careful going in, he said, it’s round.

          Yes, I’m used to it, said Mangemanche. She’s pregnant…

          No! said Colin. Don’t be stupid. The room is round.

          Entirely round? Asked the professor. You played an Elllington record then?

          Yes, said Colin.

 

In another scene, there is a description of a device called the pianocktail which Colin has invented. Depending on the musical piece that is played on it and the mood that the music evokes, the appropriate drink comes out of this device which totally represents the essence of that mood. There are many scenes like this, where the physical world changes in unusual and fantastic ways to depict a particular mood, color, feeling, emotion or to evoke a distinctive atmosphere.  Reading this gives a lot of pleasure to the reader. I found that image of a flower growing in Chloe’s lung quite beautiful, though terrible. Colin has a pet mouse which is one of the fascinating characters in the story. The main characters – Colin, Chloe, Nicholas – love it and talk to it, and though it doesn’t talk, it seems to understand what they say. It is also extremely loyal and though circumstances change for Colin and Chloe, the mouse sticks with them till the end. The last scene of the book involves the mouse and it is quite heartbreaking.

 

Jazz music plays an important part in the book. There are many jazz references including those to the music of Duke Ellington, who is Colin’s favourite. As the story progresses, the music changes in tone depicting the sadness which creeps into the story. The book has a forty page ‘notes’ section, and a significant part of it is dedicated to explaining the jazz references in the story. The ‘Notes’ section considerably enriches our reading experience.

 

There seems to be only one English translation of the book in print today, by an indie publisher. There is a beautiful introduction by the translator Brian Harper in the book, in which he talks about the themes of the book and also addresses the challenges in translating it. There is one particular sentence which Harper writes about, which I found quite fascinating. The scenario is like this. Colin’s is trying to find a new job and in the interview, the interviewer asks him how he spends his day. The original and translated versions of Colin’s reply go like this :

 

French : Le plus clair de mon temps, dit Colin, je le passe à l’obscurcir.

 

Actual English translation : I spend the better part of my day, said Colin, contemplating the night.

 

Alternative English translation : I spend the brightest part of my day, said Colin, darkening it.

 

The second translation is more beautiful, isn’t it? Just makes me think that sometimes the unused translation (and the unpublished poem or book) might be more beautiful than the official version.

 

‘Foam of the Daze’ is a fascinating, surrealistic, fantastic love story with a heartbreaking ending. It addresses all the great themes – youth, loss of innocence, love, loss, death, the soullessness of mind numbing but inevitable work – and it does all this in an inventive, imaginative, novel, unique and original way. If you like stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new, you should give Boris Vian’s book a try. It will reward you for taking the risk with a rich reading experience.   

 

I will leave you with the link to a beautiful review of the book by Xiaolu Guo, and some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

Nicolas was returning; he was holding an enormous cake.

          It’s a supplementary dessert, said Nicolas.

Colin took a knife and stopped right before cutting into the smooth surface.

          It’s too beautiful, he said. We’re going to wait a little.

 

Chloe had red lips, brown hair, seemed happy and her dress had nothing to do with it.

 

She saw by the means of open blue eyes, and her total volume was limited by fresh and golden skin.

 

He was almost always in a good mood, the rest of the time he slept.

 

The sun, too was waiting for Chloe, but it could have fun making shadows, or helping wild beans sprout in convenient cracks; it could fling open shutters and shame a street lamp still lit because of the recklessness of an electric company technician.

 

You’re both saying the same thing, but you don’t agree, said Colin, therefore either one of you is lying or both of you are.

 

What interests me isn’t the happiness of all men, it’s the happiness of each one.

 

          Is it their fault if they think that it’s good to work?

          No, said Colin, it’s not their fault. It’s because they’ve been told : work is sacred, it’s good, it’s nice, it’s what counts before anything, and only those who work have the right to everything. The only thing is, it’s been set up so that they work all the time so they can’t take advantage of it.

          But then they’re stupid, said Chloe.

          Yes, they’re stupid, said Colin. That’s why they agree with those that made them believe that work is the best thing there is. That saves them from thinking and finding a way to progress and to no longer work.

 

He vigorously pinched the extremity of a ray of sunshine that was about to reach Chloe’s ear. It retracted itself lazily, and started to stroll along the furniture in the room.

 

Colin had sat down on the floor to listen, leaning against the pianocktail, and he cried large tears in soft elliptical forms that rolled down on his clothing and disappeared in the dust. The music that went through him came out filtered, and the tune that came out resembled much more closely Chloe than Blues of the Vagabond.

 

          Your work doesn’t bring you any money? asked the professor.

          No, said Colin. I don’t work in the way people usually understand the word.

 

          I need money, said Colin.

          That’s not unusual, said the man, but work makes you philosophical. After three months, you’ll need it less.

 

Have you read Boris Vian’s ‘Foam of the Daze’? What do you think about it?

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I have a story and then a question for you. Here is the story.

 

The main character, our hero, has amnesia. He doesn’t remember anything from his past. Someone is nice to him and gets him new papers and a new identity. But our hero wants to discover his past and find out who he really is. So one day he takes the flimsy clues he has and starts working on them. He meets some people who seem to remember him vaguely. One thing leads to another and he sees someone resembling himself in a photo. He tries tracking down the other people in the photo. After following up a clue, he realizes that he is one person. But then he reaches a dead end and then he follows another clue and he realizes that he is another person. This continues fascinatingly as our hero tries to grapple with his past as more people resembling him keep cropping up and he discovers secrets about people he might have known, without discovering who he actually is. Does our hero find out who he truly is?

 

Now, the question. Does the above plot sound familiar? Can you guess which novel it is?

 

Of course you do. If we let our imagination run a little bit wild and add a bullet wound to our hero which made him amnesiac and forget his past, and add a few bad guys who chase our hero for something that he may or may not have done, we can easily guess that this is the story told in ‘The Bourne Identity’ by Robert Ludlum. Well, you and I would be both right and wrong.

 

The above is the story told in ‘Missing Person’ by Patrick Modiano. When I read about this book in Lance Donaldson-Evans’ ‘One Hundred Great French Books’, I found its resemblance to ‘The Bourne Identity’ uncanny. These days, I keep spotting books which resemble twins separated at birth – a recent book or a popular book in English, which was a big hit among its readers and another one which looks like its twin, which is written in another language, which was published earlier and which is not very widely known. Most of the time, this older twin doesn’t get the credit it deserves and doesn’t even merit a mention by the writer of the more popular work. The cynic in me thinks that the writer of the popular work read the original in translation, got inspired by the main idea and rewrote it in English in an attractive way and cornered all the fame and fortune. Sometimes these popular works are iconic works in English and that pains me even more, because the source is almost never acknowledged or is given the short shrift. Well, when I discovered Patrick Modiano’s book, I thought that something like that must have happened here too. I even went and checked the publishing dates of both the books. Modiano’s book was published in 1978, while Ludlum’s book was published in 1980. I think there is enough time there to read a book and get inspired by it. Ludlum himself says this, while talking about what inspired him to write the Bourne series (excerpted from Wikipedia) :

 

Interestingly, the idea behind the Bourne trilogy was conceptualized after his (Ludlum’s) own experience with temporary amnesia. After his first book, The Scarlatti Inheritance, was published, he could not remember 12 hours of his life. This event, combined with thrilling real-life spy stories, inspired him to write the Jason Bourne trilogy.

 

We will never know what the truth is because Ludlum is not around to confirm whatever theory one might come up with, but it was fascinating for me to spot this random connection and potential inspiration.

 

Now a closer look at Modiano’s book.

Missing Person By Patrick Modiano

Modiano’s book won the Prix Goncourt in 1978. So when we look beyond the plot similarities that it has with Ludlum’s book, it is very different. It is literary. There are beautiful images that Modiano paints throughtout the book.

 

Here are a couple of images on pronouncing names :

 

He pronounced the name in the Russian way. It was very soft, like wind rustling in the trees.

 

He handed me the photographs one by one, telling me the names and dates he read on the back : it was a litany, to which the Russian names lent a particular resonance, now explosive like cymbals clashing, now plaintive or almost mute.

 

And here is one on the fog :

 

A fog had come up, soft but with an icy feel to it. It filled your lungs with such cold that you felt you were floating on air.

 

And here are a couple on sound and music :

 

…the sound of it stirred something in me, something as fleeting as moonlight passing over some object.

 

…a tune, played on the saxophone, followed, so pure it melted into the air.

 

And here is one on echoes of the past  :

 

I believe that the entrance halls of buildings still retain the echo of footprints of those who used to cross them and who have since vanished. Something continues to vibrate after they have gone, fading waves, but which can still be picked up if one listens carefully.

 

And here is one on expressing the essence :

 

…when I sipped this liqueur, it blended in with the rather cloying satins, ivories and gilt around me. It expressed the very essence of this apartment.

 

‘Missing Person’ is not just the search of the main character for his past, but it is also a meditation on identity and what makes a person who he or she is. It asks interesting questions on what and who we are – whether we are the products of our past, or whether we are what we do and think in the present or whether we are a summation of our future potential. It is a fascinating philosophical question that is explored in the book through the search of Guy Roland for his past. At some point our hero says this :

 

      Until now everything has seemed so chaotic, so fragmented…Scraps, shreds have come to light as a result of my searches…But then that is perhaps what a life amounts to..

      Is it really my life I’m tracking down? Or someone else’s into which I have somehow infiltrated myself?

 

Fascinating lines which make us think.

 

Does Guy Roland find out about his past? You have to read the book to find out.

 

I liked ‘Missing Person’ very much. It was partly a mystery story and partly a meditation into the meaning of identity. I loved imagining the beautiful images that Modiano paints throughout the book. The ending is a bit open, which also made it interesting and which would have led to a lot of conversations and debates when the book was first published. This is my first Prix Goncourt book and I am hoping to read more in the future.

 

Have you read Patrick Modiano’s ‘Missing Person’? What do you think about it?

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After reading Annie Ernaux’ Simple Passion, I read somewhere that that book was similar to Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. So, I thought I should read The Lover sometime. Recently while thinking of new French novels to buy, I discovered that there was an omnibus edition which had four of Marguerite Duras’ novels in it – The Square, Moderato Cantabile, 10:30 on a Summer Night and The Afternoon of Mr.Andesmas. Four novels in one book – how can one resist it? I also remembered that Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat had recommended Moderato Cantabile and 10:30 on a Summer Night and Moderato Cantabile was also one of the featured books in Lance Donaldson-Evans’ One Hundred Great French Books. So, I had to get this collection. I got it last week and finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Four Novels By Marguerite Duras

All the four novels featured in the collection – The Square, Moderato Cantabile, 10:30 on a Summer Night and The Afternoon of Mr.Andesmas – had one common narrative technique. Two strangers, typically a man and a woman, met accidentally in a place – a park, a café, a bar, a meadow – and started a conversation. The rest of the book was the conversation. Sometimes the conversation happened over a few hours. Sometimes it got interrupted and continued the next day and went on like this for a few days. So, most of these books were filled with conversations and dialogue. This is the kind of narrative technique which is irresistible for a reader like me. So, I totally loved the format of these novels.

 

Now on the individual novels.

 

The Square features a travelling salesman and a housemaid who meet accidentally in a park. They sit at the opposite ends of a bench and strike up a conversation. They talk about their lives and experiences which touched them deeply. The maid wants to change her life, but she feels that she can do it only if she gets married. The salesman is indifferent to his life and has accepted it. He enjoys travelling and the experience of discovering new cities though he doesn’t think much about his job. How this accidental meeting touches these two people and brings subtle but important changes to their perspectives on life forms the rest of the story.

 

Moderato Cantabile is about Anne who takes her son every week to a piano class. One day, at the café opposite the piano teacher’s house, a man shoots and kills a woman. After the class Anne strikes up a conversation with a bystander and discovers that the man and the woman were lovers and the woman was already married. It is not clearly known why he shot the woman. Some people say that she asked him to shoot her and he did it out of love. The next day Anne takes her son for a walk to that place, enters the café and has a glass of wine. A stranger sits next to her and Anne strikes up a conversation with him. They talk about the dead woman and her lover who killed her and who has now been arrested. This stranger buys Anne more wine. After a while Anne leaves, but she comes back the next day. The stranger waits for her. They have wine together and continue their conversation. They continue talking about the two lovers, one of whom is dead. The stranger says that they probably met in a café like this and started having a conversation accidentally which later turned into love. After a while we the readers start getting the feeling that Anne’s life starts resembling that of the dead woman more and more – she meets a stranger in a café and has a conversation, she starts going to the café regularly and the stranger waits for her and buys her wine and the continue with a conversation, and they start feeling a connection. Anne is also married to a wealthy man and she has a son. What happens next? Will this all end well? Will Anne’s life really mirror that of the dead woman? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

 

10:30 on a Summer Night starts with a scene which is very similar to the main theme of Moderato Cantabile. There is a woman who is sitting in a café and she has a glass of wine while having a conversation with a stranger. The stranger tells her about a murder that has happened in the town recently. A young woman has been shot and killed by her husband Rodrigo. When I reached this point of the story, I couldn’t wait to find out whether this was another version of the story told in Moderato Cantabile, but told from a different perspective. But, at this point the story changes direction. This woman, Maria, goes to the hotel where her husband Pierre, her daughter and her friend Claire are waiting in the lobby. Maria senses that Pierre and Claire are in love, but they try to hide it from her. She is unsure of the future. That night because of the storm which is passing over the city there is no power and everything is dark. There is a murderer afoot as Rodrigo hasn’t been caught by the police yet. There are policemen everywhere waiting to nab Rodrigo. Maria is not able to sleep at night, while everyone else is sleeping soundly. She suddenly sees a humanlike form on the opposite roof. She realizes that it could be Rodrigo. She calls him gently. After a while he responds by getting up and waving his hand. Maria asks Rodrigo to wait, goes out, gets her car, goes to that building entrance and asks Rodrigo to climb down from the roof and come down. He comes down and hides in her car. Maria beats the police patrol and drives out of the city into the countryside. She parks near the fields and Rodrigo gets out. They have a short conversation. Maria tells him that she has to go back to the hotel. She says that she will come back by around noon and get him and then they can leave the city. Rodrigo nods and then goes to sleep in the fields. Maria goes back to the hotel. Is Maria able to come back and get Rodrigo? Is Rodrigo able to escape from the police? Does anything happen between Maria and Rodrigo? What happens between Maria and Pierre? Do Pierre and Claire get together? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

 

The events of The Afternoon of Mr.Andesmas happen across an afternoon. Andesmas is sitting in his chair outside his home which is there on a hill, dozing away the afternoon. He has an appointment with Michel Arc who is expected to come and discuss with him about building a terrace for his house (his daughter Valerie wants the terrace) but Michel hasn’t arrived. After a while a dog passes through the place, tries to be friendly, wags its tail and then leaves. Then Michel’s daughter comes and tells him that Michel will be late. Andesmas waits for hours but Michel still doesn’t arrive. Then Michel’s wife arrives with the same message – that Michel will be late. She then comes and sits next to Andesmas and they have a conversation. The story continues in this vein till the end. Michel doesn’t arrive till the end.

 

I liked the first three stories in the book very much. The Afternoon of Mr.Andesmas didn’t have the same kind of impact on me. It was probably because it made me think of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot where two people wait for Godot and nothing happens on the stage and Godot doesn’t arrive till the end. My favourite out of the first three was probably the first story The Square and this is probably because I read it first. If I had read one of the other two first, they might have been my favourite. But I liked the way all three stories explored the characters’ interior worlds through conversation and dialogue and when we think that there is nothing happening in the stories – there are no events, only conversations – we realize when we reach the end of the stories that a lot has happened in the characters’ interior worlds and the characters have undergone subtle and sometimes strong changes which have transformed them in very important ways. The way Marguerite Duras brings out the intensity of emotion and feeling of her characters not by describing them but through conversations and how through this conversational window she gives us a peek into the core of her characters’ hearts is a defining feature of all the stories. I loved this aspect of the stories.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. (all from The Square)

 

      “All the things you describe and the changes you notice are there for anyone to see, aren’t they? They are not things which exist for you alone, for you and for no one else?”

      “Sometimes there are things which I alone can see, but only negligible things. In general you are right : the things I notice are mostly changes in the weather, in buildings, things which anyone would notice. And yet sometimes, just by watching them carefully, such things can affect one just as much as events which are completely personal. In fact it feels as though they were personal, as if somehow one had put the cherries there oneself.”

 

      “As for the other kind of fear – the fear of thinking that no one would notice if you died – it seems to me that sometimes this can make one happier. I think that if you knew that when you died no one would suffer, not even a dog, it makes it easier to bear the thought of dying.”

 

      “Please don’t think I want to contradict you, but you must see that whatever you do, this time you are living now will count for you one day. You will look back on this desert as you describe it and discover that it was not empty at all, but full of people. You will not escape it. You think this time has not begun, and it has begun. You think you are doing nothing and in reality you are doing something. You think you are moving towards a solution and when you look round you find it’s behind you.”

 

Have you read any of these four novels or any other books by Marguerite Duras? What do you think about them?

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I discovered Sebastien Japrisot’s ‘Trap for Cinderella’ through the book ‘One Hundred Great French Books’ by Lance Donaldson-Evans. When I read the two-page essay by Donaldson-Evans on Japrisot’s book, I decided that I had to read it. Japrisot’s book was out of print and so after a while I searched for and got a used copy (used copies of two editions were available, one was a 1979 edition and another was a 1997 edition. I got the first one. It gave me goosebumps to hold a book which was nearly thirty-five years old and which looked quite good. If I had had that book for five years, it would have looked worse.) I finished reading it a few days back. Here is what I think.

 Trap For Cinderella By Sebastien JaprisotGR

‘Trap for Cinderella’ is one of those books which should be read directly without the reader having any idea what the story is about. Because the book starts with a blank slate and we alongwith the heroine get to know each detail slowly, the first revelation follows suddenly, and we are surprised as much as the heroine is. Any review – even a one sentence one – will reveal some element of the plot and spoil the joy that one gets out of the book. But I have to also say that I wouldn’t have got the book, if I hadn’t read the essay by Donaldson-Evans, which revealed part of the plot, without revealing the surprises. So, it is a tough thing to decide – should we read a review and then decide to read the book or should we read a book directly without reading anything about it? In some cases like this book, I think it is better to read the book without reading anything about it. But then the question arises on how would one discover this book, if one didn’t  read a review or atleast the book’s blurb? It is really a chicken-and-egg story without any convincing answer.

 

With the above caveat, I am going to tell you about the book now. Everything which is written here is more or less a spoiler. I won’t reveal the ending, but will give a general summary of the book. But even the name of the heroine would be a potential spoiler and so please be forewarned.

 

A young woman wakes up in a hospital one day. She has got burns on her face and her hands. It looks like she has been in a fire accident but has somehow survived. She has forgotten everything that has happened. She doesn’t remember her name, where she is from, who her parents are, who her friends are, where she works – nothing. The doctor who takes care of her, tells her a little bit about what happened. He says that her name is Michele and she is twenty years old and she was caught in a fire accident in a beach house with her friend. And her friend died in the fire. He also says that her family friend and childhood governess Jeanne identified her after the fire and will come and visit her soon. The doctor also says that she might remember all the events soon because the amnesia she has is rarely seen in young patients and would be mostly temporary. Jeanne comes one day and takes Michele from the hospital to her house. Jeanne tells her more about what happened. She tells her about her friend Domenica who died in the fire. Then some surprising things happen. Michele realizes that whatever she knows is what was told to her by others – by the doctor and by Jeanne and by the pictures and letters that people show her. She doesn’t remember a thing. The only truth that can be gleaned with the information available is that there was a fire at a beach house and two young women got caught in it and one of them died and another survived with amnesia. The rest is all surmise. This leads to some troubling questions. What if she is not really Michele but is Domenica? And something leads her to believe that the fire itself was not an accident and was planned. Was it planned murder? The plot thickens. Is ‘Michele’ able to find the truth about her identity? Is she really Michele or Domenica? What is her relationship with the other girl identified as ‘Domenica’? What is her relationship with Jeanne? Was the fire accidental or was it planned? If it was planned who planned the fire to kill whom? And why? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.

 

‘Trap for Cinderella’ is a page turner. It is not very thick – the edition I read had 171 pages – but I read it slowly and enjoyed reading each page and passage and sentence. The revelations come slowly and suddenly. There are just three main characters in the story – Michele, Domenica and Jeanne – and a few minor ones. And most of the story is told from Michele’s (if she is indeed Michele) point of view. We see the story and the world through an amnesiac’s eyes and mind and it is quite surprising and scary. The mystery gets revealed in the last page, but there are some open questions which are still not answered. I want to read the book or atleast some parts of it again to find out whether the ending is the real ending or it is just a façade while the real truth is revealed through the clues, open questions and the subtext. I also learnt one new thing from this novel – that the French word for Cinderella was Cendrillon 🙂

 

‘Trap for Cinderella’ won the crime fiction prize in France (Grand Prix de la Littérature Policère) when it was first published and I am sure it was a well deserved winner. It is a noir thriller, which holds its own when compared with the best works of James Cain and James Hadley Chase. It is a masterful exhibition of what can be done with just a few characters in a crime novel, and a masterclass in crime fiction writing.

 

I don’t think I have read any crime novel this year, but I am hoping to read some later this year. However, I have no hesitation in saying that ‘Trap for Cinderella’ is and will be one of my favourite crime novels of the year – probably one of my favourite crime novels of all time. It was made into a movie too, and I want to watch that some time. If you can get hold of a copy of this book, do read it.

 

Have you read ‘Trap for Cinderella’? What do you think about it?

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After reading Nicole Brossard’s ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’, I thought of exploring more works by French-Canadian authors when Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat recommended ‘The Mark of the Angel’. I got it recently and finished reading it today. Here is what I think.

The Mark Of The Angel By Nancy Huston

The story told in ‘The Mark of the Angel’ starts in 1957 in Paris. It has been twelve years since the end of the Second World War, but some things don’t seem to have changed much. There is trouble in Algeria and French troops are trying to get the situation under control, sometimes by violence. A young German woman, Saffie, lands up in Paris. She goes to work as a maid at the home of a young flautist, Raphael. Raphael falls in love with her at first sight. After a few months, he proposes to Saffie and she accepts his proposal. Raphael’s mother doesn’t like Germans because of the happenings during the Second World War and disapproves of the match. Still, Raphael goes ahead and marries Saffie. But there is something about Saffie. She is detached about everything. She doesn’t show any emotion. She doesn’t seem to love Raphael as he loves her. Raphael feels that things will change after a while. But they don’t. Then Saffie and Raphael have a son. Raphael feels that now that Saffie has become a mother she will change and genuine warmth will blossom in her heart. But still nothing happens. One day Raphael sends Saffie to a workshop to get his flute repaired. Saffie meets András at the workshop and it is love at first sight for her. Her heart opens to him. And András responds back. And Saffie blooms like a flower. Raphael notices the change. He concludes that being a mother and a wife has finally made his wife open her heart to the world. He is delighted. Saffie and András start meeting regularly. Saffie brings her son Emil everytime. She also continues to be a dutiful wife to Raphael. She lives these two parallel lives – as a wife to Raphael out of necessity, and as a lover to András out of choice – without much trouble. It works for her. Meanwhile the trouble in Algeria explodes and it ends up with violence in the streets of Paris. During this troubled time Saffie and András share secrets about each other, about their past. Saffie is German and András is Jewish and so some of the secrets they share are not going to be comfortable. But still their love binds them together. And Emil loves András like his own father. And then András starts collaborating with some of the Algerian freedom fighters. And things take a turn for the worse. What happens to Saffie? Why was she detached before she met András? What secret was she suppressing? Will she find happiness with András? What happens to Raphael? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story. (This is probably a spoiler. So please be forewarned. As you might have guessed, a love story like this where the heroine leads parallel lives, never ends well. There are some surprising revelations, a shocking discovery, some partings, a heartbreak and some unanswered questions in the end. To find out the nature of these, you should read the book.)

I liked ‘The Mark of the Angel’. Nancy Huston’s prose is very conversational and in many places she talks to the reader directly while telling the story. It is like sitting in front of the fire on a winter night, listening to a story told by our favourite aunt. There is also a gentle sense of humour throughout the book, even when it talks about serious topics like war, the holocaust, violence and death. Saffie is a fascinating character and her detachment from the world and the weight of sadness that she seemed to carry in her heart made me fall in love with her. When Saffie meets András and falls in love with him and opens up to him and her heart starts blooming like a flower, one can’t help but feel happy for her. Even though one is worried about the consequences and one fears whether their love will survive the situation and the damning revelations that follow. I liked most of the characters in the story – there were no good and bad ones, but most of them were normal people trying to find a little happiness and a little peace in the middle of a chaotic world. The book also portrays Paris of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the culture of those times quite well. I learnt a little bit about the Algerian issue of the ‘50s and ‘60s after reading this book – it didn’t show the French in good light. The way the books weaves the stories of Saffie, András, Emil and Raphael and the people in their lives with the story of the fight for Algerian independence and the way it shows how the weight of history changes and distorts individual lives is quite interesting. It also made me feel sad, because it showed how difficult it is to find happiness and freedom in the world, even if we try our best.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Mark of the Angel’. I would love to read more of Nancy Huston’s books. I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

For the first time in his life, he feels that beauty and necessity are converging in his heart, as they do in a Bach fugue.

Raphael plays the flute. His playing is getting better by the day, as anguish has come to lend added complexity to his ingenuous, overly optimistic nature – enhancing rather than supplanting his mad love, slipping into the interstices of his music and giving it new shades, denser and more subtle shades than ever before. In the adagio movements in particular, every note he produces is like the shimmering surface of a pond beneath which dark treasures lurk.

Yes, adultery can give you wings. As a general rule, the flight is brief and the fall brutal. And yet, watching the young woman move off towards the Seine with her pram, Mademoiselle Blanche’s heart warms in spite of herself. It’s not easy to advise caution to a person in the thrall of such blatant happiness. All you can do is hope the damage will be limited.

In every tale of passion there comes a turning point. It can happen sooner or later but as a rule it happens fairly soon. The vast majority of couples miss the curve and go careening off the road, flip over and crash into a wall, their wheels spinning madly in the air. The reason for this is simple. Contrary to what you’d believed during the first hours, the first days, at most the first months, of the enchantment, the person you love hasn’t radically transformed you. When you miss the turn, the wall you run into is the wall of your Self. Yes, there it is again – every bit as nasty, as petty and as mediocre as it was before. You haven’t been magically healed. Your wounds are still raw. Your nightmares begin again. And you’re filled with rage at the other person – because, as it turns out, you haven’t undergone a metamorphosis, love hasn’t solved all life’s problems, and you’re not floating ecstatically heavenward – but rather, as usual, pulling your own weight down here on Earth.

“You know, Mama,” says Emil as they head home, “every time the rain falls on my cheeks, it feels like I’m crying. Did that happen to you, when you were little?”

“Yes, Schatz. Yes, it did.”

Have you read Nancy Huston’s ‘The Mark of the Angel’? What do you think about it?

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