CategoryFrench

Strike Your Heart – Amélie Nothomb (#WITMonth)

It was Dan Rhodes on Twitter who first recommended Amélie Nothomb’s work to me. Several years later, I’ve finally acted on the recommendation, with Nothomb’s most recent novel to appear in English. I wish I’d read her much sooner.

Strike Your Heart begins in 1971 with beautiful nineteen-year-old Marie, who loves to be the centre of attention. She marries a handsome young man, and feels that the future will be one of infinite possibility. That’s until she becomes pregnant, and gives birth to Diane the following year. Only once does Marie show any affection towards her daughter, and by the age of four Diane has some insight into her mother’s thinking:

Even if [Marie] had made progress in life, she was still no more than an accountant at her husband’s pharmacy, not a Queen, and while her husband might be the most attentive, infatuated spouse imaginable, he was still not a King. The little girl’s love for her mother was so great that it could even encompass what her own birth must have meant to Marie: resignation, the end of her faith in some kind of ideal.
(translation from the French by Alison Anderson)

It becomes clear in time just how jealous Marie is of Diane, something that tears their relationship (such as it is) apart. Diane goes on to study cardiology at university, where she strikes up a close friendship with Olivia, an assistant professor. She helps Olivia’s daughter with her homework, devotes two years to working with Olivia on the articles Olivia needs to apply for a full professorship… But it seems that Olivia may not be such a friend to Diane after all.

Strike Your Heart is a sharp 360-degree view of the female relationships in its protagonist’s life. I enjoyed it very much, so I’d better not leave it too long before reading another book by Nothomb.

Book details

Strike Your Heart (2017) by Amélie Nothomb, tr. Alison Anderson (2018), Europa Editions, 135 pages, paperback.

The Years – Annie Ernaux: #MBI2019

Annie Ernaux, The Years (2008)
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (2017)

Annie Ernaux’s The Years begins with a series of scattered memories, and reflections on the ephemeral nature of existence:

Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it. Nothing will come out of the open mouth, neither I nor me. Language will continue to put the world into words. In conversation around a holiday table, we will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.

This paragraph stopped me in my tracks; it wouldn’t be the last time that happened during the book.

I can understand now I’ve read it why The Years has been accepted as a novel for the purposes of the Man Booker International Prize: it’s not so much the detail of history that lingers as the shape of the text. I’d describe The Years as an individual (auto)biography suspended in a broader account of history. It follows the life and times of a character (presumably a version of Ernaux herself) from 1941 to 2006. The wider historical canvas is mostly kept at ‘eye level’, stitched together from details that emphasise the experience of living through a particular moment in time. For example, the 1950s:

Beneath the surface of the things that never changed, last year’s circus posters with the photo of Roger Lanzac, First Communion photos handed out to schoolfriends, the Club des chansonniers on Radio Luxembourg, our days swelled with new desires. On Sunday afternoons, we crowded around the windows of the general electrics shop to watch television. Cafés invested in TV sets to lure clientele.

Ernaux also evokes the ways in which her protagonist’s mental landscapes change. The world of childhood, immediately after the Second World War, is a world of family voices telling stories, and traditions handed down:

Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects. It passed body to body, over the years, from the remotest countrysides of France and other parts of Europe: a heritage unseen in the photos, lying beyond individual difference and the gaps between the goodness of some and the wickedness of others.

Over the period narrated in The Years, the old voices fade and machines become the main repository of knowledge (“Only facts presented on TV achieved the status of reality”). The old stories are ultimately replaced by the internet’s grab-bag of information. Memory itself fragments. This is what I like most about The Years: the way it evokes the changing texture of living and remembering through time.

Book details

The Years (2008) by Annie Ernaux, tr. Alison L. Strayer (2017), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 232 pages, paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants – Mathias Enard

In Charlotte Mandell’s latest translation of his work, Mathias Enard takes us to 1506, when a 31-year-old Michelangelo arrives in Constantinople, having been invited by Sultan Bayezid II to design a bridge. The Constantinople that Michangelo visits is a confluence of cultures: “the Empire was no longer Roman and not really the Empire; the city swayed between Ottomans, Greeks, Jews and Latins”.

Enard’s novel is full of meeting-points: the bridge itself as a symbol, but also the drawing out of conflicting parts of Michelangelo’character (the frugal man who holds back versus the side of him that’s happy to embrace his new experiences), for example. There’s also a triangle (maybe a wedge) of relationships: Michelangelo is guided through Constantinople by a poet named Meishi, who comes to fall in love with the artist. But Michelangelo only has eyes for an Andalusia singer.

Unlike the other books of Enard’s that I’ve read (Zone and Compass), Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is short and comprised mostly of brief chapters; this lends the novel a feeling of space and lightness, which in turn feeds into the sense that Enard’s tale hangs over something darker. It appears in reality that Michelangelo did not accept the Sultan’s invitation, but Enard has used historical fragments to imagine that he might have, and there are occasional asides which draw attention to the artifice. At the beginning: “No one knows the name of the Greek dragoman waiting for [Michelangelo], so we’ll call him Manuel”. Later: “Of course, Michelangelo is not now thinking of these frescoes, which he will bring into being three years from now, and which will earn him even more measureless glory; right now, he just has a bridge in mind…”

So, Enard’s novel ends up poised between past and future, and the effect of these asides is precisely to pull the reader out, remind us that what we’re reading is a tissue of words, a bright curtain over the reality where this (probably) never happened. This is also what the novel’s title points to: it’s taken from Kipling, but is spoken by the Andalusian singer in one of the chapters where she addresses Michelangelo as she shares his bed:

You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings, elephants and marvellous beings; by speaking to them about the happiness they will find beyond death…Tell them about all of that, and they will love you: they will make you the equal of a god. But you will know, since you are here pressed against me, you ill-smelling Frank whom chance has brought to my hands, you will know that this is nothing but a perfumed veil hiding the eternal suffering of night.

In other words, fabulous stories function as seductive distractions from cold reality; they would fall apart like a collapsing bridge if placed under enough strain. This is what gives Tell Them an thread of sharpness which emerges from the book’s airy surfaces without warning

Book details

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants (2010) by Mathias Enard, tr. from the French by Charlotte Mandell (2018), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 144 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Mama’s Boy – David Goudreault

This is the second Quebecer novel from Book*hug that I was offered for review by the translator, JC Sutcliffe (the first was François Blais’ Document 1). Mama’s Boy is David Goudreault’s first novel, and the first in a trilogy. It is framed as the testimony/confession of an unnamed man, who was separated from his mother as a child after she repeatedly tried to kill herself. He burned his way through foster families, thanks to his penchant for things like torturing animals and stealing. Now, as an adult, he believes he has tracked down his mother in another town. Faking his CV, he takes a job near her as an animal health technician, waiting for the right time to introduce himself.

I find that Mama’s Boy hinges very much on its narrative voice. As you’ll have gathered, Goudreault’s protagonist is not terribly sympathetic (to put it mildly), but there is a certain dark charisma to him that made me want to continue reading. For example:

Year in, year out, I continued my education collecting diagnoses and failures. I had so much experience repeating grades that I could have gone into teaching. French was okay, but I flunked all the other subjects without so much as lifting a finger. Even art. I made myself dope pipes out of clay, and I drew nothing but naked ladies. I was studying curves and perspective. Great geniuses are always misunderstood.

As time goes on, it’s not so much that the narrator becomes more likeable, but that there’s a greater sense of the tragedy underpinning his life, which further enriches the book. At the end of Mama’s Boy, I have no idea what will happen to its protagonist next – but I am keen to find out.

Since my review of Document 1, Book*hug have posted videos of readings from their Spring Launch. So, now you can watch JC Sutcliffe reading extracts from both Mama’s Boy and Document 1.

Book details

Mama’s Boy (2015)by David Goudreault, tr. JC Sutcliffe (2018), Book*hug, 184 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Document 1 – François Blais

In the years since I started reading and reviewing more books in translation, one of the nice things has been the chance to talk to translators on social media. This has given me a greater appreciation of the work that goes into translation, and made me more attentive to the language of fiction in general.

One of the translators I’m in touch with on social media is JC Sutcliffe, who translates from French. Recently, she asked me if I would be interested in reviewing a couple of books she had translated, which were published by Book*hug in Canada. I’m not that familiar with fiction from Quebec, and I liked the sound of both novels, so I said yes.

The title I’m looking at today is Document 1 by François Blais; he’s written nine novels, but this is his first to appear in English. At the start, we’re introduced to a pair of amiable slackers: Tess and her partner Jude (those names are referencing Thomas Hardy, but as I’ve not read him I can’t explore that). From their home in Grand-Mère, the couple travel the world – via Google Earth and a flick of the mouse, that is:

We jump the four hundred kilometres separating Minnesota’s metropolis from Des Moines, Iowa. We’d better see what the buzz is down here. Fly low over Grand View University. Not much going on, it’s all very peaceful, but let’s just note in passing that the Des Moines fire hydrants are yellow. Another crucial piece of information to take up storage space in our brains. There’s not much happening on Euclid Avenue either, even though it seems to be one of the town’s major commercial streets. Lots of vehicles (trucks in particular), but no pedestrians: apparently strolling is not the done thing in Des Moines…

One day, against their usual instincts, the couple decide to go on a road trip, to Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania (they like places with unusual names, and it’s not too far to travel). The problem is, they don’t have a car, or indeed enough money to fund the journey. Eventually, they hit on an idea: to apply for a government arts grant that would fund a book of the road trip. Tess and Jude find a local writer, Sébastien Daoust, to lend his name to the grant application; the resulting text is the novel we’re reading (though it’s Tess who has ‘written’ it, with a very little help from Jude).

In case you’re wondering, the title of Document 1 comes from the default name of the Word file that Tess creates for the text. She says at one point:

Dear reader, as you have in your hands the finished product, with a beautiful cover, a beautiful ISBN number, and gushing thanks to the Arts Council, you must already know the title we chose. Admit it, it’s a pretty impressive title! I have no idea what it will be, but I know we’ll find something spectacular. I have faith in us.

And you can see how well that went…

I don’t always care for this kind of metafictional humour, but Blais gets it spot on for me. Tess has picked up a couple of ‘rules of writing’ books and keeps pointing out for our benefit the techniques she’s used in her text – techniques not necessarily used with much care or sensitivity (a random flashback resolved several chapters later, for example). Blais has managed to balance it so that he writes with a tin ear in places, yet this still works well in context, without coming across as making fun of his narrator – and Sutcliffe captures all that in her translation. When I write it out like that, it sounds onerous; but it reads so lightly.

Stu has also reviewed Document 1 over at Winstonsdad’s Blog, and he too is impressed with the novel’s dry wit. I hope we will see more of Blais’ work in translation, because this is a fine introduction.

Book details

Document 1 (2016) by François Blais, tr. JC Sutcliffe (2018), Book*hug, 172 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Castle of Whispers – Carole Martinez

It’s time for some historical fiction, the second novel by French writer Carole Martinez. In the late 12th century, Esclarmonde is the beautiful daughter of a lord; she faces marriage to the philandering Lothaire, scion of Montfaucon, but she knows that this will lead to an unacceptable loss of autonomy:

I would be nothing but a modest container whom successive pregnancies would finally carry away. And even if Lothaire died before me, my widowhood would not protect me, but would abandon me again to the highest bidder as a token of some alliance or other. 

(translation by Howard Curtis) 

There’s only one thing that Esclarmonde can think to do: at the wedding ceremony, she cuts off her ear and announces that she will dedicate her life to Christ as an anchoress. Her family’s seat, the Castle of Whispers, has been added to piecemeal over the generations; now her father adds the chapel in which Esclarmonde will be sealed for the rest of her days. She will be considered dead to the world, even receiving the rite of extreme unction.  

However, the night before her confinement begins, Esclarmonde is raped. In the following months, she falls pregnant and gives birth to a boy whom she names Ezléar, “God’s help”. She decides to keep the child, whose birth comes to be seen as miraculous (no one asks Esclarmonde the question that would reveal otherwise). Add to this that no one has been claimed by death since Esclarmonde entered her cell, and the Damsel of the Whispers’ reputation only grows. 

But although Esclarmonde’s godliness increases in the eyes of others, her own feelings are moving in a different direction:

Gradually, without my even noticing, my attention moved away from the hagioscope to my son and all the people he attracted. God occupied me less than his creatures from now, and I never grew tired of watching them, listening to them, trying to understand what motivated their little brains. I no longer dreaded their judgment, or even that of God. I had not lied, I had merely kept silent about a truth that nobody wanted to hear anyway, and my silence had offered a blank space to be embroidered, an emptiness that everyone had seized on with delight. 

Esclarmonde’s self-questioning over her faith is a recurring theme of The Castle of Whispers. Another is motherhood, and what Elzéar represents you Esclarmonde – whether she’ll be happy to surrender him to the outside world before he grows too large to fit through the window to her cell. A further theme is power: in a world ruled by men, Esclarmonde gains a certain amount of power through her status as an anchor essay. Later on in the novel, she convinces her father to join Frederick Barbarossa’s forces on the Third Crusade; the lord’s young wife Douce, Esclarmonde’s stepmother, rules at home in his stead. The book becomes an exploration of the shifting spaces of male and female power. 

I’m struck by how much The Castle of Whispers encompasses when its protagonist spends most of time confined to a small space. More than that, it’s thoroughly engrossing. After this, I’ll certainly be going back to look at Martinez’s first novel, The Threads of the Heart, and looking out for future books, too. 

Elsewhere 

Stu has reviewed this book over at Winstonsdad’s Blog

Book details 

The Castle of Whispers (2011) by Carole Martinez, tr. Howard Curtis (2014), Europa Editions, 194 pages, hardback (review copy). 

Man Booker International Prize 2017: the shadow winner

A little over a month ago, we of the MBIP shadow panel revealed our shortlist. Now it’s time to announce our shadow winner… 

The votes have been counted, the numbers have been crunched… and the result was the closest it has ever been. So, before we come to the winner, we have one novel which is Highly (Highly) Commended. That novel is:

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (MacLehose Press). 

The Unseen is an excellent novel, but it was just pipped to the post by another excellent novel. And so – drum roll please – we can now reveal that the MBIP shadow winner for 2017 is… 

Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions). 

Congratulations to all involved in this worthy winner! 

Now, there is one other little matter, of course: the official MBIP winner, which will be announced tonight. Both Compass and The Unseen made the official shortlist – I wonder whether either of them will take the Prize. The shadow winner has matched the official one for the last two years. Will this be a third time? I look forward to finding out. 

Black Moses: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Alain Mabanckou, Black Moses (2015)

Translated from the French by Helen Stevenson (2017)



Papa Moupelo gives him the name “Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko”, which translates into English as “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors”. The boy has great affection for the priest at the orphanage in Loango; but, one day in Moses’ teens, Papa Moupelo doesn’t arrive for his weekly visit. His hut is turned into the meeting place of the “National Movement of Pioneers of the Socialist Revolution of Congo”. The old religion is out: the new age has begun.


Well, that depends on how you look at it. The orphanage’s Director takes the opportunity to strengthen the position of himself and his favourite nephews; kids like Moses don’t feel much benefit. The first half of Mabanckou’s novel tells how Moses negotiates life at the orphanage, buttering up the Director by parroting his propaganda; and becoming the accidental associate of the twins who bully the other orphans.


In the novel’s second half, Moses has escaped to the city of Pointe-Noire with the twins, where he is now a member of their gang. He may come to fancy himself a Robin Hood figure, but can Moses find his own people to lead – and to where?


Black Moses starts off as an engaging tale of a childhood shaped at a remove by political change. Then it expands its web, always with the personal at the forefront; before tightening its strands, until the personal becomes the heart of novel’s end.



Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


By now, I have a greater sense of the books on the longlist; in turn, I can start to see the shape of the potential shortlists I might choose. Some of the slots are already filled, but there’s still plenty of room; and I could see a place for Black Moses. As with The Traitor’s Niche, this is my first time reading the author, and won’t be the last. I’d be happy to see Mabanckou’s novel on the official shortlist.

Compass: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Mathias Énard, Compass (2015)

Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (2017)

Compass is the latest novel by Mathias Énard, author of Zone (which I reviewed here alongside Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake). The original French novel, Boussole, won the Prix Goncourt in 2015. Now the English translation is up for the Man Booker International Prize. 

Compass is narrated by Franz Ritter, a Viennese musicologist in the grip of an unknown illness. Over the course of a night, he takes us through his memories. On a personal level, many of these concern Sarah, a French scholar he has known for many years, and for whom he harbours unrequited feelings. But Ritter also ranges over his professional interests: cultural encounters between East and West.

The dense, erudite, digressive paragraphs of Compass will be familiar to readers of Zone. But there seem to be more moments of lightness this time, punctuating the turmoil of Ritter’s night. The trawl through his mind highlights how much influence Eastern music and art had on Western arts in the 19th century. Compass also suggests that “the Orient” has become a cultural construct built up by both West and East, independent of historical reality. However, although Ritter may be preoccupied with scholarship at times, his thoughts still return to the personal. Even his relationship with Sarah seems to have reached a new chapter by the end of the night.


Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist? 

The Shadow Panel called Zone in a couple of years ago, since we felt strongly that it should have been included on the then Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist. Personally, I don’t think Compass quite reaches the heights of Zone, because it’s not formally as tight. Nevertheless, this is a significant work of literature in an excellent translation, and it would certainly merit a place on the shortlist. 

My favourite books read in 2016

This time last year, I wrote that I wanted to understand more deeply why I respond to some books as I do. I think I’m on the way there, and certainly when I look at the books that have stood out most to me in the reading year, I can see a continuity. They belong together in ways that reflect what, how and why I read.

So, here’s the selection: these are the books that I count as my strongest reading experiences of 2016, roughly in ascending order. The links will take you to my reviews.

12. Nocilla Dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, 2015

A novel that feels like a statement of how fiction should relate to the wider world in the 21st century. Nocilla Dream is an assemblage of adapted quotations and character vignettes, with recurring images and locations… but it won’t fit together into a stable whole, however much you try. Like the globalised world it depicts, Fernández Mallo’s novel has no centre; reading it was an experience  of glimpsing a deeper meaning through the haze, only for that to recede shortly after.

11. The Queue (2013) by Basma Abdel Aziz
Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. 2016

In a Middle Eastern city, the flow of life has been disrupted by a bureaucracy that forces people to queue for days on end in order to obtain authorisation for the smallest things. This is a novel that works through quietness and precision: its measured tone persuades one to accept the reality of this situation; then, the chilling implications unfold. A similar process occurs with the city’s inhabitants, as all the queueing changes the way they think and behave, until there’s no easy way for them to imagine something else.

10. Never Any End to Paris (2003) by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, 2011

This was a book that seemed superficially light: a fictionalised account of the author’s time in Paris in the 1970s, where he sought to live like Hemingway. But as I carried on reading, the novel circled around issues of reality and imagination – how the place in the mind can endure longer and loom larger than the real one. That led me to confront the basic questions of what it is to read fiction: ultimately, nothing in Vila-Matas’ book is solid, but the reading of it persists regardless.

9. Tainaron: Mail from Another City (1985) by Leena Krohn
Translated from the Finnish by Hildi Hawkins, 2004

I didn’t get around to reviewing this one, and I really must. Like The Queue, Tainaron is precisely balanced on a knife-edge between reality and unreality. It’s told a series of letters sent home from someone living in a city of giant insects – a city that might be more a state of mind than an actual place. For me, this is on a par with Viriconium in terms of dismantling the certainties of story, and the disorientation that follows in the reading.

8. The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz
Translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West, 2015

The Weight of Things is the short opening slice of a much larger, untranslated (and possibly untranslatable) fictional project – and the shadow of two world wars looms over its apparently small tale of a couple visiting the husband’s ex-wife in her asylum. Broken chronology destroys the sense that there can be progression beyond the fictional present; and there’s one moment cuts though the reading as much as in any book I’ve experienced. At the time, I described reading Fritz’s book as like waking from a beautiful nightmare, and I still feel the same.

7. Tram 83 (2014) by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated from the French by Roland Glasser, 2015

Here’s a book where it really is all about the language: the rhythm, the pulse, the interplay of voices. Lucien travels to the newly seceded ‘City-State’, intending to concentrate on his writing – but he gets caught up in other matters. The city has its own soundtrack of voices, bewildering and exhilarating to Lucien and the reader alike. The protagonist tries to bring his own language to the city, but all he can do is merge into its web; likewise, the best way I found to read Tram 83 was to lose myself in its words.

6. Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys

This is the second novel on my list set amid the streets of Paris, but shows writing transformed by place in a different way. The Paris of Rhys’s protagonist is so quietly anonymous that the present day fades in comparison to the memories that continue to haunt her. This was my first time reading Rhys; I found her novel so piercing that I must read more.

5. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

I love this book for the way that Manyika slides between viewpoints to explore the gap between an individual’s self-perception and the person by others. Retired literature professor Morayo breaks her hip and has to move temporarily into a nursing home – and suddenly she is a vulnerable old woman to people who don’t know her. Reading the novel, and being able to see all sides, allows the gap to be bridged. That Morayo is one of the most delightful protagonists I’ve encountered all year is a welcome bonus.

4. Martin John (2015) by Anakana Schofield

Schofield’s novel takes readers inside the mind of a flasher – not so much in a way that tries to explain him as one that challenges the reader to engage with his character. While most novels are organised to create meaning for the reader, Martin John is arranged to create meaning for its protagonist, constructed around his loops and preoccupations. This is what makes it such a strong, disorienting experience: there is no map of this novel’s singular landscape.

3. Mend the Living (2014) by Maylis de Kerangal
Translated from the French by Jessica Moore, 2016

At one level, Mend the Living is a novel about a heart transplant. At another level, it’s an all-pervading cloud of language which explores the different meanings of this event, and the human body itself, as life effectively passes from one individual to another. At times, reading de Kernagal’s book was like having several extra senses with which to perceive what was being narrated.

2. Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf

2016 was when I finally introduced myself to Woolf’s work, and not before time. I read five of her books, and liked some more than others; but the first one I read is still the most vivid. Mrs Dalloway showed me a different way to read, as I found a novel in which events take place at the level of thought and consciousness, as much as in geographical space. There’s such power in being brought so close to the characters’ viewpoints and flowing between them. And the ending, which brings the horror of war crashing directly into Clarissa Dalloway’s polite society, is one of my year’s finest reading moments.

1. Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, 2016

I thought about it for a long time, but there was no escaping the conclusion that a Han Kang book would top my list for the second year in a row. Like The Vegetarian, Human Acts is a novel of the body, but this time as the level at which to process conflict (or try to do so). Though there’s violence and bloodshed on a large scale in Han’s depiction of the Gwagju Uprising, it is the small human movements that I found most vivid. That contrast helped to create the strongest experience ofall the books I read this year.

I’d like to write another post that explores what this list could tell me about how and why I read. For now, though, I’ll leave you with my previous lists of favourites: 201520142013; 201220112010; and 2009.

 

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