This little book, Un homme à distance, only 160 pages long, is a real gem. I was so enchanted by it. In the evenings I could hardly wait to get back from work and go on reading. Why it has not been translated is a total mystery to me as it would find a multitude of readers in the English-speaking world. It is also surprising since Katherine Pancol lived in the States where she took creative writing courses at the Columbia University. It is a novel in letters and a novel about books that has been compared to 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. We find the same passion for books, the same enchantment. The story is quite simple. A young woman, owner of a book shop in Fécamp (a fishing port with an attractive seafront promenade located between Le Havre and Dieppe, in the French Normandy region), starts a correspondence with a mysterious man. They exchange their thoughts on all sorts of books, some I had never heard of before but, as a true addict, had to buy immediately since I knew the others and they are all outstanding.
The tone of this novel is quite melancholic. The young shopkeeper is heartbroken about the end of an affair which makes her live like a recluse. This correspondence brings her back to life. The end stunned me. It was not what I had expected.
Let’s hope she will be translated or that the one or the other reader of this post does read French.
As many of the books mentioned are absolute favourites of mine and the others seem to be must-reads too and for all those who are curious, I made a list.
Contrary to Pancol’s books they are all available as translations.
The Great Meaulnes or The Lost Estate by Henri Alan-Fournier. The Princess de Clèves by Mme de Lafayette. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. The Wild Palms by William Faulkner. Three Horses by Erri de Luca
Bakunin’s Son by Sergio d’Atzeni. The House of Others by Silvio d’Arzo. What Maisie Knew by Henry James
Les liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig. The Letters of a Portuguese Nun.
Cousin Bette by Balzac. Les Diaboliques by Barbey d’Aurevilly. Doomed Love Camilo Castelo Branco. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert.
A Selection of the Chroniques by Guy de Maupassant. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.
Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Browning. The Journal of Delacroix
The only one that has not been translated is Confidence africaine by Roger Martin du Gard.
One that would need to be rediscovered is The Lost Estate. It is probably the novel that influenced Fitzgerald in writing The Great Gatsby. But, as stated before, all the books on this list are excellent and remarkable.
Katherine Pancol has written quite a lot of books. They have all been very successful in France, even more so than this one. The most notable seem to be Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles, La valse lente des tortues and Les écureuils du Central Park sont triste le lundi.
You can visit Katherine´s French/English Homepage.
16 thoughts on “Katherine Pancol: Un homme à distance (2001) An Epistolary Novel about Books”
Now I wish I had studied my French harder when I was in school! This sounds wonderful–it’s a pity it hasn’t been translated as it sounds quite charming and something that would go over very well in English. I love epistolary novels. I actually read The Lost Estate earlier this year (though the title was slightly different–I had an older translation I think). I also love Stefan Zweig, though I’ve not read that particular book. Other than Wuthering Heights I’ve not read any of the other books, but thanks for listing them here–it gives a taste for what the two were reading! I wonder if Peirene Press would consider publishing her, since they translate shorter works?
I personally love lists. They always contain something to discover. And this one is, as far as I can see, great. I think in the book they especially like the Faulkner novel. It is not the book that would come to my mind when I think of Faulkner. I used to love Zweig. I am keen on reading Branco’s novel. I did not know it before. I will need to read others of Pancol’s books. I was thinking of contacting her as there is a possibility on her Homepage. Ask her if translations are planned and if not, why.
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I want to read this. Thanks.
PS : I hated Le Grand Meaulnes.
I liked Le Grand Meaulnes. I think it is save to say that there might be a certain percentage of the books I like that you might not enjoy… I think I get which ones by now :). I think you might like this one. On the other hand, I don’t know if I would still like Le Grand Meaulnes…
I did with Le Grand Meaulnes like with Le Rouge et le Noir: at one time I decided I should finish it at any cost, not to be tempted to try to read it again.
I can’t guess which books you’d like so far, so you’re a better reader of my personality than I am of yours. (Or, ironically, I’m an open book, I don’t know)
Maybe I think I know but I don’t? I think I know which books you would be intereted in. If you would then really like them is another story.
Let’s play a game : choose 5 novels you think I’d like and we’ll see…
But you wouldn’t read them, would you?
I thought you prefer choosing what you read and when…
Like you, I was stunned by the end. This is not a Hollywood book but a French one.
Post in a few days. Without spoilers but we’ll do what we want in the comments after proper warnings. I’m much interested in discussing this with you.
Ok, I look forward to it. No, it is decidedly not a Hollywood ending.
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Nice review, Caroline! I came here after searching for Fournier in your blog 🙂 Katherine Pancol looks like a wonderful writer. I hope someone translates her works into English. I am hoping to read ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ sometime. Thanks for recommending it. Also, thanks for all the links above. I will bookmark this page and come back later for a more detailed look at those links.
Thanks, Vishy, glad you liked it. Pancol deserves to be translated. This one is one fo may favorites on books. The list is fantastic, I started to read all the books I hadn’t read yet. Le Grand Meaulnes is a book I read a long time ago, long before this blog. 🙂