Philippe Claudel: Grey Souls – Les Âmes grises (2003) Literature and War Readalong August 2013

Grey Souls

Philippe Claudel’s Les Âmes grisesGrey Souls is a crime novel set during WWI and a few years later. The narrator whose identity we do not know for a very long time, has decided, some twenty years later,  to write the account of a few tragedies that have happened during the war. He writes for his late wife who died in childbed. He could never let go of his grief and, as he says towards the end of the novel, he never really lived, he merely survived.

In a way, this survival, makes him feel his guilt even more deeply, guilt because he didn’t fight during the war. While so many men died, returned mutilated or went missing, he led a comfortable sheltered life but after his wife died, he didn’t really enjoy it anymore. He’s not the only one however to lead a sheltered life. While the war in the trenches rages and goes on for far longer than anyone suspected, the little town he lives in is spared because there is a factory and the men are needed as workers. And there are the many officials, who are spared as well.

At the beginning and at the heart of the novel lies a murder. An eight year old girl, called Belle de Jour, beautiful as a flower, is found murdered in a canal.

It’s a cold winter morning when the police and officials arrive and the girl’s body lies on a river bank, in the mud. The judge, who has been called to investigate, first eats his breakfast, without being the least bothered by the presence of the corpse. This initial scene sets the tone of the book. It’s grey and bleak. The good people die or despair, the bad go on living their unfeeling lives.

The narrative goes back and forth in time. Bit by bit, the story is unfolded. While Belle de Jour’s murder is at the heart, there are other violent deaths like the suicide of the beautiful school teacher, the narrator’s wife’s death and, much earlier than the story, the premature death of the prosecutor’s young wife.

In the beginning of the book the question “Who killed Belle de Jour?” is important, but once we know who it was the second half concentrates on the “Why?”.  At the time, a murderer was found and executed, but the narrator never believed that he was really the one. Twenty years later. still grieving and full of guilt, he starts another investigation and, this time, he finds the real culprit and his reason.

The book is dismal in tone and topic,  but highly readable and beautiful as well. I liked how the war was blended in as if it colored every aspect of the life. It is as if the novel has two layers, the people’s lives, the tragedies they encounter, the murder and beneath all that the raging war.

I read Belle de Jour’s murder and the way the little girl was discovered as a microscopic description of the war that captured, the ugliness, the absurdity, cruelty and utter senselessness.

The book also contains a profound and melancholic meditation on life and loneliness and how one single tragedy can turn a person into a living shell and lead to crime.

It takes quite a while until the reader understands that more than one murder has been committed in this book.

This was the first novel by Claudel I’ve read, but it will not be the last. It’s not cheerful but it has a strange, arresting beauty that I found wonderful.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)


Grey Souls – Les Âmes grises was the 8th book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel There’s No Home by Alexander Baron. Discussion starts on Monday 30 September, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

It’s Time For R.I.P. VIII


I’m always in the mood for Carl’s R.I.P., but this year even more so than ususally. I have collected tons of “rippish” reads all through summer, even started a few already.

For those not familiar with the challenge or who have forgotten the “rules” these are the genres you can choose from:

Dark Fantasy.
Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above. That is what embodies the stories, written and visual, that we celebrate with the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event.

I intend to cover pretty much all of them and therefore sign up for


There is also a readalong of The Historian which tempts me as well

Vintage Cluj Cemetery

Details can be found here

Here is a choice of books I want to read, have already read or am about to finish

Gaslamp Fantasy

Queen Vistoria’s Book of Spells

House Next Door

Anne River Siddons The House Next Door

Devil's Sanctuary

Marie Hermanson’s The Devil’s Sanctuary

Ghost of a Chance

Simon R. Green Ghost of a Chance

Red Tree

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree

Dead of Winter

Chris Pristley’s The Dead of Winter

The Keeper

Sarah Langan’s The Keeper

And these are the movies I might review. I’ve watched them all in the last two weeks or so.

The Conjuring (2013)

The Crazies (2010)

Jeepers Creepers I (2001) and Jeepers Creepers II (2003)

The Thing (1982)

If you’d like to sign up here’s the link

And here’s the link to the Review Site.

Will you join as well? What will you read?

Shannon Hale: Austenland (2007)


I’m in an Jane Austen mood these days. I started Mansfield Park a week ago and really like it. Much better than most of the other Austen novels I’ve read so far, with the exception of Pride and Prejudice (I haven’t read Persuasion yet). When I came across a review of Shannon Hale’s Austenland on Anna’s blog  (Diary of an Eccentric), I knew it would be just the thing I’d enjoy right now. I wasn’t wrong. Austenland is absolutely charming. A fun, fluffy read, with which I spent a few pleasant hours.

I’m very wary when it comes to Austen fan-fiction and other than The Jane Austen Book Club, I’ve never been tempted. It’s maybe not surprising that the only other book of that type which tempted me, has also been made into a movie. Now that I read the book, I’m sure I’ll watch the movie Austenland as well.

Jane is a 30 something graphic designer from New York, who never seems to find the right man. Possibly because she is obsessed with Mr Darcy. Not the Mr Darcy from the book but the one from the BBC production starring Colin Firth.

When her rich great-aunt dies she leaves Jane a trip to an expensive English resort that caters to the Jane Austen obsessed. Here Jane will have the opportunity to live exactly as they did in Regency England. She will have to wear the proper clothes, behave and talk like a Regency woman. To make the experience authentic, they live on an estate and are surrounded by actors who behave like authentic Regency people and pretend to fall in love with them.

It seems only women book a holiday at this resort and besides Jane there are other American women. Jane hopes that after immersing herself fully in Austenland, she’ll be able to abandon her Darcy obsession and move on.

Although Jane has read all the Austen novels many times, she isn’t very familiar with Regency England and has to learn a lot. If she doesn’t behave properly or disregards the rules, she could end up being thrown out. Reading about Jane’s  many faux pas and slow progress isn’t only fun but it’s instructive as well. While I know a few things about Regency England, I don’t know enough and reading Austenland made me understand quite a few aspects in Mansfield Park much better.

Austenland is also a romance and  it’s fun for the reader to guess which man is an actor and who might be a real person and with whom Jane will end up.

I also enjoyed the way the book showed how easily the lines between reality and imagination are blurred and that re-enactment must be a powerful. experience

The end is a bit over the top but I liked it anyway.

If you love Jane Austen and want to try one of the many books inspired by her, this is an ideal choice. It’s short and entertaining.

Have you read and liked any books inspired by Jane Austen other than this and The Jane Austen Book Club? Recommendations are welcome. I wouldn’t mind reading another one some day.

J.G. Ballard: The Drowned World (1962)

The Drowned World

Ballard is an author I’ve always wanted to read, but I was never sure which novel to pick first, so I postponed reading him again and again. Why I finally picked  The Drowned World is an interesting story because it mirrors the content of the book in an uncanny way.

I keep on dreaming about the city I’m living in. In my dreams it doesn’t look like the actual city but is completely overgrown, drowning in vegetation, all the streets look like rivers of grass. It’s not hot in this city and it’s not necessarily a post-apocalyptic setting, but it’s a completely altered landscape. Curious to see whether anyone ever wrote something like this, I googled a few key words, which eventually led me to Ballard’s The Drowned World. What an amazing experience to find an echo of my own dreams and imagination in this book. Furthermore I have always been very fond of  surrealist paintings and the idea of archetypes makes sense to me; both are important elements in this novel.

The Drowned World is set in a post-apocalyptic world, or, to be more precise, in a submerged, overgrown, tropical lagoon that once used to be the city of London. Solar radiation melted the ice-caps; the land was flooded. The heat and the floods have changed the climate completely.

Dr Robert Kerans, a team of researchers and an army unit map the flora and fauna of the different lagoons. While the team wants to move north, Kerans and a few others want to remain south. They have begun to dream strange dreams, which are a sign of their devolution. It seems as if they were regressing; the changing landscape has affected their psychology.

As Bodkin, one character, says:

“Well, one could simply say that in response to the rises in temperature, humidity and radiation levels the flora and fauna of this planet are beginning to assume once again the forms they displayed the last time such conditions were present – roughly speaking the Triassic period.”

Because the landscape once used to look like it does now, the subconscious of the people reacts:

“But I’m really thinking of something else. Is it only the external landscape which is altering? How often recently most of us have had the feeling of déjà vu?, of having seen all this before, in fact of remembering these swamps and lagoons all too well.”

The premise is that everything the species has ever experienced is stored in the subconscious of each one of us and with the devolution, the memories are triggered:

“The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.”

I thought this was highly fascinating and it does make sense. Maybe not as literally as Ballard states it, but it’s sure that landscape influences us, it even influences our deep psychology, and it’s entirely possible that the memories of the species are stored in our subconscious as well.

The novel is not very action-driven but there is conflict. At first the army wants everyone to leave and move up north, but they finally give in and depart. Kerans, Bodkin and Beatrice Dahl – Kerans enigmatic lover – stay behind. They know they will not be able to survive for long but before they can decide on their future Strangman and a group of pirate-like characters appear. They are looters. They travel from lagoon to lagoon and rob all the submerged buildings of their riches. What nobody knows at first is that they dry up the lagoons and towards the end of the novel, we see the silt- and algae-covered London emerge from the waters. Another uncanny moment.

The end is predictable, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. It reminded me a lot of Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly.

My edition of the novel contains an interview with Ballard and a short essay by him. In these two texts he underlines that surrealism, dreams and the fact that he grew up in Shanghai were important in the writing of this book. Max Ernst and Paul Delvaux are mentioned in the novel and have influenced Ballard’s imagery. As a child he witnessed how Shanghai was flooded every summer and that as well has contributed to create the images in the novel.

Eye of Silence

Max Ernst

Lunar City

Paul Delvaux

The Drowned World is not an easy book because it’s heavy on descriptions. As a lot of what he describes felt familiar from my dreams and my travels to Asia, it was easy for me to see what he painted with words, but I suppose it could be a challenge if you prefer action driven books. If you have never experienced the humid heat of the tropics it’s equally hard to imagine how that climate could affect you. That’s why I compared it to Conrad. The way Westerners are affected by the tropics is quite explicit in Conrad’s work, while it is much more implicit in Ballard’s book. Comparing the two is interesting.

I know that I wasn’t able to do this book justice. I think that is because I liked it too much. That may sound weird but that’s how it is. The Drowned World is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. I loved the premise and the imagery; it was so powerful, reading it felt like lucid dreaming. It’s making my best of this year list, and maybe even my all-time favourite list.

Erich Kästner: Going to the Dogs. The Story of a Moralist – Fabian. Die Geschichte eines Moralisten (1931)

Going to the Dogs

Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist is set in Berlin after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and before the Nazi takeover, years of relentlessly rising unemployment when major banks and companies were in collapse. The moralist in question is Jakob Fabian, “aged thirty-two, profession variable, at present advertising copywriter, 17 Schaperstrasse, weak heart, brown hair,” a young man with an excellent education but, at least in the current economy, no prospects-permanently condemned, so far as anyone can see, to a low-paid job without security in the short or the long run. What’s to be done? Fabian and friends make the best of it-they go to work every day even though they may be laid off at any time, and in the evenings they head out to the cabarets.

Erich Kästner is famous for his children’s books like Emil and the Detectives but he was also a highly regarded author for grown ups and one of the first whose books were burnt by the Nazis. His harsh portrayal of Berlin between the wars Going to the Dogs. The Story of a Moralist or Fabian. Die Geschichte eines Moralisten is still widely read and considered a classic of German 20th Century literature and has been made into two movies. It’s a pessimistic and satirical but clear-sighted depiction of a society in collapse and the “waiting room”- feeling that was so typical then. Another world war seemed impending, Germany was heading towards disaster; the Nazi party which had already been rearing its ugly head for a while, showed that it had come to stay and would eventually take over Germany. It’s a world of depravity and unemployment. People have two possibilities; either they go under or they make the most of it. Making the most of it, means that morals are loose to the extreme. In this book people jump into beds and change partners as easily as the Hippies during the 60s, only this is a very different society and the implications are different. These are not free young people jumping into bed with each other but mostly married men and women who do it behind the back of their partners. Women who sell their bodies because there is no other way to make money; men who try to fight their depression with promiscuity and alcohol.

The novel is told from the point of view of Fabian an unemployed academic. He and his best friend Labude try to stay true to their ideals despite their own misery. Labude is waiting for news about his habilitation while Fabian has just lost his job. Fabian and Labude try to survive somehow. During the day Fabian is looking for work; at night they hit the cabarets, dance clubs, sex clubs and brothels. At the beginning of the novel, they drift but are still having fun. After a while things turn darker and what started like an amusing tale turns into a terrible tragedy.

I expected this to be a good book but I didn’t expect it to be so funny and witty. The end is sad but the beginng is hilarious.  Fabian is a very attractive man, sarcastic but fundamentally good, compassionate and highly educated. Women throw themselves at him. All sorts of women from every possible background. Young unemployed academics, wives of rich industrialists, little housewives whose husband are travelling salesmen, prostitutes and addicts.

Fabian doesn’t judge but the way the story is told clearly indicates that it’s satirical.

Kästner also manages to show how these transitions came to be. A whole generation grew up with a fear of the father induced by black pedagogy. These young men were then sent to the trenches and those, like Fabian, who came back alive and unharmed had lost all of their beliefs. Fabian is happy he’s not one of those hidden away in a hospital because his face was destroyed but inside he’s destroyed as well.

I have always been fascinated by this time period and this place. Berlin between the wars. While certainly overdrawn in places, Kästner manages an uncannily realistic portrait. We, with our knowledge of everything that came later, don’t even find it all that satirical. I was amazed that a book that was published in 1931 was this clear-sighted. There is not doubt about Germany’s future development, no doubt that there are parties fighting for supremacy and no doubt who will win. This is a society that is dancing on its own grave. Laughing, singing but crying as well. Sexuality and money are the major currencies. Everyone tries to snatch a bit of both and many go too far for that. It made me realise what fertile ground Hitler found.

If you’re looking for a second opinion – here’s a review by Guy (His Futile Preaoccupations)

John Banville: Ancient Light (2012)

Ancient Light

‘Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.’

In a small town in 1950s Ireland a fifteen-year-old boy has illicit meetings with a thirty-five-year-old woman – in the back of her car on sunny mornings, and in a rundown cottage in the country on rain-soaked afternoons. Unsure why she has chosen him, he becomes obsessed and tormented by this first love. Half a century later, actor Alexander Cleave – grieving for the recent loss of his daughter – recalls these trysts, trying to make sense of the boy he was and of the needs and frailties of the human heart.

It’s been a while since I last read John Banville. Ancient Light is his latest work. I didn’t know when I started it that it’s part of a trilogy, or rather one part of a triptych, Shroud and Eclipse being the other two parts. Luckily they can be read independently, but I’m sure it would be interesting to read them chronologically.

Alexander Cleave, whose story is told in Eclipse, is an aging stage actor. In Ancient Light he spends his days in an attic room, writing about his first love, Mrs Gray. He had an affair with the mother of his best friend Billy when he was only a boy of fifteen. Mrs Gray was a woman of 33. The way he remembers it, she seduced him in the pantry of the family home. Later they meet in the car and in an abandoned cottage where they spend long rainy afternoons. The affair lasts a few months and ends in disaster.

Alexander Cleave is a tormented soul. His daughter Cass committed suicide ten years ago and his acting career ended in an undignified way. His memories are more important than his present life and remembering Mrs Gray seems to be his escape route. But does he really remember it correctly? Did it start in spring or was it autumn? When did he see Mrs Gray for the first time?

The book is an exploration of memory and how it works, of how we distort even the smallest things and only when we compare our memories with the memory of others do we realize that things were very different.

All his life Alex wondered what became of Mrs Gray. While he writes down what he remembers, he gets a phone call from th US and is hired for a movie. It’s the first time ever that someone wants him in  a movie. He’s to play the part of Axel Vander, a mysterious dead critic. (His story is described in Shroud). From the moment when he gets the phone call until the end of the book the story moves between the story of his affair and the present.

Thanks to Billie Striker, one of the people working for the film crew, who acts like  some sort of private detective, Cleave finally finds out what happened to Mrs Gray and realizes that a lot of what he remembers was quite different and that he distorted a lot of the truth, misinterpreted facts and combined them to a story that was quite different from what really happened.

Banville is famous for his use of language. It is rare that I need a dictionary when I read an English book but I did in this case. A few of the amazon reviewers also mention that they had to use a dictionary, so it’s not due to the fact that English isn’t my native language but because Banville puts a lot of effort into finding specific words. His descriptions are detailed, lyrical, poetic and accurate. Many passages are very beautiful but it’s not easy reading. In the best passages, you are carried along by the beauty of the thoughts and descriptions and enjoy the way he writes, in  the bad parts it’s like walking in a bog. You hardly make any progress.

The story of the affair and the uncovering of what really happened was truly marvellous. Banville at his best. But the parts on the movie making were quite annoying. I hate artifice and there was a lot of that in these passages, beginning with the names. Banville writes his crime novels under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black, so very obviously he is fond of alliteration. I’m not. We find names like Marci Meriwether, Dawn Davenport, Toby Taggart and many more in this novel. They all belong to the people who are part of the movie crew. I found this quite heavyhanded. There are other elements I didn’t care for that much.

Overall I loved parts and passages of this novel, while other parts and other passages were quite artificial and annoying. This is very much Banville, he likes these games of mirrors and already in a very early scene there is  the evocation of a mirror image, when young Alex sees the naked Mrs Gray accidentally in a mirror.

One of my favorite scenes describes how Alexander confesses his affair to a priest called “Father Priest”. This is an amazingly humorous scene, the way the priest tries to find out what exactly Alex has done. The priest is sleazy and it’s obvious he wants detailed descriptions. This early passage addresses the moral aspects of the story. While Mrs Gray may very well have taken advantage of Alex’s youth, the priest is far more immoral.

What dampened the beautiful parts somewhat is the fact that young Alex is an extremely unlikable character. I’ve rarely read such a heartless description of an affair, such self-indulgent and self-centered behavior.

Banville writes beautifully and I liked how he explores memory. I truly liked the revelations at the end of the story as well. It wasn’t what I had expected at all. But I didn’t like the characters and I didn’t always care for the many artificial elements like alliterations, mirror images . Clearly, when Banville won the Booker Prize the jury didn’t have “readable” in mind.

“The term literay fiction has been invented to torment people like me” – John Updike


I can only speak for myself but I feel pretty much the same as Updike and mostly agree with the full quote below which is taken from an interview with Lev Grossman in Time magazine in 2006 (you can find the whole interview here)

I think America is an increasingly book-free country. In the world of my boyhood, there were books everywhere. Your piano teacher had books, and there were lending libraries everywhere–your department store had a lending library. Books are still bought, and you see them being read in airplanes, but it’s a last resort, isn’t it? And the category of “literary fiction” has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier. But now, no, I’m a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit. I was hoping to talk to America, like Walt Whitman, you know? Address it and describe it to itself.

I have seen quite a few debates circling around the questions about the end of literature and/or what “literature and literary fiction” means. Is it so-called literary fiction that is about to end? The modernist novel? Surely nobody can say that story telling will end? And what is literary fiction anyway? Isn’t that an absurd expression? For me, being a French/German native speaker the term “literary fiction” is an oddity. In French and German it is much more pragmatic. Literature is pretty much the same as what English-speaking people call literary fiction. If you want to be precise you can add “demanding”, “challenging” or “sophisticated”  or to describe the opposite “entertainment”. Or you can add a school or movement like “nouveau roman” which already excludes “genre”. But that seems to be a continental European perception.

Lately I came across a term I found even more absurd “literary genre”.  It was used for books like Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. In German we would call that “gehobene Unterhaltungsliteratur” , meaning sophisticated entertainment literature. It’s a term used to tell the interlocutor that you’re not exactly reading trash, but nothing too demanding either.

In his extremely interesting book Writing 21st Century Fiction (I’ll need to review that some day), literary agent and writer Donal Maass argues that “literary genre” is the thing of the moment. I’d say it’s nothing new, it’s just another word for bestseller or mainstream fiction. Because being slightly more literary than the average genre novel, without being crime/fantasy or romance,  but accessible and well constructed, has always been the recipe for bestsellers.

In any case, literature is still alive and kicking, whether genre or literary. What seems to be dying is the patience of the reader, hence the popularity of so-called “readable” fiction, which means a lot of different things like simple sentences, short paragraphs, many chapters etc. Probably one of the many legacies of TV and other newer media that can be asborbed quickly. It’s no surprise that a lot of the current bestellers have been written by MFA graduates. They are well-constructed, have a stronger emphasis on metaphors and similes and take the short attention span of the reader into consideration.

Do you agree with Updike? Do you think literature is dying? And what about the terms literary fiction and literary genre?

My cat, as you can see,  couldn’t care less. Maybe he has a point.