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.

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

  1. The closest I’ve come to Claudel is the movie he wrote and directed: Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, which I enjoyed. This is pretty bleak subject matter, so I’d have to be in a certain frame of mind to read it. Good review of a tough sell, Caroline.

    • Thanks, Carole. It’s so well written that I forgot how bleak it was. I’m going to read another one soon. I’ve not had the chance to watch any of his movies yet.

  2. I thought he wrote well but I found the book too bleak. I didn’t “connect” with the narrator.

    Reading the beginning of your post I thought about l’affaire Grégory. In the 1980s, a little boy was found dead in the Vologne, in the Vosges. They never found who did it and it’s a famous affair in France. It happened in the same department as the one of the book. (I think Philippe Claudel comes from the Vosges too)

  3. Wonderful review, Caroline! Claudel’s book does look a bit bleak (even the cover is bleak) but glad to know that his prose is beautiful and the story is gripping. The narrator looks like a contemplative person and it looks like the book has long introspective passages and monologues – the kind I like. I liked very much what you said about how Belle de Jour’s murder and the way she was discovered could be seen as a microcosm of the war itself. I also liked very much your last sentence – “It’s not cheerful but it has a strange, arresting beauty”. Thanks for this beautiful review. I will add this book to my ‘TBR’ list. Hope you enjoy reading your next Claudel book.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I hope you will like it. It’s not uplifting but in a way I still enjoyed it a great deal, precisely because of the introspection. And everything seems to echo everything in this book. It’s very tightly woven, well constructed.
      I liked the mood.

  4. Great writing can be and often is very dark and bleak.

    Based upon your commentary it looks as if the cover very much fits into the tone of the story.

    • Yes it it fits very well.
      I agree about great writing. I don’t think a book about WWI, even if it apparoahces the subjest via a crime story, should be anything else than bleak.

    • I remember you wanted to participate. It’s a beautiful book, dark but I loved it.
      I’d be interested to know what you think of it. I hope you’ll find it again. It’s a quick read.

  5. It didn’t strike me as bleak but I have been spending the summer reading Wilfred Owen’s poetry which has provided an interesting contrast to Grey Souls. It is beautifully written and you get a clear sense of the village and the inhabitants, particularly the scene by the canal when the little girl’s body is found. It could easily be turned into a film.

    It is an introspective novel about guilt. It’s definitely not your standard whodunit and there is an element of doubt about who actually killed Belle de jour. First you think it is one of the main characters and then there is the possibility that it actually was one of the scapegoats. The war is very much a backdrop and somewhat peripheral to the plot of the story. I did find myself getting slightly impatient at the number of times the narrator reminded us that the war was happening elsewhere, over the next hill and at a distance.

    • That sounds like interesting paired reading.
      I liked this a great deal and meanwhile I think there is much more about the war in it, albeit on a symbolical level than I saw at first.
      All those dead womene and all those men who killed. There is hardly an innocent man between these pages. I saw that as the symbol of the war. A symbol of how the land was destroyed. Maybe that’s too far fetched but because France is seen as a woman, it did make sense. It’s hard by now to write in an original way about WWI. I must say I thought the war but be somehwat more explicitly present.

  6. Damn, that guy writes well. I enjoyed his pithiness and his style. The story had a good flow to it and reading each line was a treat rather than the chore that some of the other books have been. I enjoyed the mystery aspect of it, but really did not view it as a war novel. They lived in a town that was unrealistically cut off from the war. Going to a local hill to spectate seemed trite to me. I also question thrusting the Matziev character into the plot. It made little sense. Why would a local military officer get involved in a civilian’s death? Of course, this was necessary since Claudel intended to introduce the deserters. Too manipulative. I also found it unrealistic that the judge would give a man he detested a free pass as the potential murderer. I disagree that the book spent a lot of time on why the little girl was killed. I did not like the nonlinear plot. I am skeptical of writers who use that device.

    You are right about the bleakness. All of the characters seem flawed. And then it turns out that the narrator is the most detestable. (I don’t want to hear any excuses for what he did.) That was a twist, but I hesitate to put the word nice in front of it. The other twist – who the actual murderer was – now that was nicely done.

    Good read. Hope the next is equal.

    • I thought it was amazingly well written, maybe manipulative, I agree. I didn’t really get Matziev, I’m sure it meant something but I didn’t get it.
      I didn’t see the end coming and it explains the nonlinear narrative. The narrator stays away from telling us about his crime that took place during the same time, for as long as possible.
      Not a “nice” twist at all. I felt the book was about the war on a very symbolical level.

  7. Really lovely review Caroline–you capture the essence of it all so perfectl and succinctly! I loved this as well despite the heavy tone. It was a really well constructed narrative–just the right tension really for a crime novel, yet it is so much more than that. It was interesting how he wound together the ideas of murder/death and dying in wartime and grief and culpability. And in such a short work, too. When the school teacher turned up dead I started wondering if that was the real murder but he slowly reveals her suicide. This is one of my favorite books so far and like you I will be reading more of his work! (as a side note and totally unrelated….I love the changes you made and your new banner–is that one of your kitties?)

  8. Pingback: Best Books of 2013 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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