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.

Guy de Maupassant: Bel-Ami (1885)

When I used to think of Maupassant, I used to think of short stories. That was all I had read by him so far and because he is so excellent at it – probably one of the very best short story writers you can read – I thought that his novels might be pale in comparison. I was wrong. After having read Bel-Ami, I think that he might very well be one of the best writers in any genre. It’s one of the most perfect books I’ve ever read. I couldn’t name one single flaw. As much as I like Balzac there is always this and that, minor things, sure, but still, some imperfections. Not with Maupassant. What also surprised me is that this book could have been written nowadays. The society has changed, the world has changed but the way he writes about love, sex, power, money, careers… It’s outspoken and modern.

More than anything Bel-Ami is a character portrait paired with the portrait of a society, the Parisian high society. Georges Duroy, who receives the nick name Bel-Ami from the daughter of his lover Mme Marelle, is one of the most unlikable characters of French literature. An arriviste who has only one striking feature, his good looks, and one talent, the talent to know how to use people or, to be more precise, women.

At the beginning of the  novel he is working as a clerk and hardly knows how to pay his meals. He was a sergeant in the colonial army and served in Algeria. One evening, strolling down the boulevards of Paris and debating with himself how to use his last francs, he bumps into Forrestier, a former comrade. Forrestier has become a journalist in a new and not very respected newspaper which belongs to a Jewish man, Mr Walter. Forrestier is married to a beautiful and very intelligent woman and lives a cushy life. It wasn’t entirely clear to me why he chose to help Bel-Ami but he does and in doing so sets in motion the spectacular ascension of Georges Duroy. Forrestier opens the door to his house and helps him to a position as assistant journalist. Although, just like Forrrestier himself, he isn’t capable of writing one coherent piece, he will become a famous journalist. I’m not going to tell you how, you have to read it to find out.

One trait I found interesting in the novel is to see why people invite other people into their houses. Women invite Bel-Ami because they want him close, they are in love with him. Men on the other hand invite him because he doesn’t have a lot and they all love to display their riches. The women in this society are all easily seduced and the men become victims of their vanity.

While he is still somewhat naive but envious at the beginning of the novel, once he has understood how easily he gets access to the high society and can achieve almost anything through these two weaknesses, the easy seduction of women and the vanity of their men, he turns into a manipulative and calculating machine. Using one woman after the other, duping one husband after the other, he ascends the social ladder with dizzying speed.

While Bel-Ami is the central character, the women and their husbands are not less well-drawn. One perfect little scene after the other shows Bel-Ami “at work”. It’s amazing that he becomes a famous journalist although he isn’t capable of writing. And later he even becomes a politician despite the fact that he is clueless and knows nothing about politics. He is just clever enough to know who does and to get to their knowledge via the one or the other woman.

Bel-Ami is vain, he is self-centered and cares only about his own pleasure, power and money. He seduces people and uses them and when they are no longer of any value he discards them which leads to some fantastic scenes. While he is unlikable, one has to be fair, he doesn’t force women, he seduces them and it’s ultimately their weakness which leads him to success. Men like Bel-Ami still exist and things have not changed much in our society in that regard. I still see women falling for this type of guy who has nothing to offer but looks and sweet talk. And an erotic appeal. Let’s face it, without that erotic appeal not even Bel-Ami would have gotten that far. It’s obvious in the novel, and quite explicit too, that the women  do not fall for him because he is bright or because they want to spend hours gazing into his eyes. They want to go to bed with him. Even the very young ones like Mme Marelle’s daughter who invented the nickname Bel-Ami, cannot hold back and want physical contact.

Maupassant’s novel is one of those that should be read by people who think 19th Century literature is old-fashioned and has nothing to offer to contemporary readers. It could open a door to a whole new reading experience. 

Bel-Ami is an entirely captivating and well-told story, combining descriptions of opulent interiors and detailed character portraits with the analysis of a society addicted to power and fame and one man who knows how to exploit it all.

There is More to Véronique Olmi Than “Beside the Sea” or Un si bel avenir (Such a beautiful future)

Un si bel avenir

Lucky Pereine Press decided to publish Véronique Olmi’s prize-winning novel Bord the Mer – Beside the Sea or she may still be waiting for an English translation. I’ve read the book when it came out in France in 2001. It’s an excellent but bleak account of a highly depressed mother.

Olmi has written several novels and theater plays. The one that interested me the most was Un si bel avenir which you could translate by Such a beautiful future. Set in the theater world, it tells the story of two women who meet at a time when their lives start to unravel. Elizabeth is an actress, married with two little girls. Her husband is a failed stage director. Clara is a radio journalist who is in a relationship with Boris, an actor as well. The women first meet at the premiere of one of Pascal’s plays which is a total failure. They meet again by coincidence, just after having found out that their marriages and relationships are about to end.

The friendship she describes is very rare in it’s intensity and loyalty. Two people meet when they need someone the most and open up in a way unknown to both of them. Family secrets, disappointments, dreams and fears are shared with great trust and openness.

Some of the scenes in this novel are incredibly  beautiful, some even in their absurdity like when Elizabeth and Pascal are stuck at midnight on the péripherique or when Elizabeth sits up in the middle of the night, the family is sleeping and she enjoys the peacefulness and security it means. Little does she know this is one of the last moments like this.  Another scene in which she starts to see her husband for what he really is, a failed aging guy, with a sagging ass and a secret mistress, is tragic and hilarious. She swears like a sailor using the most expressive language.

The book is an exploration of what it means to be a woman, a mother, a wife, of the different possibilities, the choices, the difficulties and pitfalls modern life has in stall.

The poignancy and immediacy with which this is written, the dialogue and interior monologue, so close to everyday language, bears the sign of a novelist who is also a successful playwright.  This dialogue and interior monologue is so authentic. At the same time there is an airiness in this writing that can describe the dark night of the soul and still let a light shine in. What I missed most in Bord de mer, the chance for transformation and hope, is present here.

I always felt that French women writers have a capacity to touch on every single detail of everyday life, from the most mundane to the most sublime and render it in a meaningful way, show us how we live now with a all the complexity there is.

As I wrote before, Un si bel avenir is about all the facets of the life of a woman, as a daughter, a wife, a lover, a mother and a friend. It is this last part that is the most accentuated. The book’s characters’ hope lies in the friendship with another woman. Romantic relationships are scrutinized, taken apart and discarded together with family ties.

I do not have such a pessimistic view of the couple, not at all. I think a lot of what is called love has not much to do with real love and that is the core problem. It seems, as if these two women show that it can be easier to live this type of love with another woman or the children, in relationships that are free of physical attraction.

I hope this books will be translated too. It isn’t flawless, there are a few breaks in the narrative towards the end which are abrupt but it has a lot of qualities, a lot to offer.

There is much more to Véronique Olmi than Beside the Sea. Although better constructed, Beside the Sea is awfully bleak. If you ever read anything else you will notice how nunaced her writing really is.

Un si bel avenir has been translated into German Eine so schöne Zukunft.

Coincidentally Emma has just reviewed Bord de merBeside the Sea. You can find her review here.

Jean Giono: To the Slaughterhouse – Le grand troupeau (1931) Literature and War Readalong March 2012

There are so many different ways to write about war. Some novels focus on the experience of the soldier, some will focus on what the civilians go through, some move back and forth between the front lines and the home front. While Jean Giono’s Le grand troupeau – To the Slaughterhouse does move back and forth, the book is still completely different from anything else that I have read so far.

Giono’s technique does need some getting used to. What he describes is equally beautiful and horrifying. The result may very well be one of the most radical anti-war books that I have read.

If you are looking for an action-driven novel, this isn’t one to turn to, Giono’s novel is far more like the description of paintings. I was reminded of Otto Dix’ WWI paintings more than once. Some of the very visual descriptions in this novel are as graphic and gruesome as Dix’ work.

The war has come to a little village in the French Provence region. All the men are drafted and go to war, leaving the women, old men, children and animals behind. Some of the men are shepherds. They have to abandon their herds. Left on their own,  the animals are endangered, they have accidents, get wounded. One day a massive herd enters the village. It’s an awful sight. So much suffering, so much pain.

Julia’s husband Joseph has gone to war, as has her sister-in-law’s young lover, Olivier. The story moves back and froth between life in the village and the men. It’s more a series of pictures than a real story. Very powerful and graphic pictures.

Giono chose to show us how war affects the body. It’s not the fighting he is interested in but what happens when someone is wounded. How the wounds fester, how the juices flow out the dead bodies. The rats which are always mentioned in WWI novels are present here as well but we see how they eat the faces of the dead men.

I had a faint feeling in my stomach for most of the time while reading but I saw what he wanted to achieve and I thought the idea was amazing. He didn’t stop at describing the horrors of the war and what it did to the bodies of the men, he described the beauty as well. The scents in the air, the taste of food, the beauty of the landscape.

There are hunting scenes and scenes of slaughter and the bodies of the dead animals resemble those of the dead and wounded men.

Human beings and animals both suffer pain, their bodies are vulnerable and frail, they can be killed and harmed and wounded and the result will be the same. At one point he goes one step farther, describing how the earth suffers too, when her body is ripped open by explosives. Giono includes the entirety of creation in his novel and shows that every being existing in this world, wants beauty, love and tenderness, shelter and food and when this is not provided, when aggression is let loose, the body is harmed, wounded and the being ultimately dies.

It’s a highly symbolical novel, with a profound message of peace. It was hard to read but I am glad I did. It really would be hard to find a more eloquent anti-war statement and a book which manages like this one, to show, that since we all, animals and human beings alike, suffer pain, we are equal. This profound message makes To the Slaughterhouse not only a plea for human rights but for animal rights as well.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

To the Slaughterhouse is my fourth contribution to the War Through the Generations Challenge hosted by Anna and Serena.


To the Slaughterhouse was the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Helen Humphreys’ Coventry. Discussion starts on Monday April 30, 2012.

Madame de Lafayette: The Princesse de Monpensier – La Princesse de Montpensier (1662)

The Princess of Montpensier

I’m not a re-reader but I have read Mme de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves at least four times. It is my favourite novel. For its style as well as for the story. There is something in the way Mme de Lafyette describes feelings that touches me profoundly. She wasn’t a very prolific writer. Before publishing La Princesse de Clèves (1678) she published La Princesse de Montpensier (1662) anonymously and later La Comtesse de Tende. Zaïde (1670/71) was published shortly after La Princesse de Montpensier. Although Zaïde was published under a pseudonym, it seems to be sure that it was also written by Mme de Lafayette.

Generally I’m not so much into the literature of the 19th century, I often feel that earlier writers, especially some of the French ones, are far more modern and original. This is certainly the case of Mme de Lafayette. Until a few days ago I had not read anything else by her but I bought a book called Nouvelles galantes du XVIIè siècle (it contains stories by Mme de Lafayette, Saint-Réal, Du Plaisir and Catherine Bernard) and finally read La Princesse de Montpensier.

It is a short novella but it’s as wonderful and as astonishing as her masterpiece. Her style is flawless, it is pure perfection. I particularly like her use of the passé simple and the indirect speech. The language is as fresh as a newly cut rose, it hasn’t aged one day.

Mme de Lafayette was an innovator. Before her most of the baroque novels, like d’Urfés L’Astrée, were thousands of pages long. To be this concise and precise like she was, was unheard of before. She was also one of the first to write historical fiction. The people in her books did exist, however the story is invented.

La Princesse de Montpensier is set during a very tumultuous period of French history. It starts 1566,  during the civil war in which Catholics and Protestants fought a bloody battle, and ends in 1572 at the time of the horrible massacre of the Nuit de La Saint-Barthélemy or The St.-Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

La Princesse de Montpensier and the Duc the Guise are secretly in love with each other. They are very young and hope to get married but for political reasons her family decides otherwise and marries her to the Prince de Montpensier. This is a great tragedy for the princess. She doesn’t love her husband and when conflict breaks out she is glad to see him go to war. Montpensier leaves the Comte the Chabannes with her, not knowing how much in love the Comte already is with the princess as well.

This is a time in which women do hardly ever choose their husbands and adultery is very common. The princess is an extremely beautiful woman and it isn’t surprising that there are many men falling for her. She fights them all off until the day when she sees the Duc de Guise again. A qui pro quo and the intense jealousy of her husband accelerate the story. The end is somewhat unexpected and tragic.

I was thinking of Kleist while reading this novella and saw once more how much German changed while French has pretty much stayed the same since the 17th Century. La Princess de Montpensier is 150 years older than Kleist’s The Duel but it feels so much more modern.

I really loved this story and will soon read La Comtesse de Tende as well. I cannot believe that this was only 50 pages long, it feels as if I had read a novel, it is so rich. The five main protagonists are all equally well developed. All five of them are hurt and we feel for all of them. We know the society is to blame for their tragedy but Mme de Lafayette wouldn’t be Mme de Lafayette if she didn’t pick one particular person and blame her.

Still, if you have never read anything by her, I would recommend to start with The Princesse de Clèves but this little book is very beautiful as well.

I would love to watch Bertrand Tavernier’s movie La Princesse de Montpensier. Has anyone seen it?

German Literature Month – Final Wrap up and Hans Fallada Giveaway

It’s hard to believe but German Literature Month is already over. I enjoyed it a lot. I’ve read quite a few books I liked, I discovered many others. I’ve read a few incredibly great reviews. I also discovered some blogs that I will be following in the future.  I hope all of you did enjoy it as much as I did. Judging from the amount of posts, readalong participants and comments I think it was a success and I would really like to thank all of you for the enthusiasm and support. Including all the introductory and readalong posts we have had over 170 contributions.

Some of you have been very prolific. The three participants with the most posts are Tony (Tony’s Reading List), Emma (Book Around The Corner) and Amateur Reader – Tom (Wuthering Expectations). While Tony was focusing on novellas, Emma has read a novel for each theme and Tom has delighted us with some very funny and unusual posts on plays. I’m sorry that some of the books Emma chose where not to her liking. Thanks to the discussions with her and others I discovered that while German literature is not all “dead people and WWII”, German literature in translation could really give this impression.

I’ve seen more than one contribution that stunned me. If I had to name all the great posts I would have a hard time.

Melville House Books who have already been very generous have given us the great opportunity of a final giveaway of four books by Hans Fallada. Since we wanted this to be a bit of special giveaway, we have already chosen the winners.

We decided that we will pick four posts, each from another group of posts, and give each of the writers one of the books by Fallada.

The first book will go to the person who has written the most amazing post. When we saw this contribution we all went “Wow” and “Blimey!”

The second book will go to Lizzy’s favourite Effi Briest readalong contribution.

The third book goes to the person who wrote The Silent Angel review I liked the most.

The last book goes to the person who has written the most original post on Kleist as we considered “Kleist week” to be some sort of readalong as well.

Seeing Tony’s dedication, his creativity and his very funny re-interpretation of Kafka’s The Castle (Das Schloss – The Play Act One – Das Schloss – The Play Act Two  – Das Schloss – The Play Act Three – Das Schloss – The Play (Director’s Cut) ), it was evident from the start that he should be a winner – only Tony likes his German books to be in German and not in translation. This is why he will get his present on Lizzy’s blog. I hope it’s fine by him.

Courtesy of Melvillehouse Publishing

Hans Fallada’s

Little Man, What Now? goes to

Vishy (Vishy’s Blog) for an absolutely astonishing post that can be read like an introduction to the most important writers of German Literature German Short Stories.

Every Man Dies Alone goes to

Fay (Read, Ramble) for a wonderful interpretation of Heine’s Sea Spectre in Effi Briest On Heine’s Sea Spectre in Effi Briest.

Wolf Among Wolves  goes to

Rise (in lieu of a field guide) for having written the review of The Silent Angel that I would have liked to have written and which gives a feel for its poetical qualities The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll.

The Drinker goes to

Richard (Caravana de Recuerdos) for his enthusiastic and unorthodox review of The Duel that involved the much-loved expression “primal ambiguities”,  the discovering of Kleist’s rock star potential and, at the same time, imitated Kleist’s meandering style.

Last but not least I have a personal giveaway title which is from an author I love and who is often compared to Fontane. Thomas Mann considered him to be one of the finest German writers ever. When I read his book Wellen I thought it felt as if Schnitzler and Fontane had met to write a book together. It’s one of my favourite books ever. The author is Eduard von Keyserling. Apart from his early novels his books have not been translated into English but I’m sure that the winner will manage to read him in German. For those interested, his books are available in German and French.

Eduard von Keyserling’s Wellen goes to

Lizzy for having been a terrific co-host.

I really wonder if it will not feel strange, all of a sudden, when I realize tomorrow that the month is really over. Hmmm… Will I feel sad? A little bit. But I’m already making new plans…

Please send me your address via beautyisasleepingcat at gmail dot com.

Please do not miss Lizzy’s wrap up and giveaway.

Colette: La Chatte – The Cat (1933)

I’m so pleased that I actually found a picture of the old 60s paperback of La Chatte that I bought second-hand a few years ago. These old Le Livre de Poche editions have such an incredible charm.

The book is available in English as Gigi and The Cat which is very misleading as Gigi is an independent story in its own right as much as The Cat and pairing them like this sounds as if that was the book’s title. I realised this when reading the review of the two books on Literary Relish’s blog.

Reading tastes change, at least mine do, but some authors will always remain favourites. One of those authors who is special to me and has always been is Colette. She is such an accomplished writer, a masterful stylist, a great storyteller and a psychologist of superior order. She can take a story that looks simple and nondescript and turn it into a complex piece of writing, revealing the numerous layers of motives and motivations behind actions. Her descriptions of people and settings are some of the best I have read. Her vocabulary is selected and she tried to find the exact and appropriate expression at any moment. Still there is no superfluous word or unnecessary adornment in her writing.

La Chatte is no exception. It has a subject to which I relate but it is far more than the story of a relationship between a man and his cat. It is a subtle analysis of love versus passion, of marriage versus celibacy, of childhood and growing up, of change and permanence. The story also captures the dynamics of disenchantment following the recognition that one’s object of desire is flawed.

The story is simple and can be told in a few words. Childhood friends Alain and Camille are going to be married. The lively and insensitive Camille is looking forward to her new life but Alain, who has to leave behind his beloved cat and the home of a happy childhood, is not as joyful as the bride. The relationship he has with the Chartreux cat Saha is very intense and emotional. They share rituals and habits and are deeply attached to each other. The cat doesn’t like Camille and the young woman thinks her future husband is slightly silly when it comes to the animal.

The newlyweds are meant to live at the old house with its splendid garden but at first they move to a friend’s apartment while Paul’s old rooms and the family home are being transformed into a bigger apartment for them.

Paul cannot adjust to his new life and sneaks off to his parents’ house frequently. Whenever he returns the cats looks thinner and thinner. She misses him and doesn’t eat anymore. Finally he takes her with him to his new home. To make things easier for the cat and his wife, Alain tries to teach her the cat’s ways but Camille couldn’t care less.

What unfolds is a story of jealousy and hatred between Camille and Saha. It is an uneven fight, shocking at times. Most of it happens behind Alain’s back but in the end, after something horrible has occurred, he notices what is going on. Camille’s reactions to the cat and the way she treats her opens an escape route for Alain and tells him a lot about his wife that he hadn’t seen before.

I really liked Alain who is a dreamer and so unprepared  for married life. He is an only child of very rich parents and the beautiful family home is stately and imposing and so is the old garden. One of Alain’s and the cat’s biggest joys is sitting quietly on a chair, watching birds, smelling the flowers and do nothing else but contemplate their surroundings.

One wonders what motivated Alain to get married in the first place. He was so content before, enjoying a life of leisure.  He shares everything with the cat apart from a sexual relationship which seems the only reason why he let Camille sweep him away into marriage. He realizes that he doesn’t need to be married to get what he needs. He can always have girl-friends.

The deep affection he and the cat have for each other is very touching. Colette loved cats but I think the cat could be replaced by a friend or a brother, a sister, anyone with whom one wouldn’t have a sexual relationship. I think Colette also shows that love in its purest form can come from many sources.

La Chatte is a novel full of beautiful descriptions and the tension that slowly builds up between the two rivals makes this a very engrossing read.

I read Colette’s novel as a contribution to Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris In July.