Pascal Quignard: Villa Amalia (2006)

I’ve heard so many good things about Pascal Quignard that I finally had to read him. I had two of his books on my piles, Tous les matins du mondeAll the World’s Monrnings and Villa Amalia, which will be published in English later this month. I finally decided to read Villa Amalia because I wasn’t in the mood for historical fiction.

At the beginning of the novel, the musician and composer Ann Hidden follows her boyfriend because she suspects he’s being unfaithful. She’s right and it hurts her terribly. While she does confront him, she’s not really interested in hearing what he has to say. Her mind is made up, she will leave her house, and everything else behind. She sells her house and all of her belongings, telling nobody but an old childhood friend who helps her to disappear. At first, she wants to tell her mother when she visits her in Brittany but their relationship is so tense, she only tells her she will travel.

Even though her childhood friend Georges knows what she’s doing, she also lies to him about her voyage. He thinks she’s in Africa, but she’s actually travelling first to Switzerland, where she stays in the Alps for a while, and then settles on the seaside in Southern Italy, on the island of Ischia. Here, she takes long baths and walks and begins to compose again. Ann has long abandoned giving concerts, she now dedicates her time solely to her own music and the transcription and reinterpretation of old masters, whose music she simplifies.

One day, on one of her walks, she sees a house high up on a hill and falls in love with the place. It’s a love and a longing so intense it seems strange that she feels this for a place and not a person. Villa Amalia has been abandoned for years and it’s not easy to track down the owners. She finds them eventually and is allowed to rent the house and renovate it. For the first time in her life, Ann Hidden is not only happy but has a sense of belonging somewhere. Later, she finds friends, a lover, and lives with a woman and a small child in great harmony until something terrible happens and she begins her wanderings again.

Villa Amalia is an astonishingly beautiful book. Ann Hidden is unlike any character I’ve come across in any book recently. If anything, she reminded me a bit of the one or the other character in Japanese fiction. She’s cold and distant but with a depth of feeling and a sense of beauty that makes her appealing. She carries wounds from her childhood that run very deep and explain why she’s cold and why she abandoned everything to try to find freedom.

The book beautifully explores several themes. The most obvious is how we deal with loss and abandonment. Another theme is life outside of what is considered conventional/normal. Ann finds nontraditional ways to interact and live with people. Every choice Ann makes is surprising because it’s a free choice. Most of us do or have to consider consequences, other people’s feelings, the future etc. Ann never does. She chooses the way that feels right to her at a given time. Another theme that is extremely important is creation. Or, more precisely, the creation of music. Where does music come from? Ann is a taciturn person who loves silence, yet she seems to have a well in her from which one melody after the other pours out.

I liked this book very much but it took me ages to finally review it because it’s so difficult to put into words why this is so beautiful or why I liked it so much. It’s a bit like with an elusive scent. It’s hard to describe it to someone else and explain why you like it.

I would have liked to share quotes but I’ve read this in French and the translation will only be out at the end of the month. I always find it a bit futile to do my own translations, when there is or will be an English version available.

Like All the World’s Mornings, Villa Amalia has been made into a movie starring Isabelle Huppert and one of my favourite actors Jean-Hughes Anglade. I hope to watch it soon.

On Some Short Stories by Romain Gary


Romain Gary was a Jewish-French novelist, film director, World War II aviator and diplomat. He also wrote under the pen name Émile Ajar. He’s the only author who won the Prix Goncourt twice. Once as Romain Gary for The Roots of Heaven (Les racines du ciel) and the second time as Emile Ajar for Life Before Us aka Madame Rosa (La Vie Devant Soi). 

Romain Gary would have been 100 years old on May 8. That’s why Emma has organized a Romain Gary Month on her blog Book Around the Corner. She’d announced it a while back and I knew I wanted to participate, only I wasn’t sure whether I would have enough time. The books that really interested me were a bit too long. So I did something you should not do when it comes to reading – I settled for a compromise. In this case it meant reading a collection of short stories, knowing well that they would never equal his novels.

It was still an interesting experience as the stories and fragments have been written between 1935 and 1970. Mostly they were written in French but two longer pieces were originally written in English. Gary wrote in both languages and also translated his own work. Or, as Emma wrote in one of her posts, he rewrote them in the other language. The collection shows not only the development of an author but also his wide range. Unfortunately most of the stories and fragments collected here are less than stellar. Notably the two early stories, written at the age of 20, whiff of epigonism.  Both L’Orage (1935) and Une petite femme ( 935) are set in the tropics and I found them to be examples of exoticism. I don’t think that Gary had been in any of the places described at that time. It seems both stories are influenced by Malraux. I was also reminded of Conrad. While I found that exoticism dubious, I liked the way they were told. At this early age, Gary was already well aware how to tell a story. And while both endings are predictable, there’s still very good pacing and build-up.

The other stories written in French are far more original and poignant. Two of them are quite chilling. Géographie humaine (1943) and Sergent Gnama (1946) are inspired by Gary’s own experience as a pilot during WWII and his experience of colonial France. The first – Human Geography – tells the story of a few men reminiscing. Each place they mention equals someone being shot down, wounded or killed. Sergeant Gnama tells the story of an African boy who sings a French song although he can’t speak French. It’s seems he’s learned it from a man called Sergeant Gnama – a ghost in other words.

The Jaded (1970) and The Greek (1970) were the two pieces originally written in English. While The Greek is a fragment and a bit hard to get into, The Jaded is a great, pessimistic and sarcastic story. A man spends his final hours in a place eating burgers. Later he will be shot. He knows this because he’s ordered his own assassination. He thinks he has lost his interest in life but during these hours it seems to be reawakened. If you want to know whether or not he’ll die in the end, you’ll have to read the story.

While this collection wasn’t all that great, I’d like to recommend Gary because he’s a great novelist and for those who love biography, it’s worth reading about this chameleon of a man. David Bellos has written a Gary biography  Gary: A Tall Man that looks interesting. Here’s the blurb

Airman, war hero, immigrant, law student, diplomat, novelist and celebrity spouse, Romain Gary had several lives thrust upon him by the history of the twentieth century, but he also aspired to lead many more. He wrote more than two dozen books and a score of short stories under several different names in two languages, English and French, neither of which was his mother tongue. Gary had a gift for narrative that endeared him to ordinary readers, but won him little respect among critics far more intellectual than he could ever be. His varied and entertaining writing career tells a different story about the making of modern literary culture from the one we are accustomed to hearing. Born Roman Kacew in Vilna (now Lithuania) in 1914 and raised by only his mother after his father left them, Gary rose to become French Consul General in Los Angeles and the only man ever to win the Goncourt Prize twice.

 This biography follows the many threads that lead from Gary’s wartime adventures and early literary career to his years in Hollywood and his marriage to the actress Jean Seberg. It illuminates his works in all their incarnations, and culminates in the tale of his most brilliant deception: the fabrication of a complex identity for his most successful nom de plume, Émile Ajar.

In his new portrait of Gary, David Bellos brings biographical research together with literary and cultural analysis to make sense of the many lives of Romain Gary – a hero fit for our times, as well as his own.

I know that quite a few readers of this blog love memoir as much as I do. Gary’s memoir Promise at DawnLa promesse de l’aube is highly acclaimed. Vishy just reviewed it here.

If you’d like some more recommendations – Emma has posted many suggestions on her blog.

Literature and War Readalong December 28 2012: Dispatches by Michael Herr

Dispatches is a book I wanted to read  ever since it has been mentioned in the comments of other posts and after having read Tim O’Brien’s astonishing The Things They Carried. It’s the only book on the Vietnam war we are reading this year and I’m very keen on finding out how it will compare to O’Brien’s masterpiece.

Herr was a front-line reporter in the Vietnam war and has participated in the writing of movie scripts like Apocalypse Now and Platoon.

Here are the first sentences

There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I’d lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. That map was a marvel, especially now, that it wasn’t real anymore. For one thing it was very old. It had been left there years before by another tenant, probably a Fenchman, since the map had been made in Paris.


The discussion starts on Friday, 28 December 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

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.

David Foenkinos: La délicatesse – Delicacy (2009)

Natalie isn’t certain of anything anymore. One minute she was a happily married young woman, successful in her career, and convinced the future was full of promise. But when her husband was run over by a car, her whole world was turned upside down. Years later, still bruised with grief but desperate to move on with her life, she impulsively kisses her colleague Markus. For Natalie, the kiss is just a gratuitous act. For the awkward, unassuming Markus, it is the moment at which he falls hopelessly, helplessly in love. But how will he ever convince such a beautiful, intelligent but confused young woman that he is the man who can bring her back to life?

I read a review of DelicacyLa délicatesse on Emma’s blog (here) last year and thought it sounded nice. And it really is a charming book. While it will not knock you off your feet, it’s entertaining and quirky and some elements reminded me of Alain de Botton’s first novels.

The story can be summarized in a few sentences. Nathalie is a young widow who struggles to go on living. For three years she is in a sort of limbo until, one morning, she kisses one of the men from her company. An unimpressive, invisible Swedish guy named Markus. What doesn’t mean much for her and was just a very weird whim, means the world to Markus. They are, as one would say, not in the same league. She is incredibly attractive and beautiful while nobody even notices him.

Charles, their boss, is equally in love with Nathalie which complicates things even more. When Markus asks Nathalie out, she accepts although she isn’t really in the mood. How surprising to find out that this plain-looking man is far from ordinary.

I’m sure this sounds like a pretty usual romance but what makes Delicacy worthwhile is the way in which it is told. The story is divided into 117 chapters, some of them not longer than a sentence, some a few pages long. While the story is told chronologically, many of the short chapters contain quirky remarks, information on things that happened or were said in the preceding chapter, a recipe for a dish, the star signs of the co workers. Additionally there are footnotes making generalizing remarks like “Women called Nathalie are often nostalgic”.

All of these comments and annotations may seem random and silly at first but after a while you realize that Foenkinos’ main themes are prejudice, preconceptions and generalisations and that what he does is quite clever really. He confronts the reader constantly with this type of thinking, with his own prejudices. We are all biased to a certain degree. We associate characteristics with nationalities and even with names. Some research has found out that children are treated differently at school depending on their names.

Gossip is one way to let loose all those preconceptions and faulty ideas about others. Someone walking by without saying hello may just have a bad day while people who see him will interpret this behaviour in different ways “Maybe someone has died”. “He has been reprimanded by the boss”. “He is very ill”… . This is exactly what Nathalie and Markus face once people notice that they have met outside of the company.

I don’t want to spoil the book, so I’m not going into too many details but once you finish, you will see how different the “perfect” relationship between Nathalie and her good-looking dead husband is from how Nathalie and Markus interact.

La délicatesseDelicacy is charming and amusing. It tells a sweet love story and at the same time manages in a very playful and light way to make us aware of our short comings when we meet new people and judge them sometimes for no other reasons than their name and nationalities.

Literature and War Readalong March 30 2012: To the Slaughterhouse – Le grand troupeau by Jean Giono

Jean Giono’s To the Slaughterhouse – Le grand troupeau is the last WWI novel of this year’s readalong. Giono is one of the great French writers, famous for books like L’homme qui plantait des arbresThe Man Who Planted Trees, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Que ma joie demeure orLe hussard sur le toit – The Horseman on the Roof which has been made into a successful movie. His books are deeply rooted in the South of France and he is often compared to Pagnol.

I try not to be too enthusiastic this time, but, let me just say, cautiously, I think, this should be a good book. At least he is an author who has never disappointed me so far and I’m even planning on (re-)reading a few of his other books this year, like Colline, Un de Baumugnes and Regain, the so-called Pan trilogy. Giono is famous for the way he describes the joy of life and that’s why I’m particularly interested to see how he treated such a bleak subject.

Here are the first sentences

Last night they watched as all the men left. It was a thick August night smelling of corn and horse-sweat. The animals were harnessed in the station-yard. The big plough-haulers had been tied up to the shafts on the carts; their solid rumps held back the loads of women and children.

The train moved off quietly in the night, spattering the willow trees with embers as it took on speed. Then all the horses started moaning together.


The discussion starts on Friday, 30 March 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Balzac: La Vendetta (1830)

I read La Vendetta as part of a mini-readalong together with Danielle and Emma. It was Danielle’s idea to read it for  Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris in July.

You can find different English versions of the novella or, if you read in French, you will find it in the collection La Maison du chat-qui-pelote or as a stand alone.

La Vendetta is one of Balzac’s earlier stories and part of the so-called Scènes de la vie privée. It is an interesting story for various reasons. On the one hand because it reflects some of the themes that were fashionable in the literature of the time but also because we can already see some of Balzac’s key themes emerge. I would say this novella is still rooted in romanticism with only a touch of realism.

The central story is the story of two families, the Piombos and the Portas,  who are connected by their mutual hatred. We learn at the beginning that after the Portas killed almost the whole family of the Piombos, the old Piombo killed the whole Porta family with the exception of a son, Luigi.

As Balzac tells us, the Corsicans are a fierce people and take revenge, or vendetta, as they call it, seriously. It is almost a religion for them. There will be no mercy or forgiveness ever. It’s a blood feud that can cost each and every member of a family his or her life.

After seeing their family so drastically decimated, Bartholoméo Piombo decides to leave Corsica and look for assistance by Bonaparte in Paris.  He has to learn an important lesson before being accepted in Paris. He must acknowledge that there will be no more vendetta. In Paris justice is not a personal matter but part of an official legal system.

After the first scene in which Bartholoméo is introduced the book fast forwards some ten years and focuses on the daughter of the family, Ginevra. The young woman is taking painting classes with a famous painter. She is quite skilled and produces many a good copy of existing pieces of art. The girls taking these calsses are a composite group. Some are of aristocratic background, some are nouveaux riches. There are many petty rivalries that are influenced by their families political orientation

Ginevra is a beautiful and cherished young woman. She is already 25 years old but has never fallen in love. She thinks that she will never leave her family and go on living a peaceful life at the side of her elderly parents. Destiny has other plans and one afternoon, while painting, she discovers a young soldier, who has been hidden by the painter. The young man is no other than Luigi Porta. It is a time of great turmoil, Napoléon has been overthrown for the second time and all those who followed him are in grave danger. Luigi has endured a lot, he was part of the Berezina campaign, he fought at Waterloo.

The two young people fall in love and Ginevra wants to get married but her father doesn’t want to accept this. His reasons go far beyond the fact that the young man is a Porta. He doesn’t want to lose his daughter. He doesn’t even care that this refusal might lead to a tragedy. When he finally realizes that he has made a mistake, it is too late.

I can’t really say I liked La Vendetta. Should you know Merimée’s Mateo Falcone, a novella on a similar theme, written just one year prior to La Vendetta, you will know why. Mérimée’s novella is accomplished and renders life and customs of Corsica without falling into the trap of stereotypes. Unfortunately this isn’t the case here. Balzac doesn’t do the Corsican people justice. He probably chose the theme because it was fashionable and I think what he really wanted to write about is the jealous possessiveness of a father. Bartholoméo Piombo isn’t the only selfish father in Balzac’s books. There are many others. This is why I could at least appreciate parts of the story. Another typical Balzac theme is the artist. Balzac was fascinated by painters and regularly evokes them in his stories. I found it sad that Ginevra who seems to have been very talented wasn’t encouraged to paint anything else but copies and in the end this speeded up the economical downfall of the young couple. This element is certainly realistic. There weren’t many accepted female painters in the early 19th century. Still it saddened me to see that young girls with talent had to paint mediocre works.

La Vendetta isn’t a bad novella but it isn’t Balzac at his most original. We see a few glimpses of the future master, but he isn’t there yet.

I’m curious to read what Emma and Danielle think.

Here are the links:

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Emma (Book Around the Corner)