Hélène Gestern: The People in the Photo – Eux sur la photo (2013)

The People in the PhotoEux sur la photo

I came across the novel The People in the PhotoEux sur la photo by French author Hélène Gestern on Danielle’s blog (here) and immediately had to get the French paperback. (I know – book buying ban and all that).

The People in the Photo is an epistolary novel which gave it a charming old-fashioned feel although it’s set in 2007. Hélène has placed an ad in a newspaper asking if anyone knows the names she has found on a photo, showing her late mother in 1971, in a tennis tournament in Switzerland, alongside two men. Hélène never knew her mother who “disappeared” when she was only three years old. Her father and her stepmother only told her that she died in an accident. Hélène’s many questions were never answered. Her father didn’t want his former wife mentioned.

After the death of her father and while she slowly loses her stepmother to Alzheimer, Hélène finds the photo showing her mother and decides to use it to find out more about her. Stéphane writes to her because he’s recognized the name of one of the two men on the photo—it’s his father.

Hélène and Stéphane begin to write to each other regularly. Both want to find out more about their parents. Stéphane, who describes his father as broody and taciturn, just as much as Hélène. Using photos and correspondences, tracking down people, they begin to put together the pieces of the puzzle. A first their interest in solving a mystery guides them, but soon they become friends and there’s even the possibility of love.

The book is as much about how harmful family secrets can be as it is about loss and grief, identity and love, errors of judgement and guilt. It delicately shows that uncovering a secret may have consequences that cannot be undone. You can’t “unknow” something. There are many moments of hesitations in the book – whenever new information is found, photo collections (Stéphane’s father was a photographer), letters and a diary are discovered. Should they read it? What if they are not strong enough to face the truth? And what will it mean for their present lives, their relationship? Some truths might be too hard to bear.

I believe it’s always better to know the truth but one has to be prepared—it can be unpleasant and tragic like in the case of Hélène’s mother and Stéphane’s father. The beginning of the novel is quite sober. The tone is inquisitive and polite but the closer they get to the truth, the more they open up to each other, the more the books gets emotional. The final revelations are made via a letter from Hélène’s stepmother and the diary of a friend of their parents. I expected a sad story but never imagined finding out what happened would move me as much as it did.

While family secrets are a major theme, the power of photos is just as important. Each chapter begins with the description of a photo, leaving out any interpretations at first. Only later, in the following letters, do we learn the background information. This illustrates how misleading photos can be. And that absences are just as telling as what the photo shows.

History is another important theme. Hélène does not only uncover her family’s history but pieces of Russian and French history. And she appeals to Stéphane not to judge their parents as if their story had taken place in our time, but to keep in mind that they were people of another era.

Hélène Gestern has achieved to write a book that is very emotional but never soppy nor melodramatic. The structure is tight, the writing smooth, the themes are complex and the characters feel authentic. It’s entertaining and profound and has the charm of old black and white photos.

The People in the Photo is Hélène Gestern’s first book. She’s already published two more in French, both of which deal with the power of pictures.

I added both covers because the French, while set during the wrong decade (the 40s), captures the spirit of the photo in the novel.

Chantal Thomas: Farewell, my Queen – Les Adieux à la reine (2002)

Farewell, my Queen

I’ve always been fascinated by Marie Antoinette and I tend to like the choices for the French Prix Femina. Chantal Thomas’ novel Farewell, my Queen – Les Adieux à la reine  won the prize in 2002 and has been been made into a movie in 2012. Chantal Thomas is an academic, specialized in the  XVIIIe century. Farewell, my Queen was her first novel.

What appealed to me was that she chose to tell the story from the point of view of Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, the queen’s reader. The book begins in 1810, in Vienna. Agathe-Sidonie is 65 years old and looking back on her life at Versailles, especially, her three last days there— July 14, July 15 and July 16 1789. At the end of the last day, most of the close entourage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI will have fled Versailles. The queen is left behind although she’s in great danger. Agathe-Sidonie is told to flee with the de Polignacs.

Marie Ant.

Focussing on three days, describing the many rituals, the rooms and apartments of the people living at Versailles, and contrasting Marie Antoinette at Le Petit Trianon and at Versailles, give an incredible insight into the life of this ill-fated woman. Her fears and joys are rendered vividly, her character comes to life. Agathe-Sidonie is not part of the entourage, she’s just a better sort of servant, which allows Chantal Thomas to play with proximity and distance, the effect of which is quite arresting. At times, we see the queen from afar, the way her people saw her, at times, when Agathe-Sidonie reads to her, or sits in her rooms, all but forgotten, we get a very intimate look at the poor queen.

While I think the French Revolution was more than justified, I was still moved by this account, by the growing fear of the courtiers. Many of the scenes take place during the night and, since most of the servants abandoned the court, they take place in obscurity, which enhances the feeling of doom and danger.

Marie Antoinette

What I liked best is how Chantal Thomas used the descriptions of light and weather to underline emotions. I equally loved her use of imagery and symbols. One of the most beautiful was evoked when Agathe-Sidonie looks back and thinks of the season of the queen’s balls. Marie Antoinette was very fond of fashion. Of course that was one of the things she was blamed for the most. Before the season of the balls she would order numerous new dresses, one per ball. Those dresses would be hidden from everyone’s eyes until the day of the ball, but the inhabitants of Versailles could see them being transported back and forth from the tailor’s rooms to the queen’s rooms. The dresses were wrapped in white taffeta, and called by many “the shadows of the queen”. When Agathe -Sidonie remembers this, the queen herself has become a mere shadow.

I wondered often why people were so fascinated by Marie Antoinette. When you read Farewell, my Queen, you get a pretty good idea why. She must have been very gentle, joyful, playful, and affectionate. She loved beautiful things and everything around her had to be perfect. I felt pity for this girl who came to the court at the age of 15 and was disgraced and guillotined at 37.

It’s chilling to read about the last moments at Versailles, and how even her most intimate friends like the Duchess de Polignac fled the palace. Because Agathe-Sidonie loved the queen and her life at Versailles, the book is very nostalgic.

Farewell, my Queen is unlike any other Marie Antoinette novel I’ve read. It could only have been written by someone who has done extensive research. Still, it’s moving and nostalgic and really beautiful. It’s almost as good as my favourite historical novel L’allée du Roi  – The King’s Way by Françoise Chandernagor, which tells the story of Mme de Maintenon. The two novels complement each other, as we see Versailles still under construction in The King’s Way and abandoned in the later book.

I’m tempted to watch the movie but I’m afraid it took a lot of liberties and is very different from the book.

Anna Gavalda: L’échappée belle – Breaking Away/French Leave (2009)

Breaking Away

When you look for something light but still profound, Anna Gavalda is an ideal choice. Her writing is airy but not fluffy. Her characters struggle but they make it eventually. Her slim novel, L’échappée belle, which has been published under two different names in English— Breaking Away and French Leave— was just like that. Entertaining, yet thoughtful. Amusing but a bit sad as well. The only problem I had was the structure. Breaking Away is divided in two parts. In both parts the book is told from Garance’s point of view but in the first part she’s the first person narrator, while the story is told in the third person in the later chapters. I wasn’t entirely sure why Anna Gavalda chose this approach. It gave the book a disjointed feel.

Garance, her older sister, Lola, her older brother, Simon, and her sister-in-law, Carine are on the way to a marriage. The scenes in the car are priceless. Carine is quite stuck up and the two sisters tease her mercilessly. They make her feel excluded, shock her, and push all of her buttons. Especially Garance, whose life style is wild and disorganized, antagonizes her constantly.

When they arrive at their destination the three siblings realize they are not in the mood for marriage malarkey, for family and hypocrisy. They would rather spend a day on their own and decide to pay a visit to their younger brother, Vincent, who is working as a guide at a Château.

Once there, they spend a wonderful time together. The siblings are very close and you get the feeling that whoever joins them, will always stay outside. This cannot be easy for a spouse or a girlfriend/boyfriend.

The siblings all seem at a turning point— newly divorced, just starting or ending a relationship. Garance is the one who will undergo the biggest change adn she has a new friend: a dog she adopted on the road trip. While the first part is like a road movie, the second shows us Garance on her own, in Paris.

Although the book is flawed and I didn’t understand the author’s choice to change from 1st to 3rd person, I did enjoy this. I have no siblings, so I always idealize the relationships between brothers and sister, even though most siblings I’ve met in real life never had such an intense, harmonious relationship.

A lot of Breaking Away is written in spoken language, using different types of accents and vernacular. I wonder how the translator handled this. It can’t  have been easy. In my opinion this gives the book added meaning, more depth. There’s a North African shop owner, for example, who speaks with a very strong accent. Reading it, I could hear it and was at first a bit shocked because it seemed racist but then we find out that Rachid speaks a perfect, accent free French, and only uses this accent to make fun of people who expect every North African to talk like this.

I’m glad that I still own another book by Anna Gavalda which I haven’t read yet – Hunting and Gathering – Ensemble c’est tout. It has been made into a movie and so has Someone I Loved. Her books make excellent choices for movies as her writing is heavy on dialogue.

For another take on the book, here’s Guy’s (His Futile Preoccupations) review.

Echappee belle

Gabriel Chevallier: La Peur – Fear (1930) Literature and War Readalong June 2014

Fear

Most of the books we read for the Literature and War Readalong are historical novels, written by people who do not have any experience of war. But I always try to make sure to include at least one novel or memoir written by someone who had first-hand experience. Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear – La Peur is one of those. Like his narrator Jean Dartemont, Chevallier was a simple soldier during WWI. He served from 1914 to the end of the war. In 1915 he had a small break because he was wounded but was sent back to the front-line after his recovery. Reading his account it sounds like a miracle that anyone could survive this long under such circumstances. Given the title of this novel it may also come as a surprise that its author returned highly decorated. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.

Most of the time reading La Peur felt like reading a memoir and I suppose most of it is autobiographical. What drew me in from the beginning was the voice. I hope they were able to capture this unique and powerful voice in the English translation. A voice that mentions everything, denounces everything, and lets us get as close to the war in the trenches as possible without having been there.

The book hasn’t a plot as such, it’s more an episodic account of Dartemont’s experience of WWI and his thoughts. Not for one second does he think the war is noble, nor does he ever strive for glory. He sees right through most of the cowardly and sadistic officers and he speaks openly. Not always though. Sometimes he’s just too baffled to speak his mind like when an elderly man asks him on his leave whether they are having fun. Those at home think it’s all a great adventure, just like most of those who signed up early on.

Dartemont who was a student didn’t sign up for “gloire et patrie” (glory and homeland), he signed up because he wanted to see. He’s a very curious person, that’s probably why he never averts his eyes, no matter how scared he is. In the beginning he’s just like a participant observer. At first he’s far from the most intense fighting but once he’s seen his first battle, the first dead people and horribly wounded, fear is his constant companion.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this. Not for one second are we led to believe that going to war is heroic. It might very well be one of the most openly anti-war books I’ve ever read. Free of any sentimentality, free of any attempt to make us swallow the bitter pill by telling some touching story. It’s just one man’s account of the most horrible things one can experience.

The parts that shocked me the most are not the gruesome descriptions of the wounded and the dead but those that show how utterly ill prepared most of the attacks were. And how incapable and idiotic most of the high command was. How can you expect to win a battle when the enemy is dug in and your soldiers are just running into open fire? No wonder there were some battles in which there were 50,000 to a 100,000 dead and wounded within two hours. All this led to the mutinies of 1917. Of course it wasn’t much better on the British side. Unfortunately many officers were not only useless but petty and sadistic, mean-spirited and small-minded, and managed to turn even times of rest into nightmares.

Seeing how scared Dartemont was all through the war, and how long he stayed in the trenches, I was wondering why he wasn’t shell-shocked. I think he must have had an extremely strong character. Unlike so many, he never looks away, not even when he’s scared. He’s always aware that any moment could be his last, that he could end up maimed for life from one second to the other. This extreme awareness, paired with a strong character, seems to have helped him stay sane through the madness.

As awful and detailed as many of the description were, I liked reading this, because I liked the narrator’s voice so much. Staying this matter of fact in such mayhem is admirable.

I’m not surprised this book went out of print in France when WWII broke out. It’s as powerful as it is subversive. Chevallier rips off the masks of all those who pretend war is noble.

 

Other reviews

 Guy (His Futile Preoccupations)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

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Fear – La Peur is the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI novel The Lie by Helen Dunmore. Discussion starts on Monday 28 July, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong June 27 2014: Fear aka La Peur by Gabriel Chevallier

Fear

Every year there is at least one book in the readalong I’m dreading. This year Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear –La Peur is one of them. Cheavllier called it explicitly an anti-war novel and at the same time his wish was to be as truthful as possible, to tell things as they were and to make those, who were not there understand what the war was like. His own experience as an infantryman made him especially qualified to write about the war.

In the French edition of the book is a foreword from 1951 and reading it, one could almost think thar Chevallier himself thought that he went too far. Probably it’s not surprising that the book went out of print when WWII broke out as it was considered bad for morale.

In any case, it’s one of the great French WWI classics. Another one of Chevallier’s novels, Clochemerle, was quite successful.

Here are the first sentences

The fire was already smouldering somewhere in the depths of Europe, but carefree France donned its summer costumes, straw hats and flannel trousers, and packed its bags for the holidays. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky – such an optimistic, bright blue sky. It was terribly hot and drought was the only possible worry. It would be so lovely out in the country side, or down by the sea. The scent of iced absinthe hung over the café terraces and gypsy orchestras played popular tunes from The Merry Widow which was then all the rage.

Some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Fear – La Peur by Gabriel Chevallier (France 1930)  WWI, Classic, Novel, 320 pages

It is 1915. Jean Dartemont is just a young man. He is not a rebel, but neither is he awed by authority and when he’s called up and given only the most rudimentary training, he refuses to follow his platoon. Instead, he is sent to Artois, where he experiences the relentless death and violence of the trenches. His reprieve finally comes when he is wounded, evacuated and hospitalised.

The nurses consider it their duty to stimulate the soldiers’ fighting spirit, and so ask Jean what he did at the front.

His reply?

‘I was afraid.’

First published in France in 1930, Fear is both graphic and clear-eyed in its depiction of the terrible experiences of soldiers during the First World War.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 27 June 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Marie de France’s Bisclavret – A Werewolf Story from the 12th Century

lais-of-marie-de-france

I’ve always been fond of The Lais of Marie de France, a collection of folk tales set in a mythical Brittany. For a book this old, they are surprisingly approachable and entertaining. Marie de France’s identity isn’t clear. She is, as indicates her name, most probably from the Île de France and it’s said that she must have spent some time at the English court.

Looking for something to read for  Once Upon a Time I remembered her werewolf story Bisclavret. Bisclavret means werewolf in Breton. In the rest of France he’s called “loup-garou”. The werewolf belief is widespread in Brittany. I myself grew up with it, as my grandmother was from Morlaix, in Brittany.

I didn’t remember the whole of the story and was surprised to find similarities with Selkie stories, in which it’s crucial, that the Selkie, once a woman, should find her skin again, or she will never be able to return to her Selkie form. Bisclavret follows a reversed logic. The clothes of the man equal the skin of the Selkie.

Bisclavret tells the tale of a gentle woman who is upset because her husband is absent regularly. She presses him to tell her where he spends his nights. She suspects he has taken a mistress. The husband does at first not tell her what he is doing during full moon nights, but when he sees her jealousy, he gives in and confesses that he is a werewolf. During full moon nights, he goes to the forest, takes off his clothes and transforms. It’s vital for him to put his clothes back on. Should anything prevent that, he wouldn’t be able to become human again.

Bisclavret is one of many stories among the Lais whose female protagonist is a “femme coupable” – a guilty woman. In this case she is guilty of betrayal. She herself takes a lover, tells him her husband’s secret and, one night, they follow him and steal his clothes. He is now condemned to stay a wolf. Hunted down by the king and his men, he is spared, because he shows a gentle nature. He follows the king to the court and becomes his pet. He is liked by everyone at court because he is so well-behaved, until one day he attacks a man and later a woman.

I’m not going to reveal the end because I’d like to put you in the mood, to pick up either the whole collection or at least this story.

Marie de France is one of the very earliest story tellers. Her art is still fresh and powerful today and well-worth discovering. My edition is bilingual old French/new French. I don’t know whether there is a French version in the English edition, or whether it’s only a translation.

This post is a contribution to Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. The review site can be found here.

On Émilie de Turckheim’s Le Joli Mois de Mai (The Beautiful Month of May)

Le Joli Mois de Mai

Aimé, the narrator of Émilie de Turckheim’s short, dark, mean novel, cannot tell a story. Or that’s what he tells us. He’s not cultured, hasn’t had an education and, frankly, he seems a bit simple. A simpleton even. But it’s his story and his voice, which make this novel such a fun read, infused with black humour and full of absurd, comic situations. Just like child narrators and teenagers à la Holden Caufield, Aimé sees through the hypocrisy around him. He’s very literal and the way he unveils how people  lie with clichés and empty rhetoric, makes you laugh and gasp in horror at the same time.

You could call Le Joli Mois de Mai a very dark crime story. Monsieur Louis is found dead in the woods, a bullet in his throat. How did he die? And will he be the only victim? These are the questions we ask right away. And Aimé is willing to answer, only in his own time, and before we know the truth, we will hear a dark story of a teenage mother, abuse, violence, alcoholism and exploitation.

Monsieur Louis is dead and he has left a will. Five people will inherit everything. It should be surprising for the five heirs that Aimé and the horribly disfigured Martial, who have been living with Monsieur Louis, don’t get anything else than the right to stay at Monsieur Louis’s house. The five people who inherit the pension, the hunting grounds and the wood are a shady couple, an ex-policeman, an ex-soldier and a gay brothel owner. Greed clouds their judgment and influences their behaviour; they never wonder why would Monsieur Louis leaves everything to people he hardly knew.

I enjoyed finding out. I loved the way Aimé tells his story with so much naiveté and uncanny truthfulness. I laughed out loud quite few times, it’s so funny. It’s a shocking story, told in some of the blackest humour I’ve ever read.

The bad news – the book hasn’t been translated into English.

I first read about the author on Emma’s blog (Book Around the Corner). She’s reviewed one of her other books, Héloise est chauve (here). It sounds excellent as well. I hope Émilie de Turkheim will be translated. She’s a terrific writer. The voice was amazing, the way the story was told was shocking, funny and captivating. Her style is unique and from what I can see, all of her books are very different.