Welcome to the next country in The View from Here series on literature from around the world. Today we get to visit France for a look at the local literary scene with the help of Emma who blogs at Words and Peace. When she’s not reading her favourite author this year (Sylvain Tesson) or watching her favourite movie adapted from a novel (Murder on the Orient Express), she’s thinking about hiking and bird watching on her next holiday
Let’s meet Emma
I grew up in the Champagne and the Burgundy regions of France and came to live in the US twelve years ago. On my book blog which is now three years old, you can find a large variety of reviews: general fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, as well as nonfiction, biography and Eastern Orthodox religious authors, for instance. Apart from regular hard copies, I also present books with different formats: graphic novels, ebooks, and audiobooks.
Q. You seem to be waging a campaign to get us to read more literature from France 🙂 What is it that appeals to you so much?
I’m passionate by nature. So more than waging a campaign, I would say I want to share what I love passionately with others. When you enjoy a book greatly, don’t you want to tell all your friends about it?
After very demanding studies in France, I reached a point near to overdose with French literature. When I arrived in the US, I was basically rejecting my French roots. I could no longer read in French, I was finding the style too “precious” as we say over there, too unnecessary sophisticated, and even artificial.
Then, I discovered that Americans had this crazy attraction for anything French. This actually helped me reconsider my roots with more balance.
There is indeed a very specific beauty in the way French authors pay attention to words, they have a knack at creating an ambiance. I’m currently experiencing this through my reading of In Search of Lost Time – yes, I seized the opportunity of the anniversary of the publication of the first volume, Swann’s Way, to launch into reading all the volumes by Proust.
Closer to us, I have just discovered Sylvain Tesson, who won the prestigious Prix Médicis a couple of years ago. His prose is like pure poetry, and I could really imagine myself in his solitary hut near Lake Baikal.
Q. What books are creating a buzz right now?
The big trend right now is for French thrillers to take precedence over the Scandinavians!
But they also know how to write historical fiction for instance: Pierre Lemaitre seems to impress everyone with his Au revoir là-haut, on WWI. His name keeps coming back for several literary awards that will be given this Fall.
Q. Zola, Sartre, Balzac, Flaubert – just some of the big names in French classical literature. Are they still as relevant today?
Good question! In fact, this very same point was raised during the Salon du Livre last Spring. They are definitely relevant, in the sense that they open great windows on the human condition and psyche. More modern works may have the tendency to paint in a more fragmented way, I believe. Older works seem to give a broader picture.
Q. Which classical author from the past is your particular favourite — and of course, why?
I don’t think I can choose one favorite ever. My tastes have evolved along the years. Apart from the four giants you just mentioned, Victor Hugo is quite fascinating, as he managed to write in so many genres. We are of course very familiar with his novels, but his plays and poems are also very dear to me.
As we are preparing to celebrate the dreadful anniversary of WWI, I actually would like to highlight an author of that very creative generation, alas shortened too soon. Alain-Fournier has indeed remained along the years a favorite author, with Le Grand Meaulnes, a gem of French literature.
Q. Which contemporary French authors do you think we should be paying more attention to?
They have some very creative female writers, unfortunately not enough known in the US. To name but three, I would mention Muriel Barbery, may be the most famous here with one of her novels, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, turned into a movie. Anna Gavalda is up there as well. And I have to name also the very prolific Amélie Nothomb. She is actually Belgian, but writes in French and has received numerous French literary awards. I don’t recall having seen her name in any of the numerous English speaking book bloggers I follow!
Q. Many authors from other parts of the world set their novels in France. Do they manage to capture the French way of life effectively or are they just caricaturing France and French people?
Yes, I’m really amazed right now at the number of books published every month that are set in France! That’s really what made me launch France Book Tours, virtual book tours for books having some type of connection with France.
To answer your question, I would honestly say they do both. You can find a fair amount of caricature for sure, with for instance the post-card perfect lavender landscapes of Provence. This makes sense actually: I’ve found many a times that Americans for instance have a very romantic representation of France, a France that used to be maybe, or is only temporarily for a short time touristic visit. Authors need definitely to tap into that!
But I have also recently read lots of novels and accounts relating not so successful attempts at living in France and getting to be accepted in the French society and work scene. A very honest book about French society today is for instance Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, by Rosecrans Baldwin.