The View from Here: Book from France
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.
9 thoughts on “The View from Here: Book from France”
Awesome. I’ve read a lot of books set in France, but I’m not sure that any of them were actually by French authors.
By the way, I did send you an email about doing A View From Here: South Africa. Did you receive it? If things are hectic that’s not a problem, just want to be sure you did get it 🙂
I didn’t receive your email I’m sorry but have just sent you one myself so I hope that works ok. I would love to be able to feature you….
Another thought. Or rather an underlying emotion: A major dose of homesickness may have contributed to this.
I’m not surprised you were homesick if you were just 17.
I became fluent and attended a lycée. I took all my courses in French. At 17 I think I was surprised I had “underlying cultural norms.” I discovered that by accident. A French example not from Lit: Asterix and Assurancetorix, the later I learned was also a name for an insurance company — so simple but I missed the joke. Another example from American lit: Reading Kurt Vonnegut at the time: “Breakfast of Champions.” Would a French reader understand that phrase came from a Wheaties commercial? Both examples a native would easily get. I learned to question and spot those cultural clues. Years later when reading a Japanese short story with a friend, she asked me to explain it. I said I couldn’t but I did guess (correctly) that if one understood the use of pomegranate as a symbol, you could get to the core of the story.
I have the same issues when listening to some of my American colleagues talk. I just don’t get the reference points. Drinking the KoolAid got me stumped
Interesting. I understand the renewed interest ione gets from being away from one’s culture. I spent a year in France when I was quite young — 17 –and it led me back to my own culture — in part because I understood the importance and depth of childhood references, rhythms, and cadences in a new way. I knew I could never understand French and the French the way I did Americans and English. I ended up returning and being more interested in American and British literature — which in turn surprised me. But I also had developed an observing distance as a result of that experience.
Hi Barbara. Was it that you couldn’t understand the language thoroughly enough to get the full value of the novels or you didn’t understand the underlying cultural norms that a French person would take for granted?
thanks for featuring me!