Category Archives: French authors
I’ve watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo several times but never realised that this tale of mental disturbance and obsession was based on a French novel called D’Entre les Morts (translated into English as From Among the Dead).
The plot of the film is essentially the same as that of the novel though the characters’ names are different and Hitchcock makes far more about the vertigo suffered by the protagonist. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac set From Among the Dead in Paris and Marseilles but Hitchcock went for San Franscisco, presumably because its relative proximity to Hollywood made it more economical.
More significantly the historical context is eradicated from the film version. From Among the Dead is set against a background of World War 2 and the ugliness of war deepens the sense of displacement created by the plot. The book opens in a period called ‘the phoney war’ when people in France wait uneasily for the hostilities that seem inevitable. Some in France, like the industrialist Paul Gevigné, stand to profit from the war but others, like his old university friend Roger Flavières feel they are living on the edge of an abyss. “The future was … a blank. Nothing had any real meaning except the spring leaves in the sunshine – and love.”
The pair haven’t seen each other for several years but Gevigné, now a prosperous shipbuilder, tracks down his old friend because he needs help. His wife Madeleine is behaving strangely, experiencing attacks which leave her in a frozen, trance-like state . She denies going out in the afternoons but Gévigne has evidence to the contrary. Is she lying (and if so, for what purpose) or is she suffering a mental disturbance affecting her memory? Doctors can’t find anything wrong with her but Gevigné isn’t convinced. Adding to his anxiety is the fact Madeleine’s great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, suffered from a similar mysterious affliction and committed suicide when she was twenty-five, coincidentally Madeleine’s age now. His old friend Paul used to be a police detective so who better to help him by following Madeleine and solving the mystery?
Flavières is initially reluctant to help. But after just one sighting of Madeleine he’s dazzled. This is a woman whose beauty is as mysterious as that of the Mona Lisa, but with a sadness that he finds endearing. “It was no longer a question of watching her, but of helping her, protecting her,” he reflects after seeing her at the theatre one night. And so his fate is sealed. As he trails her through the streets of Paris, Flavières — who has never before been in love — becomes obsessed by his friend’s wife.
He was making a fool of himself of course. Torturing himself into the bargain, living in a constant tumult of painful impressions. Never mind! Beneath that tumult was a peace and a plenitude of joy such as he had never known. It swallowed up the frustrations of recent years, the fears, the regrets.
His delight is short-lived. On an excursion into the countryside, Madeleine throws herself off the tower of a church and dies. Her death brings part one of the book to an end, coinciding with the fall of France to the Nazi invaders.
Flash forward four years. The war is over and people in France are picking up the pieces of their lives. Paul Gevigné is dead and Roger Flavières is an alcoholic, tormented by the loss of Madeleine and his guilt that he couldn’t save her. His doctors tell him that for his own sanity he should get out of Paris. On his last night in the city he goes to the cinema and sees in a newsreel a girl who closely resembles Madeleine.
He persues her, courts her and takes her as his mistress but the relationship goes downhill because Flavières tries to remake her in the image of the dead woman, dictating what she wears and the style of her hair. Believing his mistress is really a reincarnation of his lost love, his hold on reality becomes ever more fragile. Flavières comes across as a bully at this stage, never letting up for moment in his determination to force his mistress to confess that yes, she is Madeleine.
Vertigo is a dark and stylish tale about a man in torment. A man who is destroyed by his infatuation for a woman and his search for the truth. Although we sense from the outset that things are not going to turn out well for Flavières, that feeling of inevitability doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the novel. The first part is a little on the slow slide but the tension ratchets up significantly in the second part, coming to a satisfying twist in the final pages. But by then it is too late for Flavières. His life is in ruins.
D’Entre les Morts was published in 1954. Apparently Boileau and Narcejac wanted to move away from the conventions of Golden Age mysteries. They wanted to turn victims into conspirators and protagonists into perpetrators and operated to a rule that “the protagonist can never wake up from their nightmare”. The English version came out in 1956 and the film in 1958.
In 2015 Pushkin came out with a new edition as part of PUSHKIN VERTIGO, their new imprint for crime classics from around the world, focusing on works written between the 1920s and 1970s.
From the earliest Greek and Roman civilisations, people have believed in the idea that hell is an underworld accessible to mortals via special gates on the surface of Earth. It was through these gates that Orpheus travelled to rescue his wife Eurydice and Dante descended through nine concentric circles of suffering in The Inferno.
In Laurent Gaudé’s novella Hell’s Gate, hell is a state of mind as well as a place. It’s the mental torment experienced by Matteo, a Neapolitan taxi driver whose young son is the innocent victim of a gangland shooting. Matteo blames himself. If only he hadn’t harried his child to walk faster when he took him to school that morning. If only he’d listened to the boy’s cries to slow down. If only he’d stopped for a second to tie up his son’s shoe lace. Those seconds would have put his boy Pippo out of danger.
Matteo and his wife Giuliana are consumed by despair at the loss of their son. Matteo’s reacts by driving aimlessly through the darkened city every night, not picking up any passengers, just driving. His wife’s response is to demand revenge to bring ‘some small, fragile solace like a little breath of air on my wounds.” But though Matteo tracks down Cullaccio, the gangland leader responsible for the boy’s death, he cannot bring himself to kill the man. Giuliana leaves their marital home cursing her husband for his weakness and cursing all fathers for failing to protect their sons.
Just when Matteo feels his life has lost all meaning, he encounters the strange Professor Provolone and his revelations that there is a way Matteo can be re-united with his son. It requires him to accept there is an underworld the living can enter and from which they can return. It’s through the Professor’s explanations of the “bridges, intersections, grey areas” connecting the two worlds, that Matteo achieves a degree of peace.
For the first time in a long while Matteo felt happy. He looked at his strange companions: a disgraced professor, a transvestite, a mad priest and the easy-going owner of a café. He wanted to share a meal with these men, to listen to what they had to say, to stay with them in the dim light of the little room, far from the world and its grief.
Determined to recover his son he descends into the sulphurous underworld through a gate in the port of Naples. His companion and guide is the unstable priest Mazerotti.
They were on foot, going at the halting rhythm of pilgrims lost in a strange land. They were a tight little group of men feeling their way in the night, like blind men holding each other by the arm or the shoulder so as to not get lost. Or like madmen in a boat gliding silently through the water, wide eyed at a world they did not understand.
The rescue requires priest and father to negotiate multiple obstacles all of which are graphically described. It’s a vision of hell that will be familiar from its many depictions in art, one full of writhing shadowy figures streaming through a diseased landscape. Gaudé’s vision comes complete with giant doors sculpted with “hundreds of faces disfigured by suffering and horror … their toothless mouths forever laughing, dribbling, shrieking with rage and pain”; the Spiral of the Dead, a River of Tears where the dead souls are tossed and beaten as they see their lives pass by and Bleeding Bushes adorned with the scraps of flesh from the souls left in the land of the living.
That the boy is rescued isn’t a surprise because of the structure of the novel. Hell’s Gate actually opens with an adult Pippo hell bent on the revenge his father was unable to execute. It’s 20 years after Matteo’s journey into the underworld. Pippo is now a barista with the uncanny ability to concoct exactly the right blend for each character depending on their mood. Tonight will be his last at the cafe however because he is about to murder his murderer Cullaccio. He approaches his task without fear:
I’ve already been to hell – what could possibly be scarier than that? All I have to ward off are my own nightmares. At night, the blood-curling cries and groans of pain come flooding back. I smell the nauseating stench of sulphur. The forest of souls surrounds me. …. Other people might call them nightmares but they’re wrong. I know what I see is real – I’ve been there.
The book thereafter is organised in chapters that alternate between Pippo’s narrative in 2002 and his father’s in 1980. Taken together they offer an exploration of revenge, guilt and a search for salvation. Regardless of whether you believe in hell, the novel Hell’s Gate is an intense and compelling read that seamlessly weaves fantasy with reality.
The Book: Hell’s Gate by Lauren Gaudé was published by Gallic Books in April 2017. Translation from the French is by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken. The original French version was published in 2008 as La porte des Enfers.
The Author: Laurent Gaudé was born in Paris in 1972. He is a winner of the Prix Goncourt for two of his novels. La porte des Enfers is his fourth novel. He has also written several plays.
Why I read this book: My copy was provided by the publishers Gallic Books via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
I’ve been known to enjoy a glass of wine (or two even). Even more appealing if I can do this while looking out onto some splendid French vista. Wine + France is a near perfect combination (now if only someone would create a chocolate flavoured wine I’d be in heaven….) Add a touch of mystery to that combination and you have the set up for The Winemakers Detective Series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balan. This highly successful series delves into the darker world of the wine industry with the aid of two amateur detectives: master winemaker Benjamin Cooker and his aide-de-camp Virgile Lanssien.
In Late Harvest Havoc, the latest episode to be translated into English, the duo are in the Alsace region. It’s winter time and in the countryside dark clouds are gathering. Someone is vandalising local vineyards just as the late harvest is about to start. There seems no pattern to the attacks, nothing to connect the damage at one estate to that of another a few miles away. Is this vengeance for a personal grievance? Is there a connection to the days of German occupation? Cooker and Lanssien put their collective brains to work to try and bring peace.
Detective work is demanding so of course the duo need plenty of sustenance. This is a novel which it’s probably not wise to read if you’re hungry or thirsty. Every day comes with details of something rather scummy sounding from foie gras de canard; caisson de porcelet rôti aux épices douces, and duck and sour cherry terrine to baba au rum. Cooker is a man who likes to eat well and whose palette is as sensitive to food as to wine:
He loved it perfectly ripened, when the golden crust was nice and firm and he rind had gone from soft to creamy. As with wine, Benjamin Cooker assessed Munsters with his nose. He’d plunge his knife in to reveal the centre of this cheese from the Vosges plateau. The more tenacious and rustic the aroma – even a tad repugnant – the more the cheese lover’s nose quivered.
The plot may be rather on the skimpy side and the writing plodding at times but by the end your knowledge of the finer points of viticulture will have increased markedly. The novel is peppered with gems of info with which to impress your friends. Did you know the best wines in Alsace come from the slopes of the Vosges Mountains, that the Rosacker vineyard takes its name from the wild roses growing nearby or that Riesling needs “exposure to southern sun and a steep incline in slate-rich soil that furrowed in stormy weather.”
All this focus on eating and drinking seems fitting given that the idea for the Winemakers’ Detective Series originated over a meal and a bottle of Château de Gaudou 1996 which is apparently a red wine from Cahors. I’ve no doubt the detailed descriptions of the wines are accurate but I did wonder whether someone who makes a living from his tastebuds would really smoke as many cigars as Cooker. Wouldn’t that affect the palette so much it would be difficult to pick out the subtler notes of each wine? Maybe I’m quibbling too much and the finer points don’t matter to the fans of this series or the millions of viewers who watch the TV adaptation.
Late Harvest Havoc has been available in France since 2005 but only became available in English in 2015. Translated by Sally Pane it is published in the UK by Le French Book, Inc. My copy is courtesy of the publishers. For details of the book tour organised by France Book Tours. For full tour dates click here.
Win a copy of Late Harvest Havoc
5 copies of Late Harvest Havoc are available in a giveaway. To enter click on this link.
Winners will get a choice of print or digital if they live in US residents. In other countries, winners will receive digital copies.
November has suddenly become rather attractive. Lovers of Emile Zola’s novels will want their ears glued to BBC Radio later this month when the Beeb begins their new new series, Emile Zola: Blood, Sex and Money. It’s a 27-episode “mash-up” of adaptations from the Rougon-Macquart novel sequence, which traces the fortunes and fates of the Rougon, Macquart and Mouret families. the cycle presents its readers with unflinching stories about power, lust, crime and addiction.
The BBC has adapted the novels into three series. The first instalment will be broadcast every day over an “intensive” week on Radio 4 in November. One of the episodes draws on La Bête humaine (The Beast Within) the 17th book in Les Rougon-Macquart series. It’s a superb psychological thriller about insanity and murder in Paris.
Blood, Sex and Money will witness the return of twice Oscar-winner and former MP Glenda Jackson to acting for the first time in 20 years as well as Robert Lindsay and Georgina Campbell. There will be an accompanying documentary, Blood, Sex and Money: The Life and Work of Emile Zola, broadcast on Radio 4 at 4–4.30pm on 16th of November.
You’ll find some additional info here:
This is the work of a skilled wordsmith turning a shrewd eye on a city of increasing tension between the newly restored aristocratic class and the bourgeoisie class resulting from the Industrial Revolution. What Balzac sees is a corrupt, ruthless society that feeds on ambition, money and status.
Into its net steps a young, poor law student from the provinces. Eugène de Rastignac is determined to climb the ladder to wealth and status. He is undeterred by his lack of money (he simply exploits his poor mother and sisters by persuading them to sell their jewels) but he has a valuable connection through his cousin Madame de Beauséant. She tutors him in the ways of high society, advising him bluntly that to succeed he must put aside his previous character.
The more cold-blooded your calculations, the further you will go. Strike ruthlessly; you will be feared. Men and women for you must be nothing more than post-horses; take a fresh relay, and leave the last to drop by the roadside; in this way you will reach the goal of your ambition.
The further Eugène progresses towards remaking himself, the more he sees that beneath the glitter lies a world of deceit, greed and manipulation and an obsessive love of money.
In the decrepit boarding house where he takes a lodging he experiences another kind of obsession in the shape of a fellow inhabitant, the retired pasta maker, Père Goriot. Once wealthy, the fortune of this old man appears to have melted away and he’s fallen on hard times. He’s a target for snide comments by other lodgers who soon learn that the two young and astonishingly beautiful girls seen entering his room are his daughters. So obsessed with fatherly love, Père Goriot has sacrificed everything he ever owned to indulge these women and help them maintain their status in the salons of the city. He has just one shirt to his name while they run up bills with dressmakers and drive around the city in gilded coaches.
On his deathbed, one of the most pitiful scenes in the novel, Goriot cries out to see his daughters one more time, alternatively berating them for their ingratitude and forgiving them for going to a ball instead of visiting him. Eugène is so touched by the old man’s plight he chases around the city in search of the daughters to persuade them to visit their dying father. In the event, rather than attend Goriot’s funeral, his daughters simply send their empty coaches.
Goriot does at first appear to be a man to be pitied. But ultimately, Balzac makes it evident that Goriot is entirely responsible for this situation, having raised the girls in a way that ensured they would be vain, idle, and grasping women. “The upbringing he gave his daughters was of course preposterous,” we’re told at one point. Far from being the epitomy of fatherhood he has spectacularly failed in his duty to install in them qualities of moral integrity and selflessness. In one of his few moments of lucidity Goriot is forced to acknowledge his culpability: “It was I who made them, they belong to me.”
Goriot’s experience and the reaction of his daughters open Eugène’s eyes still further to the true nature of the society he has aspired to join. But it doesn’t deter him from his path. It means only that he goes forth, no longer an innocent youth, but a man more cynical and calculating, ready to take on the city. Standing on a hill surveying the city laid out beneath him, he shouts a warning “Beware Paris, here I come — ”
There is plenty of drama and fast moving action to be found in this novel with some exciting set pieces. But it’s the meticulous detail in which Balzac describes Père Goriot’s boarding house lodging at Maison Vauquer and the penury of its inhabitants, that most held my attention. The book opens with a lengthy description of this establishment in the old Latin Quartier of Paris. It is not a place where you would relish having to spend even one night. The high garden walls surrounding the house give the impression of entering a prison , its shabby sitting room is full of furniture that is “old, rotten, shaky, cranky, worm-eaten, halt, maimed, one-eyed, rickety, and ramshackle”; the bedrooms are wretched and the nauseating smells from the kitchen permeate the whole place. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it?
For page after page Balzac gives shape and form to this residence and breathes life into its tenants, detailing what brought them through the door of Maison Vauguer, what hopes they have for the future and how they relate to each other. The point isn’t simply to show the individuals involved in the drama but to depict a society patterned after the Parisian one. Here is the city in microcosm where the guests are lodged and treated according to their financial means and social position. Their room within the house changes as their fortunes fluctuate. Goriot himself had started in prime position on the lower ground but as a bankrupt he is despatched to the topmost and most decrepit room. It’s a visible, uncomfortable reminder to Eugène of the fate that awaits him if his quest for higher social status should fail.
Having gobbled up Le Père Goriot, I’m now wondering what next by Balzac I should tackle…This is meant to be one of the best novels in La Comedie Humane series
Le Père Goriot first appeared in 1834 in series form. My copy of this novel is a Penguin Classics edition translated by Marion Ayton Crawford. For a reason not explained in the foreword, the title is translated as Old Goriot, not Father Goriot which seems to eradicate the centrality of Goriot’s role as a father. The point of the novel isn’t that Goriot is old, but that he is a father. Annoyingly I can’t find any explanation for this decision.
Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne doesn’t merely convey atmosphere; it oozes forth in every section, every page, every paragraph. Dreamlike, mysterious, unsettling; this is a book that begins with a puzzle and ends without answers. In between Modiano adds layer upon layer of obscurity.
Paris Nocturne opens with an accident. The unnamed narrator, a young man in his early twenties, is knocked down by a car near the Place des Pyramides. His journey to hospital is in the company of the driver whose name he overhears while waiting for treatment. By the time he comes round she and her male companion have disappeared, leaving an envelope stuffed full of banknotes as the only sign they existed.
Waking in a strange hospital he thinks he’s encountered the woman driver somewhere previously. She looks like a woman who looked after him as a child. But he’s not sure if his memory is genuine or the hallucinatory effect of a dose of ether. He sets out to track her down, driven not simply by a desire to piece together the events of that night but by a feeling she has answers to the many questions he has wrestled with all his life. Questions which often involve the father from whom he became estranged; a father he suspects was up to something distinctively shady. If he can find her, he reasons, every part of his life will somehow all make sense.
His search takes him on a meandering journey through deserted streets, across moonlit squares and into the cafes and bars of Paris. He makes an odd looking figure in his bloodied coat and bandaged foot but his attempts to solve the mystery are hampered less by his injuries than by his confusion about what is real and what he has truly recalled or merely imagined.
At times past and present seem to blend:
The same circumstances, the same faces keep coming back, like the pieces of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope, with the play of mirrors giving the illusion that the combinations are infinitely variable. But in fact, the combinations are rather limited.
That sense of a shrinking life resonates through the novel. This man has been a drifter for much of his life, hanging around cafés, eavesdropping on philosophical discussions led by a shifty guru-like figure, and engaging in unromantic liaisons with girl friends. Now thirty years later, reaching “an age at which, little by little, life begins to close in on itself” he regrets his many lost opportunities.
In the streets at night, I had the impression I was living another life, a more captivating one, or quite simply, that I was dreaming another life.
His explorations into the past don’t bring answers but serve only to further disorientate and dislocate him from the present. Appropriately for a novella of unanswered questions, one of the last lines is: “I think there’s something you’re hiding from me” which is how readers could well feel by the time they get to the end.
It’s a strange novel for sure, rather confusing but with a dreamlike quality that keeps you reading more. And if your attention ever wanders, you could just get out a map of Paris and plot our narrator’s night time meanderings through the quarters of the city. Be warned however; just like the narrator you may end up in more than a few blind alleys.
Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano was first published under the title Accident Nocturne in 2003
This new edition translated in English by Phoebe Weston-Evans is published by Yale University Press. My copy came courtesy of the publishers via NetGalley.
Patrick Modiano was named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Given the way Paris Nocturne invokes the sense of the city, it’s interesting to see that the speech awarding him the prize, commented on how his work had “endowed the past with entrancing life and his Parisian cityscape with a singular voice. Magnificently, his work instantiates what an earlier Nobel Laureate,Seamus Heaney, called “the poetry of place”.
It is not a good idea at 5am on a Sunday morning to begin browsing the Net Galley catalogue of titles available for review. Of course that only became apparent a few weeks later when the request approvals began coming through and I realised a) how many I had requested b) how much reading I would need to do between now and mid November.
I’m not complaining however. Having the ability to read books by authors I enjoy or to explore writers I’m not familiar with, is part of the pleasure of the Net Galley program. I don’t always get around to reading everything but if I do read the title, then I make sure to write a review. It seems a fair deal to me.
Awaiting me are the following:
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: this is one I’m not entirely sue about. I enjoyed her novel Year of Wonders which is about a village in the Peak District in England which seals itself off from the world to prevent the spread of the plague. I know she does extensive research into her chosen periods to ensure her novels sound authentic. It’s really that I don’t know whether the subject matter of The Secret Chord, the life of King David from humble shepherd to despotic king, is to my taste given I have little interest in religious history. But I could be pleasantly surprised and at least I will learn something in the process of reading.
Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan is a wild card choice for me. Kurniawan has been named as a rising star from Indonesia and compared (favourably) to Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. Her latest novel, set in an unnamed town near the Indian Ocean, tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families, and of Margio, an ordinary half-city, half-rural youngster who also happens to be half-man, half-supernatural female white tiger.
The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra
I must be one of the few people on the planet yet to read Khadra’s best selling Swallows of Kabul (ok, a bit of an exaggeration I know). I do have it in the bookshelves, just haven’t got around to it yet. The Dictator’s Last Night sounded too good to miss however. It’s focus is a figure whose name has long been associated with authoritarian political leadership and abuse of human rights: the former Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. Khadra imagines the leader hiding out in his home town in the dying days of the Libyan civilc war. As he awaits a convey to take him and his advisors out of the danger zone, he reflects on his life, his animosity towards the West and the ingratitude of his fellow countrymen.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’brien: She may be in her 80s now but Edna O’Brien is giving no sign she’s ready to throw in the writing towel. When her memoir The Country Girl came out a few years ago there was much speculation it would be her last published work. She’s proved everyone wrong with The Little Red Chairs, a story of the consequences of a fatal attraction. A war criminal on the run from the Balkans settles in a small Irish community where he pretends to be a faith healer. The community fall under his spell but he proves to be fatally attractive to one local woman in particular.
Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano: How could I possibly resist a noir work from the Nobel Laureate? Especially given that atmospheric cover….
This novel begins with a nighttime accident on the streets of Paris. An unnamed narrator is hit by a car whose driver he vaguely recalls having met before and then experiences a series of mysterious events. They culminate with an envelope stuffed full of bank notes being stuffed into his hand. Libération called this book “perfect” while L’Express described it as “cloaked in darkness, but it is a novel that is turned toward the light.”
And finally I have The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende. It’s fair to say that I have not yet warmed to Allende. But she has a huge following and a friend keeps raving about her so I thought she deserved another chance. As the title suggests this is a romance. In it we see a young Polish girl meet in San Fransisco and fall in love with the Japanese man employed as the family’s gardner. Their relationship is tested when in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour, Japanese residents in the US are rounded up and sent to internment camps. Fast forward to modern day San Francisco and the secrets of a passion lasting seventy years are revealed.
Any of these books appeal to you? or maybe you’ve already read some of them?
It’s been a little quiet in the Classics Club lately so I was delighted to see that another round of the spin challenge has been announced. I’ve not always managed to read the book identified in previous rounds but it’s still a good way of nudging me towards some of the remaining titles on my list.
The rules are as always: list any twenty books you’ve left to read from the Classics Club list. Whichever number turns up when the spin result is announced, thats the title to read before end of October.
Since I’m just over half way towards the goal of 50 books by August 2017, I don’t have too many options left. My selection of 20 is divided into two based on date of publication. ** indicates I’ve read that book once before but its on my list because I don’t think I did it justice first time around.
Pre twentieth century
1. Candide — Voltaire 1759
2. The Black Sheep — Honore Balzac 1842
3. Evelina — Frances Burney 1778
4. Dr Thorne — Anthony Trollope 1858
5. Adam Bede — George Eliot 1859
6.** Can You Forgive Her — Anthony Trollope 1864
7. **Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy 1873-77
8. The Way we Live Now — Anthony Trollope 1875
9. ** Daniel Deronda — George Eliot 1876
10. A Parisian Affair and other stories — Maupassant 1880s
11. The Secret Agent — Joseph Conrad 1907
12. Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton 1920
13. All Passion Spent – Vita Sackville West 1932
14. A Room of One’s Own — Woolf 1932
15. **Frost in May — Antonia White 1933
16. The Grapes of Wrath — John Steinbeck 1939
17. The Pursuit Of Love — Nancy Mitford 1945
18. The Charioteer — Mary Renault 1953
19. The Quiet American — Graham Greene 1955
20. Love in the Time of Cholera — Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1985
With The Fortunes of the Rougons, Émile Zola embarked on an ambitious project to write a comprehensive fictional history of the social, sexual and moral landscape of his era. By examining in minute detail the “natural and social history” of two branches of the same family, he intended to demonstrate his theory that character was inescapably determined by the twin forces of heredity and the environment.
In his preface to The Fortunes of the Rougons, Zola commented that the book could just as appropriately have been entitled Origins. It’s a reflection of the fact that as the first of his 20-book Rougon-Macquart cycle, much of this novel is concerned with introducing the members of the respective family branches. The Rougons are the legitimate side, loyal supporters of the Royalist cause who rise to occupy commanding positions in government and finance. On the opposite side of the political fence are the illegitimate disreputable Republican Macquarts. Both branches are descended from the strange and “quite mad”Adelaide Fouques who twice shocked the fictitious Provençal town of Plassans: first when chose as her husband a peasant by the name of Rougon and then, on his death, when she shacked up with an unsavoury poacher called Macquart
The fortunes and misfortunes of these families are set against the background of Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851 which resulted in the Second Empire under Napoleon III. As the novel begins, Republican opposition to the coup is gathering pace in Provencal. Idealism sweeps through the Var region. The region’s woodcutters and peasants begin to march towards Plassans, intent on seizing control of the town. In their midst are Silvère and Miette, two young lovers who get caught up in the patriotic fervour and join the march, a decision which ends in tragedy.
The novel isn’t really about these ill-fated lovers although it’s their moonlight assignation in a deserted cemetery with which the book opens. What Zola is really focused on is depicting how the imminent crisis exacerbates the tendencies in the Rougon and Macquart family to greed, treachery and murder.
The insurgents’ march provides Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, with the perfect opportunity to achieve their ambition of power and influence. They calculate the fortune that will be showered upon them by a grateful Emperor if they can rally the loyalists and hold the town for his cause. They set about ingratiating themselves into the bourgeoisie of Plassans, using their “yellow drawing room” as a meeting place for the conservatives who support Louis-Napoleon. But their manoeuvring is threatened by the activities of Antoine Macquart, the illegitimate son of Adelaide, who sees the Republic as a way “to fill his pockets from his neighbour’s cashbox and even strangle his neighbour if he objected in any way…”
Zola’s portrayal of the clash between these characters, none of whom can be considered remotely sympathetic, is superb. Zola exposes them as manipulative, avaricious individuals whose desire for fortune becomes tainted with blood. In one key passage as Pierre and Félicité lie in bed and she explains her plans for the conquest of Plassans bring together themes of blood, greed and money.
They kissed each other again and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinkingly at the pale, slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor.
As that passage shows, there is nothing very subtle about this novel. Each member of the Rougon family has blood on their hands by the end of the novel, laying the foundations for the family’s future as “a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.”
It is a thrilling story. Fast-paced with some glorious set pieces in which Zola satirises and parodies, the extreme provincialism of Plassans, and the lack of principle in its inhabitants. Although the political dimension is central to the plot, it doesn’t require an exhaustive knowledge of the period (my Oxford World Classic edition contained a very useful summary plus family tree) to understand the issues which divide the Rougon-Macquart family and the citizens of Plassans. Zola’s writing, if not as powerful in The Fortune of the Rougons as in the later novels (particularly Germinal and La Bete Humaine), is still completely engrossing.
The Fortune of the Rougons was published in 1871, serialised in the newspaper Le Siècle. Émile Zola went on to publish a further 19 novels in the Rougon-Macquart series under the sub title of Histoire natural et social dune famille sous le Second Empire.
The sympathetic portrait of the insurgents seen in The Fortune of the Rougons stems from Zola’s own opposition to the Empire — he once referred to Louis-Napoleon’s coup as a bloodstain that could never be washed away — although he abhorred violence and did not believe in violent action.
Herman Koch’s The Dinner was one of the publishing hits of 2012, garnering wildly differing views on whether it was an extremely well executed novel about the lengths to which parents will go to protect their offspring or a nasty book about some very dislikable people. I enjoyed it on the whole though wasn’t convinced by the narrator Paul, a failed teacher who despises his more successful politician and celebrity brother Serge.
The two men and their wives meet in an upmarket restaurant in Amsterdam. Amid the They are there to discuss an act of unprovoked violence committed by their teenage sons. Koch reveals the nature of the boys’ attack in between scenes where a servile waiter describes the provenance of each item of food in infinite detail. It’s an evident swipe at overly pretentious restaurants. The lamb’s-neck sweetbread might have been marinated in Sardinian olive oil and the sun-dried tomatoes raised in Bulgaria but there still isn’t very much to eat.
The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but there are voids and then there are voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle. It was as though the empty plate was challenging you to say something about it, to go to the open kitchen and demand an explanation. ‘You wouldn’t even dare!’ the plate said, and laughed in your face.
Paul is clearly a man with a chip on his shoulder. He despises everything his brother and sister in law represent.
They belonged to that class of Dutch people who think everything French is ‘great’: from croissants to French bread with Camembert, from French cars (they themselves drove one of the top-end Peugeots) to French chansons and French films.”
But the reason for this deep resentment towards his brother was never fully explained. Is it purely a case of envy at the celebrity status his brother has acquired as the front runner in the upcoming national elections? Or is this another example of how Koch has structured his novel around secrets and the necessity of keeping them just that: secret.
Surprisingly for a novel about a hat with supposed magical properties, the plot of The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain similarly turns on a meal.
Middle-ranking officer worker Daniel Mercier decides to take advantage of his wife’s absence one evening to treat himself to dinner in an elegant Parisienne brasserie. While savouring a seafood platter and crisp Pouilly-Fuissé, (and trying to ignore the price), he is astounded when the banquette alongside him is occupied by President Mitterand. Mercier lingers over his meal, eavesdropping on Mitterand’s conversation with his cohorts. When the President leaves, he has forgotten his hat. It ends up gracing the head of the starry-eyed Mercier.
He quickly discovers that the hat confers authority and confidence. His superiors discover his full potential and give him promotion. But Mercier loses the hat. The next person to find it similarly realises that its possession emboldens her to make a big change in her life. The hat passes through a succession of hands, acquiring talismanic qualities as the fortunes of each of its new owners are transformed.
This was an impulse buy and while I enjoyed the descriptions of the brasserie and Daniel’s repast, overall I found it far too light and frothy. I suppose it was meant to be a fable of a time that no longer exists – one where no-one goes out for dinner and spends all their time texting ‘friends’ or drinks a full bottle of wine and then drives home.
The Dinner by Herman Koch is published in the UK by Atlantic Books. Koch is a Dutch author who has also worked as a television actor and newspaper columnist.
The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain is published by Gallic Books. Laurain was born in Paris where he has worked as a journalist and indulged his passion for collecting antiques. His next novel is due to be published later in 2015.