Tristan Garcia ‘Faber, The Destroyer’

-We were middle class children from an average western country, two generations after winning a war, one generation after a failed revolution. We were neither rich nor poor, we didn’t miss the aristocracy, we had no utopian dreams and we didn’t care about democracy.image Our parents had worked but only ever in offices, schools, for the postal services, in hospitals, administrative work. Our fathers wore no overalls or ties, our mothers no aprons or pantsuit. We had been brought up on books, films, music – with the promise of becoming individuals.***

Tristan Garcia, a philosopher and writer, is forging a solid reputation, with his books being nominated for or gaining prizes, culminating with last year’s ‘7’ winning the ‘Prix du Livre Inter’

The opening quote sets the scene in the mid 90’s the generation that had known the events of May ’68, and influenced the way France went after, were in their late 40’s and the youth of the country that had been brought up by these very people to believe in freedom and individualism were discovering the hard economic facts, nobody owes you anything.

The book builds up to two periods, the first is the social conflict of 1995 where month long strikes, partially powered by the students at Lycées brought about the downfall of the then right wing government, replacing them by the socialists who then, amongst other things, in order to better share opportunities brought in the 35 hour week. Centering on events and people at a Lycée in a French town. The second period is the present day (2012) and the reckoning between the protagonists of that time.

Faber appeared one day in primary school in the lives of two children, Madeleine and Basile, Garcia describes in realistic detail the humiliation and pain involved in the bullying, and using brain not brawn frees them both and they both then spend their school years almost in adoration of Faber, to give one example:

-It was our place, lead down, we spoke about the week at school,  of our teachers, of our parents and of all those we called “the others”: our own generation for which we had only scorn. The “others” we’re either sheep or jerks. And then Faber spoke to us about the future which sounded wonderful to us.***

Fast forward to Faber my Bing from being a brilliant student at school to becoming a dissatisfied student, slowly putting distance between himself and his two friends who never accepted this culminating in Faber, although not in his senior year, taking a leading role in the student strikes in 1995, through the euphoria to the ultimate defeat.

-In the turmoil of the two or three weeks of the strike, here is the first scene that comes back to me: Faber in the process of goading on the group of undecided lycéens at nine in the morning. Climbing on the railings of the main gate, he had pulled himself above the teeming masses : bags on the floor, sitting in a circle, whistling and smoking, parents demanding that the lycée should be opened. He was sitting on the spikes at the top of the railings like a fakir, and in perfect balance he opened his arms to address us. Maybe he finished with his ass bleeding, but he smiled. He was magnificent. I already imagined him as head of state.***

Things go rapidly wrong for the three friends from here, Faber, due to a dramatic event, forced to leave, living for fifteen years as a marginal and Madeleine and Basile making what they can of their lives. So then begins the second part of the book, which involves revenge, deceit, and a whole new reading of events around Faber’s other friends and the jealousy of Madeleine and Basile, as Faber says:

-A small provincial town, sleeping through the modern world is a thing of beauty…..But when it wakes up it can be nauseating.***

A well written book, but not the one, in view of the subject,I would choose to translate into English.

First published in French as ‘Faber le Destructeur’ by Gallimard in 2013
*** My translation

Catherine Cusset ‘Indigo’

-You’re a pain in the ass you know
that had surprised her, since Deb nobody had used these words on her and he had pronounced it with the same intonation as Deb as if she had been reincarnated in Raphael but without the friendship….image
-it’s funny you should use those words, I had an American friend who use to say just that to me in French; you’re a pain in the ass
-it must be true then he chuckled, are you no longer friends?
-She killed herself six months ago
-You were that much of a pain in the ass?***

Catherine Cusset’s novel takes place in the south of India, an area where France has historical links via its trading posts in Mahé and Pondichery, and around a cultural festival organised by the Alliance Française in Trivandrum. The story concerns four French people and their reasons for being at the festival. Charlotte, late forties,  who lives and works in New York, leaves her husband and children for a week to come to this festival trying to find a sort of internal peace that has escaped her since the suicide, in India, of her friend Deb. Roland Weinberger, an egocentric successful sixty something author living with a much younger Italian, he too is there for another reason, to try to meet the only woman that had ever left him. Raphael, who has written a very troubled autobiography concerns nag abuse as a child but he has changed all of the names and then Finally Gerlaldine who lives in India, is married to an Indian and works for the Alliance Française, she is the organiser of the festival.

The festival takes place the year after the terrorist attacks in Bombay amid heightened security. As time moves on the protagonists slowly lose their bearings, Gerladine is drawn to Raphael whom she recognises from her youth where she had a holiday home near his family home in Brittany and recognises his family from his book.

-The car followed the deserted road towards Trivandrum, towards her apartment towards her happy and peaceful life which she had just brushed aside for a minute of absolute happiness as you would impulsively pull a cloth from a table, adulteress, there was something old fashioned about this name, even melodramatic they made her smile, because she had brushed nothing aside, the two realities coexisted without contradiction, she was Joseph’s mother, the Muslim wife of Intiaz and she was also…….the woman who had just made love with this man twenty five years later.***

Roland who has lived his life so far, discarding women when he is ready to move on in life, is drawn to this one woman who discarded him as a young man and goes to the town she lives in to meet her. He is at first annoyed to see that she has not come to the meeting but sent her mother instead, and of course it’s not her mother…..

The book ends with a tragedy, with one of the four drowning, but you will need to read to discover.

This book is a slow study of character and interaction, Which I listened to on audio and which happily shortened my commute.

First published in French as ‘Indigo’ by Gallimard in 2013
*** My translation

Per Petterson ‘Out Stealing Horses’

-People…think they know  you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts imagenot feelings…..not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are

Trond is now an old man,  following his wife’s death he decides to move out from the city to an isolated hut in the countryside. By coincidence he recognises his only neighbour after all these years, Lars, Jon’s brother. And the story of his life bubbles to the surface, how decisions, large or small shape the people we become.

Trond has now become a solitary person, but not an inactive person, a little apprehensive with his choice and living with the shadow of events shaped during his childhood.

-I did not bring a television set out here with me, and I regret it sometimes when the evenings get long, but my idea was that living alone you can soon get stuck to those flickering images and to the chair you will sit on far into the night, and then time merely passes as you let others do the moving.

Two major events in the past are the key to who Trond has become and they are linked by the same seemingly innocuous phrase, the title of the book. Young Trond had gone to spend the summer doing up their country cabin with his father and had made friends with Jon, a young lad of his age living nearby, the book begins with Jon coming to their door early in the morning:

-Are you coming?’ He said. ‘We’re going out stealing horses.” That was what he said, standing at the door to the cabin where I was spending the summer with my father. I was fifteen. It was 1948 and one of the first days of July. Three years earlier the Germans had left, but I can’t remember that we talked about them any longer. At least my father did not. He never said anything about the war.

During their adventure, Trond cannot understand the strange reactions of his friend Jon and we learn of a major personal tragedy is the cause of this, in trying to understand what Trond has heard, his father questions him about their morning and reacts unexpectedly to Trond’s story:

-When you were out this morning, were you with Jon then?
-Yes I said
-What were you doing?
-We were out stealing horses.
-What’s that you say? My father was taken aback.
-Which horses then?
-Barkald’s horses. We weren’t really stealing them. We were just going to ride them. But we call it stealing to make it more exciting.

As the story moves on we learn of the role of Trond’s father during the war, as with many people in this isolated village near the Swedish border, such as Jon’s mother, but not his father, he helped people cross the border from occupied Norway into Sweden. As they worked the escapes their password which he muttered outside of Jon’s parents cabin was of course:

-Are you coming he said we’re going out stealing horses

Obviously heard by the young Jon. One night due to neglect by Jon’s father, he and Jon’s wife were forced to flee to Sweden for the duration. This was the second major event that shaped Trond’s life, his father could never settle down to his previous life after this. Looking back on his life, Trond comments:

-People…think they know  you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts not feelings…..not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are

And I guess this is true for all of us but with a little less drama.
As the book cover says Out Stealing Horses is a poignant and moving tale of a changing perspective on the world, from youthful innocence to the difficult acceptance of betrayal, and of nostalgia for a simpler way of life. 

First published in Norwegian as ‘Ut og stjœle hester’ by Forlaget Oktober in 2003
Translated into English as Out Stealing Horses by Anne Born and published by Vintage in 2006

Anne F Garréta ‘Pas Un Jour’

‘Life is too short to accept to read badly written books and to sleep with women you don’t love’***

You accept to spend five hours a day, every day for a month writing from memory of one woman or another that you have desired or that has desired you. imageThus is the contract that the writer makes with the narrator, Anne F Garréta, at the beginning of the book. You will write them down in the order they come to you and you will then set them, impersonally, in alphabetical order. Did you sleep with these women? Did you conclude? This is irrelevant, you are writing about desire she explains.

Garréta’s book contains twelve stories about desire, that as was explained above, are not in chronological order. That go from the intellectual through the will they – won’t they and what is their real interest? Up to the more erotic. There is for instance the intellectual desire for B*

‘Nothing seduces you more in a woman, —you’ve known that for a long time, but each time the surprise is unsettling —than certain acute forms of intellect a way of engaging this intellect, a freedom of movement in discussion, forgetting oneself in the pursuit of the pleasure of thought, of understanding. You abandon yourself totally to the language games into which she entices you’***

There is the encounter with E* at a conference, who initially contradicts you at every opportunity, you end up talking at the bar where:

‘She talks to you of her husband, of her lover, of her children, of what she is writing. You listen to her wondering why she should be opening up to you in this manner’***

You ask yourself if you desire her but can find no clear answer, you end up going to your separate rooms, and then whilst you are in pyjamas she calls you and as you head towards her room you think:

‘there is something quite jubilant, it seems to you, to be going like this, in the middle of the night, passing door after door and knowing that a woman is waiting for you behind one of them at the end of a maze of corridors’***

A final example is from the story of X*, you are told by friends that one of the many girls at the self defence class you attend finds you sexy and though you never know who it was you’re senses are heightened throughout the term as you grapple with different partners trying to deduce from the pressure or the intensity which of the students could be the one referred to by your friends

‘The mystery of her identity, the search for signs, the hermeneutic excitement it inspired in you made this term’s self defence the most troubling exotic experience of your life’***

I enjoyed this read.

First published in French as ‘Pas Un Jour’ by Grasset in 2002
*** My translation

Olivier Bourdeaut ‘En Attendant Bojangles’

‘Hysteria, bipolarity, schizophrenia, the doctors had labelled her with all of their technical terms used to identify people who are completely mad. And they had confined her to a building and they had chemically confined her with tons of pills, yes they had confined her for insanity by a single signature validated by a medical stamp.’***

Olivier Bourdeaut’s  ‘Waiting for Bojangles’ is the marvellous story of Louise and George, a fantastic husband and wife imageinfatuated with one another whose lives consist of dancing together sublimely to the music of Nina Simone’s Mr Bojangles and drinking coloured cocktails at all times of the day and the night, seen through the eyes of their son. We can feel the son’s marvel at his father and love of his mother in his descriptions:

‘I never understood why, my father never called my mother the same name two days running. Even if certain names bored her quicker than others, my mother loved this routine and, each morning in the kitchen, I could see her watching my father, following him with a smile on her face, with her head down as she ate her brakfast, or with her chin in her hands waiting for the verdict.  —Oh no, you can’t do that to me! Not Renée, not today! This evening we’ve got guests for dinner! She chuckled, then she looked towards the mirror wincing and greeted the new Renée, the new Joséphine trying to seem dignified, the new Marylou puffing out her cheeks. —what’s more, I don’t really have anything terribly Renée in my wardrobe’***

In this life where every day is a celebration and tomorrow is always around the corner, there is another angle to their lives and the events given in George’s diary as he tells his story from the day they meet, his falling instantly in love and at once understanding and accepting Loise as she is, where, as he tries to keep their lives and love together, we feel Louise is slowly escaping him despite his care. His trying to keep the world together for her and their son after her internment and then the fantastic escape from the hospital which they all three, following one of Louise’s ideas, disguise as a kidnapping.

Both George and his son give descriptions of their escape to Spain, one magic, one full of worried determination as this short book moves on to its inevitable climax. Read in one sitting.

—He jumped so high, he jumped so high, then he lightly touched down.  Nina Simone Mr Bojangles

First published in French as ‘En Attendant Bojangles’ by Finitude in 2016
*** My translation

Céline Minard ‘Faillir Être Flingué’

‘The thing the whites sought but which they feared in equal amounts was the pull of the untamed wilderness, ruthless, unhindered. They craved it as much as they hated it. They were afraid they would reveal themselves to be monsters, more terrifying than those they saw on the plains, who shelter only at night under smoked skins of wild beasts and slowly cut up their enemies to hear them scream in pain.’***

Céline Minard is a French author who has written books in a number of different genres and here she takes on the mythic west and at the birth of the first white settlements on the untamed plains.image In this book ‘Nearly Got Shot’***  We follow a number of different characters as they cross these plains, converging on the same embryonic town and as we do so, and in no particular order, we learn about these people’s pasts and why they are on the move. Bird Boisverd, a trapper, whose last partner had left him with nothing, no food, no horse, in the wilderness and run off with the seasons trappings and how Bird had survived, hunted him down over hundreds of miles, and ruthlessly killed him not so much for the gains but for revenge, he couldn’t let himself be cheated. Ellie Coulter, who steals Birds Horse and food and leaves him stranded once again with nothing. We learn of the McPherson brothers crossing the plains with their dying mother in a waggon, of Josh McPherson who loses a boot as he nearly drowns in a river and prefers to toss away his other boot rather than to rejoin the waggon with just one boot. Bird then finding the boots, drying them out and wearing them as he pursues whoever it was who stole his horse. We learn of Zebulon then stealing Ellie’s horse and food:

‘-if you’re not able to steal a horse with no scruples then you haven’t been brought up right.’***

All of these characters and more, cross the path of the many Indians on the plains who fight other indian groups and steal anything they can, and in particular they cross the path of Water Running on the Plains, the only Indian to survive her tribe’s massacre and who, living alone, is known by all on the plains, white and Indian alike, for her powers of healing.

As they arrive in town, amongst other events and adventures, Bird recognises his horse, Josh recognises his boots, of course there is the saloon, and the girls, the barbershop and the hardware store, the all poeerful posses looking for outlaws. Minard describes the bustling life of these young towns where the raw energy and ambition of the new arrivals will create this Young America.

First published in French as ‘Faillir Être Flingué’ by Editions de la Loupe in 2013
*** My translation

Nathalie Azoulai ‘Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice’

-It’s true then that you’ve chosen poetry before God…..
As with his language, his space is split in two, on one side there is God, the Abbey and the night, and on the other there is the King, Poetry and light.***

Nathalie Azoulai has built in her ‘Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice’, part of my 2016 French lit targets a formidable romanticised biography of  playwright Jean Racine, starting out from a present day woman who has been abandoned by the man she loves, imagehe leaving her to return to his family, his surroundings and his wealth. She is desolate and in an attempt to understand what has happened to her she plunges into the works of the great French writer of tragedies, Jean Racine, who is vaunted to see events through strong but wronged feminine characters. And slowly re-builds herself as she comes to realise that if Titus left her then he loved her less than she loved him.

‘He thinks he can hear, buzzing around his head, the distant and muffled sound of all of his heroines grouped together, unified in their tears and their anger Hermione, Aggripine, Berenice Roxane, Monime, Phedre’***

As the opening quote tells us, Racine’s life is torn between opposites, he was brought up in a strict religious sect, at Port Royal des Champs, as a Jansenite, where he learnt rigour and precision in his writing and where his only non religious reading was through the Greek masters of his classical education.

‘Writing lightens him when it is precise, if he should only remember one thing from all of his years spent here (Port Royal) it would be this: precision is a thing that man owes to God.’***

His tragedies were written in the rhyming Alexandrine, with twelve syllables per line and rhymes at the end of each pair of lines that he and all of his contemporaries used and which he was taught and worked on at Port Royal:

-Jean had just managed to write lines with twelve syllables for the first time and he wondered if the Alexandrine was a guarantee of excellence, he wasn’t sure but every day after  he repeated the experience and understood that although we may not be able to code beauty, we can  code music.***

I have added here an example of the Alexandrine taken from Bérénice to illustrate the meter and the rhyme:

Le temps n’est plus, Phénice, où je pouvais trembler.
Titus m’aime, il peut tout, il n’a plus qu’à parler.
Il verra le Sénat m’apporter ses hommages,
Et le peuple de fleurs couronner ses images.
De cette nuit, Phénice, as-tu vu la splendeur ?
Tes yeux ne sont-ils pas tous pleins de sa grandeur ?
Ces flambeaux, ce bûcher, cette nuit enflammée,
Ces aigles, ces faisceaux, ce peuple, cette armée,

Nathalie Azoulai then takes us on to the second part of his life, ambition, creation and King Louis XIV the sun King. Molière is now old and the authors of the day are the Corneille brothers. Jean is obsessive jealous and because of his background he rejects the machines and the grandeur of the theatre around the King, stripping away the superfluous and concentrating on the feelings of his female protagonists. Seventeenth century France was no easy place to be a successful playwright, Azoulai describes an event at his opening of Brittanicus:

And there above the crowd, alone in an empty loge is the old shadow, watching and orchestrating the applause, the whistling, Corneille come to see close up how he is taking on Rome, his monopoly.***

We learn how Moliere’s leading lady actress defects to Racine and how together they become the court favourites, despite the Kings need for opulence and Racines leaning to sobriety in his tragedies, if not in his life, as the King says to him:

I wanted the sublime to be at the centre of the festivities and I think that we have succeeded began the King, this We melts on Jean’s tongue like a lump of sugar.***

We follow Jean’s life through his successes, through the deaths of Molière and then Corneille which cause people to ask themselves the question which of the two authors, Racine or Corneille will be most remembered and will embody the idea of French genius.

I hope that when this book is translated into English that you enjoy it as much as I have. I will be reading Racine before seeing his plays, in the near future I hope!

First published in French as Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice’ by P.O.L in 2015
*** My translation