A perfect black comedy

autoroute

The A26 by Pascal Garnier,
Melanie Florence, translator.
Gallic Books 2013.

Roads. Railway lines. Lives.
Where do they begin and end?
But end they must. Dead.

It’s the early nineties and a motorway is carving its way through the northeast French countryside. The construction of the A26 (the autoroute des Anglais as it now known) in its impersonal way inevitably affects the communities in its vicinity, disrupting lives in unforeseen ways and, in this novella, becoming an unexpected harbinger of death.

Continue reading “A perfect black comedy”

Danse Macabre

Pure by Andrew Miller.
Sceptre 2012 (2011)

Paris, 1967
With a bunch of fellow English students I’m visiting Paris for the first time, the year before the student riots. We briefly consider sleeping under a bridge, but then sensibly head for a youth hostel where my marginally superior French allows me to successfully negotiate for sheets, pillows and blankets. Our seasoned leader (in the sense that he’s been to Paris before) suggests we go for French onion soup at Les Halles early next morning. Very early. We stumble about the smells and sounds and bustle of Paris’ central wholesale market, aware that the French equivalent of London’s Smithfield has a limited life expectancy. It is eventually demolished in 1971.

L'Ecoute
L’Écoute by Henri de Miller

I don’t revisit the area until 1998: the unloved replacement shopping forum is shunned for the prettier environs of the nearby church of Saint-Eustache with its outside sculpture of an outsize head and hand — this representation of a listening giant by Henri de Miller reminds me faintly of a dismembered corpse.

Paris, 1785
Smells and corpses dominate the area immediately south of Les Halles. The cemetery of Les Innocents is full to bursting — in fact bodies have already spilled into the basements of neighbouring houses. The foetid smell of decomposition penetrates and permeates everything — clothes, the air, food, breath. The King has decided the cemetery must go, to be replaced by a public open space. The church of the Holy Innocents, the ossuaries or charnel houses, monuments, everything substantial is to be demolished; the bones, the contents of the mass graves, are to be removed to a quarry across the Seine, a complex of underground galleries which will become known as the Paris Catacombs. The whole enterprise will take until 1788 to complete. One year before the Revolution.

Continue reading “Danse Macabre”

A modernist milestone

Paul Signac, Portrait de M. Félix Fénéon en 1890 (MOMA, NY)

Félix Fénéon: Novels in Three Lines
Translated and with an introduction by Luc Sante
New York Review Books 2007

A Verlinghem (Nord), Mme Ridez, 30 ans, a été égorgée par un voleur, cependant que son mari était à la messe.

Published during 1906 in Le Matin, a Paris daily newspaper, were short news items under the heading Nouvelles en trois lignes. As translator Luc Sante makes clear in his introduction this heading can either mean ‘the news in three lines’ or ‘novellas in three lines’ and, in the writings of the author Félix Fénéon, the intention must be that it can mean both. For here, indeed in three lines as they appear in the paper’s columns, such faits-divers are novelettes in miniature fashioned from genuine news items, each presented as a précis that can be shocking, humorous or just weirdly banal.

Thus while Monsieur Ridez is no doubt shriving his soul attending Mass his unfortunate wife is having her throat slit by a thief. The juxtaposition of the mundane and the violent that characterises a good many of these nouvelles is, unsurprisingly, a facet of Fénéon himself who, while a supporter of the arts and artists (such as Paul Signac, who painted Fénéon’s portrait) was also an anarchist sympathiser and a suspected terrorist bomber in the 1890s.

Continue reading “A modernist milestone”

Literal rather than literary

chevalier

Three Arthurian Romances:
poems from Medieval France

Translated with an introduction and notes by Ross G Arthur
Everyman 1996

The three poems offered in translation here are Caradoc, followed by The Knight with the Sword and The Perilous Graveyard. Dating from around the first half of the thirteenth century, the language of the original poems doesn’t come across well in this English prose translation, as evidenced by clunky passages such as this one, chosen at random from Caradoc [line 10090 ff]:

This is the vow which the King made. He rose quickly and set out on his voyage at once. I tell you that he crossed the sea with a sorrowful heart, so anxious about Caradoc that his body and soul grew weak.

At least with this version, literal rather than literary, the lack of fluency may be a mark of honesty: no attempt to impose a mock High Medieval language as a Victorian or Edwardian rendering might have been tempted to offer.

Continue reading “Literal rather than literary”

Resolutions

Scilla in the Banzoota school library
Scilla in the Banzoota school library (from The Winter Sleepwalker)

I’ve always been a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to marking certain times of the year — birthdays, New Year and so on. No doubt that’s down to some disappointment in childhood which I’ve since rationalised away by arguing it’s just mere superstition to grant significance to certain dates, an accident of an arbitrary calendar. But I’ve been trying to mellow a bit in recent years and, while I draw the line at New Year resolutions, I’m willing to contemplate a look back at the past year of blogging. Here’s hoping you don’t Bah Humbug what follows!

First, a look at some titles I’ve reviewed during 2014. I’ve selected a range of genres, from history to drama, classic to thriller, pulp fiction to science fiction, fantasy to autobiography. Continue reading “Resolutions”

The traveller tempted

Yorick at the remise door
Yorick at the remise door (wood-engraving by Gwen Raverat)

Laurence Sterne
A Sentimental Journey
through France and Italy

Introduction by G B Harrison
Wood-engravings by Gwen Raverat
Penguin Illustrated Classics 1938 (1768)

L’amour n’est rien sans sentiment. —Yorick

I picked this slim volume — only 182 pages long — on a whim, attracted by the cover illustration. But I also knew that Sterne (d. 1768) was famous as the author of Tristram Shandy under the nom de plume of Mr Yorick — chosen because he was, like his namesake in Hamlet, known as “a fellow of infinite jest”. I’m so glad I opted for this book because it turned out to be all the E’s: excellent, edifying, enjoyable, entertaining, educational and no doubt much else. It purports to be a record of Sterne’s journey through both France and Italy, when the author was seeking relief from consumption by travelling abroad. In truth it is a conflation of two separate sojourns between 1762 and 1765, and stops well before his arrival in Italy; this is a pity as his observations on the inhabitants of Turin, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples would have been enlightening. As it was, the Seven Years War between 1756 and 1763, during which France and Britain were officially at loggerheads, caused him some embarrassment and could easily have cut short all travel, denying posterity of A Sentimental Journey.

First, let us deal with the ‘sentiment’ of the title. Continue reading “The traveller tempted”

Humoresque and the picturesque

Pyrenees

Tony Hawks A Piano in the Pyrenees:
the Ups and Downs of an Englishman in the French Mountains
Ebury Press 2006

How can this book fail for me? I’m a pianist, I’ve walked in the French Pyrenees and skied on the Spanish side, plus I passed a crew about to shoot location sequences for the film of Tony Hawks’ Round Ireland with a Fridge (in West Wales — where else?). So I couldn’t pass up on reading this humorous account of the comedian/musician/writer buying a house near the border with Spain and building a swimming pool, honing his pianistic skills and performing music, making new friends and seeking true love.

Hawks’ story starts a little slowly but settles, literally, once he is living in his new Pyrenean home and interacting with the locals. Continue reading “Humoresque and the picturesque”