The French rentrée littéraire 2017

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Every year at around this time, publishers in France and francophone Belgium issue a large of numbers of books in all genres, including those originally written in French and those translated from other languages into French. The reasons for this are twofold: firstly, to get them into place and into the shops for the Christmas market and secondly to get them into place and into shops for the various French literary prizes. Apparently, this year there are 577 new books, which should keep most people busy. Here is a selection of some of the interesting ones.

No rentrée is complete without a new book from Amélie Nothomb, who produces a new book every year. In fact, in a recent interview, she claimed that she wrote three books every year but only published one. This year’s offering is called Frappe-toi le coeur, which means Strike Your Heart and is a quote from a poem by Alfred de Musset, called A mon ami Edouard B.. The second verse starts Ah ! frappe-toi le coeur, c’est là qu’est le génie [Strike your heart, that is where genius lies]. The book is a mother-daughter relationship book. Diane is intelligent, loving and generous but Marie, her mother, seems to be jealous of her and reserves her love for her son and for her other daughter. The book has had fairly mixed reviews but has nevertheless sold out and been reprinted. I hope to get round to it shortly.

Kamel Daoud is best-known for his novel Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation), his Algerian response to Albert CamusL’Etranger (UK: The Outsider; US: The Stranger), published in French in 2014 and in English in 2015. He has now written another book, Zabor ou Les Psaumes, which means Zabor or The Psalms and is about a boy whose writing skills may be able to hold off death. I hope to get round to this soon, as well., though it, too, has had mixed reviews.

There are quite a few new books by established by French and French-writing authors, though, in all too many cases, these authors are little known in the English-speaking world.

Sorj Chalandon was born in Tunisia but is a French national. He was a long-time journalist including working for the satircal magazine Le Canard Enchaîné. He is best-known for Le Quatrième Mur [The Fourth Wall], about a left-wing amateur director who puts on Jean Anouilh’s Antigone>, in Lebanon during the war there in the 1980s. Two of his books have been translated into English: Retour à Killybegs (Return to Killybegs), set in Northern Ireland, and Mon traître ( My Traitor), also set in Northern Ireland. His new book is Le Jour d’avant [The Day Before] about the Liévin mining disaster.

Yves Ravey is an Editions de Minuit writer, best-known for his novels Cutter and Moteur. He is also a playwright. None of his books has been translated into English. His new book is Trois jours chez ma tante [Three Days At My Aunt’s House]. Marcello Martini has not seen his rich aunt for twenty years but she summons him to her retirement home to tell him that she is stopping his monthly allowance and disinheriting him.

Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès has been translated into English – Là où les tigres sont chez eux (Where Tigers are at Home) and L’Ile du Point Némo (Island of Point Nemo), which appeared in English from Open Letter last week. His new book is Dans l’épaisseur de la chair [In the Thickness of the Flesh] about an Algerian, son of Spanish immigrants, who looks like the actor Tyrone Power and his complex family history. This one should – eventually – appear in English.

I have read several of Marie Darrieussecq‘s books and quite a few have appeared in English (see links from her page for more info). Her new book is Notre vie dans les forêts (Our Life in the Forests), a dystopia about a woman living the forest with her clone and a group of other women, who have fled the modern world.

Jean-Michel Guenassia is known in English for his Le Club des incorrigibles optimistes (The Incorrigible Optimists Club). His new book is De l’influence de David Bowie sur la destinée des jeunes filles [On the Influence of David Bowie on the Destiny of Girls]. No, it is not a psychological work but a novel about Paul who imitates David Bowie in becoming androgynous.

Véronique Olmi‘s first novel Bord de mer has been translated into English as Besides the Sea though she is perhaps better-known in France for Cet été-là [That Summer] about three couples who get together every year on 14 July but who, this time, meet a mysterious adolescent, Dimitri. Her new book is called Bakhita based on the life of , a Sudanese woman who was abducted by Arab slave traders and sold into slavery, was freed and became a nun.

Fabrice Humbert is perhaps best-known for his book L’Origine de la violence about a teacher who visits Buchenwald with his pupils and thinks he recognises his father in a picture of the the prisoners. It has been translated into English as The Origin of Violence. His book La Fortune de Sila has been translated as Sila’s Fortune. Sila is a waiter in a posh restaurant and is violently struck by one the clients. No-one intervenes to help him, which leads to a novel about the role of money and power at the turn of the century. His new book is called Comment vivre en héros [How to Live as a Hero]. Tristan is the son of a war hero and communist worker. Can he be a hero and what if his children’s heroism opposes his?

François-Henri Désérable is not only a novelist but a former ice hockey player. He is best known for Tu montreras ma tête au peuple [Show My Head to the People], about the last days of the famous figures of the French Revolution. His new books is Un certain M. Piekielny [A Certain Mr Piekielny]. Mr. Piekielny tells his neighbour, Roman Kacew, a child, that when he becomes famous, he should tell the famous people he meets where Mr. Piekielny lives. Roman grows up to become the writer Romain Gary.

Marc Dugain‘s novel La Chambre des officiers has been translated as The Officers’ Ward and tells the story of officers disfigured in World War I. His new novel has the intriguing title Ils vont tuer Robert Kennedy [They Are Going to Kill Robert Kennedy]. It is the story of a professor of history in British Columbia who thinks his parents’ deaths are connected to the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

Alice Ferney is a controversial novelist because of her opposition to gay marriage and assisted procreation. Two of her novels have been translated into English: La conversation amoureuse (The Lovers), about a man in the process of getting divorced who falls for a happily married pregnant woman, and Grâce et dénuement (Angelina’s Children), about a young librarian who wants to teach the illiterate children of gypsies and the opposition that she gets. Her new book is Les Bourgeois follows the story of a family whose name is, indeed, Bourgeois, from World War I to the present day. Not surprisingly, they are very bourgeois.

Kaouther Adimi has been translated into German and Spanish but not into English. His new novel, his third, is Nos Richesses [Our Wealth]. It tells the story of the twenty-year old Edmond Charlot who opens a bookshop in Algiers in 1935 to encourage young writers. Meanwhile, in 2017, Ryad must clear his books out of a building which is to become a coffee-shop. However the temple guardian is watching him.

The Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint has had most of his books published in English by Dalkey Archive Press. His new book is called Made in China. It tells of a film he made in China.

Two of Tanguy Viel ‘s novels have been translated into English: L’Absolue Perfection du crime (The Absolute Perfection of Crime) and Insoupçonnable (Beyond Suspicion). Another Editions de Minuit writer, Viels’s latest has the decidedly odd title Article 353 du Code pénal [Article 333 of the Penal Code]. it actually refers to Article 353 of the Penal Procedure Code. You can read it in French here. It is about judges using their conscience to decide on proof of guilt or innocence. The book is about a man who has just been arrested for throwing a property developer into the sea and the events leading up to it.

Chantal Thomas is best-known for her novel Les adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen) about the final days of Marie-Antoinette, as seen by one of her servants. Her other Marie-Antoinette book, La Reine scélérate, Marie-Antoinette dans les pamphlets has been translated into English as The Wicked Queen : The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette. Her novel L’Échange des princesses was published in English as The Exchange of Princesses. Her new book is Souvenirs de la marée basse [Memories of Low Tide] about a woman who spends much of her time swimming in the sea. Her daughter is Chantal Thomas and her mother’s behaviour has clearly had an effect on her.

Véronique Tadjo is from Côte d’Ivoire. Several of her works have already been translated into English, such as Le Royaume aveugle (The Blind Kingdom). Her latest work is En compagnie des hommes [In the Company of Men] about Ebola and its effect on individuals.

Charif Majdalani is Lebanese. His novel Caravansérail has been translated as Moving the Palace. His latest novel is L’empereur à pied [The Emperor on Foot], about Khanjar Jbeili, who appears with his sons in the mountains of Lebanon and soon establishes himself but imposes a rule on his descendants that only one child per generation may marry and have children.

Only one of Patrick Deville‘s novels has been translated into English, the charmingly titled Peste et Choléra (Plague and Cholera), His new book also has an odd title – Taba-Taba. It tells the story of the narrator who finds a cache of historical documents, dating back to Napoleon III after his aunt dies, which tell the story of France and its adventures.

Two of Philippe Besson‘s novels have been translated into English, including his first En l’absence des hommes (In the Absence of Men) about a gay love affair in World War I and also about Marcel Proust. His latest novel Un personnage de roman [A Character from a Novel] is a novel about new French president Emmanuel Macron.

The rentrée has a host of foreign novels as well. Here are a few:

Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing, interestingly enough called No Home (in English) in the French
Daniel Mendelsohn: An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic
Jenni Fagan: The Sunlight Pilgrims (called Les buveurs de lumière [The Light Drinkers] in French)
Nathan Hill: the Nix (called Les fantômes du vieux pays [The Ghosts of the Old Country]
Jaroslav Kalfar: Spacemen of Bohemia
Clemens J. Setz: a translation of his latest novel Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre [The Hour Between Woman and Guitar], which has yet to appear in English but which I plan to get round to soon.
Sticking with Austria, Christoph Ransmayr has had several books translated into English. His most recent book Cox oder Der Lauf der Zeit [Cox or The The Passage of Time] has previously been translated into Dutch and now appears in French, but not English.
Colson Whitehead‘s The Underground Railroad, dropping only the The in the French title.
Orhan Pamuk‘s Kafamda Bir Tuhaflık which was translated into English as A Strangeness in My Mind is now out in French
Omar El Akkad‘s American War has appeared in French, with the English title used in the French version
The French are ahead of the English speakers with their Han Kang books. Her 희랍어 시간, which means Greek Lessons is coming out with a literal translation, Leçons de grec.
Carsten Jensen‘s: Vi, de druknede (We, The Drowned) came out a couple of years ago in English, his second work in English. Den første sten is his third work in French with the title La première pierre [The First Stone]
Magda Szabó has a few works in English but not her 1970 novel Abigél, which now appears in French

No rentrée would be complete without its scandal and this year it is Eva Ionesco. She is the daughter of the photographer Irina Ionesco. When Eva was a child, Irina took numerous photos of Eva, quite a few of them nude. This traumatised Eva and, when she grew up she sued her mother. She became an actress and director and made a film called My Little Princess on the topic and has now published a book called Innocence whose title needs no translation and is on the same topic.

This is only a small glimpse of what the Rentrée offers. Sadly, most of them will not make it into English. Bonne lecture!

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