Category: France Page 1 of 11

Sonallah Ibrahim: العمامة والقبعة (The Turban and the Hat)

The latest addition to my website is Sonallah Ibrahim‘s العمامة والقبعة (The Turban and the Hat). The novel takes place during the French occupation of Egypt from 1798 to 1801. The historical figure Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti wrote the only surviving account of the occupation from the Egyptian point of view. In this novel, the unnamed narrator mirrors the account by al-Jabarti, his teacher, but unlike al-Jabarti, gives the account from the point of view of the ordinary people. We follow his story, including an affair with Pauline Fourès, a historical figure who was also Napoleon’s mistress. However, we see the changes and chaos following the French occupation, made more awkward (for the French) by the English blockade, Napoleon’s incursion into Syria and a plague epidemic. However, while this is interesting, following the machinations of our hero both as regards his love life and his perspective on the occupation is what makes this such a worthwhile novel.

Sylvie Germain: Jours de colère (Days of Anger)

The latest addition to my website is Sylvie Germain‘s Jours de colère (Days of Anger). This book, a reissue by publishers Dedalus, is a classic modern French novel, mixing Gothic and Greek tragedy in a remote wooded area of France. Ambroise Maupertuis witnesses an altercation between Vincent Corvol and his wife Catherine and blackmails him into handing over his forests and his daughter Claude to marry Maupertuis’ son Ephraim. Ephraim prefers the gargantuan Fat-Ginnie and is disowned and disinherited by his father when he marries her and they produce nine sons, all born on 15 August. Maupertuis makes Marceau, his second son, marry Claude and they have a daughter Camille, the spitting image of her grandmother Catherine. However, when Camille finally grows up and meets the nine brothers, things go drastically wrong. This is a superb poetic novel which deservedly has a great reputation in France.

Georges Magnane: Où l’herbe ne pousse plus (Where the Grass No Longer Grows)

The latest addition to my website is Où l’herbe ne pousse plus (Where the Grass No Longer Grows). The novel is a fictionalised account of a historical event – the massacre of a643 inhabitants of a French village in 1944. Magnane has created a fictional village, Verrièges, and we follow the events there. The French villagers are shown to be ordinary people, making their living primarily from farming. They have been relatively spared the worst of the war, when an SS troop, heading towards Normandy to help repulse the Allies after D-Day, hears that weapons have been hidden in the village. When they cannot find them, they massacre the entire village. The Germans are shown to be vicious and evil, though the massacre is prompted by one particular vicious Nazi. It is very skilfully done as Magnane compares the evil Nazis with the ordinary, but not always saintly French.

Nikolaj Frobenius: Latours katalog (De Sade’s Valet)

The latest addition to my website is Nikolaj Frobenius‘s Latours katalog (De Sade’s Valet). The focus is on Latour, the historical valet of the Marquis de Sade, though his story is much invented by Frobenius. His mother was the most repulsive woman in France, his father an escaped convict. He shows a nasty side as a child but also shows a keen interest in anatomy. When his mother dies, he heads for Paris, firstly to avenge the people who caused grief to his mother (he has a list) and secondly to study anatomy. Working in a brothel, he meets the Marquis de Sade and joins him on his travels, his stays in prison and his perverted life. We follow the life of the two and, later of the police officer trying to track down de Sade but also the murderer of the people on Latour’s list. There are lots of unpleasantnesses in this novel so it is not for the squeamish but Frobenius tells a good tale.

Michel Houellebecq: Anéantir [Annihilate]

The latest addition to my website is Michel Houellebecq‘s Anéantir [Annihilate]. This is a fairly typical Houellebecq novel. It opens in late 2026. There are three main plot lines: a group of terrorists initially sends out some highly sophisticated CGI videos, using a technology not thought possible, and which appear initially on French government sites and then on Google and Facebook. They are then linked to terrorist attacks. No-one knows who is responsible. We also follow Paul Raison, an adviser to the Minister of Finance. We follow both the story of his extended family (somewhat complicated and messy) as well as his close relationship with his minister, Bruno Juge. Juge is involved (though not as a candidate) in the forthcoming presidential elections. The incumbent (clearly Macron but not named) cannot stand for what would be a third term, so a stooge is found. Inevitably all three plots get complicated and messy and Houellebecq takes full advantage to make his usual critiques of society, French politics and wokeness. It is an excellent read if not a great work of literature.

David Diop: Frère d’âme (At Night All Blood Is Black)

The latest addition to my website is David Diop‘s Frère d’âme (At Night All Blood Is Black). This book won the International Booker Prize in 2021. It tells the story of Alfa Ndiaye and his friend, Mademba Diop, Senegalese soldiers fighting for the French in World War I. Mademba is killed by a German pretending to be dead, who stabs him in the stomach. Alfa gets his revenge by hiding near shell-holes and killing any emerging Germans. He carries back their rifles, with the severed hands holding the rifle, back to the trenches. He is initially feted but then, when he continues, feared as a madman and sent to the rear to rest. In the rear, we learn of his past and his voyage of self-discovery, with Diop using fable, legend and inner psychology to aid him. It is a superb read, mixing conventional realism and more traditional forms.

Patrick Modiano: Chevreuse

The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Chevreuse This novel follows the usual Patrick Modiano modus operandi. A man (Modiano’s alter ego) looks back, both from the age of seventy and the age of twenty. He meets various suspicious characters, a mysterious woman, visits a mysterious flat in Paris and revisits the house he lived in as a child (with no parents to be seen) in Chevreuse. We and he gradually learn that dirty deeds are afoot and that he may have witnessed a key event when he was five, for which the bad guys are now after him (when he is twenty and they have rediscovered him). Another enjoyable novel from Modiano.

Michel Butor: L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time)

The latest addition to my website is Michel Butor‘s L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time). I had already read and reviewed this novel (link is to the old review) but a new edition of the English translation has just appeared from Pariah Press so I have read that. (I read it in French for the previous review.) This is a complex story of a Frenchman Jacques Revel who spends a year as translator in the fictitious Northern England town of Bleston (based on Manchester). Jacques reads a murder mystery – The Bleston Murder by J C Hamilton – and finds it might not be entirely fiction and that it is also a key to some of the mysteries of Bleston, a town he hates and which seems to have an evil personality of its own. We follow his travails around the town and with some of its inhabitants as well as The Bleston Murder, its author and the mysterious fires which keep breaking out in Bleston. It is a superb book and very much worth rereading.

Olivier Targowla: Narcisse sur un fil (Narcisse on a Tightrope)

The latest addition to my website is Olivier Targowla‘s Narcisse sur un fil (Narcisse on a Tightrope). This is another fascinating discovery from the recently reborn Dalkey Archive Press. Narcisse has been in an institution for seventeen years. He does not seem to know why nor do we or the doctors. You’ve never had all the symptoms of a particular illness, but instead you have some symptoms of every one of a fairly large number of illnesses. He does not do much but he does have sex with a large number of nurses, not so much out of lust but because they want a child but no permanent man. Eventually, however, the doctors think they have have found out what his illness is and they suggest that he gradually reintegrate into society. The thought terrifies him. When he does go out, he struggles with the crowds, his relatives, whom he has not seen since he was in hospital and the lack of order and structure. Narcisse is Everyman. He wants order and structure and, if he does not have it, he needs help. This is another worthwhile addition to Dalkey’s collection of strange novels.

Danielle Mémoire: Lecture publique suivie d’un débat (Public Reading Followed by Discussion)

The latest addition to my website is Danielle Mémoire‘s Lecture publique suivie d’un débat (Public Reading Followed by Discussion). Last year John O’Brien, visionary founder of the Dalkey Archive Press sadly died after an illness. The Press was taken over by Deep vellum, with Will Evans as CEO and Chad Post of Open Letter Books as editorial consultant. This book shows that Dalkey Archive, one of the most essential publishers of translated literature, is back with a bang.

This book is very much in the Dalkey experimental literature mode. As the title tells us an author is to give a public reading of a work-in-progress, followed by a discussion with an audience. It is not as simple as that. The author does not have a work-in-progress so he improvises. The improvisation is going to involve a story about an author giving a public reading to an audience. Gradually, we see that the boundaries between author, characters and reader are breaking down as the audience become, in part, both characters and author. Other aspects change as we see the author has a dog. Or two dogs. Or three dogs. His name changes. His cat, which may or may not be lost, changes name and colour. He may be the author but there may be multiple authors, the author may be his brother or it may be a woman. The text changes. The story changes. As one audience member comments, it may be bullshit but it may also be a changing perception of reality. I am going for the latter interpretation as I found the book both very funny but also a serious and fascinating account of literary boundaries.

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