Patrick Modiano: La Place de l’Étoile (La Place de l’Étoile)

The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s La Place de l’Étoile (La Place de l’Étoile). This was Modiano’s first novel, published when he was twenty-two. It was a highly controversial as it viciously mocks French anti-Semitism but also French writers, Jews and Israel. It tells the story of Raphaël Schlemilovitch, a French Jew and his fanciful adventures, including his time in wartime Vienna (though he was born at the end of the war) as The Indispensable Jew, his friendship in Switzerland with a French aristocrat and a very real French Jewish writer who was, in reality, dead by this time, his involvement in the white slave trade and liking Israel to the Gestapo in France. Surprisingly, it did well in France, though it must have offended many and only came out in English translation, after Modiano won the Nobel Prize in 2015. Grotesque though it is, it may well be still very appropriate, given the rise of anti-Semitism in North America and Europe at the present time.

Paul Gadenne: Rue profonde [The Deep Street]

The latest addition to my website is Paul Gadenne‘s Rue profonde [The Deep Street]. This is strange, short novel about an unnamed poet, living in a garret in Paris, who is writing a short poem, something he will continue to do throughout the book. He struggles with this poem, influenced by various images (the shadow of his building on the opposite one, a horse struggling with a cart). However, his poet friend tells him to get out, stroll around and see life, which he does and, inevitably, he meets a woman. Though the relationship is short and not particularly sweet, it does change his life. Sadly, the book has not been translated into English, only into Spanish.

Michel Houellebecq: Sérotonine (Serotonin)

The latest addition to my website is Michel Houellebecq‘s Sérotonine (Serotonin). This is another controversial novel from Houellebecq. The main character. Florent, is an agronomist and he shows us that French agriculture (and other aspects of the French economy) is facing serious problems. At the same time, we follow the story of Florent who, to get away from his job studying French agriculture and from his Japanese girlfriend, goes off grid, abandoning job, flat and girlfriend and moving to a hotel in an unfashionable part of Paris. He does not sever contact with everyone, visiting Aymeric, his old college friend and now a farmer facing huge problems on his dairy farms (primarily because of EU policies – Houellebecq is very anti-EU) and trying to re-establish contact with two old girlfriends, which does not work out very well. In particular, he takes a new (fictitious) drug, Caprizol for his depression and it has strange effects on him. It is a well-written though very contrarian book. Florent is not a loveable hero but his lifestyle choice make interesting reading. It will be out in English in September 2019, though is already available in German.

Paul Gadenne: Siloé [Siloam]

The latest addition to my website is Paul Gadenne‘s Siloé [Siloam]. This is a very long autobiographical novel, Gadenne’s first, based on his stay in a tuberculosis asylum in the French Alps. Unlike Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), Gadenne does use TB as symbol of the human condition but uses the isolation of Simon Delambre, the hero, to show how much a man can change in such conditions. He is influenced my many things in his change: the beauties of nature, friendship with ordinary people, some manual labour (sewing), absence from the urban hurly-burly and routine and, above all, love. He meets and falls in love with a woman patient, Ariane (French for Ariadne) and they plan a future together. At the end of the book, Simon is clearly a changed man and definitely not a Hans Castorp as in Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain). Sadly, none of Gadenne’s work has been translated into English.

Emmanuel Carrère: Un roman russe ( My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir)

The latest addition to my website is Emmanuel Carrère‘s Un roman russe (My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir). Though the English calls it a memoir – and, to a great extent it is – it is written as a novel, called a novel by the author and the publisher and reads as a novel. There are three main themes, apart from the overarching theme of Carrère’s own somewhat chaotic life. The first is his journalistic investigation of András Toma, allegedly the last World War II soldier to be repatriated. Toma was held in a mental hospital in Russia for fifty-five years, as he did not speak Russian and no-one in the hospital spoke Hungarian. Carrère and a film crew twice travel to Russia and once to Hungary to investigate. We also learn about Carrère’s family, particularly his grandfather who was Georgian and who never fitted in when in France, and his grandmother who was descended from Russian aristocrats. Finally, we follow Carrère’s tempestuous love affair with Sophie. All three stories intertwine and Carrère tells his story very well, despite showing himself to be a very flawed character.

Emmanuel Carrère: La Moustache (The Moustache)

The latest addition to my website is Emmanuel Carrère‘s La Moustache (The Moustache). The unnamed hero of this novel decides one day to shave off his moustache to surprise his wife, Agnès. Not only does she not notice, she later insists that he never had a moustache. This previous lack of a moustache is later confirmed by their friends and his colleagues. However, photos seem to show that he did have a moustache. When there seem to be other events that he remembered and she did not – their holiday in Java, the death of his father – he wonders if he is going mad or if she is plotting something against him. However, when he cannot find his parents’ flat, where he grew up, we have our doubts. yet there is clear evidence that, in some cases, he is telling the truth. What is the truth, who is telling it and why are there so many disparities between what he sees and says and what she sees and says? This is a very clever book on truth and lies and different perspectives.

François Bon: L’enterrement [The Funeral]

The latest addition to my website is François Bon‘s L’enterrement [The Funeral]. This short novel/long story tells of the unnamed narrator’s visit to a remote village in the Vendée region of France for the funeral of Alain, an old friend. We do not know how Alain died but we suspect it was suicide. The narrator observes the village and the funeral ritual. He was last there five months previously for the wedding of Alain’s sister who is now visibly more than five months pregnant. Nothing much happens but the narrator observes how the village has changed, how it looks somewhat run-down and how the people still just carry on. The narrator is an excellent observer and tells his account well but is eager to leave the village at the end.

Aftermath

I recently attended an exhibition at Tate Britain called Aftermath, exploring the impact of World War One on British, German and French art. I have long been fascinated by this period for two reasons.

Knights: Marriage at Cana

Firstly I have long enjoyed the British artists of that period (and up to and including World War II). These include artists, who were in this exhibition, such as Edward Burra, Winifred Knights (whose The Marriage at Cana I was able to see both in Auckland (where it normally lives) and at the Dulwich Picture Gallery), John Nash, his brother Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson, William Roberts and Stanley Spencer. Many of these artists have had something of a rediscovery in the UK in recent years, with exhibitions devoted to them.

The exhibition did, of course, include some interesting French artists, such as Picasso, André Derain, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger and André Masson and German artists such as Max Ernst, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz.

My grandmother who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, with my uncles

My other interest in this period is because World War I changed so much. There were the obvious changes such as the fact that 10 million died and 20 million were injured, large parts of France and Belgium were destroyed, the economies of many European countries were destroyed, it led directly to the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, various revolutions/civil wars happened (Russia, Ireland, Malta, Hungary, Germany, Egypt, Finland and others) and various countries died/significantly changed their frontiers and/or came into being after the war. Less obvious but still fairly well-known were the Spanish flu epidemic immediately after the war, which took millions of lives, the fact that after the War, the US surpassed Britain and Germany in economic and political power and the fact that after the War, Britain (and other countries, too) moved from being primarily a rural country to being primarily an urban country. In the UK, we have recently celebrated one hundred years of votes for women though, as many pointed out, it was at the same time that all adult men also received the vote. There is no question that the role of women changed after the war, not least because women had to work at men when the men were away fighting and dying.

Many novels and poems were written (and are still being written) about World War I, probably as many if not more than those set in World War II and the American Civil War. I have a long but far from complete list on my main site. Obviously many of those concern the actual conflict as well as life at home. Many of the World War I novels are critical of the conduct of the war. We can read about the terrors of the war, the inefficiency, incompetence and, at times, venality of the powers that be and of the officer class. Some novels show gentlemen declining to be officers and enlisting as other ranks.

The Tate divided its exhibition into eight categories. These are:

  • Remembrance: Battlefield and Ruins
  • Remembrance: War Memorials and Society
  • Traces of War: Wounded Soldiers
  • Traces of War: Dada and Surrealism
  • The Print Portfolio (prints, primarily in France and Germany, widely distributed)
  • Return to Order
  • Imagining Post-War Society: Post-War People
  • Imagining Post-War Society: The New City

While this division is not necessarily terribly helpful in looking at the novel, it does have some relevance. The war-wounded, example, certainly appear in various novels as do ruined battlefields and the idea of a return to order. However, I shall focus on a few novels that are on my website that do look at some of the after-effects of the war. There are, of course, many other novels dealing with this topic that are not on my website. Also, some of these novels will also deal with the war itself before moving on to the after-war period.

It could be argued that many of the great novels of the post-WWI period would not have existed without World War I. Would we have had, for example, Kafka, Joyce, Woolf,Faulkner and many other fine novelists without World War I. The answer is, of course, maybe but they may have been different and we may well have had others who would have revered even more. I shall not, therefore, be looking at those writers and others as regards their writing style and experimentation (Surrealism, Dadaism, etc. probably influenced the novel but were not, on the whole as key as they were in art.)

I shall start with my favourite post-war novel and that is Ford Madox Ford‘s Parade’s End tetralogy. Much of the series – and probably the better part – is set during the war but it is also is very much concerned with what we call world-weariness though other languages have better terms. While researching this issue, this clearly came up as a general issue. Some of it, of course, was post-traumatic stress disorder (then called shell-shock) but a lot of it was a general malaise that affected a lot of people, combatants and others, and Ford deals with it.

One other great English post-World War I novel and one far less known is Henry Williamson‘s The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series. This covers a long period – from the late 1890s to the 1950s. It covers World War I, of course and also the aftermath. The Williamson character and hero of the book, Phillip Maddison, does what Williamson actually did (and what D H Lawrence and others did) – retreat from the world, an aspect of world-weariness. Maddison also remarks on the disappearance of the rural around London.

Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway is not the only novel to have a shell-shocked soldier in it but Septimus Smith is memorable, not least because he appears in a first-class novel, but also because he is so well portrayed by Woolf, as he retreats into his own world from which he will never return. Sadly, there were many men like him.

Two key themes for US writers were The Lost Generation and the Depression. The obvious Lost Generation work is Ernest Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises (UK: Fiesta) with its epigraph You are all a lost generation. Jake Barnes, the hero/narrator, has been wounded and left impotent and joins the list of literary characters, wounded physically and mentally during the war. William Faulkner‘s Soldier’s Pay is not an obvious Lost Generation novel, not least because it is set in the US and not Paris but it does show the effect of the war on those who do not go to Paris.

Many of the French novels of the period are concerned entirely with the grimness of the war, which is not surprising as much of the war was fought in France. Louis-Ferdinand Céline‘s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) may be the most miserable book about the post-war period. Ferdinand Bardamu is a deserter and spends much of the book wandering around in a state of misery and encountering the miseries of other people. If you have any doubts as to whether people really were miserable after the war, this book should cure you.

Like other combatants, Germans tended to write about the horrors of the war. The most famous German writer (at least in the English-speaking world) on the war was Erich Maria Remarque. I have not read any of his work. His best-known work – Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is set during the war. However, he did write a sequel: Der Weg zurück (The Road Back), about the period after the war. His Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades) was about a later period and was made into an excellent US film.

Of the relevant German books I have read, I would mention Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War). His previous book was set during the war while this one deals with the period after the war, with the German Revolution and Kapp Putsch.

Oskar Maria Graf‘s Anton Sittinger (which has not been translated into English) also deals with the post-war period.

Austria was also a combatant. Hermann Broch‘s Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers) was mainly about the war but it ends with the period immediately afterwards, with Austria descending into chaos. Alexander Lernet-Holenia‘s Die Standarte (The Standard; The Glory is Departed) deals with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the exile of the Kaiser.

The war was not just about the Western front. Events took place elsewhere and World War I influenced them. I mentioned various revolutions and civil wars. The best-known book in English about the Russian Revolution is, of course, Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). If you have not read the book, you may well have seen one of he films. Nabokov hated it. It does show the horrors of the Revolution which, of course, came about because of the war.

There are quite a few books about the Easter Rising and the Troubles afterwards. The Irish Times has a list. Liam O’Flaherty‘s Insurrection is an obvious Easter Rising novel and Elizabeth Bowen‘s The Last September an obvious one about The Troubles. However, I hope my Irish friends and relatives will not find it amiss if I mention an English writer, J G Farrell‘s Troubles, which mocks the English (though is not too flattering towards the Irish), as their Empire crumbles beneath them and, in this case, above them.

I would mention the German post-war revolution in passing. Alfred Döblin wrote November 1918: A German Revolution, a tetralogy of novels about this revolution, which I have not read. Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War), mentioned above, also deals with this period.

There were other places involved. I would mention Macedonia, not an obvious one. Petre M. Andreevski‘s Пиреј (Pirey) is about the aftermath of the war in Macedonia with the hated Bulgarians being replaced by the hated Serbs.

Only the first volume of Cezar Petrescu‘s Întunecare (Gathering Clouds) has been translated into English and that deals with the war. However, the second and third volumes deal with the post-war period in Romania. They have been translated into French and German and I hope to get round to them sometime.

Louis de Bernières‘s Birds Without Wings deals with the situation following the fall of the Ottoman Empire as does Dido Sotiriou‘s Ματωμενα Χωματα (Farewell, Anatolia). ‘s Նահանջը առանց երգի (Retreat without Song) deals with it from the perspective of the Armenians, the Armenian genocide and their exile to Paris.

I would mention two excellent more modern novels that deal with the aftermath of the war. Sebastian Faulks‘s Birdsong does take place, in part, during the war but also some of it is set in modern times (i.e. late 1970s) and is about the modern memory of the war. This has been quite common recently with the hundredth anniversary but was less so when Faulks wrote his book. There have been several other novels doing this as well.

Robert Edric‘s Desolate Heaven is less well-known but deals with a group of people shortly after the war who are suffering in various ways. It is a first-class novel which should be better-known.

There are many, many other worthwhile novels on this topic but I hope this will give you a flavour to supplement the Tate exhibition. The exhibition continues till 28 September 2018, so do try and see it if you are in London.

François Bon: Sortie d’usine [Factory Exit]

The latest addition to my website is François Bon‘s Sortie d’usine [Factory Exit]. This is Bon’s first novel but, sadly, neither this novel nor any of his others have been translated into English. It is a stream of consciousness novel, told in the third person, about life in a factory. The unnamed protagonist who, like Bon himself did, works in a metallurgical factory and he looks at it as though with a camera, moving around the factory, seeing the processes, the people, the surroundings, critical and cynical at times, affectionate towards certain employees (though generally not towards the management) and showing the lack of health and safety concerns (many of the employees are deaf because of the noise and we see a couple of serious injuries), the dehumanising aspect of such work and the tiredness and boredom of the working day. Bon never lets up, with his camera moving around, now to a well-liked employee, now to a strike and the HR manager speaking to the staff, now to the grime and grimness. It is not pretty and not happy but very well done.

Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès: L’Île du Point Némo (Island of Point Nemo)

The latest addition to my website is Jean-Marie Blas de RoblèsL’Île du Point Némo (Island of Point Nemo). Like his earlier work, this is a madcap romp, with adventures, sex and violence, world travel and characters from all over the world. It features amputated feet, a racing pigeon fancying, breast-loving Chinese manufacturer of e-readers, the Bloop, the Battle of Gaugamela and, of course, Point Nemo as well as a character called John Shylock Holmes who is not Sherlock Holmes though he almost is, two women in a coma, Creationist terrorists and the impotent Dieumercie Bonacieux. It is great fun, post-modern and thoroughly unpredictable.