The latest addition to my website is Henri Calet‘s La Fièvre des Polders [Polder Fever]. Calet’s third novel is set in Burrh, a small Belgian town near the Dutch border, where there are polders, i.e. land reclaimed from the sea and rivers. Ward Waterwind sells beer but drinks too many of the profits and spends too much time with the customers, to the disgust of his wife, Nette. She runs an inn where the beer is sold, helped by her daughter Odilia, a quiet and unassuming young woman, but who is having sex with various people, including her brother. Ward has grandiose plans but lacks brains, business sense and a sense of responsibility and on the day celebrating the opening of the new quayside development, it all goes horribly wrong for Ward and his family. It is an excellent story of a backward small Belgian town and its residents but sadly has not been translated into any other language.
The latest addition to my website is Henri Calet‘s La Belle Lurette [A Long Time Ago]. This is a grim autobiographical novel about a boy, born in 1900. His parents are both criminals (money forging, prostitution, petty theft). His father is violent, frequently hitting his mother before running off with her daughter from a previous relationship. When World War I starts mother, son and mother’s new Belgian boyfriend flee to Belgium where boyfriend is arrested and mother and son have to flee the Germans to the Netherlands, before returning to Brussels. Both indulge in bad habits – sex and crime – before continuing the same life in Paris after the war. Calet himself continued his bad habits after the events of this book and it is easy to see why.
The latest addition to my website is Hervé Le Tellier‘s L’Anomalie (The Anomaly). We follow the stories of various different and seemingly unconnected people, till we gradually learn that they were all on a Paris-New York flight in 2021. The flight was caught in a storm and badly buffeted but eventually came out with only some damage to the plane. The problems start when they try to land at JFK. They are forced to land at McGuire Air Force Base and all passengers and crew are detained. What happened on the flight and the subsequent repercussions for both the passengers we are following and for the world as a whole is the basis for this Goncourt Prize-winning novel. It will appear in English in December 2021.
The latest addition to my website is Anne Serre‘s Les Gouvernantes (The Governesses). This is very much a post-modern French fairy tale. The austere Austeur family engage three governesses, firstly to look after their four boys and secondly because M. Austeur wants a bit of chaos in his life, which he does not get from his staid wife. The three women certainly bring chaos. They are, essentially, forces of nature, likened to The Three Graces. They enjoy life, walking, romping around and, above all, sex. The local young men come round to the gate and fondle them. Any young man bold enough to enter the garden will find himself dragged into the wood and raped. Even when they take the four boys out they strip off, to the delight of the boys. But are they real? Their arrival and departure are mysterious, even though they seem very real, perhaps more than real while working for the Austeurs. Not your standard French fairy story.
The latest addition to my website is Sándor Márai‘s A sziget [The Island]. This novel, available in seven other languages but not English, tells the story of Viktor Henrik Askenazi, a Frenchman of Hungarian origin, who is a professor of Greek and Asia Minor languages in Paris, married to Anna, with a daughter and also with a mistress, Elise. He leaves Anna to live with Elise. He struggles with his relationships and eventually leaves Elise to live on his own, though still seeing Anna. At the suggestion of friends, he goes off on holiday to what is now Croatia, staying on an island, not far from Dubrovnik. Initially he does nothing but when he learns that Anna has gone off to Brazil, following a letter from him asking for a divorce, and he sees and follows an attractive German woman in the hotel, he slowly becomes agitated and slips into insanity. This is the story of a man who needs structure in his life and when that goes, he goes as well.
The latest addition to my website is Anne Serre‘s Voyage avec Vila-Matas [Journey with Vila-Matas]. This is quirky novel about a woman author, clearly based on Serre herself, attending a literary festival and ruminating/fantasising about Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas. She imagines he is there on her journey and at the festival and thinks about the boundary between reality and fiction. The second part of the book is about Vila-Matas himself, who receives an email from a woman who claims he is the father of her twenty-year old daughter. He is not but he investigates and again the boundary between the novel and real life becomes fluid. She concludes with deciding that Vila-Matas is both real and fictional. It is a witty and clever book about real life versus fictional life, with the boundary being very fluid.
The latest addition to my website is Bernard Prou‘s Alexis Vassilkov ou la vie tumultueuse du fils de Maupassant [Alexis Vassilkov or the Tumultuous Life of the Son of Maupassant]. This is a complicated story involving the (fictitious) son of French writer Guy de Maupassant and his mother, a Russian woman who models for Renoir and becomes a painter. Alexis the son takes part in the Russian Revolution, becomes Stalin’s doctor, gets sent to a gulag, learns that Tsar Alexander I became the wandering monk Feodor Kuzmich, escapes (with his wife and young son), arriving two days before the Germans invade Paris in World War II and flees to the country (with a (real) French government minister), joins the Resistance and gets involved with collaborationists after the war. And that is just the highlights. Lots of adventure, lots of messing around with history and great fun.
The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Encre sympathique [Invisible Ink]. Our hero/narrator is Jean Eyben. He is a would-be writer but works at a detective agency to earn money and get material for his work. His first job is to track down a woman called Noëlle Lefebvre. We follow his not very successful attempts, as he gets misleading clues, meets people who are not what they seem and delves back into his past, as it seems she grew up in the same place as he did. As is normal with Modiano, ten years later he is still looking for and more clues, some misleading, some not, emerge. Did she really exist? Was she really married and, if so, to whom? And is her diary partially written in invisible ink, as his life seems to be? As always with Modiano, the past pops up and then fades, characters come and go and Paris changes and life remains a mystery.
The latest addition to my website is Georges Perec‘s L’Attentat de Sarajevo [The Sarajevo Assassination]. This is Perec’s first (written) novel. It was believed lost and only found and published well after his death. It was based on his friendship in Paris with a group of Yugoslavs. The narrator becomes friendly with a Yugoslav, Branko, in Paris but, when he sees a photo of Branko’s mistress, Mila, he is smitten. When she comes to Paris he sees her for a while but she returns to Yugoslavia. When she writes to him saying that she would like to see him, he is off to Belgrade in a few days. Branko lives in Sarajevo with his wife, Anna, but comes up to Belgrade as the two men struggle for the affection of Mila. Then, when our hero visits Sarajevo, he comes up with a plan to get Anna to shoot her husband out of jealousy. At the same time, we are following a theory about that other assassination in Sarajevo. It is not a great book and it is easy to see why he had difficulty getting it published but still an interesting idea.
The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood). This one starts in 2012 but still maintains the usual Modiano feel of the past. Our hero is Jean Daragane, a solitary man, a (former) writer, living in a borrowed flat in Paris. He loses his address book and it is returned by a man who has looked into it and wants to now about a person whose name is in it. Daragane gradually gets dragged into the story behind the man and an investigation, which turns out to involve not only a possible murder but his own childhood and the strange woman who seemed to be looking after him. It gets murky, as we move between the past and the present but it is another fine mysterious tale from Modiano.