Monday, January 17, 2011

Interlude in French

I recently sped through three novels written in French during the past 10 years and offer below some brief reactions and comments (any translations, unless otherwise indicated, are my own):

Faire L’Amour (Making Love) by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (2002)
(an English translation by Linda Coverdale is available from the Dalkey Archive, and I've borrowed her translation of the title)

Belgian writer Toussaint has been on my radar screen for sometime. I seem to run across his books everywhere (nearly all of his work has been published in English, most of it by the Dalkey Archive), and my general sense from the little I know about him is that he’s one of the more respected young francophone writers. In Faire L’Amour, a novel about the dissolution of a love affair (and apparently the first of what’s come to be known as Toussaint’s “Marie” trilogy), one knows from the first line that something is far from right:

“I had had a vial filled with hydrochloric acid and I kept it on me at all times, with the idea of one day throwing it into someone’s face. “

This shocking initial note of potential violence serves as the high-tension wire on which the action of Faire L’Amour is strung. Or perhaps I should say the lack of action, since the novel’s two main characters seem paralyzed in self-absorption, entrenched in banalities, and – though aware their relationship has come to an end – remain mired in a passive attraction/repulsion as though some tacky, gooey substance keeps them from separating entirely. The first part of the novel unfolds over a single long winter night in Tokyo, where the couple have just arrived from Paris, jet-lagged and emotionally drained from the awareness of their impending dissolution. More alone than together even when together, the couple sleepwalks through the disorienting nightscape of Tokyo (the novel shares the insomniac atmosphere of Sophia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation” as well as its view of Tokyo as alternately mesmerizing and estranging). Meanwhile, a series of earthquakes and aftershocks underscores the upheaval and fracturing of the characters’ personal lives. Toussaint’s taut, crystalline composition has the precision of an engineer, like something built by a hardware designer. This self-consciousness of style is enhanced by Toussaint’s having captured a sense of a generation for whom the world has shrunk, where connection by technology is a given but actual communication is not, leaving them adrift and passive in a cold and blinking electronic night while the trembling earth beneath them warns of the threat that everything could disappear in an instant.

La Porte des Enfers (The Gate to the Kingdom of the Dead*), by Laurent Gaudé (2008) (not yet translated into English) (*“Enfer,” the French word for “hell,” is distinct from the plural “enfers,” which specifically denotes Hades, the mythological underworld of the dead)

I’d never before heard of Prix-Goncourt-winning author Laurent Gaudé (nor had the person who gave me this book, who bought it entirely based on the cover blurb). The novel takes place in Naples; chapters alternate between 1980 (the year of a massive earthquake in the region) and 2002. From early in the novel, in which a six-year old boy is killed during a gun battle between rival gangs, Gaudé’s Naples is easily recognizable as that of Roberto Saviano’s gritty and gruesome piece of investigative journalism, Gomorrah. However, the novel takes an unexpectedly supernatural turn when the boy’s father is haphazardly thrown together with a transsexual prostitute, a street-wise bartender, a radical, elderly priest, and a drunken mystic who claims to have found an entry into the underworld – and thus a means for the father to venture into hell in search of his son. While such a histrionic plot sounds like it might be easily lend itself more to popular, mass-market fiction, Gaudé is a highly talented writer, and La Porte des Enfers becomes a serious mediation on the intersection of life and death, a new iteration of both the Orpheus myth and Dante’s “Inferno” (in a brief afterword Gaudé states that he wrote the novel to memorialize “my dead” – his friends and family members who’ve passed on). His sensitive, completely unsentimental depiction of the parents’ obliterating grief and rage is raw and grueling. Mixing history and myth, Gaudé offers up a number of fascinating accounts of attempts by the living to interact with the dead and, most effectively, of the myriad ways the living can be more dead than alive. His realism immerses one in the streets of Naples to the point where one can follow much of the action using Google Maps (this may well be the first time an alleged door to the underworld can actually be located using Google Street View). While I admired Gaudé’s talent – one can’t help but appreciate the hell he must have descended into in order to write La Porte des Enfers and his gesture of memorial - I can’t say that I loved his novel. Several scenes of violence struck me as entirely gratuitous, and above all, I found distasteful the unmeditated vengeance fantasy aspect of the novel (vengeance being my least favorite theme).

L’Échappée Belle (Beautiful Escape*), by Anna Gavalda (serialized 2001; revised by the author and published in book form 2009) (An English translation by Alison Anderson – French Leave - is forthcoming in April 2011 from Europa Editions) (*”L’Échappée Belle” literally means “the beautiful escape,” but also has a relevant idiomatic meaning in French of “a close call” or “close shave.” “Échappées Belles” is also the title of a popular French television series about pleasant travel destinations).

Of these three works in French, the one I least expected to like was also the one I enjoyed the most. I’d never given much thought to reading Anna Gavalda; I’d seen her books for sale in airports and train stations, and assumed they were probably slight, sentimental, commercial novels. My bad. In L’Échappée Belle, I discovered a greatly talented writer whose humor subverted expectations by being marked by what seems to me the rarest of elements in contemporary French literature: joy. The story of L’Échappée Belle is simple: three adult siblings brought together at a marriage none wishes to attend decide to skip out of the ceremony entirely and track down their fourth sibling for a stolen weekend of reconnection and recreation (quite literally, a “re-creation” of the childhood relations they shared). Gavalda’s characters are memorable, her writing clear and sophisticated. I remarked to a friend that L’Échappée Belle seemed to employ a much wider vocabulary than most contemporary French novels I’d read, as I seemed to be spending an unusual amount of time with the dictionary. The friend said she’d once seen Gavalda interviewed on television and was struck not only by her affability and modesty, but also by her rather bashful revelation that she could write anywhere - so long as she had a thesaurus with her. Gavalda reminds me a bit of Ann Tyler, but with a wit and political astuteness that moves her perhaps closer to Margaret Atwood. Of these three French language novels, Gavalda’s "beautiful escape" is, ironically perhaps, the only one of the three not to escape off to an international setting and the only one to acknowledge, even tacitly, actual political issues unfolding today in France. Jean-Philippe Toussaint may be better at characterizing the emotional gestalt of our times, but Gavalda, in one brief passage of L’Échappée Belle, questions and captures beautifully the frustration of a generation’s docile failure to confront reactionism with the force of indignation rooted in the openness, sensitivity and social concern to which many have consecrated their entire lives (I thought of this scene – in which the narrator recounts her regret at having let a bigoted remark about immigrants go unchallenged – while reading “Indignez-Vous!,” the 30-page call to indignation published this past December by 93-year old former Resistance fighter and diplomat Stéphane Hessel – a pamphlet that has become an overnight sensation in France and has sold nearly a million copies). My only disappointment in L’Échappée Belle is an embarrassingly petty and entirely personal one: Gavalda's inclusion of yet another example of what I can’t help thinking of as the “Mondo Cane syndrome” - that common coping response, when faced with an overwhelmingly incomprehensible, chaotic, and hostile world, of simply acquiring a dog. But I’m hardly one to criticize; we all have our escapes and means of coping (some of us have even opted to respond to the difficulties of the world by submerging ourselves in novels). Fortunately, L’Échappée Belle reminds all of us escapees that escape and denial are not the same thing, and that escape – particularly when stolen from the confines of hollow obligation and conservative social strictures – can be beautiful.   


  1. Great reviews, Scott. You've managed to convey a clear sense of each novel in just a few paragraphs.

    The Gavalda sounds charming, I'll have to look out for it. Europa Editions published another of her novels in translation earlier this year - Billie. I don't think I've seen it reviewed anywhere, not among the blogs I follow, so it's hard to say how it might compare. Have you read that one?

    I'm also a little intrigued by the Toussaint, especially your comparison with the insomniac atmosphere of Lost in Translation, a film I like very much indeed. Some of the themes you mention here remind me a little of the relationship in that Simenon novella I read earlier this year, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan. Both seem to share a similar woozy, dreamlike atmosphere, too.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui (and you make me wonder whatever happened to that ability to convey a sense of a novel in just a few paragraphs!).

      I haven't read any other Gavalda. "Charming" is the word for this one, though I found the ending distastefully tidy and worthy of the criticism that often gets directed at Gavalda for being sentimental and schmaltzy. But she's so winsome as a writer - at least here - that I found it hard to be too critical. Among these three, the novel that has stuck with me is the Toussaint; your comment coming after all this time makes me think I should pick up the other two volumes of his trilogy.