This is turning into a frantic end of the week. My husband has a school reunion party on Saturday and one of his friends is bringing his wife to stay with us over the weekend (we don’t live far from the people hosting the party). I wish I could say I was a laid-back hostess, but I’m not. I worry about the meals that need preparing and the state of the house. I first met this particular group of friends at a Christmas party back in 1987. I had just started dating my husband and we had returned to our respective homes (by chance 10 mins drive apart) after our first university term. When he invited me to meet his schoolfriends, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got. He’d been to an all boys school, and I met 15 or so charming young men who, once we’d all had something to eat, sat down around a piano (expertly played by one member of the group) and sang Christmas carols (with the bass and the descant parts finely represented). I tried not to leave my mouth hanging open. Now it’s not like I ran around with a group that was heavily into drinking and trashing their parent’s houses, but the most we could manage for sophistication was some feeble in-joking. I mean, I’d heard of Stepford wives, but Stepford teenage boys? ‘What I like about my friends,’ my husband sighed happily, ‘is that we’re all so different.’ Different? Which one was the anarchist? Anyhow, almost twenty years on (and how old that makes me feel!) those charming boys have developed into fine men, and they are meeting up with their families.
Being congenitally scared of parties, even with people I know at them, I would much rather think about French literature than the prospect of the reunion. In fact there are very few times when I wouldn’t rather be thinking of literature than just about anything else, but that’s peculiar so we won’t go there. I did say I’d do a little introductory guide for anyone interested in reading something French. To begin with I thought I could identify the Frenchness of French lit, and pick up on various authors and novels as I did so, but then I thought that was beyond my powers of convergence, and so I decided instead to mimic the first year introductory course that I teach to my new students, and pick out a book or two in each century from the 17th onwards that might be of interest.
The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette. I don’t tend to go this far back in history myself, so my knowledge of the 17th century is sketchy at best, but I taught this novel for many years and loved it more every time I read it. It’s the story of a very young woman whose beauty takes the French court by storm when she arrives in it. Her mother marries her off to the best suitor she can find – such is the custom of the times – and then dies, making her daughter promise to maintain her virtue above all else. Now this is quite a deathbed legacy; marriage is a political alliance, not a love match, and so it is quite understood that intrigue and liaisons will abound. Her mother has essentially decreed that she should be exceptional, not least since, having married her to the dull but worthy Prince of Cleves, she then falls in love with the dashing Prince of Nemours. How will the young Princess manage this situation without her mother to guide her? Her responses are profoundly surprising. I’d love to write more on this book, and will gladly do so if anyone decides to read it.
Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. One of the great epistolary novels and a fascinating portrait of the aristocratic society that brought the wrath of the great Revolution down upon its bewigged heads (literally). Machiavellian schemers, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont used to be lovers, and now they are rivals and partners in crime in a secretive and menacing game of libertinage. At stake is Valmont’s ability to seduce a woman of extreme virtue, Madame de Tourvel, and his first and possibly worst mistake, is to fall in love with her. Ah the seductive power of being bad in a clever way, and describing terrible exploits in polished, elegantly philosophical prose. Love, sex, revenge, wit, and those really nice brocade chaise longues.
Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac. I wasn’t sure which Balzac novel to pick – there are quite a lot of them, and academics like to talk about their hypertext dimension. To you and me it means that Balzac envisaged a whole society, written like an immense family tree across three walls of a room in his house (over 5,000 characters if you include the animals) and some of his famous characters crop up in more than one novel. Balzac didn’t invent realism in France, he didn’t even perfect it, he was it. In this novel, ideology is shifting away from the stranglehold of patriarchy, and so this is a tale of flawed men and ferocious women. The cousin Bette of the title is an ugly and vicious old maid who has suffered neglect and disrespect in a society ruled by beauty and money because she has neither. She vows revenge on the family who charitably took her in (this being something they have never let her forget), and teaming up with the new breed of management-style courtesan (a very scary type in 19th century fiction, which was mostly written by scared men), one Valerie Marneffe, they set to work destroying the family fortunes. This is more than just a novel, it’s a detailed social history of how people loved, lived, ate, entertained themselves and made art. Very accessible and lots of fun.
The Plague by Albert Camus. The 20th century is my playground, so it’s almost impossible to pick just the one book out of it. I’m a big fan of Camus, but if you read him, you really ought to read either Simone de Beauvoir or Jean-Paul Sartre too, just to keep it all even handed. These three authors produced the work that drove the Existentialist movement in France, and it was a huge watershed in literary and philosophical thought. They also loved one another, and fell out publicly with one another, and hung out in the Café des Flores in Paris, and were extremely cool. Anyhow, to get back to the book, I put off reading this for years, thinking that a novel about a nasty plague was going to be too queasy and depressing for words. In the end I was obliged to teach it, and so started off with gritted teeth. But then I found a work of haunting sensitivity, of extraordinary characters battling in different ways against the inexplicable threat of sudden death, the beauty of companionship forged in extreme circumstances, and profound questions on religion, meaning, history and suffering. Camus is one of those writers who works quietly and subtly on the souls of his readers. I don’t think you can read his work and not be changed, or at least moved, by what he does. His is an enigmatic and ambivalent literary sensibility; he will spend his time posing questions rather than answering them, but I find him perpetually engaging and a worthy standard bearer for the preoccupations of art in the modern world.
Hannah’s Diary by Louise Lambrichs. I’m cheating rather by slipping this novel into the 21st century (it was published in 1999). It’s the tale of a woman who is forced to abort a much wanted second child in war-torn France because she is Jewish and afraid of being captured via the bureaucracy of childbirth. It’s a decision forced upon her by her Resistance-fighter husband, and one that torments her subsequently. But strangely enough, the unborn child, Louise, starts to live and grow in real time in the vivid dreams Hannah keeps having. Not only is she reunited in her dreams with her lost child, but also with the rest of her family who have been murdered in the Holocaust. This is a moving, gentle, subtle tale of a breakdown that almost happens, and of the bizarre contortions our minds will perform in the effort to solve insurmountable traumas. Louise Lambrichs isn’t known very well anywhere; not in her native France, nor abroad, but she is a wonderful writer who deserves recognition. I’m hoping more of her books will be translated because this is not her best by any means. French contemporary writing is very interesting at the moment because it’s strongly experimental; but that does mean that books are often odd and eccentric. One of my most intriguing reads of late was Rosie Carpe by Marie Ndiaye. It’s the strangest novel; Rosie Carpe is pregnant, and rootless, encumbered by a child she neglects and parents growing younger by the day. In an attempt to change her life she flies to Guadeloupe in search of her brother, only to meet up instead with Lagrand, a strong, capable black man who seems to have his life under control. Only once he’s met Rosie, the inexplicable seems to happen and it’s as if they’re changing places. It’s a book that captured my imagination but it’s only for those who like their fiction off-beat and enigmatic. However, it did win France’s equivalent of the Orange Prize.
I love my French literature dearly and will talk at length about these and indeed any books that arouse the slightest interests amongst the litbloggers. If anyone decides to have a try at one of these – let me know how you get on!