I had made a little pact with myself that I wouldn’t buy any more French novels this year. This may sound outrageous, but I do have enough to read, and a list as long as your arm of books that I must get through for research. But oh dear, what is the magic that online book shopping weaves? I’d found myself, oh so by surprise, in amazon.fr because I wanted a copy of the Abbé Prevost’s Manon Lescaut. It had been mentioned as one of the clues in a Dorothy Sayer’s book I’d been listening to on audio CD and I remembered liking it very much, back when I was 18 and reading it for the first time. However, when I searched for my copy, it was nowhere to be found, and I can recall nothing of the story, except that it was tragic in that good old doomed, star-crossed kind of way that the French are so, so skilled at. So it was a short click from Manon Lescaut to a couple of Balzac novels I didn’t have, and two modern novels (short books are blessedly cheap in France) and another of Louis Aragon’s.
All this made me remember that I’d said I’d talk some more about some of my favourite French authors, and so then I went looking for translations on amazon.com, where thankfully I spent no more money, but was astonished by how few books have made it into English, and also by the highly critical reviews most modern French novels receive. I’ve come to the conclusion that French fiction does not please the Americans. Naturally I have a little theory about that: in distinct contrast to American literature, the French are not so bothered about detailed character portraits. Not since the 19th century, that is, when they were always the staple element of any Western narrative. Modern novels place far more weight on what happens, and the way it’s expressed in French, than characterization; they are fascinated with a much more nebulous sense of ideas and interactions, and I think it’s fair to say that sexuality is often used as the indicator of identity. I don’t mean that French novels are sexually explicit – I don’t find them so – but that sexuality is intrinsic to any story being told, and considered far more significant and revelatory than the way a character might treat their mother, say.
Anyhow, the upshot of all this is that some of my most adored novels I cannot recommend, for the simple reason that they exist only in French. I was astonished that so little of Louis Aragon’s work has been translated, when Aurélien is one of the greatest love stories on the face of the earth. Equally I haven’t found a funnier, more creative contemporary novel than Tonino Benacquista’s Saga, the tale of four would-be screenwriters who get the chance to produce an experimental TV soap opera; they can do whatever they like so long as it takes no more than two sets and six characters, and boy oh boy do they make the most of their creative freedom. Then Tahar Ben Jelloun’s prize winning story, The Sand Child, an adaptation of a true story in which a baby girl is brought up as a boy (gender discrimination being firmly in place in the Arab world) in mid-century Morocco was roundly panned by the reviewers. And they were only lukewarm towards Patrick Modiano’s twisty and experimental novel, Missing Person, in which amnesiac private investigator Guy Roland ventures forth in search of his own past and finds it to be far more complex and elusive than he ever dreamed it would be.
However, there were some titles that managed both to exist in English and please their wider audience. Hands up who has read any Romain Gary? Ah, I thought not, and yet he is such a treat. He’s one of the forgotten masters of the modern French novel and deserves far more recognition than he gets. The touching and delightful The Life Before Us is available; it’s the story of aging ex-prostitute Madame Rosa, told from the viewpoint of a little Arab boy she looks after in Paris. It’s funny-sad and bittersweet and utterly charming. I also loved Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. The title gives the plot away somewhat. It’s a retelling of the Salem witch hunts from the point of view of a young black servant girl, who has learnt how to treat illnesses with herbs in her native Barbados (although it’s true she does also speak to the spirit world) and who becomes caught up in the hysteria of Salem. Delicately flavoured with feminism, hard-hitting in its history lessons and just a joy to read. I devoured as much Condé as I could lay my hands on after reading this, and have enjoyed everything I’ve read by her. Equally reliable is Quebec author, Anne Hébert. Just last summer I read her spooky and passionate love story, Kamouraska and found it spellbinding. Set in the depths of a 19th century Canadian winter, Elizabeth d’Aulnères recounts her intense love affair with an American doctor and their botched, wretched murder of her husband. This is one powerful humdinger of a narrative.
And finally a couple of unusual suggestions. If you like your fiction experimental, try The Book of Promethea by Hélène Cixous, a great feminist classic. This book has no relationship to reality as we experience it, describing a love affair but freed from the constraints of time, mimetic space and plot. The love object is Promothea, who is described more as if she were a mythical beast than a woman, whilst her lover, the narrator, is split into two people, the ‘I’ who writes and the ‘H’ who experiences. You may have worked out that all three are women. Have I put you off yet? It’s an extraordinary, fantastical, outlandish text, filled to overflowing with beautiful imagery, and quite unlike anything you will ever read again in your life. You have to think of it as an experience of art, rather than an orthodox narrative, but it’s worth a look just to say you’ve been there. However, if you like your stories more recognisable than that, do consider another forgotten classic, Theophile Gaultier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, a tale of cross-dressing that is a kind of rewrite of As You Like It, only transposed to the boudoirs of a French chateau. One of my favourite 19th century novels of all time is Gautier’s Spirite in which the narrator falls in love with a ghost, but guess what, it’s not available. But this alternative is every bit as beautifully written and haunting in its own way.