A Few More Favourites

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.

14 thoughts on “A Few More Favourites

  1. Thank you for the recommendations. These sound wonderful. I’ve been considering trying to read a novel in French, something I haven’t done in years. Now I have a few more choices to select from.

  2. Oh, this reminds me! What do you think of Pierre Jean Jouve? I know that he is more known for his poetry but I picked up his Paulina 1880 from a free stack of books at the library. I like what I’ve read of French lit so far.

    (I shan’t say anything about your tempting offering of reading recommendations because I’m trying to concentrate on what’s in front of me *now*. Must.not.buy.new.books.)

    I expect I will write a bit on what I think of The Italian so far this week. While Ellena is shaping up to be quite a character, poor emotional, impulsive Vincentio…well I’ll save it for the post.

  3. Cam – I’d be delighted to know what you think of any of them! Imani – I have to confess, I don’t know Jouve – do tell me more (dangerous to the book buying imbargo as this may be…) Looking forward to hearing where you’re up to on The Italian. For me, Ellena is bonding with the nuns at the moment.

  4. Thanks for the list! Except for the Cixous, I haven’t heard of any of them, which makes me happy — a lot of new stuff to explore. Having read a little of Cixous’s theoretical stuff, I can well imagine what her experimental fiction is like — it would be a good challenge some time.

  5. I’ve tried to find Cixous here before but she is not widely available. I guess I’ll have to resort to trying online. Have you ever read Monique Wittig? I read Les Guerillieres in English of course, and couldn’t tell you what it was about if you’d been holding a gun to my head. I ma hoping you’ll say you read her and that she is as incomprehensible in French as she is in translation 🙂

  6. Dorothy, challenging is the word, but it IS a great deal more pleasant to read than Monique Wittig’s work. Stefanie – she is as barking mad in French as she is in English. Never fear.

  7. Why do you torment us Litlove…talking about books that we can’t read (though I will be looking for the ones that we can). I wish I knew enough of a foreign language to read a book in that language–just think what buying opportunities that would open up!! I don’t know what it is with Americans and the French–very silly. I think it is the same with French film. Maybe more of the books are available in the UK?

  8. Oh Danielle, I can tell you all about the buying opportunities that come out of being able to read books in two languages… it spells perpetual shelving crises and lots of hard stares from your husband when the amazon boxes arrive! It’s very dangerous. I can promise you that Brits don’t read so much literature in translation, and there are very few French films I’ve enjoyed. In fact I have a problem with all arty film and only like really silly, mindless cinema, but that’s another story. Still, I’m sure I’ll keep coming up with recommendations for translated works when I can find them!

  9. Litlove I’m afraid I’m as in the dark about you on Jouve, except for the knowledge that he’s better known as a poet. I really just picked it up from the shelf because it was french lit and free.

    I’ve finished Volume I in The Italian. I’m not quite sure where you are, based on what you’ve told me, as so far Ellena has only bonded with one nun. You may have passed me by and I trod in your literary dust.

  10. You made me want to find anything about Cixous. I first heard of her when she was working with Ariane Mnouchkine at the Theatre du Soleil (not the cirque). I saw her stunning adaptation of Aschylus tragedies in the early 1990s -what a revelation! I still remember it as if it were yesterday. So she wrote many theater pieces. Thanks for the recommendation!

  11. Lovely to see your list of favorite French authors – I adore Maryse Conde and my husband is always raving about Romain Gary (we have several here but I haven’t read them yet – will definitely now!). I did read two different Patrick Modiano and for some reason just couldn’t get into them, which surprised me because I like how he writes. Have you read Ramuz? Another splendid francophone author who has been hardly translated at all. I’ll be trying to change that later this year with a translation proposal for one of his mid-career works – all fingers and toes crossed!
    One more question (you’ve hit a favorite subject of mine!) have you read Nancy Huston? She’s intriguing to me as someone who writes her books in both French and English…and she doesn’t translate, she re-writes so apparently her books can be quite different. I have two here I need to get started on and it would be interesting to hear what you think about her.

  12. Pauline – I’d love to know what you think of Cixous! Verbivore – I haven’t read any Ramuz and am now very interested in finding out more about him. Very best of luck with the translation project! And I do like Nancy Huston very much. I’ve only really read Instrument des Tenebres by her, but I thought it was fantastic. She’s just won the Prix femina or something along those lines, hasn’t she? I didn’t know that she did her own translations, though – that’s very intriguing.

  13. Hello ! I landed here for I was googling “Aurélien” of Aragon which I am just reading. I agree with you – it is just genial.
    And it is quite funny to get too know the point of view of an American reader of French novels. To my shame, I must admit that being a French myself, most of the novels you’re quoting are unknown to me. I’ll think of putting them down on my I-wanna-read-them list of books. (Well, I’m in “prépa” so… not much time… and plenty works to be read).
    And of Gautier, do you know Jettatura or Aria Marcella ? This were the first short stories of him I read and they have much impressed me.

    … translation is always a big problem… and a bad one can simply spoil the reading (I’m particularly thinking of german literature). By the way, do you know we I could find Brautigan’s poetry ? I cannot find its work in English in France.

    I’m sorry if I did too many mistakes.

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