Tag Archives: French Literature

Novels in Three Lines, by Félix Fénéon

3.5 stars3.5/5

A gift from my Uncle (thanks Uncle T!), Novels in Three Lines is the perfect book to keep on your bedside table to dip into. No vast swathes of convoluted prose here, only epic stories in miniature penned by a master of brevity.

New York Review Books, 2007 paperback edition, 208 pages - gift

The three-line “novels” contained in this book are snippets of news, known as “fait-divers” in French, which were published in the Paris daily newspaper Le Matin during the year 1906. The collection brings together 1,220 anecdotal scraps which tell of present-day events, dramatic crimes, tragedies, political stories and cover a whole world of perverse goings-on. They are almost haiku-like in the way that they sum-up so briefly, conveying events with pin-point accuracy, each with a sardonic edge.

Novels in Three Lines, is an interesting book to read in the context of the age of Twitter, which as well as being a communication device and a platform for people to broadcast themselves, has become a way of receiving news in the most immediate and abrupt way. In an era where people are overloaded with information, we often look for shorter sharper, quicker ways of absorbing it. Fénéon would have had a million followers on his Twitter account!

“Emilienne Moreau, of Plaine-Saint-Denis, had thrown herself in the drink. Then she leaped four floors. Still alive, but she’ll re-consider.”

Some of the snippets are simply FYIs:

“Some murdered women: Mme Gouriau, Mme Josserand, Mme Thiry, 24, 69, 72, of Coatméal, Saint-Maurice Sorbey (Finistere, Loire, Meuse).”

Others give news of disgruntled workers and outbreaks of disease. There also accidental tragedies which are both ludicrous and pitiable such as the woman who accidentally stabbed herself while balancing on a swing with scissors in her hand. The stories together paint quite a grim portrait of early Twentieth Century France – who on earth said things were safer in the old days!?

Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890, by Paul Signac (1890) via giganticmag.wordpress.com

This book is a good little gift for someone who likes curiosities and it’s also a clever example of how it is possible to get a message across with just a sentence or two. This review is probably an illustration of how I have yet to learn the art of brevity!

Do you like your information distilled or in detail?

Beside the Sea, by Veronique Olmi

Peirene Press, 2010, 120 pages, review copy.

Glowing reviews from other bloggers brought this little book to my attention and in doing so, Peirene Press also which is a new independent publishing house whose mission is to bring gems of contemporary European fiction to monoglots like myself who can read only in English. The Peirene translation of Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide was my first, very positive experience of this publisher and now I have read all three that have been printed so far. All are short – around 100 pages or so. The brevity of these books is not the only thing that they share however. I have found that each novella is written with a certain intensity which leaves me feeling slightly bereft on turning the final page. In this regard, Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi was no exception.

In Beside the Sea, a single mother takes her two little boys for a holiday by the seaside. How delightful, yes? No. From the outset the mood is subdued. The bus journey is late at night and it is too dark outside to be able to see the countryside as they pass it. The mother is conscious that her children are the only ones creating a disturbance. When they reach the hotel, they climb laboriously up the stairs to the sixth floor, to find a sad little room with torn sheets and a shared bathroom. When they go to the supermarket and to a cafe, people are hostile. On top of that it rains, and rains and rains.

It is clear that something is not right and that the narrator (the boys’ mother) is unsettled. References to missed medication and social workers hint at this, and an obvious lack of money suggests a deprived background. The narrative voice is at times soft and contemplative, full of love for her children, and at others veers towards anger at the world. One heartbreaking scene in the book is when they go to get a bite to eat, and the mother goes to pay with the few coins that they have:

“The owner looked disgusted, he looked at the scattered money like he’d never seen anything so dirty…”

It is hard to tell if people are really cold and cruel or if the mother, only perceives this to be the case. The mother’s internal reaction to her older son Stan’s actions seem out of proportion to reality. When they go down to the beach Stan runs off ahead in his own little world, and when she catches up to him “something terrible happened”. The little boy hits her and runs away, leaving her feeling  that a great chasm has come between them. Her language, while quite basic, is full of heavy-emotion and conveys a sense of desolation which permeates throughout the novel:

“I no longer existed. I had no voice left, no more words, nothing could reach him. I stopped shouting. Stan’s outsized clothes were moving all on their own in the wind, he reminded me of a boat. I didn’t know how to bring boats in.”

Beside the Sea, is a sad, sad novel. It is is also unique, moving and completely heart-stopping.

My rating:

9 out of 10

Book Review – Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Dangerous Liaisons was my first book choice for Riverside Readers. I saw it as if by serendipity in my local second-hand book shop a few days before my choice was to be made and the thing was decided! I haven’t (yet) seen the film version with John Malkovich and Glenn close so my only other frame of reference was Cruel Intentions! Here are my thoughts…

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is set in then parlours and private rooms of French aristocrats in the Eighteenth century. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Viscount de Valmont are rich and bored and basically enjoy manipulating the lives of others in a sort of sparring match of vicious minds. Valmont is bent upon seducing the virtuous Presidente de Tourvel while Merteuil is plotting to corrupt the young Cecile de Volanges who is on the brink of being married to a respectable and rich match. Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce Cecile and ruin her honour, and at the same time she is already being distracted by her music tutor Chevalier Danceny! The drama unfolds in a flurry of letters between the protagonists. As the name of the book suggests the games are dangerous and such complicated drama combined with Machiavellian minds of the worst kind can only lead to destructive consequences.

As you can probably tell from my synopsis, I LOVED Les Liaisons Dangereuses. If you didn’t know any better from reading the synopsis you might assume that you were about to dip into the latest edition of HELLO! magazine. And in a way, it is the same in that you are reading about the crazy lives of the very wealthiest people who have nothing better to do than create mayhem and scandal. Here’s the thing though; the novel is so wonderfully written and the characters so well exposed through the letters that I came away from it feeling as if I’d read something of a bit of a work of art (probably Rococo!). I could almost hear the rustle of skirts disappearing through doorways and imagine the vain and cruel Marquise de Merteuil at her toilette or committing her vile words to paper in a beautiful French boudoir.

I have to admit that at the beginning of the book, the French titles and names were  a bit confusing for me (even gender was a bit ambiguous) but I soon got to grips with the characters because of their distinctive voices. The character of the Marquise de Merteuil was fantastically vivid, scheming and manipulative, but strangely forthright in some of her letters. Valmont was also brilliant as the corrupting influence, never ceasing to try  a new turn of phrase to convince the Presidente de Tourval to take to his bed.
I wanted to love them both for being so clever and calculating but I couldn’t help but hate them just as much because some of the things that they do are just so morally corrupt as to be quite horrifying.

The character of the 15 year old Cecile was also joy to read Naive but also desiring of male affection she was part free spirit as much as being a pawn in the games of the evil pair. The presidente de Tourval I wasn’t sure of at first, but was impressed by her strong character and reasoned arguments. Her character was genuinely intelligent – an interesting female model to have been created by a male writer of the time.

No one comes out unscathed in Liaisons and it is a very dark and shocking book even by today’s standards. The only bit that I felt I struggled with was the middle of the book where things seem to move more slowly but in hindsight it was important to build up the climax of the novel. I think all the book-groupers felt that the middle bit was somewhat long-winded but that things picked up again quickly towards the end. Mostly I think that the majority enjoyed Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although it wasn’t quite Jackie‘s cup of tea or Kim’s. Simon (Savidge Reads) and Clare (Paperback Reader) have also posted their thoughts meaning you can read different perspectives.

I think that you will probably be able to tell if this is your kind of book or not from the thoughts above and as you can tell by now it’s one of my firm favourites. I really enjoyed this month’s Riverside Readers session, also – especially with all the impassioned discussion!

P.S. I picked up this bookmark while I was in Venice at the weekend and it just occurred to me that the picture is sort of how I imagine the Marquise de Merteuil to look, although obviously French and not Italian!

Have you read Les Liaisons Dangereuses or seen the film Dangerous Liaisons? If not, is this the kind of story that you enjoy or not?

Recent Sadness

Booking Through Thursday

Q: What’s the saddest book you’ve read recently?

A: My most recent ‘sad’ book was probably Celine Curiol’s Voice Over. It’s a novel about a woman who makes the announcements at the train station and she’s in love with a man who is in love with someone else. Here’s more about it if you’re interested: Voice Over.

What sad books have you read lately?

Celine Curiol’s Voice Over: Book Group 3

Voice Over - Celine CuriolYesterday was my third Book Blogger’s Book Group. It’s not actually called that and not everyone who goes along actually blogs but it’s just for my sanity to differentiate from my others! Anyone who’s interested in the group can find out more here on Savidge Reads’ blog.

So this months choice was Voice Over by Celine Curiol chosen by Armen. While I don’t think he did it on purpose, Armen chose a very apt follow up to The Bell Jar which we read in July. In reading Voice Over, I discovered another neurotic female character to rival Plaths. The book is a narrative of a young woman who lives in Paris. She works as an announcer in a train station and is in love with a man who we are not sure is interested in her but has a girlfriend ‘Ange’ that the protagonist seems to envy and idolises as an ‘angel’. The significance of her job to me in being the ‘voice over’ at the station is that she is a sort of faceless person, detatched from everyone around her. She gives instructions, always as they should be – mundane and correct – but never really has contact with other people. She is never named within the book.

She is somewhat oddly behaved, provoking bitchy comments from her colleagues and is also emotionally detached, living in her own little world with a naive attitude which leads her into a whole host of strange and often dangerous situations! The only people she comes into real contact with seem to be equally strange and even these connections are fleeting. She also has a sort of romantic sensibility which leads her to imagine events that haven’t happened yet with great clarity and dread or sometimes hopeful anticipation.

“She thinks of her own death. As if it were a cessation, the sudden interruption of a current, the annihilation of what she is. At any moment. She concentrates on the physical duration of time. Each instant could be the last, yet each instant, once over becomes a reprieve. And, one by one, the instance pass, nothing happens, or rather everything does: she doesn’t die.”

She acts out, announcing inappropriate things at dinner parties. It is hinted throughout that something bad has happened to her. You are lead to wonder, is this why she is so strange?

What really enhances the ‘oddness’ of this book is the way in which it is written. It seems as if it is the protagonists own train of thought, but is actually written in the third person. So you feel as if you are part of her thought process and yet detached at the same time. The sense that it is a train of thought is also made more acute by the fact that there are no chapter breaks so that you feel a bit as if you are hurtling from page to page, from event to event.

I wouldn’t say I liked the character – like Plath’s Esther in The Bell Jar, she is difficult to empathise with and very frustrating at times – but I found the novel very absorbing and thought provoking. I wanted to know more about her – what’s her name? – what is her own image of herself? – what is the nature of her attractiveness that she finds such odd suitors? – is she just plain crazy!!? I thought the writing was very skillful in creating the sense of who she was and making you a part of her curious world.

To sum up in two ajectives I’d say it was both stimulating and surreal!

Claire has also posted her thoughts on Voice Over over on her Paperback Reader blog as has Simon at Savidge Reads, Kimbofo liked it while Jackie at Farm Lane Books wasn’t so sure!

What other French fiction would you recommend?