Tag Archives: France

Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

When we hear the word ‘flâneur’, we probably think of some well-to-do chap nonchalantly wandering the streets of 19th-century Paris, idling away his time in cafés and bars, casually watching the inhabitants of the city at work and play. Irrespective of the specific figure we have in mind, the flâneur is almost certainly a man – a well-dressed dandy, possibly like the central pen-and-ink sketch on the cover of this Vintage edition of Flâneuse. The flâneur is a consummate observer, looking without participating, preferring to remain somewhat distanced from the action in his leisurely pursuits.

In this fascinating book, the critically-acclaimed writer and translator Lauren Elkin shows us another side of flâneusing, highlighting the existence of the female equivalent, the eponymous flâneuse. While the male flâneur has been well documented over time, much less has been written about his female counterpart, possibly due to the social restrictions placed on women’s movements around the cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, as Elkin eloquently argues, women walkers have often been present in cities; they just haven’t been identified or mythologised as flâneuses.  

To suggest that they couldn’t be a female version of the flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city. We can talk about social mores and restrictions but we cannot rule out the fact that women were there; we must try to understand what walking in the city meant to them. Perhaps the answer is not to attempt to make a woman fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself.

If we tunnel back, we find there always was a flâneuse passing Baudelaire in the street. (p. 11)

Through a captivating combination of memoir, social history and cultural studies/criticism, Elkin walks us through several examples of notable flâneuses down the years, demonstrating that the joy of traversing the city has been shared by men and women alike.

Each chapter highlights a different female walker in touch with her city. So, we have Virginia Woolf walking through London’s Bloomsbury, an experience vividly portrayed in the writer’s evocative essay Street Haunting; George Sand, who has to dress like a man to roam freely in 19th-century Paris; and Martha Gellhorn, the journalist and travel writer who captures the Civil War through a series of remarkable reports, straight from the front line in late ‘30s Madrid.

Elkin also explores leading cultural figures that fit the bill, most notably the acclaimed writer Jean Rhys and the legendary filmmaker Agnes Varda – two of my favourite artists in their respective creative fields.

Many of Rhys’ early novellas and stories feature desolate women marginalised from society through poverty, abandonment, banishment and ageing. They drift around the Left Bank of Paris, frequently shuttling from one down-at-heel boarding house to another, totally reliant on men for clothes, meals and drink. It’s a solitary and painful existence, brilliantly conveyed through Rhys’ laconic, incisive prose.

Varda, on the other hand, shows us how a woman in the city – essentially a flâneuse – can move from being the object of someone’s gaze to the one doing the looking. In one of her most famous films, Cléo de 5 à 7 (shot in 1962), the camera follows a young woman as she moves around Paris, nervously awaiting the results of a biopsy, naturally fearing the worst. Elkin posits that the film challenges the view that a woman could not traverse the streets of Paris the way a man does – i.e. anonymously, observing without being seen. However, by shifting Cleo’s status from object to subject – i.e. the one doing the looking as opposed to being watched – Varda is portraying a new sense of liberation for women in the city.

As Cléo stops thinking of herself purely in terms of how others see her, the camera stops watching Cléo only from the exterior, and begins to represent the world from her point of view. The film specifically challenges the idea that a woman could not walk the streets the way a man does, anonymously, taking in the spectacle; a woman is the spectacle, goes this argument. Looking, not simply appearing, signals the beginning of women’s freedom in the city. (p. 220)

Interspersed with these portraits from cultural history are Elkin’s own thoughtful reflections on her explorations of various cities around the world. Flâneusing is Elkin’s preferred method of getting to know a city, exploring its geography on foot, crossing through different areas and neighbourhoods, and ultimately connecting them together to build a mental picture or map. It’s her way of feeling more at home in a new territory, grounding herself in its physical spaces, urban geography and, importantly, the attendant social culture.

Having grown up in the Long Island suburbs – an environment she found somewhat stifling and restrictive – Elkin moved to New York as a student, revelling in the freedom and diversity this metropolis represented. Over the past twenty years, she has spent time in Paris – the city she now considers her home – Venice and Tokyo, the latter proving particularly challenging to the habitual flâneuse.

I had been trying to find the city on street level, but that’s not where it was. To flâneuse in Tokyo I had to walk up staircases, take elevators, climb ladders, to find what I was looking for upstairs, or on rooftops. You can’t just walk through the city waiting for beauty to appear. This isn’t Paris. (p. 180)

The move to Tokyo is dictated by external influences when a change of role for Elkin’s boyfriend, a successful banker, prompts a transfer to Japan. Sadly, it’s a step too far for Elkin, ultimately exposing the fault lines in the couple’s relationship, culminating in a permanent split and Elkin’s return to Paris.

By writing Flâneuse, Elkin has given us an elegant meditation on women traversing the urban landscape on foot, exploring the geography, boundaries and cultural ‘feel’ of various cities through the wanderings of the flâneuse. As she remarks towards the beginning of the book, once you start looking, it’s possible to spot the flâneuse pretty much anywhere, typically in a state of ‘in-betweenness’, coming or going from one place to another.

She [the flâneuse] gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind facades, penetrating into secret courtyards. I found her using cities as performance spaces, or as hiding places; as places to seek fame and fortune or anonymity; as places to liberate herself from oppression or to help those who are oppressed; as places to declare her independence; as places to change the world or be changed by it. (p. 22)

Elkin is a marvellous companion – articulate and informative without being didactic, likely to inspire readers to embark on a bit of flâneusing of their own. This is such a thoughtful, erudite, fascinating book, written in a style that I found thoroughly engaging – probably my favourite non-fiction read so far this year.

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

I’ve been meaning to try more of Annie Ernaux’s work for the past six months, ever since I read her hugely impressive memoir, The Years, published in France in 2008. It’s a fascinating, distinctive book, a kind of collective biography in which the cultural and social history of a generation – Ernaux’s generation – is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. So, with the imminent release of Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of Ernaux’s Happening (another memoir), I was galvanised into action. (The film picked up the prestigious Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and I’m very eager to see it.)

First published in French in 2000, and translated into English in 2001, Happening takes us back to October 1963 when Ernaux was twenty-three, studying literature at Rouen University and living in the college halls of residence. Like most young women of her day, Ernaux uses the Ogino (or ‘rhythm’) method of birth control to minimise the chances of conceiving. (Other, more reliable forms of contraception were not legally sanctioned in France until 1967, four years down the line.)

Unfortunately for Ernaux, she falls pregnant, something she resists naming explicitly as this would feel like a validation of her status – for example, why use the word ‘expecting’ when she has no intention of giving birth? It’s a pregnancy that Ernaux is determined to terminate, partly due to the restrictions it would impose on her day-to-day life and partly for the associated stigma and sense of shame. (Ernaux’s desire to distance herself from her working-class background – her parents run a grocer’s shop – remains an important theme in her work.)

Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalaureate nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure. (p. 23)

Abortion was illegal in France in the early ‘60s, and the penalties for any involvement in such a practice were widely known to be severe. Consequently, Ernaux must find someone who is willing to perform a backstreet termination – something she manages to do through a contact of a friend. The abortionist is a nurse, a plain-speaking woman in her sixties who will conduct the procedure at her home in Paris, a small flat in the 17th arrondissement. Interestingly, there is a quiet determination about this woman who simply focuses on the essentials at hand. She makes no judgments about Annie’s decision to abort; there are no awkward questions or feelings to be explored, just the practical details of what needs to happen and when.

In essence, Happening is an account of Ernaux’s experiences of the abortion – her quest to secure it, what takes place during the procedure and the days that follow, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. While Ernaux wishes to convey a steady flow of unhappiness during this time in her life, she remains mindful of not clouding her experiences with any emotional outbursts – outpourings that would signal either anger or emotional pain.

What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just the unflinchingly honest details of a topic that remains controversial even in today’s relatively liberated society. Ernaux spares us nothing about the messy details of the procedure itself and what happens in the aftermath. As such, readers need to be aware of the potentially triggering nature of some of the content in this book. Happening is a searingly honest account of a taboo subject, but it may cut too close to the bone for some readers depending on their own views and experiences.

Interspersed throughout the text are some of Ernaux’s reflections about writing the book, ruminations on what she is trying to achieve by exploring these events. There is a sense of her trying to immerse herself in a particular section of her life to learn what can be found there. It’s an experience that comes with its own challenges, forty years on. For instance, she talks about the process of accessing various memories, how certain objects such as a basin of water in the woman’s apartment remain vivid in her mind while specific emotions are much harder to recapture. Nevertheless, some general feelings remain accessible even if the finer details do not.

(To experience anew the emotions I felt back then is quite impossible. The closest I can get to the state of terror thrust upon me that week is to pick out any hostile, harsh-looking woman in her sixties waiting in line at the supermarket or the post office and to imagine that she is going to rummage around in my loins with some foreign object.) (p. 51)

By recounting this traumatic experience, one deeply connected to life and death, perhaps Ernaux is looking to translate the personal into something of broader social relevance. Towards the end of Happening, she wonders whether the true purpose of her life is to channel various experiences – both physical and emotional – into her writing. There is a desire to create ‘something intelligent and universal’ from her existence, reflections that may prove useful to others – an aim I think she has achieved with this powerful, uncompromising book.

Happening is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks for the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen  

First published in 1935, The House in Paris is probably one of Elizabeth Bowen’s most accomplished novels. It’s certainly the most atmospheric of the four I’ve read to date, an elegantly constructed story of deceptions, infidelity and identity, infused with a sense of secrecy that feels apparent from the start.

The novel is divided into three sections, the first and third of which (both titled ‘The Present’) take place on the same day – a fateful day in the lives of Bowen’s four main characters, as the narrative ultimately reveals. As the book opens, eleven-year-old Henrietta has just arrived in Paris, where she will spend the day with the Fishers before continuing her journey to Menton, where her grandmother is spending the winter. In short, the Fishers’ is a stopover point for Henrietta between trains – a visit arranged by the girl’s grandmother, Mrs Arbuthnot, and her friend, Miss Naomi Fisher.

Also waiting at the Fishers’ house in Paris in Leopold, a nine-year-old boy who is due to meet his mother, Karen, for the first time since his birth – a reunion that coincides with Henrietta’s visit purely by chance, much to Naomi’s concern. The circumstances surrounding Leopold’s parentage are clearly something of a mystery, with Bowen dropping clues here and there for the reader to piece together. For instance, when Henrietta arrives at the Fishers’ house, she is introduced to Naomi’s mother, Mme Fisher, a manipulative elderly lady in the dying days of her life. While Naomi is keen for Leopold to be treated sensitively, Mme Fisher is much less discreet, readily disclosing her daughter’s link to the boy’s father as she talks to Henrietta.

‘Oh,’ Henrietta said, ‘did you know his father too?’

‘Quite well,’ said Mme Fisher. ‘He broke Naomi’s heart.’

She mentioned this impatiently, as though it had been some annoying domestic mishap. Henrietta, glancing across the bed, saw Miss Fisher’s eyelids glued down with pain. Then, with the air of having known all along this would come, the helpless daughter rolled up her knitting quickly, as though to terminate something, perhaps the pretence of safety, jabbing her needles through it with violent calm. (p. 43)

Leopold, too, learns something of the mystery surrounding his birth during his time at the Paris house. While Henrietta is upstairs with Miss Fisher and her bedridden mother, Leopold finds some letters in Naomi’s handbag – one from his guardians, the Grant Moodys, outlining various sensitivities to Naomi, and another from Mrs Arbuthnot on the details of Henrietta’s trip. However, a third letter – a note from Leopold’s mother to Naomi – is missing, remaining unavailable to the reader and Leopold himself. Nevertheless, there are worrying references to his parents’ temperaments – ‘instability on the father’s side’ and a ‘lack of control on the mother’s’ – in the first letter that Leopold discovers. 

Slowly but surely, Bowen ratchets up the sense of tension as the two children circle one another in the Paris house. It’s a dark, claustrophobic place, heightened by the oppressive air in Mme Fisher’s sick room and the poisonous events of the past.

Round the curtained bedhead, Pompeian red walls drank objects into their shadow: picture-frames, armies of bottles, boxes, an ornate clock showed without glinting, as though not quite painted out by some dark transparent wash. Henrietta had never been in a room so full and still. (p. 36)

Bowen excels at portraying these children, skilfully capturing their growing awareness of the adult world while a fuller picture of its mysteries remains tantalisingly out of reach.

In the novel’s second section (‘The Past’), Bowen takes us back ten years to a time when Naomi was engaged to Max Ebhart, a Jewish banker of French-English heritage. Central to this section is Naomi’s friend, Karen Michaelis – herself engaged to Ray Forrestier, a respectable man from the ‘right’ background and social class – and it is by focusing on Karen’s story that we learn the origins of Leopold’s birth.

One of the things Bowen does so well here is to show us how the past shapes the present, how former indiscretions and secrets can bleed into the here and now in the most painful of ways. Consequently, there is an air of damage or trauma surrounding Leopold, a lack of motherly love and sense of identity that have left their marks on his character.

Bowen’s prose is beautiful, if a little tricky to get to grips with from time to time. Nevertheless, there is some lovely descriptive writing here, from the glimpses of Paris in the morning light to the sun-drenched cul-de-sacs of Boulogne during a secret assignation.

Today, the salt sunshine bought every shape nearer, as though distance has been parched out. Doorways, cobbles, arches and stone steps looked sentient and porous in the glare. Buildings basked like cats in the kind heat, having been gripped by cold mists, having ached in unkind nights, been buffeted in the winter. Hot wind tugged now and then at the flags down on the Casino, stretching the flags, then letting them drop again. Flashing, a window was thrown open uphill. What you saw, you felt. (p. 139)

The House in Paris is an elegantly constructed novel in which the past is firmly intertwined with the present – a structure that Tessa Hadley mirrors in her 2015 novel, The Past, with a clear nod to Bowen’s approach.

The House in Paris is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore

My second review for Karen and Simon’s #1976Club is The Doctor’s Wife, the Booker shortlisted novel by the Belfast-born writer Brian Moore. Set against the backdrop of Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s, this compelling narrative explores the tensions between personal freedoms and the restrictions imposed by marriage, particularly in a traditional society.

The novel’s focus is Sheila Redden, a thirty-seven-year-old woman who lives in Belfast with her surgeon husband, Kevin, and their fifteen-year-old son, Danny. Attractive and intelligent by nature, Sheila married young, sacrificing any personal aspirations for a life of marriage, motherhood and domesticity. Now, sixteen years after their wedding, Sheila has persuaded Kevin to return to Villefranche on the French Riviera for a second honeymoon, a chance perhaps to rekindle their relationship after years of stagnation.

When the pressures of the surgery cause a delay, Sheila sets off for France alone, hoping that Kevin will follow two or three days later, despite his apparent reluctance to travel. En route to the South of France, Sheila stops in Paris to stay the night with Peg, a friend from her student days, and it is here in the city that the stability of her marriage is derailed. When Sheila meets Tom Lowry – a carefree American graduate ten years her junior – the attraction between the two of them is instant and undeniable. To Sheila, Tom represents freedom, opportunity and the possibility of fulfilment – elements that have been sorely lacking in her life for the past several years.

She turned to him, seeing him toss his long dark hair, his eyes shining, his walk eager, as though he and she were hurrying off to some exciting rendezvous. And at once she was back in Paris in her student days, as though none of the intervening years had happened, those years of cooking meals, and buying Danny’s school clothes, being nice to Kevin’s mother, and having other doctors and their wives in for dinner parties, all that laundry list of events that had been her life since she married Kevin. (p. 27)

Before she knows it, Sheila is embroiled in a passionate affair, a relationship that deepens in intensity when firstly, Tom follows her to Villefranche and secondly, Kevin’s departure for France is further delayed. Naturally, Kevin eventually discovers what his wife has been up to, enlisting the help of her brother, Owen – another doctor – in his attempts to persuade his wife to return home.

As in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Moore demonstrates his ability to get into the minds of his characters – skilfully conveying their hopes and dreams, their failings and violations. With the exception of Tom – who feels rather lightly sketched compared to the other individuals in the novel – the characterisation is excellent, rich in detail and shading. Owen Deane is a particular case in point, a man caught between a sense of loyalty and duty of care towards his sister and the pressure being wielded by Kevin in his attempts to bring Sheila ‘to her senses’.

As the narrative plays out, Sheila must try to reconcile her marital commitments and responsibilities with the lure of freedom and fulfilment. Over the years, she has been ground down by Kevin, complete with his patriarchal attitude and petty jealousies – issues that bubble up now and again whenever another man shows an interest. It is no accident that Sheila is referred to as ‘Mrs Redden’ throughout the novel, a woman defined by her position in the marriage.

The novel also explores mental illness and how men sometimes try to use this excuse as leverage to control women, particularly those they consider to be wilful or wayward. The shadow of religion is another visible presence, adding to the complexities of the struggle between family loyalties and personal liberation. There is a lot going on in this subtle novel, even if I didn’t quite buy into Tom as a character and the speed with which he fell for Sheila Redden…

The Doctor’s Wife is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.

The Years by Annie Ernaux (tr. Alison L. Strayer)

Broad in scope, evocative in detail, The Years is the French writer Annie Ernaux’s dazzling collective autobiography, in which the cultural and social history of a generation is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. It is a hugely impressive work, drawing on photographs, personal memories, cultural references, political history and social trends, threading together the perspectives of an individual (Ernaux), a generation (those who grew up in the aftermath of WW2) and a nation (France).

The underlying narrative running through the text is based on the trajectory of Ernaux’s life, from 1940, her birth year, to the mid-2000s, not long before the book was first published in French. Interestingly Ernaux uses ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ when conveying her own personal experiences, almost as if she is observing herself from a distance while writing the book. The collective experiences, however, are conveyed through the use of ‘we’, reflecting the ideas and perspectives of Ernaux’s generation and social class.

In fact, the question of how best to approach this style of memoir is one that Ernaux grapples with in the book. This is not the usual kind of autobiography, designed to convey an individual’s life history, story or analysis of the self. Instead, Ernaux envisages ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’, a text that will portray the passage of time, both individually and collectively – the blending of the personal with the universal referred to above.

She would like to assemble these multiple images of herself, separate and discordant, thread them together with the story of her existence, starting with her birth during World War II up until the present day. Therefore, an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of the generation. (p. 169)

By applying this approach to The Years, Ernaux recognises that our lives and experiences are influenced by the broader political, social and cultural environments in which we find ourselves. Moreover, our personal values and beliefs are reflected in our stances on these external dynamics, highlighting the relationship between the internal and external.

Over the course of the book, Ernaux focuses on key timepoints in her life: birth, childhood, adolescence, a move to college, early marriage and motherhood, the separation and divorce from her husband at forty, her relationship with a much younger lover at the age of fifty-seven. Each of these snapshots in time is introduced through the description of a photograph or a video clip. It’s an engaging way to open each section, cleverly blending imagery with glimpses of the author’s personal experiences and inner thoughts. In the photo described here, Ernaux – who is nineteen at this point – is posing with her college classmates, the philosophy class at the Rouen Lycée.

She is in the second row, third from the left. It is difficult to see in her the girl with the provocative pose from the previous photo, taken scarcely two years earlier. She wears glasses again, and a ponytail from which a lock of hair escapes at the neck. Frizzy bangs do nothing to soften her serious demeanour. Her face bears no sign of the events of the summer before, the boy’s invasion of her being, as semi-defloration evinced by the bloodstained underwear hidden between some books in her cupboard. No sign, either, of her actions and movements after the event: walking the streets after school in hope of seeing him; returning to the young ladies’ residence and weeping. Spending hours on an essay topic and understanding nothing. (pp. 73–74)

Feminism, sex and the female body are prominent themes in the book, highlighting their importance to Ernaux and her generation. Ernaux was a teenager in the mid-1950s, a decade too early to fully benefit from the sexual revolution at this point. It was a time when parents monitored their daughters very closely, scrutinising their clothes, make-up, movements and relationships. For Ernaux and her contemporaries, ‘shame lay in wait at every turn’, while the need to conform to societal expirations limited their freedoms and experiences. Nevertheless, like any enterprising teenagers, they managed to evade these restrictions now again, immersing themselves in the culture of the moment.

But we outsmarted the surveillance and went to see The Girl in the Bikini and Tempest in the Flesh with Françoise Arnoul. We would have loved to resemble the film heroines, possess the freedom to behave as they did. But between the films and books, on the one hand, and the dictates of society on the other, lay a vast zone of prohibition and moral judgement. To identify with anything we saw in the films or the heroines was forbidden. (p. 50)

Cultural and technological references also feature heavily in the book, with Ernaux conveying a picture of post-war French life, a world of rapidly evolving technologies, cultural trends and consumer behaviour. In terms of approach, the following passage gives a feel for Ernaux’s style, characterised as it is by the fusion of elements from various aspects of her world.

There would be the SS France, the Caravelle jetliner and the Concorde, school until sixteen, centres of arts and culture, the Common Market, and, sooner or later peace in Algeria. There were new francs, scoubidou bracelets, flavoured yoghurt, milk in cartons, transistor radios. For the first time one could listen to music anywhere, whether one was lying on the beach with the radio next one’s head or walking down the street. The joy of the transistor was of an unknown species. One could be alone but not alone, and have at one’s command the noise and diversity of the world (p. 76)

As one might expect, historical and political events cast their shadows over the lived experience – developments such as the Algerian war, the protests of May 1968, the election of François Mitterrand, the rise of the far right, AIDS, 9/11, etc. etc. As the years go by, we continue to glimpse moments from Ernaux’s life as her two sons grow up, leave home, find partners and have children of their own. Towards the end, there is a noticeable sense of melancholy, a growing awareness perhaps on the part of Ernaux of her own mortality, as the time she has ahead of her inevitably decreases. Not for any pressing reason – it’s simply the natural passage of time.

In summary, The Years is an evocative meditation on the lives of a generation, a beautifully written text that highlights the impact of collective history on personal memories and experiences. A fascinating book best experienced in person – I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here.

The Years is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This is such a beautiful, evocative novella, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

The story takes place in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. Right from the start there is a particular ‘feel’ to the sister’s neighbourhood, a quietness and slower pace of life compared to the buzz of the inner city.

As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story emerges, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a hidden relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man named Marc Hermann, whom she met at her husband’s office. Very little seemed to happen between Claire Marie and Marc at the time – they met one another in secret a few times, mostly walking in the local parks and forests – and yet one senses a deep connection between them, despite the somewhat sinister edge.

She was almost sure that he was lying to her about a great many things, but she felt certain that he was alone and that his solitude was complete, so dense that she could perceive the space it occupied around him, and that solitude touched her heart. (p. 103)

At first, the story seems a relatively simple one; but as the narrative progresses, additional layers begin to emerge, enhancing the air of mystery surrounding these characters. There’s a sense of unspoken desire here, of missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. Both Jane Eyre and Chekhov are referenced in the novella, acting as touchstones for Barbéris’ story. Nevertheless, I don’t want to say too much about what developed between Claire Marie and Marc – in many respects, it’s probably best for readers to discover this for themselves.

What hopes, what expectations remained to her? What could still happen? Would the passing hours simply ‘wound’ her, one by one? (p. 74)

Barbéris excels in capturing the languid feel of a Sunday in the Parisian suburbs – the heaviness in the air; the dusky light as the afternoon slides into the evening; the appearance of raindrops on windows; the vivid colours of the trees with their autumn foliage.

Because the trees in the park were veterans planted long ago, they held up better. Their autumn foliage, with the shiny red, the buttercup yellow, the brilliant russet of certain varieties – exactly the same colour as the dried stems of the chrysanthemums people would leave in pots in cemeteries or decorate crossroads with – made patches of fantastic light when the shadows were settling in. (p. 60)

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is a haunting, dreamlike novella – intimate and hypnotic in style. There is a sense of time expanding and then contracting again as Claire Marie recounts her story, a tale that very much reflects her passive, indecisive personality. As the narrator returns home late on Sunday evening, we are almost left wondering whether the afternoon was a dream, with Claire Marie representing an alter-ego of sorts, another side to the narrator’s life. There is an otherworldly aspect to the Ville-d’Avray suburb, a dreamscape that gives the novella an enigmatic feel throughout. Either way, it’s an absorbing read, ideal for a lazy Sunday afternoon as the light begins to fade.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers and Independent Alliance for a reading copy. (I read this book for Biblibio’s #WITMonth event, which is running throughout August.)

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Cusk’s latest novel, recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, is narrated by M, a female writer – probably in her late thirties or early forties, certainly at a pivotal point in her life. M and her husband, Tony (the strong, silent type), live amid a remote, rural landscape within touching distance of the marshlands – somewhere in France, I think. The couple’s land also includes another property, the titular ‘second place’ representing one interpretation of the novel’s title (but perhaps not the only meaning of the term). Having demolished the original building and rebuilt it brick by brick, M and Tony now see the second place as a creative retreat, the kind of setting where writers and artists can hopefully find inspiration while choosing to remain distanced, should they so desire. 

Early in the novel, it becomes clear that M wishes to invite a male artist, L, to spend time in the second place. While M has not met this artist in person before, she feels deeply drawn to his work. Some fifteen years earlier, a chance encounter with L’s paintings at a Paris exhibition catalysed a moment of revelation for M, prompting her to leave her first husband and father of her daughter, Justine – now in her early twenties and living at home.

I felt myself falling out of the frame I had lived in for years, the frame of human implication in a particular set of circumstances. From that moment, I ceased to be immersed in the story of my own life and became distinct from it. (pp. 12-13, Faber)

M writes to L, inviting him to spend some time at the retreat – and in time, following a few false starts, L accepts, suddenly confirming his arrival like a bolt from the blue. M’s hope seems to be two-fold: firstly, that L will be able to capture the essence of the marshlands, a place of ‘desolation, and solace and mystery’ (other artists have tried in the past without complete success); secondly, that L will unlock something at the centre of M’s soul, a recognition perhaps of her individuality.

However, when M and Tony go to collect L at the harbour, a surprise awaits. L has brought a companion with him, a beautiful young English woman named Brett, who immediately unsettles M with her barbed, penetrating comments and invasion of personal space. To M, Brett also represents a rival for L’s attentions / affections, particularly with her liberated attitude and ‘ravishing’ looks.

While L presents as self-centred and cushioned from the realities of the world, he also evokes a sense of mystery and allure. For the narrator, the presence of L (and Brett as an uninvited interloper) destabilises her existence, causing M to question some fundamental self-perceptions, most notably her self-control and usual ability to reign everything in. Yet, while the emotions M experiences are deeply unnerving, there is a recognition of some potential positives, too – the opening up of new possibilities, a new form of liberty, perhaps.  

But I had already understood that this was to be the keynote of my dealings with him, this balking of my will and of my vision of events, the wresting from me of control in the most intimate transactions, not by any deliberate act of sabotage on his part but by virtue of the simple fact that he himself could not be controlled. Inviting him into my life had been all my affair! And I saw suddenly, that morning, that this loss of control held new possibilities for me, however angry and ugly and out of sorts it had made me feel so far, as though it were itself a kind of freedom. (p. 61)

As the scenario unfolds, a battle of wits plays out between these two individuals. M is confronted by the ‘compartmentalised nature’ of her personality, how she keeps things in separate chambers, ultimately deciding what to show to other people and what to conceal. L, it seems, has a knack for making others see themselves without being able to do very much about what is revealed. There is a sense that M’s self-perception of a life ‘built on love and freedom of choice’ is being challenged here, potentially revealing a weak kind of selfishness underneath. Throughout this dance, M vacillates between craving L’s affection and trying to protect herself against him, ultimately to the risk of her relationship with Tony.

There is much to admire in this elegantly constructed novel of discontentment, control and freedom – in particular, what ‘freedom’ represents for men vs women. (To M, L’s paintings convey an ‘aura of absolute freedom’, a freedom that is ‘elementally and unrepentantly male’.) Cusk’s prose is precise and beautifully judged, her observations on the psychological dynamics are sharp and insightful. And yet, reflecting on this novel as a whole, I’m not entirely sure what it’s trying to say. There are several very funny scenes here, not least given the tensions sparked by Brett and her presence in the mix. For instance, within minutes of meeting her hosts, Brett is touching M’s hair, declaring it to be ‘quite dry’ and suggesting ways to camouflage the grey discretely. Ouch!

Justine’s boyfriend, Kurt, is another source of amusement with his attempts to be a writer, complete with black velvet housecoat and red tam-o’-shanter hat. However, to view it as merely a social comedy or a standard novel of mid-life, middle-class discontentment might be too simple a reading. There seems to be something deeper going on here, more threatening in certain respects.

Perhaps Cusk is asking us as readers to consider our own lives, replete with their inherent facades and misconceptions? Prompting us to turn the mirror on ourselves, as M might be hinting here through her questions to Jeffers (the intended recipient of M’s narrative account).

Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so, from the things we ourselves have invented? Do you understand it, Jeffers? (p.7)

Interestingly, the novel is set against the backdrop of some kind of recent global crisis. The economy has collapsed, resulting in a devaluation of L’s art, together with the disappearance of Justine’s and Kurt’s former jobs. Travel has also been severely restricted, possibly suggesting a nod to the current pandemic, although the specific nature of the catastrophe is never fully revealed.

At the end of the book, Cusk explains that her novel ‘owes a debt to Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D. H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico’. In her version, Cusk has chosen to cast a painter (L) in the notional role of Lawrence, but the book is intended to be a tribute to Luhan’s spirit. As I understand it, Luhan and Lawrence had a fractured relationship, with Luhan oscillating between devotion and a form of retreat. The sense of emptiness she experienced in his absence was keenly felt. As a consequence of the visit, Lawrence threatened to ‘destroy’ Luhan – and this element of danger is mirrored in the Cusk.

Dorian has also written about the book here – a perspective that is well worth reading, particularly given his familiarity with D. H. Lawrence’s life and work.

Second Place is published by Faber; personal copy.

Nada by Jean-Patrick Manchette (tr. by Donald Nicholson-Smith)

I think I have Max (at Pechorin’s Journal) to thank for introducing me to Jean-Patrick Manchette, the French novelist, screenwriter and translator credited with reinvigorating the crime genre in the 1970s and early ‘80s. As an author, Manchette was instrumental in developing the ‘néo-polar’ noir, a strand of crime fiction characterised by an engagement with political and social radicalism. Before starting this blog, I read three of Manchette’s novels, Three to Kill, Fatale and The Prone Gunman, all of which I would thoroughly recommend. (Max and Guy have written about them in detail, so do check out their reviews if you’re interested in discovering more.)

Nada, Manchette’s fourth novel, is the tense and gripping story of a kidnapping that turns sour. Like this author’s other books, there’s a strong political edge to the narrative, highlighting the corruption that remains endemic within the country’s authorities.

The Nada of the book’s title relates to a criminal gang – an ill-assorted bunch of revolutionaries, intellectuals and disaffected alcoholics – who decide to kidnap the US Ambassador to France during his weekly trip to a Parisian brothel. It’s not entirely clear what the Nada collective hopes to achieve from this stunt – revolution, money, notoriety, martyrdom? – maybe it varies for different members within the group. What is evident though is the unmistakable air of self-destruction hanging over the mission, which seems destined to implode, virtually from the very start.

Central to the gang is Andre Épaulard, a fifty-year-old trained killer with links to the Communist Resistance, stemming from the time of Germany’s Occupation of France. At first, Épaulard is somewhat reluctant to join the group but is finally lured in through a connection with one of the other members. A lone wolf at heart, Épaulard is also the one most likely to stay focused when the situation blows up. By contrast, Buenaventura Diaz is something of a hothead, a professional revolutionary from Catalonia in Spain – liable to go rogue at any given moment.

Also of significance is Treuffais, a disaffected philosophy teacher in his mid-twenties who loathes the college establishment, particularly the bourgeoisie with their conventional middle-class attitudes. As the group’s resident intellectual, Treuffais is responsible for drafting the Nada manifesto; and while not an active participant in the Ambassador’s abduction itself, he remains a vital connection to the group as the aftermath unfolds.

Completing the group are D’Arcy, the gang’s alcoholic driver; Meyer, a somewhat aimless waiter whose role in the mission appears somewhat unclear; and Veronique Cash, a gritty young woman whose farm will be used as the gang’s main hideout.

D’Arcy left the building carrying a screwdriver with a set of interchangeable heads. He stopped at the end of the street to toss down a double Ricard in a dive, then walked on to Place de la Concorde and thence towards Place de l’Étoile. He inspected the parked cars. Not far from the Petit Palais, he came upon a Consul station wagon with an open window. He got into the vehicle and spent a good ten minutes hot-wiring it and unlocking the steering wheel. He set the car in motion, merged into the still fairly heavy traffic, made a detour so as to get onto Rue de Rivoli westbound, found a parking space, popped in for another double Ricard and went back up to Épaulard’s. (p. 57)

There is a brutal efficiency to Nada as it hurtles towards its inevitable destination at a lightning-fast speed. The writing is tight, pared-back and relentless, clearly portraying a world caught up in the politics of corruption. And yet, there is a touch of facetiousness in Manchette’s prose, a mordant note of humour which accentuates the absurd.

Meyer wanted to shoot himself or just go to work – it was hard to say which. He looked at his watch. Two fifteen. Just time enough to avoid being late. (p. 16)

“I’m a murderer,” said D’Arcy.

“Settle down,” said Épaulard. “You ran down an American agent and knocked out a cop. That’s all.”

“I killed that cop.”

“With a slingshot?”

“I killed him,” D’Arcy repeated calmly. “I want to drink myself to oblivion.” (p. 67)

When the Ambassador’s abduction comes to light, the police see an opportunity to dictate the narrative, even at the expense of preserving the victim’s life. In essence, the desire to pin the blame on the terrorists seems to trump any other, more humane considerations – thereby highlighting how the story is likely to play out, especially in the media.

What’s interesting about this novel is how it feels at once both modern and a product of its time – particularly in its depiction of the authoritarian corruption that characterises the era. A reflection perhaps on life in the early ‘70s, the period following the civil unrest triggered by the Paris uprising of ’68 when students and unions alike were pushing for significant change. Nevertheless, there is a strong sense of fatalism running through the narrative, an acceptance of there being little point in trying to transform political policy, irrespective of means. Each member of the Nada gang has their own individual frustrations with the system, fuelling their sense of desire to gain redress or retribution for their grievances.

In summary, then, Nada is a ruthlessly efficient noir with a strong political edge, the kind of fatalistic narrative destined to end in frenzied self-destruction. Recommended for fans of Simenon and Leonardo Sciascia, both of whom have also been published by NYRB Classics.

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s paternal grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century – the product of a decade’s worth of meticulous and illuminating research on the part of the author. And yet, it is also a thoughtful meditation on the challenges of being Jewish during this fateful period of history, touching on issues such as identity, immigration, assimilation and social mobility. I’m already saving a place for it in my reading highlights of the year.

My grandmother would sit under an umbrella, separate from us. She was further protected from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat, various Hermès – or Hermès-esque – silk scarves wound in complicated knots around her neck, mini Dior handbag in her lap. She looked as distinctly French as my grandfather looked American, with the naturally soft, elegant looks of a Renoir painting but now overlaid with the melancholy of a Hopper one. (p. 3)

The discovery of a burnished red shoebox, full of tantalising mementos of Sala’s past, catalyses Freeman’s quest to understand her grandmother’s life and personal history. While the focus of the initial research is Sala, it soon broadens to encompass her brothers, each one possessing an intriguing backstory of his own. The journey is a fascinating one, taking Freeman from Picasso’s archives in Paris to an isolated farmhouse in Auvergne to the concentration camps of Poland.

glass

Sala was born in 1910, the youngest child of Reuben and Chaya Glahs, Polish Jews living in Chrzanow, which at the time was part of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The tension between tradition and progression was already present within the Jewish community at this point. At the age of twelve, Sala’s eldest brother, Jehuda, urges his parents to be ‘less obviously Jewish’, ultimately persuading them to change the family name to the more westernised ‘Glass’ – ‘something simultaneously strong and fragile, able to withstand pressure but prone to breaking’.

In the early 1920s, as pogroms against the Jews begin to sweep through Poland, the family moves to Paris, settling initially in the Marais Pletzl, a rundown area housing many Jewish immigrants – and it is from here that the Glasses begin to establish new lives and personal identities for themselves.

Jehuda becomes Henri, who, following his training as an engineer in Prague, settles in Paris where he works in the garment trade. Marriage to Sonia, a bright, resourceful Polish woman with a talent for languages, soon follows, as does a move into a more lucrative career in photoimaging. In a remarkable turn of events, Henri invents the Omniphot microfilming machine, a device that plays a significant role in the Resistance movement during the Second World War.

Jakob becomes Jacques, a passive, mild-mannered man who finds work as a furrier. A spell in the French Foreign Legion follows in the early stages of the war.

Sender, however, takes a somewhat different path to his older brothers. An ambitious, self-motivated individual at heart, Sender becomes Alex Maguy, a creative genius with a passion for beauty and the best of French culture. Through a combination of artfulness, hard work and determination, Alex works his way up from apprentice in a garment workshop to owner of a couture salon by the age of twenty. It’s a fascinating and successful career, one that brings him into contact with several leading artists and designers of the period, including Christian Dior and René Gruau, both of whom work as illustrators for Alex’s label.

Like Alex, Sara (aka Sala), is captivated by the culture of Paris, a city steeped in art, beauty and fashion. However, just when her life appears to be at its most radiant – she studies art, finds a job and falls in love – political developments intervene, causing the family to take action. In 1937, Alex arranges for Sara to marry Bill Freiman, an American businessman who promises a life of relative comfort and safety. Much to her dismay, Sara must make a terrible sacrifice – to give up her own happiness for the sake of her family, largely in the belief that they will be able to join her in the US.

In what must have been a state close to shock, Sara began to accept that she was going to America to marry a man she didn’t know and liked less. She would never have done it just to save herself. But for her whole family? Of course she went.

[…] The only option open to Sara was the one that countless women had been forced to take before her: marry someone she did not love. It is the traditional form of female sacrifice, so common that it was considered at the time expected and unremarkable. What would have been extraordinary, in the eyes of those around her then, is if she’d refused to do it. (p. 160)

By tracing the lives of Sara/Sala and her siblings, Freeman teases out various differences that prove influential in shaping their destinies. In particular, there are questions around passivity vs action, compliance vs defiance and separateness vs assimilation.

When the authorities conduct a census in France in the early 1940s, Jacques registers as a Jew, firm in the belief that it is better to conform – that his adopted country, France, will ultimately take care of him.

Stay where you are, don’t question things, put your life in the hands of others, just trust – those were Jacques’s natural tendencies. (p. 244)

Sadly, as a consequence of this registration, Jacques is one of the first Jews to be rounded up under the Vichy regime in Occupied France, sealing his fate with a transfer to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, just 20 km from his birthplace of Chrzanow.

Did he [Jacques] wonder why he, alone among his siblings, hadn’t risked anything to stay alive? Why he was the passive one among them and how was this the conclusion to that story? Did he think about the weird irony of his life, how he had always wanted to stay still, but was forced to travel so far, and yet ended up right back where he began? (p. 253)

Henri, on the other hand, is careful to assimilate, quickly seeing the advantages of integration as offering some level of protection. With the help of his wife Sonia – an interpreter fluent in multiple languages – Henri passes as a German during the period of Occupation, thereby enabling him to put the Omniphot to vital use.

Henri and Sonia never registered as Jews. Both of them foresaw the dangers ahead and Sonia, as usual, took charge. She figured out how to buy false identity cards on the black market which claimed they were a Christian German couple, called Class. She also spoke German so fluently she could pass as a native, even to German officers, and Henri could get by. They then rented a tiny apartment on the Avenue des Minimes, under the name of Class, and left almost everything back in their home on rue Victor-Cousin, so it would look to the police who came looking for the Jewish Glasses like they’d simply abandoned it. (p. 209)

Alex, too, takes a different approach, one of outright defiance and self-preservation. Following a distinguished spell in the French Foreign Legion, Alex spends much of the war in the South of France, ultimately hiding out in a farmhouse in the Auvergne for the best part of a year. Once again, it’s a remarkable story, involving a host of anecdotes, brushes with death, and the receipt of favours from friends in high places. Following the war, Alex ultimately becomes a hugely successful art dealer – his friendship with Picasso is something of a highlight, the pinnacle of an illustrious life and career.

By contrast, Sara, who ultimately reverts to being called Sala, is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, deep in the midst of small-town Long Island. When it becomes clear to Sala that a permanent reunion with her family will not be possible, she throws herself into the lives of her two boys – Ronald, who will become Hadley’s father, and his younger brother, Rich. There are biennial trips back to Paris to see the family – brief opportunities for Sala to re-immerse herself in the wonders of French culture – but these are scant compensation for the opportunities that were passed up.

In summary, then, House of Glass is a wonderfully immersive memoir, one that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility. Topics that remain all too relevant in Europe (and the wider world) today where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

Freeman presents this story of her family with a blend of humanity, balance and perceptiveness, laying out the siblings’ lives both openly and engagingly. There is a real sense of journalistic rigour here, a thoroughness alongside the insights and reflections. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers with an interest in European history.  

House of Glass is published by 4th Estate; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.  

The Children by Edith Wharton

First published in 1928, The Children is one of Edith Wharton’s later novels, published when the author was in her mid-sixties. Like much of Wharton’s fiction, it explores the moral complexities of socially unacceptable relationship – in this instance, one between a middle-aged man and a teenage girl. Wharton herself cited the novel as one of her favourites, as Marilyn French notes in her introduction to the Virago edition – my copy is a beautiful ‘green spine’ from the mid-1980s.

As the novel opens, Martin Boyne, an unmarried consultant engineer in his mid-forties, is travelling by ship from Algiers to Venice. From there, Martin will journey to Cortina in the Dolomites to join Rose Sellars, the recently widowed woman whom he hopes to marry, even though they haven’t seen one another for five years. The best-laid plans, however, rarely come to pass…

During the passage, Martin encounters fifteen-year-old Judith Wheater, the surrogate mother to her six siblings, three of whom are ‘steps’ or half-siblings. The children – who range in age from two or three to fifteen – are a lively, outspoken bunch, largely kept in line by the delightful Judith and her former governess, Miss Scope. Judith’s parents, Cliffe and Joyce Wheater, are living it up in Venice, caring little for the welfare of their children and assorted ‘steps’, preferring instead to give themselves over to the demands of the ongoing social whirl. Over the past two or three years, Judith has successfully protected the children from the fallout of various Wheater marriages, divorces, liaisons and remarriages, fighting hard to keep the brood together despite her parents’ whims and desires.

Martin is captivated by the children’s happiness and spontaneity, so much so that he agrees to remain in Venice for a few days to assist Judith in discussions with the Wheaters, whose latest attempt at remarriage is in danger of floundering. Judith is fearful that another rift between Cliffe and Joyce will result in children being split up – with the steps going back to their own equally self-absorbed parents, and the toddler, Chip, being separated from Judith and the twins, Terry and Blanca.

In particular, Martin is drawn to Judith with her blend of childlike innocence and impressive maturity. At fifteen, she is on the cusp of adulthood and everything that represents. All too soon, Martin’s feelings for Judith begin to tip over into a kind of infatuation – a fascination he finds hard to fully admit, even to himself.

“Woman—but she’s not a woman! She’s a child.” His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business. Obscurely irritated with himself and her, he stood up, turning his back impatiently on the golden abyss of the apse. “Come along; it’s chilly here after our sun-bath. Gardens are best, after all.”

[…]

But outside in the sunlight, with the children leaping about her, and guiding her with joyful cries toward the outspread tea-things, she was instantly woman again—gay, competent, composed, and wholly mistress of the situation… (pp. 35-36)

As Martin becomes further entangled with the Wheaters, his relationship with Rose Sellars begins to be impacted. With her quiet, orderly approach, Rose is a beacon of stability and respectability, very much in line with the Old New York society Wharton knew so well.  

Yes; if Mrs Sellars excelled in one special art it was undoubtedly that of preparation. She led up to things—the simplest things—with the skill of a clever rider putting a horse at a five-barred gate. All her life had been a series of adaptations, arrangements, shifting of lights, lowering of veils, pulling about of screens and curtains. No one could arrange a room half so well; and she had arranged herself and her life just as skilfully. (p. 38)

Martin becomes so wedded to Judith’s desire for the children to remain together that he agrees to act their trial guardian, at least for the duration of the summer. By now, the children have joined him in the Dolomites, installing themselves in a local guest house to be close at hand. However, it is this commitment to the children that proves to be the sticking point between Martin and Rose. While Rose likes the young Wheaters and can sympathise with their predicament, she is also keen to formalise her new life with Martin, potentially moving to Paris with the aim of settling there. In effect, Martin must choose between two conflicting desires: Rose, the woman he has loved from afar for many years, and Judith, whose spontaneity and freedom from conventional norms have opened his eyes to new possibilities.  

In a world grown clockless and conscienceless, Boyne was still punctual and conscientious; and in this case he had schooled himself to think that what he most wanted was to see Rose Sellars again. Deep within him he knew it was not so; at least, not certainly so. Life had since given him hints of other things he might want equally, want even more; his reluctance to leave Venice and his newly-acquired friends showed that his inclinations were divided. But he belonged to a generation which could not bear to admit that naught may abide but mutability. He wanted the moral support of believing that the woman who had once seemed to fill his needs could do so still. She belonged to a world so much nearer to his than the Wheaters and their flock that he could not imagine how he could waver between the two. (pp. 81–82)

What Wharton does so well here is to illustrate the position in which Martin finds himself, caught as he is between two worlds, neither of which feels entirely comfortable. As a consequence of his experiences with Judith, Martin is reluctant to return to the moral world into which he was born, that of Old New York with its conventional principles and codes. And yet he cannot fully enter the children’s world either, characterised as it is by a lack of such constraints.

The degree to which Wharton enables the reader to sympathise with Martin is also very impressive. He feels a genuine sense of concern for the children’s welfare and emotional well-being, much more than their biological parents ever seem to demonstrate. The scenes where Martin is trying to negotiate with the Cliffe and Joyce Wheater are brilliantly observed, the couple proving to be virtually impossible to pin down for any length of time before the next social engagement beckons. The children too are beautifully portrayed in a way that is both entertaining and touching – at times their directness can be very comical.

In summary, this is a fascinating novel. Not quite as morally complex or intricate as The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, but absolutely worth reading if you’re a fan of Wharton’s work – there are elements here that will resonate, for sure.