Manu Larcenet: Ordinary Victories

Larcenet, Manu (2003), Le Combat Ordinaire, Dargaud
ISBN 9-782205-054255

I picked up this book in a Parisian comic book shop yesterday and read it all the way through on the Metro ride home. Granted, it’s not very long. That said, I haven’t been this impressed with a comic book purely by the way it’s written in a long time, so I’m sitting here to give you a quick shove. Go read this book. It’s called Ordinary Victories in English translation (published by Europe Comics), but there’s nothing ordinary about it. My caveat here_ I’ve only read volume 1, God knows the book might fall apart in later installments (there are four overall), but I cannot see that happening. Manu Larcenet is a fantastic writer, whose artwork unexpectedly complements his stories of love, heartbreak, war and disillusionment. I’ll admit – when I was recommended the book in the shop, I leafed through it, and wasn’t bowled over. Funny faces, bulbous noses, dudes smoking weed. None of this was new, none of this seemed worth the time and money to engage with it. For some nebulous reason I picked it up anyway, and I find it hard to summarize what an achievement I am finding this book to be. I was moved, not just by the awful cliffhanger ending to the book, but also by the enormous amount of humanity that Larcenet offers his readers. Ultimately, this book is about who we are as people, what we value and what holds us together as communities. Set against the backdrop of the 2002 Presidential elections in France, it asks us to understand what it means for France that a fascist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was able to get into the runoff against Chirac, what it means for us on the left or even center that a substantial amount of the country could have embraced violent cynicism as a political philosophy. It’s curious that I am reading the book today, as Le Pen’s daughter has gathered an even larger part of the vote in the recent French elections, and Trump won last November’s election in the US, and this Sunday, our own fascists are poised to win a historic victory and become the third largest party in parliament. Reading it as a person who is questioning some of his own choices in life and trying to find the glue that connects him to other people, this comic had a particularly strong resonance.

The protagonist is a 20something photographer who is unhappy about his job, though he still loves taking pictures, and has made enough money to be able to live (frugally) in the countryside for a year or so without being forced to take another job. He doesn’t do a big sweeping assessment of his life – he just takes down all his photos, and takes walks through the countryside with his rancorous cat Adolf. He meets farmer, smokes some weed, and, eventually, through an injury to his cat, falls in love with a veterinarian with whom he begins a loose relationship. The book begins on a psychoanalytic couch, and we may want to read his trip to the sticks as a kind of liberating move, but we quickly realize that it is his way of hiding from the issues and forces in his own life. This personal journey is however quickly buttressed by a nastier political theme – his father’s (and France’s) past during the Algerian war. The common practice of torturing Algerians during that war rears its ugly head as the book progresses, again, echoing the Presidential elections that happen during the events of the book, with one of the candidates running, Mr. Le Pen, having himself participated in acts of torture. There are no flashbacks (yet), instead we learn much of the Algerian war background of some of the protagonist’s characters, including his father, in stray sentences and one dialogue. Fittingly for the protagonist’s profession, it is a photograph that sets that whole discourse in motion. In retrospect, after finishing the book, it is quite remarkable how efficient, how sharply structured and how overall well made the book is. For all that the book may seem meandering at the beginning, everything in it serves a purpose – this kind of unassuming density is always impressive to me. It means the author has a solid control both of his ideas and the way he wants to deliver them, as well as of the craft of just telling a story with well-rounded characters. Even those characters that we never really get to know are written in a way where we can glean some additional, fuller dimensions.

The only downside to the book is its extensive maleness – the main character is a man, and his interlocutors are all men, except for his girlfriend, his mother, and his brother’s wife. Of these, his brother’s wife is the most independent – she confronts him once about his behavior, but is shown to have a whole life outside of the main protagonist’s travails. His girlfriend merely serves as a foil. Now, I understand that this is a story about this one man, and some of the maleness is inherent in the material. What’s more, the male farmers, his father, and his own gender form a kind of connection to the people who have largely been responsible for the political drama, both in the present of the book, as well as in the French past: white French men. I sort of expect the other volumes to draw more on the connection here, and it’s certainly an interesting and relevant path of thought. At the same time, introspective books by men about the deleterious effects of masculinity are as common in literature as croissants in French bakeries, and I must admit that I am slowly tiring of finding yet another text caught in the maelstrom of the (self-critical) male ego. At the same time, it’s a sign of how fantastic this particular text is that I still enjoyed it greatly, bulbous noses and bulbous egos aside. This is a very good comic and you should read it. Also, it has an adorable cat!

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Lewis Trondheim/Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrisson

Trondheim, Lewis and Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrison: Fais un Sourire, Maggy, Dupuis
ISBN 9-782800-160788

“Sometimes, winning just means not losing.” This, said by the protagonist of Lewis Trondheim’s book with Stéphane Oiry, just about sums up the darkly humorous tone of this quite excellent first volume. I cannot remember reading something quite like this. I picked it off the shelf in anticipation of my flight to London today (I’m packing and leaving in half an hour and need to stay awake, so here we are), and was surprised at the way Trondheim and Oiry create a sense of space and density at the same time. Maggy Garrisson manages to both sympathetically portray an unusual character with remarkable depth, and tell a noir crime story that follows genre conventions and thumbs its nose at them at the same time. There’s also a sense, partly due to my limited reading in the genre, that in this book, the francobelgian influence on American comics has ‘come home,’ in the sense that some of the rooms and atmosphere in the book are more common in the great American artists that are all influenced by the Belgian ligne claire tradition. I was particularly reminded of Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine, not in the way Oiry draws his characters (though that also plays a role), but in the way Trondheim and Oiry use the space in rooms, streets and landscapes, and combine it with the real estate on the page, to create a sense of emptiness, loss, longing and loneliness. The writing itself is equally remarkable: Trondheim’s characters never say too much or too little. There’s never a sense of the writer posturing to create a sense of drama or sadness: all the dialogue is just right, sometimes driving the story forward, sometimes just filling in a gap in how we understand the characters and the socioeconomic background. This is very good, and I am looking forward to acquiring and reading the second volume, but I’d like to stress how much of a complete experience this slim album really is. I’m currently also very excited about Greg Rucka’s Lazarus, but every 120 page trade feels like half an episode, half a story, just dragging me along in a half-glimpsed plot (I really love Lazarus, but that’s not the point). Trondheim’s pacing is much different – a book by a writer who is correctly admired by many readers of comic books.

The most remarkable scene is just one page somewhere in the middle. Maggy is in the supermarket as she notices a man stealing a package of cookies. Outside, she catches up with him and asks him: why did you steal these cookies? Why not the much more expensive kind, the artisanal cookies? He answers: the camera would have picked him up stealing those cookies. That’s it. The book moves on and doesn’t return to the cookie stealing, shop-lifting or this particular thief. There is no sense of overdramatizing it, but Trondheim needs it to illustrate three different points: the commonness of crime, and how much it is woven into the way poorer people make ends meet (stealing food always has important literary connections, to Hugo and others) is one element. Another is the pragmatics of crime – there is no romanticization of criminals or crime. You take what you can get, when you can get it. Crime is not a story of elaborate ego-pleasing capers. It’s a question of survival for many people, and not an evil deed, but part of pragmatic evaluations. Both of those points are relevant to the larger story of the book, and the small observation of the cookie theft ends up offering a metaphor of sorts for the other crimes committed in the book and the other criminals portrayed in it. There are criminals who we meet as criminals, and criminals who turn out to be criminals as the plot unfolds, and criminals who are not particularly criminal after all. We don’t hear about all of their motivations, but this one page with its story of cookie theft compromise serves as an illumination of everything else that happens in the book. And Trondheim and Oiry do all this without offering us an explicit summary or moral, and they manage to sidestep the saccharine melancholy of many American comics this reminded me of. I mean, it’s interesting to me how similar many scene set-ups are, especially when compared to the most similar francobelgian comics I can remember reading. And yet, the difference to Ware, Burns, Tomine and company is so striking, that it’s hard not to see the distance as intentional somehow.

Some of this difference, surely, is owned to the female protagonist. Trondheim’s Maggy approaches many portrayals we know from other media, but Trondheim sharply differentiates her from them. First of all, this is a story about Maggy. I’m a bit worried about the ending and what it could mean for a second volume, hut taking just the first book, Maggy’s main motivation is – well, it’s Maggy. Maggy is unemployed but scrappy, trying to make her way. The story is started when she gets a job in a private detective’s office, though that job quickly turns sour. You could imagine a Maggy existing in a Chandler novel, and you wouldn’t have to rewrite the books, at all – noir protagonists are usually oblivious to the role and presence of women who are not either attractive or rich, and Maggy’s attractiveness is not of the glossy noir kind, and she’s certainly not rich. She picks up something that doesn’t belong to her, and foils whatever plan her alcoholic gumshoe boss had, and you can imagine him seeing it as a nuisance or bad luck and moving on at his job that apparently involves real crime, as well as the riveting case of a cat that ate a canary (literally). One of the emotionally most affecting turns is not Maggy’s connection to a man, but a connection she built to a female police officer, and one of their bonding moments involves the examination of (subpar) men at a bar, and the groping of men with the help of a trick. As a scene later shows, Maggy is attractive enough to distract men during the commission of a crime, but her attractiveness isn’t the point. She’s charming and intelligent, but that isn’t the point either. She has a manic pixie dreamgirl-like effect on a man, but that doesn’t define or limit her character, and it doesn’t dominate the book either. Maggy is just Maggy and for her, sometimes, “winning just means not losing.”

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Fouad Laroui: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers

Laroui, Fouad (2016), The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, Deep Vellum
Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan
ISBN 978-1-941920-26-8

DV_Curious_Case_site-600x600Maybe the particular quality of Fouad Laroui’s humorous fiction is best described with a phrase from his 2010 novel Une année chez les Francais, a supple, warm boarding school novel. A family of rich French expats living in Casablanca suggests to the novel’s Arab protagonist that he may find quotidian details about Morocco banal that they still grapple with. Silently, the boy disagrees. “Rien, absolument rien, ne lui a jamais semblé banal.” Despite the fact that Laroui’s fiction is not necessarily grounded in a prose of observation, I got a similar feeling from the books of his I’ve read: a writer who is aware of all the oddities of how the world around him works and holds these oddities up to the light, with a biting but gentle intelligence, a warm sense of humor, and a smart linguistic inventiveness. Given the readability of his work, it is a bit puzzling that none of his work has been translated into English so far. This oversight has been amended this year with the translation of The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, a recent collection of short stories. The translator is Emma Ramadan and the publisher is Deep Vellum, who made quite a splash last year with the publication of Tram 83, possibly hoping to repeat that surprise success by offering anglophone readers the gift of a hitherto untranslated but substantial and important writer. I’m not a great reader of short stories, and so I would have suggested maybe a translation of one of his novels (the mildly kafkaesque and beautifully inventive La vieille dame du riad would have been a great candidate) instead, but I understand the choice. Laroui is not by temperament a novelist (despite having written a ton of them), and his short stories are very short, boiled down to one specific idea (the titular story is about 10 pages in my edition) and absolutely hilarious; moreover, this collection won the Prix Goncourt when it was published in French in 2013, so it makes sense. The next project of Ramadan is Laroui’s other recent prizewinning novel, Les Tribulations du dernier Sijilmassi which won the Prix Jean-Giono in 2014, an excellent novel that you should be very impatient to see in translation. Meanwhile, getting The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers as a first offering from Laroui’s large (he writes with a productivity that rivals TC Boyle’s stories/novels rhythm) oeuvre, of which I have read but a fraction, is no consolation prize. This is a fascinating book and an interesting display of many of Laroui’s strengths. If you want a writer who writes about Morocco, exile, dictatorship, with a knowing, but light and gentle hand, read this. Even if you, like me, are a bit averse to short stories, I promise, this is time well spent. Laroui does interesting things with the form. Read this, but more importantly, whenever one of his novels becomes available in translation, read that!

Laroui’s stories, more even, as far as I have read them, than his novels, are concerned with discussing history, nation and identity. A vast plurality of the stories in The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers are written as conversations, and the equally excellent collection Tu n’as rien compris à Hassan II even has the conversational scene inscribed into the title through address. Laroui’s stories do not follow someone’s experience from an omniscient or limited narrator – they are less stories than tales, and the audience of the takes is present in the stories itself. The stories set in Morocco are almost all set in Morocco’s history, and I’ll return to that aspect in a second. What this means, with all the talking about telling stories, is that these collections are full of disquisitions about how to talk about history. How do you talk about the past? What does it mean to have a reliable memory? History, in the Laroui books I have read, is something created by Moroccans together, by talking about the past, and in many ways, Laroui’s books themselves can, and I think should, be read as contributing to that same conversation. In La vieille dame du riad, a French couple, drawn with sharp, but kind satire, is confronted with an odd but difficult situation in Morocco. A young man promises to explain. Instead of just doing so straightforwardly, he writes a whole novel, which forms the core of the book. It is a novel about history. Thus, Laroui’s themes keep returning in his work. The different ways of framing conversation and memory (a form of, I suppose, Halbwachs’ collective memory) are one of the great strengths of The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, apart from the immediate pleasures of Laroui’s observations and humor. The other stories, which are not concerned with memory, are about being an exile. They are a bit hit-and-miss. The excellent story “Dislocation,” in a circling movement of repetition, slowly strips a man who lives abroad from all his illusions, resulting in a bleak statement of alienation and loneliness, apart from the (sometimes controversial) final tableau. A different story, about a long-distance relationship on the rocks, is not as successful. But the few down moments in his work are few and far between. Reading his work, one gets the impression that, at this point, Laroui has mastered the tone, humor and style of his stories, and they are remarkably consistent in quality.

Fouad Laroui was born in Morocco in 1958, went to a French-speaking elite high school in Casablanca (the first year of which is recounted in the extraordinary autobiographical novel Une année chez les Francais), then studied in Cambridge and Yorkshire (which experience he drew on for the hilarious La Femme la plus riche de Yorkshire). Eventually he moved to Amsterdam to teach. He publishes with some regularity novels and short stories in alternating rhythms, and is particularly successful in Morocco, where, according to some, his books are regularly sold out. He recounts some funny habits of Moroccans (always aware of the distance between caricature and realism; his short Romeo and Juliet-like novel De quel amour blessé ends with a postscript, wherein a character exclaims, critically, “C’est du guignol. Les personnages sont des stéreotypes.”) and some strange quirks of life in Morocco and as an exile, but almost always, these observations are laced with a profound sense of history. I’m not going to spoil any of the stories (which, in structure and twists, are eminently spoilable), but, speaking in broader terms, a story about some Moroccans making do with a school requirement is laced with the knowledge of how dangerous it is to upset some people, and where, during Hassan II’s time, power truly lay. Another story has its characters cautious because a new acquaintance may be trying to report on them. In both cases, these elements are not necessary to the story, strictly, speaking. Both stories could have been told without them, but Laroui’s work is more than funny. It is critical in a way that communicates that criticism to his intended audience without offending them, or being too heavy-handed about it. None of Laroui’s work has been banned, for example, despite sometimes the criticism, the abyss behind the light words, being quite brutal. For example: Une année chez les Francais is a novel about Laroui’s own first year in French high school in Casablanca. It contains many explicit digs at the society of that time, intelligently dismantles illusions of class and nationality and more. But when we look at how it corresponds to Laroui’s own life, the decision to make it just one year, which has textual and intertextual relevance, also means that the novel cuts off just before Laroui’s father, the following year, vanishes, most likely into one of Hassan II’s jails. This autobiographical fact turns the incessant quips about “what does your father do?” that keep cropping up in the novel into dark hints at an ugly historical (and deeply personal) fact. You can read the novel without that background, and it is still a great book, but the interaction with Laroui’s intended audience serves as a rich background without bringing down the tone of the book or making the book vulnerable to political criticism.

I was about to write: “there’s no case in The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers where the surface reading, and the reading of the intended audience are so far apart,” but the truth is, they may well be. Apart from the few things I spotted, the book is likely crawling with small hints and contexts. Some of these are barely of relevance to me, and I wonder if Emma Ramadan annotated her translation to include them. The title story (which you can read here, by the way), a humorous tale, is told by a man named Dassoukine, who, trying to purchase grain from a European consortium, suddenly finds himself without trousers. I am fairly certain that the story pays homage to the famous Moroccan funnyman/humorist Mustapha Dassoukine, but being unaware of his body of work, this knowledge doesn’t really add to the story. Or another reference, later in the book. A group of friends meet in a café called Le Café de l’Univers, which may well refer to a chanson by Claude Semal (Au Café de l’Univers), the final stanza of which ties the story to the collection as a whole and the title story. I read this online. I would never have guessed it nor does it add substantially to my appreciation of the stories, and yet, I don’t find my reading of them lacking in the least. It is Laroui’s skill to write fiction that is open enough to be read and enjoyed by a wide audience, but specific enough to be read and understood by a local audience. For another example, see translator Lydia Beyoud’s comments on the cigarette brand Casasports in a Laroui story she translated (you can read the story here). Yet these examples are but the tip of the iceberg. A much larger set of allusions and hints is in the language itself. Everything I said so far was about content rather than language specifically, and yet, the language of his work is the real treasure. Apart from puns and jokes scattered all over his work, Fouad Laroui is very aware that he is a writer writing in French (his poetry, meanwhile, is written and published in Dutch).

In his very intriguing book Le Drame Linguistique Marocain, which I read over the weekend, Laroui dissects the unique linguistic situation of Morocco. The main focus is not French, it is the tension between Arab as a literary language and Darija, the dialect spoken by people “on the ground.” There is no real literature in Darija, but Moroccans do not universally read classical Arab, which limits the scope of Moroccan (and, by extension, most of Arab) literature. French is, understandably, another layer. Laroui points out that while Arab is the official language, sometimes officials will speak French rather than Arab. Moroccan literature in French is, according to him, ‘a monster which doesn’t want to die.’ If you think this is a curious way to talk about one’s own work then you misunderstand the truly odd and complex way that Moroccans think about their literature. It is fairly strange to think of a nation’s literature as being completely untethered to a language (among the examples Laroui gives are, imagine if “La Cantatrice Chauve” was considered classic Romanian literature), and yet, Laroui cites multiple Moroccan intellectuals who forward just that claim. So, is The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers a Moroccan book? In addition to its themes and the nationality of its author, what really makes it Moroccan is the book’s odd use of (and sometimes allusion to) dialect. It is a book in French, but reading it, I had to think of a remark Laroui makes when he details how different Arab writers have coped with dialect. He mentions Nagib Mahfuz as a particularly masterful user of literary Arab – in his work, according to Laroui, while we find no Darija, per se, we find an artfully turned literary Arab language that, to knowledgeable readers, lets the dialect shine through. I suspect, in some dialog, Laroui is doing the same. In some places we can see it. There are French terms which he ‘misspells’ to reflect Arab pronunciation, and some of his novels contain borderline unreadable chunks of dialog that are Darija/Arab inflected French (Some early portions of La vieille dame du riad stand out particularly, hilariously) In other places, we don’t see it. Earlier, I talked about the stories sort of metafictionally discuss the importance of creating a collective memory through dialog, stories that, performatively, are part of that dialog. Language, clearly, is an important part of the same process, and the Moroccan diglossia, as Laroui describes it, provides an odd dynamic for that process.

In Le Drame Linguistique Marocain, we have an author who is incredibly insistent that the dialect Darija is the true mother tongue of Moroccans and needs to be given a greater role in education, literature and culture. The case is persuasive and the book is detailed and exact, and yet, Fouad Laroui writes in French (and Dutch). What to make of this? Maybe this adds to his insistence, and it is, I think, part of the explanation of why his satire and humor is embracing rather than just bracing. I feel like there’s a melancholy and urgency to his whole project that cannot be summed up by one or two stories alone. I started this review with a reference to Une année chez les Francais, a story about a young boy who has been raised in French, among people who speak almost exclusively Darija. Mehdi, that novel’s protagonist barely speaks Arab, and his situation between dialect, Arab and French is a tense and difficult one. In Laroui’s followup novel, similarly autobiographical, Les Tribulations du dernier Sijilmassi, an engineer returns to Morocco to find himself, and finds his vocation: becoming a writer. This sense of vocation and urgency is felt in most of the work by Fouad Laroui I have read, and accompanies (rather than replaces) the humor of the fiction. And look, maybe I imagined it because he doesn’t talk about it in interviews, maybe these are just funny stories with none of the urgency that I read into them, but why don’t you read his work and find out for yourself? L’Ètrange Affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine is maybe not my preferred starting point for Laroui’s work, but it’s a good one, and it is available in translation. Go. Read.

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Maryse Condé: En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux

Condé, Maryse (2010), En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux, JCLattès
ISBN 978-2-7096-3321-5

DSC_1546So, this feels a bit odd. En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the first novel I have read by Maryse Condé. Condé is, incidentally, nominated for the Man Booker International 2015, an award given not to an individual novel but to a whole oeuvre. She is nominated for having this large and influential oeuvre dealing with the African diaspora, questions of race, the Black Atlantic, history and feminism. I don’t think she should win it, but that’s largely due to the fact that Marlene Van Niekerk, László Krasznahorkai and Ibrahim al-Koni are also nominated, three absolutely brilliant novelists. I will say this: I can’t really comment on the broader oeuvre of Ms. Condé, because En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the only one of her books I have read cover to cover so far. It is not, let me say this outright, the best option if you want an introduction to Condé. From what I read so far, that option would be Moi, Titouba, Sorcière or you could jump right into the deep end and read her two volume historical chef d’oeuvre Segou. Lucky for you, these earlier books have all been translated into English already. She appears to be quite generously translated, overall, unlike last year’s Nobel winner Modiano (read my take on his work here), where publishers have been trying to catch up with the sudden rise in importance, interest and significance all year. So, given that this book is not the best place to start, you should take some of my broader assessment with a grain of salt. I will admit, I was not bowled over by Condé’s novel. It’s not awful, but surely awful is not what we’re shooting for with a novelist who keeps getting nominated for major awards. Much of what’s interesting about the book is structural or intellectual. The prose is nothing to write home about. I understand that the task before the novelist here was frequently to render the speech and tale of badly educated Creole and Antillean individuals into writing, but surely that could have been achieved more interestingly. There is an odd sense of disengagement between the author and her subject – odd because so much of Condé’s work in general retraces elements of her identity, asking questions that pertain directly to her personal identity. And yet, despite all this, it’s still an engaging read, the characters still come alive, and the ideas and political convictions sparke. Condé herself considers this the dark final chapter of her Segou books, but its effect is measured. Read it.

conde seguIn keeping with my earlier warning about the book and its place at the end of a long career in writing, here is one more caveat. The book’s characters have turned up here and there in other works and in the richness of its stories Condé also re-uses ideas from earlier novels. It’s not quite like reviewing Roth’s Exit Ghost without reference to Roth’s earlier Zuckerman books, but I’m sure there’s a gap between my understanding of the novel and that of an expert reader of Condé’s work. That said, there’s no obvious lacunae in the text or inexplicable artifacts demanding to be contextualized with older books. It wasn’t until I came across an interview with Condé that this connection was pointed out to me. I actually think the book’s structure might work better if you don’t know the backstory of Babakar and his mother Thècla, but I say this in ignorance of vast swathes of her work, especially Segou. This impression of mine is due to the way the book deals with history. All major characters introduced to us tell us their story in their own words. They get dedicated chapters, called “The story of X,” and this includes a chapter on Babakar. Additionally, the story briefly, in its most entertaining section, sketches the history of Babakar’s family, including his mother Thècla who is long dead when the story starts. That very brief sketch of the family history is deft and fun. It offers a magic realist take on a tale of the Middle Passage, only to allow the rest of the novel to mostly drop the magic realism in exchange for what’s probably best referred to as melodramatic/postcolonial realism. Yet that seed allows the novel to use a ghost as a literary device, commentator and cruel conscience, but also seeds all the realism with an implicit abyss of wonder. Throughout her life and in various interviews, Condé has always expressed skepticism towards terms like the “francophonie”, “négritude” and the like, a bit like Derek Walcott, who resisted the latter term as well. She does quite a bit of legwork in this novel to express both some concepts that are covered by the terms, concepts of history and community, without subscribing to some of the pathos they come from. The mild, deeply seeded magic realism here serves as a kind of emotional underpinning. Whereas Segou is dedicated to her “Bambara ancestress,” and ends with a note of thanks to various African scholars, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux stands alone.

DSC_1548Orality is a central element of the book, without a supervising narrative that smooths everything in. We do get an omniscient narrator, but the facts told us in the oral narratives are never adjusted, discussed or corrected, even when they come from people that we have come to believe to be untrustworthy. There is, after all, a strong connection of the literature of the Antilles to orality. As Condé writes in her short treatise on Aimé Césaire (1978), the Créole of the Antilles developed to allow the slaves, imported from various parts of Africa, a common language. It is, according to Condé, a case of diglossia, not bilingualism – one is a dialect recognized to have a low social status, and one meant to be used in ‘proper’ speech and writing. The simplicity of Condé’s French, one feels now and then, is meant to reproduce that simple, low octane, low register speech for a kind of authenticity. At the same time, the convoluted structure of the book, which deploys narratives as it sees fit, juggles time, memory and events in a complex pattern, appears to counteract that linguistic strategy. Similarly, Condé offers us occasional Creole phrases. She never translates them, leaving us to guess, but she also uses very few of them in the speech of individuals who you’d expect to use more of them. These structural contradictions are not unexpected in Condé’s work who has consistently resisted easy readings, and who, intellectually, must be read carefully, in order to not trip over one of her many lines of connection and thought. One rather notorious example of this kind of ‘tripping’ is an essay by Anne-Marie Jeay called “Segou, les murailles de terre: Lecture anthropologique d’un roman.” It’s not long, but a deeply fascinating attack on Condé. The main issue, and one that the essay gets most quoted for, is a suggestion of both orientalism (and even racism), and of plagiarism. Both issues are connected to Condé’s use of historians’ works on the history of Mali. Jeay lists them triumphantly and demonstrates to what extent these texts have been borrowed, and, in a second step, how racist and offensive these texts are in the first place. It’s a spectacular misreading (my own reading of it owes much to Cilas Kemedjio’s excellent book on Condé and Glissant) of a text that, after all, thanks African scholars in the back, and which uses these scholars of Western academia in order to construct an image of Africa-as-found-in-books, contrasting it with a more deeply felt personal connection and highlighting, too, the disconnection Condé herself feels towards her ancestral home. Salman Rushdie famously wrote that exiles writing about their homelands are creating fictions, in his case “an India of the mind.” So in a way, Ségou is Condé’s ‘Mali of the Mind” and her elaborate web of quotes and references are a way of foregrounding that construction.

condéThis is a disconnection that we also find in En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux. Almost all of its central characters are lost far from their home, having to redefine home. The very family story of the novel’s protagonist Babakar, which I mentioned above, is a tale of the Black Atlantic, like many others. It’s laced with a bit of superstition, which in its generational sweep reminded me a bit of Toni Morrison, and recounts to us how Babakar’s ancestor ended up a freed slave on Guadeloupe. It is Babakar’s own mother, the mysterious Thècla who would, for money and adventure, choose to take the trip back to Africa, to become a teacher in Mali. She died, leaving her young son alone in the world, but not all alone. Her specter, heckling, disapproving, would haunt him for the rest of his life (at least as far as we are shown in the book). Babakar, who would become a doctor, spent much of his life in Africa surrounded by tragedy, loss, betrayal and civil war, until he, having lost everything, decided to settle in Guadeloupe, closing the circle. This is, more or less, where the novel begins. In its first pages he delivers a dying woman of a baby girl. In her last moments, the mother, a native from Haiti, asks of Babakar to bring her daughter home to Haiti, which, with the help of the woman’s last lover and his gardener, he eventually does, having practically adopted the child. That’s where the main plot of the novel unravels. The novel’s timeline ends in the 2010 earthquake, fairly open ended, which I think I can say without spoiling the book. I mean, the book is frequently compelling, but suspense has nothing to do with it. Unlike Ségou, this book doesn’t make the autobiographical connection obvious except through the author’s bio in the back mentioning her Guadeloupe origins. The Mali connection is not written into the book, that one depends on knowing more of Condé’s work. That’s not greatly relevant, however, since the book’s obsession with home and travel, with ethnic and cultural heritage and contemporary politics is obvious throughout. As a side note let me add that this is true for 99% of reviews/studies obsessing over authorial intention. Usually, if you read any text closely, its central concerns are fairly clear without knowing the author’s biography, which is likely to be more distraction than help anyway.

reading conde

Excuse the narcissism. This is me reading the book around Easter 2015.

That said, I would like to return to some of Condé’s critical writing, especially that nifty little book on Césaire. Throughout her career, Condé has resisted easy categorizations, from being considered a writer of the francophonie to concepts in postcolonial studies like négritude. The latter, for example, is derided by Condé as creating a fictional image of black people that’s merely a reaction to Western ideals, an anti-western description, dependent on and already colonized by the West. The only aspect she allows for is the capacity to survive a great deal of suffering: “Un diction antillais did: ‘An nèg pa ka jin mo.’ En français, ‘un nègre ne meurt jamais.’” In a way, Babakar’s odyssee in En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux through pain and loss and his almost miraculous survival of it all is a literary reflection of that positive aspect of négritude. I may be ambivalent about her skills as a novelist, but her extraordinary resistance to easy concepts is impressive, even if it has caused a bit of a backlash, as Walcott’s decision to write in high register English has for some critics. An obvious starting point here is the novel’s insistence that Guadeloupe, not being an independent nation, but a DOM. People from Guadeloupe, according to the novel, and according to interviews given by Condé afterward, don’t have a country, they are homeless. They can say “Guadeloupe is my country” but that’s a sentimental rather than factual comment. In an interview with Francoise Simasotchi-Bronès, she even compares them to Romani, nomads, hated in the countries they live in, and the countries they travel to. There is an odd echo of that position in that essay by Anne-Marie Jeay I mentioned before, where she refers to Condé as being “black but Guadeloupian” (“noire mais guadeloupéenne”) – an inauthentic person to write about Africa, tainted by living in a French dependency. And yet, for DOM writers, France is not an easy place to call home. According to Bill Ashcroft, people and places are “transformed by diasporas” – and in many ways, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux dramatizes that transformation, by offering us multiple diasporas and showing us people disconnected from ancestral homelands, people changing in exile, people desperate to forge a link with home. For Babakar, that link is reified in the ghost of his mother Thècla, but most people are not so lucky. In the end, we learn, there is no real homeland for anyone, there are only the homes that we make for ourselves, the homes we create. Sometimes because we want to live there, sometimes because we have to make do, sometimes because of a duty.

DSC_1549This is even true for Condé. Intentionally or not, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the novel of a writer who has lived away from Guadeloupe for a long time. It’s not just her harsh criticism of the idea of Guadeloupe being a country. There are quite a few artefacts throughout the book that are odd. One of the most remarkable ones comes during Babakar’s story of his life in war torn Mali. As he returns to a town he lived for years in, only to see it having been utterly destroyed by war and strife, mostly obliterated, the author has Babakar remark: “On aurait dit que pareil à la Nouvelle-Orléans, l’ouragan Katrina l’avait ravagée.” It’s very odd, you have to admit, to have the #1 association, when finding a city destroyed by war, to say that it looks like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I think I would be excused to say that this doesn’t sound like Mali citizen Babakar recounting his country’s destruction and more like Maryse Condé, writer who taught for years at Columbia in New York. The decentered condition that hovers over most of the book and that has been theorized by Jacques Chevrier as “migritude” appears to also include the writer Maryse Condé. And ultimately, despite all the book’s literary shortcomings, especially as far as the prose is concerned, that’s what’s most compelling about it: it’s a book that wrestles with “migritude” on many levels, that keeps pushing ideas and narratives to center stage, including its own author’s biases. The lack of resolution, really, reflects the fluid and complex nature of the phenomenon. It’s a deeply unhappy book, but it doesn’t go for a Coetzee-style darkness. It doesn’t go for visceral brutality, it goes for inconclusive confusion. And that’s a good thing.

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Pénélope Bagieu – Cadavre Exquis

Bagieu, Penelope (2011), Cadavre Exquis, Folio BD
ISBN 978-2070444953

cadavreI’m currently kinda, sorta on holiday and yet here we are. Another (very) short review. This one is of a book I picked up in this lovely little French bookshop in Bucharest, a book I read while hiding from the grueling heat in pleasant shadows here and there. The book is Pénélope Bagieu’s first standalone graphic novel Cadavre Exquis. I’ve come across her work here and there, especially bits from her blog Ma vie est tout à fait fascinante, which has also been published in book form. The book that had drawn my attention was a more recent one, but Cadavre Exquis is the one I ended up reading. Her blog, and her serial graphic novel Josephine are, or appear to be from what I saw, autobiographical and a cursory look at the protagonist of Cadavre Exquis and a photograph of Bagieu would suggest a similarly inspired story – that approach would however, leave the prospective reader unprepared for this amusing, clever, even a bit poisonous book. Bagieu tells us a story that is many things at once, and she never gets her emotional registers tangled. Cadavre Exquis is a touching coming of age tale, a mild satire on the literature business, a double play on the ‘death of the author’, and what’s more, she writes a story about the importance of reading, more than the importance of writing. It’s really a book about reading and being read, in many ways and also, which is why I hesitate to reach for bigger terms, a story that feels very delicately balanced, a book that might not deal so well with being too closely analyzed. It’s interesting that according to Wikipedia, most of her followup books are not written by her, or not written by her alone, because I can see this kind of writing, which is so precariously set up, turn bad with worse luck. Some parts that currently work just the way they are might end up being rushed, some ideas too cute, some too labored. Bagieu has a fairly large portfolio as an artist now, and I greatly enjoy her art in this book, but it’s the development as a writer that I would be most interested in. Yet Pénélope Bagieu is still very young, we might get a sophomore book yet that’s fully written and drawn by this most intriguing artist and writer. Meanwhile, all future anticipations and worries aside, her method, such as it is, has worked extremely well here and I can recommend this book to all who would like to spend a few moments reading an adorable story of love, writing and authorship set in the colorful Paris of our time.

Bagieu 1As most of us probably know, the title of the book refers to the well known game that I’m sure we all played as kids. Invented by French surrealists like André Breton and Yves Tanguy, it chops up language on the basis of a fixed rule to produce a new effect. Here’s a definition

Based on an old parlor game, Exquisite Corpse was played by several people, each of whom would write a phrase on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to conceal part of it, and pass it on to the next player for his contribution. The technique got its name from results obtained in initial playing, “Le cadavre / exquis / boira / le vin / nouveau” (The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine).

The rule is fixed, and produces the final text (one thinks of American poets like Jackson Mac Low and his work on non-intentional writing. At first glance it’s a strange concept to be the title of a book that’s as warm and lovely and charming as Bagieu’s graphic novel. But the book makes multiple uses of the title. On the most simple way, there’s a rather unusual -if not exquisite- kind of corpse that’s prominent in the book. This use of the title is, I admit, not clever or subtle, but it is adorable, and given Bagieu’s art, ‘adorable’ is clearly one of the desired qualities. The book does go further, however. In a way, having scuh a culturally deeply rooted title allows the author to string along various plot elements that could seem banal, but are shown to cohere. Bagieu’s protagonist is an ill educated young woman who spends much of her life living with a lazy, rude, unemployed man, running away from home to work, which is not a lovely place either. She works as a hostess, paid to look pretty and point to various goods, from cars to cheese. Men frequently grope her amd she works long hours for little pay. There’s a melancholic dreariness to her life that we quickly realize as being a setup to a kind of romantic comedy. The book works through this early development efficiently. Within a few pages the plot goes rolling and we are rolling with it. The book appears to take care to take us with it, playing on the usual registers with exuberant ease and Bagieu’s lovely art is the perfect accompaniment to this story. If you hate that kind of story, it won’t help you when I tell you there’s a sudden change at the end, because the book relies on its readers eating it all up.

Bagieu 3Let me repeat. This is not a cerebral exercise. This is a light, enjoyable read. Its skill and cleverness is the proverbial icing on the cake, but the cake itself is soft and light and lovely. If you don’t like that, the book is not for you. Even when it suddenly morphs into a (light) satire of the publishing industry and the easily manipulated taste of the reading public at large, including critics, the main goal is to entertain us. Its satire doesn’t present new insights. There are good books on how critical and ppopular taste is construed, how we judge art and how the various elements in the cultural system interact to create opinions. Barbara Herrnstein-Smith is probably the go-to choice here. But like any good satire or criticism, Bagieu’s comments can be turned around to be used to comment on the book itself. After all, criticizing the cult of authenticity may feel a bit rich coming from an artist who made her bones writing autobiographical stories and who keeps drawing cute, large eyed protagonists that look an awful lot like the artist herself. But Bagieu doesn’t care. That’s one advantage of the lightness of her approach. It can take the self-recursive nature of its criticism, accept it with a laugh and move on. And this laugh is not the snide, self important laugh that Frédéric Beigbeder’s exceptionally annoying faux-ironic books have. It’s a light, summery laugh. And it’s the same light tone in which the author, towards the end of the book, delvers a critique of masculinity and the way the concept of authorship is designed to buttress and please the male ego. Again, the insight itself is not original. There are libraries full of books on the topic of the way the cult of originality is tied to masculinity and its crises. But the book’s spin on the ideas is fresh and remarkably straightforward and unapologetic. However much I enjoyed the book until the final few pages, seeing and reading its endgame and final twist made me enjoy it even more. The end comes rather suddenly, but that’s just as it should be. As I said in the beginning, this is a well balanced, enjoyable little book.

Bagieu 2As I wrap things up here, let me come back to the title. For book that’s ultimately so prominently interested in the absurdity of claims for originality, using a surrealist method, authored and distributed by a circle of male writers is already intriguing. The book is written in a way that lets us apply the game of its title in multiple ways, but one particularly interesting way, is the method with which the book folds and unfolds the protagonist’s life according to similar rules, but the elements are replaced in surprising and unexpected ways. At no point could Bagieu’s protagonist have planned to end up where she does, in fact, she could barely have conceived of this possibility. So while the book is entirely contingent, the life contained within is its own exquisite corpse. Really. Cadavre Exquis is a good book. Trust me.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Kerascoët & Vehlmann: Beautiful Darkness

Kerascoët and Vehlmann, Fabien (2009), Jolies Ténèbres, Dupuis ISBN 978-2-8001-4238-8

[English translation: Kerascoët and Vehlmann, Fabien (2014), Beautiful Darkness, Drawn & Quarterly Translated by Helge Dascher ISBN 978-1770461291]

DSC_1267I will admit. Even though I read quite a healthy number of comic books and graphic novels and whatever else your preferred nomenclature is, I rarely come across a book in the genre that really, truly, profoundly delights and astonishes me any more. Jolies Ténèbres by Kerascoët and Fabien Vehlmann is such a comic. In it, the creative trio (Kerascoët is a duo of artists, consisting of the Parisian Sebastien Cosset and the Brest native Marie Pommepuy, who also co-wrote the script with Fabien Vehlmann) takes us onto a journey that is both magical and horrifying, into a story that’s equal parts allegory, fairy tale and gritty realism. The art and the writing complement each other so well that it is difficult to believe that the book is not the result of one person’s inventive but slightly strange brain and in a way it is Marie Pommepuy’s creation, since it’s based on her idea, and she is both part of the writing and the illustrating team. The book was published in France in 2009 and has been translated into multiple languages, one of which is English. It’s published in English by Drawn & Quarterly and I hope they managed to produce as fine a volume as the original publisher Dupuis, because the book on my desk is magnificent in every way. Magnificently written, magnificently drawn and magnificently produced. In its English translation, the book has made a number of best-of lists – and with good reason. This book is more than a compelling read – it’s also endlessly re-readable, offering layers upon layers to its spellbound readers. The creative team doesn’t deploy allegory as a cheap moralizing technique and yet there’s an air of almost medieval weight to the way life, death and obsession is meted out on the books’ faux-adorable characters. Beautiful Darkness is very, very good and manages to strike the difficult balance between being very smart and clever on the one hand, and incredibly enjoyable on the other. Buy it, read it. Go on. I’ll wait.

BEAUTIFUL-02_0 I admit I haven’t had an opportunity to read Drawn & Quarterly’s translation, but I found one editorial decision highly dubious. Even though the French edition makes clear that the book is based on an idea by Marie Pommepuy, that the script was written by Pommepuy and Vehlmann and that Kerascoët (i.e. Pommepuy and Cosset) are the illustrators, and the French spine has “Kerascoët & Vehlmann” as the attribution, the English edition has, in big and bold letters, the attribution “Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët” and most reviews I could rustle up treated Vehlmann as the author and Kerascoët merely as the illustrators. This might seem like a minor issue, and a bit of an odd issue to mention this early in the review, but it irks me. Maybe because I’ve just put up my review of Hunger’s Brides and was reminded of the fact that, going back all the way to the middle ages, as Karen McKnight showed, men were primarily seen as authors, and women at best as mechanical escritors. I’m sure Vehlmann contributed most or a hefty chunk of the script. Of the three artists involved in the project, he’s the one with the most extensive experience writing comic book scripts. Yet Pommepuy’s involvement at all stages of the project seems at least as significant, and pushing her aside to share the illustrating role strikes me as odd. Especially because Beautiful Darkness is, to an important degree, a book about female experience. It’s a female encounter with death, a female mind disintegrating into a large mass of overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) female characters and shards (I’ll explain in a moment) with an ending that directly addresses questions of family, patriarchy and dominance. Moreover, the French book jacket shows two women, one pale, faded, real and dead, one colorful, cartoonish and curious. No matter what your interpretation of the book is (and there’s a fair variety of possible readings in a book whose authors pride themselves on the indeterminate story they crafted), there’s no doubt that this is a profoundly gendered story. These being the facts, I am rubbed the wrong way by Fabien Vehlmann being the first and most distinguishable name on the cover of Drawn & Quarterly’s Beautiful Darkness.

DSC_1274So much of the book’s first reading depends, I think on the surprise of what develops and how it develops, so I won’t discuss the plot, except to mention the premise. A dead girl lies in a meadow in a wood clearing. She’s roughly 8, wearing wellies and next to her is a school bag. Has she been murdered? Has she died of natural causes? Has she had an accident? We are not told and depending on how you read the book as a whole, we might not know even after the book’s conclusion. The image of the dead girl as we first see her, rain pouring down on her still body, is powerful, realistic and frightening – and comes as a bit of a shock to the reader who has read the opening pages of two cartoonish, cute characters having a sort of tea party as their house suddenly collapses. In the next pages, a multitude of cute, cartoon characters leaves the dead body through its various orifices. The book is painted in watercolors (I think), but the cartoon characters with their large eyes will remind the reader more of the black and white traditions of manga and the inventiveness of the golden age of Spirou magazine, when it carried early versions of now legendary and bestselling titles like Boule et Bill, the Smurfs or the eponymous Spirou (when it was written by the great André Franquin). The manga association mainly stems from my reading of the work of Osamu Tezuka, as far as I have read it, which combines adorable, large eyed characters with at times brutal or terrifying stories, which is not something I associate with the French tradition. Additionally, the French tradition as outlined skews very male (with Peyo’s Smurfette even having become shorthand for a misogynist trope), while the Tezuka line allows for more room. The tensions and violence in gender relations are part of Tezuka’s work as early as 1949 when he first published Metropolis and continuing with books like Princess Knight (aka “the Mother of all shōjo manga”) and Ayako (cf. my review here). That said, I don’t have enough background on the genre to really elucidate the comic book lines of influence on Beautiful Darkness.

DSC_1262 Embedded in the comic is the story of a young girl who has suddenly fallen into a topsy-turvy world of confusion, and has to use her wits to combat it and make her way through it – a story clearly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland (it helps that the color scheme of the character in question broadly corresponds to the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland). There are only light similarities (the topics of eating and consumption are prominent in both books, themes of perspective, truth and identity are discussed in both books etc.), but in a way, Beautiful Darkness is constructed out of a vary broad set of light resemblances. Another similarity can be found in the rich tradition of children’s book characters that live with or alongside humans and that are not quite animals and not quite human like The Wombles or especially Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. The book uses these influences as a kind of distancing effect – we see the cartoonish figures make do with everyday objects that they employ for strange or humorous effect. Another reference are surely Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, especially the early ones, where Jansson just throws her creations into all kinds of adventurous situations. The first one, The Moomins and the Great Flood seems particularly of interest as a comparison, which includes the art of the illustrations. We have strange, small characters in a dangerous and confusing natural environment, we have animals used as transportation by characters that are cartoonish and neither human nor clearly animal. There’s a limit to the role that children’s books can have in the creation of Beautiful Darkness, however, since the book is not just dark as the title suggests, but also very brutal, sometimes abruptly so. The only genre that can offer similar levels of cruelty and darkness are fairly tales, especially the unexpurgated versions. Look at the Grimm Brothers. There’s a story in their collection of a girl walking around with her cut off hands tied to a string and hung around her neck.

DSC_1265More significantly, look at Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. Less obviously brutal than the Brothers Grimm, the Danish writer composed fairy tales that were equally rooted in folk tales as well as in the fertile imagination of a talented writer, writing in the mid-19th century, with modernity in full swing. Significantly for a reading of Beautiful Darkness, Andersen’s stories are not clustered around a moral message, which was loudly decried at the time of publication, but the lightly worn immorality has helped ensure Andersen’s longevity. Immorality is an important aspect of the comic. Not because it’s intentionally immoral, but because it carefully and intentionally sidesteps the idea of moralizing its story. Frequently, story twists are actually twists away from an expected and moralistic fable. That’s also what separates Beautiful Darkness from yet another tradition: allegory, especially medieval allegory. It’s entirely feasible (up to a point) to read many of the cartoonish characters as emblematic of aspects of the young girl’s personality. This is not far from classic books like Pilgrim’s Progress, which has remained a fascinating read for centuries. Other books that allegorically discuss human nature like Lord of the Flies are obvious candidates (perhaps, even, if we employ a generous abstraction, the Hunger Games) for interpretative foils. But both Bunyan and Golding have a message to impart to their respective readers – Kerascoët and Vehlmann do not. They make use of the seductive power of allegory, and of the interpretative paths it opens for their book but ultimately they decline the moral commitment. They are aware of all the intertexts or at least many of them, and sometimes appear to offer them to the reader on a silver platter, telling them: we know that you know. They use them to get the reader’s brain to work, to read the text more attentively, more precisely, more openly. They invite us to read the book not as this or that but as this and that. Discussing the different personalities living in us and looking at what happens to us when we fall into the wilderness, left to our own devices, for example.

I am aware that this attribution page inside the book says, as does the French

I am aware that this attribution page inside the book says, as does the French “Based on original idea by Marie Pommepuy. Story by Marie Pommepuy & Fabien Vehlmann”. It changes little about the cover, especially since it’s in small print under a repetition of the cover attribution (which the French book doesn’t have)

And this, at the end, is where I return to my earlier rant. I did say the book does not commit to an easy morality – but it is not without commitment. It’s a very tightly scripted story with no lost panels, with every page, every panel, every detail constributing either to the plot or the atmosphere of the book, but on a different level, with all the allusions and the ambiguous readings it allows, it’s also baggy and expansive. It challenges easy readings by offering us dozens of intertexts and then breaking with them, in one way or another, eventually ending in a symbolically and psychoanalytically rich final tableau. My first association was with Luce Irigaray’s early and controversial SPECULUM: De l’autre femme. Like Irigaray’s explosive book, there’s a way to read Beautiful Darkness as commenting on a certain gendered tradition of storytelling without really arguing a case, just offering its readers a way to think through it. Because that was my association upon reading it I find the foregrounding of Fabien Vehlmann a bit irksome. I do think the book has a commitment: a commitment to storytelling itself. Or maybe I’m over-interpreting. Even without all my blather, the fact is that Beautiful Darkness is a lovely, funny, terrifying, mystifying masterpiece of the genre. Please read it at your earliest convenience. This is my 6th review this year and it’s very clearly the best book I’ve reviewed so far. I’m not exaggerating. If you like comic books you will love this. GO NOW.

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Patrick Modiano: La place de l’étoile

Modiano, Patrick (1968, édition revue et corrigée 1995), La place de l’étoile, Gallimard.
ISBN 978-2-07-036698-9

DSC_1552After Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, French friends of mine expressed their satisfaction on Facebook. Finally! A readable and popular writer winning a prize infamous for rewarding the difficult and thorny. In my opinion, they couldn’t have meant the recent history of the prize (cf. my rant here), but then, writers from other literatures are often regarded as difficult by that fact alone, regardless of how well their books read. And over the past 4 or 5 decades, few literary writers have been as consistently and convincingly French as Modiano, whose vast and somewhat repetitive oeuvre offers small treasures of memory, walking down French memory lane. Small episodes, misremembered, identities hidden and revealed, the past inescapable but sometimes difficult to retrieve. Drawing on such sources as Maurice Halbwachs and Henri Bergson and incessantly commenting upon French literature and culture, he has become more than a mainstay of French literature. There is practically no newspaper that has not run an interview with him, including such venerable literary magazines as Paris-Match. Documentaries follow him through small French streets as he rediscovers places of French memory. He is that rare creature: the literary writer who sells well, gets great reviews and all this without the sophomoric need to shock his audience like Amis fils or Philip Roth do. A comfortable, popular writer, comforting the French audience. Can you feel me slowly dying of boredom?

DSC_0242However, none of these descriptions, apart from those dealing with memory, apply to Modiano’s debut trilogy, and especially to his explosive debut La place de l’étoile, an unbelievable fever dream of history and literature, of memory and invention, of being Jewish and being French, “JUIF français,” as its narrator exclaims near the end of this novel. I have never read a novel like this one, a novel dealing with the aftermath of the Shoah, and with the resulting challenges to identities. The two books that come close in some small way are Modiano’s own follow-up efforts La Ronde de Nuit and Les Boulevards de Ceinture, both of which are less heated and angry, less over the top playful and insistent, but they can be seen as continuations on themes brought forth by La place de l’étoile. Modiano’s debut is not just a postmodern novel that combines parody and pastiche and piles reference on reference, it’s also clearly powered by the pain and the difficulties of Jewish identity after the second world war. Playful novels taking on the Shoah abound, but books both deeply steeped in a knowledge of literature and history, and fueled by a need to belong and to find an identity in a country that participated and supported the murder of Jews. I was not happy with an overall bland writer like Modiano being deemed nobélisable, but his debut novel is truly singular and masterful. It’s so harsh and poisonous that it was not translated into German until 2010. A great book. Read it.

DSC_0225The plot of Modiano’s novel is difficult to summarize, not just because so much action is crammed into ~200 pages, but because much of it is contradictory and strange. As Charles O’Keefe pointed out in his slightly odd study of Modiano, there are “problems of understanding at the mimetic level” – Modiano’s main concern is intellectual, not narratological. There are whole sections whose main purpose is to provide a pastiche of this or that writer, or to summarize this or that cultural phenomenon, sections that pretend to provide a part of the story. The narrator is Raphael Schlemilovich who may or may not have lived during the Occupation of France, who may or may not have worked with famous collaborators and antisemites, and who may or may not have been the lover of Eva Braun. The postwar history of Schlemilovich is more firm. In it, Modiano’s protagonist makes a big inheritance, travels France and Europe with his father, a Jewish-American businessman, opens at least one brothel and traffics white, pure-bred French women to become prostitutes in others. He becomes a student and a teacher, a writer and a collector of books. There’s a lot of life to be lived and in a dramatic turns of events, eventually, he ends up in Israel. Explaining any of the plot or telling you how one thing leads to the other would be to spoil your fun. Trust me, it’s a wild ride – and one not entirely interested in consistency. As Ora Avni has said, “literature, like dreams, is not subject to the same logical imperative to choose from among several contradictory alternatives.” Modiano offers us multiple realities at the same time. Places become mutable, servants to narrative and memory. This is not to say that Modiano’s novel gives us empty intellectual blather that is as unreadable as it is hard to summarize. I may be partial to that kind of book, but La place de l’étoile is not it. The story is gripping, the prose intentionally dips into melodrama and eroticism, as well as into slapstick and more elaborate humor. Reading Modiano’s later work is a sophisticated enjoyment, the dry fun of measured intellect. His debut is more riotous fun, but like the bar in From Dusk till Dawn, it’s fun constructed on an abyss of darkness.

chamissoThere are many literary and historical references, too many to recount. The three main intertexts, however, are Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (there’s a translation into English by Leopold von Loewenstein-Wertheim, published by Oneworld Classics, maybe you should seek it out?), Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s work, particularly the infamous Bagatelle and the more widely accepted and praised Voyage au bout de la nuit. Chamisso’s influence is underappreciated in commentary on the book. While it’s true that Modiano’s spelling puts his protagonist closer to the yiddish word “schlemil”, meaning idiot or fool, Chamisso’s book provides and interesting angle. Chamisso, while publishing his novella in German and exerting a certain influence on German literature (he was friends with E.T.A. Hoffmann, of “Sandman” fame; and the main German award for foreign-born writers is named after Chamisso), was French by birth and kept returning to France. A nobleman, he fled revolutionary France for the more accommodating arms of Prussia, where he worked in literature and botany. His only novella recounts the story of a man who sells his shadow to the devil, manages to keep his soul, however, in a mixed bag of bargains with Satan. It was written to provide a metaphor for Chamisso’s pain of losing his home and living in exile. His character, the eponymous Peter Schlemihl, roams the earth, infinitely rich (the bargain won him a bag of infinite gold), but rejected everywhere he went. For a book that trades as heavily in antisemitic stereotypes as La place de l’étoile, this wandering character offers an appealing mixture of pure-bred French nobility and a character who is close to the antisemitic stereotype of the rich wandering Jew. Not to mention the fact that for parts of his novel, Modiano’s Schlemi(h)lovich constructs himself as being in a sort of permanent exile from France, and being, quite literally, a rich, wandering Jew. Modiano’s novel appropriates and discusses the rich history of French antisemitism, from the middle ages to the French complicity in the Shoah. A character that both fits the stereotype and was conceived of, written and identified with by a French nobleman is such a great fit for this book as to appear an invention of Modiano. Except for the fact that, delirious narrative aside, there’s little that’s actually invented out of whole cloth by Modiano. His method is one that fuses reality and literary history, that uses literature in the same way a historian would employ his sources. And those sources don’t end with Chamisso.

DSC_0221Another source, perhaps the major source, is Proust. This one keeps turning up in the book, as a major Jewish intertext of whose influence the narrator has to be purged. Some parts of the influence are pastiche or parody. Proust’s novel begins with “Longtemps,…” and Modiano begins with “C’était le temps….”. He revises the George Sand scene from Combray by explaining that “Maman me délaisse pour des joureurs de polo. Elle vient m’embrasser le soir dans mon lit, mais quelquefois elle ne s’en donne pas la peine” and in one of the most erotically charged parts of the book, his admiration of a French nobelwoman is a whole glorious pastiche of Proust’s descriptions of the Guermantes in his book, until he breaks off the scene by having the heiress accost him with bare breasts and a hunger for a Jewish lover. This juxtaposition of elegance and description with racist, antisemitic or misogynist crudeness serves to keep the novel organized. Its chaos is anything but. Modiano doesn’t sneak pastiches into the book. He announces them by a change in style and mood, and announces similarly when they have passed. I’m sure there are parodies or pastiches that I’ve missed, but most are rather forward and open, like the parody of Celine’s style in the opening pages. These breaks additionally keep us on our toes. The use of Proust is more than decoration, it’s an active agent. The constant use of Proust is nagging us to read Modiano’s novel in terms of memory, of self creation and décreation, to borrow a term from Simone Weil. Modiano dissolves all involuntary memory in a present that basically co-exists with the past, an effect that transposes an interior mechanism of Proust’s into exterior action and narrative. With Bergson, Proust saw memory as fusing with the present in a creative, if involuntary act. Modiano goes ahead and just fuses everything in a more or less co-temporary plane. For the question of WHY Modiano would do such a thing we could offer different answers.

DSC_0220Some would touch on the basic concept of memory being important in literature after the Shoah. The Shoah, with its wholesale destruction of culture and living witnesses is a hazard to the production of memory as outlined by Halbwachs and others. This is why writers like Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub spoke of a “crisis of witnessing”. Personal, individual memory is not enough. It needs to be infused into culture, into cultural memory. In one of the more ‘outrageous’ moments of the book, a friend of Schlemilovich’s explains that, “[n]on content de débaucher les femmes de ce pays, j’ai voulu aussi prostitué toute la littérature française [et la] [t]ransformer.” This transformation, on the face of it, is an act of vandalism, of “vengeance”, as his friend says. But on a broader level, it also describes what needs to be done for the memory of the Shoah to survive and for the horrors of it to be contextualized. It didn’t come out of nowhere and tirelessly, Modiano drags out ancient and modern instances of French antisemitism. Another use of Proust could be suggested if we read Beckett’s famous and masterful study of Proust. In a summary of a particular episode, Beckett tells us

But this resumption of a past life is poisoned by a cruel anachronism: [Marcel’s] grandmother is dead. For the first time since her death […] he has recovered her living and complete, […]. For the first time since her death he knows that she is dead, he knows who is dead. […] This contradiction between presence and irremediable obliteration is intolerable.

Modiano’s book, with its turns and quirks, its changes and challenges, can be seen as a recovery of a presence, that of Jewish life in France, of French Jews, “un JUIF français,” as Schlemilovich throws out defiantly towards the end of the book. This reading is supported by the fact that the further we burrow into the book’s madness and the closer we get to its end, the more loudly Modiano speaks of the Shoah. In a scene towards the end, a drunkard on Vienna’s streets yells loudly “6 Millionen Juden! 6 Millionen Juden!”

DSC_1554There is also a movement towards a more precise sense of place. In its early goings, Modiano’s book mixes real and fictional places. A womanizer early on tells him stories of women he’s been with, and that list contains famous prostitutes, as well as “Odette de Crecy”, the courtesan from Proust’s novel. Modiano makes Bardamu, the WWI veteran and doctor of Celine’s novel Voyage au bout de la nuit, into a real person, who Schlemilovich interacts with, just as he interacts with Freud, Himmler, Eva Braun and a veritable who-is-who of the French collaborator scene, including complicated figures like the Jewish collaborator (and Catholic convert) Maurice Sachs. At the end of the book, however, we get a genuine sense of place, as the Gestapo sites in Paris are named one by one:

31 bis et 72 avenue Foch. 57 boulevard Lannes. 48 rue de Villejust. 101 avenue Henri-Martin. 3 et 5 rue Mallet-Stevens. 21 et 23 square de Bois-de-Boulogne. 25 rue d’Astorg. 6 rue Adolphe-Yvon. 64 boulevard Suchet. 49 rue de la Faisanderie. 180 rue de la Pompe.

This is a sudden return to reality, to what Pierre Nora called “Lieux de Mémoire”, places of memory. If you want to get a brief but succinct summary of Nora’s role in creating a postwar political and historical memory in France, I recommend Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s essay “Remembered Realms: Pierre Nora and French National Memory” – overall, suffice it to say that France has been particularly enganged in gauging the workings of cultural and public memory and that places, be they monuments or remembered, enshrined or described places, play a central role in this. But to get back to Chamisso and Proust: Modiano’s project is private as well as public (and I don’t mean odd ideas like O’Keefe’s theory of fratricide). It’s about the identity of being a French Jew. A Jew in a France that, as reactionary intellectuals like Maurras have said, can only be understood by those whose roots are deep in French history, excluding the “wandering Jews” – Jewishness can be an involuntary identity, as many German and French Jews learned during the Third Reich, when it was declared that everybody’s a Jew who has Jewish ancestry – not only those who openly identified as Jews. There’s a sense in which Jewishness is circumscribed by writers about Jewishness, that’s it’s defined by others – and Modiano’s Schlemilovich takes on the role of those who do the defining for parts of the novel. This leery attitude towards history writing is also one of the ways in which Modiano sets himself apart from later, lesser works. The bloody, overly sexualized reality of Jonathan Littell’s barnburner is anchored to an idea of reality that equals or exceeds historiography (see my review of HHhH). No such pretense makes it into Modiano’s pages.

DSC_0219The book’s furor and inventiveness – as well as the age of its 23 year old author – preclude it from tying up its issues in a neat knot. Echoing many readers, its last lines are a declaration by Schlemilovich: “Je suis bien fatigué”. The followup novel, published only one year later, La Ronde de Nuit, doesn’t neatly continue the book’s trajectory, but does elaborate on its themes in a language not far removed from the debut. It’s about a double agent in Vichy France, but it does not name and use places as heavily as the latter third of La place de l’étoile. Les Boulevards de Ceintures, the third novel, is more explicit in naming places and dealing with the occupation. Like the debut, it delves deeply into issues of Jewish identity, of guilt and collaboration. At its center is a father/son relationship, which doubles as an analogue to the French/Jewish identity conflict. How, as a writer in a France that persecuted its Jews, do you construct a Jewish identity that is also a French one? The conflict is overwhelming, and the dark and involved language of Modiano’s first three books, especially of his debut, is testament to those difficulties. Boulevards de Ceintures ends with the exhortation by a barman lecturing the young Jewish son, researching his past (and by implication, France’s Vichy past) that, in the protagonist’s words, “je ferais mieux de penser à l’avenir”. If we look at the rest of Modiano’s work, it’s as if Modiano’s passion and the pain powering those books burned itself out. There are book that work as reprises of smaller themes, such as the research at the heart of Dora Bruder that recalls the search in Boulevards de Ceintures, but the pervasive search for memory and identity is more anodyne in the later books, more personal, less political. Mind you, it still puts Modiano heads and shoulders above writers like Paul Auster, who was inspired by books like the 1978 novel Rue des Boutiques Obscures to create his New York Trilogy, but doesn’t invest it with any of the historical urgency that Modiano still drags through his books, even if it’s in a reduced, backgrounded way. It’s a disappointment if you come to later Modiano after being introduced to him through his amazing debut, but at the same time, knowing how Modiano framed and discussed the cultural and personal stakes of postwar identity helps read his books in a deeper context.

lacombe_lucienPart of my reading of Modiano’s work as one of diminishing returns includes the fact that all his best work happened within his first ten years as a writer, with La Place de l’Étoile and Rue des Boutiques obscures as standout milestones at each end of it. I have already explained that I consider his debut to be his best work, but there is another text that comes close, and it, too, was written in that early period. This work is the script for Lacombe Lucien (1974), which he co-wrote with Louis Malle. Now, while I am hesitant to proclaim the greatness of Modiano, I would suggest it’s fairly agreed upon that Louis Malle is among last century’s greatest directors. Lacombe Lucien is a transcendent movie, excellent from start to finish. From casting to script and cinematography, there are few faults to find with this movie. The story is centered around the eponymous Lucien, a strange boy living in a French village during WWII, who wants to join the Résistance to indulge his taste for violence, but is rebuffed. Instead, he ends up joining the “German police” or rather a French militia that resides in a villa and hunts down members of the Résistance. Immediately, he informs on his old school teacher, of whom he knows the role in the Résistance. Many of Modiano’s topics recur in the movie: the guilt during wartime France, the historical burden of French antisemitism, the lies and secrets. And as in much of his work, the focal character is a boy. And while in most of Modiano’s work after the debut, stories of wartime France are cushioned in a framework of memory and remembrance, sometimes aiming, but obviously missing, for the poise, elegance and urgency of Proust, Lacombe Lucien‘s effect is immediate and stark. Much of the movie’s tension comes from its viewers (and secondary characters) never really knowing where this story would take them. Lucien is an unpredictable character, cold, cruel, yet at the same time possessed of a queer innocence. The movie reclaims much of the strangeness and oddity of Modiano’s debut. The characters in the villa are not meant to be realistic – there’s a famous bicycle champion, an actress, a small, angry antisemite, a horny, mildly disloyal servant with a lazy eye, a smooth black gunman, dressed like a Chicago mobster and the head of the operation, who employs his mother as a secretary. They might look like a joke, but they proceed with violence and efficiency, terrorizing the whole countryside.

220px-LacombeLucienThe slightly surreal quality that much of the movie has, the sometimes dreamlike sense of unreality is something that Modiano already perfected in his debut, together with the sexual politics of wartime antisemitism. There’s a blonde Jewish woman, who Lucien falls for immediately; she tells Lucien, in an intoxicated moment that she’s tired of being jewish. There are German Nazis in the movie but the only actual German we hear, apart from one phone call, is from the dialogue of a Jewish tailor who hides in the area. I feel like I’m doing a terrible job explaining the excellence of how the scenes and characters are constructed. The movie has an odd way of dealing with realism. It’s not just the strangeness of scenes and characters, sometimes Malle will keep the camera on a scene for long enough, that a sense of alienation creeps into the scene despite nothing odd having been added. One great example of this is an early scene, where a horse dies, and the villagers drag it onto a cart. This, already, takes quite some time, but then, Lucien is left behind with the horse, and he looks at it quizzically, caressing its face. It’s a frightening scene, it’s an encounter with animal physicality and death that shows us a clearer and deeper look into the desolation of Lucien’s soul than any other scene. To be clear, the movie is strange, surreal, but also highly realistic. Like Modiano’s other work, it becomes part of a process of collective memory, a contribution to critical debates about history, about the French role in WWII and so on. Yet, much as I might like to talk about this movie in terms of Modiano’s work, I don’t actually know how involved Malle was in the script. After all, Modiano, who was born in 1945, never lived through this period that was so important for his work. Modiano’s commitment is to cultural memory and its workings, not personal memory. Louis Malle, in contrast, was born in 1932, and has memories of being a boy in wartime France. I’m obviously more focused on Modiano here, but as a whole, it feels as if it’s more of a piece with Modiano’s work than Malle’s and yet given his novels, Modiano was no longer able to produce this kind of work. Maybe he needed Malle to return to the heights of his debut. Lacombe Lucien is truly extraordinary.

DSC_0228I keep saying this about books I admire, but my reading has barely touched on the complexities of La place de l’étoile. It’s a truly great book, and it rewards reading, rereading and analysis. I might even be wrong about it, and I suspect had my reading of Deleuze’s Proust book and Halbwachs’ work on memory been more recent (or if I had more time to reread them, as well as Proust and Céline) I could have made a better case in my arguments on memory. There is a whole line in French collaboration history that’s connected to homosexuality that, in the novel, can be read to tie into its discussions of Jewish sexuality (Otto Weininger might be apropos), as well as Proust and Céline, but I don’t have the room here for that nor do I have time to go back into research on this. I encourage everyone who made it to this part of the review to not only read the novel but to also use it to research at least all the names and places of it, reread their Proust and Céline, maybe some famous antisemites like Weininger. I know that it made me personally want to reread Gilles by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, which, given the appropriate amount of leisure, I will do. If you want to support me in buying/reading books, there are ways to do so, too 😉

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