A time of violence: Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion

Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion. Baraka Books, Montréal, 2023

This edgy thriller by Irish-Canadian author Luke Francis Beirne has some similar elements to his previous novel Foxhunt, also published by Baraka Books. In my post on it just over a year ago I likened it to early le Carré (link HERE). Blacklion in some ways resembles some of Graham Greene’s fiction – in fact, Part 1 of this novel is called ‘The Quiet American’.

The setting is early seventies Ireland. The Troubles are at their height in Ultster. Ray, of South Boston American-Irish stock, has been dispatched by the CIA to infiltrate the IRA in the Republic with a view to re-establishing a lost line of gun-running. The aim is not so much as to support the Republican cause, as to prevent the Soviets from stepping in and further unbalancing the power dynamic in the Cold War.

Ray, as a conspicuous newcomer and outsider, has to win the trust of a deeply suspicious set of people (associated with the previous gun-running operation out of gangland South Boston) and IRA splinter-group volunteers. His loyalty is tested several times, each time in more dangerous and hair-raising ways. More than once his life is threatened, and he has to muffle his moral instincts when other people’s lives are on the line: to step in and prevent bloodshed he would jeopardise his cover.

There’s a sub-genre of thriller to which Blacklion makes a worthy contribution (a recent series of the hit UK tv series ‘Line of Duty’ is an example): the undercover cop/agent who has to compromise his human principles in order to fulfil his mission. This includes becoming involved in a sexual relationship with one of the female activists. The tension mounts when Ray’s initial guilt at deceiving Aoife turns into another kind of unease as he finds himself falling in love with her.

The plot is fairly standard for this kind of set-up, with increasingly nail-biting operations involving assassinations of rivals or suspected ‘rats’, and firefights with the British army that culminate in a dangerous operation in the town of Blacklion, just over the border in Ulster.

There’s less obvious political ideology in this novel than there was in 50s-set Foxhunt. There the conflicting and equally extreme positions of the Soviets and conservative Americans were foregrounded. In Blacklion, Beirne is more interested in what drives politically motivated activists to such extremes of violence, while also exploring the even more complex morality of the undercover agent. The validity of Ray’s actions and mission is never overtly judged; the narrative simply presents what happens and wisely leaves the readers to form their own views.

The fact that he is haunted by flashbacks of his previous illegal covert operation in Laos (during the Vietnam war) simply shows the price Ray pays for doing the job he does. In a way he comes to grudgingly admire the commitment to a cause demonstrated by the people he deceives, and to question his role and the murkier ‘cause’, if it could be called that, on behalf of which he is operating. As Yeats put it, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.

One minor cavil. The prose is terse, unadorned – I suppose it could be called ‘hard-boiled’ in a Hemingway/Chandler way. But I was a little put off by one aspect of this style; there are times when the ‘this happened then this’ approach becomes intrusive. Let me try and explain with a fairly random example.

‘Ray walked around the car and opened the passenger side door. He climbed inside and shut it. Aoife turned the key in the ignition and started the car. The headlights played across the grass before the sand…’

Why not the even more pared-back, ‘They climbed into the car and drove off’…? I don’t mind that minimalist prose style, but moments like this grated a bit with me. But that’s a minor point. I enjoyed this novel a lot. It’s an exciting, compelling read, but also thought-provoking. Morality and character are as much in play as politics or action.

My thanks to Baraka Books for the ARC.

Éric Dupont, Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution

Éric Dupont, Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution. QC Fiction, 2022. Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge. First published as La Logeuse in 2006 by Marchand de Feuilles

In Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution, a lively translation into English by Peter McCambridge and Éric Dupont’s exuberant storytelling combine to produce another highly entertaining and unusual novel.

My post on Songs for the Cold of Heart HERE a few years ago suggested that Dupont is fascinated by the stories we tell each other – among other reasons, to answer the big existential questions we – and his characters – raise. As in that earlier novel, Rosa involves personal quests for larger truths than those found at home.

That all sounds rather serious, but this novel is great fun, and fizzes with idiosyncratic energy. It’s much shorter than Songs… as it deals mostly with the quest of just one character, Rosa (unlike the multiplicity of quest narratives in the earlier novel). There are also, as in Songs…, plenty more stories-within-stories, myths and fables, which usually serve to contribute to Rosa’s evolving enlightenment.

She’s brought up as a fervent Marxist in a small, sleepy village on the Gaspé peninsula in Québec province. Boredom infests the air – literally. Rosa sets out for the big city of Montreal to seek the west wind that would blow the poisoned air away, for the village’s wind has gone. Beneath this Wizard of Oz-type playful surface of the novel, though, is a sterner metaphorical (and at least partly) political element: take the air out of a region’s atmosphere and its people become atrophied (perhaps indifferent to their fate), and that leaves them vulnerable to malign political and other influences.

Along the way Rosa takes up with a group of strippers with whom she becomes great friends. She gets a job as a receptionist at a hotel where she gradually realises the women she befriends there are sex workers.

Among Rosa’s endearing qualities are her naiveté but also her moral/political probity: when one of the women finally explains to her what’s going on in the hotel, Rosa accepts what they do as their own business. She’s not judgemental about what women do with their bodies.

On the other hand, she refuses to keep quiet when her boarding house landlady Jeanne pontificates about the importance of preserving national identity in the province. It’s not that Rosa (or, I suppose, Dupont) is against such ideas; her spirited objection is to the borderline xenophobic attitude behind the over-zealous condemnation of anyone who Jeanne believes to be a threat to the culture and traditions she belongs to.

I think the strange title refers to Rosa’s epiphany towards the end of the novel that the Marxist revolution she’d been brought up to revere is less important than her own personal one. Her epiphany is a kind of non-revolution. She wasn’t cut out to be the saviour of her village; her quest was to find herself. But I may have got that quite wrong…

It’s maybe not the most original of morals, and the satire I found sometimes misfired, but the sheer zest and fun in the narrative compensate for some of what I thought were less successful digressions and non sequiturs that Dupont carried off with more panache in Songs for the Cold of Heart. That’s not to say it’s not worth reading. Dupont writes with such a sense of fun that it’s impossible to resist Rosa’s charm.

QC Fiction continue to expand their catalogue of English translations of Québec fiction in French with novels that maybe vary a little in literary quality, but are always stimulating and original.

My thanks to them for the advance reading copy.

Trollope, Lessard, Keegan, O’Farrell, Mandel

Feb-Mar reading

Another busy month, so here’s a brief look at what I’ve read.

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now Penguin Classics, 1994. First serialised 1874-75; first book form 1875

I can’t do justice to AT’s longest novel in a brief note, but let’s give a go. The last few years of politics here in the UK, let alone in the USA and beyond, have been pretty unedifying; post-truth, fake news, sleaze. But AT had it all taped in the high Victorian age. Dodgy businessmen speculating and spinning non-existent railways in order to profit on the share flotation – not even having to pretend to build anything. Antics in Parliament. He nails it all brilliantly. The usual Trollopian love interest storylines weave in and out of all these shenanigans: as always, they tend to involve young people looking to marry money and avoid having to actually work. There’s one of the most caddish of his villains, the odious Sir Felix – a morally incontinent philanderer, drone, nightmare son and scary marriage prospect. The political and commercial part is the most satisfying, but AT is a master at manipulating a complex, multi-character plot.

PS Shortly after I finished this novel, the news broke of the appointment, at the recommendation of ex-PM Johnson, of a new chair of the BBC – R. Sharp (apt name). No coincidence that he’d been involved in securing a loan for Johnson. No scandal or sleaze, they insisted. A satirical piece in the Guardian by John Crace has this: [Sharp had been challenged about how corrupt this all looked] ‘Sharp shook his head furiously. The whole point of the establishment was that it covered things up. Look, he said. This is The Way We Live Now. [He and BJ deserved what they got: all on merit.] Society – his society – would demand no less.’

Ariane Lessard, School for Girls QC Fiction, 2022. Translated from the French by Frances Pope. This short novella can be enjoyed in one sustained read. It’s divided into four sections, one for each season, and each short sub-section is named after (and narrated from the pov of) one of the girls at a Canadian convent boarding school that’s nothing like the Chalet School novels.

We hear in free indirect form the experiences of about a dozen of these girls. They’ve developed factions, but the alliances shift, often causing deep cuts (sometimes literally). Adolescence kicks in and their sexuality stirs. Prose is often unpunctuated, febrile and associative, poetic – rather like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, but spikier. The novella put me in mind of the film Picnic at Hanging Rock: the same sense of impending disaster, the hallucinatory, hormonally charged atmosphere. The nuns are as unhinged as their pupils. The wild forest beyond the school walls is always looming, encroaching – bears, moose. It’s a heady, intoxicating mix.

Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These Faber, 2022; 20211. Another short novella, but intense and powerfully moving. It’s so widely praised I don’t need to say much about it. Bill, an Irish fuel supply man in a small town near Waterford, Ireland, does business with a convent that supposedly cares for illegitimate girls. He’s perturbed to come across a young girl who seems to have been cruelly punished. What should he do? These are tough times (it’s the lean 1980s): local employers are laying workers off, there’s desperate poverty everywhere. Should he speak up, intervene, report abuse? An illegitimate child himself, he feels compelled not to turn a blind eye.

Stories about the  sinister Magdalene laundries, the hypocrisy of the nuns who ran them (and the communities in which they flourished, largely unchallenged), are well known, but Claire Keegan manages to tell her shocking story in a way that makes it disturbingly new. Despite the grim theme, it’s a profoundly humane novella that reminds us that even when society seems irredeemably corrupt (shades of Trollope again), some people refuse to look the other way, whatever the cost.

Maggie O’Farrell, The Marriage Portrait Tinder Press, 2022. Another shocking story about abusive treatment of very young women. In this case she’s the famous ‘last duchess’ of Browning’s poem. O’Farrell’s imagining of this murky story of a 17C tyrannical aristocrat’s abusive, potentially murderous behaviour towards a new young wife who’s too spirited for his liking is lively and entertaining, but I found it over-long. The structure, with its multiple flashbacks and jumps forward in time, is fussy and breaks the narrative flow. But as historical fiction goes, it’s not bad.

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven Picador, 2014. This would make an exciting action movie. As a novel it didn’t quite work for me. Surprising, because its story is timely and quite well handled: a post-pandemic dystopian world where order has broken down and life for the feral survivors is dangerous and precarious. But as with The Marriage Portrait, the fractured structure and leaps back and forth in time fatigued me. It should have been compelling, but for me it lacked originality and many of the characters were flat. Unlike Claire Keegan, this Canadian novelist doesn’t succeed in making a well-worn theme come to life.

Bridge of names: Shaf and the Remington, by Rana Bose

Rana Bose, Shaf and the Remington. Baraka Books, Montreal, 2022.

The Remington in the title is a shotgun, and it plays a central part in the plot. Shaf is the brilliant, enigmatic maths and physics genius employed to home tutor young Ben, who’s falling behind at school. Ben quickly grows to revere this eccentric philosopher-scientist; his sister Nika falls in love with him.

Bose Shaf and the Remington cover But this is the Balkans at the start of WWII, so we know all will not turn out well. The setting is the fictional town of Sabzic, with an iconic centuries-old arched bridge spanning the divide between the ethnic and religious factions who live there (this sounds very like the famous Mostar bridge). These communities have lived in fragile harmony for centuries as invaders have come and gone, but this relative peace is shattered with the latest invasion by the fascists.

Ben’s father is often absent. He’s a commander of local partisans, fighting against the invaders. When Shaf disappears as well, it’s apparent he’s gone to join the struggle against Hitler’s forces. Ben is bereft. People around him start to die – and the Remington plays its part here.

The novel opens decades later, when Ben thinks he might have finally tracked down his elusive former tutor. Much of what follows is the back story.

This is an unusual and intriguing novel, told with crisp authority. The tragedy and suffering are described with restraint, and this makes them all the more vivid and affecting.

The hatred and violence that had been partially suppressed for so many years in this divided community are all the more shocking when unleashed by the incursions of Hitler’s hordes. They are heightened by the frequent mentions of the peace that had reigned uneasily for so long beforehand, symbolised by that unifying, linking bridge:

[Ten-year-old Ben often rides his bike across the bridge and leans on the parapet, looking down at the river below:] I also looked at the etchings done on the parapet that possibly went back a few centuries. With knives that had obviously cut some throats and severed arteries. Migrants, travelers, peddlers, soldiers, priests and conquerors had all stopped and looked down at the foamy swirls…A relatively amicable relationship existed between the three main religions as well as those within the Christian fold who were Catholic or Orthodox, and between Muslims who had once perhaps been Manichaeans or Zoroastrians, and people from the Caucasus who had adopted Judaism instead of being converted to Christianity or Islam. Their names and initials were engraved on the parapet [of the ancient bridge].

Everyone in the community speaks essentially the same language, ‘with minor modifications here and there’, using words incorporated from ‘past empires’. People from across the divides intermarried and lived together, ‘because they spoke the same language’.

Having recently been to Croatia, and read the first Croatia-set section of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I found this a gripping read. My thanks to Baraka Books for the ARC.

Foxes and masks

Vincent Brault, The Ghost of Suzuko. Translated from the French by Benjamin Hedley. QC Fiction, 2022

Québec-based QC Fiction continues to put out an impressive range of stimulating fiction translated from its creative local Francophone pool of writers. I’m lucky enough to be sent copies of ARCs of most of their new titles, so have developed a bit of a backlog of TBRs.

V Brault Ghost of Suzuko cover The Ghost of Suzuko is Vincent Brault’s third novel, but the first to be translated into English. Benjamin Hedley has done a good job – the prose is never stilted or awkward, as translations can be.

It’s a haunting love story – literally. The protagonist, also called Vincent, is mourning his lover, who died suddenly and tragically. In the first half of the novel we see him struggling to adapt to life alone again. He visits a modish art gallery (Suzuko had exhibited her vivid animal masks there) and hangs out with his bohemian friends.

But Suzuko’s presence is always with him. As he slowly emerges from his grief, we learn in the second half how they met at a book launch in Montreal, he followed her to Tokyo, and their lives mingled.

There’s some strange, magical realist stuff about her taxidermy and those animal masks, which she started to wear as an alternative outer skin, hinting at an alternative identity and way of being. Getting a passport photo while wearing a fox’s face can be tricky.

The sentences are often short and spiky – an apt representation of Vincent’s state of mind, and rendered skilfully by the translator, as I suggested above.

It’s a short novel (just over 200 pages, with quite a lot of white space), but it packs in a great deal of powerful emotion, sensuality and surreal weirdness that keeps the reader intrigued.

The cityscape of Tokyo is evoked well: the sounds and smells of the fish market (which plays a surprisingly important role in the narrative), the bustling streets and trendy galleries and bars – but also a cemetery inhabited by tailless cats that are fed by a dishevelled old woman who explains that they come there when their nine lives have been used up, and hence all of their replacement tails, too.

I rather liked these bizarre details that hint at a lot, but I’m not entirely sure what they might signify. Something about life and death. The fox head reminds me of that beautiful, disturbing scene in Kurosawa’s last film, Dreams, in which a lad spies in a forest on a procession of fox-humans, dancing and pausing to peer suspiciously round them as they feel his presence, watching them.

Spies and misdemeanours: le Carré, Boyd, Hill, Beirne

Time for a survey of recent reading.

John le Carré Silverview (Viking, 2021) This was passed on to me by Mrs TD: le Carré’s final published novel before his death two years ago. It’s a complicated story involving an ex city trader turned (non-bookish) bookshop owner who gets tangled up with spies, double agents and conspiracies. It’s entertaining as far as this kind of thing goes. The title is the name of the house where a shady former MI5 agent lives, imitating the name of Nietzsche’s house, of all people. I’d always thought the rural county of Suffolk was a peaceful, serene place to live (my parents and sister lived or still live there), but according to this novel it seems pretty much everyone in that part of East Anglia is involved in espionage and skulduggery.

William Boyd Love Is Blind (Penguin, 2019) I read this on the way back from Italy and left it on the plane, so rely on memory for this note. Brodie is a Scots piano tuner with a monster of a tyrannical father (a firebrand vicar-preacher, implausibly). Brodie falls in love with a Russian opera singer who’s also involved with a virtuoso concert pianist and his brutish brother. After hair-raising scrapes in various European cities Brodie finds himself in a remote jungle island assisting a pioneering woman ethnologist. As one does. The plot is even more complex than the le Carré. When Brodie discovers he has TB it gets even more tangled. The characters are a bit flat, but the descriptions of piano tuning are strangely engaging. This competent novel would have benefited from some editorial pruning.

Susan Hill The Comforts of Home (Vintage, 2019) Another handed on by Mrs TD. It’s one of a series, apparently, with the central character called Det. Chief Inspector Simon Serailler. It seems inevitable in this cop-centred genre that he’s a maverick rule-breaker and loner, despite being a serial flirt. The main crime (a murder on a Scottish island) at the heart of the plot is the least interesting part of the novel – it’s the relationships between Serailler, his GP sister and her husband, who’s also his boss, and her sons, that are the most entertaining aspect. There’s also a cold case (another nasty murder) that Serailler is put on to by said boss to ease him back into work after a horrific accident in which he’d lost his arm – an incident presumably from the previous novel in the series. I can’t say I’ll rush to read another one, though it’s all efficiently done, if a bit predictable.

Luke Francis Beirne Foxhunt (Baraka Books, 2022: ARC courtesy of the Canadian publishers). A cold-war thriller rather like early le Carré. In 1949 a Canadian writer called Lowell moves to London to edit a new magazine intended to promote Western literature, values and culture and its artistic freedom compared with the repressive regime of the Soviet Union. When a Canadian colleague is murdered he begins to realise all is not as it seems: the magazine’s backers are as sinister in their way as their enemies. The politically naïve Lowell undergoes a painful education in the amoral games played by these characters who lurk in the shadows. I’m not a huge fan of espionage novels, but this one is skilfully crafted and has an original premise and richly drawn characters. The revelation at one point that the Soviets were experimenting with advanced nuclear weapons is eerily pertinent given recent news about the brutal war/invasion in Ukraine and related developments.

There’s a foxhunt at one point, hence the title, but it’s not one as Trollope would have depicted it.

More November reading

Here are a couple more brief accounts of recent fiction reading.

Natalia Ginzburg, Family Lexicon (first published in Italian, 1963; this translation by Jenny McPhee, Daunt Books 2018, previously in America by NYRB). Another book by an author I’d read so many good things about I thought it was time I gave her a try. This one wasn’t for me.

It’s autobiography that the author says should be read as a novel. I didn’t think it worked as either. Its fragmentary, repetitive structure and huge number of ephemeral, lightly-sketched characters prevented me from sustaining any interest.

The narrator’s scientist father is a monster: a bigot and a tyrannical bully who constantly shouts abuse and insults at his cowed family members, and anyone else unfortunate enough to cross his path. Ok, so lots of novels feature monstrous parents. But this despotic man doesn’t lead to much in the way of insight or redemption; he just is. I suppose that’s Ginzburg’s point: as a child she had to learn to survive his tantrums, and this made her perhaps a stronger person. But this didn’t come across in the stilted narrative.

Her mother is fickle, complaining (not surprisingly, given her husband’s nature) and frankly not very bright. Her four siblings bicker and fight, but the jerky structure means there’s little coherence or continuity. It’s like watching a magic lantern show – shapes just flit across the scene leaving little impression.

Even the main, important subject – the persecution of Jews in Italy from the 30s through to WWII – is curiously distanced and muted.

Plenty of readers had a much more positive response to this book; all I can do is to present my own, for what it’s worth. We can’t all admire the same stuff.

Clerson To See Out the Night coverDavid Clerson, To See Out the Night (QC Fiction, Canada, 2021; translated from the French by Katia Grubisic; ARC courtesy of the publisher). These twelve very short stories all contain surreal or fantastic elements. This is not a genre I usually like, but this collection is accessible and nimbly told and translated.

The central theme is to question what the ‘real world’ is, and how do we recognise it if and when we experience it, how do we perceive or distinguish reality from…the unreal, imagined or fantastic? So characters are transformed, or believe they are, into other entities – an ape, in the opening story, or an insect in another.

Dreams are another recurring feature. Most of the events narrated have a dream-like quality. Sometimes the characters appear to know they’re dreaming – or they think they do. Subterranean or forest worlds are as accessible and remarkable as the mundane. Being human is as potentially alien and solitary as the life and form of a mushroom.

Several stories involve characters who write or tell stories that often weave into the perceived reality of their own and other people’s lives. The boundaries between these worlds of fiction are as blurred as those in dreams.

The dustjacket blurb describes the stories as ‘visceral’ and ‘surprising’ – a reasonable claim.

There’s a fuller, perhaps more enthusiastic review of To See Out the Night at Tony’s Reading List (link HERE).

Annie Perreault, The Woman in Valencia

Annie Perreault,The Woman in Valencia. QC Fiction, Québec, 2021. 212 pp. Translated from the French by Ann Marie Boulanger.

QC Fiction, the Canadian imprint that specialises in translating French fiction into English, continues to be innovative: every title in their catalogue is stimulating to read.

Annie Perreault Woman in Valencia cover The plot is uncomplicated: Claire Halde is on holiday in Valencia with her husband and two small girls. She’s basking in the summer sun on a hotel fourth-floor pool terrace, watching her family play in the water. A strange woman approaches her, fully dressed, and asks Claire to take her tote bag. There’s a bloodstained recent dressing on her wrist, which is bleeding copiously. Claire is alarmed by the woman’s agitated state, and tries to calm her down. Her offers to call for medical help are dismissed.

Then the woman climbs over the terrace rail and jumps.

For the rest of this taut narrative Claire is haunted by this event. Her life starts to fall apart as her emotional state fragments.

Time passes, and she visits Valencia again. Has a passionate affair. This seems to exorcise her demons.

Intercut with these developments we learn about her daughter, Laure, now an adult, who runs a marathon in Valencia in an attempt to honour her mother and emulate her running feats. We’re given insights to Laure’s thoughts as the kilometres pass. There are also flashbacks to Claire’s youthful backpacking adventures.

For a while I thought this would have been better as a long short story, but as the various strands of narrative assembled themselves I began to appreciate the author’s artistry. Her focus is on the feelings and impulses of her main characters: we get right inside their heads, and the intensity of their emotions is palpable. The central metaphor of the marathon is an apt vehicle for the ordeals of endurance these women undergo.

The translation, as always with QC titles, is excellent: idiomatic and smooth.

My thanks to the publishers for this ARC.

Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville

Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville. QC Fiction, Québec, 2019. Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge. ARC

My whole childhood was nothing but dread, drifting, and disappointment. And yet I wanted to be happy.

Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville front coverThese opening words of Éric Mathieu’s novel The Little Fox of Mayerville give an indication of most of what follows. Émile Claudel is born in 1945 into an ‘austere, joyless family home’ in the small, gossip-ridden village of the title, a rural place in Lorraine near where, significantly, Joan of Arc had lived. He too is born to suffer France’s pains.

It’s a magical realist bildungsroman; for example, the boy is able to speak from the moment he’s born, and he babbles competently in several languages, quoting from an early age from canonical literature he can’t possibly have read. From the outset this precocity – and everything else about him – arouses only hatred in the rest of his family.

With his red hair and vulpine features he quickly acquires the eponymous nickname. It’s not a token of affection. His slyness, tricks and (often cruel) pranks, usually perpetrated with his only friend Max, don’t endear him to his community.

As the narrative proceeds we learn that he suspects the man he calls father isn’t his biological father (he’d returned from the war, having been a POW, too late for the dates to fit). Much of the time Émile desperately searches for clues about the identity of who his father could be.

His supposed father is a shadowy, barely-present figure. His mother is moody, volatile and unloving towards the boy – he presumes out of guilt about his illegitimacy. She also seems to be promiscuous, especially with a sinister neighbour, Ducal. Could this demonic man be the one? Or was it an American GI who’d been quartered at the Claudel house during the war?

Aged about eight, before he can find the answers to these questions, he’s abandoned by his family and sent to an orphanage, euphemistically called ‘boarding school’. This place makes Jane Eyre’s Lowood seem like heaven. After suffering and growing up there he absconds and has a number of picaresque adventures. Falls in love. The sixties arrive: rock and roll, Bardot, liberation. Kennedy is shot. Maybe what’s coming isn’t liberation.

The novel never flags – in fact at times it’s almost too packed with incident, so the scenes blur. The protagonist is protean: at times feral, a kind of werewolf (werefox?), at others a scared, lonely child. It’s often unclear if what’s narrated is his fantasy. Dreams are interwoven with the narrative without distinction from ‘real life’, adding to this magical quality. Most of the people he meets are monstrous, distortions, like nightmare figures.

The poignancy of Émile’s childhood is the most affecting aspect of the novel: he’s lost, searching for some kind of identity – he assumes finding out about his father will solve this problem. Like most of us, he discovers that the truth isn’t always what you really want to find – or expect. The epigraph to Part III highlights this ambivalence: a quotation from The Brothers Karamazov – ‘who doesn’t desire his father’s death?’

He craves love and affection, and when it’s withheld not surprisingly his dark side exerts itself. I suppose The Little Fox is best summed up as a kind of postmodern fairytale. There are elements resembling Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. But I was most reminded of Truffaut’s seminal film ‘Les Quatre cents coups’– Émile, like Truffaut’s alter ego, barely copes with his abrasive contact with mid-20C French conservatism and duplicity. Its society is scarred by memories of war.  It attempts to gloss over its dubious record under German occupation. Maybe Émile’s quest represents in microcosm that of modern France.

Although the narrative seemed (for me) to lose its way a little towards the end, I was always engaged in Émile’s troubled, delinquent quest. The short chapters, some just a sentence or two, and the nimble, restless narrative voice, create a breathless, other-worldly effect that accords well with the theme.

The translation by this innovative Québec imprint’s fiction editor, Peter McCambridge, is lively and fluent. My thanks to the publisher for the ARC, and a welcome addition to its growing, impressive catalogue.

 

 

 

 

Sylvie Chaput, Isabelle’s Notebooks. #WITMonth

Sylvie Chaput, Isabelle’s Notebooks. Translated from the French by Peter Vranckx and Daniel Sloate. Guernica Editions, Canada, 2002; 1996

#WITMonth logo I came across this novel, by an author and in an imprint I’d not heard of, in a charity bookshop last week. As I’ve enjoyed the output of titles by QC Fiction of French Canadian/Québec literature, and I saw from the blurb of its dustjacket that Isabelle’s Notebooks was by a writer based in Québec – I bought it. (I see from their website that Guernica have a highly varied and interesting-looking catalogue.)

I also needed something new for Women In Translation Month; my previous post was my first in August’s #WITMonth initiative hosted at Bibliobio blog: Continents, by the Finnish novelist Anja Snellman.

Set in the troubled British colony of Canada mostly in the 1830s, and ending in 1845, the novel consists of the fictional notebooks of Isabelle Forest, an aspiring artist. Orphaned at a young age she’s brought up by a distinguished professional artist and collector, her uncle Joseph Légaré. As the author’s note informs us at the end of the book, most of the characters and events narrated are based on real life. Chaput uses these fictional notebooks as an entry into a vividly imagined recreation of that turbulent period in the history of Canada, a ‘new country’ struggling for independence, and of Canadian women, engaged in their own struggle against the patriarchy.

Chaput Isabelle's Notebooks coverThere’s a journalistic edge to the style and content that reminded me of Defoe; like his Journal of a Plague Year this novel graphically and memorably conveys the devastation of the city of Québec in 1832 by a cholera epidemic, and later by two terrible fires that take their toll on the narrator’s own household.

I found myself skimming the long central sections, which gave an over-detailed account of the numerous contending political factions, their multitude of key players, and frequent broiling protests of the radical Patriotes and others in their fight for autonomy from their European rulers. These sections showed signs of the meticulous historical research too overtly.

As a British reader I felt ashamed of the brutal repression of the Canadians by my countrymen, and reprisals meted out to these early fighters for freedom from tyranny. The current events in Hong Kong are a reminder of what’s at stake for such people.

More interesting was the representation of Isabelle’s rite of passage into selfhood and her own kind of autonomy: as a girl she becomes interested in drawing and her uncle is pleased to take her on as a pupil. But she quickly concedes that for ‘the fairer sex’ to which she belongs ‘painting remains purely a leisure activity.’

But I strenuously objected to the notion of my serving as a mere ornament. And yet that is precisely what I risked becoming if I simply stopped painting. I had to continue my efforts, even if they were on a modest scale.

Her quest for independent identity is paralleled in her intensifying love for young firebrand patriot Philippe. She falls in love in a romantic impulse of admiration for his heroic, quixotic rebellion. At first his protest is political but it rapidly becomes personal and literary when he defends his first novel against what he sees as ill-informed criticism. Isabelle is intrigued and troubled by his strange novel: a disturbing account of a brutal murder, with a background of alchemy.

William Blake's Death on a Pale Horse

Blake’s ‘Death on a Pale Horse’, from illustrations to the Book of Revelation. Currently in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons

And alchemy becomes a key theme in this novel, along with art and painting; a watercolour of Death riding a pale horse by William Blake plays a significant part. It’s one of many striking, enigmatic symbols and images that punctuate and illuminate the narrative.

As Isabelle learns to love and live through Philippe, she’s too soon introduced to the pain and anguish of separation and loss.

There’s a striking image in the final pages involving an artwork and its ability to outlive attempts at erasure. It’s worth persevering with this sometimes ponderous novel for the high points and flashes of originality that depict this love affair’s tempestuous progress and the awakening of the spirited young woman protagonist as a consequence of it, and for images like that closing one. The alchemy I found less compelling.

Sylvie Chaput is an essayist, novelist and translator specialising in literature, art and philosophy; she has translated works by Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller (from the Guernica Editions website).