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).

 

 

Authority: Maude Veilleux, ‘Prague’

Maude Veilleux, Prague. Translated from the French by Aleshia Jensen and Aimee Wall. QC Fiction, Montréal, 2019.

So far I’ve resisted reading the obvious candidates in the recently revived fashion for autofiction – the likes of Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner – and perhaps most egregiously Karl Ove Knausgård. When I first read this ARC of Montréal writer Maude Veilleux’s novel Prague I found myself deep in autofictional narrative, and felt uneasy.

It’s a genre that’s uncomfortable with third-person narrators, invented or ‘well rounded’, invented characters and, well, plots (by definition ‘untruthful’). I’m too old, I thought, for this kind of stuff. It’s for the social media generation.

Veilleux Prague coverAt one point our unnamed female narrator, who seems as far as I can tell a pretty close match (or alter ego) to what can be known about the real-life author, feeling depressed and in the throes of an existential crisis, writes that she ‘turned to Facebook to validate [her] existence’. Just as these shared online photos and words confirm her being ‘present in the world’, it’s a record of herself, so by making this novel similarly “authentic”, ‘I could also say: I have a book, I exist. It validated my pain.’ Elsewhere she says that writing alone could save her. Seems to me this is more than autofiction: more of a testament of fiction as personal Cartesian salvation.

The narrator self-consciously presents herself on stage, for performing at poetry readings for example, as

…vulnerable. I take care to look pretty. Perfectly groomed. Perfectly made up. Batting my eyelashes with timed grace…My fragility is my strength. But what they don’t know is that I’m a force of destruction, an enchantress. The prey and the predator.

When the boyfriend, Sébastien, sees pages of this novel in draft, and she’s afraid he’ll react badly:

He smiled, a little uncomfortable. He said: I sound like a jerk…like the boyfriend in that Nelly Arcan book, Hysteric. I hated that guy.

I smiled.

I told him I would be sad to lose him.

 

The novel opens with her and her soon-to-be lover joking about going to Prague largely because he likes Kundera. It ends with her visiting Kafka’s grave in that city, and a sort of manifesto emerges:

Maybe my interest in intimate stories lies in the encounter with the other. Without falsehood or façade.

She explains why she – this narrator – decided ‘to write autofiction in 2016, ten years after Nelly Arcan.’

I had to look her up. Sex, death and suicide; she killed herself in 2009 aged 36, as she predicted in her fiction (except there she said she wouldn’t make it to 31; Prague’s narrator is 31). These all feature prominently in Prague. The narrator admits to a ‘fascination with suicide’, even attempts it. There’s a lot of graphic sex; the narrator says she and her husband are bisexual; the affair with Sébastian is something of a departure for her. It all comes violently BDSM with him, to the point where the woman almost dies: ‘I wanted to believe he could kill me.’ He squeezes her neck harder: ‘I thought he must love me a little.’

Thanatos and Eros. The death drive and the sex instinct, destruction and creation. Maybe writing fiction is a kind of struggle with these drives, seems to be one message?

(Annie Ernaux, another exponent of a kind of confessional autofiction, is also quoted.)

When she worries that her life experience is being ruined because she writes it into her novel, and writing about it is destructive of life, the lines between reality and story are blurred. Like the enchanted (or cursed) Lady of Shalott the narrator can’t just observe the world; she has to participate, experience it, but to do so precludes artistic creativity and destroys her – life, for her, is destructive. But she enchants Lancelot with her ‘lovely face’.

So a novel about writing a novel is really a novel about living, as existentialists might say, authentically. Like all good novels? The story itself becomes the truth.

As I reread the novel I began to appreciate it more. Its choppy, curt sentences, the fragmented structure, non sequiturs and non-linear narrative, chronological shifts. It’s not an imitation of real life, after all, or stream of consciousness. It’s as much a construct, a fiction, as more conventional fiction. Hence all those literary allusions.

On p. 88 the narrator inserts this one line paragraph:

Lies are a device often used in fiction.

If all novels are lies (it’s the Cretan liar paradox) then so is autofiction. For all its apparent self-revelation, unveiling and demasking, its self-absorption, it’s still fiction. This is on p. 77:

The height of narcissism. To make a novel of yourself. To make yourself into a novel to give yourself a little meaning. Mostly, to be afraid of not existing.

I have no way of knowing if this is ‘true’ – but it’s as valid a form of fiction as Kafka’s tortured explorations of identity and reality, or Melville’s, Chaucer’s. In fact all fiction, as Philip Roth has kind of suggested, is a sort of autofiction – but it’s not autobiography.

No shaping, no representations. Creating characters didn’t really appeal to me anymore. What could I do with those invented lives?

Jonathan Gibbs at his blog Tiny Camels, wrote about autofiction last year here. He says (much more coherently than I’m doing in these ramblings) it’s possible to like this kind of fiction and the other, more conventional kind. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive – provided we don’t condemn the kind of narrative that adopts anything other than the ‘I am a camera’ kind of approach, subverting and disrupting the reader’s position. Who can tell how ‘invented’ the lives in any work of fiction can be? Look up the person’s biography and compare the fiction: they’re different, even if there’s a superficial resemblance in the detail. See how that phrase about batting the lashes ‘with timed grace’ works in a way that surely couldn’t in non-fiction.

This has turned out to be not so much a review as a musing. A muddle. Sorry about that. I’m still trying to figure out what I make of this exhilarating, baffling novel.

Kudos to Montréal publishers QC Fiction for continuing to turn out risky and unconventional translations of Canadian fiction.

B.Moore, HH Richardson, E. Bowen, G. Gazdanov. Update pt 1

After an illness (still persisting) and short break visiting family near Barcelona, there’s been something of a hiatus on TD. Here’s a quick update (part 1) on reading since last time:

Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn coverBrian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn, Harper Perennial, 2007; first published 1955. This was Moore’s first novel published under his own name. Set in his birthplace, Belfast, it deals with what were to become some of his key topics: (loss of) RC faith, sex, solitude and the difficulties of connecting. It tells the sad story of a 40-ish spinster’s decline into serious problems as she struggles to deal with her isolation and inability to forge relationships. She’s lost and desperate. Moore shows impressive ability to inhabit the  troubled consciousness of this lonely woman. I was inspired to read the novel by JacquiWine’s post last year; she has an excellent, detailed post about it here

HH Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom coverHenry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom. VMC 1981; first published 1910. Born in Australia under the name Ethel Florence Lindesey Richardson, the author moved to Europe as a young woman and studied music in Leipzig. This semi-autobiographical novel relates the development of spirited, mercurial Laura Tweedle Rambotham from her move to boarding school in Melbourne at the age of twelve to her final days there aged sixteen. Unlike the other girls she comes from a poor background. Richardson subverts the usual girls’ school kind of narrative – this is no Chalet School. The teachers are bored, incompetent or vindictive, or all three. The other girls are much the same. Too impetuous to curb her spontaneity, Laura tries desperately to conform and be liked; she fails. She even stoops to aping the peevish snobbery and factional squabbling and bullying of her privileged peers, but acceptance and friendship elude her. As her sexuality awakens, she develops a passion for an attractive older girl – but as usual her judgement is faulty and she is destined for painful experiences. It’s a fascinating, lively account, partly marred by too much detail about Laura’s attempt to find some kind of solace in religious faith.

E. Bowen, Friends and Relations coverElizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations. Penguin Modern Classics, 1984; first published 1931. I disliked this. Maybe it was the illness I was in the throes of. The basic premise is promising: two sisters marry, but one is in love with her sister’s husband. I simply had no interest in what would happen to these otiose, bloodless upper-class characters – they live in huge houses and have little to do but lust after each other. Elfrida is interestingly done: non-conformist, passionate. The prose is over-ornate, mannered and look-at-me ‘fine writing’. Disappointing; I’d read other Bowen novels long ago and enjoyed them.

 

Gazdanov Spectre A Wolf coverGaito Gazdanov, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. Translated by Bryan Karetnyk. Pushkin Press, 2013. First published in Russian 1947-48. Another novel with semi-autobiographical tendencies. A sixteen year old lad fighting for the White Russians in the civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution thinks he’s murdered a man. Later he reads a story which seems to tell that story. Further coincidences and fusions of what he considers his reality and some other order of experience take place. It’s an intriguing blend of war narrative, bildungsroman, down and out in Paris account with murders, lowlifes and gangsters (there’s even a reference to ‘apaches’ in the slang French sense), blended with a Proustian memory theme and existential duplications. Reminded me (in a good way) of Blaise Cendrars’ Dan Yack novels – not just the content I just summarised, but the mix of gritty urban noir with surreal narrative shifts.

Laurence Leduc-Primeau, In the End…

Laurence Leduc-Primeau, In the End They Told Them All to Get Lost, translated by Natalia Hero, is published by QC Fiction of Québec this month – my thanks to them for this ARC.

It’s not their strongest title in what’s been so far an excellent series of prose fiction works translated from the French. Here’s a link to those I’ve posted on here so far.

My favourite to date is Eric Dupont’s Giller Prize shortlisted epic Songs for the Cold of Heart, which does what all fine fiction does: creates its own world and characters out of recognisable features and makes them new. This new title is a typically unconventional choice for the publishers: it’s essentially a long stream of fragments of the thoughts and impressions of the narrator, a young Canadian woman called Chloé who has ended up in a Spanish-speaking South American country, and is trying to make sense of her new, alien surroundings.

Leduc-Primeau, In the End cover‘My God, it’s humid’, she thinks early on. ‘How can you stand it?’ What marks out the narrative from the run of the mill is the originality of the narrative perspective: Chloé is here addressing her only friend – a stain on the wall she’s named Betty.

She complains about the endless noise, the ‘people who use their windows as ashtrays.’ The din gets inside her skull:

No wonder they say this town is the therapy capital of the world.

Everyone’s crazy here. That’s why I came.

Her housemates are a feckless lot. There’s a lot of debauchery and decadence, very little in the way of plot.

What sustains the reader’s interest is that fey, vulnerable voice of the narrator’s. She’s lonely, desperate for human connection, prepared to settle for exploitative sex if necessary. She doesn’t even speak the local language at first, but things improve when she becomes more fluent. She even gets a job as a theatre receptionist.

Still she finds the world around her difficult to interpret. It’s full of significance that almost always eludes her. She struggles to integrate her life and her heart.

As an account of a young woman’s attempt to coalesce with the world she inhabits it’s a daring, raw and engaging narrative. Its fragmentary nature is an apt reflection of her experience and sensibility.

The translator has done a fine job in rendering the rangy, demotic voice of this narrator: the prose never drags its heels. She does well to leave the frequent Spanish expressions in their original: this heightens the sense of Chloé’s exclusion from the language and the lives of others. Her growth is indicated by her starting to meditate on the semantics and structures of that Spanish language.

Thanks again to QC Fiction for making available to the anglophone world these works that deserve wider dissemination – every one in the series that I’ve read so far has been original and fresh.

Available April 15.

 

Lost at sea: Charles Quimper, In Every Wave

Charles Quimper, In Every Wave. QC Fiction, available from 1 November 2018. First published 2017 as Marée montante

In a recent interview in the online magazine Québec Reads Charles Quimper was asked:

What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature?

 

An inwardness of character, I think, and a complexity in the emotions they experience. There’s a toughness, a harshness of tone that’s difficult to capture or define in just a few words.

This sums up the first-person narrative – monologue – and the narrator’s tangled, indefinable sensations and emotions in Quimper’s first novel, In Every Wave.

Quimper Every Wave coverIt belongs to that sub-genre of fiction which deals with a parent’s anguish and torment at the loss of a child. Ian McEwan is the only example that comes to mind (toddler goes missing in supermarket), but I’m sure there are more I’ve forgotten about.

In the same interview the author says that it’s a novel’s ‘opening lines that grab my attention. They have to land, leave their mark. I enjoy discovering images that are still new to me, scenes made up of words that leave me in a swirl of ideas.’ Here’s the opening paragraph of his novel:

It was June when I set sail on my boat’s maiden voyage. I carried the bare essentials. A few pounds of supplies, your little pink box, a battleships game, and the endless echo of our days together.

I’m not sure ‘harshness of tone’ is what he does here, though there’s a brittle matter-of-factness masking the pain underneath. The two short, simple sentences are deceptive, their apparent confidence waylaid by the heartbreaking list of stores that’s given in that long, swirling third sentence – all addressed to the lost child. After the mundane, trivial objects, with their connotations of seafaring and childhood, we get that tortured abstract noun phrase signifying emptiness, loss, bereavement.

What follows is a poetic evocation of the father’s descent into personal hell as he tries to come to terms with the death of his little girl. The narrative is slippery and unreliable: we’re given three different accounts of how she died. It’s as if the detail is immaterial; it’s only the grim fact that she’s dead that counts. The rest is narrative.

As he builds his ship of death, then sails it on an increasingly fantastic voyage reminiscent of legendary travellers like St Brendan and Mandeville, one is invited to share all that’s happening in his head, as in Golding’s Pincher Martin. He’s in such inner turmoil he’s incapable of distinguishing the material world, which increasingly lacks definition for him, from the infernal zone he’s trapped or adrift in with memories of his equally lost, unanchored little girl.

It’s impossible to read this novella – it’s less than eighty pages long – without partaking in that parental torment. Quimper takes us to places most of us hope never to go in real life, creating a work of art out of imagined catastrophe.

The translation by Guil Lefebvre is seamless and fluent: it can’t have been easy to render this heightened language from the French, yet he’s produced a version that reads idiomatically and smoothly – the sign of a good translation is that the reader is never conscious of reading something translated.

QC Fiction continue to produce an impressively varied and consistently interesting sequence of prose fiction titles.

There are fuller accounts at the following blogs:

Stu at Winstonsdad

Tony at Tony’s Reading List

ARC courtesy of QC Fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Puccinian love is merciless: Eric Dupont, Songs for the Cold of Heart

Eric Dupont, Songs for the Cold of Heart. QC Fiction (an imprint of Baraka Books). Paperback. Published 1 July, 2018. First published in French as La Fiancée américaine by Marchand de feuilles. Translated by Peter McCambridge

On the first page of Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart we learn that

everyone loved to hear Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne’s tall tales. Before television, his stories were the best way to pass the time in Rivière-du-Loup.

All the Lamontagne men must marry a woman called Madeleine: the penitent sinner-saint is the icon of the narrative, incarnated several times across the generations, as the name passes down the family’s female line.

The setting is a real town on the St Lawrence River’s south bank in Quebec province. The novel is full of tall tales, anecdotes and stories within stories. It’s a long book – over 600 pages – but never flags, largely because of Dupont’s extraordinary panache in story-telling. All of his characters are full of incident-packed stories of varying authenticity, and they delight in sharing them with each other, often in epistolary form, which adds another potential level of partiality. As Magdalena in Berlin tells the Canadian, Gabriel Lamontagne:

“Canadians love stories. If they didn’t tell them, there wouldn’t be a Canada today.”

A prominent feature is its intertextual, synaesthetic relationship to music, as its title in English suggests; Wittgenstein wrote, ‘Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think’. This is a novel that reinterprets, deconstructs and reassembles Tosca (jealousy; obsessive, transgressive passion; suicide), and Puccini’s opera is a leitmotif in the narrative: ‘while ordinary love is cruel, Puccinian love is merciless,’ one character comments near the end.

Other musical works weave in and out of the narrative, from Schubert songs (one is said to be ‘for the cold of heart’) to hymns in church. It’s a novel that engages all the reader’s senses, in a way I can’t recall experiencing before in a literary work, though the epiphanic, transformative, almost mystical influence of heard, performed or imagined music on central characters calls to mind the impact of a lovesong overheard by Gretta Conroy in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.

Eric Dupont, Songs for the Cold of Heart coverJust as in music, especially opera, there are recurring motifs and themes (foregrounding the way characters replicate or defy their forebears’ personality traits – a postmodern spin on Zola, perhaps): birthmarks in the shape of a bass clef (hence the image on the cover); a painting of the Death (or Entombment) of the Virgin; teal-coloured eyes (many of the Lamontagne family have them, and they’re mesmeric, ‘achingly beautiful’); a lost gold cross fatefully inscribed with its owner’s initials; anorexic opera singers; sugar as a murder weapon; arrows that find unaimed-for targets across the space of continents and time.

Names of people and places reappear in different languages as significant echoes, for language is a medium of communication and separation: Magdalena Berg in Berlin is a German equivalent of Canadian Madeleine Lamontagne; Montreal is Königsberg. An aphorism from Hannah Arendt about victims and executioners acts as a summary of 20C horrors, and as a haunting refrain to this novel. Dupont is too subtle and innovative a writer just to iterate such symmetries for the sake of pleasing design; each recurrence resonates in a cunningly different way, wrong-footing and intriguing the reader, and springing further surprises. He’s a consummate, exuberant storyteller who, like all the great ones, from Chaucer and Cervantes to Borges, employs symbolic, traditional stories to tell profound truths about the human condition.

Dupont has been called a magical realist; I prefer to think of him as an illusionist – which is, after all, what all artists are. So there’s ‘A dead woman acting as a welcoming committee for a funeral home’: old Ma Lamontagne, ‘the grandmother who just won’t die’, but who died in 1933, just as Hitler became Chancellor (the novel is punctuated by momentous historical events). She continues to function for several more decades, until she leaves to join a community of nuns of equally liminal mortality. In the world of this novel this ‘living death’ is no stranger than anything else that’s narrated here or in any work of fiction. It’s a story with its own internal logic. ‘Who better to reassure a grieving family than someone who had passed to the other side herself?’ our narrator blithely, ingenuously asks – and this seems perfectly reasonable.

It’s invidious to try to summarise the plot: it spans much of the twentieth century, and takes in the traumas of two world wars: Dachau, the Russian incursion into Nazi East Prussia and Germany and the exodus and desperate plight of refugees ahead of them; the modern era of fast-food restaurants and TV celebrity journalists. It’s set in Quebec province, New York City, Berlin, Rome and elsewhere, for each character is on a quest away from the tedium of home in search of fulfilment, and many of them need to find each other to answer their existential questions. The final scenes round things off in ways that take the breath away, and show that every sentence that’s filled the previous 600 pages is an essential, meticulously placed element in the overall structure.

I’ll finish by showing that Dupont isn’t just a novelist who enthrals with narrative virtuosity (which he does); he turns out some beautiful prose; this is Solange, who’s secretly in love with her neighbour, Madeleine, the little girl at the novel’s opening now grown up – their story is at the heart of the novel – and they’re waiting to change buses en route from Canada to New York where Madeleine intends to abort the child whose father’s identity is one of the many mysteries of the novel. Madeleine has confided to her friend that she’s tired and scared; asked what of, she replies: ‘“Of finding myself all alone without you.”’

Upon hearing those words, Solange felt the bones in her ribcage open and a vibration that first stirred in her perineum ran up right through her, rocking her very foundations and rising up heavenward and through her lungs, pharynx, vocal cords, and nasal cavities to leave the back of her head trembling. The sound she produced was pure and clear, carried forth by the words “I will never leave you,” which resounded through the bus station the way the song of an angel will one day burst forth into the world God promised to his followers. It could well have been the moment, in all her life, that Solange was at her most lucid, her most beautiful too.

This novel warms the heart.

I can’t finish without a word of praise to the translator. Peter McCambridge has produced that rarity — a translation that doesn’t sound like one.

 Thanks to the publishers for sending an ARC.

QC Fiction’s first publication was Dupont’s 2016 novel Life in the Court of Matane, reviewed by Joseph Schreiber at Numéro Cinq (now sadly defunct, but archive materials are still accessible).

Other QC titles I’ve discussed before are:

David Clerson, Brothers

Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening for Jupiter

The story collection I Never Talk About It: posts here and here

Mélissa Verreault, Behind the Eyes We Meet