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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book haul: Trollope, Eliot, Dundy, Rhodes, Quimper

Just been into town for the last time before a trip to Catalonia, and couldn’t resist the allure of the books in charity shops. Here’s what I came back with:

Book haul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m taking Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset with me; have got to p. 500 or so, but 400 pp. remain, so I need another one to follow up with – I have a whole week, with plane trips to fill with reading. So that Glendinning biography will come in handy, maybe when I get back. Too heavy for plane travel.

I posted with muted enthusiasm on Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado recently, and Jacqui (Wine) wrote about it just a week ago, so am interested to see what The Old Man and Me is like. One of the better new VMC covers, I think.

I used to have a copy of that Eliot prose collection – it might still be lurking in a box in the cellar or garage – but I noticed there’s an essay on Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, so had to make sure, as I’ll be teaching it this year again.

The book on the Spanish Civil War will be appropriate for where I’m going; sounds like an interesting take on the subject. The blurb says it focuses on the impact of the war on writers and artists, and on technology – military and medical. This summer I’ve reread Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and read a fine French-Spanish novel on the subject: Cry, Mother Spain, by Lydie Salvayre, so it’ll be good to see what Rhodes has to say.

When I got home that Quimper ARC from those fine people at QC Fiction (Québec City) was in the mail. I have a bit of a backlog of their titles to post on here; another task for when I’m back. I’ve found all of their backlist stimulating so far.

Now to finish packing – and a few more pages of Trollope.