And what do we have here? The first novel in a crime series by a new French writer, Jean-Luc Bannalec? Well, not quite, for most literary journalists are agreed that M Bannelec is in fact Jörg Bong, a top German publisher who has been doing a bit of moon-lighting by creating the somewhat grumpy police detective Commissaire Dupin. One thing for sure, Bannalec/Bong has scored a hit across Europe with Death in Pont-Aven and any fan of Inspector Maigret will find Dupin a worthy successor to Georges Simenon’s fictional detective. There are even back references to Maigret for the book opens with Commissaire Dupin enjoying coffee and croissants in the Amiral Hotel, which featured in Simenon’s Yellow Dog (interestingly enough, a real restaurant in Concarneau, which to this day features a “Maigret Menu“).
I spent four very pleasant days reading this book, with memories of several visits to Brittany, the scene of this fictional crime. Brittany is a remarkable place, steeped in atmosphere with incredible beauty around every coastal corner. The pretty villages, white-sanded coves, the off-shore islands and countless fishing boats, the exquisite sea-food and tons of typical French charm . . . I could go on, but it’s enough to say that it’s a region I love and this book put me in a holiday mood despite the vicious murder of a 91-year-old man that took place in its first few pages.
The elderly hotelier found dead from a knife wound on his restaurant floor is Pierre-Louis Pennec, a stalwart of the village of Pont-Aven where he has lived all his life in the hotel founded by his grand-parents. His grand-mother founded the hotel and with her generous hospitality rapidly befriended various painters including Paul Gauguin. Summer artists retreats took place in the village and before long, the Pont-Aven school of artists, became known for their paintings of Breton interiors and landscapes, packed full of local atmosphere.
I was pleased to hear about Salammbo Press, a new publisher dedicated to publishing “the works of great contemporary novelists celebrated in their own country, but as yet unknown to British readers”. Salammbo are publishing three books by French writer Régis Jauffret who has 18 books to his name and won the Prix Femina in 2005 which is decided each year by an all-female jury (although it is awarded to both men and women).
Severe is a classic “noir” crime novel, dealing with some very dark themes, notably the murder of a wealthy banker by his mistress. Unlike Guy of His Futile Preoccupations, I am not familiar with the noir genre but a quick look at Bill Ponzini’s article What is noir crime fiction?, tells me that “the noir crime story deals with disorder, disaffection, and dissatisfaction. The typical noir character has a jaundiced view of government, power, and the law. He (or sometimes she) is often a loner, a social misfit. He is likely a predator, and as morally bankrupt as any human being can be”. This certainly sums up this book pretty well (as can be seen from the cover illustration).
Severe is based on the murder of Édouard Stern, a personal friend of Nicolas Sarkozy with a taste for sado-masochism, who was found shot dead in his apartment wearing a head-to-toe latex cat-suit. The murderer, Cécile Brossard, was sentenced to eight years in prison but was freed on parole after five years in 2010.
When I read the book I didn’t know that it was based on a real-life case as it’s not mentioned on the cover. The book is written in the first person by the Brossard character, and is a very stylish read. It grabs your attention from the first paragraph, which describes the murder in a few sparse sentences.
I met him one spring evening. I became his mistress. I bought the latex suite he was wearing on the day he died. I acted as his sexual secretary. He introduced me to firearms. He gave me a revolver. I extorted a million dollars out of him. He took it back. I slaughtered him with a bullet between his eyes. He fell from the chair where I’d tied him up. He was still breathing. I finished him off. I went to take a shower. I picked up the shells. I put them in my bag with the revolver. I slammed the door of the apartment behind me.
I have just been to see the film Les Miserables, a brilliantly produced gloom-fest (despite the best efforts of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter to lighten the tone). My response wasn’t quite as dramatic as that of the family in the viral video who left the cinema sobbing (hear the father say, “I’ve been to funerals more cheerful than this!”) but it would be hard to remain dry-eyed throughout especially when Samantha Barks sings On My Own as she walks through the rain after seeing the love of her life in the arms of another woman.
It seemed a good week to read about another French tragedy contained in the short novella, A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée which was recommended to me by Guy of His Futile Preoccupations and Emma of Bookaroundthecorner.
A Slight Misunderstanding is a near-perfectly constructed story about a young woman, Julie de Chaverny, married to someone she has come to dislike intensely. Julie finds an outlet for her romantic feelings in mild flirtations but is quite determined to avoid anything more serious. Her enthusiasm for romance has been curtailed by her disappointment and she has become “agreeable to everybody in general and to no one in particular” (perhaps we all know people like this).
Enter stage left the young Major de Chateaufort, an officer with “a charming face” and “extremely likeable”. He receives a note written by Julie on behalf of her husband, inviting him to dinner. Being a conceited young man, de Chateaufort reads far too much into every phrase of the note, exclaiming to his friend Major Perrin,
“Can’t you see the fondness in that letter, My dear Major de Chateaufort, Please note that in another letter she just wrote Dear Major de Chateaufort . . . I shall be doubly grateful to you, there’s no mistaking what that means”.
(I can’t imagine what de Chateaufort would have made of the endless LOLs and XXX of today’s social media).
Naxos, the renowned producer of classical music recordings is publishing a complete and unabridged recording of Marcel Proust’s epic work, Remembrance of Things Past (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu).
The reader is Neville Jason who Washington Post called “the marathon man” after his 70 hour recording of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Jason is well equipped to read this even longer work by Proust, having received the Sir John Gielgud prize for fiction while he was at RADA and having then gone on to perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Old Vic Company. Indeed, while reading an earlier abridged version of Proust he did the abrigement himself and also translated the final volume (see article in Audiofile magazine).
The first volume alone, Swann’s Way (amazon link here) is over 23 hours on 17 CDs – – six more volumes are to be added to the project and will eventually run for 140 hours and will be completed in October of this year.
Jerome lives with his teenage daughter, Marina. His wife, Paula, left him some years ago, apparently through boredom and the desire to live a more exciting life than her marriage to a rural estate agent gave her. Jerome is a quiet, introspective man who takes a long time to let his feelings come to the surface, but when Marina’s best friend is killed in a road accident, he finds himself overwhelmed with grief and assailed by emotions arising from his own past life.
Agnès Desarthe has written a complex story here which works on several levels. We read of the disruption to Jerome’s well-ordered life as he confronts deep issues from his childhood. The book reflects on the intense emotions of a teenager and their ability to bring chaos to themselves and those around them. But also, this is a story of how random events can bring powerful change into a seemingly settled life, launching it in unexpected new directions.
Jerome has a complex biography. He is a foundling – the police found him wandering in the woods in 1956 when he was a little boy. He seemed to be a forest child, adapted to life among wild things. Many years ago his adopted mother told him,
I remember the light so clearly, dappled sunlight everywhere, peeping through green leaves, line in a fairy tale. . . then when we were just comoing out of the woods, the sound of twigs grew louder, but I didn’t turn around. And then the exact moment we stepped out of the woods, I felt a little hand in mine. In my left hand I was holding your father’s hand and in my right, the hand of my little woodland darling.
As an avid reader I enjoy “books about books” and this one certainly falls into that category. Imagine a couple of lovers of literature who get the opportunity to open a book-shop which only sells “good” books, those which meet a criteria of literary worth, deliberately ignoring the current literary prizes and the year’s crop of much-lauded novels. The premise of A Novel Bookstore is that a wealthy woman, Francesca, is able to work with Ivan, a like-minded book-shop manager, acquire some prime real-estate in Paris and indulge their tastes without fear of bankruptcy.
A team of eight people is recruited (all writers of quality literature or having other suitable qualifications) and are required to provide a list of 600 books which the book-shop should stock. When the lists are received, the manager and owner correlate the eight lists together to compile an overall list which will provide the shop’s initial stock. The shop will not stock new books until they have proved themselves and the committee has agreed that they should be added.
But trouble soon arrives on their doorstep, beginning with physical attacks on three members of the selection committee. Who is behind them? Before long a vicious campaign is launched to vilify the shop and to present is as an elitist enterprise run by people who have contempt for the tastes of most readers. The rest of the book follows the attempts to uncover the source of the plots and personal attacks, while a couple of romantic relationships are developed along the way with the usual joys and sorrows.
Like so many English people, I enjoy going to France and experiencing a country very different to my own. I live near a ferry port and often see ships sailing off to cross the Channel and I always experience a touch of yearning to be sailing to the land of good wine and different (I won’t say “better”) food.
My nostalgia for France is fed when I turn to Guy Savage’s book blog, His Futile Preoccupations. Guy has a love of French literature and has read far more Balzac, de Maupassant and Zola than most readers. Being conscious of a Balzac-shaped gap in my reading I decided on Guy’s recommendation to begin with Père Goriot. Guy reviewed this himself but I have not reminded myself of what he wrote and will only go back to re-read his review when I have finished my own – such is my fear of being influenced by someone who knows far more about Balzac’s books than I do.
Père Goriot forms part of Balzac’s life-work, La Comédie humaine, and he placed it in the section Scenes of Private Life. It tells the story of Eugène de Rastignac, a young man who comes to Paris to study law. His widowed mother has gone out of her way to provide his means of support at great cost to herself and his two sisters, and it is her hope that Eugène will make his way in the world and restore their fortune.