Review: The Great Swindle – Pierre Lemaitre

great swindleI read a large number of books during 2015 and was delighted to end my reading year with The Great Swindle, a highly impressive and entertaining novel from French writer Pierre Lemaitre which although recently published has drawn comparison with Balzac, Zola and Hugo – and rightly so in my opinion.

This superb novel has a vast scale and contains many complex and colourful characters and a very ingenious series of plots and subplots which kept me entertained throughout the book’s 464 pages. Opening at the end of the First World War, we meet the two young soldiers, Albert and Édouard,  on their final battle field just before the armistice is agreed. Both young men are devastated by the horrific events of the last few days of the war and are demobbed to a civilian life which no longer has any place for them, Édouard with terrible injuries and Albert with what today would be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Pierre Lemaitre is under no illusions about the glories of war or the competence of the army. We know of course about the battle-fields of Verdun and other locations, but Lemaitre is a master at capturing the impact of these cataclysmic events on individual soldiers. Even demobilisation is a chaotic experience revealing the breakdown of military organisation once a war is finished and it seems to be a miracle that the men eventually return to Paris. However, life in the capital turns out to be extremely challenging for both men and after weeks of poverty and hardship, the heavily disfigured Édouard comes up with a scheme from their jointly rented room to make vast amounts of money by an ambitious plan of deception.

It would be so easy to spoil this book for readers by describing what happens next, so I will confine myself to attempting to give a flavour of this great novel.

Albert, the reluctant foot soldier has few qualities to help him get on in the world. Destined for low-paid work as a sandwich board carrier, he has a sense of extreme loyalty to his seriously disfigured friend Édouard who helped him so much on the battlefield. He cares for Édouard in every way he can, even entering the criminal underworld to procure supplies of morphine to dull Édouard’s pain. Édouard is an altogether more resourceful figure, the son of wealthy banker and also a highly talented artist. His frustration at the long period of agonising recovery feeds into his lively mind and he draws out complex plans for a scheme to gather phenomenal riches by highly illegal and immoral means. Albert on the other hand is an honest man who finds himself gradually being drawn into Édourd’s scheme despite his deep misgivings. But his hunt through the underworld for ever-increasing supplies of morphine have broken the bounds of his simple morality and have opened him up to a descent into greater acts of criminality.

The devastation of the battle-field

The devastation of the battle-field

Much of the novel concerns the means whereby war-graves were constructed for the many fallen soldiers. After the war there was a great desire to honour the fallen and apart from the new cemeteries which needed to be constructed, each town and village wanted a war memorial of its own. What scope for ambitious businessmen to win huge contracts for exhuming the dead from the battlefields and re-burying them in proper cemeteries. Yet also how much scope for money-making short-cuts, every type of scam and also a level of general incompetence which will surprise no-one who has every worked on projects like this.

The author, Pierre Lemaitre must have put vast amount of work into this book for the level of detail on this work is highly impressive. Yet, this is not a litany of cold facts, for he manages to suffuse the whole process with a touch of humour which keeps the reader able to skim through this tale of misplaced corpses, bodies crammed into too-small coffins, bones misplaced and mixed up with different owners, even falling prey to the occasional wandering hound.

Pierre_Lemaitre_—_Salon_du_livre_de_Paris_-_23_mars_2014_recadrée

Pierre Lemaitre

Into this situation arrives a government inspector, Joseph Merlin, an old and cantankerous bureaucrat who refuses to be fobbed off by small-time officials and scheming contractors. Merlin takes his work very seriously and produces reports on the work which dismay his superiors who simply want to get the work over and done with. Alas, the scale of the various frauds is so great that covering it up ceases to be an option and ministers and senior official find themselves unable to stem the flow of Merlin’s shocking reports which soon threaten their own reputation and careers in public service.

By this time we have a vast array of characters before us, all beautifully drawn, from the irascible and villanous Henri d’Aulney Pradelle who tries to make his fortune from this business, to 11-year-old girl Louise, the mens’ landlady’s daughter who works with Édouard to bring his scheme to completion. We meet bankers, workmen, servant-girls, mistresses, and chancers of every description, all of whom are drawn with great detail and almost affection by this highly skilled writer. By the time I finished the book, many of them lived on for a few days in my mind making me wish I was just starting the book rather than adding it to my pile of completed reads.

It always seems to be a good thing when an author credits those books and writers who have influenced him. Pierre Lemaitre goes out of his way to acknowledge his debt to a whole pantheon of writers,

The Great Swindle owes much to the novels of the immediate post-war period, those of Henri Barbusse, Maurice Genevoix, Jules Romain and Gabriel Chevallier . . . throughout the book, I have borrowed here and there from various writers: Émile Ajar, Louis Aragon, Gérald Aubert, Michel Audiard, Homer, Honoré de Balzac, Ingmar Bergman, Georges Bernanos, Georges Brassens, Stephen Crane, Jean-Louis Curtis, Denis Diderot, Jean-Louis Ézine, Gabriel García Marquez, Victor Hugo, Kazuo Ishiguro, Carson McCullers, Jules Michelet, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Antoine-François Prévost, Marcel Proust, Patrick Rambaud, La Rochefoucauld and one or two others. I hope they will consider my borrowing a homage.

While no doubt these writers helped to form Lemaitre’s writing, I have no doubt that he will in due course form part of someone else’s list of people worth crediting with advancing the French novel.

Other reviews of The Great Swindle:

Edward Wilson in The Independent
Sarah Lyall in The New York Times

The Great Swindle was translated by Frank Wynne.

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Review: Death in Pont-Aven – Jean-Luc Bannalec

death in pont avenAnd 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.

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Review: Severe – Régis Jauffret

severeI 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.

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Review: A Slight Misunderstanding – Prosper Mérimée

slight misunderstanding

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).

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Review (audio recording): Swann’s Way – Marcel Proust

swann's wayNaxos, 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.

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Review: The Foundling – Agnès Desarthe

The FoundlingJerome 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.

 

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Review: A Novel Bookstore – Laurence Cosse

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.

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