Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Penguin, Philippe Besson, Publisher, Setting

‘Lie With Me’ by Philippe Besson

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 148 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Molly Ringwald.

The passion that can’t be talked about, that has to be concealed, gives way to the terrible question: if it isn’t talked about, how can one know that it really exists?

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson is a bittersweet novella about first love between two teenage boys in rural France in the 1980s.

Their affair, kept hidden because of the shame surrounding homosexuality at the time, begins in winter but is over by the summer. During those few intense months, their love is passionate but furtive. For both boys, it is a sexual awakening that has long-lasting repercussions on how they live the rest of their lives.

A story in three parts

The story is divided into three parts — 1984, 2007 and 2016 — each of which is narrated by Philippe, a famous writer, who fell in love with a boy at his small French high school when he was 17 years old.

In the first section, he details the affair he had with Thomas Andrieu, whom he had admired from afar for quite some time before Thomas, who was a year older than him, issued a surprise invitation.

In the second, more than 20 years after their affair ends, Philippe runs into Thomas’s doppelganger — only to discover that the good looking young man is, in fact, Thomas’s son, Lucas.

In the third and desperately sad final part, Lucas gets in touch with Philippe to impart some news about his father.

An old story told in a new way

Of course, we have read this kind of story about forbidden love before. Perhaps what makes this novella different (aside from the fact it has been translated by Hollywood actress Molly Ringwald) is that it reveals what happens when people are not allowed to be their authentic selves.

In the aftermath of the affair between two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, we come to understand how their sexual orientation shapes the rest of their lives: one man embraces his homosexuality and is comfortable in his own skin, while the other gets married and tries to be someone he is not — with tragic consequences.

The novella is written in a deeply melancholic style and is completely free of sentiment. The prose is sensual, tender and filled with longing.

This feeling of love, it transports me, it makes me happy. At the same time, it consumes me and makes me miserable, the way all impossible loves are miserable.

Emotional detachment

But as much as I admired the beautiful writing, I found it hard to connect with the protagonists, not because I didn’t understand nor empathise with their predicament, but because the narrator’s voice is so cool and aloof I felt one step removed from the story. And yet, this is a terribly sad tale about thwarted opportunity, lost love and the inability to live an authentic life. It should have wrecked me; instead I felt emotionally detached.

Several reviews I have read have drawn comparisons with André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. I have not read that book but I have seen the film adaptation, which is so beautiful and EMOTIONAL and absolutely DEVASTATING that I bawled like a baby at the end. It’s kind of how I thought this one would affect me, but it didn’t.

That said, Lie With Me has been adorned with praise (including from Aciman himself) and been a bestseller in France. It won the prestigious Maison de la Presse Prize in 2017 when it was first published.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Lock Elliott: Australian classic about a gay man hiding his real self from the world in the 1930s and 40s when homosexuality was illegal.

‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John MacKenna: A heart-rending Irish novel about a newly widowed school teacher recalling his love affair with a man 10 years earlier.

Author, Book review, Conor O'Callaghan, Doubleday Ireland, Fiction, France, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘We Are Not in the World’ by Conor O’Callaghan

Fiction – paperback; Doubleday Ireland; 260 pages; 2020.

We Are Not in the World by Conor O’Callaghan is a haunting, heartbreaking novel about an Irishman trying to come to terms with two major events in his life: the breakdown of a six-year affair with a married woman and the hospitalisation of his beloved young adult daughter who has tried to take her own life.

Two storylines

The narrative is comprised of two threads: the man’s road journey through France as a novice truck driver delivering unspecified goods for a mysterious man named Carl; and the tale of his illicit affair, told in reverse chronological order from break-up to initial meeting.

The first thread is told in the first person; the second in the second person.

It’s set in August 2015, before the Brexit referendum, in which “the whole landscape of continental haulage could change indefinitely and not for any good.” Refugees, fleeing war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, are on the news, and when Paddy arrives in Calais from Dover, it’s hard to ignore their inpoverished presence, in the “jungle” and on the streets around town.

The road is lined with wire fencing, fingers pushed through, faces pressed against. Behind them, waves of tents and shacks. The fence is staring at us. And we’re trying not to make eye contact, with the fence. A truck with an Irish reg gets pulled out of the contraflow. Live bodies, one by one, are prised from its chassis.

Clandestine daughter

Accompanying him on this journey is his 20-something American-raised daughter, Kitty, who, as it turns out, is making the trip as a “clandestine” — Paddy is not supposed to have passengers on board — and spends most of her time hidden in the sleeping alcove behind the driver’s seat. Paddy deliberately times their rest stops and overnight stays at unsociable hours to avoid other truck drivers, including the aforementioned Carl, making the same journey and spotting Kitty.

Their time together, whether in the truck’s cabin or sharing a meal in roadside cafes, is conveyed largely through Roddy-Doyle-esque dialogue:

This, she says staring straight ahead.
This?
These more like.
I’m gonna need a few specifics, darling, please.
There you go again.
These what are a bit what?
Carparks, she says.
Ah.
They’re a bit samey.
She is: bored in her reclined passenger seat, in shades and King of the Road cap, rambling aimlessly. I am: about to go indoors to check that it’s safe for her to join me, working overtime to humour her along, inclined to lose track of days that we’ve been here.
They are, I suppose.
They are, aren’t they?
They are.
It’s not just me, she says.
Not just you, love.
Same nothing spaces, she says. Same caffs, same staff, same drab grub. Same sun even, same dome of unblemished friggin azure over our heads.

As the journey unfolds, we learn more about Paddy’s tormented past, his childhood with his beloved mother, also called Kitty, and the strained relationship with his younger brother, Art, who is the “golden child” and executor of their mother’s will in which he is the major beneficiary.

Art also has a very close relationship with his niece, who is also his godchild, and it’s hard not to see that perhaps he has been more of a father figure to her than her own father and this is why this particular road trip, spending time together, is so important to Paddy: he needs to repair their fractured relationship.

We also learn the details of Paddy’s affair, the strange time he spent living in a snow-bound caravan in his lover’s back garden, and the forbidden trysts in stairwells, public toilets and other daring locations.

There’s an achingly sad side trip to Camargue to try to locate a house where Paddy’s mother stayed as a young girl, and another confronting scene in which Paddy is expected to partake in what appears to be a “gang bang” in a wood involving lots of other truck drivers. (He declines.)

An opaque but unforgettable story

Much of the story is opaque and occasionally confusing. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether references to Kitty are to Kitty the daughter or Kitty the mother. I suspect this is deliberate.

And just like O’Callaghan’s wonderful debut novel, Nothing on Earth, which I read a few years ago, the story is infused with a strange, almost elusive, sense of foreboding. It feels both sinister and enigmatic at the same time.

It’s the kind of novel that is hard work, for you have to piece together bits of information in your own head and come to your own conclusions about what is really going on, but it is entirely worth the effort. (We never find out what Paddy is transporting, for instance, and why Carl encourages him to rig the tachometer readings because he appears to otherwise observe all the haulier rules about driving limits and rest times.)

The ending, when it comes, is like a sucker punch to the stomach. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished this book a few days ago. Combined with the unsettling nature of the story, the beautiful language and the difficult subjects tackled, including familial and forbidden relationships, We Are Not in the World is a truly indelible read.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park: The story of a photographer from Northern Ireland driving across a snowbound England to rescue his ill son stranded in his student lodgings.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, France, Maclehose Press, Pierre Lemaitre, Publisher, Setting

‘Blood Wedding’ by Pierre Lemaitre

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 312 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk lately with way too many books on the go and none of them really hitting the spot, as it were. And then I picked up Pierre Lemaitre’s Blood Wedding and — cliché alert — I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN.

Set in Paris, France, the story focuses on Sophie, a nanny, who wakes up one morning to discover the little boy in her care is dead, a shoelace from her own boot around his neck. Having no memory of the night before but knowing she will be accused of the murder, she withdraws all her savings and decides to flee the city. Not everything goes to plan, and before she’s even had time to book a train ticket she commits another horrendous crime that serves to make her situation even worse.

Running from one calamity to the next and frightened that she will be arrested, Sophie makes a series of blunders that threaten to expose her. It becomes clear that she is deeply troubled. She’s mentally unhinged, often blacks out and, as a consequence, has giant holes in her memory. Her problems seem to stem from the death of her husband in a terrible road traffic accident several years earlier. Since then, everything has spiralled out of control.

Now, convinced that the only way to hide from the authorities is to assume a new identity, she sets into motion a plan to find a rich man to marry and take care of her. But the person she marries isn’t who she thinks he is and this fast-paced octane-fuelled novel switches into an even higher gear.

Lemaitre then does something superbly clever — and unexpected. He tells the story from a different point of view so that we see Sophie in a whole new light.

Someone watching over you

Frantz is a voyeur who has been keeping an eye on Sophie for quite a long time. He stalks her and knows her every movement and records it in a diary, but Sophie has no idea she is being watched in this way. It makes for an insidiously creepy read, but it’s also highly intriguing. Who is Frantz? Why is he so obsessed with Sophie? What does he know about her husband’s death? And will he sabotage Sophie’s plan to assume a new identity?

Both storylines come together neatly at the end, but there’s nothing predictable about the plot. I have a lifetime of reading experience in this genre but even I couldn’t guess what would happen — or how. It felt like such a rare treat to be so absorbed by a suspense novel in this way.  (Indeed, it turns out Lemaitre is an award-winning writer — his first novel to be translated into English, Alex, won the CWA International Dagger for best translated crime in 2013 and in the same year he also won France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for The Great Swindle.)

In this book, nothing is as it seems. Just when you think you have a handle on what is going on, the author throws in a new piece of information that turns everything on its head. It is pointless to second guess. And that’s the beauty of this compelling suspense novel.

Blood Wedding really does quicken the pulse. Its intricate plot twists and turns its way towards a satisfying could-never-see-it-coming conclusion. I loved being held in its thrall for two days and missed it when it was over. It got me out of a reading slump, and has me inching to read more by this talented French author.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, James Salter, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘A Sport and a Pastime’ by James Salter

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 192 pages; 2007.

James Salter is one of those authors I had only ever heard good things about, so when I found A Sport and a Pastime in my local second-hand store (I live a few doors down from Elizabeth’s Bookshop in Fremantle), I couldn’t resist buying it.

First published in 1967, it tells the story of a love affair between an American college dropout and a French shop girl, who go on a road trip across France in the late 1960s. Their liaison, steamy and sordid, is imagined by an unnamed narrator, another American, who spies them from afar and lets his creative juices get the better of him.

It’s a rather strange and beguiling novel, and not quite what I expected. It feels voyeuristic in places, misogynistic in others. Mainly it feels like a writer being a little self-indulgent as he lets his own sexual fantasies dominate the storyline.

But the writing, clear and lucid and full of heartache and a deep sense of longing,  is reminiscent of so many American writers of the era. I’m thinking Richard Yates, William Maxwell and William Styron. It’s a style I admire a lot.

Throughout this short novel, Salter is very good at capturing moods and heightened emotions, of the conversations, pithy and of little consequence, between people, but he really excels at conveying the beauty and history of the landscapes and villages of rural France. A Sport and a Pastime could very well double as a tourism advertisement for the French Tourism Board. Take this as an example:

The blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky, The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners. The uneven curbstones, their edges worn away. A town of doctors, all with large houses. Cousson, Proby, Gilot. Even the streets are named for them. Passageways through the Roman wall. The Porte de Breuil, its iron railings sunk into the stone like climbers’ spikes. The women come up the steep grade out of breath, their lungs creaking. A town still rich with bicycles. In the mornings they flow softly past. In the streets there’s the smell of bread.

Personally, I admit that I didn’t care much for the storyline, but the luminous prose made up for it. There were many turns of phrase that took my breath away — the line above about the streets smelling of bread is but one example; “over France, a great summer rain, battering the trees, making the foliage ring like tin” is but another — and I felt I was in the hands of an accomplished writer, one who had honed his craft and understood the power of words to enchant and hold the reader captive.

Perhaps A Sport and a Pastime, with its over-emphasis on eroticism and its blurring of the lines between the body and the soul, was not the place to start with Salter. It probably didn’t help that the entire book felt too similar to William Maxwell’s The Château, also written in the 1960s, which I read earlier in the year and found a bit tiresome.

That said, it has certainly made me intrigued enough to read more of his work. If you can recommend any titles, please do leave a comment in the box below.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Tahiti, TBR40, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Moon and Sixpence’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 226 pages; 2008.

Somerset Maugham is a consummate storyteller and this novel, which was first published in 1919, is no exception.

The Moon and Sixpence is about a man called Charles Strickland who forsakes everything — including his wife, children and a lucrative job as a stockbroker — in the pursuit of a dream. The rumour mill suggests he left his wife in London for another woman in France, but that is not the case: aged 40, he left her to free up his life to become a painter.

A desire to make art

The story is told through the eyes of an acquaintance, a young writer, who initially meets Strickland through his wife. Over the course of the novel, he gets to know Strickland quite well — and it soon becomes apparent he’s not a particularly nice person. He’s gruff and bad mannered and blunt and cares for nothing except exercising his creative inclinations. He doesn’t even care if his paintings sell. He rarely shows them to people. He simply wants to make art.

There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth.

Said to be inspired by the life of French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence explores what it is to eschew material possessions, money, domestic happiness, family and love in pursuit of leading a truly creative life.

The bulk of the book is set in Paris, but the last few chapters are set in Tahiti, where Strickland settles into a relatively comfortable existence with a lover, whom he uses purely to satisfy his sexual urges.

Fame and fortune

Like Gaugin, Strickland’s talent remains largely unappreciated during his lifetime, but in the opening chapter we discover that his work is now highly regarded.  We know his paintings sell for high prices and that many biographies and books have been written about him. The pleasure of the novel is discovering how this came about and the collateral damage that happened along the way.

Written with Maugham’s typical insights into human psychology, in prose that occasionally drips with satire, the story is very much about the artistic life and what it is to refuse to compromise when we strive for a goal bigger than ourselves. It also shows how the sacrifices we make to pursue an obsession can have long-lasting ramifications on the people around us.

But it’s also a rip-roaring story about sex, betrayal, friendship and human behaviour — the good, the bad and the ugly.

This is my 12th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 31st for #TBR40. I bought this one in 2013 not long after I read Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’, a book I loved so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it, because I just didn’t have the words.

1001 books, 20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ford Madox Ford, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 1983.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

So begins Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier, which was first published in 1915 and has remained in print ever since. It is said to be based on Ford’s own messy personal life.

Set in the Edwardian era and spanning nine years (1902 to 1914), it explores the complex and intertwined relationships between two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples —  John and Florence Dowell, from the USA, and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, from England — who meet every year at a German spa resort.

The good soldier of the title is Edward Ashburnham, a refined English gentleman, who has a strong public record — “for his good soldiering, for his saving lives at sea, for the excellent landlord he was and the good sportsman” — but, as we come to discover, he isn’t exactly a good husband. He has what we would call a “roving eye”, particularly for much younger women, and over the course of the novel takes several mistresses. He is also involved in various sexual harassment incidents, which are made to go away via blackmail and bribe — such payments threaten Ashburnham’s already dwindling finances.

His wife, well aware of her husband’s shenanigans, turns a blind eye. She’s Catholic, so divorce is impossible, and she loves Edward’s reputation as a fine, upstanding citizen. She takes the best option open to her: she looks after her husband’s welfare and his finances and manages his country home for him so that they can at least keep up appearances without falling into disrepute or impoverishment.

But it’s a thin facade and it soon begins to crack.

An unreliable narrator

The tale is narrated by John Dowell in a kindly, occasionally puzzled, voice, almost as if he can’t believe what has happened to his English friend Ashburnham: he thought he was an upright citizen but now realises he was “morally soft”.

His narrative jumps backward and forwards in time via flashbacks, and as his story unfolds the reader begins to question Dowell’s version of events. He’s an unreliable narrator in the sense that he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself and by the end, I wasn’t sure if he had been played by others or done the playing himself.

Initially, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. His young wife Florence has “heart trouble” so he needs to ensure she’s always calm, never panicked, that she has lots of personal space and time to herself. He seems to be consumed with worry about her.  The slightest rise in her heart rate might end in death.

But as his tale proceeds, you realise that the only “heart trouble” Florence has is psychological: she’s having an affair and using her quiet time, in which her bedroom door is always locked, not to quell the beating of her dodgy heart but to have her adulterous way with a married man.

Dowell, who describes himself as a “trained poodle”, is shocked when the affair comes to light, but by then it’s too late to do anything about it: Florence is dead.

A tale of adultery 

As a tale of adulterous love and an exposé on the duplicity of those whose public lives do not match their private personas, The Good Soldier is extraordinarily good.

For a story that is very much about sexual morals, there is little to no sex in it. There’s quite a bit of religion in it, though. There’s a lot about the cultural differences between Americans and Brits (which I enjoyed), and a good smattering of tragedy, including illness, suicide and madness. But it never feels over the top. Madox Ford keeps a tight rein on events and emotions; everything is carefully restrained, so much so I sometimes had to reread passages to ensure I hadn’t missed anything.

It occasionally feels a bit woolly and repetitive, and I found it difficult to truly engage with any of the characters. As much as I liked Dowell’s voice, the rhythm of the sentences and the cool detached nature of the prose, I struggled to like The Good Soldier as a whole. But there’s a lot in this book to discuss — about gender and marriage and love and lust and which characters are true to themselves and which aren’t. It would make a terrific book club read for that reason.

The Good Soldier is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and was adapted for television in 1981.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 30th for #TBR40. It has been sitting in my TBR for more than a decade, having acquired it via BookMooch when I was an active member in 2005/06.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage, William Maxwell

‘The Château’ by William Maxwell

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 416 pages; 2012.

Do you ever finish reading a book and then feel totally ambivalent about it? When I came to the end of The Château, by William Maxwell, I really didn’t know what to make of it. Did I love it, or did I loathe it? A couple of weeks later and I still don’t quite know how I feel about it.

First published in 1961, The Château was Maxwell’s penultimate novel (he has six to his name, plus a handful of short story collections and books for children).

It’s about a young American couple, Barbara and Harold Rhodes, who go to France on holiday in 1948 as the country is still finding its feet after the Second World War. On the recommendation of a friend, they plan to stay at Château Beaumesnil in Touraine, where they will base themselves for the summer, exploring the local area, heading to Paris and other European cities (Venice, for instance), while bettering their use of the French language.

But after a long, complicated journey to get there, they don’t receive the warm welcome they had expected from the château’s owner, Mme Vienot, who seems a little “off” and neglectful of her hostessing duties towards them. They soon figure out she’s a social climber and a snob. And the other guests staying there are similarly distant and aloof.

Over time, as they settle in and come to terms with French culture, they realise they may have formed the wrong impression about Mme Vienot and her guests. They form friendships and alliances, get invited to parties and people’s homes and catch up with acquaintances in Paris, but the sense of being Other, of always being seen as privileged Americans never quite leaves them.

Not much happens in the novel; it’s not plot-driven but character-driven. It feels a little like a travelogue because it follows the ups and downs of Barbara and Harold’s travels, including their day-to-day encounters with new people, the little cafes and restaurants they visit, the tourist sites they pay homage to, the art and souvenirs they buy and the domestic dramas that ensue, usually involving Mme Vienot or misunderstandings with taxi drivers or officials.

All the while you are privy to their most intimate conversations, their indecisions about whether to stay or go, their confusion over how much to tip people, their inability to complain about service, their puzzlement as to why people they meet along the way do or say the things they do. Anyone who’s ever gone on holiday with a loved one to a foreign country will recognise a lot of those same conversations and experiences.

It’s all beautifully rendered and written in a very subtle, observant way using elegant prose, reminiscent of Richard Yates’ understated style.

But there’s a weird twist at the end. Just when you think the story has finished, Maxwell introduces Part II — entitled Some Explanations — that spans around 50 pages of meta-fiction. In it, he explains some of the unanswered questions that haunt Barbara and Harold’s trip. Why, for instance, did their friend Eugène act so horribly towards them on the train, and why did his wife Alix not say goodbye?

It makes for an interesting change in perspective and serves to highlight that the American couple’s lack of worldly experience and their linguistic and social difficulties meant they often misunderstood what was happening around them. This meant they sometimes jumped to (unfair) conclusions. It’s an interesting exercise in showing how travel can broaden the mindset, but I admit it felt quite odd coming at the end of a rather long novel about characters that — if I’m honest — weren’t especially interesting.

This is my 10th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 29th for #TBR40. I purchased it in the early 2000s in paperback form and, forgetting that I owned a copy, I also bought it on Kindle last year. (Does this happen to anyone else? I seem to buy multiple copies of books because I forget I already own it.)

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, France, John Lanchester, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40

‘The Debt to Pleasure’ by John Lanchester

Fiction – paperback; Picador Classics; 232 pages; 2015.

John Lanchester’s debut novel, The Debt to Pleasure, is a subversive black comedy about a narcissistic food snob who has a well-disguised penchant for murder.

The tale is narrated by Tarquin Winot stream-of-consciousness style in a voice that is both pompous and eccentric. He begins by stating “this is not a conventional cookbook” and then explains it was written while on a short holiday travelling “southwards through France, which is, as the reader will learn, my spiritual (and for a portion of the year, actual) homeland”. (For the rest of the year he lives in Norfolk.)

This lends the narrative a “serendipitous, ambulatory and yet progressive structure” as his wanderings are accompanied by his highbrow thoughts on food philosophy, provenance and gastronomy — or, as he describes it later, “gastro-historico-pyscho-autobiographico-antropico-philosophic lubrications”.

These, in turn, are intertwined with his own personal history, the second — and more popular (as we are constantly told) — son of wealthy parents (a successful businessman and a former stage actress), educated at home via a succession of private tutors (because his nature was judged “too fine grained and sensitive” to weather boarding school) and effectively raised by a kindly Irish nanny, called Mary T, whom he adored but then inexplicably seemed to frame for a personal theft.

Menus for all seasons

Structured around a series of seasonal menus — for winter, spring, summer and autumn — replete with recipes, it’s easy to feel that Tarquin’s thoughts on everything from what makes a good blini to the secret of a great croque monsieur (a “dab of mustard” apparently) are essentially harmless (and occasionally soporific), without quite realising he’s making a series of rather sinister confessions involving  family members and various servants.

His seemingly innocuous ramblings are dotted with laugh-out-loud funny lines and humorous asides, such as this sentence from a recipe for fish stew:

[…] then add six pints of what in England would be chlorinated former effluent (also known as ‘water’) and boil furiously.

And this introduction to his chapter titled “An Aïoli”:

‘It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.’ Thus X. Marcel Boulestin, a hero of Anglo-French culinary interaction, inexplicably omitted from ‘Larousse Gastronomique’. And which of us has not felt the truth of Boulestin’s words as we arrive in that land whose very name seems to betoken and evoke a widening of life’s sensuous possibilities, the addition of an extra few notes at either end of one’s emotional keyboard, a set of new stops on the church organ of the psyche, an expansion of every cell of one’s sensory paraphernalia, a new rapprochement between body, mind and spirit, that land which is also an idea, a medium, a mêtier, a programme, an education, a philosophy, a cuisine, a word: Provence. (On rereading that sentence I discover that, grammatically, it requires a question mark which I am, however, reluctant to supply.)

Along with his constant “mansplaining” and penchant for overly verbose sentences and often ludicrous word choices (see quote above), Tarquin’s narrative is riddled with petty jealousies mostly revolving around his older brother, a successful sculptor, whom he managed to cheat out of an inheritance. And we soon learn that the real reason for Tarquin’s holiday is not to soak up some French provincial sun, but to track down his brother’s biographer so that he can, well, let’s just say ensure that she doesn’t uncover, in the course of her research, anything that she shouldn’t…

Admittedly, I found Tarquin’s voice a little overbearing and far too conceited and arch for my liking (I could only read it in small doses), but that’s the point of the book: you’re not supposed to like this character and you’re certainly not supposed to like his deeds.

But this was a fun read — and to use a deliberately chosen pun — a rather delicious one at that!

The Debt to Pleasure won John Lanchester the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1996 and it was reissued as part of the Picador Classic imprint in 2015.

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Cook by Wayne Macauley: A deliciously dark and subversive tale about a 17-year-old young offender who becomes a trainee chef under the tutelage of a Gordon Ramsay-like figure, before branching out into his own (deadly) business as a personal chef for a rich woman and her family.

This is my 7th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 26th for #TBR40. I purchased it in 2015 when it was re-issued as part of the Picador Classic imprint. I attended an event at Foyles celebrating the launch of that imprint where Lanchester discussed this book, alongside John Banville whose novel The Book of Evidence was also re-issued as part of the series. Banville also wrote the introduction to Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Lanchester kindly signed his copy for me.

Anne Serre, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Les Fugitives, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Governesses’ by Anne Serre

Fiction – paperback; Les Fugitives; 120 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Originally published in 1992, Anne Serre’s novella The Governesses has just been translated into English for the first time.

This quirky, dream-like tale is akin to an exotic and erotic fairy tale for adults. Strange and beguiling, it tells the story of three young governesses — Eléonore, Inès and Laura — who live in a grand country estate where they are employed to educate a bevy of little boys for Monsieur and Madame Austeur.

The day the governesses walked into the garden, Monsieur Austeur was standing behind the net curtains in the salon, keeping an eye out for their arrival. They advanced in single file: first Inès in a red dress, weighed down with hat boxes and bags, then Laura in a blue skirt, and, bringing up the rear, Eléonore, who was waving a long riding crop over the heads of a gaggle of little boys. He was amazed: it was life itself advancing. He rubbed his hands together and began jumping up and down in the salon. Into the garden they came, and with them a whole bundle of memories and desires, a throng of unfamiliar faces clutching at their dreams, their future children, their future sweethearts, the interminable cohort of their ancestors, the books they had read, the scents of flowers they had smelled, their blond legs and ankle boots, their gleaming teeth.

This trio of alluring young women swan about doing very little except to act on their wild sexual urges, flinging off their clothes and running about the grounds as if on fire. Often they pursue innocent would-be suitors, who have wandered through the golden gates of the secluded estate, and run them down as if they are prey to be devoured. Once caught, they are then used for the governesses’ carnal pleasure.

Observing this from afar is the elderly gentleman who lives across the road in another grand house. He has a telescope and spies on the shenanigans next door, mistakenly thinking that the women don’t know what he is up to. But they are very much aware of his voyeuristic tendencies — and play up to them.

Once more they were jumping around on the lawns, soliciting his gaze and signalling to him, clapping their hands when they discovered the reflection of his telescope once more playing over their dresses and the wall of the house, or climbing into the trees like a butterfly in summer.

This might make the story seem little more than a succession of erotic romps, but the dream-like quality of the writing married with a series of rather exquisite metaphors makes it feel like an enigmatic fable. Scratch the surface and there’s a lot going on here, about nature, sexual repression, romantic love, desire and the male gaze.

I loved the dark sensuality of the tale, the ripple of black humour that underpins it and the gorgeous, languid quality of the prose, so expertly translated by Mark Hutchinson.

The Governesses has been released by independent press Les Fugitives, which is dedicated to publishing Francophone authors, mostly female, previously unavailable in the UK.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault’ by Angela Carter: This slim volume features 10 of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, translated from French (in 1977), to which Carter has added her own distinct twists and tongue-in-cheek morals.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, Leïla Slimani, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Adèle’ by Leïla Slimani

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year I read Leïla Slimani’s much-lauded Lullaby, a novel about a nanny who murders her young charges, and I had such a bad reaction to it that I wanted to throw the book across the room. My initial gut reaction was tempered (slightly) by the discussion that followed in the comments and that continued on Twitter and I came to see that perhaps I had missed the subtleties of the book, which was based on a true story. (I hadn’t known that at the time I read it.)

Adèle, her follow-up, has just been published in the UK, but it’s actually her first novel (published in France in 2014) and has simply been translated out of order.

Going on my past experience with her work, I picked it up with trepidation, telling myself that if I wasn’t hooked within the first 50 pages, I would abandon it. I ended up reading the entire book in two sittings.

North American cover

Extra-marital encounters

On the face of it, the book deals with another ugly subject: a married woman — the Adèle of the title — who has a penchant for rough sex with a succession of strange men she picks up in the unlikeliest of places. But it is so much more than this.

It is a deeply provocative look at modern life and privilege, of having it all but of never being quite satisfied, of one particular woman’s struggle to seek forbidden physical encounters to make her feel alive and to fill up the emptiness within her inner-most self. It is also an extraordinary examination of self-deception and self-destruction.

That Adèle has a successful career (as a journalist), a young son and a rich husband (who is a surgeon), and that she lives in a comfortable middle-class area of Paris in a beautiful apartment, makes one wonder what exactly is missing from her life.

But look a little closer. Adèle is clearly bored and doesn’t have much of a maternal instinct, but I think the real nub of it lies in her decision to marry the first man who asks her, choosing comfort and financial security over love, a fact she willingly admits to her best friend. And because she doesn’t have that true bond with her husband it makes it easier for her to betray him. It also makes it easier for her to compartmentalise her sexual encounters as being purely physical events and not emotional ones.

Adèle is neither proud nor ashamed of her conquests. She keeps no records, recollects no names, no situations. She forgets everything very quickly, and that is a good thing. How could she remember so many different skins and smells? How could she recall the memory of the weight of each body on hers, the width of their hips, the size of their penis? She has no clear memories of them, and yet these men are the sole landmarks of her existence.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Adèle is not the often graphic descriptions of the one-night stands and extra-marital affairs (be warned, this book isn’t for the prudish or even the squeamish), but of her lack of interest in food. Adèle never eats. She’s painfully thin. That no one ever seems to notice this is worrying.

Simple plot, clear writing

Of course, I realise I’ve written 500 words and not really outlined the plot, but it’s a simple one, and you can probably guess how it pans out given it’s about a woman who strays outside of her marriage: her husband discovers her secret life. What you won’t expect is how he deals with it, and how their relationship morphs into something else entirely, and the effect that has on both of them, making Adèle an intriguing portrait of a marriage before and after the outfall of its potential destruction.

The prose is also sharp and clear (it was translated from the French by Sam Taylor) using short but vivid sentences — “Paris is orange and deserted” — where not a word seems to be wasted. And the pacing is quick-fire and suspenseful.

This is a compulsively readable book; unnerving, disturbing, daring and erotic. But it’s also a psychologically rich novel, full of insights about the human condition, the quest to feel alive and loved, and the struggle to lead a happy life when so much around us — whether that be our family, our friends, our job — compete for our time and energy.