Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, Booker International Prize 2020): a collection of interrelated stories exquisitely told.

This is a spellbinding web of stories about people on the periphery. Pagano makes rural France her subject matter, invoking the closeness of a local community and the links between the inhabitants’ lives, but then she reminds us how little we know of each other.

~Peirene Press on Faces on The Tip of My Tongue

I think the best way to ‘review’ this collection of stories, translated from the French, is to put what struck me as the most meaningful bits under each chapter’s title. As you read them, perhaps common threads uniting them will be revealed, perhaps not. Regardless, the power of Pagano’s writing is, I think, evident:

The Lake’s Favorite:

I was the lake’s favorite.

I loved my life by the lake so much that it was worth going away for awhile, if only for the pleasure of coming back.

The Jigsaw Puzzle:

We were just wondering how to tell our daughter, when she came down into the kitchen. She flew to the door with a joy that left us speechless. Her little hand fumbled at the handle; I had to help her turn it. For her, the fallen tree was no more dead than before, it was simply transformed into a tree house.

The Short Cut:

She lied herself a comfortable life, forgetting her childhood fears, but they returned once the children were grown up, they came back, they’d always been there most likely…

She suffered from the heaviness of a body that feels like lead when you don’t want to live any more.

Blind Spots:

Lots of people go about with blinkers, not just on the motorways. They’re not really driving their lives. I mean, not leading their lives. Instead of leading their own lives, they let themselves be carried along in their restricted view of things. Social conventions, appearances, all those things, you know, all those things that shrink your field of vision. Our vision. We don’t see anything else, nothing of what’s at the edges.

The Loony and the Bright Spark:

The man was one of those people who ‘haven’t their peace’. That’s how we describe them around here, our loonies. He worked at the social enterprise down in the town. He lost his peace by the side of the road one evening at about five o’clock when his wife and children were killed on the bend going down, more than forty years ago…

This tormented waiting that we can’t comprehend, this disaster, it’s him, it’s what’s inside his head, it’s the whole of him that we thought we knew but that goes beyond our knowledge. He goes beyond the figure we made of him that we thought we could reduce him to.

Mum at the Park:

When she was young, she didn’t play the same sorts of games as we did. She daydreamed among the trees, did jigsaw puzzles without getting bored, spent lots of time drawing and already read a lot…

Mom used to say that silence doesn’t exist, that there are always tiny sounds in the background, muted and barely perceptible. And she was an expert in barely perceptible things. Her whole childhood was made up of them.

The Automatic Tour Guide:

My little sister’s death doesn’t need inventing, and when he tells it to the people staying in the gîte he doesn’t embellish it with local color. He delivers it straight, raw, hardly like a story at all…

My sister rain off towards the tractor but I didn’t, I knew we weren’t allowed, and I told her not to but she didn’t listen, that two-year-old silly. Father came out again almost straight away, still cross, went back to the filed and got on the tractor. He started it up again, and when he heard me screaming louder and higher than the sound of the engine, when he felt the tiller jam, he was really beside himself, absolutely furious this time.

Just a Dad:

My dad knew just what to do, what to say and what not to say, everything the therapist would never understand.

Three Press-ups and Unable to Die:

I’ve had more than enough of myself, I must get rid of this self. I’m leaving me. Other people provide no refuge: they mass together instead of lightening my load, they lay their own armour upon my already overburdened carcass and their touch is heavy. Other people are an excess weight, my children especially. I can’t do it any longer, can’t carry anyone, anything more.

The Dropout:

You’d seen my face somewhere and here it was now in front of you, in front of you and elsewhere in an elusive memory, my recognized but unrecognized face, my face on the tip of your tongue. You smiled as if to thank me.

Glitter:

For a book to change us, to cleanse us, it must get deep inside, and those pink books, as I’ve told them hundreds of times stay on the surface. They reach only the outer layers of our skin, our thoughts and memories. They smooth over worries with illusory balm, like the anti-wrinkle creams that my friends spread on their faces…I’m alive and I read real books. Not dead books that simply submit to being read.

About the author: Emmanuelle Pagano was born in Rodez, France, in 1969. Her books have been translated into more than a dozen languages and she has won many awards for her work, including the EU Prize for Literature in 2009 and, most recently, the Prix du Roman d’Écologie in 2018. This is her second book to appear in English. The first, Trysting, was published in 2016 by And Other Stories.

About the translators: Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis translated Pagano’s previous collection, Trysting, to much acclaim. Individually, Higgins has translated numerous books from French and Italian, and Lewis’s translations have been shortlisted for the Scott oncrieff Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Prize.

(Thanks to Peirene Press for their willingness to send me this copy to review.)

Find an excellent review from Reading in Bed.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné (“…one must learn to accept the unacceptable.”)

What happens when we are confronted with a terror so deep that our very world tilts? Some, perhaps, become a blob of jelly, amoeba-like, such as the narrator’s mother. Others, like her brother, Sam, turn the terror into a predator.

These two beautiful children, brother and sister, hear “Flower Waltz” by Tchaikovsky, and know that the ice cream man’s truck is coming. The brother orders vanilla and strawberry; his sister orders chocolate and stracciatella in a cone with whipped cream, and while I am contemplating the joy of that, I am utterly unprepared for what happens next.

For the siphon from which the whipped cream is dispensed explodes. Right in the ice-cream man’s face. It is totally obliterated, as the children look on in disbelief, and then he crumples to the ground.

This incident happens on page twenty-five of a book with two hundred and thirty-four pages. It is a horrific accident, setting the stage for the novel with an impact in keeping with their father’s violence. He is a hunter of animals, and a terror to his wife and children.

I had noticed that when my father started to become edgy, she (my mother) served red meat, as if she hoped that the bloody flesh would calm his rage. But I knew that blood wouldn’t calm him. He had to penetrate living flesh, be it with his fist or a .22 caliber bullet. (p. 111)

Our narrator hears a hyena’s laugh, as if it is real, and knows that vermin are eating her brother Sam’s brain. For surely, if they weren’t, he would not torture the neighborhood’s cats. Or, their mother’s beloved goat, Cumin, whom is so lovingly cared for in their garden.

What can this girl, bravely struggling to grow up, do? She determines that she will build a machine to go back in time, to erase the occurrence of tragedy that has come into their life. And she actually believes, with an eight year old’s faith, that this is possible. Until she learns of Marie Curie, and decides that science is the solution to solving Sam’s problem with violence.

To that extent, she excels in school, and she begins taking private tutoring lessons with Professor Pavlovic, a man from Tel Aviv whose wife wears a mask. It is literally a mask which hides her face, for her story is also one of incredible strength and courage. Her husband lovingly, and tenderly, cares for her in their home.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up with a father so cruel, with a mother so passive, with circumstances so horrific. Yet, it is a lovely thing to see courage grow strong in a wound. Adeline Dieudonné brings her heroine to life in this coming of age novel. We see the child grow to a young woman and embark on a new life, a real life which has overcome adversity and discovered hope.


Real Life by Adeline Dieudonne, translated from the French by Roland Glasser, was published in the U.S. on February 4, 2020. I am grateful to World Editions for the opportunity to participate on the blog tour listed above.

About the author: Adeline Dieudonné is a Belgian author and lives in Brussels. Real Life, her debut novel, was published in France in Autumn 2018 and has since been awarded most of the major French literary prizes: the prestigious Prix du Roman FNAC, the Prix Rossel, the Prix Renaudot des Lycéens, the Prix Goncourt—Le Choix de la Belgique, the Prix de Étoiles du Parisien, the Prix Premiere Plume, and the Prix Filigrane, a French prize for a work of high literary quality with wide appeal. Dieudonné also performs as a stand-up comedian. (Back cover)

About the translator: Roland Glasser was born in London, studied in Aberystwyth, and lived in Paris for a decade, pursuing twin careers in translation and the performing arts. His translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 won the Etisalat Prize for Literature 2016 and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and the Best Translated Book Award. Authors he has translated include Anne Cuneo, Martin Page, Marc Pouyet, Julien Aranda, and Stéphanie Garner. Roland is a co-founder of The Starling Bureau – a London-based collective of literary translators.

The Years by Annie Ernaux (translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer, Man Booker International Prize 2019): Addendum

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I have begun this book several times and been impressed until I get halfway through. There are brilliant insights into life in France, life in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the life of a girl growing up in such a time frame. Consider these quotes:

Religion was the sole font of morality. It bestowed human dignity, without which our lives would resemble those of dogs.

and

Only teachers were allowed to ask questions. If we did not understand a word or explanation, the fault was ours.

and

The future is too immense for her to imagine. It will happen, that’s all.

Annie Ernaux explores memory, both hers, her family’s, and even the world’s at large. “Where were you,” she asks, “on September 11, 2001?”

I love these quotes regarding our memories:

Like sexual desire, memory never stops. It pairs the dead with the living, real with imaginary beings, dreams with history.

or

They were saddled with other people’s memories and a secret nostalgia for the time they’d missed by so little, along with the hope of living it one day…

But. Halfway through this memoir, a piece which was the co-winner of the 2019 French-American Foundation Translation Prize in Nonfiction, yet was included in the Man Booker International Prize which awards the “best, eligible full-length novel”, I became so weary I had to lay it down. Endless streams of observations like this, pertinent as some may be, became exhausting to read.

Clearly the official judges, and the members of the Shadow Jury, do not agree with me. They have given reason, plausible I’m sure, as to why The Years should be included as a piece of fiction. Perhaps that is all that needs to be said: our memories are not fully real.

Do not be surprised to see this on the Shadow Jury’s short list, nor, I dare say, on the official short list. It just won’t be on mine.

(Thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for a copy of The Years to review.)

Addendum: After reading this interview with The Guardian, my dislike for The Years became clearer to me.

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Man Booker International Prize 2019) ~ As near to perfect a book as I have ever read.

I was alone in the world and in the evening I watched the river as I ate.

This sentence, on the very first page, pierces me with its loneliness. But when our narrator, Benia, joins the Red Army to fight on the Romanian front, he finds he is not alone anymore.

He met Pavel when he was hidden from the road, behind a wall, heating up water to make some tea. They met Kyabine, who was built like a lumberjack and seemed a bit slow, when he watched them playing dice in the middle of the street. They invited Sifra, who never had any trouble with anyone, to help them build a hut in the pine forest where they could endure the winter, and the group became four.

They discover a pond, which they keep to themselves, and Pavel and Kyabine splash in it like children. They play dice and gamble tobacco, or roll it into cigarettes. They take turns sleeping with a watch, taken off of a fallen soldier, that has a picture of a woman inside it. When Pavel gets up in the darkness, he gently wakes Benia to accompany him; Benia is his comfort from the terrible nightmares that come in the night.

Their friendship charms me.

The tenderness of their youth charms me.

There is an innocence and joy about the comrades, about the four soldiers, that charms me.

And, there is a sorrow lying underneath the joy that is almost unbearable.

Once, while trying to capture a horse, they became separated.

So I spoke in my head to my parents: Don’t believe what you see. I told them: There’s Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra somewhere in the field, so don’t worry.

I sat down in the grass.

I watched the sun sink beteeen the grass stalls, and after a while I lowered my head and began to sob. But believe me, it wasn’t out of sadness…

And now I held them both in my arms and I sobbed as I pressed them against me and I swear it wasn’t out of sadness.

You know they have to leave the pond, burning the huts they have built because they don’t need them anymore. They are ordered to advance on the enemy.

A kid they have met, who sleeps in their tent and writes in a notebook with a pencil tied to a string, records their precious days together. They tell him all that they want him to write, reminding him to skip no detail.

When Benia takes the notebook after the kid has fallen, there are only letters. Nothing that could form a word. It does not take away the time they shared as four comrades, but it does point to the impermanence of their lives.

I am as impressed by this book as I ever have been. It caught me by surprise because I don’t like books about war, and I didn’t particularly like Mingarelli’s earlier book, A Meal in Winter.

But, The Four Soldiers? I will never forget it. Reading it caused a worthy sadness.

(The Four Soldiers is also published by New Press.)

My Top Ten Books for 2018

 

It is no surprise that when I review the list of approximately fifty books I read in 2018, the ones which are my favorite are all (but one) in translation. But, that does not make them inaccessible for readers who do not normally pick up translated literature. In fact, if you are tired of the same boring mysteries, the same boring love affairs, the same boring story told over and over again, I can’t recommend each one of these enough.

My Top Ten for the Year 2018:

  1. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk: Because it deserved to win the Man Booker International Prize this year for its breathtaking writing and memorable recounting of our lives.
  2. From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: Because I have never seen three disparate stories woven together so seamlessly, or with such power.
  3. The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti: Because it won both the Strega Award and the Prix Médicis étranger, and faultlessly told the story of two boys’ friendship, as well as their relationship with one’s father.
  4. Fever and Spear by Javier Marias: Because Javier Marias is my favorite Spanish author; everything he writes is downright lyrical.
  5. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata: Because I was enchanted by this quirky character who loved convenience stores, the reason for which I could completely understand when I was in Japan this October.
  6. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami: Because it is an accessible, brilliant novel by my favorite Japanese author whom I never pretend to fully understand.
  7. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig: Because the tension mounted with every move, and the author wrote it in less than 100 pages.
  8. Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck: Because of the compelling side she shows for the immigrants who have no home.
  9. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz: Because it was the most startling and upsetting book I read this year (ever?) and I will never forget it.
  10. Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard: Because Mattias Enard captured Michelangelo in a fresh, new way when I thought I knew him already.

And now, I wish you a Happy New Year, and many joyous reads ahead in 2019!

Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard (It’s just magnificent!)

Here is an indication of the glory within these pages, just in Énard’s ability to write about a notebook alone:

”Michelangelo owns a notebook, a simple notebook he made himself: some leaves of paper folded in half, held together with a string, with a cover made of thick cardboard. It’s not a sketchbook, he doesn’t draw in it; nor does he note down the verses that come to him sometimes, or the drafts of his letters, even less his impressions of the days or the weather outside.

In this stained notebook, he records treasures. Endless accumulations of various objects, accounts, expenses, supplies: clothes, menus, words, simply words.

His notebook is his sea chest.” (p. 14)

Mathias Enard has written exactly how I feel about notebooks, what I have known to be true about them, but unable to articulate, since I was a child.

And then there’s this:

”You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings, elephants and marvelous beings; by speaking to them about the happiness they will find beyond death, the bright light that presided over their birth, the angels wheeling around them, the demons menacing them, and love, love, that promise of oblivion and satiety. Tell them about all of that, and they will love you; they will make you the equal of a god.” (p. 54)

I could keep writing quotes until the novel ends…

The Governesses by Anne Serre (translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson)

They’re irresistible. The noblest of the three is Eleonore. The carriage of her head, her smooth auburn hair, which she wears in a chignon, and her Grecian profile with its pronounced, pale nostrils, conjure up a woman in an Ingres painting..More gentle and tender hearted, Laura is the most sensual in the way she moves around. As for Ines, she’s without question the liveliest of the three, pliant as the stem of a flower and very Spanish with her dark eyes and her ebony-black hair coiled like a snake around the ravishing curves of her skull. (p. 52-53)

One of the most remarkable things about The Governesses, to me, is the atmosphere. I feel that I am observing the governesses through the mist of a forest, as the little boys play with their hoops all around them. It is bizarre and winsome, at the same time.

There is a charge of sexuality underlying all that they do, or at least a very sensual aspect, as they dip their fingers into their food or let the wind whip their skirts over their heads as they lie on the wet grass in the meadow. Strangers come into the garden, and golden gates close behind them. These men are under the enchantment of the governesses, seemingly helpless under the women’s touch.

An elderly gentleman across the way observes them with a telescope through his window. He watches their antics, their cavorting with light in the garden, until one day, he turns away. Then the governesses start to fade.

This is a mystical tale, full of charm and ambiguity. It casts a spell on me as I yearn to decipher every meaning, but in the end, must simply accept it for what it is: a tale of women, a tale of men, a tale of young boys for whom the governesses were hired to watch, and the ephemeral quality of life.

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Despentes is France’s most famous bad-girl author. A rape survivor who has worked as a prostitute and a housemaid, Despentes’ unapologetically feminist eye picks out the telling details of contemporary French society’s casual ennui and petty hypocrisies. Her “Vernon Subutex” series of novels — there are three — are critically acclaimed best-sellers in France. In Volume I, we meet the book’s eponymous hero, a fallen former record-store owner who has nothing left to his name except interview tapes of a recently deceased rock star that could be his ticket off the streets. ~New York Times

This is a tame synopsis of a novel which is making me feel increasingly like I need to take a bath.

For example, I wouldn’t call thievery, adultery, lying, drugs, or pornography “casual ennui and petty hypocrisies.” Let’s call it what it is: immorality.

Nor would I say that this is a “mind-blowing portrait of contemporary French society.” (Nellie Kaprielian, Inrocks) Of all the times I have been in France, and there have been many, I did not see or participate in such behavior. So maybe it portrays some level of French society, but to make that a blanket statement for all of France feels a bit extreme.

What Vernon Subutex 1 is, is an acerbic novel of a confused and lost group of people, who keep searching for meaning in their lives while it constantly eludes them. Because, I think, they are looking in the wrong places.

It is hard to read this novel and not feel a certain amount of empathy for Vernon. I see how lonely he is, how directionless and physically poor; a combination of things which can only lead to more despair unless he makes different choices.

For me, this is a novel about life spinning out of control for people who are living their lives based on selfish pleasure. Looking at the cover alone, you can see how much anguish is within its pages.

It has been included in the short list for the Man Booker International Prize 2018, and whether it will be declared the winner remains to be seen.

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, a novel quite unlike anything I expected

We will, all of us, only be happy, she thinks, when we don’t need one another anymore. When we can live a life of our own, a life that belongs to us, that has nothing to do with anyone else. When we are free.

I thought, perhaps, that this novel might be along the likes of the ever popular, and oh so disappointing, thrillers such as The Girl on The Train. The nanny is a murderer, I thought, far from perfect at all. I did not realize, at first, that this novel has been translated from the French, nor that it won France’s prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt. (The U.S. cover pictured above has been criticized on Twitter, and rightly so, for leaving all that out.)

From the very first page we are shown a horrific scene:

The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put in a gray bag which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived.

You can see how it would be easy to assume you were reading a typical American thriller from this opening. But very quickly, the story veers off from what would seem American, but is clearly French as it goes far beyond the external situation.

The parents live in a tiny apartment in Paris. Myriam is a lawyer, but also a distraught and exhausted mother. Paul is a musician, but also a struggling and sometimes impatient father. Like every young professional couple they must balance the needs of their family with their professional aspirations, and something always seems to come up short.

Until Louise arrives. She is blonde, and diminutive, and able to perfectly manage two children and a small apartment, making it seem spacious and clean and joyful. She prepares delicious meals, helps create delightful birthday parties, and gives the children endless enjoyment with the stories she tells, the imagination she reveals.

It seems so perfect, but there is a thread of tension running underground. For one thing, it certainly can’t be as idyllic as it seems for we already know that one of the children is dead. For another, the tension around Louise mounts increasingly with every page.

Louise sleeps in the family’s apartment when they go to visit Myriam’s mother-in-law in the mountains. Louise imagines returning to Greece with the family on holiday, but as they prepare to come back to France she will announce that she is staying. Her unhappiness is palpable, and why shouldn’t it be? Nothing in her personal life resembles the lives of those she works for.

Euphoria gives way to days of dejection. The world seems to shrink, to retract, to weigh down on her body, to crush it. Paul and Myriam close doors on her and she wants to smash them down. She has only one desire: to create a world with them, to find her place and live there, to dig herself a niche, a burrrow, a warm hiding place. Sometimes she feels ready to claim her portion of earth and then the urge wanes, she is overcome by sorrow, and she feels ashamed even to have believed in something.

And why shouldn’t she feel so overcome? Her husband has died, forcing her to sell their home and face unsurmountable bills; her daughter has caused nothing but trouble and has now run away never to be seen again; her landlord charges exhorbitant rent for a studio apartment which is in great disrepair and even blames her for the fact that the shower has sunk into the rotting floorboards beneath. Louise can clean, and work endless hours creating a perfect life for her clients and facade for herself, but there is nothing in her own life that is beautiful, or easy, or promising. No one even loves her.

It is not a novel of mystery, or a thriller, or even crime as we know the murders from the very beginning. It is a story of desparation and isolation. It is the story of the true mother being more concerned about her position as a lawyer than she is about her children. It is a tragedy everywhere one looks.

Find an excellent review on 1st Reading’s Blog.

“Let him who loves me follow me.” Femme Fatale, a collection of 4 very short stories by Guy de Maupassant

I am still thinking of the first story in this Penguin Little Black Classic which I read last night. It’s title is Cockcrow, and it is deceptively simple.

Consider this line regarding Madame d’Avancelles’ husband:

It was rumoured that they lived separate lives on account of a physical shortcoming of his which Madame could not overlook. He was a fat little man with short arms, short legs, a short neck, short nose, short everything in fact.

Everything? Oh, really. Is that why she entertains the advances of her admirer Baron Joseph de Croissard to which her husband has turned a blind eye? They cavort and tease each other all autumn long, at receptions and finally at a great hunting party.

After the baron has shown himself to be the man she has requested him to be by killing the wild boar himself, it seems that his desires will be fulfilled that night.

He scratches at her door after the chateau has fallen asleep, and upon gaining admittance is told to wait upon her bed. Which he does, until he succumbs to sleep. And in the morning, he wakens to the sound of the cock’s crow, startling him out of his slumber.

Madame d’Avancelles, who has laid awake beside him all night, tells him to, “Go back to sleep, Monsieur, it’s nothing to do with you.”

Is this mockery? For surely this uneventful night had much to do with him. Or, perhaps she is referring to her own self, seeing that she might not be worth waiting up for.

I do not have a clear answer, but I do have persistent thoughts continuously returning to this simple story which is only 6 pages long, yet full of so much intrigue.

There are three more stories within this slight volume. I eagerly begin the next right now.