Chanson Douce- Leila Slimani

The English translation of this award-winning French novel was recently released and everyone has been going crazy for it, so I just had to give it a go. I had heard it described as the next Gone Girl and I loved that book, so my hopes were high. As a final year French student, and a true believer that translations never entirely do a book justice, I decided to read the original French (definitely not just a way of convincing myself that reading this counted as work).

 

The very first sentence of Chanson Douce, or Lullaby as it has been translated into English, is “Le bébé est mort.” (The baby is dead.) and if that isn’t enough to make you want to get to the end of this book, then I don’t know what would be. how has this baby died? Why? Who killed him? Why? So. Many. Questions. And the great thing about the novel is that we never really have all of them answered, yet we keep reading, hoping that we will be able to gather enough evidence to satisfy our curiosity. Keep reading I did, as I managed to devour all 227 pages in under 24 hours- and I have no regrets.

 

Slimani does a fantastic job at interchanging between perspectives, in the way that we are never quite sure who we should be identifying with. Yes, it is clear to see who is acting inappropriately, and who we should perhaps dislike in the very moment, but we are never quite sure if we should trust our own judgement. I was constantly questioning whether there was more to the characters than was being let on, and was using information to devise possible scenarios, but I kept finding that I was wrong and that what I had previously predicted, wasn’t necessarily the case. Even the characters you do feel sympathy for are flawed, which I think presents quite an interesting picture of humanity.

The author uses very easy to follow syntax and language for the post part, which definitely contributes to how easy the book is to read. There is plenty of punctuation, which adds to the drama, delaying the narrative and increasing the reader’s desperation to find out what is exactly going to happen.

I think her technique of beginning with the end is fantastic, as it immediately creates a feeling of investment, and I’m not sure the narrative would have had the same effect if the ending was not disclosed this early. On the subject of chronology, I also appreciated the appearance of flashbacks- some of which are obvious and have a clear purpose- some of which are not explicitly flashbacks until the narrative conclusion.

Chanson Douce definitely brings up some really interesting questions with regards to motherhood and parental guilt, which ( even though I am not a mother myself) I believe that many women could identify with: is hiring a nanny the right thing? Should I go back to work?

I really don’t want to give away too much because this narrative is based on mystery- but I don’t think I saw the explanation of the ending coming, and that is what is important. I love a book that keeps me on my toes. I cannot speak for the English translation, but if it conveys even half of the mystery of the French, I cannot recommend it enough.

Robert des noms propres- Amelie Nothomb

There is no denying that this short novel throws you right into the narrative from the very start. Any hope you might have for Lucette is quickly whipped away, with two deaths complete in under thirty pages.  However, this does not even necessarily tell the reader anything about the rest of the novel- except that it is going to be intense.

The title of the novel doesn’t give anything away, either, with no allusion to it until the very end. However, what the reader is made clear of is Plectrude’s importance. The reader is made to focus on every tiny detail about her, from her speech (from the moment she is learning), to her physical appearance (even when this is not in its best form) and it is these small details that allow us to understand more about the story- even when it might seem that very little has been offered to us in terms of narrative or character development. Focussing on these small details results in an ‘Oh, I see how this is making sense’ scenario towards the end of the novel.

It is interesting that Clémence’s husband plays such a quiet role in this novel. On the rare occasion that we hear his opinion, it is quickly undermined by his wife, highlighting the importance of women in this novel, and potentially foreboding Clémence’s fate-changing tendency that we later see. This is clever, considering that she appears to be so kind and accommodating elsewhere in the novel.

Nothing is more unexpected than the very end of the narrative. In fact, even just a few pages before the end the characters’ fate changes, which means the reader should never relax or be complacent in their predictions. It is the first time that Nothomb references herself as the narrator, which means the final event feels a little glued on, and does not seem to flow properly with the direction of the rest of the narrative. Having said that, it certainly adds to how shocking the event is.

In contrast with the intensity of the subject of Robert des noms propres, Nothomb’s writing style is very relaxed, and incredibly easy to read. She favours the matter-of-fact over convolution which, one might argue, contributes to the intensity of the subject in hand.

I would definitely recommend Robert des noms propresfor the very reason that it is sure to keep you on your toes. Even when you think you have predicted the outcome, you discover you are wrong, and it is this that keeps you turning the pages. This engaging yet unpredictable narrative, combined with the simple writing style makes this a quick, yet satisfying, read.

La femme gelée- Annie Ernaux

I had read one of Ernaux’s other works, La Place, in the first year of uni, and I remember it being the one text that made that module bearable. Her writing style just feels so right, and her feminist sentiments seeps into her every word, without being overbearing, so I knew that I would like La Femme gelée.

What I liked most about La femme gelée is that, unlike other feminist texts, where the writer seeks to escape the oppression of their childhood, Ernaux realises that her childhood situation was actually the exception to the rule. Instead of urging her to start a family and settle down, Ernaux’s family encourage to be career driven and successful. It is then later in her life that she has to learn that it might not always be so easy, and that one can’t necessarily escape the patriarchy forever.

The non-linear narrative is interesting, and I suppose might reflect the struggle against the patriarchy as changing and inconstant. But I also think it could reflect Ernaux’s own inner struggle and confusion at how what she knew as normal from her child can be so different to the reality of her adult life.

In spite of the fact that La femme gelée is very much an account of a real woman’s life, the writer manages to distance the narrative from herself just enough that it could easily be about any woman, meaning it could represent the life and struggles of so many, but with enough detail to keep it real and relatable.

The heartbreaking thing about this work is that it is true life, and that a woman as driven and intelligent as Ernaux could not, through no fault of her own, have all that she wanted and deserved. More than anything, this book affirms the truth that women, men, all genders, should decide their own place in society, and should not have roles predetermined for them. Read this book for a different perspective of how restrictive the patriarchy can be.

 

Parole de femme- Annie Leclerc

I have always been interested in feminist literature, and feminism as a theory in general. My favourite type of feminist literature is that from the personal point of view, but I don’t appreciate when authors become too righteous as, in my opinion, it detracts from the issue in hand  – I really enjoyed Simone de Beauvoir’s Mémoire d’une jeune fille rangée, for example- the perfect balance of a serious, important message mixed into personal life, with just the right balance of confidence.

I thought Leclerc’s Parole de femme was just as good, if not better than Beauvoir’s Mémoire, strangely because it wasn’t mostly based on in-depth information about her personal life. What I liked most was that I could tell her beliefs come from a deeply personal place, based on important experiences that she had had- and to which she alluded- but she didn’t make the argument entirely about her. Instead, it was about femme as a whole.

Studying French, I am also deeply interested in language and its connotations, and I find myself analysing author’s word choices almost subconsciously and as a matter of habit. But what I loved about this book is that it consciously brought the issue of language to the forefront…I suppose this is hardly surprising given the title…parole. But I loved how Leclerc tore into the meaning of certain words, and how this differed for men and women, but also for different types of women. She repeats this words both explicitly and implicitly- as if she is trying to rid them of meaning- proving that language isn’t really gendered, it is we who make them so.

I genuinely enjoyed the entirety of Parole de femme, and found it one of the most interesting non-fictions I have read, and I really couldn’t get enough of it. I was stuck in the dilemma of wanting to read faster in order to learn more and more, because I have never agreed with any text more, and not wanting to read too quickly so that it didn’t finish too soon.

One of my favourite arguments within the work ( it is not merely a book, its messages and arguments are too important), is that in order for women to be liberated, they must become liberators. I wholeheartedly agree. And not even necessarily just in terms of gender. I feel that, too often, people hold onto the things that hold them back, almost as if they thrive on this inability (as odd as it may sound). It is only when we work to free ourselves and believe ourselves free of limitations that we are able to succeed.

 

I would thoroughly recommend Parole de femme to everyone. Just because it is a feminist work, it hold important messages for men, too (yes- I know men can be feminists). Even though I would have considered myself a feminist before I started reading, it definitely opened my eyes even more, and changed my thinking even more….read it!

Le chef d’œuvre inconnu- Honoré Balzac

Whenever I have read Balzac before I have always found it a little bit of a struggle. Now, this is usually because the texts I read are chosen by my university, and I am reading these (very lengthy) novels not just for pleasure, but to obtain specific information that will help me pass an exam or some coursework. When I saw Le chef d’œuvre inconnu  on the bookshelf, I was intrigued at how short (a.k.a accessible) it appeared, and I instantly wanted to read it- giving myself the opportunity to enjoy such a classic French author’s work without slogging through hundreds of pages.

The first thing that struck me, even in the first handful of sentences, was the beauty that is intertwined in the text. Both in the imagery that Balzac creates, and the sheer delicacy of his choice of words and the fluidity of his sentence structure. Also, it is amazing to see how things can change so dramatically in such a short space of pages- and how this change is influenced by something that so many people would never think twice about: art.

It was interesting to see how someone could be so passionate about something that wasn’t simply love with another person and the lengths it could drive them to if it goes wrong. Though, having said that, of course, what would a 19th C narrative be without the influence of a woman’s beauty to shake things up a little?

 

I would definitely recommend this to anyone who has struggled to enjoy a Balzac text before, as it works as a type of stepping stone into appreciating his undeniable skill as an author, and has definitely encouraged me to pick up one of his longer works for fun again!

Le Diable Au Corps- Raymond Radiguet

I received this book as a Christmas present from my boyfriend. A brave move on his behalf, if you ask me as choosing a book for someone is never easy, especially when you’re branching into literature of a language that you don’t speak. However, he did pretty well, considering the book fits three categories of things I like: romance, war and french.  I had never heard of this book before, nor had I heard the author mentioned, so I was intrigued to get stuck in.

 

I have to admit I was a little confused when I first began reading. For some reason, I had expected the narrator to be Marthe, who is mentioned in the blurb, and out of a lack of concentration, it had taken me a few pages to realise that it was actually Francois.  However, once I had actually realised who it was narrating the events, I could start to form opinions on the characters.

I actually found Francois, the narrator a little irritating, which is, in some ways, a credit to Radiguet. He did truly appear like a lovesick teenage boy, whose youth was made clear through his neediness and naivety. I suppose that, given the circumstances of his love affair, one could hardly blame him for seeming emotional and needy- but that didn’t make it any less annoying, especially for the first part of the narrative.  Having said this, Marthe was hardly a likeable character. She appeared to have no sort of conscience, and her selfishness was far too much to be able to overlook or excuse for any reason.

It was strange to read a book and not identify, or take a liking to, either character. I would say that that as the narrative progressed, I did become more tolerant of Francois, but perhaps more out of dislike for Marthe other than anything else. Even though the main turning point of the narrative, Marthe’s discovery that she is pregnant, is a necessary step in order to show each character’s ability to develop, it was a bit of a cliché problem in an illegitimate love affair. Keeping the novel’s age in mind, however, I suppose that it would have been less of a cliché, and more of a scandal.

Something I did like about the book was that it was very easy to read. As I have mentioned before, I appreciate a book with short chapters as it means I can dip in and out of the book, reading it when I have a spare five minutes, meaning I can finish it sooner than if I had to dedicate a large chunk of time each time I want to read! Also, in spite of the fact that I didn’t necessarily like the narrator, I did find Radiguet’s writing style very clear, which mean that I didn’t have to struggle with unravelling too much french syntax, which can often be a problem.

Even though I didn’t like either of the main characters, I would actually recommend Le Diable Au Corps for that very reason. It was the first time I have read a novel and this been the case, and it was actually quite refreshing. I also think that the novel would also be a good starting point for someone who wants to read more french literature, as the straightforward narrative and the author’s clear writing style, as well as the short chapters, means that it is not a challenging read.

Sentimental Education- Gustave Flaubert

Another French book to add to the collection this time. A book that, when first faced with, I was not excited about and very nearly did not read. However, the fact that I haven’t read much Flaubert in the past, along with the fact that I am a French student, and should probably have read Flaubert, persuaded me.

In fact, I am quite glad I did manage to persuade myself, as I was pleasantly surprised by what the novel had to offer. The beginning was dry, as I had sort of anticipated, but I persevered and it paid off. At first, I tried to read the book entirely in French, but quickly realised that this would lead to lots of skimming, and decided that reading an English translation alongside the original was a much better approach.

As you might imagine, the book is filled with the scandalous romances that took place in the 19th Century, and in particular follows those of Frédéric Moreau. However, alongside or rather entwined with,  these many romances, we follow Frédéric’s political beliefs, at a time of great political change in the country. Inevitably, his political and social beliefs have an effect on his love affairs and, in a bid to gain social and political status, he becomes disloyal and dishonest towards his multiple mistresses.

 

It is interesting that, in spite of the  many encounters Moreau makes during the course of the novel, he ultimately ends up alone, having made very little social progress in comparison to the beginning of the novel. Also, even though he has met numerous new and different people, at the end of the narrative, he still only really has the person he had at the beginning: Deslauriers. It is as if Flaubert wanted to show that social standing and importance counts for very little if you aren’t a decent person- even back in a time when money and social status seemed to be incredibly important.  I really appreciate noticing little life lessons like this, that are so relevant nowadays, despite the fact that so many years have passed since- it shows that, after all, we are still people, no matter how society may have changed.

 

What I also like, as is the case in so many of the novels published at the period, is the intertextuality. Flaubert, like other contemporary novelists, acknowledge other great works of the period, that affected literature then, and continue to do so now. In this instance, Blazac’s Comédie Humaine, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote are just two of the classics that are explicitly mentioned, with other more subtle references scattered among the pages. I think this nod of the head to such great works shows that Flaubert is not embarrassed to be influenced by other great writers, and in a way shows his humility- accrediting him further as an author, in my opinion.

 

I cannot lie and pretend that Sentimental Education is the most exciting book I have ever read. It is not filled with action and drama- though the love affairs are a little shocking- but it does provide the reader with some important life lessons (subtle as some may be) about what is important to function and succeed in society, and that is sometimes more important than a gripping narrative plot.

 

Le Ventre de Paris- Émile Zola

Texts that deal with the subject of the dynamic between the rich and the poor, or the upper  classes and the working class people have interested me for a while, so this Zola novel seemed an obvious choice.

Apart from the fact that it is a Zola novel, meaning it is by no means an easy read, it was not a let down!

From the very start, as is usually the way with Zola, the description of settings and scenes made for a very vivid image of the characters and their surroundings. I found Zola’s use of metaphor, using food to represent a person’s position in society or among others, particularly interesting as I had never seen social class represented in such a way before.

I also found it very interesting how he uses the microcosm of the Parisian market to represent the goings on in the city on a larger scale. It means that the reader is able to establish a better sense of ‘knowing’ each character, because of the small-scale setting, meaning they can predict how a character may react towards certain situations later in the narrative. The microcosm setting also means there are fewer characters to ‘get to know’, which is important for a long novel, but also means that it is easier to see character development within each. Personally, I mostly enjoyed seeing the development of Lisa, as I think her character shows the most change, particularly towards her brother in law, Florent.

On the same subject as Florent, I believe that he worked as a brilliant protagonist. I found it incredibly easy to empathise with and sympathise for him, constant willing the best for him for the entirety of the narrative.

What I particularly liked about Le Ventre de Paris is the fact that it shows that one’s position in society is not fixed, and because of this changeable nature, it is not to be taken for granted. I liked seeing how, not only characters facing the changes reacted, whether they were climbing up or falling down the social ladder. It was also interesting to see the cut-throat nature of business and money-making from the perspective of someone writing in the 19th Century, and how it is not so different from modern day attitudes and behaviour.

Overall, whilst it is by no means an easy book to read, I would definitely recommend persevering with Le Ventre de Paris , even if for nothing more than to see the difference between the effects of capitalism on people and their personal relationships in the 19th Century fiction and in our own experiences in the modern world.

Mrs Dalloway- Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway was on one of my university module reading lists, and I really thought that it deserved a review. Being very short at under 200 pages, it was a pleasant change from the Victorian novels I had been used to, and actually meant that I was much more alert for the book’s entirety- aware that every word would matter. I certainly wasn’t wrong about that, it was such an intense read, with every page packed with ‘stuff’- in a good way! I found myself highlighting and underlining all the time, and not merely for academic purposes, but simply because there was just so much that I thought stood out. It was refreshing to read a book that had so much to offer on every page, even though the timeline of the narrative is only actually one day and only really follows preparation for one party.

 

The fact that this book is set around World War I instantly appealed to me, as it is a subject I can’t ever learn enough about, and the fact that it is written by a woman added to this appeal because so much war literature is dominated by men.

 

I can’t avoid the truth that the narrative is a little confusing, and only really upon my second and third readings did I really get the book. Mrs Dalloway, if you didn’t know, is written with a ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative. This means that point of view that the narrative is told from can change without notice- even between sentences.  Once you have gotten to grips with this, it actually makes for a brilliant read, allowing you to realise how everyone’s thoughts do sort of merge into and follow on from each other in daily life.

The book deals with the issue of PTSD in a very subtle way through the character of Septimus Smith and his relationship, not only with other people, but the world in general. Woolf noted his reactions to such small details that I might never have considered would affect a sufferer, and how this altered his relationships with other people, notably his wife. I really believe this gave the book a new level, and was great to have a character developed in such a way.

On a similar note, Woolf’s attention to detail throughout the entire narrative really was second to none, and her use of figurative language and imagery means that no questions are left as to why Mrs Dalloway is such a timeless classic. One part that particularly stands out to me is close to the beginning, describing the public’s reactions to planes in the sky post war, and the fact that no one can yet fully comprehend that they will not cause harm as they did in previous years.

 

I would wholeheartedly recommend Mrs Dalloway to anyone regardless of age, gender, or anything. It doesn’t matter that it was written almost one hundred years ago- I believe that everyone has a lot to learn from Woolf’s literature. If nothing else, it allows you to see where modern types of stream of consciousness narrative may have got their inspiration from, and accomplishes such a narrative far better than I have ever read before. Virginia Woolf- a true literary genius.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enfance- Nathalie Sarraute

Another French book, this time. Given that I shall be relocating to the French Alps in under a month for my year abroad (eek!), I thought I should start making a conscious effort to practise my language abilities to prevent turning up and not understanding anything. I chose Enfance by recommendation. It was on some of my friends’ reading list for a module at university, and they spoke highly of it, so I decided to give it a go.

 

At first, I was confused. No, my ability to read French hadn’t disappeared; I just did not get the narrative technique to begin with. Sarraute, as the narrator, converses with an interlocutor, which, once you realise, is not difficult to grasp, but does require concentration. This shouldn’t put you off reading Enfance, though, I think everyone who reads the book (biography/memoir/life-writing?!) would agree that it actually makes the narrative a lot more interesting as it forces the reader to consider the reliability and authenticity of narrators, particularly in autobiographical works.

 

In the same vein, I enjoyed the book because of the fact that it pulls into question the idea of reliability- not only of the narrator, but also of our own memory. As well as wondering if the events in the book are real, one is encouraged to consider whether events in our own lives really did happen as we remember them, or if we have (albeit sub, or even un, consciously) edited them out of convenience.

 

As well as calling memory into question, Sarraute’s story also calls for a reconsideration of family figures and parental roles. It is safe to say that Sarraute’s mother does not conform to stereotypical characteristics of a mother, which means her father is almost forced to compensate for this. As a result, I could not help but feel pity for Sarraute, and the incredibly lonely life, or at least childhood, she appears to have led. However, what makes this even more touching is that Sarraute never overtly asks for the reader’s sympathy. In fact, she doesn’t even explicitly tell the reader that she was lonely or unhappy- it is just clear through the fact that her only friend is her toy bear, and that her favourite thing was handwriting, simply because she could control it, and it is this very lack of self pity that made me pity Sarraute more.

 

I think I liked Enfance so much because it was so different to anything that I had read before. I have read autobiographies and similar such texts, but I don’t think I had ever read it in this form. In fact, if the reader did not know anything about Sarraute before reading the book, it appears to have such a strong narrative that it might be mistaken for a novel written in first person narration.

 

Overall, I would very strongly recommend Enfance, for French speakers. I would be resistant to recommend an English translation, simply out of worry that the style would not be effectively translated across languages. I don’t think the book has a specific audience in terms of age, which makes it a perfect read for everyone.