Review published on July 1, 2016.
Bonjour et bienvenue à tous. Yes, you’ve guessed it, my literary tour has reached our Gallic neighbours, and whilst my French may now be a little lacking, fortunately their literature isn’t. And I must admit that when I was plotting my tour around the globe for this literary expedition, France was not only one of the ‘must-visit’ countries for me, but also one I was most looking forward to, having had some experience with its literary history, past and present.
Normally now I’d thrill you with a wealth of fascinating facts (well, that’s what I tell myself anyway) such as France having invented both the hot-air balloon and the parachute – after all what goes up, must come down – or that Louis XIX was King of France for just twenty minutes – but what a twenty minutes they must have been – but given there’s so much literary factuality associated with the nation, forgive me for not indulging in pot luck trivia this time, although the eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that I’ve managed to sneak in two facts in this sentence, well less sneak more inadvertently jimmy in. Anyway, I digress, and to the matter at hand, French literature. And it’s a pretty impressive roster of achievements, events and authors.
One of the defining texts of French literature dates back to around the dawn of the 12th century and is considered to be something of a national epic, Le Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland), part of the Matter of France, the medieval literature that relates the history of France, much in the same way as Arthurian legend does for Britain (the Matter of Britain) and ancient Greek and Roman myth does in the Matter of Rome. From this rich beginning, French literature has maintained a strong and healthy tradition, very much at the forefront of literature. Indeed, France has the most recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature, with fifteen winners, whilst the second most successful nations, the United States and the UK, have 10 each. The very first recipient of the prize in 1901 was a French poet, Sully Prudhomme.
Since then authors including Anatole France (1921), Andre Gide (1947) and Albert Camus (157) have all been awarded the honour, with France’s latest honoree Patrick Modiano in 2014. As well as boasting the most Nobel Laureates, a French writer also holds the record for the world’s longest novel – Marcel Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu – which translates fittingly as ‘in search of lost time’ – fills thirteen volumes and consists of more than 3000 pages, which took some thirteen years to write. Whilst not all French novels may be as lengthy as Proust’s, they all share a certain literary weightiness to them. Indeed, French literature is populated by literary greats: Chretien de Troyes, de Lorris, Flaubert, Balzac, Sartre, Zola, Voltaire, Dumas, Verne, Hugo, de Maupassant, Stendhal, Moliere, Baudelaire, de Laclos, Leroux, Rimbaut, Marquis de Sade and Diderot. These are writers that have not only made their mark in France, but around the world, both through translation and through crossovers into popular culture – de Laclos’ Les Liasions Dangereuses adapted into not one but two Hollywood films, the first inventively titled Dangerous Liaisons (1998) and the second Cruel Intentions (1999). Similarly, Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask and The Count of Monte Cristo have been adapted over and over, whilst Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast, and Charles Perrault’s catalogue of fairy tales – Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella – have all had the Disney treatment. But perhaps the greatest success has been Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which has had several book adaptations, including Susan Fletcher’s 2014 YA spin A Little in Love, comic and Manga adaptations, over twenty television, radio, theatre and animation adaptations, over fifty films, including the 2012 Hollywood remake, which won three Oscars and three Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture, and of course the long-running musical, which has been showing at the West End for over 30 years. France’s literary tradition is thus one of the most pervasive across the globe. But what of their current literary scene?
Well, of course, given that their latest Nobel Prize winner was awarded just two years ago, it seems that France’s literary culture seems to be in good hands. Add to that the fact that two of the thirteen longlisted titles for this year’s Man Booker International Prize are by French authors – the only country to have two nominations – Maylis de Kerangal, Mend the Living, and Marie NDiaye, Ladivine. France’s Prix Goncourt is amongst the most prestigious literary prizes in the world, and previous winners Jerome Ferrari (The Sermon on the Fall of Rome) and Lydie Salvayre (Cry, Mother Spain) are amongst the imports on offer to British readers, so too will be finalist Karine Tuil’s The Age of Reinvention, releasing in June. Indeed, between 2000 and 2012 French was by far the most translated of languages, with 1217 translations, compared to the 729 translations of German texts, the second most translated.
As such, there’s a fair amount on offer for those looking to sample French literature. Crime, of course, has its usual representation, with the likes of Antonin Varenne, Bernard Minier (Don’t Turn Out the Lights, October), Fred Vargas (A Climate of Fear, July), and bestselling imports Pierre Lemaitre, whose new novel Blood Wedding releases in July, and noir and thriller writer Pascal Garnier. A recent breakthrough author, Michel Bussi, wowed with his intriguing thriller After the Crash, which is followed up this year by Black Water Lilies. Michel Houellebecq has also garnered a lot of attention for his ‘fascinating and original dystopia’ Submission, as has Laurent Binet for his ‘thrilling Second World War assassination plot’ HHhH. Gerard de Villiers is a name to look out for in espionage with his Malko Linge series, whilst Jean Francois Parot’s Nicholas Le Floch Investigations and Andrea Japp’s The Lady Agnes Mystery offer something for historical fans.
Although it is perhaps Maurice Druon who is given the biggest billing for his The Accursed Kings series, which is the inspiration for George R.R.Martin’s epic series, he himself proclaiming ‘This is the original game of thrones’. There’s quite a significant line in books that have a literary theme including Paul Fournel’s Dear Reader, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent’s The Reader on the 6.27, Raymond Jean’s Reader for Hire and Anne Berest’s Sagan, Paris 1954. Erotic fiction too is covered by Emma Mars’ Hotelles, whilst Jean Teule’s The Suicide Shop is described as a comic fable. There is much in the way of contemporary fiction too, from Nicholas Barreau, Katheine Pancol, Gregoire Delacourt, Nelly Alard, Antoine Laurain and Anna Gavalda. Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog was shortlisted for the IMPAC International Award and her follow-up novel, The Lives of Elves, was released earlier this year. Yasmina Reza’s Happy are the Happy and Helene Gestern’s The People in the Photo have both been significant award winners. But there is a wealth of French literature out there to be discovered, including the work of Jean Philiippe Blondel, Eric Faye, Delphine de Vigan, Bruno Portier, Michele Audin, Yannick Grannec, Chantal Thomas, Michel Deon, Francois Lelord, Helene Gremillon, Guillaume Musso, Marc Levy, David Foenkinos, Tatiana De Rosnay, Delphine De Vigan, Maxime Chattam, Brigitte Aubert, Mathias Enard, Frederic Beigbeder. And it’s also worth keeping an eye on Gallic Books who, as the name suggests, specialise in French books in English.
Given this abundance of French literature, choosing just one book to read for this leg of my journey proved something of a difficulty. Fortunately, I’d already read several contemporary works by Francois Lelord, Nicolas Barreau, Michel Bussi, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, Helene Gestern, Helene Gremillon and Antoine Laurain, so I decided to look beyond these authors for something new, although as a side note, I’d certainly recommend Michel Bussi’s After the Crash. I managed to narrow down my selections to two possibilities: Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog – admittedly I was drawn in by its title but more so by the plaudits this one has accrued – and Frederic Beigbeder’s Windows on the World, described as ‘a daring, moving fictional account of the last moments of a father and his two sons atop the World Trade Centre on September 11’. But just before I came to start reading, I received a copy of Clelie Avit’s I’m Still Here, which is published in July.
It seemed serendipitous. I hadn’t come across the name prior to receiving the book, but a young author, born in 1986, she has already scooped Le Prix Nouveau Talent. And the book itself is promoted as ‘a modern-day Sleeping Beauty story of love and hope, for fans of Jojo Moyes’. The parallels to Sleeping Beauty are obvious, central character Elsa is in a coma throughout the novel, as she has been for the five months preceding the beginning of the narrative, whilst her Prince Charming is Thibault, a stranger who stumbles upon the comatose Elsa and from thereon is a regular visitor. But, fortunately, Avit doesn’t opt for a simple fairy tale kiss to resolve this narrative; this is very much the everyday world of life and death and Elsa’s fate is not so easily managed.
Carrying off a story in which one character is trapped in a coma, unable to communicate with others and move relationships forward, seems a somewhat difficult task, but Avit does a fairly good job of not making Elsa’s narrative feel too narrow and of developing her character in the dual narrative form in which Avit switches between Elsa’s perspective and Thibault’s. In fact, I loved that the reader is the only one who knows Elsa is alive, when everyone else presumes she is lost. That we are the only ones privy to Elsa’s thoughts, her growing awareness and re-emergence and her struggle to make others aware. This adds increasing drama to the narrative as those around her give up hope of Elsa’s recovery as she strives to give them a sign. I also loved the dynamic that the heroine being in a coma brought to the traditional romance narrative; it certainly makes for an interesting and original angle. However, I had some trouble with the romance itself, which essentially boiled down to the issue of timing and pace. It seems that as soon as Thibault happens upon Elsa they begin to fall for each other, and in the course of just a matter of days, their feelings for one another escalate inconceivably and the plot seems to fast-forward their relationship. I would have liked a slower evolution, and a sense of will they/won’t they, rather than having their romance largely forecast from their first meeting. Admittedly, the question of what will happen to Elsa throws the proverbial spanner in the works and arguably constitutes a different approach to the will they/won’t they, but I still felt that the development of their feelings was much too accelerated, not allowing the reader to see how the characters’ affections evolve into love and making the love story seem less compelling and intense. This acceleration of their relationship also threw up some problematic incidents for me, particularly in some of Thibault’s actions, which felt a bit discomfiting, arguably even odd. It places a question mark over him that as the romantic hero you don’t want to be there. Timing also proved problematic in the novel’s ending, in which the narrative seems to speed towards the conclusion. Of course, there’s a desire from the very start of the novel to see how everything will be resolved particularly with regard to Elsa’s situation, but there was too much focus on this at the expense of fully developing a rounded story. And the ending itself finished the story too soon, leaving me wanting at least an epilogue to wrap things up more.
This is a novel that very much focuses on the main plot and the couple of subplots that are included seem only cursory. Naturally, the spotlight of the novel should be on Elsa and Thibault’s story but failing to really develop any secondary or tertiary plotlines made the novel much too constricted and contributed to the problems of characterisation and timing. The one subplot that emerged about Thibault’s brother added much-needed breadth and integrity to the novel, but it was a case of too little, too late. I wanted so much to love this novel, and there were indeed elements that I enjoyed, but it simply didn’t live up to its potential. Having said that, I’ve found that a number of books I’ve read on this journey have felt too much like hard work, but Avit’s book is pure easy reading and sometimes that’s just what you need.
I’m Still Here by Clélie Avit
Hodder & Stoughton 978-1473626737 hbk July 2016
A LIFE’S WORK: The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday
nudge list July 2016: MATTERS OF TASTE: Umami by Laia Jufresa
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