A deliciously gothic end to 2013 (the weather helped)

Oh, the weather outside is frightful. No really, it is. Raging wind and rain.

Good weather for bookworms.

I usually enjoy some of my best reads over the festive period. This is partly down to good fortune – I’ve always managed to take the period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve as holiday. There’s time to hunker down amidst the hustle and bustle and happy whirl of socialising and rediscover the quiet pleasure of reading.

Escapism and fantasy has served me well over the festive season. I remember exactly when I began The Lord of the Rings: Christmas Day 1999 in that sleepy post-dinner lull. The family snoozed; I trotted off to Mordor. For some reason, anything with a gothic tinge to it also appeals over the Christmas period. Is it the short days, the deathly hush of snow (if we get it), the sense that something mysterious and barely understood is happening out there in the darkness beyond the brightness of lamps and strings of Christmas lights? I like to think that this is why Carlos Ruiz Zafón chose to begin The Prisoner of Heaven, the third instalment in his Barcelona-set and neo-gothic-influenced Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, at Christmas time. (PS Charles Palliser explains how the unease that comes from the unknowable is part of the peculiar appeal of the gothic in this fab article for the HuffPost).

Carlos R-Z, the author

Carlos R-Z, Barcelona-born author of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series.

But back to Ruiz Zafón. What a feast his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series is. Blurb writers and reviewers fall over themselves to try to describe the number of genres the books sashay through. I’ll have a go: each is like an old-school, Wilkie Collins-type sensation novel meets historical drama (we are in Franco’s Spain) with a hefty dose of Grand Guignol. Oh, and LOTS of fun intertextuality. The Shadow of the Wind, the ‘first’ book in the series, paid homage to David Copperfield and other Dickensian bildungsromans, amongst other works. While The Prisoner of Heaven’s debt to The Count of Monte Cristo is writ large, other references are more playful: a priest who shelters the fugitive Fermín Romero de Torres catches him eyeing the silverware – “I’ve read Les Misérables too, you know.”)

In fact, apart from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, I’ve never come across an author who is so blatantly writing for readers who love reading; who love literature as ‘high’ and ‘low’ art; who know their classics, from Cervantes to Dickens, but who also revel in a meaty bit of genre fiction. In fact, in the universe of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, those who dismiss popular, ‘trashy’ fiction (like the crime thrillers the enigmatic character David Martín writes) inevitably turn out to be self-aggrandising villains.

Angel statue

An angel in Montjuic cemetery, Barcelona, an important place in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Get me to Barcelona for the next bookish pilgrimage, I beg you.

The Prisoner of Heaven was in some ways a more satisfying (and certainly a pacier) read than the previous instalment, The Angel’s Game. I say ‘series’. It’s more a cycle of novels, which can ingeniously be read in any order – although apparently the fourth and final novel in the cycle (hurry up and publish it, Carlos!) will provide the key. The end matter in my copy of Prisoner (which was genuinely enlightening about the importance of Barcelona to Ruiz Zafón’s work) included an interview with the author himself in which he let slip this tantalising statement about the upcoming ‘final’ book in the series:

The fourth and final novel…is the place where the labyrinth of stories rearranges itself again and everything is put into yet another perspective. This is when we’ll really see the big picture and get to the very essence of the stories, of what is behind each of the books. Even if readers by the end of Prisoner feel that now they really know what this chess game is about, they don’t.

So don’t go into Prisoner expecting any resolution or dénouement, as I did (not knowing there was a fourth novel to come!) But there are plenty of surprises in store, and we do learn more about the Sempere family and the wonderful Fermín Romero de Torres, as well as other characters that have populated Shadow and Angel’s Game. I realised after finishing The Angel’s Game that the word ‘game’ is central to understanding what Ruiz Zafón is doing in these books,  and the above statement seems to back this up. Thinking about the implications of the author as God, as supreme creator (and manipulator) helps make the slippery and sub-plot strewn Angel’s Game a bit less disorientating and even more intriguing.

My copy of The Prisoner of Heaven

My copy of El Prisionero del Cielo (original Spanish title). I was too chicken to read it in Spanish (though would have probably struggled with my just-about-AS Level Spanish anyway…)

What really makes Prisoner sing is its focus on the much-loved, wildly successful character of Fermín Romero de Torres and his backstory. At the end of the world there will be cockroaches and Fermín. Ebullient survivor and free-thinking philosopher, his wit, maxims and energy alleviate the melodrama and the often disturbing portrayal of life under the Franco regime. By only the second page, he’s back on form with his suggestion to save the bookshop from financial ruin:

“Perhaps if by chance I was seen arranging the shop window in my underpants, some lady in need of strong literary emotions would be drawn in and inspired to part with a bit of hard cash. According to expert opinion, the future of literature depends on women and as God is my witness the female is yet to be born who can resist the primal allure of this stupendous physique”.

(Credit must also be given to translator Lucia Graves for keeping Fermín’s voice so consistently…well, Fermínish.)

So it was a gothic-nuanced end to 2013 for me, but one with a comic touch. All in all, sounds like a pretty good finish to the reading year.

Wishing you a happy, prosperous and book-filled 2014!

Existentialist angst with Albert Camus

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Following the centenary of Albert Camus’ birth in November, I thought it was only polite to salute The Outsider (L’Etranger) in my latest article for MyFrenchLife. It’s a great book – a slip of a thing really, so not too intimidating to pick up, and the story unravels in seemingly simple, limpid prose. But get further in, and it all becomes oh-so-meaty and discomforting. I hear it’s a rites-of-passage book for angsty teens. Good choice.

Camus’ book has the dubious honour of being the first French novel I ever managed to read in full (for French A Level). It also nearly drove me to despair: about a week before the exam I realised I still didn’t really have a handle on the book and had no clue what to write about. Then an angel named Mrs Lesley Luckhurst came along and suddenly unlocked the text for me, patiently introducing and explaining Camus’ philosophical ideas, his concept of the Absurd and how the book reflects that. It blew my little mind away – we hadn’t done any philosophy at school. I squinted to see things differently. Meursault [the protagonist] is a Christ-like figure? Huh? Understanding dawned slowly, but luckily the muse descended in time for the exam. Thanks, Mrs. L, if you’re reading this – I’d be up for continuing our chats any time.

 

No French stuff, please, we’re British

So, the BBC has produced a thoughtful take on what is, unfortunately, a depressingly familiar question: Why do modern French novelists struggle to sell to the English-speaking market? 

It’s not a new story: us Anglophones no likey French novels. Or rather, we don’t like modern, post-war French novels. While we revere a whole of bunch of France’s eminent dead, white, male, canonical writers (Flaubert, Proust and Voltaire regularly make it into top ten lists) we apparently have no interest whatsoever in reading modern French fiction.

Duras and Barbery books

Some French books I love

It’s an interesting conundrum. There are have been lots of theories advanced for why contemporary French writers don’t do well in the US and UK book markets. They seem to revolve around a question of image, as the Beeb’s article explains. There’s an impression that French writers are too cerebral, too overly philosophical and obsessed with theory and form over content. Our own writers think so too – even avowed Francophiles like the brilliant Louis de Bernières. The thing is, we Anglophones read for plot, and the pleasures of genre fiction, so we’re told. And there’s a perception that that’s scarce in France.

It’s true that France has produced some of the greatest (read: scarily difficult) literary theorists (hello, Barthes, Lacan, Saussure, Foucault…) the world has ever seen. Perhaps French writers are still paying the price for the experiments of nouveau romanciers like Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, who sought to dismantle features like linear narrative and traditional characterisation. (I confess that I didn’t get on with Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, but Duras I love…must write about her too in the future.)

It’s probably a whole lot more complicated than that. There must be French writers out there who write the kind of fast-paced, plot-driven narratives that would appeal to US and UK readers, we just don’t know about them. Maybe it is, as the Beeb suggests, due to the prejudices and wariness of Anglophone booksellers.

But there have been breakaway successes in the past – Gallic Books’ The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbéry was a bestseller a few years ago. Perhaps it’s a question of publicity, then. And beyond the alarmist headlines, there are small initiatives that are making headway and doing important work. Like Le French Book, a digital-first publisher, who have translated some brilliant thriller writers like David Khara and Bernard Besson. I heartily recommend exploring some of their other titles, like the very funny and warm Winemaker Detective series.

The President's Hat

My copy of Le chapeau de Mitterand (The President’s Hat). It’s done its rounds among my family and friends, all in the cause of showing that French Fiction Is Not Boring. Really, Gallic Books should employ me as their publicist…

I was also (hey, still am) rooting for Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat that came out earlier this year (you can read my review of it here). Come on, Antoine, I thought, surely this is the one to crack the Anglophone market. It’s got a quirky, zippy plot and projects that kind of picturebook, faintly whimsical image of France that somehow so appeals to Anglophone armchair travellers (myself included!). But there are ideas here too; there are other things to enjoy. Its intertextuality, for one: the whole book is like a cheeky little retort to Balzacian tales of Parisians finding fortune and misfortune. Its ending even seems like a correction to Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin. Or maybe I was reading too much into it. But isn’t that a mark of a good story – you know, that thing that modern French writers aren’t meant to do well?

Allez les Bleus! 

Bookish pilgrimages #2: Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

The Indiana Jones in me had always had a vague ambition to see the Mayan ruins of Mexico. But my desire to see those places suddenly became more fervent when I read The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver in June last year.

I was drawn to this book not only because it was partly set in impossibly exotic Mexico, but because of its subject matter. The blurb promised the story of a young man, Harrison Shepherd, born to an American father and a Mexican mother. He observes and records everything about his itinerant life in Mexico with his social-climbing mother. He later goes on to work as a cook for the famous artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and their houseguest, the exiled Trotsky, before settling in the States and becoming a writer of bestselling novels about Aztec empire.

The Lacuna cover art

The Lacuna – first edition.

The blurb also referred to ‘the breach…between truth and public presumption.’ As Shepherd’s faithful stenographer Violet Brown remarks towards the end of the book, ‘The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.’ Shepherd’s past – his associations with Mexican and Bolshevik revolutionaries and his ambivalent sexuality – comes back to haunt him as the book enters its third act. World War Two is over; McCarthyism is on the rise. Shepherd’s life is raked over by a bullish news media, backed by a political establishment made rabid by anti-Communist fervour. His every word is held suspect. Interestingly, Kingsolver chose to use extracts from contemporary news clippings in the book and includes forgotten but shocking events from US history, like the treatment of the Bonus Marchers.

I found these parts of the book – and the myriad clever ways in which Kingsolver explores her title (meaning, variously, an absence, a gap, a missing manuscript or a tunnel through time or substance) – captivating. We see how slippages of understanding can widen into a chasm, destroying someone. This struck a chord with me, as it was something which constantly preyed on my mind when I was a TV researcher working with other freelancers on current affairs projects – and it continues to play on my mind, now that I’m studying reporting. Are you sure you have the whole picture? Are you sure it’s not more complicated than that? I wanted to ask these questions daily. But in TV there never seemed to be enough time: at the end of the day there had to be a story, and no one is interested in what’s complicated and taxing, are they? The counsel in Shepherd’s trial by the House of Un-American Activities patronisingly announces at the beginning of the hearing that ‘this will not take all day, gentlemen, we should be out of here in time for lunch’ and forces Shepherd to give ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to questions that ‘could take some explanation’. Not that different to Jeremy Paxman’s style of interviewing, then. Of course, we, the readers, know the real story – we have been privy to Shepherd’s diaries and his relationships, and we appreciate how fragile and nuanced it is.

So if this is the part of the book that really interested me, why the desperate urge to see its scenery – to see Mexico? Well, for one, another element of what makes this book BRILLIANT is Kingsolver’s writing on Mexico, which is vivid, colourful and evocative. As Kingsolver herself says:

I only set scenes in places I’ve been myself. When I create a world for the reader, I want to do it right, using all my senses.

And her descriptions of Harrison’s experiences in Mexico are very sensually fused. Fellow book blogger Fingers & Prose has identified a passage that also thrilled me – I love how Kingsolver hints at the beauty and complexity of this country in a series of little impressionistic vignettes.

Then there are the lacunas, the sinkholes or cenotes that are found in parts of Mexico: a young Harrison explores one in Isla Pixol and is fascinated by them:

Not a cave exactly but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things… It goes into the belly of the world… Some of the holes are so deep they go to the center of the earth and you’ll see the devil at the bottom. But some only go through the island to the other side.

I too was captivated by cenotes, from both a geological and a poetical perspective. Swimming in one (we visited Cenote Samulà near Valladolid) was an amazing experience. And how clever of Kingsolver to find another way to explore the meaning of her title. The image of the cenote lingers in our mind throughout the text and raises its head again at a crucial moment.

Cenote Samula

Cenote Samula.  Massive banyan tree roots stretch down through the cave to the water.

I had always wanted to visit Chichén Itzá, the ruins that were once the seat of the Mayan empire.

El Castillo

Me in obligatory tourist pose by El Castillo – once the ceremonial centre of Chichen Itza.

But reading The Lacuna opened up new perspectives on the place and made me think about what I was seeing more than any travel guide could. In the book, Harrison visits the ruins during the course of a research trip to the Yucatán. He’s seeking inspiration for his next novel, which is to be about the Maya, and returns to the ruins once more before departing for the States again. His thoughts on Chichén Itzá gave me much to chew over.

Today a story came up in relief from every surface, urgent and visible. Every stone was carved with some image: the snearing jaguar, the feathered serpent, a long frieze of swimming goldfish… In their time, all these buildings were brightly painted. What a shock to realise that, and how foolish to have been tricked earlier by the serenity of white limestone. Like looking at a skeleton and saying, “How quiet this man was, and how thin.” Imagine the place crawling with kings and slaves, I said. And mothers, wondering if their children had fallen down the well. We stayed a good while, reconstructing the scene.

Harrison writes historical romances, so he is reflecting on how history and fictional versions of history intersect. He realises his first impressions of the place were imperfect, faulty, reductive. He wants to get closer to the truth of what Chichén Itzá had really been like. And this in turn weaves into Kingsolver’s exploration of the importance of what gets lost, forgotten or purposefully deleted from official records.

El Castillo close-up

El Castillo, the pyramid that Harrison and Violet Brown gamely climb (unfortunately tourists are no longer allowed to).

Of course, I’m not saying it’s imperative to go to Mexico to enjoy Kingsolver’s book! But some of the most thought-provoking travel can start in unexpected places. For me, those places are often books. And going to Mexico made me pick up The Lacuna again, and find new things in it.

An Advent reading list

I never used to be the sort of reader who’d have more than one book on the go at any one time, but that seems to be the way of things nowadays. Here’s what’s on the pile at the moment:

My copy of Bel Ami.

My copy of Bel Ami. Discount sticker no reflection on content.

Bel Ami, Guy de Maupassant (1885). Thought it would be quite fun to read about a corrupt, sordid journo who rises through the ranks of the Paris hoi-polloi despite any manifest talent. Food for thought! I was also spurred on to read it after my vow to tackle more ‘classics’, especially ones in French…

The Cleaner of Chartres

The Cleaner of Chartres and its very pretty cover

The Cleaner of Chartres, Salley Vickers (2012). Another book set in France. I love everything Vickers has done, and I’m racing through this. There’s a kind of fabular feel to Vickers’ storytelling here: there’s moralising but she’s using a lighter touch than in previous books, which creates the sense that something almost mystic is at work. One of the things I love about her novels and short stories is that they are not afraid to deal in moral seriousness, nor weave in religious imagery and allegory.

Austerlitz by W.G.Sebald

Austerlitz by W.G.Sebald

Austerlitz, W.G.Sebald (2001; I’ve got the 2011 Penguin edition). A gift from a good friend (Merci, Maia!). Good to read some fiction in translation – need to read more of it. I haven’t made much headway with this yet, but so far I’ve been struck by Sebald’s narratology – it’s shifting, layered, and refuses any kind of straightforward account of the eponymous character and his life, a man who was sent to England on a Kinderstransport in 1939. Then there are the photographs interspersed throughout the text. I’ve never seen that before in something that’s ostensibly fiction. But is it fiction? Is it a historical account? Are the photographs ‘real’?

Mmm…nothing particularly festive in there, is there? I also fancy India Knight’s Comfort and Joy, too and Kate Mosse’s new spooky collection of short stories, The Mistletoe Bride, set in France and England.

When I was about ten I read an absolutely brilliant children’s book of short, Christmas-themed stories. I’ve been hunting for it ever since. It enchanted me then, and I’m sure it would now. If I manage to track it down, I’ll share it on here!

Happy festive reading.