Wednesday, September 11, 2019

It's flat - Returning to literature with some brand new French books!

I’m beginning my promenade through my last two years of reading in French.  There are many bad ideas built into this project.  I am going to ramble through books I read as long as two years ago, with who knows what memory or comprehension – surely with many outright errors in comprehension.  That is what I want to find out, I guess.  All translations, unless otherwise noted, will be mine.  This will be another fascinating source of error.

Let’s start with this beauty, the July 2019 issue of Lire:, which I would translate as Read!, stretching out that semi-colon, and more importantly the little book that was packaged with it, The Return to Literature 2019: The Best Extracts Before the Fact!  In September, everyone in France is returning from vacation to – everything – to school and literature and arts seasons and neighborhood clubs.  For some reason it seems like a good idea to publish a large fraction of the year’s novels at the same time.  This year there are 524 novels, “the fewest in twenty years” Michael Orthofer notes, in the rentrée littéraire.  That still seems like a lot to me, all at once.

For a couples of months, the attention paid to the rentrée littéraire is enormous, even more than the high French baseline.

So, fifteen first chapters of books that back in July had not even been published.  Now they are all out and have presumably all been longlisted for some prize or another.  What an opportunity to quickly “catch up” on the French novel of today!

The first book is from Baroness Amélie Nothomb, who has contributed a book a year to the rentrée littéraire since The Hygiene of the Assassin in 1992, among the very silliest books I have ever read.  Her new book is Soif (Thirst) and it is, of all things, a comic novel from the point of view of Jesus Christ.  People are still writing these things?  “Who else, in the rentrée littéraire, would have the ambition to write a fifth gospel?” asks the anonymous introducer (each extract has a helpful introduction).

Here is some of the humor.  The recipients of Christ’s miracles are testifying against him, “airing their dirty laundry.”  The couple who got married at Cana are now upset that Christ turned water into wine.

Because of him, we served the better wine after the worse.  We have become the laughing-stock of the town. (6)

Not a funny joke, surely not even original, but quite French.  The most interesting thing to me is the voice of the novel is so audibly that of the only other Nothomb I have read, that debut from twenty-seven years ago.

Here’s the worst extract: Marie Darrieussecq’s La Mer a l’envers (The Upside-Down Sea or maybe The Backwards Sea).  A French woman with a case of ennui is on an Italian cruise; the ship rescues some African migrants in distress; the woman’s life becomes entangled with one of the migrants which presumably gives her new meaning etc. etc. there is no way this can be good, is there?  I mean, if you want to write about current issues in immigration, you could write about the migrants themselves, yes?

How is the prose?  This is the beginning:

It was her mother who convinced her to take the cruise.  A way of getting some distance.  To reflect on her marriage, her job, on her upcoming move.  To be alone without the kids.  A change of air.  A change of water.  The Mediterranean.  For a girl from the Atlantic.  It’s flat.  A little sea. (28)

An entire novel written like this would drive me bonkers.  I checked an earlier Darrieussecq novel; this is her signature style.  Not every line.  Not every page. But many lines, many pages.  “It’s flat.”  Is it ever.  Odds are that an English-language translator would toss in some commas and hide some of the fragmentation, maybe a lot of it.

More extracts tomorrow.  I will not write about all fifteen books, but just those that, like these, have some unusual, or possibly all-too-common, feature.


  1. It is a useful rhetorical device that quickly becomes tedious. And then combined with the plain language, flat description, and minimal figurative language, I am not sure what drags people forward. Identification with the generic character?

    Ah, here is a simile. The chapter ends on a flourish, while the rescue boats search the water for migrants:

    "The syllables [from the megaphone] bounced on the water like balls. With the yellow circles of the boats it evoked a giant tennis match, but on surf..."

    The heightened moment of action and meaning moves to a different register. All right.

  2. This is fascinating. I wish the US had an "extracts before the fact" anthology.

    It surprises me that the ubiquitous "flat style" is a thing in contemporary French literature. Parochial of me, but I thought it was a disease primarily of contemporary english novels.

  3. A couple of things are going on, I guess. One is that French readers read a mountain of British and American fiction, so writers absorb that.

    But there is also an ongoing struggle against French "elegance," against proper French rhetoric. French schools spend a lot of time on rhetoric in many real-world contexts, like "how to talk about cinema," and there it does not surprise me that French writers push back in various ways.

    If I keep going with this little project, I will write about some much more interesting examples. It is an ongoing historical struggle, with many phases.

  4. In Zola's essays on the "natural novel" he says that French novelists (he's writing in the last years of the 19th century) have inherited the Romantic, decorative style of prose perfected by their forebears but novelists will, over time, clarify and solidify the style into something more "scientific." I am learning that these ideas of scientific naturalism in the arts were all over the Western world at the time.

    The hip thing in American fiction seems to me to be less "flat" than slangy and casual, first-person "authentic voices." And dialect is making a come back.

  5. Good, slang, dialect. I hope that is true. Fun with language.

  6. And after that you wonder why I mostly read American lit.

    I've never been tempted to read Darieusseq even if she's well-known and well-appreciated here.

  7. Welcome back to the blog! And thanks in advance for all of the thoughtful comments.

    As I move into the 20th century, I plan to refer to your blog frequently. I will mention our pals at Gallmeister, for example, I know that.

    Much American literature is awful, but so is much of everything, and it is a helpful thing to see firsthand. Sure, I want more translation, but not necessarily of this stuff!

  8. I'm buried at work, I'm trying to stay afloat but it's complicated.