Thursday, September 12, 2019

More brand new French novels, first chapters only - metaphors, slaughtered hogs, and a new New Novel

More from the fascinating Best Extracts before the Fact, Jack!, the little collection of the beginning of forthcoming French novels.  No, in July, when I bought the book, they were forthcoming; since then they have forthcome.

There is plenty of plain-style prose in today’s French novel, just like in American and English fiction.  I mentioned the most extreme example yesterday, but most of the extracts are flat, unadorned, and not too difficult.  It was a relief to read a chapter by a writer who wrote complex sentences.  It was a relief to read figurative language.  I was a little shocked to read excerpt after excerpt with no figurative language at all, aside from that inherent in French, I mean.  Nothing is ever like anything else.  Everything is merely what it is.

Figurative language is fundamental to my idea of literary writing.  It is the way to hack through the gluey tangle of language.  If language is inadequate to say what something is, a writer can say what it is like, which is often more precise, not less.

Many of the novels are about somber, difficult subjects.  Yann Moix’s Orléans is about child abuse; Jean-Paul Dubois’s Not Everyone Lives in the World in the Same Way and Nathacha Appanah’s The Sky above the Roof (Le Ciel par-dessus le toit, there must be a zippier translation) have characters in prison; Sorj Chalandon’s A Ferocious Joy has a bookstore owner with cancer – an understated style likely suits these subjects more than baroque play with language, fine.  But metaphors should be part of how a novelist thinks.

A Badminton Game by Olivier Adam is about a novelist whose last novel did not get reviewed or sell well.  For this, there is no excuse.  Why are people still writing these?  The introduction says that “the defense of a refugee agency” is also part of the novel, and that Adam “sculpts a work mixing realism, politics, and sociology” (35).  So dump the novelist character.

I have no doubt that this novel, at some point after the self-pitying first chapter, is terrific.  That all of these novels, after the first chapter, are outstanding.

Cécile Coulon writes good French prose and uses metaphorical language in A Beast in Paradise.  “When she moved among the farmhands, her complexion pink and fresh, smiling at one and all like a Madonna distributing her blessings, the overseer had a bad feeling” (81).  The woman here, is the farm’s teenage heiress; she and her boyfriend have just had sex for the first time, scheduling the event during the farm’s hog slaughtering, when they knew everyone else would be occupied.  Some kind of irony there.  The name of the farm is Paradise, which is also irony, the kind known as “laying it on thick.”  There have always been Starkadders in Paradise.  The author is twenty-nine years-old and this is her seventh novel.  Her first was published when she was seventeen.  This book has already won a big prize from Le Monde, despite, or because of, the ridiculousness of its first chapter.

The first chapter that most tempted me to read the rest of the novel was Guillaume Lavenant’s The Nanny Protocol, where the text is a set of branching instructions for a job applicant.  As the absurd detail grows, so does the comedy.  Whether the instructions are written by a neurotic employer or an anxious applicant, I have no idea.

She will invite you to sit down.  Do it.  She will explain to you that her husband etc…  And then she will pass a hand through her hair, look at the wall clock, rub her nails against her palm, sniff, raise her eyebrows, etc…  You will drink something?  Yes, a Schweppes, for example. (86)

Italics and etceteras all mine, the point being that it goes on and on at this level of detail.  If you have thought, that New Novel thing the French did, Alain Robbe-Grillet and so on, that all died off in the 1970s, right?  Oh no, here is a brand new example, a new New Novel.

The great thing for the French language-learner is that The Nanny Protocol, or at least this bit, is a literary text where almost every verb is in the imperative, conditional, or future tense.  So useful to see these textbook creatures in the wild, so to speak.  So educational.  My fear is that the plot of the novel, if it has one, turns into some kind of dumb thriller.  Robbe-Grillet’s novels turned into thrillers, too.


  1. "...about a novelist whose last novel did not get reviewed or sell well. For this, there is no excuse. Why are people still writing these?"

    Hahaha, good one! Writers, of course, are obsessed with the writing life, forever seeing parallels between their careers and the world at large, and also wondering why writers don't get the sympathy they deserve. Writers are precious and fragile. Why does the world not recognize this?!?! Et cetera.

    I admit to a weakness for novels that contain characters who are either novelists, literary critics, or literary professors. Right now I'm reading Anita Brookner's Providence, a book I picked off the shelf primarily because it's so short. When I realized that Kitty, the protagonist, was a professor of literature currently teaching a class on French Romanticism as focused through Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, I rolled my eyes and thought, "not another novel about the academy and theory," and half a page later I was comfortably enjoying myself and thinking what good stuff a novel like this is. So clearly there's a market for these books. I've written one myself, that is currently being read by literary agents. You cannot stop us, Mr Reader. Editors at most publishing houses have a weakness for these kinds of novels. If a writer churned out a novel about a fierce and sexy-without-being-aware-of-it editor at a small literary press, acquiring editors would cut each other's throats to get the rights to it.

    Rather than a book of first chapters, I think more helpful would be a book of middle chapters. Too many novels do not go on as they begin. Sometimes that's a blessing, but sometimes I have been swindled. I'm looking at you, Jonathan Franzen.

  2. I would prefer, now that you mention it, a book with page 99 from all 524 novels in the rentrée. Then I could really learn something.

    France does not really have literary agents yet. Manuscripts all go straight to the publishers, and everything is timed around the rentrée. Get your novel done by spring or else it has to wait a year. Everyone is on a deadline. Maybe that is helpful.

  3. I have no doubt that this novel, at some point after the self-pitying first chapter, is terrific. That all of these novels, after the first chapter, are outstanding.

    I assume this is sarcasm, but I'm not sure it works. Too dry. Otherwise, a great roundup, and it seems the gloom-and-doom novel is an international phenomenon. The times we live in, I guess.

  4. Well, I haven't read them, so who knows. They can't be as bad as their first chapters suggest, can they? I mean, all of those prizes, they have been nominated for - or, at this point, won - so many prizes.

    American publishers should set up more prizes, way more prizes.

  5. I wish we had more writers that are neither teachers, academics or journalists. Maybe it'd help.

  6. Right, the uniformity of background can be a problem. In the U.S., we solve that problem and then create a new one by pushing everyone through a creative writing program.

    1. True. But then at least they use their creative writing program skills to write actual stories.