Parlez-vous French Fiction?

I’m not sure why – I’ve never been much of a Francophile – but I’ve been reading a lot of French authors lately. In English, of course – my high school French is pretty rusty. Fortunately, all the titles below are in translation, so you can enjoy them even if you don’t speak a word of French. Though I bet you’ll be surprised by how many words of French you already speak, n’est-ce pas? To prove my point, here’s a little glossary:

“Joie de vivre”: Voilà!: its Zazie, that petite foul-mouthed embodiment of élan vital, her portmanteau in hand as she arrives in Paris to stay with her flaneur uncle Gabriel. Tired of their piquant persiflage, the parrot Laverdure says “Talk, Talk, that’s all that you can do!” Au contraire! Raymond Queneau’s playful pastiche Zazie in the Metro is a madcap tour the city of light through the eyes of an eleven-year-old agent provocateur. And for another delightful Parisian soufflé, try Daniel Pennac’s mysteries featuring the offbeat Malaussène family (try The Fairy Gunmother). Pennac may be already known to you as the creator of the Readers’ Bill of Rights, first featured in his delightfully irreverent Better Than Life.

“Noir”: Georges Gerfault thinks he’s been in a road accident, but when hitmen Carlo and Lucien step in to deliver the coup de grâce, it wrenches our naïve hero out of his milieu and sends him richocheting around France, the louche gunmen in pursuit. Three to Kill, by Jean Patrick Manchette is a swift, lean montage of unadorned brutality told with sly insouciance, and should be de rigueur for devotees of the genre.

“C’est la vie”: Jean-Paul Dubois’ Vie Francaise, that is. Coming of age during the heady rebellions of ’68, revolutionary manqué Paul Blick shares his post-war generation’s malaise, setting him at odds with bourgeois mores until, of course, he settles in and becomes passé himself.

“Ennui”: Pierre is the aging barman at Le Cercle. It is hardly haute cuisine, but it’s a job. Now the boss has gone absent, perhaps on a rendezvous with one of the waitresses, leaving his wife and the staff to figure out what’s up. The wistful Pierre’s ingenuously self-deprecating delivery resists the dramatic, and yet his blasé observations speak volumes without ever raising their voice: “All of that to be served chop-chop, with all these people lined up in front of me at the bar, I don’t really know them but I’ve been serving them day after day for a good thirty years.” Life goes by, the autumn rains set in, a new girl comes on to help out, the bar’s habitués come and go, and the bartender listens to the countless confidences of strangers which mean everything and nothing at all. Pierre – also known by the apt soubriquet Pierrot – seems to accept his life’s limitations with a modest Gallic shrug. “I get off at seven but I’m never a stickler about leaving on time, what have I got to do at home? I’m just a barman, and the longer I stay on the more life goes by in the best possible way. So there we are.” Dominque Fabre’s The Waitress Was New is a nuanced précis of la vie quotidienne, à Paris.

“Crime Passionnel”: Typically known for his élan and éclat, detective Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg loses his sangfroid when a long inactive serial killer – the Trident – reprises his deadly repertoire. Wash This Blood Clean from my Hand is the third roman policier par excellence to appear on our shores by Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, writing under the nom de plume Fred Vargas.

“Brouhaha”: These tiny feuilletons – the pastiche of reportage on miscellaneous murders, crimes and malfeasances that make up Novels in Three Lines – were originally run as faits divers – filler – in a daily gazette in 1906. Félix Fénéon’s gift for les mots juste help turn these macabre vignettes into sheer poetry – homicidal haiku.

“Épater le bourgeois!”: Enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq has been shocking the middle class for some time now, but his debut act of avant garde literary sabotage was Whatever – a fin de siècle update on Camus’ The Stranger in which a pair of maladroit computer geeks go too far in search of their sexual niche.

“L’Heur Bleu”: The wind blows cold on the avenues of Paris. Rico has lost it all – friends, family, livelihood, sobriety, and his idée fixe – nay, his raison d’être – has become a pilgrimage back to the sun-kissed shores of Marseilles, where he first loved. A Sun for the Dying, the fifth and final translation from Jean Claude Izzo’s too-small oeuvre, is a pièce de résistance of bleak noir.

“L’esprit de l’escalier”: This expression, literally ‘spirit of the staircase,’ which describes the witty response that occurs to one too late, seems an apt one to describe Gregoire Bouillier’s charming amuse-bouche, The Mystery Guest. Out of a clear blue sky, Bouillier gets an invite from an old lover who dumped him to be the designated mystery guest at the birthday party of performance artist Sophie Calle, plunging him into a complex reverie of caprices, malentendus, and faux pas that sputter along in the halting little intra-cranial ballet that is human living. He decides to attend the party, but first he must buy a gift of vin extraordinaire, and thereby hangs a tale. This obsessive hors d’oeuvre is Proust by way of Woody Allen, with a soupçon of Paul Auster.


3 thoughts on “Parlez-vous French Fiction?”

  1. David’s review sent me to this book and I thank him for that. It’s a hard act to follow but here’s a few cents from me:
    This was not an easy read for me, but a compelling one. At one point I wanted to hurl Zorba the Greek’s advice at Bouilliet, “You think too much. That is your trouble.” He had me thinking too. How much like this am I? Is this character, presumably Bouilliet himself, romantically analytical or obsessed with a paranoid’s vision relating everything to himself? It doesn’t really matter as the insights pile up. They are well presented by his prose, which appears to have been well translated. I am still wondering if Bouilliet occasionally had his tongue in his cheek (“langue dans sa joue”-not a French expression).

  2. I also highly recommend Gabrielle Roy and Michel Basilières (the latter being an underrated French-Canadian magic realist!)

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