A double helping of Maigret

One of the great things about Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels is that they’re short. Each features a story told in full, but achieved within 160 pages or so – in this he resembles Muriel Spark. No words are wasted and there is no flowery language. Indeed, Simenon was known for cutting out ‘beautiful sentences’, editing out unnecessary descriptives and adverbs – in this he also resembles Elmore Leonard. Or rather given that Simenon started writing decades previously, perhaps they resemble him in these respects. More recently, Pascal Garnier has been labelled as the heir to Simenon; true, his novels are short and noir, recalling Simenon’s romans durs, but they are deliciously comic in their nastiness, whereas I wouldn’t say that any of Simenon’s works are overtly funny – although as a character, Maigret is not without a sense of humour!

I read a lot of Maigrets when I was a teenager, but none since except for The Bar on the Seine back when this blog was new and I’d acquired a cheap set of nine Penguin ‘Red’ Maigrets from The Book People in 2006. Now, with the Penguin reissues in wonderful new liveries, and mostly new translations, I plan to make reading his novels a regular thing, not least because their length makes them perfect for the train journey to and from London or as palate cleansers between other tomes.

Let me tell you about the two Maigret novels I read last week – one from the new series, one from the old:

Pietr the Latvian

Maigret 1 Pietr the Latvian This was the first Maigret novel, published originally in serial form in 1931 – yes that long ago! At the beginning Maigret is stoking his office stove when a message comes from Interpol that a wanted international conman known as Pietr the Latvian is due to arrive at the Gare du Nord. Maigret hurries off to meet the train:

He stood still. Other people were agitated. A young woman clad in mink yet wearing only sheer silk stockings walked up and down, stamping her heels.
He just stood there: a hulk of a man, with shoulders so broad as to cast a wide shadow. When people bumped into him he stayed as firm as a brick wall.

Just as he has spotted his man with a retinue of hotel porters in the crowds getting off the train, a shout alerts him that the police are needed – a body, shot,  has been found on the train, and his quarry gets away. No worry, Maigret knows where they were headed. However the corpse also matches the description of the Latvian, but Maigret has a hunch about the other man and goes to the Hotel Majestic, where he openly stalks ‘Mr Oppenheim’ who dines with a wealthy couple at the hotel – later all three will vanish from the hotel.

Back at the office, a strand of hair in a glassine envelope that had stored a photograph was the only posession on the body from the train. An address in Fécamp, a town on the Normandy coast, has been faintly imprinted on it. Dispatching Torrence to the Hotel Majestic, Maigret goes to Normandy and stakes out the house of the envelope’s owner, standing in an alleyway in the pouring rain:

Maigret worked like any other policeman. Like everyone else, he used the amazing tools that men like Bertillon, Reiss and Locard have given the police – anthropometry, the principle of the trace, and so forth – and that have turned detection into forensic science. But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.

That last quote encapsulates to me the essence of Maigret’s style of detecting. Waiting and watching. Maigret, however, doesn’t always do this passively – he is not beyond pushing buttons to see what happens, more often than not confirming his hunches.  Needless to say, Maigret clears up the mystery of the identities of Pietr the Latvian and the body on the train, but not without some psychological intrigue, twists and more gunfire.

In this first Maigret novel, we may get to know the figure of Maigret – his solid presence and how he works, but little of his personality – that will surely follow.  In the last chapter of Pietr the Latvian, we also briefly meet Madame Maigret who bustles about looking after him, an unexpectedly jolly woman, I can imagine the pair of them, her gently henpecking him, and him indulgently letting her do it in subsequent outings.

David Bellos translated this new edition and it certainly didn’t disappoint – it was fresh and reflected the character of Maigret in the prose – a great start to the series. (7.5/10)

The Yellow Dog

simenon-the-yellow-dog-penguin

2006 Penguin Red Classic cover

This is the fifth or sixth Maigret book depending on which source you read (I’m finding the Maigret Bibliography and other pages at Trussel.com very helpful. There, The Yellow Dog is the 6th book, also published in 1931). The edition I read, the Penguin Red Classic from 2006 was translated by Linda Asher, and this translation has been retained for the new editions (although I don’t know it it has been changed at all).

It is set in the fishing port of Concarneau in Brittany, a location which Simenon must have known well, for at the bloggers’ reception I went to last weekend, John Simenon told me that many of the buildings described in the book actually exist, including the bar and hotel which are at the centre of the story (see here for an article in French by John Simenon about them).

One November evening, a shot rings out in Concarneau. One of the town’s notables, the wine dealer Mostaguen was shot at point-blank range through a letter-box as he sheltered in a doorway to light a cigar after leaving the Admiral Café. A large yellow stray dog is seen in the vicinity, assumed to belong to the would-be murderer. Maigret, who has been helping the Rennes police force, attends the next day bringing the young detective Leroy with him.

Installed at the hotel, Maigret goes to drink with Mostaguen’s circle of friends, when Michoux, a former doctor, notices grains in their drinks which are identified as strychnine. Next day, another of the group, Servières disappears, his car found abandoned and blood-stained. Sensing a potential serial killer story, the town is besieged by journalists and in coming days the Mayor presses Maigret constantly to find the killer, whom they presume to be a vagrant – with a yellow dog…

Maigret lets Leroy do all the conventional detecting, while he assumes his usual waiting and watching alongside cultivating the waitress Emma who works at the bar:

Maigret’s gaze fell on a yellow dog lying beneath the till. Raising his eyes, he saw a black skirt, a white apron, a face with no particular grace, yet so appealing that throughout the conversation that followed he hardly stopped watching it.
Whenever he turned away, moreover, the waitress, in turn, fixed her agitated gaze on him.

Yellow dog new

New edition

The Yellow Dog is a great yarn – everyone involved seems to have something to hide, especially Emma perhaps? Maigret obviously has his suspicions as to whodunnit early on, but we don’t find out the full story until the cast are gathered together for the denouement, very much as Hercules Poiret so loves to do. The younger Leroy gives Maigret a chance to offer fatherly advice about more intuitive detecting style based on observation rather than forensics, which was a nice touch, but Maigret’s co-star in this short but complex tale is Concarneau itself. The events happen in the depressed off-season, when the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots in town are at their greatest – in the summer everyone works. The notables believe that only an unemployed social outcast could be capable of these dastardly acts, but Maigret’s sympathies lay firmly on the side of poor downtrodden Emma and the vagrant, whom we’ll meet in time.

I don’t think I’d ever have been able to work out whodunnit in The Yellow Dog; for a mystery of a mere 130 pages, the plot was surprisingly complex. I  really liked Maigret more in this novel – his non-judgemental support of the underdog, not suffering fools like the mayor gladly and his ability to say no comment without actually having to say it. Translator Linda Asher is able to bring the town and the tail-end of autumn’s weather alive, whilst giving Maigret some joviality and a bit of a twinkle in his eye, which made this such fun to read. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pietr the Latvian: Inspector Maigret #1 by Georges Simenon, trans David Bellow. Pengiun classics, 2013 edition, pbk 176 pages.
The Yellow Dog: Inspector Maigret #5 by Georges Simenon, trans Linda Asher. Penguin classics, 2014 edition, pbk 144 pages.

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Jumping into a new to me crime series…

Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black

Murder-in-Pigalle-397x600

I usually like to read a series of crime novels from the beginning, to get any back-story in the right order and to see how the recurring characters develop. Sometimes, however, it’s good to jump into a series knowing that if you enjoy a later volume, that you may have the pleasure of reading all the earlier ones to come. This is what I did with Cara Black’s latest crime novel – her fourteenth featuring chic Parisian P.I. Aimée Leduc.

Leduc runs her own detective agency, aided by best friend René and computer hacker Saj. They appear to specialise in cyber-crime, but there’s not much going on at the moment for Aimée is five months pregnant.  Her lover, Melac, doesn’t know – he’s in Brittany near his ex-wife, and where his daughter lies in a coma. Aimée, who has obviously had parent issues of her own, is confused by her own impending motherhood – the baby is beginning to really kick.

A quiet life is not going to be for her though.  In Pigalle, the night-life heart of Paris, a serial rapist is following young girls home from school and raping them, and one has died.  Aimée has been helping Zazie, the young teenaged daughter of her favourite café owner with a school project, and one day she disappears.  Zazie’s mother enlists Aimée’s help as the les flics won’t respond until she’s been missing for 24hrs and awash with hormones Leduc flings herself into the case with a passion and zeal that will land her in big trouble.  It appears that Zazie has been shadowing a man whom she thought was the rapist…

With a sub-plot involving a robbery gone wrong by one of the girls in danger’s fathers, things get quite complicated quite quickly. Leduc finds that none of the parents of the raped girls are telling the full story – whether from guilt, shame or ignorance, and her blundering in puts her in danger too.

It’s hard not to like Aimée.  Think of a pregnant and French V.I.Warshawski and you’re getting there with regard to her character, however she’s not as good a detective as Sara Paretsky’s V.I.  Like most Parisian women, she’s typically BCBG (Bon chic, bon genre) – well as a P.I. maybe less of the BG – but still wouldn’t dream of going anywhere under-dressed, (nearly) every item of clothing has its labels.

The Dior shirt stuck to her back. She had to change. In the back armoire she picked one of Saj’s gifts, a loose, Indian white-cotton shirt – the soft fabric breathed, thank God. She pulled her short jean jacket over it, stepped into an agnès b. cotton-flounced skirt with a drawstring waistband and slipped into a low-heeled pair of sandals.

Black clearly does her homework in Paris for these novels. The detail feels authentic, but using the odd French words and phrases scattered throughout feels a bit unnecessary – the police are nearly always les flics, a bloke is un mec, no-one ever says sorry – it’s always désolé and so on.  If it were a French novel translated into English a translator wouldn’t do this.

Thirteen year old Zazie, although better behaved in general and certainly less potty mouthed, has echoes of Raymond Queneau’s independent spirit of Zazie in the Metro from 1960 (my review here) – I don’t know if that was deliberate or a happy coincidence.

Of course, I missed some of the back-story in her friendship with the dwarf René, her love Melac and her Godfather Morbier a Commissaire in the police, but even without that, this mystery stood pretty well on its own. I don’t know whether I’ll read the whole of the rest of the series, but I will look out for some of the previous titles as it would be fun to get to know Aimée Leduc a little better. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Murder in Pigalle: (Aimee Leduc Investigations) by Cara Black, pub Mar 2014 by Soho Press. Hardback, 310 pages.

“Echoed voices in the night she’s a restless spirit on an endless flight”

Babayagaby Toby Barlow

babayaga

Toby Barlow’s debut, Sharp Teeth, which I capsule-reviewed back in the early days of this blog should have really appeared in my Top novels I’ve read by men post from a couple of days ago. His Sopranos-style story of gang warfare amongst the werewolves in LA, written in the form of a prose poem has stayed with me ever since I read it, however back then I only gave it 9/10 and it didn’t make the cut for that list.

When I read he’d written a new novel, I couldn’t wait for the UK publication and ordered a copy of the American hardback, and for the past few days I’ve been totally absorbed in reading Babayaga.

The Baba Yaga of Eastern European folklore were supernatural and ferocious women, said to live in a hut on chicken legs, typified as a sorceress/mid-wife/fortune-teller style character with a large pestle and mortar, who had a close relationship with nature and could be benevolent – or more often not.

The Babayagas of Barlow’s new novel are definitely sorceresses. The setting is Paris in 1959. The book starts with Zoya, a beautiful young woman of Russian extraction, who has realised that Leon, her lover of fifteen years, is starting to question why she’s not looking any older.  Time to get rid of him – she didn’t quite mean to impale him on a railing though.

Meanwhile, Will Van Wyck, an American working in the Parisian branch of an advertising agency, is despairing over the big ideas of his last remaining client, and wishing that he didn’t have to put together those company profiles for Mr Brandon who would appear to be linked to the CIA. Two years in Paris, and he still doesn’t really understand the city and its inhabitants, but neither does he want to go home to Detroit.

Zoya turns to Elga, an older woman, a more traditional wicked old witch (although she wasn’t always thus as we eventually find out). These two have been working their way around Europe for centuries, always moving on when trouble looms. Elga is fed up of Zoya’s misfortunes with men though, and when Zoya unwittingly puts Elga in the frame for Leon’s murder, the old crone starts to dream of vengeance.

As for Inspector Vidot, he gets the case – and following the trail Zoya leads to Elga nearly meets his own end, instead being transformed into a flea.  Hopping from host to host, he will continue to try to unravel this mystery in true Kafkaesque style.

Soon Will meets Zoya, and it is love at first sight, but Will also gets mixed up with Oliver, another American under Brandon’s umbrella. Oliver is Gatsby to Will’s Nick, and leads him a merry dance through Parisian high-living and lowlife contacts. At last together, Will and Zoya get to know each other a little better. She encourages him to talk about his work in advertising…

‘What do you think works?’
Even though Will had answered this in presentations to clients a hundred times before, it made him blush to answer the question now. ‘Seduction.’
‘You seduce them?’ Zoya thought about it for a second and then her eyes brightened. ‘Yes, I see, so this client of yours believes it is a kind of war, but you think you can win with love. Maybe you’re both right. People can be conquered, certainly, but your idea is more like those pretty women I hear they have put to work in the airplanes now.’
‘The stewardesses?’
‘Yes,’ Zoya said. ‘You see, it’s not enough of a miracle to be flying high up in the air, even all the way across the entire ocean, that magic isn’t enough, so they put someone pretty and seductive on the plane, now there’s a possibility of sex or romance, a temptation to lure you in. It’s right out of a folktale, a beautiful girl with a fool in a flying ship.’
‘Well, I don’t – it’s a little more simple than that.’ Will stammered, her mention of sex making his heart skip a beat. ‘You really only have to show them a bit of life they admire or desire, a story they want to be a part of, paint them a picture and then invite them into it.’
‘Ah, I understand.’ She smiled, almost to herself. ‘So it’s not love, it’s merely a spell. So, then what? Tell me, what happens after these victims of yours buy your product and the spell is broken? When they awaken to find their life is as empty and sad as it was before, only now a little poorer too?’

Isn’t advertising spin ‘magic’!

We’re all set up for a fantastic, in all sense of the word, multi-stranded adventure combining witches, spies, gangsters, murder, sorcery and romance. It is complicated, and in a few places, a little slow paced, but that’s a small price to pay for finding out how it all comes together.

Ruby-Tandoh-5Will is such a sweet character – an innocent abroad, and a little wet. This adventure arrives at the right time for him, but he is put into so many tricky situations, you can’t help but feel for him. Zoya can be rather irritating though – I was watching The Great British Bake Off  just before finishing the book the other night, and I couldn’t help identifying her with Ruby of the puppy dog eyes! But then as she’s survived all that time (Zoya that is), it’s not surprising that she’s a bit self-centred! Elga is a proper witch, ancient and so cunning, a formidable opponent to anyone who crosses her. I really loved Inspector Vidot though, who has to employ all his resources to stay alive and solve the case.

Although ostensibly set in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, this novel felt as if it was much earlier – the twenties, or even a little earlier. Artefacts and events to anchor the book to the late 1950s were few and far between – and indeed much of the Paris described would have been there already in previous decades.

Most essentially in this novel, the magic works. The way the women make their spells is quite realistic and combines, like British magician and mentalist Derren Brown, “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. Their magic, however, isn’t the stage kind, and there is a physical cost involved keeping it real, which is so important to help you suspend your disbelief.

One nice touch linking back to Sharp Teeth, was the inclusion of some prose poems between the chapters in the form of witches songs.

Ghosts, they say, stay for three simple reasons:
they love life too wholly to leave,
they love some other too deeply to part,
or they need to linger on for a bit,
to coax a distant knife
toward its fated throat.

This novel is funny and fun, always quirky, yet dark and romantic too. A perfect autumnal read – I loved it. (9.5/10)

I shall leave you with the source of the quote at the top of the post. It’s from Witchy Woman by The Eagles.

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Source: Own copy. to explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Babayaga by Toby Barlow, pub August 2013 by Farrar Straus Giroux (US), hardback 383 pages.
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, paperback

A French crime novel of character…

The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds

3 evangThis was our bookgroup read for June into July, the first roman policier, and an award-winning one too, by frenchwoman Fred Vargas – Fred being short for Frédérique.  Vargas is an archaeologist and historian and, with Reynolds as her translator, won three successive CWA International Dagger awards for her first three novels.

Although the plot of this novel contains an ingenious crime which kept us guessing to the end, at its heart this book is totally character-driven. It is set in and around those quiet Parisian side-streets south of the rive gauche full of houses where shabby can sit perfectly alongside chic, and cornershop brasseries and tabacs do a good local trade. Let me tell you a little about what happens …

The story opens with an opera singer – Sophia Siméonidis wakes up to discover that a tree has been planted the garden of her grande maison. Her husband is unconcerned, but it troubles her, so she rings the bell of ‘the disgrace’ as she calls the house next door to ask the three young historians, Marc, Mathias and Lucien who share it to dig up the garden and see what’s going on.  Nothing found, the tree is replanted, but some weeks later Sophia goes missing. The remains of a corpse which appears to be the missing opera singer is found in a burned-out car.  The three had befriended Sophia and her best friend Juliette who runs the brasserie a few streets away, and together with Marc’s godfather and uncle, an ex-cop, they start to investigate.  Was it her cool and aloof husband, her fiery Greek former lover, her niece who has arrived in Paris?  All could have dunnit.

Now, back to the characters.  It is Armand Vandoosler, Marc’s godfather that coins the term the three evangelists for the guys, calling Marc, Mathias and Lucien, St Mark, St Matthew and St Luke after the gospels for fun.  It irritates the hell out of Marc in particular, but it sticks.

The three young academics are strapped for cash. When offered to live at a low rent in ‘the disgrace’ in return for doing the house up, they jump at it.  They each specialise in a different era of history – Marc is a medievalist, Mathias studies cavemen, and Lucien The Great War. Their characters reflect their chosen eras too. Marc is very serious and dresses in black, Mathias would live like a caveman if he could, and Lucien talks in war clichés…

…Lucien came downstairs and burst into Marc’s room without knocking.
‘General alert!’ he cried. ‘Take cover! The neighbour’s on her way.’
‘Which neighbour?’
‘The one on the Western Front. The one on the right, if you prefer. The rich woman who wears scarves. Not a word. When she rings the bell, nobody moves. Empty house. I’ll tell Mathias.’
Before Marc could say anything, Lucien had run down to the first floor.
‘Mathias,’ he called, opening his door. ‘General alert! Empty—‘
Marc heard Lucien stop abruptly. He smiled and came downstairs after him.
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ Lucien was saying. ‘Do you have to be in the nude to put up some bookshelves! I mean, what is the point? Don’t you ever get cold?’
‘I’m not in the nude, I’ve got sandals on,’ Mathias said calmly.

It could be easy to get irritated by these three, our modern-day equivalent of the impecunious students of Puccini’s La Bohème, or French ‘Friends‘ like Ross, Chandler and Joey.  However, I rather liked them, as did our bookgroup. I did have a favourite in Mathias  who is big-hearted and arty, (he’s Joey, although by subject matter he should be paleontologist Ross); Lucien could be Chandler – master of the quick quip, and Marc is all too serious and highly-strung Ross.

GiancarloI haven’t introduced you properly to Vandoosler yet.  The old ex-cop is utterly charming, a silver-haired flatterer who had was retired from the Sûreté for not being the cleanest of flics.  I immediately visualised him as Giancarlo Gianini, (who played Rene Mathis in the Bond films, Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace).  I know he’s Italian, but he feels right in my thinking.  Mind you, Alain Delon would do too!

Armand Vandoosler raised his finely wrought profile. He was looking like a policeman now. He had a concentrated expression which seemed to draw his eyes in under his eyebrows; his nose appeared somehow more commanding. Marc recognised the look. The godfather had such an expressive face that you could tell the kind of thoughts he was having. When he looked serious, it was the twins and their mother, lost somewhere in the world; when it was medium-serious, it was police business; when it was sharp, it was some woman he was trying to seduce. At least that was the simple reading.

Vandoosler leads their investigation, using his contacts in the police, but doing things totally his own way.  He must have driven the local police mad with his interfering, but we all enjoy maverick investigators.

There was much humour in this novel which kept the tone light – the interplay between the three evangelists was fun, and the relationship between Marc and his godfather too.  The descriptions of Paris life were nice too, particularly all the late suppers at the brasserie, bringing shopping from the markets not the supermarché – it almost seems an age ago, yet the modern scourge of car parking problems will play a part too.

large_sm walking down paris streetI liked this book a lot, and so did the rest of our bookgroup who made it to our monthly meeting.  Vargas has written two more novels featuring the Three Evangelists, but unfortunately, these don’t appear to have been translated yet. We all would read more, but will have to try her other series – featuring Commissaire Adamsberg.

Overall though, this book just made us all want to go to Paris!   (8/10)

Paris in July 2013

Which brings me to the fact that this post fits perfectly with the start of this year’s Paris in July hosted by Bookbath and Thyme for Tea – a month-long celebration of all things literary related to the City of Light. It’s the first time I’ve joined in, and I hope to read at least one more Parisian book this month too.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas (1995), translated by Sian Reynolds (2006), Vintage paperback.

Art, Love and War

Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes, trans from the Spanish by Adriana V Lopez

This novel is a fictionalised account of the true story of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, two of the foremost photojournalists who reported on the Spanish Civil War.

The story begins in Paris though, when young Jewish German refugee Gerta meets handsome Hungarian photographer André. There is an instant strong bond between them, he starts to teach Gerta photography, and she becomes his assistant and manager, but it will take some time for them to become lovers.  Gerta takes everything very seriously…

The way you look at things is also how you think about and confront life. More than anything, she wanted to learn and to change. It was the perfect opportunity to do so, the moment when everything was about to happen, in which life’s course could still alter itself. Many months later, just before daybreak in another country, beneath the rattling of machine guns in minus-five-degree weather, she would remember that initial moment when happiness was going out to hunt and not killing the bird.

Their circle in Paris was full of big names including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Man Ray and Matisse. It was difficult to get work amongst all this competition. One day Gerda had an inspiration – she invented a new persona for André and the elusive American photographer Robert Capa was born.  Gerta also changed her name, to make it sound less Jewish and she became Gerda Taro.

Capa began to get photo-journalism assignments, and when the Spanish Civil War came, they both went out to Barcelona in 1936 and got stuck in. Gerda was just 26.  Capa gained international fame for his photo The Falling Soldier, capturing that moment as a man gets hit in the head.  They lived for adventure and were sometimes reckless in getting the shot, Gerda’s photos also being credited to the bogus Robert Capa.

Their relationship was no less intense. Once they fell in love, it was total and they didn’t need anyone else. Gerda refused Robert’s proposal though, needing space and to find her own way. She discussed this with her friend Ruth, back in Paris …

“The reality is I’ve never been able to choose. I didn’t choose what happened in Leipzig, I didn’t choose to come to Paris, I didn’t choose to abandon my family, my brothers, I didn’t choose to fall in love. Nor did I choose to become a photographer. I chose nothing. Whatever came my way, I dealt with it as I could.” She got up and began playing with an amber bead, tossing it between her hands. “My script was always written by others.”

Gerda struck out on her own, but she still loved Robert, and in the style of true star-crossed lovers their relationship ends tragically.

This is very much a novel of two contrasting halves, or rather locations.  Gerta & André /Gerda & Robert in Paris as part of the intellectual left-leaning café society, and then Gerda & Robert in Spain at the sharp end. I loved both – the burgeoning love story and the obsession with work in a field that once experienced, would never make normal life seem the same again.

Gerta and André are an irrestistible couple.  She, the blonde, cool and detached German, he, the passionate and dark Gypsy.  I’d heard of the name Robert Capa, possibly in connection with the Magnum Agency, which he co-founded with Cartier-Bresson and others, but knew nothing about the man – the couple, and shockingly little about the Spanish Civil War other than that Hemingway and George Orwell had gone out there.

Fortes writes beguilingly about the Paris salons and the growing romance, and yes,   I was relieved when they finally got it together. Their love scenes, although passionate are handled with some delicacy. This contrasts with the harder edge given to the war scenes in which the author manages to portray the horrors and the confusion clearly.

The Author’s Note at the end makes clear where fiction begins and ends – all the war scenes are documented.  The inspiration was a photo published in 2008, after three boxes of unedited photos were discovered.  The photo is of Gerda in bed wearing Capa’s pyjamas and captured Fortes’s imagination, and she resolved to tell their story.

Recently, I read another wartime historical ‘novel’ – HHhH by Laurent Binet, which was a totally frustrating read.  Waiting for Robert Capa is a conventional narrative, but has an immediacy and a freshness that the other lacked for me.  Although I did need to read a little background on the Spanish Civil War to make sense of the factions involved, you cannot read this story without being inspired to look at some of Capa’s wonderful photos.  Guess which I preferred?!   (9/10)

Spanish Lit Month is being hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad

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My copy was sent by the publisher, thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes, Harper pbk, 201 pages.

An Oulipo French classic

Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright

Zazie’s mother has a hot date in Paris, so she has to leave her eleven year old daughter with her Uncle Gabriel.  Zazie is a mischievous and potty-mouthed youngster who, unable to achieve her aim of travelling on the Métro as they are on strike, runs rings about Gabriel and his friends generally causing chaos wherever she goes, whilst having a weekend to remember.

That is the plot of this short novel in a nutshell, but of course it is much more than this, for in 1960 Queneau was a co-founder of the Oulipo salon – ‘Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle’, whose members espouse writing under extreme literary and/or mathematical constraints; other notable members include Georges Perec and Italo Calvino.

Zazie was Queneau’s thirteenth novel published in 1959, but was the one that brought him to public notice, particularly after Louis Malle filmed it in 1960. I was inspired to retrieve it from the TBR after Simon T recently wrote about one of his earlier books, the highly experimental Exercises in Style here, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect…

The narrative is actually straight-forward, but with sudden scene-shifts occurring mid-flow as the story chops and changes between Zazie and the other characters.  As the story descends into a pure farce and slapstick near the end, it got quite complicated to know where I was, but arguably this didn’t matter much as the crescendo of mounting chaos must eventually come to a head!

Where Zazie was more experimental was in the language, and this is where translator Barbara Wright has done her stuff, by translating (I assume) both Queneau’s run-together-and-phonetically-expressed-colloquialisms (a txtspk precursor?) into English equivalents, and his interesting choices of verbiage (as in a Will Self novel!).  The first page of the novel gives you a hint of both styles to come: ‘Howcanaystinksotho, wondered Gabriel, exasperated.’, and a few lines later ‘Gabriel exstirpated from his sleeve a mauve silk handkerchief and dabbed his boko with it.’

Then we meet Zazie, the charming little imp.  Unkoo Gabriel, as she calls him, and the taxi driver Charles are keen to show Zazie the sights of Paris, but are arguing about which building is the Invalides and where Napoleon’s tomb is.  Zazie puts a stop to this…

‘Napoleon, my arse,’ retorts Zazie. ‘I’m not  in the least interested in that old windbag with his silly bugger’s hat.’

Endearing, isn’t she!  Being a fan of the TV show The Royle Family, it was doubly funny to see words more normally associated with the layabout Jim coming out of a little girl’s mouth, although Zazie was decades earlier.

What about the other characters?  Gabriel is interesting for he is a female impersonator in a celebrated gay nightclub, but is happily married to Marcelline. I suppose we get to know him marginally better than the others, but for the most part we don’t get under the skins of his friends, or the myriad people he and Zazie meet at all.

As a comedy, this book quickly became too cartoonish and silly for me. I’ve not seen the film, but I expect this could be one of those rare cases where I prefer the screen to the page.

As an impressionistic work describing a first visit to Paris and the sights and sounds of the city, Zazie is rather like Gershwin’s An American in Paris, full of snatches of noise and glimpses of fabulous buildings, and I enjoyed this aspect very much.

As a stylistic experiment in expressing conversations as they are heard, Zazie in the Métro requires more work, but still delivers, and can be summed up by the only words that Gabriel’s world-weary parrot can say…

Talk, talk, that’s all you can do!

A charming, quirky, wacky, wordy and very silly book!  (7/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Zazie in the Metro, Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

A Dark tale of twins: American – in Paris

Comes the Night by Hollis Hampton-Jones

Meade and Ben Ho are nineteen year old twins; they are Americans in Paris, rich kids.  They have one of those incredibly close, empathic and near telepathic twin relationships.  Ben Ho is at art school, Meade plays at cookery classes to occupy her days, but walks out on to become a model.

Meade is obsessed by her weight – she’s a bulimic; her brother thinks she’s too thin. Becoming a model takes that obsession to the next step and she becomes thinner still, surviving on just occasional mouthfuls of proper food which she usually throws up, washed down with booze, and a cocktail of drugs for every mood and occasion.

She gets a new boyfriend – an Iranian photographer. Majid has been tortured and this is reflected in the bondage of their lovemaking. When Ben Ho gets a girlfriend, Meade’s twin-ness is threatened and she begins to lose her sense of indentity and her thoughts get darker and darker…

I’m going to have a heart attack.
I’ll die on white sheets and Majid will wake up and find me. And my soul will be released, and I’ll be back in the womb with Ben Ho. I smooth my hair, fold my hands over my chest and wait to die, but I become so calm at this thought that my heartbeat returns to its normal, sluggish state, and I don’t die. So I get up and have a cigarette.

I wouldn’t be giving anything away to say that Meade’s descent into herself is inevitable. Once Ben Ho is no longer always around to ground her, and with no parents present to hold her in check, it’s just a matter of time.  Majid is no help – he’s going there in his own way too.

The fashion industry depicted is totally glamorous, and utterly corrupted by drugs and the need to be size zero. Friendship is not an issue for the models themselves…

Gathered around the punchbowl are smiling models, not a common sight. In a corner, a DJ is choosing his next record. I sip some punch, and it tastes of fresh strawberries and oranges.
One of the smiling models leans into me and says, ‘s ‘MDMA is the secret ingredient.’ I down my glass.

It’s a bleak, nasty world she’s living in.  Meade’s story is gripping and stunning in its dark intensity. Hampton-Jones’s biog tells that she has some experience in the fashion industry in Europe before moving back to the States, so she’s talking about what she knows – not a world I’d be happy in, but I was drawn into it briefly while reading this novel.  The novel is that dark that even while you’re desperate to get Meade into rehab and away from the world she’s chosen, you walk the path with her for the duration.  It was almost a relief to finish but, boy, it was a great read. (10/10)

Comes the Night is the author’s second novel. Her first Vicious Spring, appears to be similarly dark, although leavened with humour, following the sexual awakening of a school-leaver from a Christian fundamentalist family on an acid trip.  It sounds equally compelling.

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My copy was kindly supplied by Penguin – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:

Comes the Night by Hollis Hampton-Jones.  Penguin paperback,  July 2011,  230 pages.
Vicious Spring

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones…

Pure by Andrew Miller
Initially I approached this book with some caution.  The only other Andrew Miller novel I’d read many years before was Ingenious Pain, and although I could see that it was a great novel, I did find it hard going at the time.  The premise of his latest though was so attractive, and by the second chapter I was hooked on this rather original historical novel.

Pure is set in 1785, shortly before the French Revolution.  Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a young Norman engineer, hired by the King’s offices to oversee the cleansing of an overfilled Parisian cemetery, that is poisoning the earth and air all around it. The Minister, safely esconced at Versailles, outlines the job …

‘It stinks.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘Some days I believe I can smell it from here.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers, but the king himself. The king and his ministers.
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘It is to be removed.’
‘Removed?’
‘Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Decent, habitable. Pure.’ ‘Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.’
‘And the … occupants, my lord?’
‘What occupants?’
‘The dead.’
‘Disposed of. Every last bone. It will require a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness. …’

Nice job eh?  Jean-Baptiste heads off into Paris, where lodgings have been set up with a local family overlooking the cemetery. He soon makes friends with Armand, the church organist, and finds that everything smells better after a brandy or two. He contacts his colleague from his last job at the mines at Valenciennes – Lecoeur will bring a team of miners to Paris to dig out the cemetery.  Jeanne, the teenaged grand-daughter of the sexton will look after the men – indeed most of them grow to love her as their own daughter.

All is set and the excavation is underway.  Some doctors arrive, including one Dr Guillotin – yes!  He is there to examine the bones, but his presence will prove necessary on many occasions over the following months – injury, illness, attempted murder, rape, suicide – everything will happen to those involved on this job. But it’s not all bad, for Jean-Baptiste will also find love in an unexpected place.

The story is entirely that of Jean Baptiste – he is present on every page.  He’s conscientious, and good to his men, but can be persuaded to let his hair down occasionally.  The young engineer is a very likeable hero and an interesting young man. In between the gruelling work to reclaim the ground from the cemetery, we do get glimpses of the bustling markets and streets around the Les Halles area of Paris where the novel is set, and even radical murmurings. The historical detail is both rich and absolutely spot on.

The major business of the novel is the job in hand though.  In this respect, (with my tongue in my cheek slightly), it is the opposite of Ken Follett’s enjoyable blockbuster novel The Pillars of the Earth, in which a cathedral is built over generations rather, than removed in a year.  In both, however, the work is the star – and it was actually fascinating to read. 

I will have to re-read Ingenious Pain and catch up on others of Miller’s backlist – I do have most of them in the TBR, as I enjoyed Pure very much indeed.  This was a brilliant historical novel with literary nous, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it as a Booker longlist contender. (9/10)

For another view, see what Jackie at Farm Lane Books thought of it.

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My copy was provided by Amazon Vine.  
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Pureby Andrew Miller. Pub Sceptre, June 2011, Hardback 352 pages.
Ingenious Painby Andrew Miller
The Pillars of the Earthby Ken Follett