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Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to “iconic” French writer Annie Ernaux

On 6th October 2022, Annie Ernaux was announced as the 119th winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the 17th woman laureate in the history of the prize. Ernaux is a beloved and iconic writer in France and has been tipped to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for a few years now, yet despite her success in France and elsewhere in Europe she was relatively unknown outside academic contexts in the Anglophone world until the London-based independent press Fitzcarraldo Editions began to publish her work in translations by Alison L. Strayer and Tanya Leslie. By October 2020 Ernaux was Fitzcarraldo’s most published author, and at the time of writing the press has published eight of her works. This is also the third time that a “Fitzcarraldo author” has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (the first two were Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk, and as Anna Cafolla notes in a recent Guardian article, the press also recently published 2004 laureate Elfriede Jelinek). For a young press founded in the spirit of risk, the impact of such a prestigious award cannot be underestimated.

Image source: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2022/summary/

All of the works by Ernaux that Fitzcarraldo have published in English translation are “white covers”, classified as non-fiction (the “blue covers” are Fitzcarraldo’s fictional works), a categorisation that indicates both the autobiographical nature and the historical significance of Ernaux’s work. Ernaux’s award was, the committee notes, for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”, and indeed “collective” is a word frequently associated with Ernaux’s writing. From the “collective autobiography” The Years to the collective memory honoured through her personal experience in texts such as Happening and A Girl’s Story, Ernaux writes about her own life in a way that is inseparable from the time in which she has lived. The committee also mentioned Ernaux’s “clinical acuity”, a description of her writing that highlights her distinctive style: Ernaux writes deep and intense emotions with an observational composure that borders on detachment. In A Girl’s Story (translated by Tanya Leslie), Ernaux describes her own “minute attention to detail” regarding her relationships, and this attention to detail is as true of her writing style as it is of the content.

Almost all of Ernaux’s body of work is written as an attempt to order, make sense of, or immortalise her memories. The first of her books to be published by Fitzcarraldo in English translation was The Years in 2018, translated by Alison L. Strayer and awarded the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2019. Widely regarded as her most important work, Ernaux’s opening line in The Years, “All the images will disappear”, both sets up and sums up her project: every memory of every life – from historical atrocity to TV adverts – will vanish at death, and so we must remember, bear witness, and claim a place in the world. Ernaux herself describes The Years as an “impersonal autobiography,” based on a collection of images and reflections, a narrative framed by photographs of the author at different points throughout her life. The girl and woman in the photographs is never explicitly named as Ernaux, but the series of photos provide the reference points through which her past – and that of her country – is narrated.

Perhaps the most harrowing of Ernaux’s works – and, to return to the Nobel committee’s summary, the most courageous – is Happening (translated by Tanya Leslie), in which Ernaux reconstructs her experience of a clandestine abortion in 1963, supplementing her memory of events with fragments of a journal she kept at the time. Ernaux makes frequent reference to both the act of writing and her sense of responsibility in sharing her story; specifically, she insists on the importance of articulating the reality of clandestine abortions, and the need to resist the complacency of remaining silent about past discriminations simply because they no longer happen. Ernaux demolishes such barriers of silencing and secrecy, putting into words her “extreme human experience” as both a chronicle of a brief period of her life in 1963 and a series of observations in parentheses which represent Ernaux’s reflections on living with the memory of the abortion that almost killed her, the process of writing about it, and how the narrative becomes a force of its own.

Common to both The Years and Happening, as well as to many other of Ernaux’s works, is a sense of responsibility: to record the experiences of her generation, and particularly the experience of women. This, for her, takes precedence over the potential reaction to her work, as she explains in a parenthetical statement in Happening:

“(I realize this account may exasperate or repel some readers; it may also be branded as distasteful. I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled. There is no such thing as a lesser truth. Moreover, if I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.)”

Far from writing a repellent or distasteful text, Ernaux displays immense generosity and compassion in sharing her story. Through the public articulation of her intimate experience, she fulfils a sense of moral responsibility to challenge the patriarchal structures that order her experience of the world.

Throughout her œuvre Ernaux looks back on pivotal moments or relationships with a detached observation that belies deep emotion, and offers a portrait of a particular time, place and milieu that shaped her. In A Girl’s Story (translated by Alison L. Strayer) she exposes what it is to be a woman from a particular background at a particular time in history, in The Years she chronicles the personal impact of major historical events of the twentieth century, in I Remain in Darkness (translated by Tanya Leslie) she explores her mother’s decline from Alzheimer’s, and in A Man’s Place (translated by Tanya Leslie) she offers intimate portraits of her family. These observations – often focusing on women’s subjugation and/or lack of autonomy over their own bodies – are never separate from her personal experience, whether this be the experience of sexual desire in Simple Passion (translated by Tanya Leslie) or of her traumatic illegal abortion in Happening. Indeed, Ernaux is convinced that “of one thing I am certain: these things happened to me so that I might recount them. Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing” (Happening). By taking personal experience and offering it as literature, Ernaux both inscribes herself into history and uses her role as memoirist to give voice to a generation of anonymous women whose traumas have been systematically silenced.

Though Ernaux may be late to come to the attention of an Anglophone readership, her Nobel recognition was not an entirely unexpected or surprising choice. The prize notoriously favours European authors (indeed, Ernaux is the 16th French laureate) and in recent years has stated an intention to address its lack of women laureates (I might have ranted about this a few times). That Ernaux might be a good “fit” for the Nobel should not, however, detract from the importance of her work: a chronicler of her generation, a perspicacious observer of her own circumstances and the world that shaped her, and a writer with as much compassion as talent, Ernaux is an important author of our times whose work deftly blends the everyday and the momentous, the intimate and the universal.

Helen Vassallo
Associate Professor of French and Translation
Department of Languages, Cultures and Visual Studies
@translatewomen

 

Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux introduced by Helen Vassallo

Translating the Poetry of Birdsong

Poets across time and space have tuned into birdsong. Take the 9th-century Chinese Zen hermit poet, Han Shan (Cold Mountain):

寒山棲隱處

絕得雜人過

時逢林內鳥

相共唱山歌

瑞草聯谿谷

老松枕嵯峨

可觀無事客

憩歇在巖阿

 

 

 

Where Cold Mountain dwells in peace

isn’t on a travelled trail

when he meets forest birds

each sings their mountain song

sacred plants line the streams

old pines cling to crags

there he is without a care

resting on a perilous ledge

 

Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, trans. by Red Pine (Copper Canyon Press, 2000), pp. 218-19

 

 

At the 2022 Translation Festival, Sally Flint in tandem with Hugh Roberts, Martin Sorrell and Yue Zhuang ran a session to ‘translate’ a favourite bird into a poem in a short burst of creative writing.

To celebrate National Poetry Day, here are the quick-fire poems produced at that session:

 

No sound, but a joyous song

A cold January morning in the garden alone.

Dad had died the day before.

A robin perched on a wheelbarrow.

Soundless – one eye watching.

The dark brown eye winked.

Like Dad’s pale blue eye,

It was a joyous song.

 

Bruce Currey

 

Photo of a robin

morning coffee

this birdsong is the first sign of spring

it sounds like an “ouh-ouh” to my ear

when I hear it I can feel the sun on my cheek

I can smell my dad’s morning coffee

I can even see the leaves resurfacing

and everything turning into shades of green

I didn’t know where it came from when I was six

but I knew it would be back next spring

 

Laurine Collardeau

 

black and white portrait

Fly. Perch. Now!

Down. Up. Check.

Velociraptor walk.

Inspect. Check. Look.

Eat. Pause. Check. Eat.

Eat. Pause. Check. Eat.

Cleverer than clockwork.

Cleverer than you.

Monochrome rainbow.

 

Hugh Roberts

 

 

And Martin Sorrell shared his beautiful translation of the ‘Chanson de l’oiseleur’ of the much-loved French poet, Jacques Prévert:

 

THE BIRD-CATCHER’S SONG

 

The bird that flies on silent wings

The bird that flies straight into things

The bird as red and warm as blood

The mocking bird the bird of love

The bird that’s eager to take flight

The bird that suddenly takes fright

The bird that has a panic fit

The bird that so much wants to live

The bird that so much wants to cheep

The bird that so much needs to weep

The bird as red and warm as blood

The bird that flies on silent wings

That bird’s your heart you poor wee thing

Your heart that’s fluttering its wings

Inside its cage of firm young ribs.

 

Translated by Martin Sorrell

MLC Graduations

Where Modern Languages can still take you: Catching up on Graduations in 2022
In June 2022 teaching staff in Modern Languages finally caught up with our graduates from 2020. Alessia, Alice and I spent several joyful hours with those who had studied Italian as part of their degree, most often alongside a range of other languages. It felt like a long time since that dreadful March 2020 when we had last seen them, just before life as we knew it was blasted apart by the COVID-19 pandemic. In some ways, at least as far as education was concerned, that cohort of students were the lucky ones. They had nearly made it through university without anything resembling an online lesson. It was the year after that we were really to descend into the madness of endless hours on Zoom, with cameras off or on, wondering who on earth that student using their Mum’s Zoom account was. Nonetheless, what characterized those early days in March 2020 was total disorientation for students and staff, not the ideal experience just as you are about to embark on final exams. The sudden intimacy of seeing students or staff you have always seen in a neutral classroom sitting in their home environment, family figures and pets often hovering around us, altered the chemistry of how we related as humans. Rather than driving us apart, it brought us closer, strengthening our usual bond with students, and explains in part why we were so moved to see them in person two years later.
In the graduation address, invited speaker, alumnus and sports commentator Rob Walker entertained us with his breathless recreation of the Tokyo mens’ 100 m commentary. But he also reminded us that what is most important about university are the friendships you forge there; friendships that can last you a lifetime and carry you through all life’s major events. How many of us have fallen back on those friendships these last two years? I certainly have, and I hope for our students that they get to keep those bonds too. One of the nicest things about meeting up again is to see how many are still in close contact, or even still living together.
‘So, what are your plans for the… ehm… summer?’. Normally as staff we tend to be quite cautious, in the graduation get-together that follows right after final exams, in enquiring about future plans. No-one wants to add to the high anxiety that often accompanies the big question: What am I going to do with my life? At that age I felt like what I did next would determine everything, and forgot the maxim that life, if we’re lucky, is long and offers us many potential new turns, and even u-turns. This time, however, not only did we meet old friends, but different people. These graduates were forged through two years of experience and experimentation in the ‘real world’ during a moment of global crisis. It had clearly marked them and shaped them dramatically. Sometimes we stood open-mouthed at their maturity and confidence, but it was the diversity of their work choices that reminded us why Modern Languages is such a positive door-opener. The fields of work our 2020 graduates are currently engaged include: recruitment, financial services, communications for Visa, data analysis, interior decorating for an international company, subtitling for ITV, further study in translation, but also in speech and language therapy. It is encouraging to know that at least seven of the eighteen students we met with are going on to teach Modern Languages in schools, often introducing Italian onto the curriculum or via a film club. We can’t wait to meet the 2021 graduates! Watch this space for an update.
Danielle Hipkins (with Alice Farris and Alessia Risi)

Black History along Berlin’s Under- and Overground Network

In the 1920s, Black avant-garde dancer Josephine Baker enchanted not just the likes of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Max Reinhardt but the wider public, including that of Berlin. A few years later, in August 1936, Jesse Owens thrilled the audience attending Berlin’s Olympic Games with his record-breaking performances. These are well-recorded biographical snapshots. Both celebrities paid only fleeting visits to the country: Baker’s home was in France; Jesse Owens returned with the rest of the team to the United States. Meanwhile, some of Germany’s lesser-known Black History can be traced through Berlin’s public transport system – telling stories of daily, no less extraordinary lives over several centuries.

I owe my first example to a Final Year student who referred to it during an oral exam in 2020. He expressed astonishment at his discovery of the quarter around ‘Afrikanische Straße’ while on his way to attend a sports training session. Berlin’s underground line number 6 connects Alt-Tegel in the northwest of the city with Alt-Mariendorf in the south – ‘Alt’ indicates former villages outside the city boundaries. During the Cold War, five out of overall 29 stops along this line were so-called ghost-stations in German Democratic Republic territory. Here, trains would slowly pass through the eerie darkness without stopping. This may be one reason why few of us took much notice of ‘Afrikanische Straße’: you hardly ever travelled this route without a reason. ‘Afrikanische Straße’ reflects that the street-names in the surrounding area are based on Germany’s colonial past: Swakopmund, Ghana, Togo, Windhuk, Kamerun and Sansibar mark the ambitions of the German Empire between 1871 and 1918. Initiatives to replace some of the names have taken a long time to materialize.

These references to Germany’s former colonies are also linked to merchant Carl Hagenbeck (1844-1913). He made his name trading wild animals and promoting zoos with more natural settings. Hagenbeck had ambitious plans for Berlin too. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, large zoos were not simply concerned with exotic animals. Instead, what appealed to visitors, including those of world fairs, were the so-called ‘living villages’ for ‘empirical study and education’. The German term ‘Völkerschau’ translates as ‘observing peoples’ – including their performances of dances and ‘typical’ rituals during opening hours. In Through the Lion Gate Gary Bruce has detailed some of the heart-breaking practices in Berlin where the most popular exhibits included people from
Lapland, Egypt and Cameroon.

Travel further southeast and, not far from the Brandenburg Gate, one encounters ‘Mohrenstraße’ on line 2. The badly war-damaged station on GDR territory was re-opened in 1950. After several name-changes in praise of German communists (Ernst Thälman, Otto Grotewohl) in 1991, following German Unification, the station’s name became Mohrenstraße. At that point, an urban myth about Mohrenstraße overshadowed everything else: rumour had it, that the spectacular marble inside the station stemmed from Hitler’s Chancellery – sending chills down one’s spine while passing through the station and marking a highlight for visitors touring Berlin. Alas, the marble was prepared after the war.

There is some speculation how the name of the nearby street Mohrenstraße came about – it may refer to slaves, former black residents or an African delegation, all can be linked to the 17th century. In fact, the archaic reference to ‘Moors’ dates back to the 16th century and was, usually, associated with Black Africans. To this day, one finds – in particular in Austria and Southern Germany – pharmacies and restaurants ‘Zum Mohren’; the practice to associate select chocolates and cakes with the term has stopped. Berlin’s Mohrenstraße caused repeated debates. In 2020, the murder of George Floyd renewed the interest in the name of the station. After the choice of the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka had to be dismissed as a new name, the decision fell on Anton Wilhelm Amo who represents yet another layer of Germany’s Black History.

Travelling on (by now over-ground) towards Berlin’s south eastern suburbs, the local museum in Treptow (https://www.museumsportal-berlin.de/en/museums/museum-treptow/) provides an exemplary approach to Germany’s colonial past. Together with other museums and the Initiative Black People in Germany and Berlin Postkolonial, in 2017 Treptow housed a small and powerful exhibition based on the Berlin Trade Exhibition (Gewerbeausstellung) of 1896. In 2021, ‘zurückgeschaut / looking back’ (in cooperation with Dekoloniale Memory Culture in the City) expands the original approach.

The Trade Exhibition of 1896 attempted to emphasize German commercial and scientific achievements and to affirm the role of the relatively new German capital of Berlin. To visualize the message, Germany’s presumed modernity was set against the exotic ‘natives’ villages’ organized for the occasion. This part of the Gewerbeausstellung ‘aimed to create the greatest possible difference between the population of the “cosmopolitan city” with its alleged “refined customs” and “proud splendour” and the colonised people who would supposedly bring an element of “natural wilderness” and “rawest culture” to the banks of the Spree river.’ One of the exhibition rooms displays the photographs of those who had been lured to Berlin – their work contracts had not clarified that they would be exhibited. While most returned home once the Gewerbeausstellung had closed, twenty stayed, married and had children.

By the 1920s, Berlin had become a cosmopolitan metropolis. In 1927, the German communist Willi Münzenberg took actively part in the ‘First Congress against Colonial Repression and Imperialism’, followed in 1930 by the ‘International Conference of Negro Workers’ in Hamburg. In Berlin, a new underground station in the south west of the city was named Onkel Toms Hütte / Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1929 in reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel of 1852. The station provided the modernist housing estate of the same name with access to the city-centre.

However, by the 1930s Germany’s history caught up with some of the children of those who had remained in the country. Martha Ndumbe, daughter of Duala Jacob Njo Ndumbe, died in Ravensbrück concentration camp on 5 February 1944. Josefa van der Want, a Black German dancer and daughter of Josef Bohinge Boholle, died in 1955 ‘from the late effects of the imprisonment in a concentration camp’. Meanwhile, Josephine Baker, the celebrated star of 1920s Berlin, joined the French Resistance against the German occupiers during the Second World War and earned the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance.

After the Second World War, with the occupation and division of Germany a new, at times no less challenging chapter for Black History in the country started. Today, about 1 Million Afro-Germans or Black Germans are resident in Germany, predominantly in large cities, including Berlin.

FLANERIE ON CAMPUS – YEAR 12 WORK EXPERIENCE

A Flâneur on campus 

The original understanding of a ‘flâneur’ was an upperclass 19th century Parisian man who sought to wander the streets of Haussmann’s new Paris relishing in its rhythms.

 

Being a 17 year old work experience student I am neither male, upperclass or even Parisian, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still relish. As, to my understanding, to ‘flâneur’ (or should that be flânerie? Or fleurinate?) is to people watch, basically. Earwig. Good old fashioned ‘nosy parkering’.

 

I’m here visiting Exeter University French Department for the week. I had never been to this university before, didn’t know the history, didn’t know the geography, didn’t know anybody. Or anything. I was clueless. A nosey country girl in the city.

 

But, boy did I learn! In one lecture I was taught about Francois Mauriac’s novel Thérèse Desqueroux which follows the smothering married life of a woman in the 1920s. A wife trapped by the bars of rain, bars of pine and bars of stubborn traditional etiquette.

 

In many ways, for this week, I was that wife. Similarly grappling with the bars of stubborn university etiquette. I, the visitor. The newcomer.

The complex language of student etiquette is more foreign to me than the degree level french in which I was to be taught.

 

For example, I’ve never seen so many gender neutral toilets, and let alone use one! And what is this place Timepiece everyone was talking about…?

 

My first lecture ‘experience’ was by Fiona Cox. I learnt about the way in which Patrick Modiano is haunted by the spectral atmosphere of Paris in his novel Dora Bruder. This biography is an enigmatic blend of the past and the present, a confrontation of trauma – defined by two isolated concepts; one related to place, the other, observation. Nobel laureate, Modiano suggests that some places, some streets are imbued with the legacy of those who had been there before. In his words, “On se dit qu’au moins les lieux gardent une légère empreinte des personnes qui les ont

habités.”

 

These words resonate most on analysing the ‘Reflected Vision’ art installation on the Streatham campus. It’s a multidimensional sculpture that reflects the rich multicultural past, and present of Exeter University.

 

Which got me thinking about its future. It’s a profound notion that no matter how transient a student’s life may be at Exeter, somehow somewhere, someplace, they leave a legacy or even just merely a mark. A shadow of themselves here.

 

But then what does that mean for me? I am after all just, what Virginia Woolf described as, the ‘street haunter’, a ‘flâneuse’, an outside observer, desperate to know more. Without a shadow of a doubt I can see the enjoyment, the education, and the pleasure that can be gained from within these hallowed Exeter walls. So all I can say is, thank you for letting this 19th century Parisian in. You’ve opened my mind to how learning should be done. Inspired.

Kitty Fisher – Colyton Grammar School

Ladj Ly responding to Victor Hugo

Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables

 

Les Misérables achieved global success and fame as soon as it was published. In exile on Guernsey Hugo would receive fan mail and begging letters from all around the world. The popularity of the work has never dimmed; indeed it has been one of the most filmed and adapted works of all time. The latest film entitled Les Misérables to come out of France is of particular significance, since it was directed by Ladj Ly, the Mali-born French film-maker, who comes from the banlieues in which he set his work. It is by no means an adaptation of Hugo’s book; rather, it is a response to it which, at first sight, has only a few, rather tenuous connections. The strongest of these is that Ly sets the film in Montfermeil, now one of the banlieues in Paris that is inhabited predominantly by those of African heritage, who are, for the most part, poor. We are in the same world as that depicted by Kassovitz in La Haine and, twenty five years after that exploded onto our screens, the tensions are as febrile as they ever were. In literary terms, however, Montfermeil evokes memories of Cosette’s ordeal at the hands of the Thénardiers, whose inn was located in Montfermeil, at that time a village not far from Paris. Then, as now, it was a place inhabited by les misérables; all that has changed is the demographic that represent the outsiders, the wretched within France. Ruiz, a policeman and one of the main characters in Ly’s film, observes laconically that not much has changed, whereupon his colleague observes that Cosette would now be called ‘Causefe’ and Gavroche ‘Gaveroche’.

The film opens with a vision of the twenty-first century Parisian urchins triumphantly celebrating France’s victory in the 2018 World Cup. A young, black boy strides forth, swathed in a tricolore, and grinning triumphantly. Blink for a moment, and you could almost be looking at the exultant Gavroche standing boldly on the barricades, hailed with encouraging yells and whooping. (It is worth noting that the shooting of Gavroche foreshadows the way in which the twenty-first century police end up accidentally shooting a young black boy, Issa, in Ly’s film.) The opening scene welcomes these black children into the national celebrations – they experience fraternité, as they speak excitedly about the possibility of their heroes such as Mbappé scoring a goal. Football offers an arena where the young people in France’s black community can rejoice in the successes of their own. They happily join in the singing of la Marseillaise, the bloodthirsty brutality of which is highlighted through being sung at an event of national celebration and cheer.

As the black children return from the football match to their homes in the banlieues the happiness and the optimism immediately leaches from the film. They live in a world that is scarred by poverty and in a constant state of alert, poised for visits from and tensions with the police. The film focusses in particular on a trio of policemen who periodically visit the banlieues, both inflaming the tensions longterm, while cracking down hard on them as short-term measures. As a newcomer to the force the policeman Ruiz becomes part of a team that monitors tensions in Montfermeil, and works with Chris, a goading, mean-spirited bully and Gwada who tolerates the way in which Chris targets certain demographics. It is Chris who insists on stopping the car, so that he can go and harass a group of black teenage girls, who are simply waiting for a bus at the bus-stop. When one of them films the harassment as evidence, he smashes her mobile phone. Though he lacks the integrity and self-discipline of Javert, his role of difficult, antagonistic policeman echoes Javert’s capacity to pursue and to hound Jean Valjean. And the targetting of the teenage girls, whose only crime was the colour of their skin, reminds us that nineteenth-century France could be just as gratuitously unjust, as is evidenced at Champmathieu’s trial, when a court official observed that: ‘Je ne sais plus trop son nom. En voilà un qui vous a une mine de bandit. Rien que pour avoir cette figure-là, je l’enverrais aux galères.’ (206). (I can’t quite remember his name any more. But he looks like a brigand, that one. I’d send him to the galleys just for having that face.) Then, as now, the wrong appearance is enough to make individuals vulnerable to arrest. Furthermore, as Gwada and Chris introduce Ruiz to the area, they point out that one of the problems besetting the region is the number of Nigerian prostitutes, reminding us that ‘la déchéance de la femme par la faim’ (the fall of women through hunger) remains one of the evils of the twenty-first century, just as it had been identified by Hugo as one of the core failures of the nineteenth century also.

Les Misérables is a text that is obsessed with falling – there is the moral fall of Jean Valjean from grace, indicated by the title of an early section in the novel ‘La Chute’ (The Fall), which anticipates his literal fall from a ship into the sea; we see Fantine’s fall into prostitution, and Javert’s fall into the Seine, when he commits suicide. Hugo employs the imagery of precipices and vertigo throughout to evoke heart-stopping fear or the annihilating terror of absolute abandonment within the universe or, as in the case of Fantine, the corrosive anxiety of falling so far into poverty that it will prove impossible ever to climb back up and build a life to herself or for her child. ‘Vertige’ ‘escarpements’ ‘chute’ (Vertigo, steep slopes, fall) are words that recur time and time again, highlighting the fragile footing that les misérables have within the world. Ly cleverly mirrors the vertigo within Hugo’s work by situating chunks of the film up on the rooftops, and by following the loops and swoops of a drone, through which we can acquire a bird’s-eye view of the city. Such a vision looks back not only to Les Misérables, but also to Notre Dame de Paris and its famous evocation of Paris in the chapter entitled: ‘Paris à vol d’oiseau’ (A bird’s eye view of Paris). The arrival of the circus in Ly’s film offers an air of carnival that also recalls Notre Dame.

The echoes of Hugo’s works are fleeting yet pervasive. Apart from the fact that the school in Montfermeil is named after Victor Hugo, and Ruiz is thereby prompted to comment on the history of Montfermeil in Les Misérables, we have to wait until the end of the film for a direct reference. The film closes with a close-up of Hugo’s words: ‘Mes amis, retenez bien ceci. Il n’y a ni mauvaises herbes, ni mauvais hommes.Il n’y a que de mauvais cultivateurs.’ (My friends, take heed to what I am going to tell you. There is no such thing as a bad weed, or a bad man. There are simply bad cultivators.) But the overlaying with Hugolian imagery of a story set in the Parisian suburbs inhabited primarily by black people serves as a useful reminder of the fact that Hugo explicitly identifies within Les Misérables with a black man, when he names one of Enjolras’s allies ‘Homère: Hogu nègre.’ The sobriquet is important because it indicates Hugo’s epic ambitions – his epic is the culmination of a tradition extending from Homer to Hugo himself, but also because it enables Hugo to identify with a particular demographic, already vulnerable to exclusion and brutal treatment. Later in the book he indicates that the anguish of les misérables would be experienced amongst peoples and in lands far distant from the France that he evokes, when Thénardier announces that he is going to seek his fortune in America as a slave trader. By opening doors within his novel for such communities Hugo facilitated Ladj Ly’s response, a work depicting communities, technology and weapons that would have been utterly alien to him, even as the conflicts and tensions would have been all too chillingly familiar.

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