Tag Archives: French literature

Review: THE FOOL AND OTHER MORAL TALES by Anne Serre

Translated from French by Mark Hutchinson (Les Fugitives, 2021)

After publishing the uniquely provocative exploration of unconventional sexuality The Governesses in 2019, Les Fugitives return with another collaboration between Anne Serre and Mark Hutchinson: The Fool and Other Moral Tales. The Fool in question is from a tarot pack, and this was my stumbling block: I have no knowledge of or interest in tarot, and I felt rather lost in the first two stories. In fact I felt a little ignorant: I was able to appreciate how stylistically accomplished both the tales and the translation are, but beyond that I didn’t find any connection. In a bizarre twist, this turned around completely in the final tale, “The Wishing Table”, which was the one I thought I’d struggle with the most (“The Wishing Table” is narrated by a woman who grew up in an incestuous family, and it’s safe to say this is not a premise I found particularly appealing – but read on, because that’s what I did, and it was worth it!)

“The Wishing Table” is the longest story in the collection and when, near the start, I read the section that followed the announcement “They did things to us that it’s absolutely forbidden to do with children”, I did wonder whether I would make it to the end. There’s nothing comfortable about this story, but that’s where its brilliance lies. If I found the first two stories a little hard to follow, I think it’s because they’re deliberately destabilising, entwining the mundane and the magical, the philosophical and the fantastical: in the end I realised that this destabilising, shifting quality is precisely intended to reflect the shifting of the tarot cards, changing fates and paths as they are revealed and obscured. I didn’t revisit these first two stories in light of the third, but I do think that “The Wishing Table” is the one that really makes this collection.

The daughters are certainly not presented as victims: they are fascinated with their parents’ sexual bodies and the pleasure that can be gained from them (usually as willing recipients of sexual acts, occasionally as instigators). Nor are the parents depicted as immoral or sadistic: the narrator says of her mother that “As I’m sure you’ve understood, the idea that anything untoward was going on in her house had simply never occurred to her. She thought that this was what life was like.” A series of minor characters also join in the family’s “love feasts” (whether on solo visits or partaking in orgies), including a man the narrator repeatedly cavorts with in his car. There is something quite dark and disturbing about the parents sending their daughters off in the cars of men they barely know, but Serre disrupts any conventional reading of this by detailing the pleasure the narrator takes in the sexual acts in which she and her family engage. Indeed, her voracity for sexual pleasure is mirrored by her voracity for reading, connecting the two in ways that are harmonious with the collection’s focus on the union of the carnal and the cerebral.

“The Wishing Table” is full of polished surfaces: the large mirror in the hallway where Maman contemplates herself for hours, and especially the vast dining room table on which much of the incestuous activity occurs. This surface is the anchor that keeps the narrator sane while the other members of the family lose their minds, but it is also the surface that, years later, cracks and leaves her feeling “as if that table, instead of being a thing of joy and of frenzied, passionate delight, had been a sacrificial altar, as if I’d been amputated there, tortured and dismembered, but back then had somehow dreamed my way through it all.” This realisation is prompted by the movement towards a more orthodox relationship, yet Serre refrains from making pronouncements on the narrator’s psychological development.

The story unfolds in a compelling way, drawing us into the family’s unorthodox homelife and then describing how it all disintegrated, small shifts preventing the individual members from sinking single-mindedly into the “wishing table”. The darkly fairytale scenario then twists to a more recognisable coming-of-age story, but the movement between places is always vaguely magical or dreamlike, recalling again the shifting of the cards. After the enchanted state of childhood, the early adulthood is much more grounded in a world outside the family home, the latter becoming locked in the bois dormant of the narrator’s memory (and which her sister locks away even more deliberately, as the narrator discovers when the two women meet later and try to salvage some kind of relationship with one another).

Hutchinson’s translation is full of lexical gems, and the style, which is at times deliberately arcane (and always shamelessly literary) is very reminiscent of The Governesses – the French original is (to my mind, at least) almost visible beneath the text in the register and syntax, but in a way that offers the stories as simultaneously very rooted in their source yet entirely portable. There is the occasional reference that you’d have to know French language or literature to fully appreciate, but not “getting” these references wouldn’t mar appreciation of the stories. Hutchinson and Serre worked closely together to bring this collection of “moral tales” (published separately in French) into one volume in the English translation. The result of their collaboration is a stylistically accomplished and thematically explosive collection of stories that are at once contemporary and timeless.

Review copy of The Fool and Other Moral Tales provided by Les Fugitives

Review: POETICS OF WORK by Noémi Lefebvre

Translated from French by Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives, 2021)

I have to start this review with a confession: I was a bit nervous about reading Poetics of Work. The nerves stemmed entirely from the knowledge that Lefebvre is not known for being an “easy read”, and I read Poetics of Work at a time when ease seemed as desirable as it was unattainable. Yet my fears were unfounded: yes, this is a challenging book, one that made me think deeply about the issues it tackles, but this happened in an exhilarating, uplifting way. I want to kick off by quoting from the beginning of the book, as in the first paragraphs there is a perfect crystallisation of its main concerns:

“The wind was in the north and the planes were circling, the shops were open for the love of everything under the sun, riot police were patrolling four by four and junior officers by threes out in the street.
There isn’t a lot of poetry these days, I said to my father.”

Poetic expression, social comment, anti-establishment feeling, and an omnipresent father. These are the key elements of Poetics of Work, a manifesto on the value of being a writer and thinker in an age of commodification, in which Lefebvre attempts to carve out the possibility of “work” not having to be measured by hours in an office, salary earned, or “usefulness”.

The father thinks that poetry is of no earthly good when wars rage, suicide bombers detonate, debt abounds and society is merrily heading to hell in a handcart. The narrator manages his patronising tirades with admirable sang-froid, and deftly deflates his hubris without ever being cruel: “My father was about to leave for Notre-Dame-des-Landes or for the Larzac or Calais or the Vercors or Ventimiglia, basically for somewhere to do something.” The father might be considered “useful” in this modernity that has no place for poetry, but the narrator has the measure of what this “usefulness” really is.

There are some timely reflections on the role of art: can it ever entail true freedom of expression if there is so much expectation on the function it ought to perform, and what it should “do”? Yet this is not an introspective or self-indulgent essay: firstly, a dry humour underlies every observation (look out for the “conspicuous hat with a radical bobble”), and Lefebvre has much to say about modernity, rape culture, and the notion of “freedom” (“imagination was being blocked and thought paralysed by national unity in the name of Freedom, and freedom co-opted as a reason to have no more of it”). In this vein, there are several observations on the insidious nature of state control, with more than a hint of wry humour in the expression, as in this dialogue between the narrator and their father:

“‘Are we at war, Papa?’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘I don’t know, all these soldiers outside the shops.’
‘Then it must be war.’

‘But people are still shopping in the sales.’
‘So we can’t be at war.’

‘The police are checking handbags and ID cards.’
‘That means it’s war.’

‘But there are no tanks or any shelling on our good city of Lyon.’
‘It’s not war, then.’

The father is a repellent figure, an egocentric, bombastic, soul-crushing misogynist who is quick to point out the narrator’s “chronic hopelessness” owing to an inability to fit in with capitalist society. Lefebvre’s narrator never explicitly questions why this inability should mean that they are reduced to being “unfortunately and perhaps incurably nothing but a sad loser”; the success of this treatise is that it never tells its reader what to think, or how to interpret it.

Lewis recently published an interesting piece in PEN Transmissions, in which she admitted a “dirty secret” that she had translated the entire text without realising that the narrator was not given a gender. The immense work that must have been done by Lefebvre to write a gender-neutral narrator in French must have been so delicately done to appear this effortless, and there is nothing in Lewis’s translation that diminishes this. In fact, my own dirty secret is that I spoke with Sophie a couple of months before that interview was published, and she said that she had recently translated a text in which she didn’t notice the un-gendered narrator – and I *still* didn’t realise while reading Poetics of Work that this was the text she had been referring to. When I read the interview I was about half-way through the book, and was able to switch from blissful ignorance to an active admiration of the careful non-disclosure of gender throughout. For this is not a book about being (or not being) a woman, or about whatever we might understand that to mean: it is a book about finding poetry in a world that seems hell-bent on destroying it, a modernity “whose beauty will be revealed in the smog of its exhaust, in its everyday privations, in the dogs that chase their living in the soughing rain or the sinking glare of the unimportant streets…” That Lewis captures the poetry in the banality is a testament to just how accomplished this translation is: Lefebvre is an extremely agile writer, and Lewis has kept up with every move in her translation. In particular, the final two lines are absolute perfection: clever, shrewd, and amusing. Poetics of Work is as political as it is philosophical; it engages with authority and influence, questioning how we become what we are both individually and collectively. It manages to be simultaneously laid-back and urgent, and is a gorgeous manifesto of poetic resistance.

Review copy of Poetics of Work provided by Les Fugitives

Review: SIMPLE PASSION by Annie Ernaux

Translated from French by Tanya Leslie (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021)

Simple Passion is the story of an all-consuming love affair: in it, Ernaux details the way in which her obsession with her lover takes over every aspect of her life, so that both daily events and more significant ones become no more than moments that punctuate the rhythm of this obsession. The original French (Passion Simple) was the first book by Ernaux I ever read, during my first years working at university twenty years ago. I remember finding it challenging to present the story in a class: its focus on the (willing) near-enslavement to a man’s availability (“I would have liked to have done nothing else but wait for him”) seemed to run counter to every feminist awakening I was undergoing, and I felt then that it was in danger of falling into a cliché Ernaux herself points out (“I couldn’t watch television or leaf through magazines; all the advertisements, whether for perfumes or microwaves, show the same thing: a woman waiting for a man”). Many years later, I approached the newly-released English translation with more nuance, and certainly with more empathy and compassion. Part of this comes from being more familiar with Ernaux’s oeuvre as a whole: her exposure of what it is to be a woman from a particular background at a particular time in history (A Girl’s Story), her chronicling of the twentieth century in The Years, her intimate portraits of her family (A Man’s Place) and her own experience of illegal abortion (Happening), calling attention to the experience of so many women who suffered in the same way because of a lack of autonomy over their own bodies. Like these other texts, Simple Passion is, quite simply, an account of a certain recognisable personal or collective experience.

Part of the reason I struggled with this two decades ago is that Ernaux and others of her generation suffered from a lack of control over their reproductive bodies, and fought to gain this control – and it seemed to me that Ernaux did this only to then submit control of her emotions to a man (a married man at that, and who had no intention of leaving his wife). But emotions, by definition, defy logic or ideology. This is not necessarily an un-feminist story, but rather an excruciatingly honest one that admits human fallibility and complexity, qualities that Ernaux fears will be judged when exposed. This fear illustrates a vulnerability in her writing that I now find extremely moving, particularly in reflections such as this one: “Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to find out whether other people have done or felt the same things or, if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal.”

There are certain aspects of this story that will be familiar to anyone who has experienced strong emotions (which, I would think, means everyone): songs taking on new meaning because the lyrics seem to articulate the experience of the listener, being caught between the conflicting emotions of wanting to escape a difficult situation and the reality that living without it is unthinkable (“I longed to end the affair, so as not to be at the mercy of a phone call, so as not to suffer, and then realising at once what this would entail, seconds after the separation: a succession of days with nothing to hope for”), and elaborate plans are laid just to have the objective of finding some kind of connection to the lover (“On the plane, on the way back, I reflected that I had travelled to Denmark simply to send a postcard to a man”). It is not only clichéd representations of women that Ernaux feels herself reflected in, but also “the outcasts lying on benches, the clients of prostitutes, or a passenger engrossed in her Mills & Boon romance”: this is not a passive role that she has accepted, but something stronger than her and which leaves her adrift from “normal” everyday experiences.

Simple Passion is also a very engaging story: though it’s not an intricate or plot-twisting narrative, it’s a compelling and intimate revelation of human emotion and passion. For the time that she and A. are lovers, there is simply nothing else of consequence, and her obsession becomes potentially destructive: pastimes are “a means of filling in time between two meetings”, the all-too-brief encounters mean that “I experienced pleasure like a future pain,” and she even wonders fleetingly whether A. might have given her AIDS because “at least he would have left me that.” Tanya Leslie’s translation is, as usual, extremely accomplished. Ernaux has a very distinctive style: if I had to sum it up, I’d go for the seemingly oxymoronic term “expressive objectivity”. By this I mean that Ernaux writes deep and intense emotions with an observational composure that borders on detachment; both Leslie and Ernaux’s other regular translator into English, Alison L. Strayer, are delicately attuned to this, and both render it very well in English. Indeed, Ernaux likens the way she approached this love affair to the way she approaches writing: “the same determination to get every single scene right, the same minute attention to detail.” Such minute attention to detail is evident in the translation, which clearly and carefully conveys the core of the original: Simple Passion is not about A., who in fact seems entirely generic and unremarkable from the little we discover about him. Rather, it is about the feelings he awakens, the power he exerts, and the impossibility – at least for a time – of imagining life without his touch. A. is the part that Ernaux keeps to herself, but she gives her passion in both its senses – her desire and her suffering – in this brief, raw “offering, of a sort”.

Review copy of Simple Passion provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Review: NIGHT AS IT FALLS, Jakuta Alikavazovic

Translated from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Faber & Faber, 2021)

Night as it Falls is the debut novel by French-born Bosnian-Montenegrin writer Jakuta Alikavazovic, and follows its main characters Paul and Amelia through a passionate relationship, an abandonment, a reunion, and a final separation. Amelia is the “official” mystery of the novel – a woman so remarkable as to be almost mythical, but whose personal struggles and destructive tendencies render her incapable of fully experiencing contentment. Amelia is an almost unremittingly selfish character; I didn’t warm to the description of her given in the blurb (“one of those people who destroy everything and call it art”), instead preferring later descriptions of Amelia (“the woman who had grown up too fast”; “caught in the walls like a bullet shot many decades ago, a bullet which still pressed on, imperceptibly”).

If Amelia is a mystery, there are also plenty of silences with respect to Paul’s past: we learn that his father had given him this name so that it would sound completely French, a camouflage to go unnoticed, and that Paul knows little about where he comes from other than that it is “a place that he both was and wasn’t surprised to hear regularly invoked as an example of an urban disaster.” There is also an incident later on, when Paul overhears a conversation between his daughter and his father that at first he thinks is baby talk, and then realises is his father’s first language, a language he never passed on to Paul, a language he deems safe for his granddaughter, a generation later.

The blanks in Amelia’s past are, however, more explicit: her mother was more committed to her resistance poetry than to parenthood, leaving as legacy a box of documents that is Pandora-like in its housing of “every horror, every injustice”, and which Amelia refuses to open. The blanks are also the impetus for Amelia’s flight to Sarajevo, as she goes in search of a history that belongs to her and from which she is distanced; yet we do not learn much about this time or her discoveries. Much in Night as it Falls is about what’s not said, and this left me feeling shamefully ignorant: overall, the novel is not as instructive about Bosnia’s recent history as I was expecting, but perhaps that’s my failing for unconsciously expecting that. Just because a woman goes chasing her ghosts in Sarajevo, it doesn’t mean that the book should be about the war those ghosts inhabit. I did, however, really appreciate occasional insights such as this one: “A city shelled for nearly four years, snipers on the roofs, blood in the streets, and, ten years later, cemeteries everywhere, in the stadiums, in the parks; cemeteries and oddly healed wounds; children who would become adults unable to sleep with windows open, or with windows shut.”

Much is left unsaid between the characters too: silence generates some fundamental misunderstandings that are painfully believable. This is also true of the characterisation more generally, which is extremely consistent: all of the characters behave believably, however disappointing that might be to the others. Landscapes throb with a pain that mirrors the internal struggles of the characters, and if Paul and Amelia are closely tied to the cities they inhabit, then it is appropriate that another fascinating character, Albers, makes her living (and her notoriety) studying the notion of the city. Indeed, the supporting characters are easily as fascinating as the protagonists: the other character I really warmed to was Louise, the daughter of Paul and Amelia, whose transition into adulthood is intimately connected with Albers’ fate.

Amelia’s end is announced in the early pages of the book (indeed, the opening line is “Paul was in bed with Sylvia when he found out what happened to Amelia Dehr”), with the means revealed in the early chapters and so it’s no spoiler to mention it here: she jumps out of a window. Despite knowing this from the outset, the development of how she came to that point is full of tension, and is mirrored by a mid-novel announcement of Albers’ fate, the details of which shift into sharper focus later on. I enjoyed this storytelling technique, but the thing I found most interesting while reading Night as it Falls was the slippage between the novel itself and my own expectations. In the end, it wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated: it was very western European in its focus and form, whereas I had assumed it would be more about Bosnia; despite living through historical atrocity, the characters are mostly introspective, whereas I had expected them to be more outward-facing. But why shouldn’t Alikavazovic write about a privileged woman having an internal crisis? It was my own expectation that this novel would be about historical tragedy, and if I experienced some disappointment in the divergence between my expectations and the reality, this is not a criticism of the book itself. The wars in the former Yugoslavia remain a blurred backdrop to the narrative, yet someone who is better informed about them than I am might find more of a connection between the circumstances and the characters. Night as it Falls is a formally exquisite book, each word carefully balanced and with many echoes throughout the narrative, and Jeffrey Zuckerman’s sensitivity to this in the translation makes it worth reading for its formal properties alone. It is also well worth reading for the psychological portrait of its characters, the relationships between them, and the ability to maintain tension when the dénouement has been announced at the start. This is a book to be read for what it can offer in terms of human portraits rather than geographical or historical insights, but no less impressive for that.

Review copy of Night as it falls provided by Faber & Faber

Review: SELF-PORTRAIT IN GREEN by Marie NDiaye

Translated from French by Jordan Stump (Influx Press, 2021)

I’ve been reading and enjoying Marie NDiaye’s work for twenty years, and for me Self-Portrait in Green is something of a landmark: the first time I’ve read her in English. The style is very recognisably NDiaye (a testament to Jordan Stump’s careful translation), and many of the themes and leitmotifs also resonate with much of NDiaye’s œuvre. The surreal encounters echo uses of the fantastic elsewhere in her work, and both the absent, thoroughly disappointing father and the disintegration or dissolution of the female subject, sometimes unconvinced of the material substance of her own existence, will be familiar to those who’ve read NDiaye before. Yet NDiaye is clear that in her fiction she does not write about herself, and so the resemblances between her “self-portrait” and her fiction indicate that however close we might think we’re getting with this “memoir”, we’re only seeing a small part of a much bigger picture. Indeed, Influx’s press release describes Self-Portrait in Green as “a subversion of the memoir”, and this blurring of genres is particularly interesting. Even the title is evocative in this respect: the French “autoportrait” (“self-portrait”) is a more obvious twist on “autobiographie”/”autobiography”, but even if this subtlety doesn’t translate linguistically, we are still prompted to consider the difference between an autobiography, or assumption of a “truthful” developed and chronological account of the author’s experience, and a self-portrait, which captures only a moment or a stage of life.

The narrator goes about her daily life – dropping her children at school, visiting relatives – though this life seems anything but ordinary. It is on the school run that we witness her first encounter with a woman in green, who is standing in a garden beneath a banana tree: in this banal-turns-supernatural encounter, the woman seems visible only to the narrator. The second woman in green is a cruel schoolteacher from the narrator’s childhood who comes to her in memory, and the third is the woman she mistakes for her friend Cristina, an encounter you can read in last week’s post. This extract was particularly interesting to me, as its overlap between the quietly mundane and the asphyxiatingly surreal is reminiscent of other works by NDiaye, a  nightmarish quality of being in a perfectly normal situation and yet everything seeming wrong, off-kilter (at one point the narrator even wonders to herself “is this all really real?”) The sense of being out of focus, or the focus being in an unexpected place, or one person seeing what another does not, is also a clever play with the genre of a written “self-portrait”, the contours shifting according to who is viewing. Neat answers are not given, with the narrator herself often uncertain about what she has seen and how to interpret it: this is a book that pulls its reader into a universe that, if not exactly parallel, is both familiar and destabilising – one that, like a portrait, needs to be viewed from both up close and at a distance in order to come into focus.

Other women in green include the narrator’s rapidly ballooning stepmother, who was once her close friend, a suicidal wife, or the projection of a child twenty years from now – and sometimes (or rather, just once) they may not even be dressed in green… Relationships in Self-Portrait in Green vary from the apathetic and the pitiful to the vampiric and hypnotic, and if the women serve as some kind of mirror for the narrator, then perhaps they are at once the conflicting desires inside her own heart and a projection of the lives she could have lived. They are certainly ubiquitous, and despite their unsettling effect on the narrator, they are necessary to her: “they decorate my thoughts, my invisible life, I need to remember they’re there, at once real beings and literary figures, without which, it seems to me, the harshness of existence scours skin and flesh down to the bone.”

The translation is attentive to NDiaye’s style, even if it lacks a little of her trademark concision, the economical lyricism that characterises so much of her work. The vocabulary is rich, though occasionally a little more formal in the English than in the French equivalent, owing to different fields of vocabulary usage between the two languages. Nonetheless, this is a careful translation that is respectful of the author and shows a deep acquaintance with her œuvre, and it deals particularly well with the surreal aspects of the text (as you can see from last week’s feature). In particular, the black thing that moves too quickly to grasp features both in this early section and in a chilling final scene: it comes from (or may be) the Garonne river, a pulsing presence that runs ominously through the fragments of narrative. Early on the river is described as “brown tonight, heavy, almost bulging”, and the town waits nervously but passively for the banks to break and the flood to come: if there is something inexorable about the swelling and pull of the river, so too the novella wields a destabilising and hypnotic power, hinting at dark things beneath the surface.

Review copy of Self-Portrait in Green provided by Influx Press

Editorial and extract: SELF-PORTRAIT IN GREEN by Marie NDiaye


I’m very excited to bring you a piece by Sanya Semakula, Assistant Editor at Influx Press, about bringing Marie NDiaye’s work to the UK with the publication of Self-Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump), released TODAY by Influx Press. Sanya writes passionately and insightfully about her discovery of NDiaye and the importance of this publication, and her piece is followed by an exclusive extract from Self-Portrait in Green.

Sanya Semakula is Assistant Editor at Influx Press. She is a short story writer and editor based in East London, her work can be found online at LossLit or in print anthology Flamingo Land and Other Stories.

My first introduction to Marie NDiaye was All My friends (translated by Jordan Stump). Surprised I’d never read Marie, I read up about her (she published her first novel at 17, is a winner of the Prix Goncourt, was longlisted for the Booker prize and her play Papa Doit Manger is the sole play by a living female writer to be part of the repertoire of the Comédie française).

At the time, we were publishing Percival Everett’s I am not Sidney Poitier as a way of introducing him to a UK audience and I felt Marie was similar in that she had an impressive oeuvre but was relatively lesser known in the UK. I then came to Self-Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump), read it in one sitting and was sold.

In this subversion of the memoir, Marie plays with notions of identity, memory, and paranoia. Set in La Roele, Paris, Marseille, and Ouagadougou, the narrator obsesses over the Garonne and the mysterious women in green she encounters who occupy the binaries between seductive/repulsive  real/imagined, dead/alive. Lynchian in its odd, atmospheric, fragmented imagery and scenes, the novella is told through short dairy entries. There isn’t a traditional story arch, as it moves back and forth through genres.

Self-Portrait in Green sits between The Malady of Death (Marguerite Duras), Julia and the Bazooka (Anna Kavan) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neele Hurston) in its lyrical prose, symbolical use of the river and evocation of place and fragmented structure but it is also interlaced with entries which could read as traditional memoir. The Garonne acts as a bridge between the different scenes and snippets of the women, and the novella’s ambiguities (of plot and genre) make it all the more an exciting read and is why I thought it would make a great addition to the Influx Press list.

The narrative voice is underlined with humour which compliments the tonal shifts as the novella moves from the macabre, through absurd horror, to eerie spectres, to family dramas in provincial France and Burkina Faso and always at the centre of the narrative is the fear of flooding and the appearance and reappearance of the mysterious women in green who can be read to mean a number of things.

The novella provokes more questions than it answers, encouraging the reader to focus on something else in re-reading and its fragmentation works as a strength as you never stay long enough with the women to get to the root of their appearance.

***

Extract from Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green, translated from French by Jordan Stump (Influx Press, 2021)

All the young women were in shorts, that dazzling morning. Leaving the town hall, I walked with long strides in my army-style khaki shorts, perfectly pleased to be who was in that place – the main street of a humdrum little town – and at that time, and this contentment was crowned by a vague surprise at the very existence of such a plenitude, the conceivability of such a pleasure. That’s when I run into Cristina, but as soon as I see her I’m not sure it’s her rather than Marie-Gabrielle or Alison. Not that her name escapes me: it’s just that, among those three women, I no longer know which this one is. Deep in my pocket, my fingers squeeze and shred the little lilac leaves. This person who might be Cristina is a young woman, so she’s wearing shorts, elastic and clinging, with a print of green flowers against a green background. My elation dwindles a little. It occurs to me that wariness might be called for. And yet I like the idea that soon I’ll be driving once more past the house of the woman in green, and she’ll be standing there, knowing I’m going to stop. But Cristina’s shorts are something else altogether, because I hadn’t expected them, and because green isn’t the usual colour for women’s shorts, in the first days of spring, is it? Cristina keeps her hands behind her, pressed flat against her powerful hindquarters to display her shorts’ exuberant colour as flagrantly as she can. She stands with her legs commandingly spread, blocking the entire width of the pavement. As luck would have it, she keeps her sunglasses on, and I’ve forgotten what her eyes look like, or Marie-Gabrielle’s, or Alison’s. Her blond hair is pulled into a ponytail so severe that the skin on her temples seems stretched to the splitting point. If this woman really is Cristina, I remember that she’s my friend. Cristina has a stronger claim to that title than Marie-Gabrielle or Alison, who are, as best I can recall, nothing more than cheerful companions, in whom one would never think of confiding, because any admission of weakness, of any tiny private anxiety, would be met with frosty disapproval and nothing more. Have I ever revealed anything at all to Cristina? Certainly not, it’s not in my nature. But her entire person is awash with sympathy, with understanding just waiting to be called on. I then thought, in a surge of abandon, that the woman in green beside her banana tree might have been waiting for just that: for me to unburden my heart to her.

‘Oh, this has never happened to me before,’ says Cristina in her hoarse, muffled voice. ‘There are two things, and they’re both different from each other… The first… you already know… I, you know, I left the kids… for two days, I think… two or three days… with my parents, yes, for a holiday… just a little holiday…at grandma and grandpa’s… and… you know my kids, you know them… are they… how can I put this… are they intolerable… coarse… completely disobedient?’

‘Not at all,’ I say, taken aback.

As I remember, my friend Cristina has no children. In which case, who is this woman?

‘No one could say that… call my kids that,’ she goes on. ‘Oh, they like to run around… they… they’re full of energy… like all children… children today… vigorous, healthy… . Anyway, they’re out at grandma and grandpa’s… at my parents, I mean, and yesterday, Sunday, I go… you understand… I go… get them… pick them up, and I drive up to the house… grandma and grandpa’s house… my parents’ house… and it was… oh, absolutely silent… just… just the insects cheeping… maybe… absolutely silent… and I tell myself… they’re… they’re all taking a nap… I don’t want to bother them… so… I don’t jiggle the bell… the big metal bell on the gate… so I… I climb over the hedge… a hole… a sort of hole, a low spot… in the hedge… and I climb over it, without making a sound… and I come to… the terrace… and there… I hear… my God, I hear… someone crying… a man crying and I… I look… I look through the glass door and I see… I see my father, grandpa… papa, quietly crying… in front of grandma, my mother… she’s standing there, helpless… her arms hanging limp… head down… pitiful, miserable… oh, that’s the first time… my father crying… first time I’ve seen him… anyway… and he’s talking… no, he’s almost shouting… and my God, he says… he says… and he’s talking about my kids, I can tell… his grandchildren… who really aren’t all that… right?… About my kids on holiday with them… he says… to my mother… “I can’t take them anymore, I can’t take them anymore”… and he also… also says… “I’m leaving, I can’t stay here, I can’t stay in this house with them here”… and he’s talking, you understand, about my… about my kids… and I… I left… discreetly… I climbed over the hedge the other way and then… I… I came back… later… and everything was… everything seemed… normal… just two kids on holiday at grandma and grandpa’s… and I knew.. I knew… that wasn’t how it was… wasn’t how it really was at all!’

Two tears rolled out from under Cristina’s (?) tinted lenses. I wasn’t sure what to say. What bond was there between us? And was she not guilty of having such children? Who was she? I really couldn’t think what to say. I was looking down at Cristina’s thick brown sandals. I took the little bits of lilac leaves from my pocket and carefully crumbled them over her feet.

‘The other thing,’ says Cristina, ‘maybe you’ve already heard…’

No, I answer playfully, I never hear anything. And since, for anyone who knows me, that’s an obvious, barefaced lie, I tell myself that if this woman really is my friend Cristina she’ll protest, give me a little swat on the shoulder – but no, she goes on, grim-faced, standing perfectly still.

‘A bunch of us saw it, in our yards, on the riverbank, in… Apparently there were even people who saw it in the schoolyard. The mayor… the mayor knows all about it. He saw it too. Something black, and quick. Oh, there were plenty of people who saw it.’

Cristina’s words are coming faster now. Her voice is sharper than usual. With a little hop she pulls her legs together and keeps them that way, squeezed tight. I ask:

‘What is it? What did it turn out to be?’

‘You haven’t seen anything?’ Cristina asks.

‘But what is it?’

‘You haven’t seen anything?’

All at once she pulls off her sunglasses. And then it’s clear, I don’t know that face. On the opposite pavement a young woman waves in my direction. It’s Cristina, wearing little pink shorts.

‘You haven’t seen anything?’ the first woman says again, and her tone is at once urgent, suspicious, and frightened.

I resolve not to keep this conversation up one moment longer. She vigorously wriggles her right foot, without looking at it or lowering her eyes, to shake off the shredded lilac leaves. Then she shoots me a glance full of unspoken anguish, whirls around, and hurries off, raising little clouds of dust under her sandals.

I’m so rattled I hardly notice Cristina crossing the street in her tiny pink shorts, with her graceful, jaunty gait. She kissed me twice on each cheek and I inhaled her flowery scent. Cristina smelled like a spring flower, a simple white flower. What she then said I‘m not sure I can believe myself. Still, I know I didn’t imagine it. She really did say it, however unlikely it seems. In a whisper, she said to me:

‘A bunch of us saw it, in our yards, on the riverbank, in… Apparently there were even people who saw it in the schoolyard. The mayor… the mayor knows all about it. He saw it too. Something black, and quick. Oh, there were plenty of people who saw it. What could I have answered, if not:

‘But what is it?’

Cristina shrugs, vaguely spreading her arms. Her chin tenses, quivers. Cristina is usually such an impetuous woman that at first I don’t grasp the depth of her distress.

‘No one knows,’ she murmurs.

Cristina is very pretty. Little girls turn and stare when she walks by. I’m proud to have such a charming, vivacious woman as my friend, a woman who can wear a pair of tiny pink shorts with credibility and good humor. I’m grateful to her, because now I recognise her so perfectly. I put one arm around her shoulder to reassure her, I’m not sure about what. Her shoulders sag. She’s completely disarmed. Seeing that, I don’t press her to tell me anything more.

‘The town’s sent some workers to go search the school grounds,’ Cristina continues. I’m on my way there myself. I’m worried.’

Why so worried, I ask myself, since she doesn’t have any children? And consequently, I ask myself: did I recognise her as perfectly as I thought?

Once the schoolyard and the little adjoining woods have been fruitlessly searched, I get back in my car and head for our house, a few kilometres from town. It’s already near noon. Three hours have gone by since I set off for the school, and I never noticed. Could it be that the woman in green shorts, that stranger I took for Cristina, who must herself have confused me with someone she knew, could that woman really have kept me there talking for two full hours? It doesn’t seem likely. Also, I think about that scene she described for me, the weeping father revealing his hatred for his grandchildren, and it seems naggingly close to something I’ve heard or read before. Either someone once told me about it or it comes from a novel that woman and I both happen to have read. And then she acted it out, while I listened – and I wonder: was I acting too? And did she realise I wasn’t? But was she acting herself? There, then, are all the things I don’t know. Now I’m in a hurry to get home so I can look through my books and find the one where she might have found that story. For that matter, I could well be mistaken, and that scene is reminding me of another, almost identical, and in that case fictional, while the first is simply drawn from the false Cristina’s existence. I know I can’t go straight home, and that makes me a little impatient, or maybe apprehensive. It’s noon, and the sun is beating down starkly on the water-willow fields. This hot day has left us all a little downhearted, I think, anticipating the summer that’s still to come, exhausted in advance.

I park in front of the house with the banana tree. The woman in green is gone now. A shiver of relief, almost triumph, quickly mutes my surprise and disappointment. I tell myself: my children had it exactly right, there never was a…

I get out of the car all the same. I push open the gate and start down the walk. I look up towards the second-floor balcony. The sunlight is dazzling. I shade my eyes with one hand, and that’s when I see her, up on the balcony. Then she straddles the railing and throws herself off. I’m very aware of my little smile. Because I’m saying to myself: is all this really real?

A little later I’m sitting in the kitchen of that house I so often passed by, never dreaming I might one day go inside.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Cécile Coulon, A Beast in Paradise

Translated from French by Tina Kover (Europa Editions, 2021)

A Beast in Paradise is the English-language debut of Cécile Coulon, and deals with the tragedy and determination of a farming family in rural France. The opening is a scene of bucolic tranquillity: “On either side of the narrow road snaking through rich green field, the green of storms and of gras, flowers – enormous, pale-hued, fragile-stemmed flowers – bloom all year round. They run alongside this ribbon of asphalt until it joins up with a path marked by a wooden stake, capped by a sign reading:

YOU HAVE REACHED PARADISE”

We are invited into Paradise, a sprawling farm whose topography is mapped out for us in the first two pages, until we encounter an elderly lady with a long memory standing in the empty pigpen. The idyll is broken in the final line of this first chapter, in a style that will come to be recognisable as one of the contrasts that characterise Coulon’s storytelling: “one beast comes here each morning, to mourn.
Blanche.”

Then a flashback begins, first to a key episode in Blanche’s adolescence and then to her childhood. Presiding over Paradise is Blanche’s grandmother Émilienne, whose dedication to the farm and its occupants – both human and animal – holds the family together and gives them a purpose: in Paradise, “everything began and ended with her.” When her daughter and son-in-law are killed in a car accident on the perilous hairpin bend leading to the farm, Émilienne is left to raise their infant children Blanche and Gabriel. Her own devastation is rarely mentioned: Émilienne is a woman who raises herself up and marches on.

In addition to her grandchildren, Émilienne takes in a young man named Louis who starts to work on the farm after the death of Blanche’s parents. Louis is systematically beaten by his father and one evening flees to Paradise in search of a refuge that he assumed would be only temporary, but which Émilienne calmly makes permanent. Louis becomes her trusted farmhand, as devoted to Paradise as Émilienne is. Paradise is a haven, but also a succubus, a place that lives inside its inhabitants as much as they dwell within it: Émilienne is part of the herd; Louis’ greatest connection to Blanche is their shared attachment to Paradise, “consuming, voracious, untameable”; even Gabriel, the only one who eventually summons up the strength to leave, is cursed with a black tree that had “taken root inside him in early childhood, a tree watered with fury by his parents’ deaths.”

Headstrong Blanche and sickly Gabriel are marked out as different because of their family tragedy, and have few friends at school. Though Gabriel has an interesting story arc in his own right, the focus is on Blanche: this is a girl who circumstances have “turned into a warrior at five years old.” As the children stumble into adolescence, Blanche’s proximity awakens feelings in Louis that she recognises but can never reciprocate – she only has eyes for Alexandre, the golden boy of the class. This is the love story that will raise Blanche up and then knock her down, and which forms the majority of the novel’s intrigue. Alexandre is wholly undeserving of Blanche, an unremarkable man with “big ideas, big dreams and little words” who has erected around himself a hubris of brilliance that fools everyone but Louis. Yet Louis, whose feelings for Blanche are widely known, is assumed to be simply jealous of Alexandre, and all his warnings go unheeded.

The great strength of the narrative is the way in which it builds up the tension towards the dénouement: in reality, years pass with very little happening, yet there is something compulsive about the awareness that something dramatic is looming. The balance between bucolic idyll and emotional and physical ferocity is also a key feature, and one that is particularly well rendered in Kover’s translation. Deep emotions burst out of careful restraint, and in these moments the expression is exquisite (“Her body remained upright through pure reflex, but inside, her whole soul, the soul made up of all the ages she had been, all the experiences she had had, caved in”). Indeed, the entire novel is sensitively translated, particularly the shifts in tone but also the smaller details of vocabulary: the path to Paradise is “pocked with brown puddles”, tiny insects go “skittering” up Blanche’s arms, one character “soils another with shame.”

The feature I most enjoyed about A Beast in Paradise, however, was the question over who the beast is – and what we understand by “beast”. The word appears in various contexts, and the perspectives on monstrosity are extremely clever: I got entirely the wrong idea about who was going to do what to whom, and so as the events developed I found myself spellbound by a story I hadn’t anticipated at all. Most of all, each time I put this book down I really looked forward to getting back to it. A Beast in Paradise is one of those books that reminds you that you don’t have to “relate” to characters – they can be completely different from you, and still draw you in. In particular, the build-up to the final revelation is outstanding, and after I’d finished reading I was left thinking about it for days. This is a story of ordinary lives and extraordinary pain, and a superb English-language debut.

REVIEW: Esther Kinsky, GROVE and Jean Frémon, NATIVITY

Esther Kinsky, Grove, translated from German by Caroline Schmidt (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Grove is a story of mourning: the narrator has recently lost her love, and travels to places both familiar and unfamiliar to her in order to work her way through her grief. She visits cemeteries and attends unnoticed the funerals of strangers, observing death and the mourning of others as a way to cope with the pain of her own loss. She notices grief where it might previously have gone unobserved, underlining how loss can change everything in our perspective on the world. The narrator becomes herself like the herons she observes at one cemetery: “guardians of the dead who kept watch at a proper distance, unobserved attendants to the gathered mourners.”

This kind of voyeuristic introspection (I know that sounds weird – it’s the best description I can come up with) wasn’t the highlight for me, though; I responded much more viscerally to the narrator’s intermittent references to her own mourning. There are plaintive comments that describe grief vividly and yet without melodrama: it is acknowledged that there is “no consolation in bereavement”, and that an insurmountable loss makes things that once were simple seem impossible: “Each morning I had to learn everything anew”. Similarly, the instinctive connection between memory and objects is sensitively detailed (“For years these memories were stored somewhere in my head and now they surged up only because here, at this place, I came across the missing negatives that must have been tucked away in the unused side pocket for a long time”), as is the way in which memory changes over time: “As time passed after my father’s death, he became even smaller in my mental picture of this walk along the river, and his suitcase ever larger, into which he had stuffed who knows how much of his life that he had never found a name for.” These glimpses of the narrator’s own emotion were the parts that really appealed to me in this otherwise understated narrative of grief.

The translation by Caroline Schmidt is stylistically beautiful, capturing the wistfulness and the precision of the narrator’s observations. In particular, the descriptions of nature regularly contain a single descriptive verb that makes it clear how well Schmidt has “got” this narrator: “Scattered cyprus saplings buckled over, as if in pain”; “A violent thunderstorm broke the heat that had crouched above the landscape.” There is no dialogue in Grove, or overt interaction with other characters in the present; the narrator speaks very formally (objects are weighted “qua testimony”, a town sits “atop” a hill), and there are occasional arcane phrases (“a languid summer that augured ill”) and uses of syntax (“idle lists of a forlornness that knows not what to do with itself”). This lends a gravity and formality to the narrative that is maintained admirably by Schmidt, whose translation also includes plenty of references to nature that I didn’t recognise even in English (a red-backed shrike creaks in a bush, while cliffs form tuffs on the coastline and a water ditch is lined by canebrake). I always like learning new words, and Grove was certainly the book for that. While it wasn’t “my” kind of book, it did make me think about myself – specifically about how we have to listen to what other people need us to be when they’re sharing their pain. I may not have felt a close connection with the narrator, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the shortcomings are with her.

Jean Frémon, Nativity, translated from French by Cole Swensen (Les Fugitives, 2020)

This short essay from Les Fugitives is the second offering from Jean Frémon and Cole Swensen and, like the first, represents a kind of homage to Louise Bourgeois. 2018’s Now, Now, Louison was a fictionalised biography of Bourgeois by Frémon, who was a friend of hers, and Nativity features five original pieces of art by Bourgeois that she painted in watered-down gouache to accompany this reflection by Frémon on the representation of Jesus in art.

Frémon’s focus is on a painting being commissioned hundreds of years ago: the fictional painter is given the task of painting “a large Nativity on a single panel” for a palace chapel, and must succeed in representing divinity made incarnate. The painting is not solely for decorative purpose: it should not only inspire those who already read the Bible, but also serve as an instruction those who cannot read and write. His artwork must, therefore, make it clear that the baby in the painting is the son of God. Traditional depictions of the baby Jesus achieve this variously by painting a golden aura radiating from him to show that he is no ordinary child, revealing his mystery in the awe-filled faces of those gathered around, or filling the tableau with angels and kings to demonstrate the significance of his birth; this painter decides instead to dispense with the swaddling clothes, believing that the key to showing the child’s divinity lies in his nakedness. This is also, of course, the most basic sign of his humanity, thereby instructing all those who view the painting that the son of Mary is also the Son of God.

Frémon discusses the Nativity analytically, and Swensen translates with great poise, subtly communicating two key things in particular: firstly, that Frémon’s decision to focus on a painter and his mission brings something very personal to the history encompassed within this short essay and secondly, that the women are notable by their absence. The painting is commissioned by a man, of a man, about the Son of Man, but the illustrations offer a different perspective. The five paintings by Bourgeois are made up of red brushstrokes, and depict the more human side of the Christmas story: a child swelling in the womb, a birth, a hungry newborn.

In four of the five paintings, the mother is as present as the child, and these invite as much reflection as Frémon’s prose. Heavily pregnant, she has just undertaken a gruelling journey, and then gone into labour and given birth in a stable. While I entirely understand the focus on the child – whether divine or human – it’s the depictions of Mary that I’m always drawn to, and they could easily have been absent from this essay just as they are absent from much discourse of the Nativity. The artwork by Bourgeois fills this void: among other images, she traces in blood-red strokes a view such as the one that Joseph – as de facto midwife – might have had.

The reflections are compelling and lucidly composed; in contrast the representations offered by Bourgeois are carnal, showing that for all the divine wonder of the Nativity, it is also the story of a first-time mother giving birth in extraordinary – and probably terrifying – circumstances. At the start of the essay, the canon commissioning the painter explains that “we depend on the imagination of painting to prove reality”, and the prints by Bourgeois do exactly that: this is an distinctly humanised view of the Nativity, and an interesting alternative Christmas story for you to seek out this year.

Review: Annie Ernaux, A MAN’S PLACE

Translated from French by Tanya Leslie (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

The release of A Man’s Place makes Annie Ernaux the most published author at Fitzcarraldo Editions: this is the fifth of Ernaux’s books to be published in translation by Fitzcarraldo, with another two scheduled to come next year. A chronicler of personal and historical detail, 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 Man’s Place, the subject is Ernaux’s father, a working class countryman who had been taken out of school at the age of twelve to work on a farm and pay his way. Defined when people spoke of him by the fact that he could neither read nor write, he had always wanted his daughter to rise above the “humiliating barriers” of a social situation in which he felt trapped, forever striving for a better life and never quite attaining it. Ernaux’s relationship with him was complex, and A Man’s Place represents her attempt to document his life as she knew it.

The narrative opens with Ernaux announcing her father’s death, information that she imparts with characteristic understatement: “My father died exactly two months later, to the day … It was a Sunday, in the early afternoon”. The earlier event to which Ernaux refers here was her success in the entrance exams to the teacher training college in Rouen: it was a milestone in her life, but she had been unaware that her father was proud of her achievement. She discovers the significance of her success for her father when she looks through his wallet after his death and finds a newspaper clipping of the exam results: the names are listed in order of merit, and Ernaux’s was second on the list. The father’s unarticulated pride is, however, always coupled with a more palpable resentment that his daughter has been able to move “up”, to leave her parents behind, to notice their lack of refinement and in that silent observation to make them realise that she no longer accepts their ways without question.

This is a story of missed moments and painful silences, written in what Ernaux herself identifies as a neutral style and presented as an endeavour that brings her no joy. Yet the words she chooses to write her father’s story are perfectly pitched to offer both an insight into the hardships of her father’s life and an understanding of her experience of him as a daughter. Emotions were not easily expressed in the household, and this inflects Ernaux’s detached writing style: not only does she describe it as akin to the way she wrote to her parents after she moved away, but also she observes her younger self from a vantage point years later, struggling to recognise in that stranger the person she still harbours inside her (this is even more evident in the wonderful A Girl’s Story, published earlier this year by Fitzcarraldo in Alison L. Strayer’s translation). Even the decomposition of her father’s corpse is presented in a measured way (“Within a few hours, my father’s face had changed beyond all recognition … The smell set in on the Monday”). Indeed, the imperative to remain objective is explicitly voiced when Ernaux notes that she had originally thought of writing a novel about her father, but realised that this was out of the question as “in order to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach.”

Yet Ernaux creates a work that is artistic in an unconventional way: to write a man crippled by fear of saying the wrong thing, she chooses her words with great care and embeds simple refrains from her childhood household in beautifully crafted sentences. She places these phrases in italics, and so they stand out to allow insight into the way her parents thought and spoke. Her parents are “afraid they would lose everything and lapse back into working-class poverty”, “always afraid they would eat into their capital”, and are haunted by “this fear of being ashamed, out of place.” Ernaux’s father is afraid of what other people will say, of using the wrong words (which would have been “as bad as breaking wind”), of being looked down on; the italicised phrases and the fear they contain are, as Ernaux explicitly notes, inseparably linked to her childhood. Tanya Leslie weaves them admirably into delicate sentences of her own, her careful and lucid translation respecting Ernaux’s understated eloquence. The only thing I’m less convinced about in the translation is the title: the French La Place is less specific, and so the translated title becomes less representative of the book itself. I had similar reservations about the translated title of Happening (though my quibble there was more that the title diluted the original), and I do think that Ernaux’s titles (with the possible exception of The Years) are particularly difficult to translate literally. I’m sure this won’t be a deal-breaker, anyway – fans of Ernaux will find much to enjoy in A Man’s Place, and for those new to her work it will give an excellent introduction to her writing style and preoccupations.

It’s twenty years since I first read La Place, and it was fascinating to read it in translation with a couple of decades of reading and living under my belt. I felt much more empathy towards Ernaux’s father than I remember feeling back then, and the carefully contained and articulated emotion struck me much more than they had twenty years ago – my over-riding memory had been the depiction of a suffocating home environment and Ernaux’s detachment towards her family. These things, of course, are only part of the story, but that’s how my memory had condensed it (“Memory resists”, writes Ernaux; personal reminiscence is unreliable). Above all, A Man’s Place is an emotive goodbye to a man who remained distant from his daughter, a homage born of silences and the inability to find a way to reach one another. Ernaux’s father’s greatest fear was giving his daughter cause for shame; his greatest satisfaction “the fact that I belonged to the world which had scorned him.” In this touching tribute she creates in her “educated bourgeois world” a legacy for a man she will never fully know, giving him his place by carving it out in a world from which he always felt excluded.

Review copy of A Man’s Place provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Review: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Camille Laurens

Translated from French by Willard Wood (Les Fugitives, 2020)

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is a work of non-fiction that delves into the life of Marie van Goethem, the young model for Degas’ famous sculpture Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen). In it, Camille Laurens takes us back to Paris in the Belle Époque, but exposes a sordid underbelly beneath the glittering façade.

Though the Palais Garnier opera house evokes opulence, elegance, and sumptuous fin-de-siècle decadence, Laurens takes us quietly and carefully through the reality behind the curtains. The petits rats, young girls who were sold to the ballet and earned a pittance, were put through physically demanding training routines while barely having enough to eat; if they were expelled because of absence, insolence or lack of progress then they were still yoked to the opera, compelled to pay for the years of “education” and remaining in a contract that was close to slavery. Many were sold in other ways too: Laurens notes that “as soon as the girls reached adolescence they acquired a blank gaze and a look of resignation, entering a life of prostitution without ever having been children.”

In 1880, Marie Van Goethem was one of the Opera’s petits rats, sold with her sisters to the opera house, a lonely girl whose fate concerned no-one. She supplemented her pitiful income by posing for painters and sculptors – including Edgar Degas, “her frail body now turned to bronze” by the artist His immortalisation of her did not, however, give her a voice or an identity, but rather ensured that “she would die less completely than the other girls”, seen across the world and through the generations but never known or understood. Tied in with Marie’s modelling for Degas is a topic that influenced much French literature of the period: physiognomy. This new “science” was believed to enable the educated or “initiated” to distinguish certain characteristics about people from their physical appearance – essentially, proponents believed that they were able to designate a person criminal or lacking in morals because of features such as a prominent forehead or high cheekbones. The luminaries of the day needed scant licence to exaggerate this, condemning people from the lower classes because of their appearance and supporting their prejudice with a “science” that amounted to little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy: “The ruling classes needed to be reassured about their privileges. Small wonder that they clung to theories that ‘proved’ the natural superiority of the bourgeoisie over the working class, the rich over the poor, whites over blacks, and men over women … Social hierarchy was justified by nature itself, with rich white men at the apex and other races, women, and the poor in the lower depths.” Though we may have moved beyond physiognomy, some of Laurens’s depictions of its uses are strikingly and terrifyingly contemporary.

Throughout the reconstructions in Little Dancer Aged Fourteen we gain intimate insights into Degas’ life and artistic process. In particular, Laurens lingers on his commitment to eschewing superficially glamorous representations of ballet in his paintings and focus instead on the rehearsal space, the physical hardship to which the dancers were submitted, showing “not the mythical dancer but the humdrum worker.” However, Laurens resolutely refuses to shine a purely flattering light on the artist’s intentions. She openly refers to his own prejudices – which were backed up by advances in studies of physiognomy – detailing how his exaggerated courtroom drawings of suspected criminals were designed to “reflect theories of social delinquency that he subscribed to.” On the basis of this, Laurens suggests that he did the same to Marie, coarsening her features between his initial sketches and the finished sculpture and changing her face “to give it the hallmarks of a savage, quasi-Neanderthal primitivism, a precocious degeneracy.” This alarming representation of women, and in particular a young woman with no rights, no voice and no agency of her own, may have been intended to unsettle and question, as Laurens suggests, but it also perpetuates the social hierarchies mentioned above, and makes this attempt to give Marie back a place in history all the more historically and socially important.

Towards the start of the book there were a few examples of syntax that stood out to me as awkward, but aside from this the translation by Willard Wood rapidly developed into a careful non-fiction narrative, understated and yet lexically rich, a piece that evokes the Belle Époque while simultaneously remaining contemporary. Overall, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is a particularly interesting kind of non-fiction. It blends an almost academic research (in the acknowledgements Laurens does note that the book is an offshoot of her doctoral thesis) with references that bring us back into the now – and the result is a piece that raises more questions than it answers, but in doing so shows how very contemporary the concerns of the work still are: the classism, prejudice, poverty and exploitation of women over a hundred years ago are uncannily close to our modern experience.

As for Marie van Goethem, frustratingly little about her actually comes to light, for the information is simply not there to uncover. She has disappeared in history, an insignificant and impecunious petit rat who is remembered only the way Degas presented her, offered up for the interpretation of art lovers the world over. If Laurens does not manage to reinstate Marie, or to give her a story or a voice (I was glad that she consciously refrained from inventing these in their absence) she does nonetheless succeed in questioning the place and period that condemned her to this disappearance. Though at times Little Dancer Aged Fourteen seemed more about the artist than the muse, by shining a light on Marie’s absence even as her likeness is tangibly present throughout the decades, Laurens pays the only kind of homage possible to a young girl without a future: though Laurens attempts to discern Marie’s inner emotions as she posed for Degas, to understand her thoughts and her inner world rather than simply the artist’s intentions, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is all the more poignant for the author’s acknowledgement that “what is missing is her soul.”