New year, new in from France: here is our list of top 5 reads in French creating a buzz across the Channel for all of you Francophiles out there . . . Special thanks to our friends in Paris for their recommendations.
The books reviewed are listed alphabetically by author surname. @EditionsGrasset @beigbedersays @robert_laffont #francoisjonquet @olivierguez @jschnerf
@robert_laffont @EditionsduSeuil @EditionsZulma
I, Self, Me: social media and the human condition in the digital age
A Life Without End (Une Vie Sans Fin) Frédéric Beigbeder (Grasset)
59 million people die every year. But Beigbeder refuses to submit to such a fate, and sets off instead to discover the secret to eternal life. His journalistic investigation morphs into a work of literature – “a book of ‘non-fiction science’; a novel in which all the scientific developments have been published in Science or Nature.”
Beigbeder is as irreverent and rebellious and original as he was twenty-three years ago when I first read him. He has lost none of his self-deprecating humour and mischievous attitude underpinned by an eclectic body of knowledge; quite the contrary, he has matured and honed his skills. Twenty years ago he despaired of making love last – today he despairs of making life last.
“To publish your photo is now more important than your signature on a cheque, or on a marriage contract.” A radio-TV host celebrity in France, Beigbeder’s relationship with image and selfies is paradoxical: he is delighted when fans ask to pose with him, yet is intensely irritated by the one-upmanship involved. When Robert Pattinson a.k.a. Harry Potter is promoting his new film Maps to the Stars at Cannes, he signs a photo for Romy, one of Beigbeder’s two daughters. She is disappointed not to have snapped a selfie with her hero to post online for all her friends to see. Her father is hurt that his daughter has never asked him for a selfie (while other kids do, as he’s on TV).
He lives in a triplex, drives a BMW hybrid and hosts the hugely successful “chemical chat show” on YouTube. The guests ingest a randomly chosen tablet from a jar covered by a piece of black silk, without knowing what it is that they are swallowing. “Amphetamines, opiates, cortisone, sleeping pills, anxiolytics, sexual stimulants or hallucinogens . . .” What state will everyone be in, as they engage in the topical debate of their lifetime, live online?
Beigbeder’s fifty-something mates are either dying off, or have shifted from hell-raising to consciousness-raising for a new age. “It feels as though a change happened overnight: suddenly, all my friends who happily got trashed with me in the 1980s are now eating organic food and quinoa, and are into veganism and cycling tours.”
His search for a solution begins in Geneva, where he sees a Greek geneticist; and he falls in love with Léonore, the brunette virologist who plays with ten-year-old Romy on a swing out in the garden while the fate of humanity is under discussion. They visit the Frankenstein exhibition at a library and museum in Cologny where Mary Shelley wrote her most famous book in 1816 while Shelley and Byron toured Lake Geneva.
“Good sex is when two self-centred people stop being selfish.” His virility is intact – Beigbeder marries Léonore and they have a daughter. There’s one thing I don’t understand: to drive a car you need a licence; but to create life, you don’t need one. Any fool can become a father.” But this fool loves both his daughters, touchingly so.
His quest for eternal life takes him to see scientists in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Harvard, New York and California. He books into the VivaMayr Medical Centre in Austria for a detox – favoured by the likes of Vladimir Putin, Uma Thurman, Keith Richards and Zinedine Zidane – but is kicked out when Pepper, the Japanese robot acquired as a companion for little Romy, pats the pretty female bottoms on display at the poolside (she has clearly inherited her father’s sense of humour!).
We learn about the sequencing and manipulation of DNA, reprogramming of stem cells, how to edit perfect embryos, cloning, transgenic animals, DNA and the storage of information . . . Beigbeder has an extensive check up at the Hôpital Européen Georges-Pompidou, and goes to funerals. “My fear of death is ridiculous, I know it. I must face up to it. My nihilism is a failure. All my life I have mocked life; and made irony my business.” Léonore is increasingly frustrated with her husband’s obsession, and when questioned about her work, she answers “I do not fight death, I fight disease and to save lives.”
Beigbeder dreams up lists which read like a cultural barometer – the advantages and disadvantages of death, or man vs. robot – and aphorisms. His self-enquiry includes musings on fatherhood the concepts and theories of immortality. A Life Without End is an invigorating, oddball and entertaining read, spawning a new kind of post-Existentialism for the digital age.
Murder most foul: Madame Jekylls who turn themselves into Madame Hydes
The woman who killed men (La femme qui tuait les hommes), Eve de Castro (Robert Laffont)
“Jeanne often thinks about the tipping point, that moment when a life changes course. A man who was just a neighbour, a relative, a lover, a civil servant, a merchant can become a criminal, or a victim. As she organises her files and pins a cutting to the wall, what haunts her is that indefinable moment when past, present and future crystallise irrevocably.”
Jeanne is head of costumes at the Opéra de Paris. Her flowing blonde hair done up in a severe schoolmistressy bun, she is helpful, demure and discreet. For forty years she has repaired and cared for resplendent costumes with their myriad buttons, frills and furbelows. She has dressed and undressed the performers who take liberties more often than not. The man with a hare-lip whose wife was obese once sat on a stool and asked Jeanne to straddle him: she obliged; twenty seconds later he was done. Zipping up he murmured, “You’re too kind . . .” There was Maurice, for a while, but now she is alone: a solitary, fifty-year-old woman who returns home every day on the tube to a small studio crammed with press clippings. She hoards obsessively tragic news-in-brief stories snipped out of the newspapers and Paris-Match. Her favourites are murders, accidents and suicides, which she classifies according to passion: thwarted love, jealousy, pride, treachery, despair, misunderstanding.
Her tipping point: a chance encounter on the tube with a young girl weeping from a broken heart because of a womanising man of letters. Jeanne decides to give her a hand as she seeks revenge, and gets inspiration from the story of Lena Popova, hanged for killing a man in Samara, Russia in 1909. The narrative moves between pre-revolutionary Russia and literary Paris, in a rich mix of humour, tenderness and bloodlust.
A prolific and prizewinning author, Eve de Castro’s first novel was published in 1987. She regularly reviews for Le Figaro Littéraire. Having written four TV screenplays, she knows how to spin a gripping narrative.
The Anatomy of Evil
The Disappearance of Josef Mengele (La Disparition de Josef Mengele) Olivier Guez (Grasset) | Prix Renaudot 2017
SS officer and physician, Josef Mengele was one of the doctors responsible for the selection of victims to be killed in the gas chambers and for performing sadistic and deadly human experiments on prisoners interned in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. After a 30-year manhunt, he died in South America under mysterious circumstances, having managed to slip through the cracks of an international investigation. What connivance was there between West Germany and South America, and how did the torturer of Auschwitz known as “the Angel of Death” benefit from it?
In this superb literary manhunt, a powerful, geopolitical thriller, the writer, journalist, and screenwriter, Olivier Guez, invites readers to explore the depths of evil. As he shines a spotlight on the corrupt society of postwar South American society where former Nazis, Mossad agents, greedy women and dictators make their way in a world dominated by fanaticism, money, and ambition, the alarming parallels with today’s Western society are clear for all to see.
Hiding behind several different pseudonyms, protected by networks and his family’s money, and supported by a community in Buenos Aires that still dreams of a founding a Fourth Reich, Mengele believes he can invent a new life for himself. In Germany, it is a time of reconstruction. Peron’s Argentina is benevolent. And the entire world simply wants to forget. But soon the chase is on again, first by the Mossad, then by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. With the help of sympathizers, Mengele finds temporary refuge in a remote farm in Brazil. From then on, he will never have a moment’s rest. He survives through paranoia, but becomes the claustrophobic prisoner of his own hopeless situation. He will eventually be found dead, having drowned on a beach along the Brazilian coast.
The Nazis’ crimes continue to haunt us in myriad ways, not least because of how the Third Reich’s policies of extermination represent racism in its most extreme form. In Nazi Germany everything came down to race. Across America and Europe today, political protest in certain deprived and crisis-ridden areas is increasingly taking on neo-Nazi characteristics.
“Everyone benefitted from the system, until the destruction of the last years of war. No one rose up in protest at the sight of Jews made to kneel and clean the pavements. Nobody said anything when they disappeared overnight. Had the world not united against Germany, the Nazis would still be in power.”
This untold and profoundly disturbing story shines a light on geopolitical mutations; on how historical perspectives change; and on the psychology of cruelty. It is an unsettling reminder of where distorted perceptions and racist beliefs can lead. Never underestimate the power of the mind.
As Simon Kuper recently wrote in the Financial Times, “The book – almost all documented, bar some imagined dialogue and internal monologues – brings us as close to Mengele’s mind as is feasible . . . It deserves to be read worldwide.”
Girl on Fire
I want to burn all the time (Je Veux brûler tout le temps) François Jonquet (Le Seuil)
“This morning, the doorbell stayed silent. I did not hear her cheerful voice calling out in the distance, ‘I’m coming! J’arrive!’ I did not buzz again, to hear her playful exclamations coming closer, ‘I’m coming! J’arrive!’ repeated in mock serious, exasperated tones as the door opened to reveal her big blue eyes and their teasing expression. She is not here. Yet the air is vibrating with her presence.”
Celebrity of a different cultural bias informs this moving portrait of a shooting star of the French film world, Valérie Lang, daughter of Jack Lang, Minister of Culture under President François Mitterrand who made the Ministry of Culture powerful in a way it had never been before.
In 1959, when the Ministry of Culture was founded by writer André Malraux, the idea was to get rid of an elitist, bourgeois culture and democratise cultural events making them accessible to everyone. Jack Lang followed this policy and was instrumental in helping get support from officials for the president’s visionary Grands Travaux, or Great Works. During Mitterand’s first term, plans were put in place for the restoration of the Louvre (including the pyramid for the entrance); the Great Arch at la Defense; the Bastille Opera; the Arab Cultural Institute; la Villette Park, Science Museum, and Music Centre; and the Orsay Museum.
Valérie grew up surrounded by actors, her parents having founded the World Theatre Festival at Nancy before moving to Paris to run Chaillot National Theatre. She was 17 years old and François Jonquet 23 when they first met. Theirs was a profound friendship lasting thirty years until her sudden, tragic death. She was everyone’s darling who struggled but dealt with her daughter-of status, ultimately relishing her acting profession and political activism. (She and her friends Emmanuelle Béart and Josiane Balasko staged a sit in at Saint Bernard church in the poorest parish of Paris in support of homeless people.)
“Theatre is entertainment for the mind.” She didn’t realize she was quite beautiful. Life was frightening and glamorous and exciting all at the same time. Finding her thing, her place in life, took time. The love of her life was theatre and opera director, Stanislas Nordey.
Jonquet gathers together her correspondence, emails, personal jottings, press cuttings and photographs; and interviews family friends and lovers, to create a moving intimate portrait of a shooting star and her vibrant cultural universe.
“I was often invited to dinner, or to Sunday lunch. Crazy about gastronomy to the point of turning cooking into a fine art, your father was in the kitchen. He would walk all the way to the île Saint- Louis to buy the best meat in Paris. His speciality was a pot-au-feu. Sometimes there were guests: Pierre Bergé returning from the USSR where he had met Raisa Gorbacheva who impressed him with her intelligence, and vast cultural knowledge. Yves Saint Laurent had fallen for her; it was like he had a crush on her. We listened all agog, impatient for first-hand information about the winds of change sweeping cross the USSR. Here I was, a young man, dining at high table.”
I want to burn all the time is an elegiac and finely-crafted tribute to a funky-but-chic young artist at a heightened time politically and culturally. It is likely to make you nostalgic for a time and a place which you probably never knew. The perfect read for Francophile culture vultures.
Writer and critic François Jonquet is well-known across the Channel for his portraits of great eccentrics from the worlds of culture, music and art – from Jenny Bel’Air (the French Divine), to actor Daniel Emilfork (best known for his appearances in Federico Fellini’s Casanova and Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro’s The City of Lost Children), and collaborative British art duo, Gilbert & George. His coming-of-age novel Les Vrais Paradis (A True Paradise), takes place from 1979 to 1984 at iconic club Le Palace created by Fabrice Emaer. The Studio 54 of its day, it was a place where fashion, music, and underground culture from around the world combined in a mythical blend.
The Passion of Passover
Cette Nuit (That Night) Joachim Schnerf (Zulma)
“Sarah’s hatred of concentration camp humour intensified after the goldfish incident which – she claimed – had traumatised our two daughters. Denise was eight, and Michelle six. I had gone with them to a funfair, the day before July 14th. After a few rides, the girls begged me to play Go Fish! to catch them a goldfish. Thanks to my steady hand I won twice. Each daughter left holding a plastic bag filled with water, inside a tiny scaly creature. Their high pitched squeals filled the car as they squabbled about what to call their new friends. I reminded them that I was the one who had won the prize, therefore I would name them. Silence fell in the back seat. Laughter resonated in the front. Sarah came home late from work, and found the two goldfish swimming in a large salad bowl. All excited, Denise introduced them, ‘Meet Goebbels and Goering, they’re brothers. And their names start the same! Goebbels is mine and Goering is Michelle’s.’ Sarah broke down and screamed, ‘Solomon’!”
Solomon, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, comes together with his family at the dinner table for the first night of Pesach (Passover). It is an annual ritual, but this time it is different. Solomon is full of dread – he misses his beloved wife Sarah who, for the past fifty years, had managed to soothe his traumatic memories and knew best how handle their difficult daughters. Denise is there, reserved and tense, with her likeable though braggadocio husband. Her belligerent, resentful younger sister is being her usual provocative self and picking on her unfortunate husband who is as bland as a stick of celery, their children Tania and Samuel seemingly powerless to do anything.
Discomfort and humour permeate the search for identity and meaning in this mordant family drama by a rising young star on the literary scene. Evocative of Mordecai Richler and Philip Roth Cette Nuit has only just been published yet is already featuring in top 20 lists of best books of the new year.
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