BookBlast’s curated Top 5 French Reads recommends works in French for translation into English. So here is our pick of this year’s new releases of la rentrée littéraire.
La rentrée littéraire is a curious phenomenon: hundreds of new books of all genres flood French bookshops and the review pages of the literary press between the end of August and the beginning of November. It is a way for publishers to capitalize on the awards season, and at Frankfurt Book Fair in October – at which France is the guest of honour this year – as well building up a buzz leading into the Christmas period when the most books are sold.
Anglophile French friends in Paris send recommendations. And then there are wonderful talk shows about books like La grande librairie (France 5) or Jérôme Garcin’s Le Masque et la Plume (France Inter) and of course, radio France Culture – all are streamed on the web.
Abuse Most Foul
Innocence by Eva Ionesco, published by Grasset, is by all accounts a controversial, disturbing and dizzying read about an unintentionally scandalous life spent in front of the camera. Eva is dead cute with her blonde curls and the pinch-me chubbiness of a 1970s child. Pimped by her photographer mother who uses her in erotic photos, she is the youngest model ever to appear in a Playboy nude pictorial, having featured in the October 1976 issue of the Italian edition – age just 11. She also made her film début that year, playing a child in Roman Polanski’s film The Tenant. In 2012 Eva sued her mother for taking pornographic photos of her as a child.
Macron the Man
The other book everyone is talking about is Philippe Besson’s portrayal of Emmanuel M. in Un Personnage de roman (A Character in a Novel) published by Julliard. August 30, 2016: Emmanuel M. appears on the 8 o’clock news when he resigns from government. Besson has a revelation: he realises that he is looking at the man who will, one day, be president. He ends up shadowing the future head of state for nine months, and captures the essence of the man and his conquest of the Elysée palace, (he was referred to as “le candidat plexiglass” by arch rival Marine Le Pen), in this narrative which reads like a novel. Are there literary parallels?
“Who would he be?” asks Besson, running through a classic (fictional) hit list of brilliant, ambitious young men. Frédéric Moreau in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, who falls for an older woman and lives through the 1848 revolution . . . Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, in which the older woman features in the shape of Ellénore, the Polish mistress of the Comte de P*** . . . Eugène de Rastignac, the ruthless, young, banker – a 19th century wolf of Wall Street created by Balzac . . . Or the handsome, ambitious young Julien Sorel who seduces the older Mme de Rênal in The Red and The Black . . . ? (Or, of course, Romain Gary, and his first wife older than him by ten years, Lesley Blanch . . .)
March of the Penguins
La Fonte des Glaces (Melting Glaciers) by Joël Baqué, published by POL, is the story of Louis, a retired charcutier (pork butcher) in Toulon, born in the Cote d’Ivoire to a mother from Carcassonne and an accountant father. When he acquires a stuffed Emperor penguin from a junk shop, he rearranges his attic to accommodate his new friend, and ends up embarking on a journey into the cold, taking in the south Antarctica on an ice safari with an Inuit guide and the Canadian Far North in the wake of “iceberg hunters” who trade in prehistoric ice used for luxury bottled water. He becomes an unlikely star in the environmental movement.
Avant-garde Influences the Mainstream
Ma reine (My Queen), published by Iconoclaste, is a first novel by director and screenwriter Jean-Baptiste Andrea, about a solitary child living in Provence in 1965 – “Shell, an unusual kid in an indifferent world.” He leaves his parents in their petrol station out in the sticks, and heads off into the maquis and down the highway to adulthood, with offbeat results. Heavily touted as being bestseller material, this surreal narrative sounds like a wonderfully weird fusion of David Lynch and Jean Giono.
Autobiography Through Someone Else’s Life (Preferably Famous)
Lastly, the Romain Gary-inspired tidal wave of books rolls on, with Gallimard’s publication of François Henri Deserable’s Un Certain M. Piekielny. The author stumbles across a plaque on the wall of a house in Vilnius stating that Gary lived there as a child from 1917 to 1923. He takes Gary’s superb memoir about his mother, Promise at Dawn, and a certain M. Piekielny who lived next door, as the starting point for a series of picaresque adventures of a character in search of an author – who is a master illusionist, so the mystery remains.
Romain Gary’s (first) wife of 18 years, Lesley Blanch, was both alarmed and amused by the hysteria of Le Tout Paris littéraire surrounding her ex-husband and his oeuvre, twenty years ago she wrote: “I always knew I had married an extraordinary man, one who over the years became something of a legend. But lately, judging by the number of letters I receive asking for my memories of him, or my opinion on this or that thesis or doctorate, and all else concentrating on Romain’s origins or ‘lost identity’, I see that my ex-husband has become a cult figure no less . . .” (extracted from On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life, Virago, Little Brown UK). WHAT would she say now?
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