Henrietta Foster is an established journalist, TV producer and film-maker. Her latest film Beyond the Grace Note (Sky Arts) looks at some of the most remarkable and resilient female conductors, and the joys and challenges of the profession in the male-dominated world of orchestral conducting. Her previous work includes Art & Islam with Hari Kunzru for the BBC (2004), and Millennium Minds with philosopher, Alain de Botton, for Channel 4 (1999).
In January of this year when the world was quite normal with open functioning cinemas there was one film I really wanted to see: Le Mystère Henri Pick. I’d liked the other films based on David Foenkinos’ novels and even better this one starred the marvellous Fabrice Luchini. Sadly I missed both screenings at the Ciné Lumière in London because in those far off days there was more than one thing to do in the evenings. I went to the Institut Français library and checked the novel out but just before lockdown someone else requested the book and I had to return it unread. Henri and Henrietta seemed fated not to meet.
Then to my great joy I saw that Pushkin Press was publishing a translation of the novel and in conjunction with Walter Presents no less. Walter Iuzzolino and his collection of continental European television dramas are the only real reasons to watch Channel Four now that Homeland is over. Putting aside my guilt about not reading the novel in French, I asked Pushkin Press for a copy to review.
The novel starts with the setting up of the library of unpublished manuscripts in the Breton seaside resort of Crozon by the town librarian Jean-Pierre Gourvec. The idea comes from a novel by the American writer Richard Brautigan who first wrote about a library of rejects in his 1960s novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. An actual library for unpublished works was set up in Burlington,Vermont in homage to Brautigan and his work. Jean-Pierre describes the library to his assistant Magali as his “charity work” and she adds, “I get it you want me to be the Mother Theresa of failed writers.” Magali promises that she will look after the library and protect the manuscripts. Jean-Pierre dies but the unloved shelf of rejects still exists and continues to gather nothing more than dust.
That is until literary editor Delphine Despero and her writer boyfriend Frédéric Koskas spend their holiday with her parents in Crozon. On a visit to the library they both become enchanted by the shelf of rejects. They tell Magali how much they love the idea, and she says, “Gourvec would be so pleased . . . it was his life’s work, if you like. He made others’ failures his own success.” “That’s very beautiful,” Frédéric says – his debut novel had just been published and is a huge failure.
One day they chance upon an unpublished manuscript that they believe to be a true masterpiece. The Last Hours of a Love Affair by Henri Pick contrasts the protracted death of Alexander Pushkin after a duel, with the very end of a complicated love affair. Pick turns out to have been the owner of the town pizzeria.
Before telling Pick’s widow Madeleine about her husband’s lost novel, Delphine and Frédéric decide to eat at his pizzeria which is now a crêperie. They look around and imagine where exactly he must have written the book while the pizza dough was rising. Delphine says to her boyfriend “This is our Vivian Maier . . . you know that wonderful photographer whose pictures weren’t found until after her death . . . it’s practically the same story. And people adore stuff like that.” Foenkinos then tells us who Vivian Maier was and gives us perhaps a first clue to the eventual answer of the mystery.
Frédéric suggests that he write a “behind the scenes account of our discovery” and call it The Manuscript Found in Crozon, or better still, The Library of Rejected Books. That might be a second clue and is essentially what the book is about, namely how everyone reacts to this lost masterpiece.
First they confront Pick’s widow Madeleine who finds it hard to believe that her husband was capable of writing a Christmas card let alone a novel. After reading the novel Madeleine and her daughter Josephine are very moved and decide that it must be based on the few months the Picks spent apart when they were teenagers. The chance discovery of an old copy of Eugène Onegin in a cardboard box full of pizzeria accounts in their attic finally makes them accept that Henri Pick must indeed be the true author of this startling novel.
Foenkinos explores in fascinating detail the whole process between the first thrill of discovering the manuscript in the small town library, and the ecstatic reception on publication. The sales teams are over-excited about this novel by a complete unknown, the distributors cannot believe their good fortune and the media see a really first rate story to exploit. A veritable cult surrounds the book and once it has been published there is no such thing anymore as “out of season” in Crozon.
Like Pick’s novel, and indeed Onegin, Foenkinos’ novel is interwoven with various romantic beginnings and endings – a third clue perhaps. Delphine and Frédéric, Jean-Pierre and his long lost wife Marina, Magali and her husband José, Madeleine and Henri, Josephine and her ex-husband Marc, Jean-Michel Rouche and Brigitte. Jean-Michel is a literary critic down on his luck, determined to prove that Henri Pick was not the author of the now much loved novel in order to resuscitate his flagging reputation. He almost succeeds in achieving this by finding a letter written by Henri Pick. At the end of the novel there is a double answer to the mystery, and both answers are satisfying.
There is a strange mixture of fact and fiction peppered throughout the book that might seem a bit obscure at times to the non-French reader. Brautigan was a real writer and he did write about a library of rejects. Delphine talks about the thrill of meeting Michel Houellebecq and discovering HHhH by Laurent Binet. The real life writers Jean Paul Enthoven and Frederic Beigbeder throw in their two cents worth about Henri Pick. Olivier Norah and Heidi Waneke do work at Grasset. Richard Ducousset does work at Albin Michel. Thomas Langmann did produce The Artist. Jack Lang did found the fete de la mystique so it is more than possible he would have done the same thing for unpublished authors. Bernard Pivot and Francois Busnel of La Grande Librarie are real French television personalities. It begs the question as to whether the French inevitably read the book as more of an in joke than we do? Is it both a detective story and a portrait of the current French publishing scene and is that in any real way important?
It is however a great read and a true page turner. I almost read it in one go but had to to do something before finishing the last sixty pages. Most irritating. All the characters and possible answers to the mystery were swimming in my head until I got to finish it three hours later. It seems to me that it is like one of those wonderful films set in Brittany by Eric Rohmer but after the summer crowds have gone and only the locals remain. Everyone is still wearing striped Breton t-shirts and espadrilles but the shorts have been replaced by jeans and a navy blue sweater is always at hand. The charms are wearing a little thin, the holiday atmosphere has evaporated and the days are drawing in.
Previously I have read David Foenkinos in French and must congratulate Sam Taylor for nailing down his particular voice in this excellent translation. A young French friend once told me that she enjoys Foenkinos because he writes like we talk. A pretty good definition of what that particular voice consists of and Taylor has captured it perfectly.
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