February 2019 book reviews

Connexion journalists read the latest French releases. To be fair, each gets 20 minutes’ reading time

23 January 2019
By Connexion journalist

Tropic of Violence, Nathacha Appanah

Maclehose Press Editions, £14.99 ISBN: 978-0-85705-773-0

If you fancy a glimpse of a France far removed from the one most of us know geographically and socially – you could do much worse than pick up Tropic of Violence, a short but hard-hitting novel set on the newest French department Mayotte.

At the same time gritty and poetic, it tells of a French nurse, Marie, who moves to this far-flung island in the sea between Madagascar and Mozambique, to marry her boyfriend (who is Mahorais – the term for someone from Mayotte) only to find herself dumped a few years later when another woman catches his eye.

It may be France’s poorest region
but Mayotte is still wealthier than its neighbouring islands and a target for refugees who come on rickety boats and face early-morning queues for paperwork (with which some British readers may now sympathise...), often suffering from injuries and illnesses.

One of them, a young woman, abandons her baby with Marie, who brings him up only to die of a brain tumour – the opening pages of her memories turn out to be her life flashing before her eyes.

The focus is then on the boy, Moïse, moving startlingly into a scenario where he has killed another youth who abused him. He later gets mixed up in gang violence in an infamous slum – far from the typical idea of an island paradise.

 

Lauragais, Colin Duncan Taylor

Matador £12.99  ISBN: 978-1-78901-583-6

You may not have heard of the Lauragais – but that is the point of this book, a vividly descriptive bid to encourage people to visit an area which, author Colin Duncan Taylor, who has lived there for two decades, says modern life and tourists have largely passed by.

Pronounced Lo-ra-gay, Taylor says “once you scrape below the surface” of the area “you will discover a land steeped in history and soaked in blood” (notably that of the Cathars who died in the Albigensian crusades, or later on of Protestants).

He says this region of hills, walled towns and villages, dotted with forts, abbeys and sail-less windmills is not one where you learn about history in a museum but rather you “stumble across it in a country stroll”, “hear it spoken” in dialect in the market, or “pull it over your head in the shape of a pastel-dyed garment” – referring to woad, made from a plant grown there and used for a blue dye that was once exported all over Europe.

He succeeds in revealing depths beneath the landscapes which may otherwise flash by on the A61, combining tales from history with his own explorations and anecdotes from locals; from a neighbour who shows off his medieval cellar equipped to withstand a siege, to the owner of the only inhabited Cathar castle, whose resident ghost is “always grey but isn’t disagreeable”.

 

The Princesse de Clèves, Madame de Lafayette (translated by Nancy Mitford)

Riverrun Editions, £8.99 ISBN: 978-1-78747-058-3

Nicolas Sarkozy – not known for his artistic sensibilities – famously dislikes La Princesse de Clèves, saying it was ridiculous civil servants had to answer questions on it in exams. So much so it sold like hot cakes among those opposed to his economic policies who sported ‘I’m reading La Princesse de Clèves’ badges.

This tale of illicit love and of intrigue among factions at the 16th century court of Henry II may seem removed from today’s practicalities, but is hailed by literature lovers as one of the first great novels and noted for its exploration of the characters’  feelings as opposed to just narration of adventures.

This new edition is a reprint of a 1950 translation by Nancy Mitford, an aristocratic English writer who lived in Paris and who was described by a French magazine as ‘England’s gift to France’ (she is also known for the expression ‘U and non-U’ about how to recognise someone’s class from the words they use). According to a new introduction by her biographer Selina Hastings, Mitford wrote to Evelyn Waugh she was ‘translating it in hopes of showing the English what French society is like, because that’s exactly what it’s like to this day’.

Author Madame de Lafayette had much in common with her – an aristocrat with a literary salon and who loved life in Paris where she lived amicably estranged from her husband, a rural gentleman 18 years her senior from the Auvergne, who she saw every few years.

When the book came out in the era of Sun King Louis XIV it was an immediate success, sparking much debate about whether or not the heroine was right to have admitted to her husband her love for another man, much as friends might discuss soap plots today.

The heroine is a young lady who is taken to court by her ambitious mother and ends up married to a respectable man who is infatuated by her but for whom she just feels a lukewarm respect, much to his disappointment. Then the king introduces her to the charming Duc de Nemours at a ball, sparking off romantic feelings between the two.

The first few pages deliver an almost overwhelming catalogue of information about different people at the court (there is a handy
glossary at the back) but it gets more interesting once the spotlight turns to the new ‘beauty’, the future Princess, who has just made her admired debut at court. Most characters apart from the heroine are historical figures, from Catherine de’ Medici to Mary, Queen of Scots.

 

Renoir’s Dancer, Catherine Hewitt

Icon Books £9.90 ISBN: 978-178578-305-0

Born the illegitimate daughter of a widowed laundry worker in rural Limousin in 1865, Suzanne – real name Marie-Clémentine – Valadon, had an inauspicious start in life. Nonetheless she went on to become a model to famous painters including Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec and, inspired by them, became a successful painter herself, the first female member of the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts and owner of a large medieval chateau.

There is doubtless an exciting story to be told here, but it is questionable whether Renoir’s Dancer (named after the cover image, a well-loved Renoir of her dancing with a male friend) pulls it off with the panache its subject deserves. 

It opens with a confusing preamble about an event some years after her death then details her mother’s early struggles and social aspects and superstitions of the Limousin before Marie-Clémentine arrives as a pretty baby some 25 pages in.

It continues in chronological style as mother and child move to Montmartre.

Well-researched, and livened up with descriptive scene-setting and occasional direct quotes so it sometimes resembles a novel more than a biography, it nonetheless may have benefited from more focus on high points and less minutiae.

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