31 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section, is a piece by summer intern Adam Witzel on Olivier Adam’s Cliffs, which came out from Pushkin Press a couple years back.

Olivier Adam is the author of many novels and children’s books, several of which have been adapted for film, including his debut Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas. In 2004 he won the Prix Goncourt for his short story “Passer l’hiver.” He is also a founder and current member of the program planning committee of the “Les Correspondance de Manosque” literary festival.

The protagonist-narrator of Cliffs bears some striking similarities to Adam. They share the same first name, are both writers and suffer from depression, which may explain why the novel reads, emotionally, like a real memoir—sans melodrama.

The novel follows the protagonist’s reflections on his life over one night—the twentieth anniversary of his mother’s suicide. He rests in the same hotel room his family stayed in the night of his mother’s death, which is situated on the same sea and cliffs where she killed herself. Lying down, Olivier attempts to move away from his past, and his present is precariously shelved, as if on the same cliff his mother threw herself from. On the first page he discusses this sundering, which his future is indebted to as he takes his plunge.

Click here to read the full review.

30 July 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Olivier Adam is the author of many novels and children’s books, several of which have been adapted for film, including his debut Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas. In 2004 he won the Prix Goncourt for his short story “Passer l’hiver.” He is also a founder and current member of the program planning committee of the “Les Correspondance de Manosque” literary festival.

The protagonist-narrator of Cliffs bears some striking similarities to Adam. They share the same first name, are both writers and suffer from depression, which may explain why the novel reads, emotionally, like a real memoir—sans melodrama.

The novel follows the protagonist’s reflections on his life over one night—the twentieth anniversary of his mother’s suicide. He rests in the same hotel room his family stayed in the night of his mother’s death, which is situated on the same sea and cliffs where she killed herself. Lying down, Olivier attempts to move away from his past, and his present is precariously shelved, as if on the same cliff his mother threw herself from. On the first page he discusses this sundering, which his future is indebted to as he takes his plunge:

I’m thirty-one and my life is just beginning. I don’t have a childhood, and from now on, any childhood will do. My mother is dead and everyone I cared about is gone. Life has wiped me clean like the empty table at which Claire and I are sitting and at which Chloé has pulled up a chair, a sweet smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

It is his daughter Chloé for whom Olivier decides to restart his life, and he may relive his childhood vicariously through her while trying to avoid conferring the same travails he experienced onto her.

The novel could be read as Olivier’s final thoughts on his life to date as he falls through the darkness towards the uncompromising rocks, paralleling his mother’s passing. Or it could simply be his rationalization to move on. Nonetheless, his narrative traces memories of his night-walking, earth-consuming mother, his years of escapist sex, drug and alcohol abuse, the mutual disgust he and his brother Antione feel for their oppressive and absent father, his independent years in Paris, and the death of two close friends. Throughout, the ghost of Olivier’s mother continuously appears, demonstrating the extreme degree to which her death preoccupies him. Depressing? Yes, but it is frosted with a rectifying layer of uncertain hope.

Adam’s mastery of the language (and Sue Rose’s deft and thoughtful translation) is what makes Cliffs so engaging. It reads like the music of Billie Holiday, Nick Drake, and/or Leonard Cohen sounds. (In the novel, Olivier recalls listening to all three). Olivier’s narrative voice takes the form of a mix between the unvarnished Cohen and Drake, while the complexity and subtle emotional intensity of Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” mark the tale of his mother’s suicide. To gather a sense of the novel as a whole, one considers Drake’s “Pink Moon:” short, sweet, melodic, melancholic and, after the first spin, leaves the listener bursting with the sense of unperceived meaning, and wishing to go again.

At the end of the book a summarizing “I’m thirty-one…” reprise reveals much of the tone:

I’m thirty-one and it doesn’t matter. I know how heavy the dead are. And I know about bad luck. I know about loss and devastation, the taste of blood, the wasted years and those that trickle through your fingers. I know how deep the sand is, I’ve experienced its resistance, its soft, ambiguous material. I know that nothing is dependable, that everything unravels, cracks and shatters, that everything withers and everything dies. Life damages the living and no one ever puts the pieces back together or picks them up.

Ultimately, the sea is not just a place for death, it also takes hold of some of its more common connotations: cleansing and reflection. Cliffs is spectacular from top to bottom.

4 February 08 | E.J. Van Lanen |

The Waitress Was New is the first of French author Dominique Fabre’s novels to be translated into English. The novel is narrated by Pierre, a 56-year-old bartender who has been tending bar his entire adult life, more or less, and has spent the last eight years working at Le Cercle, a typical French café situated in the Parisian suburb of Asnières.

I’ve been fifty-six for three months now. My last birthday didn’t really get to me, but my fifty-fourth almost threw me into the Seine, if you’ll pardon the expression. I took a half-day off to see a prostate specialist and get my free checkup from Social Security, they couldn’t find anything wrong. That filled me with joy for two days, just long enough to pick up a nasty hangover. I thought about my dream again, then pushed it away with a shrug as I served a beer-and-Pincon to a guy from the MMA insurance office on Maurice-Bokanovksi, he has a pointy beard and a black suit. Sabrina calls him Landru. And after that I just kept right on going. Fortunately the new girl knew her job, because without the boss around it was hard work manning the bar. Amédée was in his unusual good mood, and Madeleine had to get after him a couple of times, nothing terribly serious, but the pass-through’s too small, the dining room was noisy that day. The boss’s wife wasn’t letting it get to her, she stayed behind the cash register the whole time, looking like she was thinking of something else, probably wondering where he could have got to, and keeping an eye on things like she always did, between chats with the regulars. Once or twice I caught her giving the ceiling a blank stare, the boss had it repainted two summers before, during the August closing. Since I hadn’t gone away on vacation that year—or the year before or the year after, for that matter—he’d asked me to keep tabs on the work, and I did. She had the dreamy look of a boss and wife whose marriage was heading steadily downhill if you asked me.

The novel follows Pierre’s life over the course of a few days, and opens with the opening of Le Cercle. The normal waitress, Sabrina, is out with the flu, and shortly after introducing the new waitress, the boss, Henri, sneaks off. Pierre and Henri’s wife Isabelle, who works the register, assume Henri has gone to spend time with his mistress, the ‘sick’ waitress Sabrina.

Fabre seems more interested in investigating the inner life of Pierre—albeit in the limited way that Pierre, who spends his life listening rather than talking, is able to describe his thoughts—and painting a small portrait of a group of working class people than in creating a complex plot, so there isn’t a lot of action in this slim volume. Pierre makes the briefest of enquiries when Henri doesn’t show up for a few days, and then comforts Isabelle. He has couscous with his long-time friend and fellow bartender, Roger, and keeps the café open in Henri’s absence for a few days. He has a fleeting interest in a couple of different women, but seems resigned to being alone at his age. He contemplates retiring, but discovers that he’s a few years away from qualifying for a full pension.

As I said, there aren’t a lot of fireworks, but as a portrait of a Pierre and his ‘everyman’ life, the novel is a success. The reserved, melancholy, and resigned tone that Fabre strikes is maintained beautifully throughout the book, and he has given Pierre just enough wit to lighten things up from time to time. And, in keeping with the ‘slice of life’ feel of the book, the slight twist at the end doesn’t bring any closure, rather it opens further possibilities which remain unexplored. This is a quiet book, but one that promises to stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

Overall, The Waitress Was New is well worth the long afternoon it takes to read. Hopefully, Archipelago plans to publish more of his novels in the future.

The Waitress Was New
by Dominique Fabre
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
117 pages, $15.00
978-0-9778576-9-2
Archipelago Books

30 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

At least in terms of output, Georges Simenon is a Herculean writer. He makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker, having written over 400 novels and short story collections in his lifetime. And if that weren’t enough, he added to his mythic stature through fun games like this:

In 1927, Georges Simenon, the phenomenally prolific Belgian author of crime novels, helped engineer a publicity stunt that sounds like a forecast of reality TV: He sat in a glass booth and wrote a novel in a week, in full view of the public. Simenon was all but unknown then, a journeyman author of indifferent pulp novelettes under a variety of pseudonyms. The feat made him famous, became the first thing many people knew about him. It was certainly the first thing I ever knew about him—I heard the story from my father, who at the time of the performance was growing up a few miles from Simenon’s hometown of Liège. No one who witnessed the feat forgot it. Pierre Assouline, in his 1997 biography of Simenon, quotes from no fewer than four memoirs by acquaintances of the novelist, recalling the surging crowds, the writer’s concentration, how he did not once look up from his typewriter . . .

Which sounds intense . . . The story gets even better though when you find out that it never took place.

The newspaper that was to sponsor it went bankrupt, and Simenon couldn’t get another to take up the baton. It was just as well—the announcement provoked nothing but jeers: Simenon’s hometown paper lamented that their boy had committed professional suicide; one Parisian columnist went so far as to announce that he would be going armed and taking potshots at the booth. But the damage was done.

(Both quotes are from Luc Sante’s fantastic article in the recent issue of Bookforum.)

With so many books, it’s very difficult to figure out where to start—even if you just consider the eight titles put out by New York Review Books. To be honest, I picked up The Engagement solely because it was a Reading the World book this year, and I’m going to lead a discussion on it for Words Without Borders this September. That said, I ended up absolutely mesmerized by this subversive little book.

The Engagement starts with an immediate reversal of a typical crime reader’s expectations—instead of starting with a crime, or the set-up for a crime, the book opens in the aftermath of a murder with a very tense interaction between the solitary Mr. Hire and his concierge, who is a bit frightened of him. It’s only after this portrait of a creepy, suspicious, bloody man is damningly established that we hear about the dead prostitute.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers here—not that it really matters who killed the prostitute, since catching the murder is of secondary importance to all the characters in this book. The police don’t really care—one of them would much rather spend his time trying to get with the attractive, busty woman in need of help—and neither does Simenon. He seems much more intent on creating interesting, bleak, troubling characters, all corrupt and unlikable, than pulling his reader’s along via plot twists and forensic discoveries.

In his afterword, John Gray has an interesting comment about this novel in relation to the typical crime book:

As has often been noted, the traditional detective novel is a morality tale in which any doubt we may have about the reality of order in the world is finally dispelled. Noir fiction arouse as a reaction against this kind of consoling narrative with its promise that wrongdoing is sure to be found out and punished. But much noir fiction is also a tribute to justice. Society and human life as a whole may prove systematically unfair; but the very fact that humanity rages against this predicament shows that deep in human nature there is a rejection of injustice that may be defeated but cannot be destroyed.

Morality and justice have no place in Simenon’s novel. As the plot unfolds, the real focus becomes the psychological plight of Mr. Hire, who is trapped in an impossible life and situation. Suspected of murder and fully aware that he is constantly being tailed, he tries to convince the beautiful, damaged blonde (the one he watches undress through her window every night) to run away with him and start a new life. The reader knows that things won’t end well, that redemption, hope, justice, and just illusions in this world, and after finishing the book, the catastrophic conclusion seems inevitable and destined from the start.

Part of the reason why this novel works so well is the understated nature of Simenon’s writing. The book has an existential flavor, drawing the reader in and leaveing him or her to fill in the gaps in order to understand and decipher the desires and workings of Mr. Hire’s mind.

Anna Moschovakis did a fantastic job rendering this book in English. The only real complaint I have is that Mr. Hire’s “cash reserve” switches from 80,000 francs to 8,000 francs, which seems like a bit of a difference. Simenon may well have written better books, and if you’re a fan of CSI you might not be satisfied, but overall, this is a tight, cinematic novel that lags only occasionally, and is definitely worth reading.

The Engagement
by Georges Simenon
Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis
New York Review Books
135 pp., $12.95 (pb)

6 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

A week or so ago, I posted a reference to the story of Pierre Jourde, a French writer who was harassed by the townsfolk in a rural French city who believed Jourde was making fun of them in his book. I guess in France books seem to evoke a lot stronger emotions than here in the States, which can result in, well, jail.

Harsh Book Critics Are Punished

Five villagers in central France received suspended prison terms and a fine yesterday for attacking a writer, Pierre Jourde, who they believed had insulted them in a novel, Agence France-Press reported. In 2005 Mr. Jourde and his family were set upon by a group in Lussaud because his book “Pays Perdu” (“Lost Country”) painted a grim picture of life in that hamlet. Three women and a man received two-month suspended jail terms, and another man was fined 500 euros (about $690). Mr. Jourde, a native of Lussaud, drew on several local characters for his novel, portraying them as drunks and simpletons. (New York Times)

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