Book Review: I Am David by Anne Holm (Trans by L.W. Kingsland)

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Danish novel is a hymn to the plight of refugee children.

Since its publication in 1963, I Am David‘s reputation has continued to grow. For a continent struggling to heal the scars of recent conflicts, the story of a child discovering his identity while crossing Europe on foot resonated. At the time of Anne Holm’s death, it was reported that the book had sold in excess of two million copies.

Winner of the award for Best Scandinavian Children’s Book, I Am David is credited with introducing generations of children to the horrors of concentration camps and plight of refugees. Ranked alongside Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, Nina Bawden’s Carries War, and Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as one of the most significant books set in or around World War Two, I Am David uses the format of an adventure story to teach children about the forgotten victims of conflict.

Unashamedly sentimental, the novel is told from the perspective of the eponymous hero. Born and raised in a concentration camp he has limited knowledge of life beyond the perimeter. One night a guard offers David an opportunity to escape. Carrying a compass, bottle of water, bar of soap, and a loaf of bread he enters a world he has never known and begins an arduous journey to Denmark.

Withholding information about the concentration camp’s location and precise date the author has attempted to create a sense of any time. David’s refusal to trust information in books printed after 1917 is the first major hint that he has previously been incarcerated in a Soviet labour camp. The precise country he has escaped from is left ambiguous although some critics have concluded it is probably Bulgaria.

Published in an era when people were fearful that the Cold War would erupt in a fresh global conflict, the book reminded readers that in eastern Europe people were still being crushed by tyranny, terror, and torture.

Despite some finely sketched atmospheric detail and moving sequences, an over-reliance on coincidence dilutes the book’s impact. David’s twin quests to find sanctuary and self-discovery are splintered by incredulous plotting which momentarily throws the reader out of the narrative. Flawed but engaging, I Am David’ has taught generations of child readers about the aftershocks of 20th-century warfare and its victims while eulogising hope and freedom.

I Am David is published by Egmont.

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Book Review: The Venice Train by Georges Simenon (Trans by Alastair Hamilton)

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Dark story of deception and anxiety.

Mid-level clerk, Julian Calmer’s life is thrown into disarray when a chance encounter on a train shatters any semblance of normality. Another example of Simenon employing an Everyman to explore the darker recesses of the human psyche. The Venice Train is a suspense-filled novella which analyses how a turning point in a life might compel an individual to walk away from a lifetime of conformity and discover their previously repressed true identity.

Julian Calmer’s life has previously been dominated by rigidity and routine. After a family holiday in Venice, he boards a train to Paris and sits across from a stranger unaware that soon his every waking moment will be filled with paranoia. Chatting with the stranger, Calmer is surprised that his fellow traveller is taking such a keen interest in the minutiae of his life. As the conversation draws to a close the stranger hands Calmer an attaché case and asks him to deliver it to an address in Lausanne.

Calmer’s decision to take possession of the case has jeopardised the safe and comfortable lifestyle he has spent years creating for his family. The stranger leaves the carriage promising to return in a moment but is never seen again. Curious about the case’s contents Calmer delivers it and discovers the lifeless body of a manicurist.

Fleeing the crime scene he returns to Paris. Opening the bag Calmer discovers a fortune in foreign currency. With a sum of money in his possession greater than what he might earn in a lifetime working for his current employer Calmer is torn between wanting to enjoy the benefits of his find and the desire to maintain the pretence of a normal lifestyle. Fearful that the criminal underworld will find him and exact some revenge for absconding with the funds he is determined to maintain a low profile until he is sure that the no evidence of a trail exists. He trawls Paris’ newspaper stands and purchases foreign publications hoping to find some information about the bag’s owner, the deceased manicurist, and current stages of the police’s investigation.

Adhering to Simenon’s template of an individual confronting a new self when faced with a change in circumstances, The Venice Train is a below-par novella from one of Europe’s most prolific writers. Barely concealed traces of the author’s misogyny are littered throughout the book. Tension and plausibility is tossed out of the window in a deeply unsatisfying final chapter which stretches credulity and reveals a tired writer going through the motions.

One for completists. Readers new to Simenon should avoid The Venice Train.

The Venice Train is currently out of print. Used copies are available to order from Amazon.

Betty by Georges Simenon (Trans by Alastair Hamilton)

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Lost soul’s facade conceals a dark past.

One of six books cited by Simenon to counter accusations of misogyny, Betty was reportedly inspired by a chance encounter with a drunken women in a Versaiiles bar. In the majority of his books Simenon’s mother is an ever-present figure. Men are represented as victims of symbolically castrating feminine forces. Temporarily jettisoning the recurrent mother motif, Betty features a traumatised woman who is a composite of Simenon and his second wife Denyse Ouime.

A twenty-eight-year-old alcoholic is seeking solace from the bottom of a glass in a bar on the Champs-Élysées. Trapped in a destructive cycle of exhibitionism and promiscuity, this depressed drunk has been cast out of the family home and denied access to her children. Potential salvation arrives when a doctor’s widow offers Betty a place to stay.

Confiding in her new found protector, Betty reveals a traumatic past. Loveless and hopeless, Simenon’s heroine is a war orphan, her father was murdered by German troops shortly before the cessation of hostilities. The irony of Simenon writing about the horrors of war and damage wrought upon survivors is not lost on Simenologists who have long been aware that he collaborated with the Vichy regime.

Betty is effectively an extended conversation with occasional flashbacks. The ending may fizzle out but this is fundamentally a book which reveals a great deal about Simenon’s neurosis and perversions. The inclusion of an incest subplot is particularly significant because during their conversation Swiss psychiatrist Dr Pierre Rentchnick noted that the author had a particular interest in familial abuse. Simenon’s daughter would take her own life in 1973 and many questions remain unanswered about the nature of her inappropriate feelings toward her father and the extent to which he may have in some way been responsible for both her lust and the eventual tragedy. This book certainly suggests he had entertained the notion of abuse.

Dark and unsettling, in this novel Betty reveals her trauma and comes close to exposing Simenon.

Betty is currently out of print. Used copies are available to order from Amazon.

Book Review: The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By by Georges Simenon (Trans by Siân Reynolds)

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Madman on the run seeks refuge in Paris’ seedy underbelly.

A notorious frequenter of brothels, Simenon boasted of visiting thousands of sex workers. His experiences in houses of ill repute, cheap backstreet hotels, and conversations with prostitutes were mined for a credible recreation of a shadowy world filled with dawn police raids, jealous pimps, and treacherous friends. An ice cold naked city seen through the eyes of a man rapidly losing his grip on reality, The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is a supreme novel that explores many of the writer’s recurrent preoccupations and asks if truth is absolute.

Everyman Kees Popinga’s life falls apart when he learns that his employer has gone bankrupt and is about to flee from his creditors. Popinga has lived a life of strict routine in the Dutch city Groningen. A respectable mid-level executive with a wife and two children, thirty-nine-year-old Popinga travels to Amsterdam and attempts to seduce his former boss’ mistress. Convinced that his previous life was a form of self-deception, he views the probable imminent loss of family and home as an opportunity to discover his true identity.

Feeling emasculated after his boss’s former mistress laughs at his request he strangles her and boards a train to Paris unaware that he has killed the woman.

Hiding in France he mingles with the criminal underworld and finds temporary refuge in prostitutes boudoirs. Shortly after his arrival newspapers print stories about the murder of his boss’ mistress. Enraged at innacurate reporting Popinga writes to the papers to correct the information they are presenting about him and his crime. Deliberately ambiguous, at least initially, Simenon plays with the reader suggesting that a similar transformation of fortunes could transform anyone into the person Popinga has become.

Swiss psychiatrist Dr Pierre Rentchnick interviewed Simenon and published a paper entitled Simenon sur le gril. The psychiatrist who had spent a day questioning the author would later state ‘We all thought he was schizoid but we did not want to write that.’ The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is a study of psychosis and it is highly probable that Simenon was using the format of a thriller to dramatise his personal desires and torments. Rentchnick’s study revealed that Simenon was an exhibitionist seemingly trapped in a state of perpetual adolescence so writing a wish fulfillment novel is no less improbable than the author’s oft quoted claims to have slept with 10,000 women.

Powerfully evocative The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By contains details plucked from Simenon’s life. Popinga’s arrival at Gare du Nord and subsequent discovery of back streets filled with street walkers recalls a similar journey made by Simenon in 1922.

Supremely crafted this taut exploration of dark desire and insanity is one of Simenon’s greatest novels.

The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is published by Penguin.

Book Review: The Pitards by Georges Simenon (Trans by David Bellos)

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Disappointing novel offers few glimpses of Simenon’s greatness.

Determined to retire his most famous creation Inspector Maigret, Simenon intended to focus on writing literary fiction. Simenon used the term ‘roman dur’ to refer to his portraits of deviance. Freed from the crime genre’s conventions he explored themes present in the Maigret novels without the restriction of having to include a police investigation and a tidy resolution.

The famously prolific author was determined that his literary reputation would be based solely on these studies of aberrant behaviour and psychological torment. Unflinching in their examination of moral, social, and sexual transgressions, the novels presented accounts of people transformed by a moment of crisis. Unremittingly pessimistic, the 171 roman durs suggest that in an unstable world a change of fortune can shatter the veneer of a normal existence and transform an individual into a murderer, thief, or a sexual deviant. In Simenon’s fictional universe the everyman has lived a repressed life and is finally set free once their basest desires are revealed to the world.

The extent to which Simenon succeeded in transforming his reputation from that of a producer of well-crafted pulp fiction to a master of literary novels is debatable. In purely commercial terms his legacy largely rests on the widely translated seventy-five Maigret novels.

Simenonlogists consider the roman durs to be the author’s most significant literary achievements. The critical breakthrough came with the publication of seafaring saga The Pitards. French newspaper Les Temps published a critical essay by André Thérive which declared ‘I believe I have just read a masterpiece in its pure state, in its basic state.’ The journalist conceded that Simenon’s productivity had previously prevented critics from taking his work seriously and suggested that if The Pitards had been his first novel ‘there would be great enthusiasm in the republic of letters.’

Significant for ensuring critics began taking Simenon seriously, The Pitards is nonetheless a minor work from a major author. Unevenly plotted, the patchy novel is a laborious read. The account of a marriage disintegrating during a voyage to Reykjavik is a muddled work which only comes alive during the final twenty pages. Simenon’s trademark atmospheric prose is not enough to lift a novel tries to simultaneously romanticize the seafaring life, settle old scores (Simenon’s mother is present in the form of the ship captain’s wife Mathilde), and offer commentary on the French class system. The text’s primary appeal is that Simenon consciously drew from his life experiences. A lesser work in comparison to the remainder of the roman durs canon, it is nonetheless a key novel to read in order to solve the mystery of Georges Simenon.

The Pitards is published by Penguin.

Book Review: Icelandic Folktales & Legends by Jacqueline Simpson

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While Iceland’s Sagas have been recognised as one of Europe’s most significant bodies of literature its folktales have received comparatively scant attention. The popular conception of European folklore has been largely defined by the Grimm brothers work in preserving Germanic traditions of fairy tales.
For too long Iceland’s rich and distinctive version of the form was largely unknown in the English-speaking world. First published in 1972, Jacqueline Simpson’s study was an attempt to redress the balance. The text presents a selection of narratives which demonstrate that Icelandic folklore and fairytales were localised and aetiological. The author argues that the tales were originally told by a desperately poor hard-working community as a way of understanding their environment and also to reaffirm beliefs. Infused with humour and pathos, the collection provides an invaluable insight into early settlers beliefs and wishes.
Icelandic Folktales & Legends is not a definitive account of the nation’s mythology. Choosing to present thematic consistency rather than a loosely focussed cross section, Jacqueline Simpson has sourced tales from the first three chapters of Jón Árnason’s The Folktales and Fairy Tales of Iceland. The author’s decision to emphasise narratives featuring ghosts, magic, and supernatural beings has resulted in the exclusion of topics and themes which are arguably of equal historical and cultural significance.
Viewed as an introduction, not a definitive overview, the collection is an intriguing voyage into a world filled with trolls, elves, and hidden people.

Icelandic Folktales & Legends is published by The History Press

Beyond Words – Full Line-Up and Programme

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Institut français has announced an impressive line-up of author events and films screenings for the inaugural Beyond Words Live French Literature Festval.

2017 has been a busy year for translated fiction, with an exceptionally dense list of books coming out in English translation, and a flurry of European writers attending UK festivals. Amongst an unusually rich French contingent of books published this year, there are no less than four Goncourt prizes (Lydie Salvayre, Alexis Jenni, Mathias Enard and Laurent Binet) one Renaudot Prize (Delphine de Vigan), and three selections for major UK prizes (Maylis de Kerangal shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust prize, Mathias Enard and Alain Mabanckou longlisted for the Man Booker International 2017).

The Beyond Words Festival will be showcasing these works and other recent books with a relevance to France, through an entirely bilingual series of guest writer appearances, panel discussions, staged reading performances and film adaptations. The festival opens on Thursday 11 May

Venue: Institut français, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 2DT – Info & bookings: www.beyondwordslitfest.co.uk

Programme – at the Institut français

Thursday 11 May 2017

David Bellos: Victor Hugo revisited

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is the most loved, most read and most adapted novel of the nineteenth century. Prizewinning biographer and translator David Bellos argues that it outshines even its most illustrious contemporaries— for War and Peace, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment were all published within a few years. His talk will bring to life the extraordinary story of how Victor Hugo managed to write his epic work despite a revolution, a coup d’état and political exile; how he pulled off an astonishing deal to get it published, and set it on course to become the novel that epitomizes the grand sweep of history in the nineteenth century. This biography of a masterpiece insists that the moral and social message of Hugo’s novel, its plea for a new sense of justice, is just as important for our century as it was for its own.

5.30pm -6.30pm – £10, conc. £8
In English

The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis

“Before I had a chance to rebel against the world of my childhood, that world rebelled against me”. The festival opens with an exceptional staged reading of a book which took the French literary scene by storm. Translated into twenty languages and now into English by Harvill Secker, Edouard Louis’ The End of Eddy (translated by Michael Lucey) tells the life of a young gay boy growing up in a French town crushed by misery, alcoholism, racism and homophobia. Giving a voice to the voiceless, it is a painful and vibrant story of escape and revolt. How to reinvent what has been forced upon us? How to get the better of a life not chosen? Adapted to the stage by French director Richard Brunel, director of the Comédie de Valence National Theatre, with Henry Pettigrew in the title role, and actors newly graduated from the Manchester School of Theatre.

7pm – 8.30pm – £15, conc. £13
In English

Friday 12 May 2017

Michael Rosen: The Disappearance of Emile Zola

Discover the incredible story of Emile Zola’s escape to London in the aftermath of the scandalous Dreyfus Affair. Michael Rosen, Children’s Laureate and author of more than 140 books enjoyed by children and adults alike, offers an intriguing and personal insight into the mind, the love, and the politics of Zola in a book published this year by Faber & Faber. He will take you behind the scenes of the famous “J’accuse” that forced Zola to leave Paris in disgrace.

6pm – 7pm – £10, conc. £8

French Poetry Live

Poems are to be shared, embodied, whispered and spoken out loud, and our poetry libraries are full of fragments of wisdom and beauty waiting to be re-read. Come and bring to life an exciting selection of French poetry from the National Poetry Library’s collection, by Baudelaire, Cendrars, Apollinaire, Vénus Khoury-Ghata and more. A collective performance led by Erica Jarnes – no preparation necessary, just bring your voice and ears.

6.30pm – 7.30pm – £10, conc. £8

In English and French

Alexis Jenni and Hisham Matar: Rewriting History

To celebrate the UK launch of The French Art of War (Atlantic Books) and the French publication of The Return (Penguin/Gallimard), we welcome Goncourt prize winner Alexis Jenni and PEN America 2017 laureate Hisham Matar. Jenni’s novel spans essential decades of recent French history, from the aftermath of the Second World War in the 1950s, to the decolonisation and Algerian war of the 1970s. Meanwhile, Matar tells his illuminating journey to find his father, kidnapped and handed over to the Libyan regime in 1990, and retraces his steps to rediscover his country after years of exile. Both authors will be joined by their translators, French writer Agnès Desarthe and Frank Wynne, for a discussion on writing, generations, history and violence.

7.30pm – 9.00pm – £10, conc. £8

Corniche Kennedy
Film
FRA | 2016 | dir. Dominique Cabrera

Adapted from a novel by Maylis de Kerangal, Corniche Kennedy follows a group of adolescents from the working class neighbourhoods of Marseille who defy the laws of gravity in this ode to youthful sincerity and blue summers by the Mediterranean sea. Maylis de Kerangal has just been shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust prize for Mend the Living (MacLehose Press). Followed by a Q&A with director Dominique Cabrera.

8.40pm – 10.30pm – £12, conc. £10
In French with English subtitles

Saturday 13 May 2017

Truth and Fiction

For this special festival edition of our Café Philo, come and discuss the question of truth and fiction. In times of PostTruth and alternative realities, what do we hope for when we read fictional stories? To what extent do fragments of reality impact the imaginary quality of the narrative? What narratives and fictions seem most relevant to today’s concerns?

10.30am – 12pm – £2
In English

Emmanuelle Pagano and Ananda Devi

Join Emmanuelle Pagano, Ananda Devi and the brand new Librairie Caravanserail for an afternoon of readings and more. In Trysting (And Other Stories), Emmanuelle Pagano presents a myriad of minutely choreographed vignettes on love and desire. Ananda Devi sets Eve out of her Ruins (Les Fugitives) in her native island Mauritius, telling the loss of innocence of four teenagers against the backdrop of postcolonial fin-de-siècle. Pagano and Devi will talk about their work and the influences of other voices and art forms. The talk will be followed by a festive moment to celebrate the launch of Caravanserail.

3pm – 4pm – £10, conc. £8
In English and French

A Woman’s Life
Film
FRA | 2016 | dir. Stéphane Brizé

In this compelling adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s A Woman’s Life, Jeanne, a young noblewoman, copes with the loss of her ideals as she sets out on the path of adulthood and gradually experiences the harsh realities of a woman’s life in the nineteenth century.

4pm – 6pm – £12, conc. £10

In French with English subtitles

Mathias Malzieu: Diary of a Vampire in Pyjamas

“To have had my life saved has been the most extraordinary adventure I have ever had” says Mathias Malzieu. Best known as the lead singer of the French band Dionysos, Mathias is now also an acclaimed writer. He will join us – possibly with some music – on the occasion of the UK launch of his latest book, Diary of a Vampire in Pyjamas by Quercus. Insightful, tragic and funny, it is the memoir of one who lives to tell the tale of his close encounter with death, and of his addictive wonder at the triumph of the human spirit.

5pm – 6pm – £10, conc. £8
In English and French

Man Booker International Readings

Mathias Enard’s nocturnal and musical Goncourt-winning novel Compass (Fitzcarraldo Editions, translated by Charlotte Mandel) spans the restless night of an insomniac musicologist drifting between dreams and memories of the Middle East, of Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran, as well as of various writers, artists, musicians and orientalists. Meanwhile, Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses (Serpent’s Tail, translated by Helen Stevenson), a larger than life comic tale set in 1970s Congo, shows the struggle of a young man obsessed with helping the helpless in an unjust world. Storytellers Alia Alzougbi and David Mildon, accompanied by oud player Rihab Azar, invite you to celebrate these two novels, both longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

6.30pm – 7.30pm – £10, conc.£8
In English and French Related

Sunday 14 May 2017

Sophie’s Misfortunes
Film
FRA | 2016 | dir. Christophe Honoré

Christophe Honoré’s recent adaptation of the Comtesse de Ségur’s classic collection of stories about mischievous little Sophie will delight kids and young at heart. Far from being a model little girl, she’s constantly up to no good, cutting her mother’s fish into tiny pieces, making chalk tea or torturing her wax doll.

11am – 1pm – £5
In French with English subtitles

Hiroshima mon Amour
Film FRA | 1959 | dir. Alain Resnais

One of the most influential films of all time, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour features Marguerite Duras’s clear, minimalist and haunting prose and revealed Emmanuelle Riva to the world as a French actress who engages in a brief, intense affair with a Japanese architect in postwar Hiroshima.

2pm – 4pm – £9, conc. £7
In French with English subtitles

Lydie Salvayre: Cry, Mother Spain

Goncourt Prize-winning Cry, Mother Spain takes us to the heart of the Spanish Civil War, as seen through the delicate transcription of a politically, emotionally and linguistically charged conversation between mother and daughter. Montse is fifteen as Franco’s forces begin their murderous purges and cities across Spain rise up against the old order. Those troubled times, both the happiest and most miserable years of Montse’s life, are set against darker extracts taken from the contemporary account Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. Lydie Salvayre will be in conversation with her translator Ben Faccini.

4pm – 5pm – £10, conc. £8

Delphine de Vigan: Based on a True Story

Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan is a prize-winning, sophisticated and chilling novel of suspense which continually blurs the line between fact and fiction. Just published by Bloomsbury in a translation by George Miller, this unputdownable book takes the reader into a nightmarish story of master manipulation. Rarely seen in London, Delphine de Vigan will tell us more about the boundaries between reality and fantasy, friendship and fascination, and a little too about her previous bestselling books No and Me and Nothing Holds back the Night.

5.30pm – 6.30pm – £10, conc. £8
In English and French

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Laurent Binet: The Seventh Function of Language

February 1980. Roland Barthes is knocked down in a Paris street by a laundry van. History tells us it was an accident. But what if it were an assassination? What if Barthes was carrying a document of global importance? A document explaining the seventh function of language – which gives whoever masters it the ability to convince anyone, in any situation, to do anything. Who can you trust when the idea of truth itself is at stake? Laurent Binet, author of the bestselling HHhH and winner of the Goncourt first novel prize, will be presenting this brilliantly erudite comedy, published by Harvill Secker, in discussion with British author and journalist Alex Preston.

6.30pm – 7.30pm – £10, conc. £8

In English and French

Programme – at the British Library and Dulwich Books

Dulwich Books: France Country of the Month

A discussion with Alexis Jenni, Emmanuelle Pagano, Mathias Malzieu and Ananda Devi led by British author, historian and French literary critic Graham Robb. Dulwich Books, shortlisted for the British Book Awards 2017 Independent Bookshop of the Year, celebrates France as their country of the Month this May.

Sunday 14 May
3 – 5pm – £5
Venue: Dulwich Books Bookshop
6 Croxted Road, West Dulwich
London SE21 8SW
www.dulwichbooks.co.uk

Le Grand Tour: The Best of Contemporary French Fiction

Join the crème de la crème of French authors, Alexis Jenni, Lydie Salvayre and Delphine de Vigan at the British Library, where they will showcase their newly translated works through readings and short performances.

Monday 15 May
7 – 8.30pm – £12, conc. £8

Venue: British Library Knowledge Centre Theatre
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
www.bl.uk