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Guest Blog: Author Elizabeth Spradbery on French Fiction

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I love everything about France; the people, the towns, the countryside, the food, the sunny climate, the seemingly more leisurely pace of life. And it follows that books in French and about France always come high on my reading lists.

The death of Robert Sabatier recently (in June 2012) reminded me how much I have enjoyed reading French authors over the last 20 years. I scour UK libraries in London, and down on the UK south coast where I live, for European sections in about ten different borough public libraries. I have even been known to buy copies.

Robert Sabatier is probably best known for his novel “Les Noisettes Sauvage” (‘Wild Nuts’) which is a novel in the series “Olivier et ses amis” (‘Olivier and His Friends’). This vividly evokes life in rural France in the 1950s. Bonds of family and friendship are strong, and the French countryside and slower pace of life make for a  calm but joyful read. My own favourite book, though, by Robert Sabatier is “Le Lit de la Merveille”, (‘A Bed of Marvels’) a wonderfully readable book about love, work and life itself. It is set among the intriguing and amusing circles of artists, writers, lecturers, eccentrics and idealists.

Of his generation, though, and, in fact, of any generation, my favourite French writer is still Henri Troyat, originally a Russian refugee. At the age of 11 his family fled revolutionary Russia by a long boat journey to France. The story of this appears in “Youri”, one of his many novels I like the best.  Warm characters, gripping drama, these books have everything. He is perhaps best known for his epic novels about French and Russian poets, writers and tsars. He brings history to life for me by quoting people saying things like “Vous voila, Monsieur mon fils !”. (‘Ah, there you are, Mr., my son).  I like to tell anyone who will listen that ‘Troyat a du Coeur’ (Troyat has heart)’. 

Michel Déon, also a member of the elite Academie Francaise, comes a close second in my list of admirable French writers. He was almost as prolific as Troyat; I think “Un taxi mauve” (‘The Mauve Taxi) is perhaps the most readable. There is a strong Irish connection in his work, as he lived his retirement there.

Of the modern generation, my favourite authors are Christian Authier and the Beigbeders, who are cousins with very differing but both readable styles.  Géraldine Beigbeder’s “Sponsors” (I read it in French in spite of the English title) is the kind of long book you can almost read at one sitting, as it is so intriguing, a saga of French film-making in Croatia. Her cousin, Frédéric  Beigbeder, is prolific in his output, and somewhat alarming in his personal life. He is the first to criticize his own generation for being promiscuous but that does not seem to stop him using women with little sentiment, as they perhaps do him. He once described himself as ‘ugly’, whether with irony or not I don’t know, but it made me feel more indulgent towards him. He is certainly readable, mostly for the well-known and/or interesting circles he moves in.

His most readable novel, I found to be “L’Égoiste romantique” (‘The Romantic Egoiste’).  But I still can’t decide whether this title is ironic.

Also from this generation is Michel Houllebecq; but because I find this writer nihilistic and depressing in the extreme I am not inspired to write much about him (“Atomisation” is his best known work). I just ask myself how in a couple of generations French writing has changed from the warmth and humour of Troyat and Déon to describing the joyless interaction of many people in the Beigbeder/Houllebecq generation. Times are more difficult perhaps, if not materially, at least in a competitive sense.

And now for the British authors: I have to confess that for 20 years I have not read many books in English, unless exceptional. The books of Simon Parke, in particular: “Another Bloody Retreat”, “Desert Child”, “Shelf Life” and “Solitude” are always worth reading. Also Roger Lewis: “Seasonal Suicide Notes” and Hunter Davies: “Me and my Money” (originally called “Mean with Money”) are two that spring to mind without too much wracking of brain. My memories of reading in my younger days are mostly of Graham Greene and Aldous Huxley. Well, some ‘chick lit’ for relaxation, but remembering the names of these authors read so long ago is not easy.

In the last few months I have begun to buy Kindle editions of authors I find and Follow on Twitter. Among many interesting ones, my favourite English author so far is Jess Sturman, and my favourite American, Suzie Ivy.

Understatement (la litote) has been called the British sense of humour but I would say the main difference between French and English writing would perhaps be the definitions ‘philosophical’ (French) and ‘action-based’ (English). But, especially today, this is, I think, too vague to be helpful. Jean-Paul Sartre (and Simone de Beauvoir) would be, I imagine, the best known of the French philosophers: “L’Age de Raison (The Age of Reason)” “Nausea”, “Being and Nothingness” and “Iron in the Soul” give us a flavour of Sartre’s mind. I enjoy his quotations: “Words are Loaded Pistols” and “Everything has been Figured Out.”

For me, French has a musical quality that English has too but in a different way. I think of our own language as being more thrusting and positive where French can be more gentle and fluid, and reminds me of a silvery stream with their rustling ‘r’.

 

Elizabeth has this to say about her book "False Friends:Faux Amis"

I blame it on my father: my love of all thing French began in my teens when he would drive me, my mother and sisters across France every summer.  I remember little auberges with croissants and coffee for petit déjuner and onion soup for supper; huge rolling well-kept fields, and long straight roads shaded by never-ending lines of poplars.

Having become saddled with another mortgage a few years ago, I cast around for money-spinning ideas (hysterical laughter). Having cast aside the idea of solving prize-winning crosswords as a delightful but non profit-making pastime, I decided to put my major hobby to the test. Jean-Pierre had promised, many years before, to lend me a book on “False Friends” – those intriguing foreign words which sound like one thing but mean something entirely different. For instance: ‘attendre’  is not ‘to attend’  but ‘to wait’. And wait I did; the book I craved was taken back to France, and escaped my clutches. Not to be daunted, I resolved, albeit a long time later, to write my

Over the past year, since “False Friends: Faux Amis: Book One” came out (Book Two is due out around July 2011), I have taken on board some readers’ suggestions. Mainly, I should have put an index at the back; originally I told myself that all language students have dictionaries at home. But now I have to admit that these are not all as massive as my own  beautiful (now battered) Collins-Robert. If I get around to Book Three (and there are roomfuls of filled notebooks  waiting  to be put to use) a detailed index will definitely be included.

 

Elizabeth Spradbery lives in England but spends as much free time as possible reading French literature (in original), traveling through France and eating French food.  She is sometimes called a Francophile.

 

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  • AnneMorgan

    I enjoyed your lively article but dont read French well enough to follow up your leads, or should i say to make the effort to read in French.There are so many things to read however it is good for widening ones horizons to grapple with how people express themsleves in language other than ones own.Different nuances.
    Thanks for implicitly suggesting a wider horizon.

  • tournesol - re: Anne Morgan's Comment

    Interesting comment - thank you. Perhaps you may decide to read some of the French authors I mention in translation. I haven't read them in translation myself but I feel sure almost all the work of the earlier generation (Henri Troyat, Michel Déon) must be translated into English. If not, I am tempted to try it myself. A pity there aren't more hours in each day!

  • djluri

    While I don't have the courage to read French lit in the original, I have enjoyed translations of Victor Hugo (Les Miserables), most of Balzac but especially Pere Goriot and almost anything written by Colette.

    I do feel challenged by this conversation to read some original writing in German.

  • AnneMorgan

    I plan to look up some of the French writesr that you mention.After seeing Dara's comment i reaised that indeed i have read quite a number of French authors in English translation.Camus,Stendahl 'The woman in red' i think,one of Gides novels,Zola's Germinal,Anais Nin and some simple books on Lacan's work.Most of the reading was so long ago i think i must return to them!
    Anne

  • AnneMorgan

    I realised that the Stendahl was never 'woman in Red' i dont know what possessed me unless it was some association to the English author Wilkie Collins 'Woman in white'! The correct title is'Scarlet and Black'.I have pulled it off my bookshelf and will get down to reading it soon.I think that Collins was writing at the end of 19 century in England and Stendahl around the same time or just before in France. I must add Simone De Beauvoir 'The second sex' to my list. Franz Fanon although not a Frenchman wrote in French and under French colonial policy was eduacted to be a Frenchman although this acceptance was really just nominal and he never felt accepted as such despite that it was possible for colonial people to become represenatatves in the French parliament so long as they maintained a loyalty to France.His books i have read, once again in translation. anne

  • tournesol - Simone de Beauvoir

    You have made me feel I should try again with Simone de Beauvoir's 'The Second Sex'. I have ordered Franz Fanon 'The Wretched of the Earth' - amazon also mentions a French version but it's out of stock at the moment. I'll let you know how I get on with it. I enjoyed your writing 'Her Father', and shall try to get around to a comment on that. Last time I tried everything got lost but I probably clicked on the wrong buttons!
    Elizabeth

  • AnneMorgan

    Re Fanon.I like Black Skin White Masks because i feel that is the nearest that Fanion got to approaching the psychology of the oppressed.As i now live in South Africa[past 11 years] i know that it relates to my work[as a group analytic psychotherapist] and to the training i do here.Re Her Father i would appreciate it if you did make some comments it is always helpful.
    Anne

  • tournesol - Franz Fanon

    The Franz Fanon I ordered, "The Wretched of the Earth", arrived this morning, and I immediately got totally absorbed in some psychological case studies at the end. I may try to get a French version so that I can improve my French with something I'm enjoying. Shall comment on "My Father" soon.
    Elizabeth

  • AnneMorgan

    Black Skin White Masks is on Amazon in a French version.Anne

  • tournesol - Franz Fanon Peau noir masque blanc

    Many thanks for telling me, Anne. I have just found and ordered it.
    Elizabeth

  • djluri

    Elizabeth, Anne,

    I am really enjoying your conversation and the reading list which is emerging. I have yet to read any Fanon but I will keep in mind the suggestion to read 'Back Faces, White Masks' (as opposed to the Wretched of the Earth). I have never read Simone de Beauvoir's 'Second Sex' which is an egregious omission to my reading list but I did read her novel The Mandarins, a fascinating account of the post WW II struggle in France between those aligned with capitalism and those aligned with communism. A very compelling read and also offers an interesting look at the social & political network which de Beauvoir & Sartre inhabited in the 50's.

  • tournesol - Simone de Beauvoir

    I found Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" very heavy going, in spite of wanting to like it because of the feminist message. But I have put "The Mandarins" (in a French translation, if possible) on my reading list; the war-time Resistance movement is an area I like to read about. Thank you for the tip, Dara. I've also ordered a hard copy of 'Great Space of Desire' because I want to be able to see and go back to things more quickly than is possible on a Kindle. I'm not getting much time to read at the moment but what I've read so far is extrememely interesting.

  • djluri

    Elizabeth, Anne,

    I wish that more writers / readers on this site would feel inspired to begin such a dialogue as yours.

    Any suggestions either of you might have would be appreciated.

  • tournesol - Dialogues

    Thank you for the compliment! I seem to remember we started because we were emailed about each other's work? But my memory is terrible! If this was the case, is it possible to email members about anything that's been published on your site? I don't always look to see what else is around without an email prompt. Perhaps when I finish a translation I'm working on, I'll think to do that unprompted.

  • AnneMorgan

    Dara and Elizabeth, and anyone esle who feels like jpoining in,I am also enjoying this triologue and feel moved to read teh Mandarins. Re 'Black skin..' rather than 'Wretched of the earth' both are important books and as Elizabeth reminded me before the latter also has some case studies at the end which i had forgotten.I also thought to read Pere Goriot after uyou had mentioned it,have heard about it but never tried.I think some of Elizabeths recommendations,which i took down on a note to myself to look for,may be more modern,are they?
    Re suggestions we could have a book page for dsicussions of books .dont know if it would work or someone might do few notes on a book they like and we can discuss askl questions etc and so on.However i suppose we are all subkect to the few hours there seem ro be in the day!
    re Fanon,i am goint to give a lecture in Cape Town next year to students of Group analysis and i plan to do it on how we may use Fanon today since his work is not on psychologica...

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