Archive for the ‘france’ Category

Art and Pleasure at the Royal Court of Lucknow

02/08/2011 1 comment

PARIS – Riches, arts and delights: the Guimet Museum brings to life the splendor of the royal court of Lucknow, a city of northern India, which glittered like a star for a century, from 1754 to 1856, until its annexation by the British.

Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah and his heir Mirza Amani, by Tilly Kettle, 1772.

The exhibition “A royal court in India, Lucknow, eighteenth – nineteenth century,” which runs until July 11, 2011 in Paris, demonstrates that for a century, the capital of the Mughal province of Awadh (now Uttar Pradesh) was home to a sophisticated cosmopolitan culture.

It has paintings of court, miniatures, jewelry, valuables, luxurious textiles, and old photographs of the city of gold and silver, all witnesses to “a hybrid, welcoming and brilliant Indo-Muslim civilization,” notes Amina Taha Hussein, chief curator at the Guimet Museum.

When Delhi, the seat of the Mughal dynasty, was sacked in 1739 by Iranian invaders, Indian artistes – painters, poets, musicians, dancers – flocked to the prosperous agricultural region of Awadh, and Lucknow in particular.

Europeans, adventurers, artists, representatives of military and commercial companies also were attracted by the beauty of the city, its opulence, and the generosity of its Nawabs, sovereign Shiites of Iranian origin. Among them were the English painter Tilly Kettle, the Frenchmen Claude Martin and Jean-Baptiste Gentil, and the Swiss Antoine-Louis Poli.

The exhibition, created by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is the first devoted to the city of Lucknow of the time of its splendour.

The golden age of the city was short, the British having ended it in ambush. It started with the accession to power of the ruler Shuja al-Daula in 1754, who made Lucknow his permanent residence. The Nawab attempted to curb the growing power of the British East India Company militarily, which earned him a stinging defeat in 1764. He then signed a treaty with the British in which he recovered his powers of Awadh in exchange for trade concessions and large payments of money.

Gradually, under the leadership of its nawabs keen to showcase their dynasty by the glitz and the arts, Lucknow was bedecked with palaces, mosques and mausoleums inspired by Mughal architecture, embellished with rococo and neoclassical European decor.

The houses stretched along the Gomti river (a tributary of the Ganges), on which floated the boats of Nawabs, shaped like fish.

In 1819, Ghazi al-Din Haidar took the title of king and freed Awadh from the nominal suzerainty of the Mughals, with the blessing of the East India Company. His crown was directly inspired by those of European monarchs.

The last Nawab of Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah, had a special interest in music and poetry. But the British East India Company, which despised him, decided to remove him in 1856 and annex the province of Awadh. This is a story beautifully told in the film “The Chess Players ” (1977) by Satyajit Ray.

The coup in 1857 triggered the Indian Mutiny (Indian soldiers serving the British), which will come to be described as the first war of Indian independence.

Lucknow suffered reprisals by the English and partly destroyed in 1858. A professional photographer, Felice Beato, was on hand to capture the takeover of the British. Deprived of its court, the city gradually declined.

(By Agence France Presse)

[Translated from L’Express, published 2 May 2011]

Categories: art, france, history, india

Alessandro Malaspina and his Expedition

13/03/2011 1 comment

[In 2010, the Spanish ministry of Science and Innovation promoted an interdisciplinary oceanographic expedition on the vessel Hesperides with the aim of generating a consistent inventory of the impact of climate  change on the ecosystem of the ocean, and to explore oceanic biodiversity. They have set up a website for the purpose, and this is a loose translation of the section on Malaspina’s 1789 expedition.]

In October 1788 King Carlos III approves the plan submitted by the naval officer Alejandro Malaspina with the intention of making a scientific and political trip around the world. Here begins the most daring naval exploration of those sponsored by Carlos III, which becomes known as the Malaspina expedition.

Check out this time line of the expedition.

Two naval corvettes are put into service of the expedition: the Discovery and the Bold, commanded by Alexander and José Bustamante y Guerra. Preparations were made in record time. In less than a year, the boats are made ready, the crew recruited, naturalists hired, equipment purchased, and officers trained. On Thursday July 30, 1789 the ships moor in the port of Cádiz, the crew nervously anticipating their imminent departure.

Fifty-one days later, America is in sight. On September 19, the ships anchor in the harbour of Montevideo. Large streams, beautiful trees, and vast pastures with grazing cows and horses surround a city whose streets are dirty and badly paved. The Sugar Loaf Mountain overlooking the west side is turned into a magnificent botanical garden adorned with tiny hummingbirds.

From Montevideo, the expedition leaves the Atlantic Ocean to begin its reconnaissance of the Patagonian coast and the Falklands, skirting Cape Horn. In Pacific waters, Concepción, Valparaíso, Coquimbo and Arica are the ports of call for the expedition. The region has dazzling deposits of silver, gold, copper, and mercury, attracting the attention of the Crown.

At the end of May, the expedition arrives at the port of Callao. The impending bad weather provides an excuse for rest and recuperation. During this time, too, the ships are repaired, provisions are made for food and scientific equipment, and the local region explored. On 20 September, the expedition begins the next stage of its journey, this time along the coasts of Guayaquil, Panamá y Nicaragua, which are adorned with magnificent volcanoes. In order to speed up the survey of the region, the ships split up. They will rejoin later at the port of Acapulco, to be followed by the exploration of the Northwest Coast. They intend thence to seek the Northwest Passage between the oceans, which was described in 1588 in an apocryphal document by Ferrer Maldonado. It will turn out that the passage does not exist.

While the corvettes explore the icy waters  of the North Pacific, the naturalists have been enjoying the hot weather in Mexico. They have explored Petaquillas, Chilpancingo, Tasco, Cantarrana, Mochitlan, Méjico, Cuernavaca, Guadalupe, Puebla. When the corvettes return, the expedition regroups and begins preparations ahead of their journey to the Marianas Archipelago and the Philippines, where they will stay during the monsoon season. Later, they will head for New Zealand and New Holland, and enjoy some R&R in the Friendly Islands, entertained by the natives.

On the first of July, 1793, the ships hoist sails for the long return to Spain. After an extensive hydrographic survey of the American coastlines, they arrive at the port of Montevideo in the middle of February 1794. In anticipation of French attack, they join the frigate Gertrude to protect the homebound convoy from Lima. France and Spain are at war. Five years since their departure, the Discovery and the Bold dock at the harbour of Cádiz on 21 September 1794. They haven’t circumnavigated the world, but they have conducted an ambitious and extensive exploration of the Americas, Oceania and the Pacific.

For Alessandro Malaspina, the end proved dramatic. In view of his merit, he was raised to the rank of brigadier in 1795, but soon thereafter, his influence and achievements earned him the enmity of Manuel de Godoy, then Foreign Minister in the Spanish court. Accused and convicted of revolutionary conspiracy, Malaspina was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in the fortress of San Anton. In 1803, the sentence was commuted to exile, and he moved to Genoa. He died in Pontremoli on April 9, 1810.

Olga Orlova and the Fields Medallists – Part III

The third meeting

Venue – Independent University of Moscow. November 2002.

There were three of us in the meeting with Laurent Lafforgue, with the interpreter Darya Sisoeva helping out.

OO: Monsieur Lafforgue, you are well-known as a patriot of French culture and language. You know several languages, including Russian, and have always defended the right of mathematicians to communicate in scientific circles in their native tongues. This position – is it the result of reflection, or a fruit of family upbringing?

LL: Since childhood, books have been the most important part of my life. From early on, I began to read not only French but also Russian literature. In fact, till I was about twenty years old, my main occupation was literature. I was also interested in history, which kindled in me an interest in other cultures. I didn’t plan on taking up mathematics as a career. I had a very good education, and I had a wide ranges of choices on what to do next. But I’m Parisian, and I wanted to remain in Paris, and so at the age of 19, I joined the École Normale Supérieure– the best school for mathematics and physics, completely unaware of my future career as a researcher. Only in the second year did I realise that I was attracted so much to mathematics. I began to read the works of Grothendieck – he is a French mathematician, and founder of algebraic geometry. That’s when I began my interest in algebraic geometry, because I found in it the sort of beauty that had always appealed to me in literature. I have always thought that in mathematics there’s a deep link to literature, just as with history. After all, mathematics is a collective endeavour. And if I count for something in mathematics, then surely I count for something in the historical process as well.

OO: Is there anyone you would like to share your success with?

LL: Certainly. There are people who supported me in my most difficult moments. In addition, having spent six years at University and in graduate school, when I was unable to write my thesis, I was admitted into a research group with some fellow investigators. Still, for two years I had no serious results to show. I was getting paid, but I just couldn’t complete my dissertation. This wasn’t the best time of my life. But the head of my group, Luc Illusie, not only believed in me but also took charge of my situation, and offered to change my supervisor. Now I understand that I just wasn’t interested in working on old themes. If you don’t like what you are doing, you can’t come up with any beauty in your work. Thus I got a new supervisor, Gerard Laumon, who then took charge of my fate.

He gave me a new topic, and things improved – I began to get good results. My supervisor, despite being a famous mathematician, took a lot of interest in me, uncaring of his own time. I owe him personally no less than I do professionally. And the next topic, the one for which I won the prize, was one he founded. But even here, things were not simple. I worked on the subject for six years, and as my research concluded and I began to present expository lectures on my work, I realised that I had somewhere along the line committed an error.

This was a deeply tragic moment in my work, because the error cast doubt on my entire research. I have to say that at that time not only my supervisor, but also all my colleagues at University understood the gravity of the situation that I found myself in, and all of them supported me. All of them.

OO: Are you from an academic family?

LL: My grandparents were uneducated, and my parents are physicists. I have two younger brothers, both of whom are mathematicians. One is a researcher, and the other a teacher.

OO: In earlier times, during the USSR, there were widely distributed scientific family dynasties. Following a career in science didn’t bring much by way of material gain, but much honour and respect. But in the last fifteen years, the situation has changed dramatically. How does a mathematician feel about himself in France? Is there a problem of ‘brain drain’ in your country?

LL: French scientists receive good money, albeit less than in the US, but overall they do lead good lives. Importantly, in France we have very strong mathematical schools and many famous universities. There isn’t much of a brain drain because the majority of French mathematicians want to work in their own country. Nor is there much unemployment because there are lots of places open to researchers. So we have not only Russian mathematicians visiting us, but also Americans. They are happy to lose monetarily because they are attracted by the high scientific level.

Undoubtedly, France has not been unaffected by the changes that have occurred throughout the world: the undervaluing of intellectual capability. Our youth prefers to entertain itself. They prefer sport or show-business, anything other than science. And that’s a pity. Young people do not want to occupy themselves with anything intellectual because there are no guarantees of any material fortune. But I have always sought beauty. In the beginning, in literature and poetry, then in history. I realised very late that in mathematics too there is an equal beauty. If you work in the fields of scientific discovery, this is always interesting. I felt this most keenly in the university when all around me were so many bright people, all of whom were inventing, discovering something new.

OO: In Russia, we have a joke: “An American university is where Russian instructors teach mathematics to Chinese students.” Don’t you think that in coming years, Russia might stop supplying mathematical brainpower, and the arena will be left open to that other scientific superpower, namely China?

LL: Of course, having been in Beijing, I am able to assess the level of state support for science. But I think such pessimistic forecasts are premature. In Russia, despite the poor funding for science, mathematics cannot really die out – after all, for seventy years, the Russian school has been the strongest. And other countries, too, won’t let Russian mathematics die out. For example, the Independent Mathematical Institute where we are now has been financed by the US.

OO: Our interview with Vladimir Voevodsky ended with his apocalyptic predictions about the future of mathematics in general as a fundamental science. In this regard, are you an optimist or a pessimist?

LL: As you prefer… Voevodsky is a representative of the American mathematical scholarship. That is a completely different world; true, they are paid a lot, but intellect in the US has never been particularly valued. My prognosis is more optimistic. Science with such a long history cannot die, and people will continue their researches. On my own part, I have two themes that will over the next thirty years interest a lot of people.

OO: Are you ready to return to this debate in thirty years?

LL: If we live that long.

[I translated loosely from Olga Orlova’s piece on Polit.Ru. It appears that in 2002, when she first wrote it up to link with the International Congress of Mathematicians at Beijing, the journal that had commissioned it, ‘New Model’, went out of business without publishing it. She and her editors decided that the content was still relevant in 2006, when the Perelman story was appearing in the world’s press in the run-up to the ICM in Madrid.]

Olga Orlova and the Fields Medallists – Part II

03/08/2010 1 comment

The second meeting

Venue – A Moscow Kitchen. October 2002.

Vladimir Voevodsky came to the interview not alone, announcing from the entrance that his prize should be shared with three people, of whom he couldn’t bring along the first and the third, but he had managed to snare the second.

VV: Let me introduce you: this is Yuri Shabat, Professor at the Moscow State University. If I make a mistake in something, he’ll correct me.

OO: And who is the first person?

VV: Well, actually even before him were the dinosaurs. When I was really little, I loved dinosaurs. And then books on chemistry began to fall into my hands; my mum brought them, she was a chemist. From theory I soon moved onto practice, and there were explosions in the bathroom, after which there were experiments with electricity, and then, going backwards, theoretical physics, which my father, a physicist, introduced me to. When I was seriously ill with pneumonia, my father’s friend Oleg Sheremetyev brought me a Rubik’s cube to distract me. There were no published solutions to the puzzle at the time, and I killed two days to crack it on my own. And then Oleg and I went on to solve more complicated mathematical puzzles. Oleg used to spend much time those days teaching mathematics to kids at the Pioneers Palace. He was the first to show me that mathematics could be interesting of itself, in a very pure sense.

OO: Volodya, you finished high school but you do not have a degree. Does that mean, by Russian standards, that you are under-educated?

VV: I was rusticated from Moscow University for academic failure. I was already interested in algebraic geometry, but attending classes seemed like such a waste of time. I took a break from academics, and began an apprenticeship at a vocational school where kids were being taught programming. One day, I found some scrap paper on a table with formulae scribbled over it – and immediately realised that there was someone around who thought just like me. I was overjoyed and went in search of the owner of that paper. And that’s how I found Yura Shabat. He didn’t deny it. “Yes,” he said, “These are my papers. So what?” Well, I said, I have also been thinking along those lines. It was very important to me that I had found him.

YS: Yes, and after that, we worked for a long time together.

OO: So what attracted you to algebraic geometry?

VV: Purely subjective factors, I have to say. At the time, algebraic geometry was being done by interesting people, such as Shafarevich.

OO: And how did the move to America come about?

VV: Even after returning to academics, I still wouldn’t attend classes. In 1989, then, obviously, everything collapsed, and such formalities as degrees seemed quite useless. After Yura Shabat, I began to work with Misha Kapranov, and we published several papers. Then he went off to graduate school in the States, talked about our work, and thanks to him, I became a graduate student at Harvard.

OO: Your relationship with America, it appears, was not entirely idyllic?

VV: To be honest, America impressed me at once. On the very first day I arrived at Harvard, I was handed keys to an apartment, to an office, and a cheque for a thousand dollars. And I was a mere graduate student! At the time, there were many Russian mathematicians on the faculty. Dmitri Kazhdan was Dean. I need to share my prize with him as well. He and his colleagues supported me at a period when I could no longer live in Russia, and I was still new to America. I remember, during my first Christmas in Boston, I got drunk and wandered into a black ghetto. There I was robbed, beaten and hurled into the snow. This, of course, added to my discomfort; but I was deeply anguished, missing Moscow, and thinking how much I hated their Christmas. I wanted my New Year [My note: Russians celebrate New Year rather than Christmas], with a fir tree and my mum and presents. I went to Professor Joseph Bernstein, and said to him – I can’t stay here. He answered me in one sentence, “Well, if it’s so bad for you here, then go home.” I am eternally grateful to him for this. I went to Moscow for four months, and he covered up for me, saved my fellowship and stipend. Then I returned and lived for a few months in my office, writing up my dissertation quickly. When I went in the mornings to brush my teeth in my sweat-pants, students would be coming into the department and looking askance at me. But Dean Kazhdan gave me the possibility to complete my work in peace. So I got my doctorate, but without any college degree either from Russia or America.

OO: Was such an option open to you in Russia?

VV: Formally, it wasn’t prohibited, but it is clear that the entire procedure would have been much harder, and taken much longer. There have been earlier precedents, but in my opinion, perhaps more often in the pre-war days than today.

OO: Setting aside material comforts, what distinguishes a scientist’s life in Russia from that in America?

VV: Everything. It’s a different professional environment. In my own field, there are ten times as many people working in America. There is the corresponding level of competition. In Russia there is no direct relationship between a scientist’s academic success and financial situation. If a person is comes up with an extraordinary idea, then everybody says, ‘Praise God, we are happy,’ but his salary is not going to go up from tomorrow. In America, it is likely to increase; but if you prove something interesting with your colleagues, at once the question arises – who did what first? Because the prizes have to be divided. In Russia, when people think up the same idea simultaneously, it is rather nice. There’s a professional collegiality. But in the US, this would decrease the material consequences of a scientific achievement. Although I have to say that in mathematics this is not as strongly felt as in biology, chemistry or medicine.

OO: Besides science, you have always had a wide range of interests. You have travelled the world, kept up your interest in history, followed politics. You live in the US, your wife is Egyptian, and you have friends of various religious persuasions. You have, perhaps, a nuanced view of events in the world.

VV: Undoubtedly, I have a cosmopolitan regard of current events as I do constantly listen to views of people from different sides of the barricades. And it is not difficult for me to note that not all of them are true. No less, it is evident nuclear weapons that used to be so difficult to obtain, will become quite common. And I don’t see any reasons that can stop those people who want to use them. Clearly, nuclear war awaits us in the coming decades. On the other hand, in American scientific journals, such as Science, I regularly read that its consequences are not as scary as we might imagine.

OO: Well, thanks for the consoling thought… And what will happen to mathematics in these projections?

VV: Nothing good is going to happen to mathematics, even if there’s no nuclear war in the near future. Mathematics has developed over a long time with lots of intensive research. But today’s mathematics requires immensely larger resources: of people, time, and money. You understand, in modern science we have a situation where the amount of time a person has to spend just to bring himself up to speed with an open problem is unacceptably long. I cannot explain – even to a very good student in his final year at University – the details of my work! Today, new people find it harder and harder to engage in the scientific process. I think it’s a bad sign. If mathematics does not turn to the practical needs of mankind, in fifty years it will no longer be in any form we can recognise.

YS: Well, here I’d like to object. I am well acquainted with the history of mathematics, and can say that apocalyptic predictions of its demise are not new. But mathematics, paradoxically, has always evolved in an irrational fashion. Its history is very similar to that of poetry. In some periods there is a crisis, and then there’s a period of barely discernible development in new directions, and then there’s a powerful creative explosion. Forecasting this systematically is impossible. I think than in fifty years mathematics will still exist as a fully-fledged science.

VV: Shall we bet on it? Let’s meet in thirty years, say, and examine the situation. We won’t wait fifty years – who knows if we’ll live that long?

Vladimir and Yuri made the wager, I excused myself. Time passed.

[To be continued.]

[I translated loosely from Olga Orlova’s piece on Polit.Ru. It appears that in 2002, when she first wrote it up to link with the International Congress of Mathematicians at Beijing, the journal that had commissioned it, ‘New Model’, went out of business without publishing it. She and her editors decided that the content was still relevant in 2006, when the Perelman story was appearing in the world’s press in the run-up to the ICM in Madrid.]

Olga Orlova and the Fields Medallists – Part I

The first meeting. Venue – Beijing, August 2002. We met up with Vladimir Voevodsky and Laurent Lafforgue at the International Congress of Mathematicians – the pre-eminent event in the world of mathematics. The Congress is nothing less than a hybrid between the Olympics and the Nobel Prizes. What it has in common with the former is its quadrennial occurrence, and to present at it is as much an honour as it is for a sportsman to win a medal at the Olympics. And like the Nobel it confers an award, the Fields Medal, which is possibly the greatest prize in mathematics.
We may never learn what occasioned Alfred Nobel so much dislike: mathematics as a discipline, or mathematicians as a community. One thing is for sure, though: he did not declare any share of the prize to mathematicians that might enhance either their prestige or their financial status. Nobel laureates quickly become stars on TV and radio, their bank accounts bulging to the tune of several trailing zeroes; for the rest of their lives, they enjoy the fruit of their labour. Fields medallists, though, are known chiefly to their colleagues, and the prize money itself is so modest that they scarcely have enough to purchase a middling automobile. In addition, there is a severe restriction: the prize can be won only by a mathematician not older than 40 years of age.

But none of this diminishes any of the scientific work that is nominated for it. And so the professionals in their thousands descend upon the Congress from all parts of the world, reminiscent of warriors who congregated to measure themselves against each other in ancient times. In 2002, the Congress held in Beijing was unusual in two ways. It was the first time since the inception of the Fields Medal in 1932 that it was being held in China. Secondly, it was the first time that the prize was being awarded only to two mathematicians, not four as was the usual practice. [My note: this is not true. The first five ICMs had only two prizewinners each, as did the one in 1974.] The quality of achievement of these two men was considered so high that it had been impossible to find another pair equally eminent. In Beijing, the event had assumed a national importance. I suppose this was no different from the way we conducted the International Festival of Youth in Moscow in 1957.
On all TV and radio stations, they transmitted live broadcasts of the events unfolding at the mathematical institute where the Congress was hosted. All manner of strangers, in the markets, on the streets, in the shops, came up and welcomed us when they noticed the badge we wore with the ICM logo. And the prizes themselves were awarded in the great hall of the Chinese parliament by the President, Jiang Zemin. At the centre of all the attention, of course, were two young light-haired Europeans, who looked so alike to the President that he mixed up the medals, and didn’t at once realise with whom he should standing to be photographed.
[I translated loosely from Olga Orlova’s piece on Polit.Ru. It appears that in 2002, when she first wrote it up to link with the International Congress of Mathematicians at Beijing, the journal that had commissioned it, ‘New Model’, went out of business without publishing it. She and her editors decided that the content was still relevant in 2006, when the Perelman story was appearing in the world’s press in the run-up to the ICM in Madrid.]

Writings on the Moon

[A loose translation from an article in Le Figaro by Bruno Corty, Françoise Dargent, Thierry Clermont.]

The 1960s were marked by the conquest of the Moon. Forty years ago, Neil Armstrong walked on that new world, an achievement that was the culmination of a competition at once ideological and technological. For the Americans, this was an achievement to demonstrate their scientific superiority in the geopolitical context of the Cold War with the Soviets. To celebrate the event, the magazine Life commissioned Norman Mailer to reflect on the mission of the Apollo XI. His text, Moon Fire, has recently been reprinted in a new edition. Furthermore, an anthology gathers novels and poems celebrating the Moon. From Alexandre Dumas to Edgar Allan Poe, through Jules Verne and Pierre Boulle, Pierre Louÿs and Lamartine, writers and poets have imagined a thousand ways to walk on the moon before man finally arrived. Yet another reissue not to be missed is that of the extraordinary voyages by the Greek rhetorician Lucian who lived in the second century of our era, and was the first to describe in great detail a trip to the moon.

1969, The Year of Science

Norman Mailer had a busy 1969. At the age of 46, he had won two major awards that year – the Pulitzer and the National Book Award – for The Armies of the Night. In the process, he led a hyperactive campaign to try to win the election for Mayor of New York City, a campaign that failed spectacularly. In July, he was the reporter commissioned by Life to cover the moon mission of Apollo 11 from Houston. With his degree in aeronautical engineering from Harvard University, he was considered the best man for the job. But this was the age of the new journalism. Like Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson, he did not write what he saw as much as what he felt, experienced, lived through, imagined, extrapolated. The writing was unconstrained, freeing, a little crazy, passionate. His work began with an evocation of the death of Ernest Hemingway, Mailer’s God. Then the author evoked the upheavals that had shaken American since 1961.

Then, before turning his attention to the subject at hand, towards Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, the heroes of this cosmic adventure, he gave himself a pen name, Aquarius (he was born on 31 January), which he used throughout this dense, verbose, rambling work that broke into thousands of pieces of interest. In his report, he drew on the literature on UFOs, and dealt pell-mell with the equipage used, and the German designer of the Saturn V rocket, on the Moon (which he called ‘Mond’ in German, so reminiscent of the French ‘Monde’ and the Dutch and Danish ‘Maan’ and ‘Maand’), the challenges and risks of this daring adventure, the wives of the astronauts, his own marriages, Kennedy, Nixon, art, Cezanne…

For fanatic followers of Mailer and the Moon, a deluxe edition is now available: Moon Fire, sold in an beautiful box, and containing photographs from NASA and Life magazine.

On Earth as in Heaven

Here are four books for children who want to know everything about the first humans in space.

Novelistic. Even before being a technical challenge, the space race is above all a human adventure. Jim Lovell, a hero of successive Apollo missions, has penned a worthy novel. Those who dreamed of the Moon followed the path of this pioneer who succeeded in bringing back the infamous Apollo 13 safely to Earth. A documentary chapter links up the story with historical fact. (Suitable for children 11 years onwards.)

Crazy. Gravitas is not Frank Cottrell Boyce’s cup of tea. There are those who see him as the successor to Roald Dahl, but that doesn’t stop him from addressing the world through teen books that conceal accuracy under a layer of cheery good humour. Cosmic describes the adventures of Liam Digby, a boy whose adult appearance enables him to participate in a contest seeking to groom the world’s youngest astronaut. (Suitable for children 13 years onwards.)

Non-fiction. This is a book that impeccably discusses the entire subject of the Moon landings. The Moon Mission is packed with illustrations, and comes with a DVD that allows the viewer to follow the trajectory of this adventure to the stars right from its first steps. Discover it all with your family! (Suitable for children 10 years and up.)

le grandFun. The Big Cartoon Book of the Earth and the Sky is addressed to those little ones who are already somewhat moonstruck. Children can lift and turn knobs and pulleys to discover how our Solar System operates. They learn about the craters on the Moon and all about tides so that they understand, in summer, why it is that their sandcastles on the beach are swallowed up by the waves. (Suitable for children 5 years and up.)

The Eye of the Ghosts

The Moon is the leitmotif of the fantastic tales (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) of the Japanese writer Akinari Ueda.

Flaky, full and round, brilliant… The Moon is omnipresent in these fantastic tales written in Japanese in the late eighteenth century. Each of the nine stories features a man to meeting a ghost, a theme that recurs in the genres of traditional Noh theater and kabuki. The tones are alternately humorous, macabre, dreamlike.

In The Cauldron of Kibitsu, a jealous wife returns to earth to torment her rival and to eventually bring her husband to the world of darkness. Carp narrates the history of Kogi, a painter and a Buddhist monk of the tenth century who turns into fish to escape the nets of a fisherman. Akinari Ueda had a tumultuous life. Son of a courtesan of the “floating world”, a term denoting a red-light area in Osaka, he has written a handful of stories, still popular in Japan. His name has been associated with the 1953 film “Ugetsu” by Kenji Mizoguchi, whose availability on DVD along with this publication is very welcome.

The 10 Favourite Books of a Hundred Francophone Writers

[A loose translation of a recent piece on Télérama, Les 10 livres préférés de 100 écrivains francophones, 12 March 2009]

What are the works by our authors’ bedsides? Well, not surprisingly, we find Proust’s ‘A la Recherche du temps perdu‘, but also Faulkner’s ‘Absalom! Absalom!’, and of course, ‘La Princesse de Clèves’ (with all due respect to some). We present to you the 100 winners over the next ten days (a set every day). This should make some fascinating reading, especially in view of the Salon du Livre being held in Paris at the moment.

Favourite Authors

What are your ten favourite books? This is the simple question we asked a hundred writers. We do not intend to carry out a scientific investigation; rather, we hope to gain a modest understanding of where, literally speaking, the French and Francophone writers of today come from. Under the auspices of which great authors do they place themselves? Which books, undisputed masterpieces or lesser works, nourished them, and continue to do so? To put it simply, which books are on their bedsides, their favourite books? When dark omens announce the disaffection of the public for literature, clearly there are no more effective promoters for reading than the writers themselves.

The choices we were given by the hundred authors comprise a formidable diversity – over three hundred titles were cited. And in many of these lists of ten books (and sometimes eleven or twelve or more, because some authors refused to stick to the restriction out of a sense of rebellion, or because it was impossible to choose merely ten), there was a pleasant admixture of both literary heavyweights and slighter, more cosy books that are not so popular.

Obviously the writers didn’t limit themselves to any linguistic pigeonhole. Thus, among the twenty most cited favourite authors, we find foreigners such as Faulkner, Dostoyevksi, Virginia Woolf, Joyce and Kafka, in the same breath as Flaubert, Céline, Stendhal or Rimbaud. These selections also highlight the preponderance of prose fiction; there were a few poets listed (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, …); and other than Shakespeare and Beckett, the world of theatre was generally absent (and even Beckett was preferred more for his novels than his dramatic works). And only one person included a comic in his list of ten titles: Pierre Assouline (the biographer of Hergé) mentioned one of the adventures of Tintin, The Blue Lotus.

We would also point out that contemporary writers are not absent, although they appear rarely in the lists. Yves Bonnefoy, Jean Echenoz (Ravel), Pierre Michon (Vies minuscules), Parick Modiano (Un pedigree) and Philippe Sollers (Paradis) appear, unsurprisingly, amongst our “great contemporaries.” Alongside them, perhaps more unexpectedly, are Jean-Jacques Schuhl (Rose poussière among the preferred books of Chloé Delaume), Xavier Houssin (16, rue d’Avelghem, chosen by Régis Jauffret) or Alain Mabanckou (Verre cassé, cited by Gilbert Gatore), but also Pierre Pachet and Renaud Camus… And, among the foreigners, Philip Roth, García Márquez, Ian McEwan, J.M. Coetzee and the admirable W.G. Sebald (who died in 2001)…

One shade dominates above all: that of Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu cited by a third of the writers. In second position, but far behind Proust, is Ulysses by James Joyce, who appears in the choices of thirteen out of the hundred writers surveyed. Then comes the diptych by Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The triumph of Proust does not really surprise the essayist and teacher Olivier Decroix1

As Julien Gracq wrote, A la recherche du temps perdu is a kind of fertile ground for writers. It is an inexhaustible book, a work that never ends, very diverse, with some aspects anchored in the nineteenth century, and in other ways perfectly modern. The inexhaustible character is also related to the large freedom of Proust, who mixed essay-like passages with reflections on art or on writing, and autobiography to boot. Lastly, this is a book which one can read several times and at different stages in one’s life, and in which one can make new discoveries, as though it had never been read before.

Two years ago, the Times had made a similar list based on the preferences of a hundred and twenty-five Anglo-Saxon writers (English, American, Australian, …), who chose Tolstoy as their favourite author, whose two great novels Anna Karenina and War and Peace were respectively first and second amongst the most quoted books. In the top five were also found Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Nabokov’s Lolita, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Shakespeare followed, as did Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, La Recherche, the stories of Chekhov, and the grand and marvellous Middlemarch by George Eliot. Closely observing this synthesis, one of the commentators pointed out that the collective preference, as it appears in this list, goes clearly to large dramatic novels that speak about love and death, and are propelled by unforgettable characters.

The French writers, on the other hand, at least those that we interviewed, tend towards the great modern works of the twentieth century rather than the large romantic frescoes preferred by the Anglo-Saxons. So we find Joyce and Kafka and Woolf who express more doubt than assurance in the supremacy of the character, and the interest is less in pure narrative. As Olivier Decroix says:

All these authors, including Celine and Rimbaud, are seized with an interrogation on the subject. What is a character? What is a point of view? Who is speaking? The character, according to their lights, is always threatened. They are authors who raise the question of identity. They authors who question reality by delivering some deformed image, unreal, to try to say something new, something unprecedented.

These questions on the personnages and the perception of the world that were current throughout the 20th century thus remain fully alive today for French writers, continues Olivier Decroix. He adds:

I am struck by the thought that, fifty years ago, in her essay L’Ere du soupçon, Nathalie Sarraute cited Flaubert, Proust, Dostoyevsky among the authors on whom a writer must base himself to make a break from the literature of the nineteenth century and create a new novel. A half-century later, one finds the same trio as though the idea of what is new, what is modern, has not changed at all. As though one has not abandoned the notion of questioning the character, such as exists in realistic fiction.

But perhaps we should stop the analysis there. Let us not draw general conclusions from choices that are often deeply personal and unique. We should not forget that as we share their ten favourite books, a significant number of authors emphasised that had they created their lists a few days before or later, they would have been quite different. Finally, let us point out an unexpected and sympathetic curiosity: the presence of La Prin­cesse de Clèves among the “winners”, in a very high place. Without doubt, this work by Madame de La Fayette has received sincere attention from a number of authors, and benefited especially from the news of repeated attacks made on it by Nicolas Sarkozy since February 20062. This assumption is corroborated by the progress of sales of the novel in bookshops: from seven thousand copies a year, its sales, in the three pocket editions by Gallimard, abruptly doubled last year, causing the unexpected reprinting of the novel.

The most cited authors
Marcel Proust (33 times)
William Faulkner (24)
Gustave Flaubert (23)
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (16)
Virginia Woolf (15)
James Joyce (14)
Franz Kafka (14)
Louis-Ferdinand Céline (13)
Samuel Beckett (11)
Arthur Rimbaud (11)
Stendhal (10)
Mme de La Fayette (9)
Léo Tolstoy (9)
Malcolm Lowry (9)
William Shakespeare (9)
Herman Melville (9)
Primo Levi (9)
Georges Bataille (9)
Jean Giono (9)
Charles Baudelaire (8)
Homer (9)
André Breton (8)
Albert Camus (8)
Miguel de Cervantès (8)

The most cited books
A la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust (33 times)
Ulysses, Joyce (13)
Iliad and Odyssey, Homer (9)
La Princesse de Clèves, Mme de La Fayette (9)
The Sound and Fury, William Faukner (8)
Absalon, Absalon!, William Faulkner (8)
Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire (8)
Sous le volcan, Malcolm Lowry (8)
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantès (8)
L’Education sentimentale, Gustave Flaubert (7)
The Bible (6)
Fictions, J.-L. Borges (6)
Journal, Franz Kafka (6)
Moby Dick, H. Melville (6)
Les Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (6)
Une saison en enfer, d’Arthur Rimbaud (6)
Anna Karénina, Léo Tolstoy (5)
Correspondance, Gustave Flaubert (5)
The Divine Comédy, Dante (5)
Les Liaisons dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos (5)
The Master and Margerita, de Mikhaïl Boulgakov (5)
Mémoires d’outre-tombe, Chateaubriand (5)
Récits de la Kolyma, Varlam Chalamov (5)
Si c’est un homme, Primo Levi (5)
Voyage au bout de la nuit, L.F. Céline (5)

(Nathalie Crom, Télérama n° 3087)


1. Olivier Decroix is the notable author of the essay “Le Romantisme” (with Marie De Gandt, Bibliothèque-Gallimard) and of the annotated edition of Victor Hugo’s Hernani (FolioPlus-Classiques)

2. Apropos the presence of this novel in the entrance examination to the civil service, Nicolas Sarkozy said that it was useless to learn, and was no doubt put in the examination syllabus by an imbecile or a sadist. He himself, he said, suffered on account of it.

Update: 19 March: It appears that the French are out in force to show their dislike for Sarkozy. How do they demonstrate it? Why, by reading La Princesse de Clèves! Check out the story here.

Categories: books, france

The Phenomenon of Authors Whose First Language Isn’t French Writing In French

09/01/2009 4 comments

[In Le Figaro, Françoise Dargent ruminates about non-native writers who chose French to express their literary talents. Loose translation follows.]


[Atiq Rahimi; photo credit: Le Figaro]

Several foreign writers have published books in French this past autumn. This phenomenon is not new. A number of authors, and not small number at all, have abandoned their mother tongues. They explain themselves.

They are foreigners but they have decided to write in French. One recalls many celebrities such as Milan Kundera who translated his own novels, Samuel Beckett, who confessed that he had been liberated by James Joyce’s imprints in choosing a foreign language for himself, or even Casanova, whose Memoirs in ten volumes were written in the language of Molière, at the time considered the most international tongue of all. Why did they decide one day to abandon their mother tongues and make French their language of writing? Most certainly, there are as many responses to this query as personalities and backgrounds of the individuals concerned, but it is clear that even as the French language lost its influence in the world, it has retained its aura for the writers. The latest Goncourt prizewinner, the Afghan Atiq Rahimi, is the latest illustration of this. When Le Figaro questioned him last November on the subject, Rahimi, whose previous three novels were written in Persian, replied simply, “To begin with, I didn’t even ask myself the question; I didn’t think about it. When I returned to my country in 2002, I rediscovered my culture… and the desire to write in French. Singué Sabour, The Stone of Patience,  flowed directly in French. In fact, it was difficult for me – I don’t know why – to address these important subjects, these taboos, in my mother tongue. French gave me the possibility to express myself with some freedom.”

… For many writers, the choice is even seen as a kind of rebirth. “When I wrote in Spanish, the influence of Lorca was very strong,” recalled Eduardo Manet. “French allowed me to be more sober.” The Cuban-born exiled writer established himself in France at the end of the 1960s. He wrote a score of stories and a baker’s dozen novels, all in French. He remembered nostalgically his Haitian nurse rocking him to sleep with Creole lullabies, and said that he was still delighted by the finesse of the French poets whose works he subsequently devoured. “When I decided to change my language, I was already fluent in English, I could have easily adopted it. I adored American music and cinema, but I hated the imperialism (of the United States). French appeared to me to be the language of writing. The foreigners who were living in Paris, such as Beckett, Arrabal or Ionesco, had all chosen it. For us Latin Americans it was an obvious choice, and that’s all there is to say.”

In the 1960s, during a period when English was all-powerful, the adoption of French appeared as a paradoxical choice, dictated by shifting necessities. Thus, Jonathan Littell caused widespread astonishment when his novel, Les Bienveillantes appeared in French, and not in English. The American author, resident in Barcelona, generated considerable national pride, and was venerated further when he won the Prix Goncourt in 2006. Today, translations of his book are closely monitored by a very punctilious Littell – he sent a letter of precise recommendations to the translators – and there was much surprise that he  himself did not want to translate his novel from French to English.

One doesn’t choose a language other than one’s own without being particularly picky. The example of Milan Kundera, who wrote in French to signal his rift with his country of origin, is particularly instructive. In 2003, he spoke (in another interview with Le Figaro) of the books he had previously written in Czech. “It is in France that my publishing house publishes my books first, in their authorised versions. I say ‘authorised versions’ because I performed the translation into French of all my old novels, sentence by sentence, word by word. Since then, I have considered the French text as my own, and I allow the translation of my books from the Czech as well as from the French, with a slight preference for the latter solution”

The Slovene author Brina Svit says she writes a book twice: firstly in French, and then in Slovenian. “Objectively speaking, I had no reason to change the language: I had a very good translator and an excellent editor,” she explains. “Then came a sense of emancipation, of writing against oneself, of owing nothing to anyone. French gave me a freedom, a frankness, a sensation of being a young author : I am all the time in the process of learning, of asserting something.”

And if Eduardo Manet plans today to take up pen in Spanish for a book of tribute to his mother, it is not a given at all that everybody else wants to return to their original languages. That applies to the Dane Pia Petersen who has just published her fifth novel, Iouri,  in French with Actes Sud. She says it is the specificity of the French language that has attracted her. “I have never given in to the spirit of the North. I love debating, I like to discuss. I felt immediately at ease with French. Even before I could speak it, I had this idea of a language with which one could develop one’s ideas. One could always fold a word into one meaning or another. “

“French gave me a clarity and precision quite opposite to the Japanese mentality, ” said Aki Shimazaki, who has been writing in French since fifteen years ago, and whose next book, Zakuro, appears in February, published by Actes Sud. For her, the trigger was the book by the Hungarian author Agota Kristof, who wrote Le Grand Cahier in French. “I was fascinated by his simple style and profound story. At the time, I already had ideas for my novel Tsubaki. So I decided to write it directly in French. It took me three years to complete.”

Rarely does one adopt French entirely by chance. Most of those who chose it have a link with France and its culture. Upon retiring, the American scholar David I. Grossvogel set himself a double challenge: to write his first novel on Proust and do so in French. (Le Journal de Charles Swann, published by Buchet-Chastel.) This professor of literature who introduced Jacques Derrida and other French thinkers to the United States knew that he was walking on a minefield. “My attachment to the French language is like the love of those who do not fully possess that which they like,” he says. “Of course, I also wrote this book in French for a practical reason. Find me an American editor who can speak knowledgeably of Proust! But it wasn’t easy in France either. One doesn’t walk in Proust footsteps with impunity. It is a small point of pride for me. Imagine! A Yank writing in French who is going to be published by a French publishing house…”

Think about it: in the past few years, the Goncourt Academy has crowned the likes of Tahar Ben Jelloun, Amin Maalouf, Andrei Makine, Jonathan Littell, and last November, Atiq Rahimi! The French writers have to stand and be counted if they don’t want to be aced in their own language by the competition coming from abroad.

Categories: books, france

Are the old Goncourt winners still readable?

[On Monday, 10 November, the latest Prix Goncourt was awarded to the greatest French luminary of letters of that moment. Atiq Rahimi is of Afghan origin, and his book Syngue Sabour, or Stone of Patience is of extraordinary quality, in the words of one jury member. Four days earlier, Le Figaro had published a little article about older winners of the prize. How well have their books fared in the century or so since the Academie Goncourt began celebrating the best in French literature? I offer below a very loose paraphrased translation of that piece.]

edmond-goncourtSince its inception in 1903, the Academie Goncourt has rewarded several books that have experienced great renown: In the Shadow of Young Girls by Marcel Proust, The Human Condition, by André Malraux, or closer to our times, The Alder-King, by Michel Tournier, and The Street of Obscure Shops, by Patrick Modiano.

Other winners, though, are now completely forgotten. Who remembers Marius Ary-Leblond? Henri Malherbe? Or Yves Navarre? Are the works to be consigned to the graveyard of memory? Or are they a treasure trove of forgotten wonders? Our critics give their opinions on some of the earliest titles: do they still touch the public at the beginning of the 21st century?

To our surprise, most of them pass the test of time. Not only do they provide good fare, but are also of great modernity in the subjects they address.

1904: «La Maternelle» (The Kindergarten), Léon Frapié

The Kindergarten is a bit off-the-all in its original version of 1900. But four years later, Léon Frapié (1863-1949) attracted the jury of the Goncourt with his semi-autobiographical novel. He used his wife’s memories to paint a realistic portrait of a nursery school in an impoverished district of Paris, set in an environment that would not have been unfamiliar to Emile Zola, then dead only two years. The narrator is a young girl from a good family who is forced to find work in the brutal aftermath of her father’s death. Despite being well-educated, a rarity in those years, she is not permitted to work as a teacher. With her diploma, she is hired at 80 francs a month as an assistant at a kindergarten, where she has to serve two hundred children, a director and two matrons, two chambermaids, all of whom are dedicated to maintaining the school and the scouring of the poor.

Over the period of a year, the young woman comforts and kisses and changes and spoils and reduces the pain of her charges, most of whom have only known a world where they have no claim on sweetness. The book protests that terrible reality in a tone not devoid of humour. The author carefully avoids pathos and casts a critical eye at the state of education of the time: the school was supposed to cure people of their worst conditions, but ends up merely perpetuating a social determinism that advocated obedience and forced respect to the elite. A century later the vision of the author continues to ring true.

(Francoise Dargent)

1906: «Dingley, l’illustre écrivain» (Dingley, the Famous Writer), Jean and Jérôme Tharaud

Authored by two friends of Charles Péguy (he it was that gave them their pseudonyms, after the patron saints of writing), this book first appeared in 1902 in the Cahiers de la Quinzaine. It received the Goncourt four years later, after one of those neat sleights-of-hand for which juries are well-known.

Dingley is a great British writer, feted widely for his works. Despite the acclamation, he feels that his life is only a shadow. One day, he encounters an entrapment of an underfed Cockney by sergeants recruiting for the Boer War, and imagines to himself the possibilities of a novel about such a person, who will be morally transformed by martial discipline and war. To add verisimilitude to his narrative, Dingley embarks on a trip to South Africa, and jumps right into the story, and discovers that war is all fighting and suffering and terrible death. At this point, he poses the question: What is the glory of the writer, even if a champion of the Empire, when compared to the men who really defend it?

The novel is considered a satirical view of the life of Rudyard Kipling, and is written in a precise style, not without irony even its title. Formally, it is impeccable. Yet it cannot avoid a certain coldness in its narrative, which costs it considerable charm.

(Étienne de Montety)

[Aside: A longer and more heartfelt review of the book is by Julian Barnes in the Guardian. Check it out.]

1908: «Écrit sur de l’eau» (Written on Water), Francis de Miomandre

Although he was born in Tours in 1880, François-Félicien Durand spent his youth in Marseille. He was friends with Edmond Jaloux et Gilbert de Voisins, and took on the name of his mother, Miomandre, when he began to publish charming little verses and prose pieces in various papers; and became the secretary of Camille Mauclair in 1900. In 1908, Written on Water, which had scarcely sold five hundred copies till then, won, to general bewilderment, the Prix Goncourt. Few people had read the book, and its critics wrote up some peculiar things about it; the newspaper Le Temps, for instance, claimed it was a study of mores on large cruise ships!

The book is simply a story of a young Marseillais during the Belle Epoque, a delicate fantasy married to a keen sense of observation, written as only Francis de Miomandre knew how.

Jacques de Meillan was a young man and a young man who rose late … He rose late because the morning contained only thankless hours, difficult to deal with intelligence. He rose late because he was infinitely better lying down than standing.

But why has posterity allowed this author to be forgotten, this auteur of delicacy, the acute translator of Cervantes and Unanumo, this writer of over fifty books?

(Sophie Humann)

1910: «De Goupil à Margot», Louis Pergaud

His name doesn’t ring great bells today. Still, Louis Pergaud (1882-1915) won the Goncourt in 1910 with a collection of animal stories. Competing for the prize at the time were Guillaume Apollinaire’s L’Hérésiarque and Colette’s La Vagabonde. All praise to the auteur!

Forests, gardens. We come across a fox, a dog, a hare, a squirrel, a frog. Their names? Miraut, Fuseline, Guerriot, Rana… Some are happy. Most of them are hungry, cold and scared. That is the life of dreams of animals.

In these texts that have lost none of their freshness or flavour, the animals are the protagonists of little dramas. Their stories are told from their points of view. Pergaud is at ease in this exercise of anthropomorphic literature. The writing is fluid, of clarity and simplicity. Of all the adventures related, it is not easy to forget the fox, Goupil, whose fur was not considered good enough by the poacher who traps him. Spitefully, the man releases the animal into the forest, a bell tied around his neck, the poor beast condemned to tinkle it with every step it took. The fox is reduced in every ensuing hunt, such an essential aspect of a vulpine life, to a state of inferiority. Not to mention the sheer handicap occasioned by the bell during the mating season, whenever he attempted to accost a desirable female…On another note, we welcome the soberly titled Underground Rape. It deals with the exciting pursuit of a genteel taupe by a lecherous male (with a sex barbed, like a rapier of fire). Pergaud lacked neither imagination nor humour. It is high time he is rediscovered.

(Dominique Guiou)

1911: «Monsieur des Lourdines», Alphonse de Châteaubriant

Timothy of the Lourdines is a country gentleman, as the subtitle of the novel suggests, a type of man not oft seen today, but one the author (1877-1951), met off and on in his youth in Brittany. This solitary squire has no time for lesser folk and is wild for his peers. To those who reproached him for never having shown himself in the city, Oh, yes! Oh, yes! he said, I shall die without having understood the true face of men! The old man has two passions: the violin, which he plays at night in the disused parts of his castle, and his woods, whose slightest change he immediately knows. He hardly ever leaves them alone. When he returns home in the evening, anxiety that a new crisis has befallen his wife seizes him: prostrated by an attack upon learning of the debts of their only son, Anthim, she has been in her room since, enormous and infirm. Her husband will do everything to spare her the discovery of their ruin… Dedicated to Romain Rolland, this tale, and the later one of La Briere, one of the bestsellers of the period between the world wars, demonstrates with ardent sensibility the burning pain of parental love, that only nature, described in a precise and powerful language, can calm.

After the Great War, it is to Romain Rolland that Châteaubriant writes of his fears that Europe will not survive without enduring peace betwen Germany and France. In search of this goal, this mystic loses his way: he founds the journal La Gerbe in occupied Paris; this results in his condemnation in absentia as a collaborator in 1945. His literary work is quickly buried and forgotten. He dies in 1951 in an Austrian monastery where he has taken refuge.

(Sophie Humann)

1916: «L’Appel du sol» (The Call of the Soil), Adrien Bertrand

When receiving the Goncourt grant for poetry, did Yves Bonnefoy, Jacques Réda, Philippe Jacottet and others spare a thought about Adrien Betrand, a soldier who died of his injuries during the Great War in 1917? It was indeed he who bequeathed funds to the Academie Goncourt with which to recompense a poet for all his work. Before making this fine gesture, Adrien Bertrand (1888-1917) had been a journalist. When the first World War broke out, his pacifist joined a battalion without hesitation, and was noted for his courage. In October 1914, his lungs were irreparably damaged by German shrapnel. Surviving under medication, he spent the next three years in bed, writing. His first novel, The Call of the Soil, was crowned by Goncourt in 1914. Not awarded because of the draft that year, he had to wait till 1916, the year that Henri Barbusse accepted it for Fire, another novel set during the Great War.

To read the book today is to plunge anew into the nightmarish existence of soldiers in an Alpine corps. You will find everything in it: the marches, the long waits, the ennui and the anxiety that precedes combat, the clashes, the deaths, the happiness of survival. Bertrand has an acute ear for dialogue. This admirer of Voltaire loves verbal jousts. Even if it does not always avoid grandiloquence and prolix diatribes, for the most part, the novel is constructed in short sentences, encouraging the attention of the reader. The scene where the hunters penetrate a graveyard and discover the torn bodies of five hundred German soldiers, destroyed by artillery, melded into one in a macabre dance of death, is one that will remain indelibly in our minds forever.

(Bruno Corty)

1921: «Batouala», René Maran

Born in Fort-de-France, the author of Batouala holds a singular place in the world of literature in the 1920s. He was one of the rare black writers of the epoch. René Maran was 34 years old when he won the Prix Goncourt. Among the jury were Léon Daudet, Lucien Descaves and the Rosnys, father and son. The manner of Maran’s victory demonstrates marvellously the eternal battles within the Academie Goncourt. The author of Batouala defeated – excuse the expression – both the hussar Jacques Chardonne (37 years old) and Pierre Mac-Orlan (about 40 years old), then at the summit of his art (this writer never does win the Goncourt prize, although he does eventually become a member of its jury in place of Descaves). The fight had been bitter: five voices for him against five for Chardonne, and it was only a second vote that allowed Maran to enter the prestigious honours list.

It was not so much the novel as its preface that triggered the controversy. The preface was frankly political. Maran appealed to his brothers in spirit, writers of France against colonialism. Raise your voices! he thundered, against the establishment of colonial rule in Africa. His novel was set in Oubangui-Chari, one of four colonies reeling under the rule of the French in Equatorial Africa.

The book was well received at the time. With a novel in the same vein, In France, the brothers Marius-Ary Leblond had won the Goncourt in 1909.

Léopold Sédar Senghor has rendered tribute to Maran as one of the most fervent activists of the French-speaking world. But history is cruel. It has retained Senghor but has forgotten the first “black Goncourt”.

(Mohammed Aïssaoui)

1922 : «Le martyre de l’obèse» (The Martyrdom of the Obese), Henri Béraud

In 1922, when the Goncourt prize crowned his novel The Martyrdom of the Obese, Henri Béraud, the son of Lyonnais baker, was a fearful polemicist. He criticised the modern literary elite, those he called the Gallimards, and defended the well-tempered bourgeoisie of the 19th century, the French provincials who looked smiling upon the flowing river of life. The book receives the Goncourt, but curiously enough, has to share the award with the author’s previous novel, The Vitriol of the Moon. It was as though at a time when slimness was already exalted, a novel about the obese, no matter how delicately wrought, was not considered serious enough to merit a distinguished prize. And yet what grace and style in this novel! Written by another, it would have been a pedestrian comedy. In reality, far from it.

Béraud’s anti-hero recounts his misadventures to his companions at a bistro, in between beers, in a cheerful yet melancholy tone, courteously not dwelling too much on his fate – the fat do not have the right to be unhappy, you see, and they have to apologise constantly for being obese by showing themselves in a light mood.

The setbacks faced by this man prefigure the tortures experienced by the extra-extra-large today. Aficionados of good cheer and fine flesh will applaud when the novelist regrets that in all things, of greed and of love, one ended up crediting the view that the lavish is entirely opposite to the refined. Béraud, himself described as having a body like a contrabass and a puce-coloured face affixed on a double-chin, very like an inflated tyre, proves otherwise with his incisive mind, that acute observer of the mores of the human animal.

(Astrid de Vergnette)

1932 : «Les Loups» (The Wolves), Guy Mazeline

It begins like this: In the early afternoon in April, 1892, Maximilian Jobourg sat at the games table that had been promptly cleared by his maid, and leafed through the worn-out collection of tragedies by Racine that he had never abandoned since college. His long, ringed fingers crossed over the book, his forehead inclined, his lip sulky.

The rest, over 600 pages long, is correspondingly high-brow. The Wolves by Guy Mazeline, won the Goncourt in 1932. Blistered by the abuse of epithets and adverbs, it is bloated in a tangled skein of a skewed plot. The author embroiders and retouches and qualifies at every turn, drowning his intent and diluting the atmosphere. Accumulating dust since its release from the presses, The Wolves narrates the saga and the Balzacian decline of a rich industrial family of Normandy at the turn of the 19th century. One scarcely comprehends why the Goncourt crowned this stodgy corpulence. Unless their decision had not been guided entirely by literary considerations… Céline’s Travels at the End of the Night had been broadly favoured by the jury, and, supported notably by Léon Daudet, had amply merited the award. A last minute turnaround tilted the scales in favour of Mazeline, and Céline had to remain content with the Renaudot. Dr Destouches had this pithy comment a few days later: It is an affair of the editors. In this case, Céline’s editor, Denoël was faced against Gallimard, with whom Mazeline had already published three works. No comment there. The outsider took the prize six votes to three; a scandal surfaced. And the name of Mazeline was inextricably linked to that of Céline. As the writer, Georges Bernanos, wrote in an elegiac article in favour of Travels in Le Figaro: Mr Céline has missed the Prix Goncourt. So much the better for Mr Céline.

(Thierry Clermont)

Categories: books, france