Litro #111: France

Cover design by Luke Bright

Table of Contents

November 2011

The Lightness of Suibhne” Michel Houellebecq – “I Feel Like Giving Up” Layla Hendow – “La Maison De Dieu” Susanna Crossman – “The Pull of the Moon

Book Extracts Agnès Desarthe – from The Foundling Faïza Guène – from Bar Balto Marcel Aymé – from While Waiting

In the Service of Blood“

Nonfiction Dany Laferrière – an extract from Everything Around Me Is Shaking

How to Speak French“

Listings Alex James




Litro #111: France – Editor’s Letter

The relationship between the English and the French—our one-time conquerors, trade rivals, enemies, allies, and nearest neighbours in Europe–has always been complicated. Since 1066 France and the French have been a powerful influence on England, and many aristocratic families still carry the noble Norman “de” before their surnames. French is classy; French is posh; French, above all, is chic.

The Brits have always envied the French for their fantastic food, effortless style (Chanel, Hermès, Balmain, Cardin, Givenchy…), clever, sexy films, and what we see as their laissez-faire, not to say louche attitude towards sex and life in general. Our own language borrows heavily from French to express what English has no word for, as I’ve just demonstrated. The clichéd (another French loan-word) image of the Frenchman may be a beret-wearing Breton sporting a string of onions, but in reality we’re far more likely to picture the elegance of Catherine Deneuve, Toulouse-Lautrec’s fin-de-siècle can-can paintings, or a smouldering Alain Delon.

French literature has always had plenty to offer, from the swashbuckling sagas of Dumas to the science-fiction adventures of Jules Verne; from Francoise Sagan’s teen cri-de-coueur Bonjour Tristesse to, more recently, the mischievous metamorphoses of Marie Dariussecq. In the following pages you’ll see another side of novelist Michel Houllebecq, one of the best-known contemporary French authors, who contributes two poems; we’re also proud to present a new nonfiction translation of Francophone Haitian writer Dany Laferrière, who was in Port-au-Prince when last year’s earthquake struck, and who writes about his experience sharply and profoundly in Everything around me is shaking.

Other emerging and established French writers featured in this issue include hip French-Algerian enfant terrible Faïza Guène, radically different short story writers Marcel Aymé and Pierre Michon, and Agnès Desarthe, with a moving extract from her prize-winning novel The Foundling. Susanna Crossman, a writer living in North-West France, contributes a meditation on family and loneliness in The Pull of the Moon, and we’re also delighted to publish La Maison de Dieu, a story of faith and redemption from this year’s winner of the Litro and IGGY International Short Story Award, Layla Hendow.

There’s plenty more great writing to explore on our website, where you’ll discover tourists, bohemians, artists and even a new take on Joan of Arc in our online exclusives and audio stories, updated weekly.

C’est tout! Au revoir – until our next issue.




Pierre Michon – The Lightness of Suibhne

In the Annals of the Four Masters we are told how Suibhne, king of Kildare, has a taste for the things of this world. He is a simple man. His joys and pleasures are simple. He is heavy and coarse, with ugly blonde hair on his head like moss on a stone; and he lacks refinement of mind or spirit. He wages war, eats, laughs, and in every other particular resembles the brown bull of Cooley, which mounts fifty heifers a day. The abbot Fin Barr follows this brute closely and attempts to remind him that Heaven reckons even the weight of a hair. The weight of the soul is far greater. Fin Barr has lived for nine years on the edge of a promontory and for another nine amid the gulls and crows by the lake at Gougane Barra: he is nothing but spirit, with hands as brittle as glass. Curiously, he loves Suibhne, because Suibhne is like a bull or a rock which might have a soul. And Suibhne loves Fin Barr, who makes him feel, on top of the pleasures of this world, the pleasure of having a soul.

[private]Fin Barr’s brother is the king of Lismore. In the month of May, Suibhne takes up arms against this neighbouring king. The pretext matters little: Suibhne wants the king’s drinking cup, his fat cattle and his women. He wants also to stretch his legs and ride out in the springtime. He has sought the counsel of Fin Barr, who told him: Kings fight amongst themselves – that is how it must be. Wage war on the king of Lismore, since he is a king. But if you are victorious, spare my brother – who is also yours, for are we not like brothers, you and me? Suibhne is in a good mood and has given his promise.

The weather is fine as they set out with their embossed shields and polished scabbards. The army in the sun is a glinting stream. The dogs of war chase butterflies and Suibhne sings at the top of his voice. His horse is mighty like him: together they resemble a hill with moss on its summit. Fin Barr, too, is happy. Blood pulses in his hands of glass. He tells himself that, in its jubilation and contentment, the coarse soul of the king is almost fine, clear in any case; and at that very instant the king turns around, seeks him out by sight, finds him, and makes a delicate gesture with his hand. So then, thinks Fin Barr, this one I will save – and if I save this one, even the mountains will be redeemed.

Before the oak woods of Killarney the king of Lismore’s men are assembled. At dawn the woods breathe sweetly. Suibhne, mounted on the greatest horse, among the handsomest warriors, sees his regal counterpart sporting a crow’s feather on his helmet. Suibhne himself wears a white feather but in other regards they are the same. He is glad that both kings are handsome. Thereupon falls a deep silence, heavy waiting, and break of day in the May-time dew. Men hear the first cuckoo. Then none can hear it, for Suibhne has raised his hand and with his gesture summoned thunder. All day long, step by step and joyfully, he closes in on the crow’s feather. At five o’clock, with their forces scattered among the purlieus, they stand face-to-face: they look at one another, laugh, and catch their breaths with a kind of roaring. All of a sudden, the straight warlike fury of Suibhne becomes another kind. The king with the black feather is like a portrait of his brother, thin and hard like him, but with hands of iron rather than fragile glass: and this, bizarrely, doubles Suibhne’s fury. Before his opponent, still laughing, can raise his shield, he runs him through with his sword. He finishes him off with an axe.

In front of the corpse his intoxication fades. Suibhne’s soul returns to him.

Across the forest, the cuckoos call each to each.

Undone, groggy, the king sits on the moss in a clearing. His head is bowed. He lifts it and Fin Barr is standing before him. Suibhne looks at him like a guilty child. For a very long time Fin Barr says nothing; then he speaks his curses. To finish, he says: You will have as brothers only the wolves in the depths of the forest. You have no more soul than they. Fin Barr turns on his heels, Suibhne follows like a dog. At the camp he sits on the ground, his head obstinately bowed, thinking.

In the evening, soldiers about their campfires see the king suddenly rise and flee into the forest like a wolf. He does not return.

Nine years pass. Fin Barr, Abbot of Kildare, is looking for beams to fortify his abbey: in the oak woods of Killarney, he walks from tree trunk to tree trunk with his vassals. They look upwards, make comparisons and choices. In the fork of an oak tree too knotty for purpose, Fin Barr sees, amidst what he took for a tuft of mistletoe, laughing eyes come to life and reveal a face: it is a man who raises his arm and offers the abbot a delicate gesture with his hand. It is the king.

He jumps to the ground. He has upon his shoulder a crow which from time to time, when the king moves, shakes out its wings and then very gravely preens its feathers. Suibhne embraces Fin Barr, he laughs, he caresses him – but he cannot answer his questions: he no longer has the true use of speech. Meantime he appears to speak with his crow, a sort of jargon to which it responds in the jargon of crows. And when this dialogue ceases, the king sings softly, almost without cease. He seems prodigiously happy and absorbed by his happy lot. All day long he follows Fin Barr and his vassals, behind them he too jumps like a crow. When they call a halt, he finds them berries and watercress which he devours with the same avid pleasure which he took in the delicacies of a king, and the crow eats from his mouth. The vassals are overjoyed. Fin Barr is moved, he strokes this bundle of mistletoe and black feathers that was a king. He tells himself that, all in all, his king has not changed in the least. That night for a long time he holds in his long hand the great hand, he lets it go and Suibhne departs hopping towards the wood, looking as if he might fly. They will not see one another again before on one and the other settles the bird of Death.

The Annals of the Four Masters tell that Suibhne, by the Grace of God, was transformed into a bird; that he owed his feathers to the angels, that he snatched the dove upon the wing and spoke the divine Word in the jargon of crows; that he was a saint and a madman, a thing of God. This is not entirely the opinion of Fin Barr, who returns melancholy to Kilmore in the evening, on a cart groaning beneath the weight of logs, with his vassals asleep already among the timbers. Fin Barr does not know what to think. He is happy that Suibhne should rejoice as much in the condition of forest tramp as that of a king, that his joy should be invincible and multiple as that of God. But he cannot decide if it comes from the soul. At the abbot’s feet a diminutive woodcutter talks in his sleep, pained, as though struggling. He is racked by his soul. Fin Barr wonders: is the soul that which makes us whimper in the dark? Or else could it be that which makes us laugh and dance in spite of everything? My king whom I cursed has passionately embraced the only joy available to him. Is that what it is to be a saint? Or is it to be a beast? Is it to be racked by one’s soul, or in thrall to the body? God only knows, and the Four Masters, who have the ear of God.[/private]

The Lightness of Suibhne (pronounced ‘Sweeney’) is taken from Mythologies d’hiver by Pierre Michon, published by Éditions Verdier (1997).

Pierre Michon was born in Central France in 1945. He has published ten works of fiction, which have earned him a reputation as one of the finest writers of his generation. His work is starting to appear in translation in English, chiefly in the United States.

Gregory Norminton is a novelist and short story writer. He teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. His translations include Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, published by Oneworld Classics.




Michel Houellebecq – I Feel Like Giving Up

I feel like giving up, and collapse on the back seat. But the wheels of need start turning again. The evening’s ruined, maybe the week, maybe even the rest of my life, but I’ll still need to go out again and get booze.

In Tesco a few yummy mummies are wondering in the aisles, refined and sexed up like peahens. There are probably a few men there too, but who cares? You can give up on small talk as much as you like, a vagina is still an opening.

I went up the stairs, clutching my litre of rum in its plastic bag. I’m killing myself, I can see that, my teeth have started to crumble. And when I look at women, why do they run away? Do they think I plead too much, or I’m desperate, have too much anger, or look like a perv? I’ve no idea. Probably never will. And that’s the tragedy.

Taken from The Art of Struggle by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews, published by Alma Books at £10.99 (www.almabooks.com)

Michel Houellebecq lives in County Cork, Ireland. He is the bestselling author of Atomised, Platform, Whatever and The Possibility of an Island. He is also a poet, essayist and rap artist.

Delphine Grass has written a doctoral thesis entitled The Poetics of Humanity in the Novels of Michel Houellebecq at University College London. Her poetry has been published in various French and English-language journals. She is a member of the A Verse poetry group based in La Sorbonne, Paris.

Timothy Mathews is Professor of French and Comparative Criticism at University College London. He is author of Reading Apollinaire. Theories of Poetic Language (Manchester University Press 1987 and 1990), and Literature, Art and the Pursuit of Decay in Twentieth-Century France (Cambridge University Press 2000 and 2006).




Layla Hendow – La Maison De Dieu

I

There walked the priest: through the stone archway of a watchtower in Roquebrune-sur-Argens, underneath the blood-red cliffs scorched by an ancient sun. He was close enough to the Argens River to have felt its cooling wind, had there been one that day. He was alone. The rain had started early that morning and bounced upon the cobbled pavement like it was landing on a frozen lake. The old streets that ran between buildings themselves even older became narrow as he walked. They guided him to the entrance of l’eglise de Roquebrune-sur-Argens.

The old man sighed. He looked up at the sky, a gunmetal grey, and then at the godless world around him. He thought it bleaker than he ever thought possible. The building he was trying to open was more similar to a ruin than a church and he imagined the rain could dissolve the very foundations of the stone.

 

II

The priest shook off his cape when he entered the church; the sleeves of his fading cassock stained with rain. On the table, there was a handwritten notice on thick brown paper. It read:

            Bienvenue!

            Eglise de Roquebrune-sur-Argens

            Diocese de Fréjus-Toulon

            “La maison de Dieu”

            Horaire des Messes:

            Le dimanche: 10h30 (avec orgue)

The note lying beside it asked him to nail the sign to the door. He put down the piece of paper. He did not go.

Instead, he made his way down the church to the altar: two unlit candles lay on its smooth, white marbled surface. The wax had melted down the sides of the candles some time ago, hardening into a strange new sculpture. A row of women undressing. The man frowned at this thought. He knew that time had forgotten this place, that time moved forward, but the church was forgotten. The wax had hardened and no one had ever thought to remove it. God had been forgotten somewhere along the line.

The man began to speak, closing his eyes as though he could see the words resting beneath them. He held his hands in front of him, imagining the roughness of the paper-thin bread and the weight of the wine-cup.

Panis triticeus … vinum de vite …’

 

III

As the priest turned to lock the Eucharist behind its golden gates, he heard the wooden doors of the church swing open quickly. For a split second he heard again the world outside.

Je suis très désolé,’ he called out. ‘La masse commence à dix heures et demi.

He heard the light click of a woman’s heels inside the shadows of the far end of the church.

‘Hello? Bonjour?’ She spoke in a textbook French accent. ‘L’anglais, s’il vous plait,’ she said meekly. She was seemingly lost in the vastness of the pews.

Suddenly she appeared from the shadows in the North Aisle. He stared at the girl in surprise. Her hair was parted centrally and fell in black waves over her petite shoulders. Sunglasses were placed upon her head like a crown, despite the rain beyond those walls, and a large, professional camera dangled from her neck. She wore little red gloves, which she took off carefully and placed on the table next to the door to dry.

L’anglais?’ she asked again, unsure what the man’s silence could otherwise mean.

‘Yes,’ the priest said slowly. ‘I said you were early. Mass does not begin until ten thirty. You weren’t to know.’

‘Oh no!’ she said, letting out a small, child-like giggle. ‘I’m not here for mass. I’m not even a Christian. I was wondering if I could take some photographs of your beautiful church.’

She stood and rocked on her feet before the priest nodded slowly.

‘Will you give me a tour?’ she paused. ‘S’il vous plait? I will be finished so much quicker,’ she added, sensing his agitation.

‘Of course…’ He found himself nodding again. ‘Mais ce n’est pas la Notre Dame de Paris…’ he said under his breath.

They began to walk to the back of the church, taking the route he had walked so many times before.

‘Oh, I cannot stand Paris!’ she said, like she had just finished translating the words one by one in her head and was exceedingly pleased with herself. ‘Too busy! Too many people. I despise people … photography is my passion, but not of people. I love churches …’

She spoke quickly and seemed to be talking to herself. He could not help it. He cleared his throat and asked her why.

‘Why?’ She let out that same strange giggle, which distracted him. ‘Because they are beautiful! Especially the old ones. They represent a community that has existed for hundreds of years, and that without the church as its leader would not exist. It is somewhat inspiring, don’t you think? The church is like a womb … it is the last remains of true family in this world.’

‘But … I thought you said you weren’t a Christian?’

‘I’m not. But just because I don’t believe in God does not mean I can’t believe in the power of the church. The power it has to create hope. Just look at this window …’

The girl diverted, walking through a set of pews to the stained-glass window on the wall above. She was mesmerized by it and her mouth hung slightly open. The priest took this opportunity to look at her. He thought she was beautiful. The light from the stained-glass window cut shards of red across her face and shoulders, so when she smiled she looked like the image of the devil himself. He was taken aback: in all of the Cité Millénaire he did not think such beauty existed. As she spoke about the history of the figure of Jesus on the cross he realised it was not him leading the tour, but her.

So the church appeared new: like the first time he had entered it as a child. How infinite the walls had seemed! And how, now that he was older, he had begun to feel part of the stone itself. The ornate paintings on the wall and roof were suddenly the pieces of art he had once fallen in love with. The structure of the pews and the stone archways, which led to the chambers, were striking and each curve was like that of a woman’s figure. He followed as the girl’s camera led them through the church.

 

IV

As the bells rang, the priest got up from the pew. When the girl left, he had knelt down and begun to pray. He prayed for God to forgive his sins. He prayed for the family and friends he had not seen in years. He prayed for the girl; that she might never believe in God. He did not want her to change, but to stay exactly the way she was.

Walking to the doors, he passed the notice still on the table. He picked it up.

La maison de Dieu,’ he read aloud. The House of God.

Next to the notice, there lay two small, red gloves. The priest laughed. He grabbed the nail and hammer and opened the door.

 

La Maison de Dieu was the winner of the 2011 Litro/IGGY International Young Persons’ Short Story award.

 

Layla Hendow is a student reading English Literature at university. She enjoys writing poetry and short stories and hopes to be a writer in later life. She has recently had poems published in Aesthetica magazine and Acumen magazine, and was featured in two anthologies by Forward Press last year.




Susanna Crossman – The Pull of the Moon

In the morning, Madeleine awakes from a dream that smells of boiled eggs. She lies under the covers, tired for a moment and then remembers that today is Friday. Today is Friday. She smiles, feels a pain in her lower back and slowly eases her sturdy legs from under linen sheets and woollen blankets. Her gnarled toes touch the cold white tiled floor. ‘You should get a duvet,’ her daughter Florence has told her a hundred times before ringing off, ‘Au revoir maman, bisous.’ Kisses land on the lines of her soft plump cheeks. [private]‘And Camille?’ Madeleine asks, but Florence has gone again, she is always saying goodbye, ‘I have to go maman, je t’embrasse.’ Madeleine edges feet into worn slippers. She has sewn the edges back to the heavy brown felt soles. ‘Make do,’ her mother told her, ‘Waste not, want not.’ Madeleine grew up in the war; she can paint walls, darn, stitch, cook from scratch, milk a cow, knit a jumper, repair shoes, drive a tractor, pluck a chicken and plant and harvest a field of potatoes. From her small seaside flat she now watches the tides rise and fall.

Florence and her husband Pierre chose the flat, moved her house and packed her boxes. ‘You’ll be so, so happy maman,’ her daughter smiles. ‘Move while you’re young, you can make new friends, you can’t live alone in the middle of nowhere. Papa has been gone such a long time now.’ Madeline tries, joins clubs for broderie, stretching, crossword puzzles, local heritage. She tries not to miss the soft chestnut parquet floor that she polished every week on a Tuesday afternoon, the warm smell of a nesting chicken, the empty space on Patrick’s chair. She tries to smile, to nod and is quickly put off by the banter and the lack of air. ‘Réspire,’ her father would say to her as a child, ‘Breathe in and then breathe out, but slowly, then they cannot see your fear.’

Madeleine slips her dressing gown from the back of the door. It hangs on a coat-hanger, blue and worn, subdued. She ties a knot by her hip and takes a look out of the window. ‘Look at the view,’ Florence says when they first visit the flat. ‘Grandma!’ her granddaughter Camille cries out ‘The sea, the sea, la mer!’ The sea stretches out to a blurred blue and grey horizon. The sea is like a mouse today, gently waiting. Madeleine smiles; it is high tide and waves are lapping the shore. It is six o’clock.

She walks to the kitchen and stands by the table, her thick stubby fingers smooth the tea-towel hanging on the back of the chair. She puts water in a saucepan to boil, takes a bowl from the cupboard, fetches the Ricorée, gets a spoon from a drawer, puts the powder in the bowl, pours in the boiled water, sits down at the table and drinks. Madeleine’s life is folded as neatly as her ironed piles of handkerchiefs, stacked in the corner of a darkened wardrobe. It is the morning.

It is the morning and Madeleine eats bread with butter. She finishes and wipes the crumbs from the table and washes her teaspoon, the knife and the bowl. She returns to her bedroom and dresses. She wears a brown skirt, blue tights, a pale blue jumper and a red scarf, a present from Camille. ‘You like red,’ she says to her grandma at Christmas. ‘Red is the colour of revolution,’ Madeleine’s father always says, ‘Do not forget, that red is the colour of the people.’ He wraps big arms around her mother’s broad waist as she stirs the evening soup. ‘Stuff and nonsense,’ she replies. ‘The people should choose their colour, that’s the point.’

Madeleine’s mother wears bright red lipstick to her daughter’s wedding on an early summer’s day. ‘You seem so young,’ she whispers in her daughter’s ear, hidden under the veil, ‘Remember that Patrick is only a man and you are only a woman. Remember to be happy.’ That night the sheets are stained burnt crimson and Patrick snores as Madeleine listens to the sound of her breath in the night and nurses sore thighs.

Madeleine puts on her coat and walks out of her flat, locking the door behind her. The March wind is brisk and cold; she pulls her scarf around her neck, clutches her bag. She glances at the sea and nods; the tide is going out. In the distance she can hear the gentle clinking of the sailboats, of rope against metal. She walks along the beach and then left up the street to the boulangerie. She enters and the bell jangles,

Bonjour Madame,’ she says.

Bonjour Madame. Half a baguette as usual?’ asks the dark-haired woman from behind the counter.

‘No, Two baguettes please, and I’d like to order deux pain au chocolat for tomorrow morning and four Paris-Brest for Sunday.’ The baker’s wife smiles ‘You have visitors?’

Oui, oui,’ says Madeleine quickly. She takes the baguettes, pays and leaves the shop in an uncomfortable jangle, ‘Merci, thank-you, au revoir.’

She walks on to the market where she buys the first spring radishes, primrose-yellow butter, little charlotte potatoes and a chicken. She chooses six eggs, puts them in a box and thinks of cake. On the way home, she stops at the little supermarket, gets flour and strange yoghurts with Smarties. ‘Camille loves them,’ Florence sighs, ‘You can’t fight against the tide of progress.’ She licks her lips, ‘Promise me you’ll get yourself a new coat, I can order one from the catalogue, I’ve got 20 percent off the spring collection. Maman, fais-toi plaisir, treat yourself.’

Patrick stands heavy by the bed, red-eyed, ‘Give me the money you stupid woman.’ She hands over her handbag, too exhausted to argue, six months pregnant with Florence. He takes the francs from her purse and slams the door; she can hear him muttering in the street. Madeleine is ashamed of what the neighbours will think; she didn’t know that men could be like this. Patrick is burnt inside and out from the war. He has a thick purple scar across his back. He cries in his sleep when he isn’t snoring. Madeleine strokes his brow as he whimpers; her fingers try to smooth away the trampling fiends.

Back in her flat, Madeleine takes off her coat and hangs it in the wardrobe. From another coat hanger she takes a nylon button-through overall which she fastens over her solid waist. It is low tide now, twelve o’clock.  She fetches a mixing bowl, a spoon and a measuring jug. She mixes sugar and butter, adds eggs and flour, powdered almonds. She spoons the mixture into a greased tray, little rectangular sponge cakes, financiers. She thinks of how she will make hot chocolate and Camille will dip cakes into the sweet brown liquid. They will smile, hair blown into tangles from the sea breeze, cheeks apple bright from the spray.

Madeleine makes herself a light lunch, a slice of ham, a tomato, and une salade verte. She eats a yoghurt for dessert and has a cup of coffee, which she takes into her living room. Every day, she sits and watches the ebb and the flow of the sea. Her day is measured by the pull of the moon. The beach is empty. The sun catches on the watery sand and the pebbles; a glittering, blinding landscape. She can smell the cakes cooking in the oven. She sips hot black liquid from a little cup and feels a slight twinge in her lower back.

‘Go on,’ her friend Marie-Catherine says, holding out a packet of Gitanes blondes, ‘Go on, have one.’ Madeleine has never smoked. She is wearing a red skirt sprinkled with daisies. It is September and it’s raining. She takes a cigarette, smiling shyly at her friend. She lights the end, inhales and coughs. They are sitting in Marie-Catherine’s kitchen drinking coffee and peeling apples for compote. Florence is at school. Patrick is harvesting the potatoes. It is autumn; the orchards are full of fruit. Madeleine tries to smoke and peel and the knife falls and cuts her hand. A drop of blood settles on a crisp white slice of apple.

When Madeleine finishes her coffee, she takes the cup and saucer to the kitchen. She goes to the oven to check the cakes. They are ready. She takes the tea-towel from the back of the chair and slides the hot dish onto the work surface. The cakes are golden and brown. She washes her plate, her knife, her fork, her spoon and her little cup and saucer. She sits down on the chair and looks at the clock; it is nearly two. She must start making dinner. They will be arriving at six o’clock. Florence will be leaving Camille here and then going to spend the weekend at a hotel with Pierre. She has not seen Camille since Christmas.

On Sunday, Pierre, Florence, Camille and Madeleine will eat their lunch together. Madeleine will make roast chicken with little roast potatoes and a green salad with goat’s cheese followed by chocolate Paris-Brest, the big cream cakes that Florence adores. ‘You will order the Paris-Brest, maman?’ Florence asks. ‘Of course, my dear,’ Madeleine replies, and she knows that Pierre will shake his head when he sees the cakes. He will say that Florence should ‘Be careful, fais attention,’ as the weight will fall on her hips. Pierre is slim with tightly-drawn lips and plays tennis every week. His stomach is flat.

Madeleine is small and plump with a mole on her chin. Her hair is wiry and grey and short. She goes every month on a Thursday to see her hairdresser Nathalie. Nathalie is slim, blonde and pretty. She massages Madeleine’s tired old head when she washes her hair. ‘It’s not too hot?’ she asks as the water flows. ‘Pas trop chaud?’ ‘Non, non,’ Madeleine replies and lets Nathalie’s fingers work their way along her scalp, around the nape of her neck. She wishes this could last forever, the water, the hands, the tender kneading of soft tissue and bone.

Madeleine gets up from her chair and eases the cakes from their metal shells. She fetches a Tupperware and puts the cakes in the plastic box. ‘What would Camille like for dinner?’ she asks Florence. ‘Pasta, les pâtes, les pâtes,’ Florence says, laughing. ‘Don’t fuss maman, give her pasta, I have to go.’ Madeleine can hear Pierre muttering in the background. She does not want to feed her granddaughter pasta, she will make a purée maison, she has bought the potatoes especially. She will feed Camille homemade mashed potatoes and grilled sausages. She wants to put weight on the little urban bones.

She takes the potatoes from a sack in the cupboard. ‘Never put potatoes in the fridge,’ her mother said when the huge humming white metal boxes arrived in their kitchens. ‘The vegetables need a little warmth, the cold kills the taste.’ Madeleine goes to her fridge and takes out milk and butter. There are scant provisions on the shelves, this morning’s purchases; the strange Smartie desserts, the chicken, the radishes, a lettuce, green beans, goat’s cheese, plain yoghurts, a few slices of ham. Madeleine eats little, but does not seem to lose weight. The flesh hangs on her skeleton, a thick immobile layer like a heavy winter coat that she cannot remove.

She takes a knife from the drawer and puts the radio on. It’s nearly time for her daily quiz show. It’s the local radio station and they are talking about computers and Madeleine does not understand. This is part of growing old, she thinks, when the world speaks a language you no longer comprehend. Her husband Patrick would not even use a bank card to pay for the shopping at the supermarket. He cried when they took him from his farm to the hospital to die. ‘I want to die on my land, ma terre,’ he said.

It’s a computer mamie,’ Camille giggles ‘A computer, grandma.’ She takes Madeleine into her bedroom at Christmas and sits in front of the screen. Camille is proud of her new plastic box. The little girl’s fingers tap on the keyboard, her pupils enlarge, she moves the mouse and is lost in the phosphorescent surface. ‘Yes, Camille,’ her grandma answers, watching, and sits heavily on the pink princess duvet cover on her granddaughter’s bed.

It is three o’clock in the afternoon. The radio quiz has finished; Madeleine managed to answer a lot of the questions, she was always good at General Knowledge. She can still recite the 100 French départements, including those situated overseas. She spreads a sheet of newspaper on her kitchen table. She puts the knife and the potatoes on the paper. She takes a saucepan from a cupboard, fills it with water, adds salt and puts it on the gas ring. She takes matches, lights the gas ring under the saucepan and sits at the table to peel the potatoes. She removes the brown skin in neat thin slices. By the time she has peeled ten potatoes the salted water is boiling. She drops them one by one into the saucepan. The telephone rings. She walks into the living room and looks out at the sea. The tide is rising. She picks up the receiver. It is her daughter, Florence.

‘Hello maman.’

Hello darling.’

Maman, Pierre has a problem with work. I am sorry, we won’t be coming this weekend. I’ll ring this evening and we’ll book another time soon. We’ll try to come before the summer. I’m sorry I can’t talk for long. I’ll ring this evening. I’ve got to go. Kisses maman, bisous.’

‘Au revoir, Florence.’

Madeleine puts the phone down. She looks out at the sea. The tide is coming in. She walks into the kitchen and turns off the heat under the saucepan. She takes the pile of peel in the bundle of newspaper and puts it in the bin. She stands by the table and her thick stubby fingers smooth the tea-towel hanging on the back of the chair. Madeleine closes the kitchen door. She takes the tea-towel from the back of the chair and pushes it into the gap at the bottom of the door. She closes the kitchen window. She opens the oven door, she turns the gas on, and she eases her head inside the oven, smelling the soft, sweet vapours. She closes her eyes and feels a pain in her lower back. She lies on the cold white tiled floor, her gnarled toes shift inside her brown felt slippers. Slowly, she falls asleep.

At six o’clock in the evening the tide is high, the waves are lapping the shore. Madeleine does not mash her potatoes; she does not grill her sausages. The little rectangular sponge cakes wait in the plastic box on the kitchen surface. Camille will not eat them. In the fridge the chicken sits with goat’s cheese, the lettuce, the radishes, the Smartie desserts, the yoghurts, the ham and the green beans. Madeleine’s telephone rings; it is Florence. Madeleine does not answer the telephone. In the distance is the sound of the gentle clinking of the sailboats, of rope falling against metal.[/private]

Susanna Crossman is a writer, drama-therapist and lecturer based in North-Western France. She has just completed her first novel, Walking on Stone. She also writes short stories (Glimmertrain, Pygmy Giant, Bristol prize short-list) and plays (Festival Mythos, Compagnie VO). Her academic work has been published internationally (Elsevier Masson, Frank & Timme, Kangwon University). Read more at: www.susanna-crossman.blogspot.com




An extract from The Foundling by Agnès Desarthe

‘A fireball cartwheeling right across the road, then, suddenly, after the bend, blat! Into a tree. This fireball smashes into the trunk and burns the lot, leaves, branches, even the roots. I thought it was like some paranormal phenomenon. But actually it was the boy. The boy on his bike. Apparently that don’t never happen, bikes catching fire like that, for no reason, but it happened then. I was there. I watched it from above, from the bridge over the main road. That’s where I saw it. A fireball.’

[private]Jerome is rereading the eye-witness account in the local paper. His hands are shaking. His stomach too. He reads it yet again, wonders why the journalist didn’t ‘massage’ the words of this Yvette Réhurdon, farm labourer. For a moment he manages to take his mind off it by imagining the editors’ meeting during which they agreed to transcribe, verbatim, the words recorded onto a pocket tape-recorder by the primary school teacher who writes their news-in-brief column in her spare time.

Almost immediately the trembling, which had subsided, starts up again. Jerome wants to cry, he thinks it would be a release, but his tears won’t come. The boy wasn’t his son, he was his daughter’s sweetheart.

Is that what you say, sweetheart? He doesn’t know. How did Marina put it? My boyfriend? No. She said Armand.

Jerome is sitting in the living room and, through his daughter’s closed bedroom door, he can hear sobs, moans, occasionally a cry. He has no idea what he is supposed to do.

Before leaving for work this morning he went to see her. He turned the handle very softly, so as not to wake her, just in case. But she was not asleep. She was lying on her front, crying. He went over to her.

He thought he might stroke her shoulder. But when Marina heard him, she looked up. Jerome saw her face and fled.

It’s completely natural for her to resent me, he thought. Why isn’t it me who’s dead? That would be easier. That would be normal.

Jerome is fifty-six years old. And the boy, how old was he? Eighteen, like Marina? Maybe nineteen.

Armand.

Such a pretty sounding name, Armand.

Jerome fiddles with the fish-shaped placemat in the middle of the table while his thoughts wander. He puts the newspaper down. He would like to read the account of the accident once more. He daren’t. What’s the point? There was nothing left of the boy. A boot buckle, perhaps. The zip from his jacket.

Jerome thinks of Edith Piaf’s song about a man on a motorbike in a leather jacket. Hates himself for being so easily distracted. He wishes he could be submerged in grief, inhabiting it, like Marina. But his mind gallivants around. He comes up with all sorts of rubbish. Perhaps, he thinks, if he reads the interview with Yvette Réhurdon, farm labourer, enough times, he will eventually manage to concentrate.

Why bother? He doesn’t know. He feels he is expected to give some sort of reaction. But what sort? And who is expecting it? Who is waiting for him to react? He has been living alone with Marina since Paula left him. That was four years ago.

Paula, that was a pretty name too, Jerome says to himself.

He loathes being in this state. Mawkish and aimless. But he can’t do anything about it. He feels he is no longer in control. He is coasting. Death has that effect. It’s very powerful, death.

No. I really can’t be thinking crap like that, he tells himself. But he is. That’s exactly what he’s thinking, that death is powerful. He thinks it with the same intensity as when, three seconds ago, he thought Paula was a pretty name. Paula was also a pretty woman. He still doesn’t understand why she married him.

If she were here she would know exactly how to handle this. She would run her daughter a bath, talk to her, give her a hand massage. She would let fresh air in through the window. Tell her all sorts of twaddle about the soul, about memories we hold inside us for ever which give us strength, and about life which picks us all up again eventually.

Jerome admires her. How does she do it?

He always felt that Paula had unravelled the great mystery of … all the great mysteries, in fact. After the separation she bought herself a cottage in a picturesque village in the south. With a big lavender bush and a wisteria in the courtyard. She drinks rosé with her neighbours at sunset. He sometimes thinks about her, and the life she has made for herself a long way away from him. A successful, harmonious life. Through the grey days, and the weeks when the thermometer doesn’t get above minus five, he dreams of joining her. On the weather report in the evenings, he looks at the map of France, and there is almost always a sun over where Paula lives, while where they live, he and Marina, it’s all freezing fog, morning mists and unsettled periods brought on by a low front from the north-east.

What are they doing here? Why didn’t Marina leave with her mother when they separated? You would expect a daughter to go with her mother. He doesn’t remember discussing it, not with either of them. And all at once it comes to him: Armand. He and Marina must have been at school together. She was only little, but she was already in love. Marina didn’t choose between her mother and her father. Marina chose love. Jerome is sure of it. Yet he only recently discovered the boy existed. Marina is a discreet young woman. She had never brought anyone to the house, then one day, six months ago, she said she wanted to ask someone to supper.

‘I’ll do the cooking,’ she offered. ‘I’ll do a roast.’

And in the red of her cheeks and the ‘o’ of that roast, Jerome could tell. He could tell without really knowing. He didn’t say to himself my daughter’s got a lover, or she wants to introduce me to the boy she loves. He didn’t say anything to himself. His thoughts don’t produce sentences. They stop just short.

The bell rang at eight thirty. Jerome went to open the door. There was the boy, bottle in hand. Jerome remembers thinking he was tall. He had to look up to his face. What a good-looking boy. His skin … his cheeks … his thick dark eyelashes, the sparkle in his eyes …

Jerome is crying. He puts his head in his hands, for the space of two sobs. One for the bottle of wine in the boy’s hands, the other for his good looks.

Then it stops. No more tears. No more images.

The church clock strikes. Jerome stands up and looks out of the window. The hill dropping away outside, the road down below, right at the bottom, and the other hillside beyond going up to the woods. The rows of russet-coloured vines, the bare earth between their gnarled feet. The sun in the white sky. Sap freezing inside plants. Some tiny little purple flowers have opened in the shadow of the holly hedge. Jerome looks at them and thinks how Armand will never see them.

He remembers reading in some book about people putting bottle ends over the eyes of the dead before laying them in their coffins. He doesn’t remember the book’s title. Was it a novel? Maybe just a newspaper article. He can’t remember but he likes the idea. These eyes will see no more. Or only through bottle glass. Paradise is so far away, so high up, that you need a magnifying glass to see the earth.

Jerome wonders whether he should go to the funeral. Meet the in-laws who will never be in-laws. He feels awkward and shy. He’s afraid. He doesn’t know how you shake the hand of a bereaved parent. The physical contact strikes him as sacrilegious. I would never dare, he thinks.

 

The telephone rings. It is Paula.

‘How are you, big boy?’ she asks him.

Jerome’s heart swells in his chest. A hot air balloon between his diaphragm and his collar bones. I love you. I love you. I love you. That’s what he wishes he could say to his ex-wife, for whom he has only ever had modest feelings. Instead, he replies:

‘Not great.’

‘How about Marina?’

Jerome says nothing. Not a single word comes to him.

‘I’m so fucking stupid,’ Paula blurts. ‘Sorry, I’m so sorry. The funeral’s tomorrow, isn’t it? I’ll catch a plane and then the last train this evening. I’ll get there late. Can I sleep at the house? No, that’s not a good idea.’

‘Yes, yes, it’s a very good idea. I’ll leave the door unlocked.’

‘You are kind.’

‘It’s only natural.’

‘It’s awful.’

‘Yes.’

‘What exactly happened?’

‘I don’t know. No one knows. The bike caught fire. No one knows why, or how. Apparently he hadn’t been drinking.’

‘How will anyone ever know?’

‘There’s no way of knowing.’

‘What sort of boy was he?’

‘Perfect.’

Jerome is surprised by his own answer. Paula falls silent. She feels swindled. She never met her daughter’s perfect boyfriend. She herself only ever had awkward relationships. Her marriage? Nice, that was the word she most often used to describe it. As if to rub salt in her wounds, Jerome adds:

‘I’ve never seen anything like it. A … how can I put it? … a connection … a … you see, when they were together …’

‘Don’t do this to me, big boy. Don’t do it.’

She hangs up just as he is saying ‘lots of love’. He thinks of ringing her back just to say it, to say ‘lots of love’. As if it were important, as if their lives depended on it, world stability, justice.

I’m going gaga, he thinks, and smiles, because of the word, and the way he cradles the phone in his hand, like a frog, a mouse. A pleasant feeling suffuses him, a warmth, a very slight euphoria. For a moment he forgot Armand’s death because, instead of thinking about the catastrophe, he thought of woodland animals, the sort you come across on a walk, and catching their eye feels secret, furtive, incomparable. It was just a reprieve. His smile falls apart. He goes over to the door. Whoever it is has rung three times now.

Through the frosted glass he recognises Rosy’s silhouette. Rosy has always been fat. She and Marina have been best friends since nursery school. She has huge cheeks, like high Manchurian plateaux, Jerome thinks. He doesn’t know why Rosy has always been associated with the word Manchurian in his mind, perhaps because of her very dark, slightly slanting eyes, her small flat nose and her pony-like quality.

‘Hi, Jerome,’ she says, offering her unbelievable cheeks for a kiss.

‘Hi, Rosy,’ he replies, giving her a hug.

They hold the embrace for a moment, clumsily rubbing each other’s backs, then pull apart abruptly, embarrassed.

‘It’s good of you to come.’

‘Of course I would. How is she? I’ve brought her schoolwork.’

‘Oh, well, you know, I don’t think …’

‘No really,’ says Rosy very confidently as she sets off down the corridor, her huge body swaying from one leg to the other. ‘Mustn’t let go. Mustn’t let anything go.’

How does she know? Jerome wonders.

He watches her heading for the bedroom door.

He can still see them, her and Marina, when they were seven years old. One resting her head on the other’s stomach and saying, ‘I love you because you’re comfortable,’ and the other replying, ‘I love you because you always say nice things.’ He thinks they are both very good reasons for loving someone.

When the door opens, the din Marina’s making pervades the house. It is violent as a blast of wind. Jerome’s hands fly instinctively to his ears. This noise must stop. But the moment he is aware of his gesture, he orders his arms to drop back down. This is his child crying, not the asshole next door trimming his hedge.

Rosy doesn’t lose heart, she goes in and closes the door behind her. The sound level drops immediately. Jerome takes a few steps down the corridor, and listens. He hears Rosy’s voice. Then crying. Rosy’s voice again. Then nothing. Rosy’s voice singing a song in English. A deluge of sobs, gulps, a wail, sobs, several cries. Rosy is still singing. The crying stops. Rosy sings. Louder and louder. All of a sudden the door opens. Rosy catches Jerome with his ear almost flat against the wall.

‘I know this is a non-smoking house, Jerome. I completely respect that. But this is a bit of an exception. I think we need to smoke. I wanted to ask your permission. If we open the window?’

Jerome shrugs his shoulders, nods his head. Right now he would give anything to be able to smoke too. He has never touched a cigarette in his life. What a mistake! He should have started at fifteen like everyone else. If he hadn’t wanted to be all different, he could offer them one now, smoke with them – as Indians would a peace pipe – without a word. Not needing to talk to be together.

‘No probs,’ he says, because he heard a teenager say it a couple of days ago in the car park by the post office.

Rosy smiles at him, more Manchurian than ever, and closes the door again.

The stupid expression he has just used lingers in the house. Jerome goes into the kitchen and ‘no probs’ follows him. He opens a cupboard to make himself a coffee and ‘no probs’ pops out. He goes back into the corridor in the hopes that the crying will drown out its persistent echo, but there isn’t a single sound coming from his daughter’s bedroom now. This is the silence of a smoking session, the infinite calm of inhalation. ‘No probs’ bounces from one wall to the other along the corridor. Jerome hurries into the living room, unfolds the sofa bed, making all the springs creak, launches himself at the cupboard, throws it wide open, takes out a sheet, a blanket and pillows, and starts making up the bed like a chambermaid possessed by the Devil. He is sweating. He would like to make a lot more noise, but the fabrics slither and mould against each other mutely. Jerome can hear only the internal hubbub of his own body, heartbeats and the click of joints. ‘No probs.’

Luckily, Rosy starts singing again. She has a lovely voice, both high and rich. He doesn’t recognise the tune, a sad, heartbreaking melody. He would never have thought of that: singing a sad song to his weeping daughter. And yet it seems to be working: since Rosy arrived, Marina has stopped crying.[/private]

Excerpted from The Foundling by Agnès Desarthe, translated by Adriana Hunter, to be published by Portobello Books in February 2012, at £12.99. www.portobellobooks.com

Agnès Desarthe was born in Paris in 1966 and has written many books for children and teenagers, as well as adult fiction. She has had three previous novels translated into English: Five Photos of My Wife (2001), which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Jewish Quarterly Fiction Prize, and Good Intentions (2002) and Chez Moi (2008). The Foundling was awarded the Le Renaudot des Lycéens Prize on publication in France. www.agnesdesarthe.com.

Adriana Hunter has been working as a literary translator since 1998, and has now translated nearly 50 books from the French, including, for Portobello Books, Véronique Ovaldé’s Kick the Animal Out (a finalist for the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize) and And My See-Through Heart. She has three children and lives in Norfolk.




An extract from Bar Balto by Faïza Guène

Translated by Sarah Ardizzone

Joël, the unpopular proprietor of local hangout Bar Balto, has been found brutally murdered in the suburban nowhere town of Making-Ends-Meet. Yeznig is a thirteen-year-old mentally-handicapped boy with no sense of past or future – but what, if anything, does he know about Joel’s death?

[private]Yeznig, aka Baby, Fatty or the Spaz

This year, he started getting hair everywhere. Growing in every direction. In this place here, and there, most of all. Next week I was thirteen. I was a big boy now. Even if Mummy says ‘sweetheart’, and she says ‘my baby’ too. On telly, they never show babies with hair, and in the street, in their prams, they wouldn’t have hair either. I wasn’t a baby any more. She doesn’t want to stop with the baby. She’ll say ‘baby’ to me and to Daddy she says ‘bastard’. That’s it.

One day, I’d like to make her fall downstairs or tidy her away in the fridge, where she’d hide my ice-cream cones. One day, maybe. She won’t let me eat sweet things because the doctor says I was too fat but why is he so fat? If he’s allowed to say I’m fat then he can’t be fat. And he’ll say to Mummy, ‘Stop smoking, it’s bad for you,’ but one day I saw him doing it. A fat doctor who smokes isn’t a proper doctor, or else he has to let everybody eat sweet things and smoke lots of cigarettes. If he says something like that again, I’m giving his eyes to the birds to eat. That’s it.

I volunteer at HUW in the morning and I come home at night. HUW means: Helping Us Work. It’s Arnaud, the director, who’ll tell me that. He says he helps me but I’m the one who helps them: I’ll stick labels on boxes all day long. The same thing again, again, again. Labels, boxes, labels, boxes. I’ll be President of France, because he can be on telly and in the newspaper at the same time and he does what he wants, he goes to every country and he’s got lots of money and sunglasses. But Joël, the pinball boss, he told me I’m never President in my life, he says: ‘We’ve never had a mongol President in France,’ and he laughs at me. Joël’s more mongol than me. He’s always touching his hair behind his head, he’s scared it’s falling out maybe. He’s very hairy as well, under his shirt, in his ears, in his nose and on his fingers too. Another thing, he often scratches in his trousers. It’s not clean. Mummy will shout in her voice when I will do it. ‘No! My baby! Don’t do that! Its disgusting!’ So I didn’t do it any more. I was doing it when she isn’t there. Soon, when I was President, being hairy isn’t allowed.[/private]

Extracted from Bar Balto by Faïza Guène, translated by Sarah Ardizzone; published by Chatto & Windus at £11.99.

 

AUTHOR: Faïza Guène was born in France in 1985 to Algerian parents. She wrote her first novel, Just Like Tomorrow, when she was seventeen years old. It was a huge success in France, selling over 360,000 copies and translation rights around the world, and was shortlisted for the Young Minds Book Award 2006 and longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2007. Her second book was Dreams from the Endz.

TRANSLATOR: Sarah Ardizzone won the Scott Moncrieff Prize in 2007 for Faiza Guène's first novel, Just Like Tomorrow, with English PEN recommending her translation of Dreams from the Endz in 2008. She has a special interest in translating urban slang, after living in an Algerian quarter of Marseille. Sarah is also twice winner of the Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation.




An extract from While Waiting by Marcel Aymé

Translated by Sophie Lewis

‘I’m sick of it,’ said a girl of low reputation. ‘You know what I am, but I wouldn’t recommend joining me. Lots of people, they think that the profession is a good way to get fat. Of course, you’ll find some women who make all their cash during the day, but that kind of punter isn’t my bag. My set are the standard clients, the average clients who fiddle their monthly salary for a bit of fun. [private]Before, I used to make my hundred francs in the end, perhaps a little over, scarcely though. We lived sparingly, my gentleman and I, and we managed to make ends meet and even put a little away in the savings bank. Fernando, his idea was that one day we would buy a little café beside the river Marne. Remember, before the war, these things were by no means impossible. And then, the war could have been good for us, if only the country had been ready for it. But at every level there’s been too much complacency, we French are too devoted to pleasure. Mistakes were made rounding people up. Top to bottom, it’s a total black-out.

Still, we didn’t suffer too much during the Phoney Fight, on the contrary. There were people about, men weren’t scarce, they still wanted a bit of skirt. Even after, when the Germans came charging into Paris, we had a good time. They sent all their military men to visit Paris. Now, the military has wised up. Quite finished, it is, that tourism stage. On top of that, you’ve hardly the time to get any work in. In this season it’s already dark at six. You have to work in the cafés. The drinks are dear and we do add up to a lot of single women and, for the client, atmosphere-wise, it’s really not the same as the streets. And it doesn’t do me any favours either. You know some women have that wicked eye or come-on cleavage. My best feature, don’t know if you saw already, is from my feet up to my waist, but I can hardly sit on the table. And some of the women can speak German, that helps quite a bit with the military. Fernando, he wanted me to learn it, he used to send me to a school for it every morning. But I didn’t understand a thing, I dropped out.

See my problem is, even our slang, I’ve never managed to get the hang of it. My education’s a problem too. We never spoke slang at home. My old folks, they’d never put up with it. For them it came down to work, work, work. A day of work for an evening out. In a way, they weren’t wrong. Today, for whatever it brings in, it’s evenings out every time. Prices really have gone up a bit, but with what everything costs these days, it doesn’t matter so much. To keep a roof and feed a man, you realise the difference. Besides which, I need underwear, silk stockings, and Fernando has to wear something too. He’s a bit of a dandy, you ought to see him. At least he has to be if he wants work. I know some women, their men work things out fixing up deals on the black market. But Fernando, well he’s much too frightened and anyway, he has no idea. Sometimes, when I’m feeling low, he makes me angry, I clobber him proper with my boots, but I regret it after, I think that’s his weedy nature, what can you do, poor bugger. Perhaps you know him? Yes! A skinny fellow in a beige overcoat, one shoulder higher than the other, with a face like a slice out of the moon. In our trade, before the war, the fashion was to shack up with crooks, runts, moron types. You remember what we used to sing: He’s a real little midget, no higher than a Basset. With that type of thinking, there’s no chance of us winning the war. Because, make no mistake, morality is about how you’re brought up. In any case, now I have my scruffy rascal to myself. With that one I can sleep sound, they won’t be sending him to Germany.’

‘As for me,’ said an old lady, ‘it’s now a fortnight since I’ve had anything over to feed my cat. His name is Kiki.’

‘And me,’ said a man, ‘in the name of God and all his billion holy hosts. Won’t they give us some wine? I can’t go on. I can’t! I can’t! Their rations are no better than a kick in the backside. I’m used to drinking six litres of wine a day, four aperitifs and a glass of brandy after the Camembert. I was as strong as the Pont Neuf, never a day off sick and always ready for work in the morning. Now look at me, I’m fifty-four and no good to anyone any longer, of course. I’ve left my plumbing work, I shake all over, see my hands, you’d put me at ninety, my legs are shivery, they feel like lead and I keep losing my thread all the time. How would you explain it? I tell you, strong as the Pont Neuf. Like the Pont Neuf, as solid as that. Good God, the Pont Neuf! But no wine. What can you do without wine? Take away the wine and you’ll destroy the man. I can feel a fire inside me. I can’t take it any more, I tell you. I can’t take it! A litre of wine per week. Murderers.

My wife, she gets her litre too, but would you believe it, she drinks it all, leaves me none. Yesterday morning, we’d got our ration. In the evening, my wife kept a glassful at the bottom of her bottle. I couldn’t hold back, I wanted to take it from her. In actual fact, I couldn’t help myself. We were like lunatics, both of us, she threw a plate at my head. The Pont Neuf. Ah! They never suspected what evil they would do with their rationing.

My little boy who’s nearly thirteen, he gets nothing. But he has needs too. A boy well cared for, he’s never lacked for wine. At the age of three, he was already glugging down his glass of red with all his meals. We were getting him used to it little by little. Had to watch not to overdo it. Enough is enough, but this is too much, too much. The Pont Neuf. At nine he was drinking his litre a day and often a litre and a half. How is a child meant to get on when he has nothing left in him? And my son particularly, he lacks my strong disposition. He’s always been scrawny, weak nerves, festering boils. All he had to keep him going was his little daily litre to drink. Now he has to drink water. If that isn’t vile. The Pont Neuf. And he’s still young, he’ll be able to catch up. But I, a man of fifty-plus, keep it up on a litre a week? A litre. No, one litre. And to have to wait for it for days. I can’t go on!'[/private]

Extracted from While Waiting, a short story from Marcel Aymé's collection The Man Who Walked through Walls, to be published by Pushkin Press in February 2012.  See www.pushkinpress.com

 

AUTHOR: Marcel Aymé (1902-1967) is considered one of the great French writers of the twentieth-century. A devoted Parisian, he was a prolific journalist, novelist, essayist and playwright. He is best known for his short stories—the most famous of which is Le Passe-Muraille, which exhibits his hallmark blend of fantasy, humour and irony.

TRANSLATOR: Sophie Lewis specialises in translating short prose from French. Her forthcoming publications include Thérèse and Isabelle, a ground-breaking feminist novella by Violette Leduc, for Salammbô Press. She is currently working on Sans Dessus Dessous, a novel by Jules Verne, for Hesperus Press. She is also Editor-at-Large at And Other Stories press (www.andotherstories.org).




In the service of blood by Michel Houellebecq

Translated by Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews

 

I no longer go on trips, really,

Because I know the place

And I know my rights,

And I’ve lived through rage.

In the service of humanity,

In the middle of the estate,

I know my bedroom well

And feel the night descend.

Angels take flight

In the glory of heaven

They will find God;

And the women have fun.

Tied to the table,

Sat in the estate,

The slow intensity

Of the relentless night.

At night in the estate

The slow immensity,

The cruel vision

Torn off from the sky

Of a shape that moves

Pulsating and red.

In the service of blood

The sleepy disgust,

The cruel ends of love

The blown-up bits of the real;

And all that for what?

The idea of a vision

The end of a song

Men losing hope

Waiting for rage

For exploding bodies,

Squatting, wounded,

Hoping for carnage.

I bring the ingredient

Of the final hatred,

My teeth are grinding,

Evil seeps in.

I know the tricks

Of a crushed flesh

I overdo it, I’m told

But I feel exonerated

By human suffering,

By hopes dissatisfied

By the dense crushing

Of superfluous days.

I am not serene

But I am at home,

Angels are holding my hand

I can feel the night falling.

 

Taken from The Art of Struggle by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews, published by Alma Books at £10.99 (www.almabooks.com)

 

Michel Houellebecq lives in County Cork, Ireland. He is the bestselling author of Atomised, Platform, Whatever and The Possibility of an Island. He is also a poet, essayist and rap artist.

Delphine Grass has written a doctoral thesis entitled The Poetics of Humanity in the Novels of Michel Houellebecq at University College London. Her poetry has been published in various French and English-language journals. She is a member of the A Verse poetry group based in La Sorbonne, Paris.

Timothy Mathews is Professor of French and Comparative Criticism at University College London. He is author of Reading Apollinaire. Theories of Poetic Language (Manchester University Press 1987 and 1990), and Literature, Art and the Pursuit of Decay in Twentieth-Century France (Cambridge University Press 2000 and 2006).




Extract from Everything Around Me Is Shaking by Dany Laferrière

Introduction by translator Sophie Lewis

January 23, 2010—Dany Laferrière is in Haiti for the literary festival Etonnants Voyageurs. Like so many others, he is caught in the earthquake. Unlike many, he escapes the catastrophe unscathed. A year later, in Tout bouge autour de moi (Everything around me is shaking), he writes of what he saw that day and again, some weeks later when he returned to Haiti: sights that speak of horror but also of the Haitians’ remarkable sangfroid. Laferrière retells the story of the quake through his own impressions and view of the events. He counters the sensationalism and melodrama of Occidental television coverage with a sober, powerful account of this crisis whose repercussions continue to be felt worldwide. Tout bouge autour de moi is not merely a piece of testimony; it is a work of true literature.

The Minute

There I am in the restaurant of Hotel Karibe with my friend Rodney Saint-Eloi, publisher of Mémoire d’encrier (Memory of an Inkpot), who has just come in from Montreal. Leaning against our table-legs were two fat suitcases filled with his latest books. I was waiting for my crayfish (on the menu it said lobster) and Saint-Eloi for a salt-baked sole. I had already started on the bread when I heard a terrible explosion. At first I thought it was a machine-gun (others will say a train), right behind me. Seeing the cooks fly past us, I thought that a boiler had just exploded. All this took less than a minute. We had eight to ten seconds in which to make a decision. Get out of the place or stay. Those who split swiftly were very few. Even the sharpest lost three or four precious seconds before they realised what was happening. I was in the hotel restaurant with friends, the publisher Rodney Saint-Eloi and the critic Thomas Spear. Spear lost three precious seconds because he wanted to finish his beer. We don’t all react alike. In any case, no-one can foresee when death will be waiting for them. All three of us found ourselves flat on the floor, in the middle of the courtyard. Under the trees. The ground began to undulate like a slip of paper carried off in the wind. The thudding sounds of buildings falling to their knees. They don’t explode. They implode, imprisoning people in their bellies. Suddenly, we see a cloud of dust rise up into the afternoon sky. As if a professional dynamiter had received the express command to destroy the whole city without blocking the streets, to give the cranes easy access.


Life Already

Life had seemed to be returning to normal after decades of turbulence. Girls would stroll in the streets laughing, late into the evening. Primitive painters chatted to the mango- and avocado-sellers on the corners of dusty streets. Banditry seemed to be on the way out. In the rougher parts of town, such as Bel-Air, crime was no longer tolerated by the worn-out population, which had seen it all in the last half-century: hereditary dictatorships, military coups d’etat, cyclone after cyclone, devastating floods and stealth kidnappings. I was coming for this literary festival that was meant to bring writers to Port-au-Prince from all around the world. It promised to be exciting since, for the first time, literature seemed to have become the hot topic in town, more popular even than politics. Writers were being invited to speak on television more frequently than the MPs: a pretty rare thing in this highly politicised country. Literature was reclaiming its rightful place here. As early as 1929, Paul Morand noted in his perceptive essay Hiver caraïbe (Caribbean Winter) that in Haiti everything ends with a collection of poetry. Later on, during his last trip to Port-au-Prince in 1975, Malraux would talk about a population of painters. We are still trying to understand how such a concentration of artists could emerge in such a limited space. Haiti only takes up half of an island, which it shares with the Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean Sea.


The Silence

When I travel, I always keep two things with me: my passport (in a little bag hanging from my neck) and a black notebook in which I note down everything that crosses my field of vision or comes into my head. While I was lying on the ground, I was thinking about disaster movies, wondering if the earth was going to open and swallow us all. This was my childhood nightmare. We had retreated to the hotel’s tennis court. I was expecting to hear cries, people screaming. We say in Haiti that as long as there’s no screaming, there’s no death. Someone shouted that it wasn’t safe to stay under the trees. In fact they were wrong, for not a branch, not a flower shifted in spite of the forty-three seismic shocks of that first night. I can still hear that silence.


Projectiles

A shock of magnitude 7.3 is not so bad. You can still run away. Concrete was the real killer. People had gone to town with their concrete these last fifty years. Little fortresses. Being suppler, the houses made of wood and sheet metal had taken the stress. In the frequently tiny hotel bedrooms, the television became the enemy. We always sit down right in front of it. And it falls straight onto us. Lots of people had it fall on their heads.


The Ladder

We pick ourselves up slowly, like zombies in a B-movie. There are shouts in the hotel courtyard. The buildings to the back and right have crumbled. These are the apartments rented on an annual basis by foreign families, mostly French. Two teenage girls are panicking on a second-floor balcony. Very quickly, people start working out how to help them down. There are three of them there in front of the building. Two hold a ladder. The sharp young man who has had the presence of mind to go look for the ladder in the garden is climbing up it. The older of the girls manages to climb over the balcony’s edge. She reaches the ground. Everyone crowds around her. The young man climbs back up to get the younger one, who refuses to leave the place. She demands that they wait for her mother. This is the first we hear of a third person stuck up there. The rescuers work on in sweaty silence. They need to act fast, for the block, which is barely standing, could collapse with the slightest vibration. The teenager screams that her mother is inside. While looking for a stairway to get out by, the mother had got herself locked in somewhere. Weeping, the girl points to the spot where her mother is stuck. Standing in the hotel garden, we all have our eyes riveted on this teenager who believes that if she comes down we will forget her mother. There is enormous tension in the air, for the earth has only just finished shaking. Eventually, the mother frees herself by breaking a window. She rushes to her daughter who still refuses to come down before her. Only when her mother has reached the ground will she agree to come down the ladder.


A Small Party

A woman walks about with a crying baby. I take him in my arms and try to soothe him. He devours me with the black eyes of a frightened mouse. A gaze so sustained that he ends up intimidating me. The woman explains that she’s his nurse. His parents are at work. She had just given him a bath when the room started to rock. Thrown about all over the room, she never lets go of the baby. She tries to leave the building by the stairs. Blocked. She returns to the bedroom and this time manages to balance the baby on the window-ledge, before lowering herself onto the balcony on the next floor down. Then she climbs on a chair to pick up the infant who, miraculously, hasn’t moved, as if he understands the gravity of the situation. As soon as she had him in her arms again, he began to cry, as though he were being skinned alive, for the next two hours. Then his parents rushed in. I hardly dare to imagine their anguish during the journey. They left the car, doors wide, in the middle of the road. The nurse gave them the baby and they danced, with savage joy, holding him tightly between them. Another shock interrupted the little party.


The Hotel Employees

Always perfectly turned out in their uniforms, the hotel employees never lost their cool. If there was a certain amount of disorder at first, it emanated mainly from their guests who ran in all directions. Some had to be fetched, being unable to leave their rooms. They were found pacing round and round or sitting on their bed, eyes glazed. For a while I watch the employees work hard to carry out their assigned roles. It may be the fact of having a role to fulfil that allows them to walk straight while their guests totter. As soon as we are hungry they turn up, in single file, carrying canapés to lay out on a big table. A reception had been planned for the large meeting room, near the restaurant. The food had already been prepared. Now we take advantage of their organisation. The security guards stand close to the narrow barrier at the entry to the tennis court, where we have taken refuge. They do their best to reassure the guests. I say guests rather than tourists, for the latter are rare in Haiti. Only members of the many NGOs that have been festering in the country for the last few decades tend to be found here; tanned newspaper correspondents who can’t get away from the island, foreign businessmen muttering together over breakfast with Haitian politicians who are already sweating. We see the hotel owner go by in the garden, doing his tour of inspection. Pacing slowly, with a worried expression, he appears lost in his thoughts. I would give a lot to know what is going through his mind just then. The destruction is not only material. Some are seeing a lifetime’s hard work vanish in the space of a minute. That cloud in the sky a moment ago was the dust that remained of their dreams.


The Bathroom

I imagine the fright of those who were in the bath at the moment the quake’s first shocks struck. We were all taken by surprise, but those who were in the shower must have lived through a moment of pure panic. We always feel more vulnerable when we are naked, especially when covered in soapy water. In their hurry, a fair number of these people left without remembering to turn off the tap.


Things

The enemy is not time but all those things we accumulate from day to day. As soon as we pick up a thing, we can’t stop. For one thing demands another. It’s the cohesion of a life. We would find bodies near the door. A suitcase beside them.


This is an extract from Everything Around Me Is Shaking (Tout bouge autour de moi) by Dany Laferrière (2011, Grasset et Fasquelle). Translated by Sophie Lewis.
Born in 1953 in Port-au-Prince, Dany Laferrière first made his mark in 1985 with How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired (Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer). He has since published a number of novels in France and in Quebec, where he now lives.
Sophie Lewis specialises in translating short prose from French. Her forthcoming publications include Thérèse and Isabelle, a ground-breaking feminist novella by Violette Leduc, for Salammbô Press. She is currently working on Sans Dessus Dessous, a novel by Jules Verne, for Hesperus Press. She is also Contributing Editor at Litro and Editor at Large at And Other Stories.



How To Speak French

Steven Appleby’s work has appeared in newspapers, on television, on Radio 4, on stage at the ICA and in over 20 books. His Coffee Table Book of Doom was published in September, and his website is www.stevenappleby.com




Listings: Nov 2011

Poet Laureate Ted Hughes called November “month of the dead dog”, but as we've discovered, there's a lot more to it than that. From a burlesque circus to killingly funny theatre, via High Tea and London's 19th French Film Festival, there's plenty of exciting stuff to do, and this month we've given it a French twist: so make the most of Autumn in London with our guide to November's events.

Until 31st December, 10pm Wed/Thu only, £15 – Recipe for a Perfect Wife @ Charing Cross Theatre, Villiers Street

50s-themed comedy stage show in which five ladies compete to become Britain’s best housewife on live TV. Hosted by husband and wife duo Betty and Bertie and  singing trio ‘Kitty and Her Cats’, no stone is left unturned as the contestants fight it out to be the most beautiful, obedient cake-baking spouses the world has ever seen … Includes post-show 50s-themed party in the theatre bar, with free cake and dancing until late. See: http://newplayers.whatsonstage.com/

1st November, 7pm, £10 – Tales of Terror: Granta Horror issue launch @ The Last Tuesday Society, 11 Mare Street, London E8 4RP

Join Granta for an evening of chilling tales and a chance to explore the macabre curiosities at Viktor Wynd’s little shop of horrors. Enjoy dramatic readings of a never-before-heard story by Stephen King and other pieces from Granta 117: Horror. In association with the Hendrick’s Lecture Series and Liars’ League. Each ticket includes a copy of the magazine. See: www.thelasttuesdaysociety.org

1st November, 7.30pm, £4/5 – YARN presents The Special Relationship @ Concrete, Lower Ground Floor, 56 Shoreditch High Street London, E1 6JJ

Featuring your hosts Sam Taradash and Jarred McGinnis, plus Irish-Nigerian writer Gabriel Gbadamosi and the indescribable Gavin Inglis. Prepare yourself for stories, poetry, comedy, music and silliness at this East London literary mash-up. See: www.yarnfest.com

3rd & 5th November, 7pm, prices vary – ELO Impro/Get Fingered @ Lumiere, 88 Chatsworth Road, E5 0LS

London’s quirkiest cocktail bar presents lip-smacking cocktails and events this month, including, on Thursday 3rd November, LIVE music hosted by ELO (French musicians-performing incredible free improvisation), Sat 5- Get Fingered – arts performance + installation event  (French arts based performance and installation) and a secret gig from the rather encroyable world tour completing band, Orchestra Elastique. Contact: [email protected]

4th November, 7pm (£15) & 10pm (£20), Circus Burlesque @ Volupté, 9 Norwich Street, EC4A 1EJ

The House of Burlesque brings Volupte a rare treat this month: a chance to view up close and personal a taster of their sold-out, 5 star, award winning Circus Burlesque, guest starring Betsy Rose. Combining the air and grace of Marlene Dietrich with the elegance and technique of Cyd Charrise, Betsy is sure to wow any eye that gazes upon her. Classically trained and performing “en pointe”, this is one vintage darling sure to deliver pure glamour and sex appeal. See: www.volupte-lounge.com

8th November, 7.30pm, £5 – Liars’ League: Might & Right @ The Phoenix, 37 Cavendish Square, W1G 0PP

Liars’ League’s company of professional actors reads five stories of strength and justice – or injustice. Elephants, despots, squaddies, rioters and high-end cookware feature: to find out how, come along! See: www.liarsleague.com

9th November to 5th December, times & prices vary – 19th French Film Festival @ Cine Lumiere, 17 Queensberry Place, SW7 2DT

This cultural festival presents an unparalleled selection of cinéma français, with a wealth of genres to suit all tastes and impressive performances from an array of household names and emerging talents. Highlights includes writer-director Xavier Durringer’s political farce The Conquest, which chronicles President Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise to power, and Jacques Perrin’s breathtaking documentary Oceans. See: www.frenchfilmfestival.org.uk

10th November, 7pm, £5-7 – Necropolis: London & its Dead, at Paradise by Way of Kensal Green, 19 Kilburn Lane, Kensal Green, London, W10 4AE)

From Roman burial rites to the horrors of the plague, from the founding of the great Victorian cemeteries to the development of cremation and the current approach of metropolitan society towards death and bereavement (including more recent trends to displays of collective grief and the cult of mourning, such as that surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales) Catherine Arnold offers a vivid historical narrative of this great city’s attitude to going the way of all flesh. See: www.thehendrickslectureseries.co.uk

13th November, 11am, prices vary – Special screening of Romantics Anonymous, Electric Cinema, 191 Portobello Road, W11 2ED

France’s latest big film asks what happens when a man and a woman share a common passion? They fall in love. And this is what happens to Jean-René, the boss of a small chocolate factory, and Angélique, a gifted chocolate maker he has just hired. Will they manage to get together, join their solitudes and live happily ever after? See: www.electriccinema.co.uk

17th November, 7.00pm, £10-15 – French Passions: Felicity Lott on Hugo @ Institut Francais, 17 Queensberry Place, SW7 2DT

Not only does Felicity Lott read Victor Hugo … she also sings his poems! Born in Cheltenham, Felicity Lott is an English soprano who has appeared at all the great opera houses of the world and worked with the greatest conductors (Andrew Davis, Bernard Haitink, Vladimir Jurowski, Carlos Kleiber, Antonio Pappano and Simon Rattle) and received many honorary doctorates, including from the University of Oxford. Boyd Tonkin, Literary Editor of The Independent, will chair the talk. See: www.institut-francais.org.uk

18th November, 8.30pm, £5/6 – Spirit of Play @ The Comedy Pub, 7 Oxendon Street, W1

Want to know what a band composed of members of the editorial staff at the Times Literary Supplement sounds like? Well, wonder no more – just head down to Spirit of Play’s latest gig, where they will be spanking the plank and tinkling the ivories until late. Expect old songs, new songs, and a dubstep cover of Another Day in Paradise (well, maybe not …) . No website or online booking, just turn up!

26th November onwards, Mon-Sat 7.45pm, prices vary – The Ladykillers, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 6BA

The 1955 classic Ealing comedy is brought back to life this autumn on the stage in London’s West End. The show tells the story of the eccentric old lady Mrs Wilberforce who lives alone with her parrots in a strange house in King’s Cross, before the days of Eurostar. Her life is turned upside down by the arrival of Professor Marcus and his four friends, who between them make up the most unlikely group of criminals. Featuring some of the finest comedy actors including Peter Capaldi, James Fleet, Ben Miller and Marcia Warren. See: www.theladykillers.co.uk

27th November: 3pm, FREE – Storytails @ The Drop, 175 Stoke Newington High Street, N16 0LH

The Sunday afternoon literary event returns in November with readings of short stories and novel extracts from up and coming London authors you’ll wonder why you haven’t heard of. The vibe is relaxed and entry is free, so just turn up and enjoy. See: www.storytails.org

29th November, 3.30pm, £15, Cordon Bleu High Tea @ The Mandeville Hotel, Mandeville Place, London, W1U 2BE

Students from Le Cordon Bleu’s Patisserie Diploma will showcase their incredible skills and creativity at a stunning high tea held at The Mandeville Hotel. For only £15 a person, guests can relax in the grandeur of the Mandeville Hotel in central London and sample the impressive array of traditional pastries such as Paris Brest, Tarte aux Fruits and Strawberry and Champagne Mousse, all hand-crafted to perfection. See: www.mandeville.co.uk