The Second life of Mohamed: The Prophet in Literature

Nedim Gürsel

(C.N.R.S. Editions, 256 pages, 2018)

 

Legendary or not, historical or sacred, it is the narrative that, above all, feeds the imagination, and contributes to the dissemination of the image of the Prophet through time and space.

—Nedim Gürsel

 

The profusion of stories and myths surrounding the life of the prophet Mohamed make it difficult for historians and biographers to determine historical facts. Their task is made harder because it is often considered a religious offense to question his life except in the ways considered traditional. Stepping outside this fraught context, Nedim Gürsel, a Turkish writer, has turned to literature, retracing changing perceptions of Mohamed and of Islam over the centuries. He carves a space beyond devotion and vilification; a place where we can appreciate the life of Mohamed as depicted and imagined through a rich variety of written perspectives.

 

The second life of the Prophet of Islam begins with his death in 632 in the arms of Aïcha, his young wife. Mohamed’s life exemplifies, in the eyes of the faithful, the highest ideal for human conduct. By contrast, at the height of the Muslim conquest, Christian Europe saw in Mohamed an Antichrist and in Islam a heresy and a scourge sent by God. Gürsel shows how medieval literature, and its deeply prejudiced representation of Mohamed, would set the tone for centuries to come. Dante, for example, in his influential Divine Comedy, condemned Mohamed to the eighth circle of Hell. But by the twelfth century, the first translation of the Koran into Latin appeared in the monastic libraries of Europe. Western authors could turn directly to the source. Enlightenment-era writers like Voltaire and Goethe took a closer interest in Mohamed as a historical figure. They, and the Romantic poets who followed, recognized Islam as a universal religion, one that offered an alternative viewpoint from which they could reflect and reimagine their own world. In the twentieth century, Mohamed became a fictionalized character in the works of North African writers such as the Moroccan Driss Chraïbi, or the Algerian novelist Assia Djebar. Each evolution in the representation of Mohamed shows a broader, less restrictive view of the man and his life, and demonstrates the changing history of the relationships between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

 

Gürsel, once the subject of a blasphemy trial in Turkey, hopes that the knowledge of Mohamed through the prism of literature can brighten a horizon clouded by fanaticisms. He shares with Salman Rushdie the conviction that the power to determine the grand narrative of Islam must and should be shared by all. This courageous book is a celebration of the power of literature and imagination.

 

Nedim Gürsel is a Turkish writer. In 1976, he published A Summer Without End, a collection of stories for which he received Turkey’s highest literary honor, the Prize of the Turkish Language Academy. In 2008, Gürsel published The Daughters of Allah. This book prompted the Turkish authorities to charge Gürsel with blasphemy, but he was eventually acquitted. Gürsel is a founding member of the International Parliament of Writers and a recipient of the Freedom of Expression and Publishing Award. Today, a citizen of France, he teaches contemporary Turkish literature at the Sorbonne and works as research director in Turkish literature at C.N.R.S. He is the author of some forty novels, short stories, essays, and travel stories, including The Last Tram (Comma Press, 2012) and The Conqueror (Talisman House, 2010), which have been translated into English.

 
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70 Days That Made Israel

Salomon Malka

(Armand Colin, 320 pages, 2018)

 

In May 2018, Israel celebrated its seventieth anniversary. To mark the occasion, Salomon Malka has chosen seventy significant days in the history of the country: key milestones, consequential actions of historical figures, and decisive events. But the dates are also significant because they resonate with the life of the author, a Jewish French writer of Moroccan descent born just a year after the founding of Israel. Malka touches upon a wide range of topics, from politics and international relations to archeology, culture, and technology. In 70 Days That Made Israel, he presents a multifaceted biography of Israel that allows us to better understand the journey of a state and its people, from the death of King David to the present

 

Malka’s approach is deeply personal and subjective. He imagines each of the seventy entries as impressionistic touches, each drawn from memories, testimonials, readings, and conversations. In one, he shares his favorite page in the Talmud, which relates the death of King David. In another, he evokes the strikingly premonitory book written by the Belgian Prince de Ligne in 1801—decades before the word Zionist was even coined—precognizing the return of Judea to the Jews. He relates the meaning of the commonly used expression, “Who killed Arlosoroff?” and explains why Tel Aviv may well be the Promised Land of Vegans, as it has recently been ranked as one of the best vegan cities in the world.

 

The book journeys from the creation of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to Golda Meir’s 1949 visit to the great Moscow synagogue, and then from Albert Einstein, who, in 1952, was offered the presidency of the State of Israel, to the funeral of the beloved actress Ronit Elkabetz, and finally to the recent recognition of Jerusalem as the nation’s capital. Well known and seldom recounted, contentious and benign topics are included in this account, which aims to “attest to the mistakes and successes” of the great adventure of Israel. Compelling, entertaining, and informative, 70 Days That Made Israel is a sweeping yet nuanced portrait of “a people that has not shown itself unworthy of the challenges it has been forced to face.”

 

A journalist and a writer, Salomon Malka is the author of more than a dozen books, most notably biographies on Emmanuel Levinas (Emmanuel Lévinas, la vie et la trace, Jean-Claude Lattès, 2002, and Duquesne UP 2006), Franz Rosenzweig, and Vasily Grossman. His books have been translated into many languages.

 

Where Dogs Bark with Their Tails

Estelle-Sarah Bulle

(Editions Liana Levi, 288 pages, 2018)

 

***Long-listed for the upcoming 2018 Stanislas prize for best first novel***

 

More than material forms of heritage—land, photographs, furniture—oral narratives are what hold the Ezechiel family together, link them to a place, The Guadeloupe, its culture and its history. It falls on a young woman born in the Paris suburbs, far from the native island of her paternal ancestors, to gather those scattered stories. In this novel with autobiographical undertones, Estelle-Sarah Bulle evokes the destiny of a family dislocated by exile against the backdrop of Guadeloupean society in the second half of the twentieth century.

 

When a young mixed-race woman in Paris feels the need to explore her Caribbean heritage, she calls on her aunt Antoine. She does not know her aunt well; in fact, has seldom seen the formidable sister of her father, but as a child she was often compared to her and she feels drawn to this controversial family figure. Antoine has a special place in the Ezechiel family. Charismatic and fiercely independent, she always led her life as she pleased. Her younger siblings, Lucinde and Petit-Frère, never could stand up to her, and disapproved of her unconventional ways. They preferred to remain at a safe distance even though the three of them, like many of their generation, left their island to settle on the continent.

Alice says

"An ebullient first novel with unforgettable characters, whose lives reflect the contemporary collective history of the French Caribbean"

 

For her niece, Antoine recounts her childhood and her family’s life deep in the Guadeloupean countryside. The father, Hilaire, was a sugarcane cutter, overly fond of cockfighting, who squandered the meager dowry of his wife, Eulalie, a woman born into a family of petits-blancs (poor whites). In a highly racialized society, the mixed marriage did not make life easy for the three children, at least as long as they remained in the self-contained rural world of Morne-Galant. The book is dominated by the confident voice of Antoine but is interspersed with smaller chapters, in which the voice is given to her siblings. Their memories intersect, echo, or compete with one another’s. Over the course of their conversations, the history of Guadeloupe since the ’50s comes to life—the slums and splendors of Pointe-à-Pitre, the irruption of modernity on the island, the craze for concrete and imported goods, the political unrest of the ’60s, and the ineluctable exile to the cities.

 

With its unforgettable characters and inventive language spiced with Creole, Where Dogs Bark with Their Tails retraces the life journey of a generation of immigrants uneasily caught between two worlds.

 

Estelle-Sarah Bulle was born in the suburbs of Paris of a Guadeloupean father and a mother who grew up in a village in northern France. She has worked for different cultural institutions, including the Louvre Museum.

 

The Heart of the Matter

Christian Oster

(Editions de l’Olivier, 188 pages, 2015)

 

                                        ***Sold in Italy to Clichy***

 

Simon’s first reaction to finding the body of a dead man sprawled across his living room floor is annoyance. He next notices that the banister from the upstairs landing is broken, and so most likely the man was pushed. Finally, he wonders if his companion, Diane, is home. Christian Oster’s seamless and humorous prose makes The Heart of the Matter a page-turner of great literary quality.

 

How annoying to find a body in your living room! A man, Simon observes, most likely pushed from the upstairs landing. But where is Diane? Her car isn’t outside, so she probably isn’t home. Best to check upstairs anyway. And there she is in the tub. In response to his questions, she ducks her head underwater. Okay, he thinks, there must be a connection between Diane and the dead man. He hands her a towel, and she emerges from the tub, but only to silently dress and pack a bag. Then she speaks, saying she can’t deal with it, and leaves. Goes and leaves Simon with the body.

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Lucinda says

"A mesmerizing portrait of one man's descent into hell, with beautiful language and unexpected humor"

 

Standing in the living room, over the man— Diane’s lover?—Simon notes that the man is dressed. But still, her lover? Phone calls to Diane go to voicemail. What next? What should he do with the body? He googles how long it takes a body to begin to decompose and then leaves it until the next evening, after dark, to bury it in the vegetable garden beneath the tomato plants.

 

Becoming friendly with a retired police officer and his wife helps his loneliness, but increases his paranoia about the body beneath the tomatoes. Because he can’t stand being in the house alone, Simon agrees to a week away at the officer’s widowed sister’s house in the country, and then begins to think that the officer suspects him of something and the invitation is just a trap to get him to confess. But what could or should he confess to? Diane decides to come back and tell her story to the police . . . but is it too little too late to help Simon?

 

Christian Oster is the author of several novels, among which Mon grand apartement (My Big Apartment, University of Nebraska Press, 2003; Éditions de Minuit, 1999) won the Prix Médicis 1999. Two others of his novels have been translated into English: In the Train (Object Press, 2010) and The Unforeseen (Other Press, 2007). His novel Une femme de ménage (A Cleaning Woman, Other Press, 2003; Éditions de Minuit, 2001) was turned into a film directed by Claude Berri.

 
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Beekeeping According to Samuel Beckett

Martin Page

(Editions de l’Olivier, 87 pages, 2012)

***Translation sample available***

***Winner of a French Voices translation grant***

Martin Page . . . restores to Beckett his author’s rebelliousness and his political revolt.

Le Monde

 

Beckett's work offers an outlook on human existence that is bleak and tragic, often coupled with dark humor. Absurd, minimalist work.  We know Beckett and his writing.  Or do we? In this ingenious short novel, Martin Page combines humor and fantasy to reflect on the relationship between life and art and on the ways the canonization of great artists can obscure the key thrust of their work.

 

One summer in Paris, an impoverished doctoral student of anthropology is offered an unusual job: to assist the Irish poet and playwright Samuel Beckett in sorting through his archives, and mailing them to eager beneficiaries around the world. Aware of his luck, knowing that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the young man decides to keep a journal. The Beckett he discovers is a mischievous, hot-chocolate-loving beekeeper with a colorful wardrobe—very different from the austere and pessimistic man known to posterity.

 

Pascale says

"A witty and delightful novel that made one want to rediscover Beckett"

The first day on the job, the assistant is charged to find four large cardboard boxes, and, not least, to pick up an octopus sandwich at the Greek café. The job is completed well before the end of the initially agreed upon ten-day contract. A scrupulous Beckett, in search of a fair solution, comes up with a plan—why not fabricate some additional archival material since “archives is what they want.”

 

The two accomplices step out in the city in search of improbable objects and documents to confound and disorient future researchers. Beckett, facetiously but also mindfully, selects plastic handcuffs, language textbooks in Quechua, an X-rated movie adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and train tickets for strange destinations. At the same time, Beckett finds himself advising from afar the idealistic director of a Swedish prison production of Waiting for Godot. The project is a resounding success but Beckett, ever realistic, has no intention of becoming a hero of good intentions. And, when a journalist compares his celebrity to a prison, he is particularly outraged on behalf those who find themselves behind actual rather than mental walls.

 

In Beekeeping According to Samuel Beckett, Martin Page slips deftly between fiction—the handcuffs—and reality—the Swedish prison production. He purposefully defies the views that have come to define the personality and work of Beckett. With this delightful and clever novel, he stirs the reader to rediscover Beckett’s writings beyond the iconic Waiting for Godot and Beckett’s personality beyond the clichés.

 

Martin Page grew up in the Paris suburbs. His first novel, How I Became Stupid (Penguin Books, 2004) was a commercial success and won the Euroregional schools’ Literature Prize, an award given by Belgian, Dutch, and German students. He has written half a dozen other novels, eight books for children and young adults, as well as essays and short stories. In 2010, Penguin Books published The Discreet Pleasures of Rejection: A Novel. Martin Page’s books have been translated into over twenty languages.

 
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In the Early Morning Light

Agnès Martin-Lugand

(Michel Lafon, 331 pages, 2018)

 

***80,000 hard copies sold in 2 months of publication***

Hortense believes she loves her life; loves her job as a dance teacher, loves her colleagues and her students, and passionately loves a married man.  Falling down a staircase and injuring herself may be good, not bad, luck, offering her an opportunity to pause, to reflect.  Is she truly happy?  Has she been lying to herself? 

 

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Lucinda says

"Reading Martin-Lugand  is a bit like conversing with one of your best girlfriends... Her depiction of her heroine's awakening from self-delusion rings so very true"

Hortense was raised in Provence and, since her parents’ death, only occasionally visits the farmhouse they left her. Paris is where her life is, and she cannot imagine it otherwise. She feels whole and happy—until she falls and the resultant cracks are not just in her body. Her close-knit relationship with her dance studio partners becomes strained as a plan to expand emerges; and then she begins to understand that her blissful and long-standing love affair was not what she thought it was. There are other signs, as well: body pains that she chooses to ignore, and doubts that are increasingly creeping into her mind. Hortense is not in touch with herself, physically or emotionally. And because she is not, her awakening will be all the more painful because of it. There is the house in the south still waiting for her . . . will it be a safe place where she can heal her wounds and take stock of her life?

 

Agnès Martin-Lugand’s talent is to create endearing heroines with whom readers can easily identify. In the Early Morning Light celebrates the gift of friendship, and the importance of listening to oneself. It also reminds us that there is no age to change the course of one life’s and no expiration date to find true happiness and joy.

 

Trained as a clinical psychologist, Agnès Martin-Lugand turned toward writing and self-published her first novel, Les gens heureux lisent et boivent du café (Happy People Read and Drink Coffee, Hachette Books, 2017), via Amazon’s Kindle platform in December 2012. The book became an international best-seller and was followed by five other novels, including Don’t Worry, Life Is Easy (Hachette Books, 2017.) Her books have been translated into thirty-two languages. A top-ten French best-selling author, she has sold two millions books in France alone.

 
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Rookies

Marie Talvat and Alex Laloue

(Plon, 320 pages, 2018)

 

A murder. A complicated investigation involving a young police officer and a young journalist. They are part of Generation Y, and despite their lack of experience, they will go after the murderer and . . . fall in love.

 

A pregnant woman has been killed, her fetus thrown in the toilet. Arsène Galien, the latest recruit of the prestigious Judicial Police in charge of the investigation, is eager to show his skills, and thus win his superiors’ trust.

 

Conducting interviews in the building where the murder occurred, he meets Pauline Raumann, a neighbor of the victim. The attraction between them is immediate. Pauline is a journalist working for a media outlet that is not liked by either the government or the police. Taking in the fact that the victim is the daughter of a star of the bar, and the next elections are approaching, the press is under fire.

 

Alice says

"A new take on the thriller genre"

Arsène and Pauline are full of ideals and doubts. But they behave like who they really are: rookies. Arsène is manipulated by someone he can’t suspect, and Pauline ends up being a suspect in the case. This fast-paced and original thriller leads the reader to several clues before the surprising end.

 

Marie Talvat and Alex Laloue are both twenty-eight years old. They live and write together. Rookies is their first novel. Alex, after a stint as an actor, spent several years as a cop inside the Judicial Police of Paris responsible for investigating and fighting serious crime. He now dedicates his time to writing. Marie Talvat has a degree in cultural management and journalism. She is a writer, a tattoo artist, and a videographer, and is known for her YouTube channel L’instant inutile (The Unnecessary Moment).

 

The Sound of the World

Stéphanie Chaillou

(Les Editions Noir sur Blanc, 165 pages, 2018)

 

There are traces of Duras or Annie Ernaux in the style of Stéphanie Chaillou . . .

Le Figaro Littéraire

 

Marie-Hélène Coulanges, also known by her nickname Marilène, grew up in Brigneau, a small hamlet in rural France. As a young child, her future seemed as wide open as the fields surrounding the family farm. But the fields are heavily mortgaged. Marilène is born poor and she does not know it yet. That awareness, latent at first, will slowly find its way into her consciousness a convergence of images, sensations, and feelings that she experiences but cannot name. When she leaves her family behind to step into a new world full of promise, she cannot find her place in it. Not until she realizes that her story, all of it, Brigneau included, is worth telling.

 

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Pascale says

"a novel which aptly captures the internal journey and struggles of a woman's coming to writing"

After having lost their farm, Marilène’s parents move to town and find solace in the relative security provided by steady, if meager, salaries. They are proud when Marilène, a good student, is offered the chance to study in a prestigious prep school. She is excited even if she stumbles on that word, chance. “To those who already have it—she can’t help think—it is not necessary to give it.” Her confidence is soon shattered in an environment in which she feels invisible and lacking. Nothing will ever compensate for her cultural backwardness, the books she did not read, the museums she did not visit, and the travels she did not experience. Locked into silent suffering, Marilène retreats back home, and resumes the motions of a life more attuned to her family’s expectations. But it is too late. Marilène cannot deny the part of herself that led her in the first place to move beyond the social milieu in which she was born.

 

Written in a pared-down and poetic style, The Sound of the World tells of the secret wounds, self-doubt, and shame—and the shame at being ashamed—of a young woman venturing on a path of upward mobility. It is a novel about the courage to be oneself, and the redemptive virtues of literature. Through writing, Marilène can at last make sense of her life, but she also realizes that her story is not hers alone.

 

Stéphanie Chaillou is a novelist and the author of three books of poetry. Her first novel, L’Homme incertain (Alma Editeur, 2015), was selected for the RTBF Première Prize and the Fnac literary season, and adapted for the stage. Le bruit du monde is her third novel after Alice ou le choix des armes (Alma Editeur, 2016.)

 

Deep End

Élodie Llorca

(Payot & Rivages, 144 pages, 2018)

 

When Per leaves Norrland in Sweden to live in France, his mother’s friend Ivar helps him settle in. By saying that Per was his nephew, Ivar got him a job as a janitor at the municipal pool where he worked, then helped Per pass the exam to become a lifeguard, like Ivar himself.

 

Alice says

"A pure touch of tenderness"

When Ivar unexpectedly dies, Per finds a piece of jewelry that used to belong to his own mother among Ivar’s personal effects. That raises questions in Per’s mind: Who exactly was Ivar? Did he know Sven, Per’s father, who disappeared in the Baltic Sea years before when Per was still a little boy? That’s when the young man makes a disconcerting decision: From now on, he will go by his mentor’s name.

 

As Per-Ivar’s French gradually improves, he starts to feel more at home at the pool, where both his supervisors and the customers appreciate him. He maintains a faux relationship with an older woman, and makes friends with one of his customers’ granddaughters, who lost her parents. As he becomes more confident in both his personal and professional lives, he gets into the habit of collecting items lost by swimmers. This strange hobby will lead him through the icy Scandinavian landscape onto the trail of both Ivar’s past and his own memories.

 

With power and insight, Élodie Llorca turns Deep End’s quest for an absent father into an exploration of the meanders of filial love.

 

A playwright, actress, and screenwriter, Élodie Llorca won the 2016 Stanislas Prize for her first novel, La Correction. Deep End is her second novel.

 

Black Butterflies

Caroline Gutmann

(JC Lattès, 288 pages, 2018)

 

Black Butterflies is the story of middle-aged Caroline, who has been recently diagnosed with cancer. The diagnosis comes as a frightening surprise, in the figurative form of hundreds of black butterflies that flutter around her as she sleeps, and that scare her as she wakes up to them in the morning.

 

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Alice says

"A subtle novel about illness like no others."

Divorced and with two near-adult sons, Caroline has an on-again, off-again lover, but she is scared to tell her loved ones about her diagnosis. She doesn’t know how they will react, and she does not want to inconvenience them with her illness. Although her cancer is surprising, Caroline wonders if it is the result of treatment she received for Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a nineteen-year-old—if her past illness has come back to haunt her, albeit in a different form.

 

Despite the seriousness of her condition, Caroline remains calm and relatively good-humored. She distracts herself by reading her late father’s notebooks, from which she gleans important information about her family history. She discovers things about her father’s family and friends that she never knew, which contribute not only to her relationships with her late parents and ancestors, but also to her own understanding of self. These discoveries—in addition to the people she meets during her hospitalization—contribute to her ability to fight her illness and its brutal monotony.

 

Based on the author’s experience with her own cancer, Black Butterflies gives a quirky and original testimony on sickness, explores how sick people fit in our society and how they affect the lives of those around them, and ultimately shows what one can learn from oneself and others through illness.

 

Caroline Gutmann works in the publishing industry and has written several books, including Le syndrome Nerval, Le testament du Dr Lamaze (published in English by St. Martin’s Press), and Secret de Robert le diable.

 

Lucretius: The Archeology of an European Classic

Pierre Vesperini

(Fayard, 400 pages, 2017)

***Translation sample available upon request***

 

This is an explosive book, a bombshell in its field . . . [demystifying] inherited stories and [shaking] up habits of thought.

Le Monde des Livres

 

By the end of this book, I hope to have convinced the reader that the people who preceded us in Europe so many centuries ago deserve more than to be seen merely as our precursors. We must learn to know and love them for what that they were in and for themselves, that is to say, for what made them different from us. This is how they can help us better understand who we are.

—Pierre Vesperini

Alice says

"a brilliant and passionate book which re-contextualizes Lucretius in his times and retraces the afterlife of his masterpiece... a spirited refutation of Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve.

 

Little is known about the life of Lucretius, the first century b.c. Roman poet and philosopher, beyond his only known work, De rerum natura, usually translated as On the Nature of Things or On the Nature of the Universe. Yet this poetic masterpiece remains one of the primary sources of information on Epicurean physics. Thus, it has been naturally assumed that Lucretius himself was a proponent of Epicurean philosophy and De rerum natura a didactic poem. Pierre Vesperini challenges this assumption and other received ideas that have, since the mid-nineteenth century, coalesced into what he calls “the myth of Lucretius.” He reconstructs with virtuosity the world in which, and for which, these classic verses were produced, resituates the place of Lucretius in that world, and retraces the poem’s afterlife through the centuries.

 

In the first part of the book, Vesperini, an ethnologist as much as a historian, firmly contextualizes De rerum natura within the times and place of its production. And he never ceases to ask questions: Did the Romans have philosophical convictions? What was the place of Greece in the imagination of ancient Roman aristocratic society? What is a poeta at a time when many wrote verses? Who was Memmius, Lucretius’ patron for whom the poem was composed? From Roman cultural practices of reading and writing to poetic aesthetics, Vesperini leaves no stone unturned. He argues that the De rerum natura is above all, if not exclusively, a work of art, which can be no more reduced to a philosophical treatise than the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel can be reduced to a Church doctrine on the Last Judgment.

 

The second part of the book is devoted to the reception of the poem throughout the Middle Ages and up to modern times. Vesperini paves the ground for a spirited rebuttal of the myth of a hypermodern Lucretius popularized by Stephen Greenblatt in his bestseller, The Swerve—and the notion that the rediscovery of De rerum natura during the Renaissance, after centuries of near oblivion, sparked the modern age by reintroducing Europe to the theories of Epicurus.

 

Vesperini’s Lucretius is a scholarly book that does not assume specialist knowledge on the part of the reader. With verve, passion, and brilliant erudition, it invigorates the ongoing debate on the posterity of one of the Roman world’s great classics.

 

Pierre Vesperini is a historian of ancient philosophy. He is the author of La philosophia et ses pratiques d’Ennius à Cicéron (École française de Rome, 2012) and Droiture et mélancolie: Sur les écrits de Marc Aurèle (Verdier, 2016), which received the La Bruyère Prize awarded by l’Académie française.

 
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Childhood During the Times of Pericles

Danielle Jouanna

(Les Belles Lettres, 288 pages, 2017)

 

Greek myths and epics abound in memorable depictions of parent-child relationships, legendary good parents, and also murderous ones. Less is written about ordinary fathers and mothers in the classical age, their roles, their expectations, and their emotional investments in their children. To what extent did they have to comply with the educational norms and the duty of raising the future ideal citizen of Athens? And what was it like to be a child? Drawing on multiple sources from literature, art, and archeology, Danielle Jouanna vividly portrays childhood in Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. While doing so, she debunks a couple of myths along the way.

 

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Pascale says

"clear and enjoyable...a concise synthesis of recent research on a long-neglected topic"

After numerous studies on the Greek (male) citizen—and, much later on, the Greek woman—interest has risen in the last two decades about the Greek child. Iconographic studies of headstones and archeological excavations of children’s cemeteries have shed new light on this long-neglected topic. Jouanna presents a clear synthesis of these recent contributions. An accomplished Hellenist, she weaves in her own careful analysis of Aristophanes’ plays, Platonic dialogues, legal treatises, and Hippocratic texts to depict the various stages of a Greek child’s life, from birth to early adulthood. Her areas of interest include topics as far ranging as ancient gynecology and obstetrics, gender roles, adoption, children’s tales, rites of passage, games and toys, pederasty, and the Ephebic Oath sworn by eighteen-year-old males on their way to becoming citizens of Athens.

 

Jouanna writes in the wake of the many who, since Philippe Ariès’ preeminent book on the history of childhood, have focused their research on this important but too often overlooked phase of human life. The newer research she includes adds greatly to our understanding. Scholars and lovers of Greek antiquity have, for generations, been enthralled by the famous kalos kaghatos ideal of the good and beautiful man. This ideal, as Jouanna observes in her conclusion, is remaining evidence of the greatness of Athens. But, in this clear and concise book, she depicts how real children and parents lived in those ancient times.

 

Danielle Jouanna is a historian specializing in Ancient Greece. She has published a number of well-received books, such as Aspasie de Milet, égérie de Périclès (Fayard, 2005—Prix Diane Potier-Boès 2006 de l’Académie Française), L’Europe est née en Grèce (L’Harmattan, 2009), as well as more recently, Les Grecs aux Enfers (2015) and Rire avec les Anciens (2016), both published by les Belles Lettres.

 
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Daily Life in a Mesopotamian Temple

Dominique Charpin

(Les Belles Lettres, 256 pages, 2017)

 

A keen reflection on the incarnation of the sacred.  —L’Histoire

 

Pascale says

"an impressively researched and refreshingly accessible book for anyone passionate about ancient history"

Since the rediscovery of Mesopotamian civilization in the nineteenth century, archeological excavations and the unearthing of vast libraries of cuneiform tablets have allowed generations of scholars to reconstruct an image of this ancient world. Temples were prominent features of the city landscape and believed to be the earthly homes of the many deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon. In this book, Dominique Charpin, one of the world’s leading Assyriologists, takes a global approach to demonstrate that temples fulfilled many more functions than previously thought. Through close scrutiny of a diverse array of clues—an accounting document, a Sumerian hymn, an Akkadian epic, and a bronze ex-voto—he takes us on a fascinating investigation that sheds new light on everyday life at the temples.

 

Within their high walls, temples were long thought to be self-sufficient entities and a world unto themselves. Drawing on the latest discoveries, Charpin broadens this view and describes how different temples performed functions akin to those of our contemporary public or government agencies. The temples of Gula, goddess of medicine, he writes, served as healing centers where patients’ wounds were licked by dogs, and then dressed with herbal ointments. The temples of Samas, the god of justice, functioned as courthouses; the temples of the goddess Nungal served as jails; and those of the goddess Kittum were a sort of Bureau of Weights and Measures. In the chapter dedicated to the deities of writing, the goddess Nibasa and the god Nabu, Charpin discusses the training of scribes, the constitution of archives, and the establishment of libraries. And in the temples of the well-known Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, there was space for taverns and pleasure houses. Most important, key and sometimes mundane aspects of daily life—funerary practices, beer brewing, dairy production, and even the crafting of perfumes—were placed under the patronage of a deity or deities, whose temple served as the center of the activity.

 

At every turn, the author reminds us of the danger of projecting our own categories onto the past. It was not so much that temples fulfilled secular functions but that every human activity was imbued with a sacred dimension. One of the great pleasures of this book is following Charpin, step by step, on his deductive path. With his fluid style, he makes accessible a body of highly specialized research and offers to a larger audience a vivid portrait of the activities, conflicts, and concerns of people living in ancient Mesopotamia.

 

Dominique Charpin is Professor of Ancient Near Eastern History and Director of Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Sorbonne, Paris. An internationally recognized authority on the Ancient Near East, his books translated into English include Hammurabi of Babylon (I. B. Tauris, 2012), Reading and Writing in Babylon (Harvard University Press, 2010), and Writing, Law, and Kingship: Essays on Old Babylonian Mesopotamia (Chicago University Press, 2010).

 
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The Syriac World: On the Roads of an Unknown Christianity

Françoise Briquel Chatonnet and Muriel Debié

(Les Belle Lettres, 270 pages, 2017)

 

Translation sample available upon request

***Winner of the Grand Prix des Rendez-vous de l’Histoire du Monde arabe, 2018***

 

A seminal work.

—Codex

 

The introductory monograph that will render the Syriac world accessible to all readers. The first book of its kind.

 

Syriac Christianity is the third point in the triangle of ancient Christianity alongside the Greek and Latin traditions. The authors of this short historical monograph set out, as the title indicates, to throw light on this egregiously understudied area in the history of Christianity. Beginning with Syriac Christianity’s Mesopotamian and Aramaean origins of the pre-Christian era, Briquel Chatonnet and Debié chart the tradition’s development all the way through the twentieth century and the little-known 1915 Assyrian Genocide, known within the community as Sayfo.

 

Lucinda says

"A prize-winning comprehensive history of the Syriac world"

The authors insist on Syriac as a “culture of contact” and thus eschew any concern with exact origins or purity of development. Rather, they emphasize the influences of various empires, other Christian traditions, Asiatic religions, and, of course, Islam. In explaining Syriac’s seeming universality, Briquel Chatonnet and Debié make the important observation that Syriac was never the official language of a state nor of a particular people. This feature of Syriac gives coherence to a work of great temporal scope. Rather than treat Syriac as simply another variant of Christianity, the authors consider it variously as a religion, a written culture, and a historical tradition. This alternation conveys the complexity of a historical subject that appears to defy categorization.

 

The first attempt to lay a coherent narrative on the entirety of Syriac history, the book connects, for instance, Ottoman and modern Syriac history to the earlier classical period. Briquel Chatonnet and Debié move seamlessly between different topics such as the place of women, ecclesiastical conflict, and scientific production.

 

With over one hundred illustrations, eleven color maps, a chronology, and numerous excerpts from original texts in boxed inserts, this unprecedented work invites us to discover over two thousand years of Syriac history and culture.

 

Françoise Briquel Chatonnet has a Ph.D. in history and is a research director at the CNRS, where she directs the collection “Semitic Worlds.” In addition she is deputy director of the Laboratory for Oriental and Mediterranean Studies. She is the recipient of the 2016 Irène Joliot-Curie prize for scientific woman of the year.

Muriel Debié is a professor at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, where she is chair of Oriental Christianity studies.

 
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Real Life

Adeline Dieudonné

(L’iconolaste, 320 pages, 2018 Rentrée Litteraire)

 

Translation sample available upon request

Rights sold in Italy at auction. Paperback rights pre-empted.

 

A dark and sensual coming-of-age debut novel about a modern-day young warrior living in a hostile environment. An exciting new voice with a breathtaking imagination.

 

The Demo is a suburban dystopia of bungalows lined up like tombstones. In the young narrator’s house, there are four rooms: one for her, one for her younger brother Gilles, one for their parents—and one for the hunting trophies. The father is a big game hunter who does not spare his family from his thirst for blood, figuratively, at first. The mother is fragile, a trembling amoeba, submissive to her husband’s moods. To escape the oppressive household of their father’s pent-up aggression and their mother’s numb paralysis, the narrator and Gilles play in the adjacent lot where there are cars dumped for scrap, and listen for the chimes of the ice cream van. One day while waiting for their cones, the children witness a brutal accident that will change their lives forever.

Gilles stops laughing from that day on. The vision of what happened seems to have been frozen in his mind’s eye. The evil that the narrator sees lurking in the yellow glass eyes of her father’s prized stuffed hyena gradually seems to take over her world and to take possession of her brother, robbing her of the only person in her life she truly loves and who used to love her. The young narrator longs to turn back time and bring back the laughing little boy who lit up her world. She becomes passionate about physics, as she believes that in it lies the key to turning back time. A kindly elderly physics tutor gives her hope that one day she will succeed.

Lucinda says

"A chilling portrait of a family with a killer in its midst"

Meanwhile the spirit of the hyena gains ground. Will she progress enough in physics to discover the secret to turning back time before her father uncovers the scent of strength in her, the scent that drove him to destroy her mother and all the dead animals that hang on the walls of his trophy room?

Real Life is a dramatic coming-of-age story told in the first person of a young girl who discovers her inner strength—and sensuality—and who triumphs over both the real and illusory forces of evil that lurk within her own home. It is the author’s genius that out of all this darkness the reader can decipher a tender, acerbic, and uncompromising voice with an irrepressible sense of humor. Adeline Dieudonné creates an unforgettable young heroine living in a quiet suburban enclosure that is actually a jungle of the survival of the fittest.

 

Adeline Dieudonné was born in 1982. She lives in Brussels. A playwright and short story writer, her first novella, Amarula, was awarded the Grand Prix of the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles. Two booklets were published by éditions Lamiroy in 2017—Seule dans le noir and Bonobo Moussaka. Real Life is her debut novel.

 
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Law Without the State: On Democracy in France and in the United States

Laurent Cohen-Tanugi

Preface by Stanley Hoffman

 (PUF, 288 pages, 1st ed., 1985; 3rd ed., Quadrige, 2016)

 

This is the most Tocquevillian work on the United States written since Tocqueville . . . Like Tocqueville, Laurent Cohen-Tanugi has the gift for capturing the very essence of a society.

—Stanley Hoffman

 

As Alexis de Tocqueville did so famously before him, Cohen-Tanugi turned his attention toward the United States in order to reflect on the failings of his native country. In particular, the author examines the fundamentally different roles that law plays in each country. Can France adopt, he asks, some of the most positive aspects of the American model without automatically assuming its flaws? Law Without the State is the starting point of Cohen-Tanugi’s decades-long reflection on the burning political and economic issues now facing our world

 

First published in the mid-1980s, reedited three times, and now with a 2007 update, Law Without the State considers the interactions between the legal and political realms in France and the United States. A strong centralized state, Cohen-Tanugi writes, may have historically served France well on military, political, or diplomatic levels. Today, however, this model shows signs of wear and tear as it faces new economic challenges and cultural realities. How then, he asks, can we rethink the role of the state in France and reimagine an alternative model of social regulation?

 

For Cohen-Tanugi, a public intellectual and internationally published author, the United States provides a useful point of comparison. In the United States, law serves as an innovative tool for social change. It is an expression of society and an outcome of the different, particular, and competitive interests that come to define the common good. In France, the state is the great architect of solidarity and social justice, and law is “nearly exclusively the product of an administrative . . . and monopolistic state.” Cohen-Tanugi’s comparative analysis avoids the pitfalls of preconceived ideas and all too prevalent generalizations on each side of the Atlantic and illuminates the differences between the ideological systems.

 

Cohen-Tanugi’s reflections are not merely academic: In his view, France has no choice but to reform itself. Early on he foresaw that the rise of global governance, i.e., a multilateral international order based on the rule of law, the impact of new technologies, and the growth of Europe, would bring about the need for reforms. France, he hoped, would be pushed in the direction of a more contractual society. His latest thinking, on the impact of the book, notes its threefold contribution to the French debate: that of a deeper and more positive understanding of the role of law in American democracy; that of a less superficial vision of liberalism which greatly contributed to renovating reformist thought in France; and that of a new theoretical reflection on law and democracy.

 

Laurent Cohen-Tanugi is a Paris-based international lawyer and public intellectual, and a recognized expert on European affairs and international relations. He has published several influential books on democracy and the rule of law, European integration, transatlantic relations, and globalization, including The Shape of the World to Come: Charting the Geopolitics of a New Century (Columbia University Press, 2008) and An Alliance at Risk: The United States and Europe Since September 11 (John Hopkins University Press, 2003).

 
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Resistances: Democracy in the Balance

Laurent Cohen-Tanugi

(Editions de l’Observatoire, 117 pages, 2017)

 

 

In Resistances, Laurent Cohen-Tanugi takes up the reflection on democracy that he initiated in the mid-1980s with Law Without the State. This was overall a happier time for democracy as Southern Europe, and other regions of the world, celebrated the fall of dictatorships. More than thirty years later, the political landscape has dramatically changed. Since the turn of the millennium, the world has been witnessing the retreat of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism and intensified nationalism. Western democracies have been shaken to their core by a series of political earthquakes, from the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom to the stunning presidential victory of Donald Trump in the United States.

 

In May 2017, the election of the liberal and resolutely pro-European Emmanuel Macron as the new leader of the French Republic interrupted what seemed to be the unstoppable populist wave engulfing Europe and the United States. Macron’s victory may have allowed France to avoid the worst-case scenario, the election of the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. But Cohen-Tanugi writes, “this fortunate outcome must not obscure the reality of a common diagnosis: a global crisis of liberal democracy, harboring a deliberate assault—political, ideological and geopolitical—on Western values and political systems.” Why, he asks, did three nations—France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—“each in its own way a symbol of the democratic ideal, take or, in the case of France, nearly take decisions that were detrimental to the national interest and often contrary to the values that they have always embodied [?] It is this momentous fact that we must investigate: how could this have happened, and above all how can it be resisted and remedied in the future?”

 

In this urgent book, Cohen-Tanugi takes stock of the gravity of these unprecedented historical events and asks whether they were merely an aberrant parenthesis or the presage of a new and foreboding world. For him, “the answers to these questions vastly transcend electoral analysis and the dominant theory that the populist wave represents the revenge of the ‘victims of globalization.’ The ills at the origin of the political shocks of 2016–17 and their aftermath call for a much more fundamental reflection on the prerequisites of liberal democracy, on the impact of technology and geopolitics on its functioning, and on the ways to counter the multiple threats it faces. Despite its misleading reference to the ‘people,’ populism is not an avatar of democracy, but rather its most resolute adversary. To reconcile popular sentiment and the democratic ideal: that is the imperious challenge facing all democracies today.”

 

Laurent Cohen-Tanugi is a Paris-based international lawyer and public intellectual, and a recognized expert on European affairs and international relations. He has published several influential books on democracy and the rule of law, European integration, transatlantic relations, and globalization, including The Shape of the World to Come: Charting the Geopolitics of a New Century (Columbia University Press, 2008) and An Alliance at Risk: The United and Europe Since September 11 (John Hopkins University Press, 2003).

 
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Who Was Alain Robbe-Grillet?

Alain Robbe-Grillet

(Éditions EHESS, 204 pages, 2018)

 

Robbe-Grillet’s theories constitute the most ambitious aesthetic program since Surrealism.

―John Updike

 

Robbe-Grillet is important because he has attacked the last bastion of the traditional art of writing: the organization of literary space.

―Roland Barthes

 

I doubt that fiction as art can any longer be seriously discussed without Robbe-Grillet.

―New York Times

 

Pascale says

"These lively dialogues are a great introduction to Robbe-Grillet's life, times and work"

Alain Robbe-Grillet was an emblematic figure of the postwar French avant-garde. As one of the originators and key theoreticians of the Nouveau Roman or New Novel, he wrote experimental works of fiction that rejected conventional storytelling. As a filmmaker, he is best known for his work on Alain Resnais’s 1961 cult film, Last Year at Marienbad. As the five interviews in this book reveal, he remains, even in his later years, not only a fiercely opinionated provocateur, but also a warm host and an avid ex-agronomist who never stopped cultivating a love for the world of plants. The interviews, conducted between 1991 and 2000 by Roger-Michel Allemand, show vividly both Robbe-Grillet’s polemical verve and conceptual depth and the lesser-known aspects of his life and personality.

In the first interview, “Autobiography,” Robbe-Grillet discusses his conception of autobiography and how his approach marks a rupture from the literary devices that have traditionally characterized the genre. Autobiography, he said, is not an exposition of facts whose significance has been determined in advance. For him it had to be, first and foremost, an open-ended exploration: “I do not know where I am going nor who I am,” he said, “and that is precisely why I start writing about myself.”

In “Encounters,” Robbe-Grillet talks about his family background, the value of his early education, and his literary preferences. He evokes the encounters that led him to become a literary advisor at Editions de Minuit, the publishing house that famously launched many of the New Novelists. But his more important encounters were with works of literature, and, in particular, his determinant discovery of Franz Kafka.

In “Enigmas,” he shares his predilection for Breton legends, ghost stories, detective novels, and his fascination for the mysteries of Number Theory. And that brings him to a discussion of intertextuality and his practice of making collages, sometimes in collaboration with artists such as René Magritte and Robert Rauschenberg.

In “Theories,” he returns to the early days of the New Roman, which was, in his eyes, an adventure more than a movement. He shares anecdotes on the various writers now identified under that label and critically evaluates their works.

 Finally, in “Sentiments,” the reader is invited into the intimacy of the artist. Robbe-Grillet details his writing habits, the things he loves, from botany and cactuses to Gustave Flaubert and German culture. The intimation of aging and death is delicately touched upon in the retelling of the traumatic loss of his beloved garden devastated by a storm.

Roger-Michel Allemand, a French literary critic and specialist of the New Novel, is a worthy, and not easily fazed, interlocutor. His brilliant and, at times edgy, conversations with Robbe-Grillet―often interrupted by Robbe-Grillet’s invitation to share a meal―offer rich insights into Robbe-Grillet’s personality, life, and thought.

Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008) was a novelist and filmmaker, and the pioneering spokesman of the Nouveau Roman. His early novels include A Regicide (Oneworld Classics, 2015), The Erasers (Grove Press, 1994), The Voyeur (Grove Press, 1994), Jealousy and In the Labyrinth published together in 1994, by Grove Press. Robbe-Grillet’ s other works translated into English include For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction (Northwestern University Press, 1992) and La Belle Captive: a Novel, written in collaboration with René Magritte (The University of California Press, 1996).

 
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The Curative Power of Philosophy

Laurence Devillairs

(PUF, 252 pages, 2017)

Heartbreak, burnout, boredom, addiction, and illness: Our lives are made of great sorrows and setbacks, constraints, and limitations that we may or may not have chosen. Can philosophy be a remedy to all the myriad forms of suffering that are unavoidably part of the human condition? The ancient Greeks certainly thought so and recommended philosophy as medicine for the soul. The philosopher Laurence Devillairs pays homage to this long tradition. In The Curative Power of Philosophy, written in the form of a manual, Devillairs invokes the therapeutic power of philosophy and proposes a series of cures gleaned from centuries of accumulated wisdom.  

Pascale says

"a no-nonsense philo-therapeutic guide- original and witty"

Devillairs identifies a wide variety of ailments and conditions affecting the body and troubling the mind.  Diagnostics and prescriptions are delivered in witty, and at times darkly humorous, vignettes. Arendt is called upon to enlighten us on aging, Pascal on proscrastination, and Spinoza on fear. Montaigne shares his method for escaping boring people and Nietzsche for coping with the daily grind of life. Devillairs is a specialist on René Descartes, and throughout this book she presents a different image of the champion of dualism. Who knew that Descartes had something to say about love at first sight? Or that, beyond the infamous mind/body distinction to which his thought is often reduced, he sought to illuminate the complex relationship between the body and the soul? Indeed, Devillairs considers him the inventor of psychosomatism.

In The Curative Power of Philosophy, the author insists that if philosophy can offer remedies, it is not by dispensing anesthetics or painkillers, or promoting the self-improvement techniques popularized by some current practices in psychology. Rather than smoothing over suffering, Devillairs believes that philosophy invites us instead to come closer to it. If philosophy is to help us negotiate our relationship to reality, it is by training us to formulate questions we may not have thought of before and to which there may not be ready-made answers.

Laurence Devillairs is a philosopher and specialist on René Descartes. Her publications include Un Bonheur sans mesure: petite philosophie de la vie en majuscule (Albin Michel, 2017); Fénelon: une philosophie de l’infini (CERF Edition, 2007); Descartes et la connaissance de Dieu (Vrin, 2004); and Descartes, Leibniz: Les vérités éternelles (PUF, 1998).

 

The Discreet Ambition of Angela MErkel

Marion Van Renterghem

With a preface by Alastair Campbell

(Les Arènes, 270 pages, 2017)

 

I am not vain. I know how to use the vanity of men.

            —Angela Merkel

 

It happens sometimes, but rarely, that a person is not only a product of her time but comes to define it . . . Historians will refer to the period in which we now live . . . as “The Merkel years.”

—Alastair Campbell

 

In September 2017, Angela Merkel was elected Chancellor of Germany for the fourth consecutive term. “Mutti,” the affectionate nickname Ms. Merkel earned in Germany, has revealed herself to be a formidable politician with a rare talent for negotiation. For more than a decade, she has dominated European politics and has steadily, and without great fanfare, secured her place in history as one of the most powerful leaders in the world. Marion Van Renterghem, a senior reporter at Le Monde, does not hide her fascination for Merkel. In this insightful and lively biography, she sheds light on the personality and exceptional political journey of a remarkable woman.

Marion Van Renterghem traces the chancellor’s steps back to the small town where Merkel spent her youth, in what was then the German Democratic Republic, and where she still enjoys quiet weekends with her husband in their modest dacha. Van Renterghem interviewed childhood friends and former teachers, and the many who witnessed or accompanied her rise to power.

Lucinda says

"A lively and instructive portrait of Chancellor Merkel"

The story of the Merkel family is unusual. Her father, a pastor from Hamburg, was offered to train seminarians in the GDR a few years before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Unlike the millions who moved westward, he decided to stay. Merkel, well on her way to becoming a scientist, was drawn into the effervescence of a period of momentous historical change. She turned out to be the right person at the right time, a person from the East without embarrassing ties to the Stasi. Her steady temperament, quiet strength, and razor-sharp mind—and her unthreatening lack of charisma—were quickly noticed and led her to be chosen as the spokesperson of the first and last elected dirigeant of the GDR, Lothar de Maizière. Starting with her years as a minister under the Kohl government, and then as chancellor since 2005, she became one of the prime architects of the new unified Germany.

Van Renterghem follows the rise of Merkel, concentrating on her relationships, especially with world leaders, from Tony Blair to Vladimir Putin, and four successive French presidents. The anecdotes, always instructive and often amusing, underscore the personal dynamics that shaped and continue to shape the future of Europe. Merkel was perceived as a sanctimonious public accountant during the Greek debt crisis and as a courageous humanist during the Syrian refugee crisis. Van Rentenghem’s generous portrait argues convincingly that no matter how Chancellor Merkel’s actions are interpreted, she will be remembered as a key figure in the history of Europe, and the world.

Marion Van Renterghem is a writer and a journalist. She has written for the French daily newspaper, Le Monde, and is now an international reporter at Vanity Fair. She is also a contributing writer at the New European and the winner of the Albert-London and Françoise-Giroud Awards.

 
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The Circle of Summer

Marion Brunet

(Albin Michel, 272 pages, 2018)

Brunet writes incisively about married life, family dynamics, sexism, racism, and poverty. A sharp prose that commands respect.

L’Express

Pascale says

"a corrosive social tale in a Provence far removed from the usual cliches"

 

Teenage sisters Jo and Céline live with their parents in a modest subdivision on the outskirts of a small town in the South of France. School vacations have just begun, but again this year there is not much for them to do all day but wander through shopping malls and fairgrounds. At night they sneak into the opulent villas of absentee owners, explore, and enjoy the luxury of a dip into deserted swimming pools. This summer, however, will be different.

 

As the novel starts, the oldest daughter is the center of a drama that threatens the already precarious family equilibrium. Céline, an alluring sixteen-year-old, announces that she is pregnant and stubbornly refuses to say more. The news unleashes all the pent-up rage of her father, Manuel, a second-generation Spanish mason, who builds houses for rich Parisians while struggling to pay off his own. He becomes obsessed with finding the culprit, not so much as to avenge his daughter’s reputation as to regain his own dignity, which has been eroded by a life of small defeats and humiliations. Céline’s mother, Séverine, who like her daughter got pregnant too early, keeps a mask of detached resignation.

 

Brunet takes on the archetypal theme of scorned family honor and turns it into a contemporary story driven by a brooding sense of menace and a compelling character ensemble: Johanna, the younger sister, with her strange eyes, each of a different color, “an odd feature that has compelled her from the start to imagine an elsewhere”; the good-natured and popular Céline, who learns the hard way that she can no longer follow her adventurous sister; also Saïd, the childhood friend of the sisters, and his mother Kabija, next-door neighbors yet forever “others,” as are the Romany and Algerian men hired for the harvest at the grandfather’s farm; along with Manuel, who, although he married a local girl, remains a stranger.

 

Brunet’s tight narrative masterfully tracks the unraveling of the drama to its foreseen, and unforeseen, conclusions. She gives careful attention to her characters, never losing sight of their humanity, but she also does not ignore the larger social and political issues—sexism, racism, and poverty—that define their lives. The Circle of Summer is a deeply affecting and powerful novel that confirms Brunet’s talent.

 

Marion Brunet is a writer who first gained recognition for her young adult novels, for which she has been awarded more than thirty prizes, such as the 2017 UNICEF Children’s Literature Prize.

 
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the color of air

Odile d’Oultremont

(Edition de l’Observatoire, 222 pages, 2018)

For more than ten years, Adrian has led a well-regulated life centered on his job at Aquaplus, the city water management company. He is a compliant employee, courteous to a fault but with no meaningful human contact aside from his demanding mother. During one of his professional visits, he meets the endearing and whimsical Louise, a painter for whom daily life is the source of endless enchantment, and never a dull routine. They marry and share nine years of happiness under the guidance of Louise’s radiant disposition and exuberant creativity. But is imagination enough to counter the weight of reality?

Pascale says

"An ode to the power of imagination"

When the novel opens, Adrian is sitting in the dock in a courthouse. It is not clear what offense he might have committed, but there is no doubt that he has lost Louise. As he waits for the judge to interrogate him, he reminisces about his wife and their life together:  How he threw himself without hesitation into Louise’s magical universe, where the dog is called The Cat, where morning rituals are turned into joyful performances, and the most mundane objects are transfigured by the power of Louise’s fanciful mind. Thanks to Louise, the unadventurous Adrian learns to master “a new keyboard from which he has replaced the keys one after the other,” and on which even “unexpected new functions have appeared.” 

 

Following a corporate downsizing, Adrian is retained but relegated to, and then forgotten in, an obscure cubicle at the end of a ghostly corridor. Adrian bears the alienation of this Kafkaesque administrative decision, because since he can still continue to act as the “sponsor of Planet Louise.” And when she is diagnosed with cancer, his invisibility in the office allows him to devote himself fully to her care.  No one even notices his absence.  

 

Louise’s descent into illness and the way she faces it makes for some of the most moving passages of this book. Far from being just eccentric or childish, she is above all “a qualified worker of the imaginary.” Thanks to her endless curiosity, she faces the medical apparatus and the slow deterioration of her body with lucidity, courage, and resolute cheerfulness.

The Art of Unreason has been compared to Boris Vian’s masterpiece, The Foam of the Daze. They are both poignant love stories haunted by death and infused with poetry, and in which the surreal elements do not prevent the reader from experiencing an authentic and emotionally convincing world. But in this first novel, d’Oultremont has found her own unique voice. Her dazzlingly original prose never ceases to surprise us at every turn, whether she evokes the dehumanized environment of twenty-first-century corporations or the intimacy of true love.

Odile d’Oultremont is a screenwriter and filmmaker. Les Déraisons is her first novel.

 

THE STRANGE CASE OF BENJAMIN T.

Catherine Rolland

(Les Escales, 352 pages, 2018)

 

Benjamin Teillac’s wife has left him, and his only son has rejected him, and now epileptic seizures may make it impossible for him to continue as a paramedic. His neurologist offers him an opportunity to participate in a clinical trial of a revolutionary new drug, and he accepts. The side effects are immediate: He is assailed by vivid, life-like hallucinations. The year is 1944.  He is in a small village in the French Alps plotting to blow up a bridge. And then he is back in the present day. We are all somewhat more than one person, but Benjamin really lives two lives.

Alice says

"Uplifting and suprising"

The Strange Case of Benjamin T. starts with a description of Benjamin T.,  the  antihero, and his less than exciting life. But the tone changes in unison with the increasing pace of his dramatic seizures. Rolland is a fine storyteller who  skillfully guides the reader through the intricacies of the plot making us  empathize with Benjamin’s confusion and fear. She draws a believable picture of a man who has lost control over his body, and whose mind is invaded by the deeds and emotions of another life. 

As the novel progresses, Benjamin’s visions become more frequent and coalesce into the storyline of a life as real as his own.   He is living two lives at the same time:  In one, he is called Benjamin Teillac and, in the other Benjamin Sachetaz. The second Benjamin fights bravely alongside his brother in the French resistance, and the first avoids confrontation at all cost. As Benjamin S. he falls in love with Mélaine, who loves him back; BenjaminT. however, continues to long for Sylvie, who no longer loves him.  The Benjamin of 1944 knows the future, while the Benjamin of 2014 remembers the past. In each case, these lines across space and time have dangerous consequences for both of them. In the midst of his distress and confusion, Benjamin is presented with a rare opportunity to alter—much for the better—the course of destiny.  To do so, he may have to decide which of these two Benjamins he is to be.  

Catherine Rolland is an emergency doctor and a writer. Originally from Lyon, she has been living in Switzerland for a few years. The Strange Case of Benjamin T. is her fifth novel.

 
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Brisa

Bénédicte Martin

(JC Lattès, 150 pages, 2018)

***Nominated for the upcoming 2018 Françoise Sagan Prize***

Bénédicte Martin lives with her son in the Parisian apartment that belonged to her grandparents, Pierre and Brisa. She inhabits the very same rooms, pushes the same doors, and opens the same windows as they did. But Martin’s intimate connection with her family history goes deeper than the tangible legacy of these walls. There is another, more elusive inheritance that she feels compelled to explore and claim as her own in order to come to terms with the woman she has become.

Alice says

"Sulfurous and provocative. A family memoir like no others."

Martin’s family memoir begins with a woman who, although not a blood relative, played a central role in the life of Pierre and Brisa. Born in the Mediterranean harbor of Toulon at the turn of the twentieth century—Eleonore Madame Yvonne as she was later known— was the illegitimate daughter of an heir and a laundress. She came into a large inheritance, which she immediately used to settle in a luxurious Parisian hotel and throw herself into the dazzling nightlife of the capital. There, at last, she could live openly as a woman who loves women. After World War II, she became a madam, the informant and friend of Pierre, a former resistance fighter turned police chief. Madly in love with his idle wife Brisa, she inserted herself permanently into their lives.

As she retraces the past, Martin interposes reflections on her life. She does so seamlessly and without warning. Martin finds inspiring, yet also disquieting, similarities between the singular lives she reimagines and her own, and her exercise in uncovering points of multiple identifications feels at times like a form of exorcism. Inheritance is, for Martin, much broader than blood alone. It has a moral dimension that is transmitted not just through our family histories but also through our collective past.

Martin’s language is impassioned when she invokes the right, but also the suffering and challenges, of living differently. It is merciless when she speaks of unreciprocated desire, raw when she depicts the sadness of bought sex and lucid when it comes to the dirty money upon which Madame Yvonne’s largesse is built upon. With Brisa, Martin has written an incandescent and corrosive family memoir with a subversive absence of sentimentality.

Bénédicte Martin is a writer and a journalist. Her first book, Warm Up (Flammarion 2013), a collection of erotic stories, received the Counterpoint Award and was translated into Spanish and Portuguese. Another of her books, La Femme, was a finalist for the Renaudot Prize (Editions des Equateurs, 2014). She is a specialist of Colette and has also written a book on Simone de Beauvoir (Nouvelles Lectures, 2016.)

 
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THE FAKIR’S NEW ADVENTURES IN THE LAND OF IKEA

Romain Puértolas

(Editions Le Dilettante, 298 pages, 2018)

***The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir, the adventure-fantasy film based on The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe (Knopf, 2015; Vintage 2016), directed by Ken Scott, is set to come out in May 2018***

 

[A] comic strip of a novel. . . . Strewn with laugh-out-loud jokes.

The New York Times Book Review

A philosophical odyssey. By turns slapstick and serious.

—The Wall Street Journal

Entertaining and original.

—Minneapolis Star Tribune

A delightfully silly confection.

—The Seattle Times

Combines farce worthy of Laurel and Hardy with socio-political satire.

—The Washington Times

Who would have thought that a comedy that mixes flat-pack furniture with magic could tackle some of the biggest subjects of our time? With a big heart, a brilliant sense of humour and an excellent translator, that’s what French writer Romain Puértolas achieves.

—The Independent

Lucinda says

"Another joyful romp across Europe with the endearing Fakir. Laughter guaranteed"

Two years after his adventures in The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe, Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod is no longer that tall, thin man, gnarled like a tree, with a huge mustache running across his face. He is clean shaven, has put on a little weight, and wears polo shirts with little crocodiles on the chest. He lives with Marie in a comfortable apartment in the affluent 16th arrondissement, and is sinking slowly into a cushy, insipid routine. And then one day adventure again knocks at his door . . .

Romain Puértolas takes the reader on a ride in the fast lane from France to Sweden. The story alternates from the fakir’s turbulent childhood at the school for fakirs in the heart of Rajasthan and his present life, thirty years later, as he searches in Viking territory for Hertzyorbac, the mythical bed of nails. But Ajatashatru is not just looking for that bed of nails; he is also searching for a subject for his next book. The deeply entertaining farce is filled with comedy and confusion; it’s a silly and serious philosophical consideration of flat-pack furniture and other modern-day sociopolitical concerns.

Romain Puértolas is the best-selling author of The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe, which was sold in thirty-eight languages and will soon be released as a film. It was published in the United States by Knopf/Vintage in 2015/2016.

 
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GABRIELLE OR THE REDISCOVERED GARDEN

Stéphane Jougla

(Denoël, 218 pages, 2017)

***Sold to Droemer in Germany***

When a secret garden holds the key to healing a broken heart.

 

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Lucinda says

"Anyone who loves literature and nature will find this novel inspiring and deeply affecting"

In the suburbs of Paris, Martin loses the woman he loves, Gabrielle, in a traffic accident. Inconsolable, he sinks deeper and deeper into the denial of her brutal disappearance. Gabrielle had two passions: reading and gardening. Martin, who had barely opened a book in his life, begins to read the passages she had underlined in her books and to care for the garden she had shaped. In the process, he discovers the secret that, out of love, Gabrielle had kept hidden from him. A secret that will lead him to some extraordinary characters and forever change his life, while helping him to overcome Gabrielle’s death in the most unexpected ways.

Transformed by the dual powers of nature and literature blossoming within him, Martin begins writing poetry, and reconnecting with his body and his senses. The process, however, soon turns into an obsession A Robinson Crusoe-like recluse in this garden, an earthly paradise that protects him from the harshness of reality and the outside world, Martin may not survive the friction with society knocking ever louder on his door. But the garden is indestructible…

A dramatic narrative, this tender and sometimes absurdly comical variation on the themes of undying love and crippling grief will keep the reader turning pages with every brisk chapter. An ode to the power of literature and a moving reminder of the resilience of life in all its shapes.

Stéphane Jougla, born in Toulouse in 1964, is the author of three other novels: L’idée (Gallimard, 2003, winner of the Prix Méditerranée des lycéens), Portrait d’une absente (Gallimard, 2005, translated into Polish and Korean), and La petite philosophe (Éditions du Seuil, 2009). He also writes for the social sciences journal Sigila and is the author of the Fleurs d’encre school textbook collection, published by Hachette. Jougla studied law and literature, and currently teaches modern literature at a middle school in the suburbs of Paris.

 

 
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LIBERTY AND EQUALITY

Raymond Aron

(Editions EHESS, 63 pages, 2013)

Aron is the supreme destroyer, not of hopes, but of confusions and illusions.

—Stanley Hoffman, New York Review of Books

Aron scrutinized political life with indefatigable attention until his last day, because he could not retire from the place where humanity makes the test of itself.

—Pierre Manent

Raymond Aron (1903–1983) was one of France’s prominent intellectual and influential figures—a sociologist, journalist, political commentator, and, not least, an independent-minded liberal known for his fierce critique of ideological orthodoxies. In this, his final lecture at the College de France, in April of 1978, Aron concluded his long teaching career by reflecting on the nature of Western democracies and the challenges they face in reconciling their founding concepts of liberty and equality. Those challenges are as relevant today as they were at the time of this lecture, which eloquently sums up Aron’s philosophical legacy.

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Pascale says

"Not to be missed for anyone interested in the work of Raymond Aron. As relevant today as when this was recorded." 

Raymond Aron preferred to speak of liberties rather than liberty: “We all enjoy certain liberties,” he wrote, “and we never enjoy all of the liberties.” Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophers based their definitions of liberty on speculations about theories on human nature. But Aron was not interested in abstraction. Rather, he examined how liberties are actualized—or not—in specific sociological and historical contexts. Well aware that the definition of freedom has varied across space and time, Aron cautiously confined his observations to his own Western, liberal, and relatively prosperous democratic society.

In this lecture, Aron classifies liberties—political, personal, and social—in a clear and accessible manner, and discusses the ways they intersect or conflict with one another, all without losing sight of the unrelenting quest for equality. Aron sees signs of the “moral crisis of liberal democracies” in intellectual developments characterized by “the detestation of power as such.” Liberty, Aron observes, has come to be mostly understood as the liberation of individual desires. This worries him, not because he objects to individuals expressing their personality and realizing their intimate desires, but because, for him, a liberal democracy, in order to be sustainable, needs to include as it did in the past a definition of “the virtuous citizen.” In spite of these concerns, Aron reminds his audience that it is still a privilege to live in societies, how imperfect they may be, “with a deep tradition of seeking liberty in equality or equality in liberty.”

Raymond Aron was a political scientist, sociologist, and journalist who made major contributions to the study of totalitarianism, liberalism, Communism, and international relations. In 1945, he co-founded with Jean-Paul Sartre the journal Les Temps modernes; and, a year later, Combat with Albert Camus. Prolific and versatile, Aron produced thousands of journalistic columns, hundreds of essays, and many scholarly books, some of which were published posthumously and appeared in at least nine languages. Of his books translated into English, the most famous is The Opium of the Intellectuals (Norton, 1962; Routledge, 2001). Others include The Century of Total War (Praeger, 1981), Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations (Anchor Press, 1973; Routledge, 2003), Clausewitz: Philosopher of War, (Simon & Schuster, 1983), Main Currents in Sociological Thought (Routledge, 1998), The Imperial Republic: The United States and the World 1945–1973 (Little, Brown, 1974), and The Dawn of Universal History: Selected Essays from a Witness to the Twentieth Century (Basic Books, 2003). He also wrote Memoirs: Fifty Years of Political Reflection (Holmes & Meier, 1995).

 

 

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JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE: ALONE BEHIND THE CAMERA

Bernard Tessier

(Fayard, 272 pages, 2017)

 

In Melville's films, there is an aesthetic that gives you the feeling that ... if you truly enjoy movies with all your heart, you cannot but succeed in making a good one simply by having spent time watching them. Le Doulos is my favorite scenario of all time. First, you do not understand anything and then, in the last twenty minutes, everything is explained.                                                                   

—Quentin Tarentino

The French master Jean-Pierre ... shot great, extremely elegant and complex gangster movies, made with love,  and in which criminals and cops adhere to a code of honor like feudal knights.                                                                                                    

—Martin Scorcese

Melville is a god for me. When I saw The Samurai for the first time, it was a shock: Melville technique and his very cool narrative style felt incredibly novel ... I love how Melville manages to combine his own culture with Eastern philosophy.    

—John Woo

Jean-Pierre Melville, beloved by the best of modern directors, is considered the godfather of the French New Wave influencing generations of international filmmakers with such movies—now cult favorites—as The Red Circle, The Army of Shadows, or The Samurai. More than forty years after his untimely death at age fifty-five, his biography remained to be written. Bernard Tessier has now filled the gap with this new biography in which he draws the portrait of a man who was passionately dedicated to his art and who persisted in making movies on his own terms.

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Pascale says

"A delight for Melville fans. A sober yet powerful portrait of a man' s unbridled passion for cinema as an art form"
 

Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in a Jewish Alsatian family, Jean-Pierre Melville fought in the French Resistance during World War II and adopted the nom de guerre Melville as a tribute to his favorite American writer. In the first chapters of Melville, Tessier highlights the significant biographical elements that influenced the course of Melville’s life. In particular, he details, with the help of previously unseen documents, Melville’s impressive war record. Coupled with a great admiration for Hollywood gangster pictures of the 1930s and ’40s, the experience of war was a determining factor in Melville’s work that inspired both the themes and the filmmaking style of his movies.

Tessier shows the tortuous process that accompanied the conception and production of Melville’s fourteen movies: the never-ending financial struggle, the endless negotiations and stormy relationships with authors, producers and actors. Melville decided early on in his career to go his own way and, unwilling to compromise, he started making films on a very low budget. Then, in the early 1950s, he built his own film studio in Paris  – a legendary place visited by aspiring film directors like Godard, Chabrol, Malle or Truffaut and many of the most celebrated actors of post-war French cinema – from Simone Signoret to Jean-Paul Belmondo and, of course, Melville’s iconic actor, Alain Delon.

Melville, as Tessier describes him, was difficult, obsessive, and perfectionist, but many looked up to him nonetheless as someone who inspired, and encouraged, them to make movies in a different way. From the production side, Melville was, in many respects, a pioneer of independent film making, and the notion of home movies, in his case, could be taken literally: his studio on Rue Jenner was where he lived.  On the creative side, he reinvented the rules of cinematic convention with slow-moving entry scenes, minimalist dialogue, and innovative editing techniques.

Tessier reveals how Melville transformed French cinema in his own, individualistic, way. This book presents the reader with a fair, respectful, yet not indulgent portrait of a man through the one thing that mattered the most to him: the making of a memorable cinematographic universe. 

Bernard Tessier is a journalist, documentary filmmaker and the author of numerous biographies of French actors and singers.