t’s the season for summer book lists to begin to appear. And I thought, how about some books translated from French that are fun to read?
Many fine literary achievements will be excluded from this list. No Proust, with his lounging about and daydreaming about food. No Flaubert, who identifies with the bored Madame Bovary, trapped with an unimaginative husband (not that!). No Marguerite Duras, although her book, The Lover, is fascinating: an autobiographical novel, it takes place in Saigon, charting the sexual awakening of a 15-year-old French girl and her 27-year-old Chinese lover, a relationship forced to end due to family pressure. Languorous prose, difficult power dynamics between the lovers and their families—all this we save for brisker weather.
For the literati among us, I was about to banish Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black, but I couldn’t do it! It’s a coming-of-age story as well as a social commentary on France in the 19th century. Tragedy, crimes and intrigue, passionate undoings. Stendhal’s way of putting things, even in translation, is amusing. Includes a guillotine (607 pages).
There are two yesses.
- Georges Simenon speaks French and writes in French, but he is not French. Born in Belgium in 1903, one of his early jobs as a very young man included reporting on the seamy side of Liege for a newspaper. This range of exposure served him well for plotting future novels, especially the series on Maigret which he wrote after moving to Paris. To pronounce this chief inspector’s name, you say “meh” plus the color grey, although you stop before you have quite finished the end of the word “grey” (Meh gre
y), growling a tiny bit to get the “r” in place and to get in the mood for police work.
There are 75, yes, that is the right number, novels about this inspector. There is even a book about this fictional flick, (cop) which details Maigret’s first name (Joseph, then Jules), his early interest in a medical career, his relationship with his wife, (she addresses him by his last name), called Maigret’s World: A Reader’s Companion to Simenon’s Famous Detective. (Hint, hint to Santa.)
I believed I may have mentioned a flood in the small archives on rue de la Tuilerie where my husband at the time did research on a Sufi musician named Hazrat Inayat Khan. One fine day, you may recall, we were bailing out water from the basement office through the large windows, due to what turned out to be a problem with an outside drain. Pots and pans in the hands of a 5-year-old and two grown-ups, proved to be the literal drop in the bucket as far as ridding that basement of water. The treasurer of the foundation which sponsored that research appeared the following day to survey the damage. The water was gone, but the rug-soaked floors would never be the same and would actually be replaced by a gorgeous light maple flooring. Accompanying the treasurer was a friend of his, a young woman who worked for Alliance Française. We got to talking and she recommended I read Simenon because his French was simple enough and he wrote good stories. Guess what? To this day I am looking up words! So much for simple. The vocabulary is the thing at this stage still. But it is true his French is beautiful. Here is brief clip in English.
The book of Simenon’s I am reading now is called simply Maigret, in which our hero is summoned out of retirement (probably not the book to start with). But here’s a description when Maigret sees his nephew standing outside his door in the middle of the night.
“An enormous moon swam above the leafless poplar trees and made the sky so clear that the smallest branches were etched there, and the Loire, beyond the turn, was nothing but an agitated silver glitter.” (Translation my own. May I bow to applause?)
Translations are not always self-evident. The word above I translated as “agitated” in French is un grouillement, a swarming. Well! Swarming paillettes, which is the word for glitter or sequins, is an awful thought. So, with a little finesse I hope I got the tone of this cold, winter passage right.
WHERE TO START YOUR MAIGRET OBSESSION
General consensus has us begin with the first one in the series, called Pietr the Latvian. En fin bref (briefly), Paris underworld. Full disclosure: I haven’t read this one (yet). Another approach is to go to where Maigret spent his childhood and read The Saint Fiacre Affaire.
Who knew that Maigret got over to New York?
HERE’S THE SECOND YES
2. Fred Vargas
An owner of a local sandwich shop across the street from the International School where I taught, was so excited to tell me that Fred Vargas had just released a new thriller. He then began to talk about Fred as “she.”
Our minds become quite large on the subject of he and she, particularly when they refer to a single person. On that note, I call your attention to a brilliant story in a recent New Yorker, called “The Party,” (24 May, 2021) which touches on this alternation.
BACK TO FRED VARGAS
Born in Paris in 1957, her full name is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau. Fred Vargas is her nom de plume. What is so interesting about her is that she is an archeologist and a historian as well as a novelist. And the book I loved is called in French, Quand Sort la Recluse? This is a very cool title, because la recluse has two meanings. First it can be a solitary female person (the male is le reclus). And secondly, it can refer to the brown recluse, a spider which injects a poison when it bites.
Brown recluse factoids:
- Has a violin-shaped marking on its back
- Mates only once to create all her eggs for her life
- Bite is poisonous and begets necrotic tissue
- To be avoided
The other words mean Quand (when) sort does it come out? So, it is When Does the Recluse Come Out?
The English title, which is where many of you come in, is The Poison Will Remain. The English title leaves something to be desired, but there it is.
The thriller features a recurring hero of hers named Police Commissioner Adamsberg. Now, Adamsberg is an oddity to his staff, since his way of solving crimes is analogous to the way a writer dreams up a story. He’ll let his mind go blank; he’ll wander about the city; he’ll play his hunches. In short, he is maddening to his police force. But, ah, the results!
I think it’s a quick step (perhaps too quick) to think of Beckett’s tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, as fugitives from the law, shall we say. Perhaps they are, but not the garden variety criminal; more the failed great police detectives. I say that because Lucky’s speech has got me thinking. Tune in next week for more!
So, pick a book, think like a police commissioner, and solve a few crimes from your armchair.