French seems to be the language from which I read translated fiction most often (see this post, and this one). This may be partly because of an affinity to the country and the culture — I studied French in school and spent a term in Paris in college — but I also have a sense that it’s one of the more popular languages for English translation. (I was not able to find any statistics to support that, so please correct me if I’m wrong.) Even so, the proportion of books that get translated from any foreign language and read in English is quite pitiful, so it’s always heartening to find a publisher who is doing the good work of bringing the world to us.
Since 2007, Gallic Books has sought to bring us “the best of French in English.” I recently read their newest titles from two popular authors, Antoine Laurain and Michel Déon, and recommend both to readers who would like to explore some Francophone literature.
Laurain’s French Rhapsody (translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce, October 2016) is a sly satire of contemporary French culture, set off when a Parisian doctor receives a letter, lost for 33 years by the post office, that seems to suggest that his defunct 80s band might have made the big time. He goes off on a quest to find the tape of their could-have-been hit single and track down some of the members of the band, who have gone off in quite different directions.
This opening device led me to expect that the book would focus on the doctor, but in fact it soon leaves his point of view and hops about rather erratically among the other characters who become involved in the twisted strands of the story. The main focus, if there is one, ends up being on the ultra-wealthy enigmatic man who produced that fateful demo tape for the group, and now is being primed by certain factions to become the next French president. There are some secrets in his past, though, that need to come to light before he can move forward to the next stage of his own life.
This political slant, along with another story strand concerning a band member who has become an ultra-right-wing thug, brings in some pertinent reflections on the explosive mix of celebrity, money, and extremism in today’s world. The silliness of modern art also gets a dig through the medium of another former band member who’s created a giant blow-up model of his own brain; and the doctor’s quest ends with an ironic twist that punctures the vanity of our dreams. Overall, this was a more acerbic, less heart-warming read than Laurain’s other Gallic books (The Red Notebook and The President’s Hat), and it didn’t hold my attention as well with its haphazard structure. Still, for some contemporary French wit, it’s worth a try.
Though written in French, Déon’s The Great and the Good (first publication 1996; translated by Julian Evans, January 2017) is mostly set in 1950s America — we meet the protagonist as he sails for the East Coast university he’ll attend on a Fulbright scholarship. Though not wealthy, his mother has paid for his first-class passage so that he will make connections with “the great and the good,” and so he meets the people who will haunt him for the rest of his life. A drunken professor, a haughty aspiring actress, and a South American con artist and his beautiful sister become the true instruments of his education in the sorrows and sufferings of the heart.
With glimpses of Cold War government machinations, the Bohemian squalor of Greenwich Village, and the experimental theater scene, Déon gives us a wry and ironic portrait of postwar America from a foreigner’s point of view. For me the weakest link was the central love story — the object of our young hero’s passion remained curiously null and featureless to me, and his attachment to her felt more like a narrative necessity than an actual relationship.
I did think that The Great and the Good would make a terrific film, along the lines of Brooklyn, and the weakness in characterization could be offset by some atmospheric visuals. Michel Déon died in December, an icon of the French literary scene with more than 50 books to his credit, only one of which had been translated before Gallic took him up. Now that he’s finally being published in English, let’s hope we might see some of his works hit the big time.