It’s time for some French literature! In the last few years, I have encountered so many great books from France that it was difficult to make a small selection of just three books. Especially if you can read in French (or are learning to), you will quickly stumble upon publishers such as ‘le Livre de Poche’ and ‘Folio’. Publishers like these publish many titles in the French language, both original and translated, and for a relatively small price too. I could browse their catalogs for hours! But don’t worry, you don’t have to speak a word of French today. I’m recommending three titles that have recently been translated into English.
History of Violence
History of Violence is a novel written by Édouard Louis. There are currently two English translations. One is translated by Lorin Stein and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and the other is translated by Michael Lucey and published by Harvill Secker. Although it is fiction, Louis based the book on a true life event. On Christmas Eve 2012, Louis, a white, gay French citizen, was raped and almost murdered by a man from Algeria. If that isn’t a loaded topic, I don’t know what is. The book is about what happened that night, but also about a period of time afterwards. In this time Louis has to learn to cope with his new trauma.
Summarizing the story doesn’t do it justice. It’s about the horrific consequences of sexual violence for the victim, but it’s also about how the victim’s surroundings will react to an event like this. Louis’s story gets co-opted by others to spin a story of racism, homophobia and judgement. True to this, we barely receive the story of what happened through Louis’s own words. We learn what happened by listening to his skeptical sister, to the police who question him, to the doctor examining him, to his friends who push too far. This book is absolutely worth the read, if you can stomach the subject.
Vernon Subutex #1
This first book in a trilogy is written by Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne and published by MacLehose Press. In this novel we follow Vernon. He used to run a record store, but has become unemployed after the music industry largely became digital. Slowly we see his decline into poverty after the death of his friend Alex Bleach, a popular musician, who used to pay his rent. To prevent homelessness, he visits one old contact after the other. This way we get to see many members of modern French society, many even get their own chapter in which we can crawl into their minds! A very devoted Muslim girl, an ex-porn star befriended to a trans man, a socialist who beats his wife, a well-paid internet troll, and so many more make an appearance. No voice seems out of place. There are no heroes, the book offers us everyday people with many flaws.
The exploration of these people flows fluently along the minor plot of the novel. Before musician Alex Bleach died, he recorded some tapes at Vernon’s house on which he interviewed himself. Vernon has held on to these tapes when he lost his permanent residency. When word gets out that these tapes exist, more and more people get interested in getting their hands on them. However, because the recordings wander along with Vernon and even get lost and traded at times, they are not that easy to find. This storyline isn’t very present in the first half of the book, but it picks up in the second half and continues on in the second book of the trilogy.
Not One Day
Not One Day is written by Anne Garréta, translated by Emma Ramadan and published by Deep Vellum. This one absolutely is my favorite from the list. It’s a memoir (or is it?). Garréta is a lesbian author and this book talks about the women who have been in her life. Relationships, admirers, one-night-stands, crushes… All remain anonymous and mysterious, yet they give us a peak into Garréta’s life. The book starts out as a memoir with an Oulipian constriction, but ends somewhere completely else. Best to go into it blind and to let the text take you where it wants to go!
Exploring a country’s literary works never ends. I recently placed Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow by Faïza Guène and translated by Sarah Adams, on my to-read pile. It’s a debut work in the young adult category, praised by many authors that I look up to. Also on my watch list is Michèle Audin, another author from the Oulipo group, just like Anne Garréta.
What is your favorite book from France? And what will your next French read be?