I hardly ever read books in French and I hardly ever read books by Nobel laureates. In the first case, my grasp of the language is shaky and I have no good entry point into French literature: I don’t know what to try. I think the last French-language book I tried reading was Les Trois Mousquetaires, and I dropped it halfway through because it’s silly and romantic. In the second case, I have no respect whatsoever for the collective taste (or “artistic authority”!) of the Swedish Academy, and it is my firm opinion that the only reason that anybody cares about the Nobel prize for literature is the size of the cheque.
The book I just finished reading is thus of an entirely unheard-of kind for me: a French-language work by a Nobel laureate. I quite enjoyed J.M.G. Le Clézio’s little 2004 book L’Africain.
Now, why this sudden uncharacteristic choice of reading matter? It’s a little complicated, but bear with me.
- I like Lovecraft, Poe and Baudelaire.
- Lovecraft mentions Huysmans, who also liked Poe and Baudelaire.
- I avoid reading translations from the languages I know.
- Checking out Huysmans’ À rébours from the library, I realised that this was a book I could have read in the original.
- To compensate for this misstep, I decided to get another book in French.
- When Le Clézio got the prize he was described in the media as an unusually accessible Nobel author.
- L’Africain is only 125 pages and has an interesting summary on the back cover.
Simple as that. The book is an evocative treatment of the author’s father’s youthful work as a rural doctor in sub-Saharan Africa, and of some childhood years the author spent there. It is also a regretful meditation on why the father had such a bad relationship with his children. Although a white man raised in Mauritius speaking both French and English, the father is the African of the book’s title.
As for Huysmans, I must say that though À rébours is highly original and full of lovely details, I found the neurotic main character to be quite a silly figure. Rather than the “Bible of the Decadents”, the book must at least in part have been written as a caricature of wealthy decadence. There’s a hilarious scene where Des Esseintes pays a female ventriloquist to become his mistress and she gets really bored by having to make weird voices appear to come from without all the time when the two get between the sheets.
Now, Dear Reader, tell me what I should read in French and why!