20 Books : Paris in July : Euro Reading Challenge

Today, two more reviews for you that fit into multiple challenges, namely: 20 Books of Summer 21 hosted by Cathy, Paris in July hosted by Tamara, and the European Reading Challenge hosted by Gilion.

Maigret’s Madwoman by Georges Simenon

Translated by Siân Reynolds

My 8th book reviewed for 20 Books, and 2nd for Paris in July. I had been (re)reading the Maigrets mostly in order, but the next few on my shelves feature him outside Paris, so to keep to the letter of Paris in July – I jumped to #72 in which Maigret is in the City of Light for most of the novel with a flying visit to Toulon on the side.

An old lady comes to the headquarters of the Police Judiciare asking for Maigret. He sends one of his inspectors to talk to her, but she is sure only Maigret will understand her predicament. She is twice widowed and lives alone, and every day she goes to sit in the Tuileries Gardens – she is sure that someone is entering her apartment when she is out as things are slightly moved. She thinks she may be being followed too. She is persistent in trying to see Maigret though, and despite thinking she’s imagining it, he plans to go to see her the next day – but that night she’s found dead – smothered in her flat. But what was the intruder after? That’s the big question.

‘Lapointe had not failed to notice how pale Maigret was and how serious his expression. Three days earlier, Maigret had not known the woman who had died., he’d never even heard of her. But in her distress, whether imagined or real, it was to him that she had turned. She had tried to reach him personally because she trusted him, and he could still see her approaching him on the pavement, her eyes shining in admiration.

I won’t dwell on the plot of this one. It’s typical Maigret, he waits, he observes, he nudges – and things happen. Thus he solves the crime. Unusually for a Maigret, there was one red herring near the start that I was sure would crop up again, but didn’t! I did love how Maigret in this late novel (pub 1970) is a superstar police officer – the press do follow him around all through this one. Also, of course, it wouldn’t be a Maigret if he did go out for meals and beers, and I had one query on the translation here. Maigret orders andouillette with a Beaujolais.

The Beaujolais was perfect, and the andouillette, served with chips, was no less delicious.

I just wondered why Reynolds didn’t translate it as tripe sausage and chips, why if leaving andouillette as is, not say frites rather than chips?

Anyway, this was otherwise a great translation, and a very enjoyable Maigret mystery. (8.5/10)

Source: Own copy. Penguin paperback, 167 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

My 9th book reviewed for 20 Books, and crossing off my 15th country/author nationality on the European Reading Challenge, this 2009 novel from Polish author Tokarczuk was translated in 2018. Her previous novel, Flights, won the International Booker, and she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019. So a slightly intimidating reputation, added to which I’m rather late to the party in reading Drive Your Plow...

That this novel is billed as an existential noir thriller was very intriguing. In a remote Polish hamlet close to the Czech border, sixty-something Janina lives in her mountain lodge with her two dogs and trusty Samurai (her car). There are two other year-round residents, whom Janina calls Oddball and Big Foot – she’s fond of illustrative nicknames – and a handful of summer homes, which Janina looks after for their owners.

The novel begins with a death. Oddball comes to get Janina, just stating Big Foot is dead.

He generally doesn’t say much. He must have Mercury in a reticent sign. I reckon it’s in Capricorn or on the cusp, in square or maybe in opposition to Saturn. It could also be Mercury in retrograde – that produces reserve.

Right from the beginning, we realise that Janina is rather eccentric. She was an engineer and then a teacher in her working life, but now prefers to be on her own most of the time doing her astrology. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, generally preferring animals to humans, but she makes an exception for Dizzy, a former pupil, now thirtyish. Dizzy comes up weekly, and they spend the evenings translating William Blake together.

Things start to get very strange when Janina and Dizzy find another body – it’s the Commandant of the Police and his corpse is half stuck into an abandoned well. There are hoofprints all around.

‘Dizzy,’ I said, ‘it’s Animals taking revenge on people.’

Firstly, this quote shows another of Janina’s idiosyncrasies, of capitalising things in her speech for emphasis. Secondly it reinforces her preference for animals over most people. Thirdly and importantly for the advancement of the story, it highlights her fight against the hunting club members, whom she blames for the disappearance of her dogs, disturbing the peace, and being chauvinist males doing horrid things to animals. Naturally, they all think she is mad – little do they know!

Janina is such a complex character with so many different facets to her, I was fascinated by her more than the mystery. Her strong belief in astrology is at odds with her original career (OK, I’ll admit to a studenty flirtation with plotting birth charts – but it didn’t last), but is more understandable when you factor in her love of William Blake, although his mystic side was rooted in deep belief in God. It was the Blake connection that made me particularly keen to read this novel – indeed, each chapter is prefixed by a Blake quote and the novel’s title comes from him too. I’ve got a growing interest in Blake also, since I’ve seen his work in Tate Britain, and I’m gradually working my way through John Higg’s excellent and accessible new book on him – William Blake vs the World. (Higgs previously whetted my appetite with a short work, William Blake Now, reviewed here). I also loved the chapter titles, which also riff on the bible, Blake and astrology, but ‘Testosterone Autism’ is a favourite.

Drive Your Plow’s quirkiness won’t be for everyone. It’s quite low key, but in the same way that the Coen brother’s Fargo is low key! There’s a strand of dark comedy in Janina’s way of life that I recognised from an enjoyable read from last year too – Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini (reviewed here) and it shares that novel’s take on isolation and where animals rank in peoples’ lives. I loved it, and am keen to try Flights now by this author. (10/10)

Source: Own copy. Fitzcarraldo editions paperback original, 269 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

12 thoughts on “20 Books : Paris in July : Euro Reading Challenge

  1. BookerTalk says:

    It amuses me about the Maigret novels how easily people get to see him to report fears/suspicions and ask for his help. Could you imagine these days turning up at your police station and asking to see the head of CID?

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