Novellas in November: Two French ones

Novellas in November is hosted by Laura at Reading in Bed.  I really enjoyed taking part last year, here is the first of what I hope will be several posts this month, this time on two French novellas in translation.

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson

Translated by Molly Ringwald

Before I tell you about the book, yes, it is translated by that Molly Ringwald, and very nicely done too. But it is a shame that it takes being a former teen movie idol to get the translator’s name on the front cover!

Lie With Me is a love story, a hidden first love for two seventeen-year-old boys, about letting go and the regrets that come with age. Narrated by Philippe, a successful author, the prologue begins as he is being interviewed in a Paris hotel and sees a young man across the room…

“I’m dumbstruck. I think, This is not possible. This is an image that cannot exist. I could be mistaken, of course –after all, I don’t see his face, I can’t see it from where I’m sitting –but still I am absolutely certain I know what the face of this young man looks like. And then I tell myself again, No, it’s impossible–literally impossible, but still I call out a name. “Thomas!” I actually shout it.

We then go back to 1984, to the village in France where Philippe’s father is the headmaster of the local lycée; Philippe is a top student, destined to escape to better things. He knows he is different, has known for years. When he sees a boy from one of the other classes in his year glance over to him, he falls instantly for Thomas and hopes he’ll make contact.A message is passed through a brushing contact in the corridor, and the boys meet in a remote sports equipment store. There is little talking, just physical contact, a first for Philippe. However, being out in those days in the country is not possible. The two classes don’t mix, so chances to meet are few and far between and have to remain secret. Philippe’s house is empty at lunchtime though, and eventually the two meet there and there is time for talking a little too; Philippe learns about Thomas’s Spanish heritage. But all too soon, the results of the ‘Bac’ are announced, and Philippe does well – both boys pass, but Thomas is expected to stay and take over his father’s farm. At this stage, deeply in love, Philippe would have done anything to stay with Thomas, but Thomas forces the issue – when he goes to Spain for their family holiday, he stays and takes a job there. Thomas is heart-broken. Little does he know… The novel returns to 2007, and the young man Philippe sees leaving the hotel. I won’t say more.

This novella was a huge bestseller in France, and I can see why. The writing is achingly beautiful and the intensity of Philippe’s emotions pour off the page. This is a haunting story of first love and I absolutely adored it. (10/10)

Source: Own copy. Lie With Me by Philippe Besson, trans Molly Ringwald (Penguin, 2019) flapped paperback original, 160 pages.

BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.

Maigret and Monsieur Charles by Georges Simenon

Translated by Ros Schwartz

This is the 75th Maigret novel, first published in 1972–and the last–the culmination of a series that began with Pietr the Latvian in 1931. I’ve been (very) slowly reading my way through the new Penguin translations, from the beginning, I’m only at #10, but when a proof copy of the last one came available I couldn’t resist. Ros Schwartz’s new translation will be published in early January.

What’s so good is that although progress has happened, I was initially taken aback by mention of a television, but then remembered it is the early 1970s, not 1930s, the rest remains nearly the same: Maigret’s pipes, Maigret’s wife, Maigret’s coat, and Maigret’s methods. Only the stove in his office which reinforced the tobacco fug in the early novels seems to be missing.

As is a body, initially, in this novel, which opens with Maigret being called to the prefect’s office where he is offered a promotion to be head of the Police Judiciare. Maigret has three years till retirement, and knows what he wants to do.

‘…all the same, I’d rather stay head of the Crime Squad. Please don’t take my reply the wrong way. I’ve been an active police officer for forty years, and I’d find it hard to spend my days in an office, studying files and dealing with administrative matter…’

The prefect did not conceal his surprise.

‘Why don’t you take some time to think it over and give me your answer in a few days? You might also wish to discuss it with Madame Maigret.’

‘She would understand.’

‘I understand too, and I don’t want to press the matter…’

Even so, he appeared slightly disappointed. He understood without understanding. Maigret needed the human contact his investigations afforded him, and he’d often been criticized for not conducting them from his desk, choosing to play an active role and undertaking tasks that were usually carried out by inspectors.

Maigret’s investigative skills haven’t diminished with age either. When a woman (who has obviously been drinking) calls to see him, telling him her husband has been missing for a month, he takes the case on rather that passing her to Missing Persons, sensing that a body will turn up. It appears that prominent lawyer, Mr Sabin-Levesque has been leading a double life. He has a habit of disappearing for a few days at a time, picking up hostesses from Paris nightclubs, where they call him Monsieur Charles, escaping his increasingly lush wife home alone. But if he was normally only gone for at most a week, why did she (or his clerk) leave it so long to report?

This was an alcohol-fuelled investigation, taking Maigret into several nightclubs where he was frustrated at not being able to get a beer, and putting him off brandy which Madame Sabin-Levesque drank for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A body does turn up in the river, and Maigret is able to solve the mystery. This final case for Maigret has everything you hope for, but I did find the final page rather sad. (8.5/10)

Source: Review copy. Maigret and Monsieur Charles by George Simenon, trans Ros Schwartz (Penguin, Jan 2020), paperback, 176 pages.

BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.

12 thoughts on “Novellas in November: Two French ones

  1. Calmgrove says:

    Splendide! Mais il faudrait ajouter que les deux nouvelles étaient traduises en anglais: j’avais anticiper que tous les deux étaient en français, même que les revues!

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    Great reviews. Bittersweet to come to the last Maigret, though (I was sad at the end of the Reykjavik novels by Indriðason). I haven’t managed to work out any novellas to read in November – perhaps a challenge too far!

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