The Templars’ Last Secret by Martin Walker

August 5, 2017 at 12:15 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

  “In Paris you forget that France is like this.”

So exclaims Amélie, special agent sent down by the Ministry of Justice from the City of Light to observe and report on policing in the remote provinces.

In this case, the particular remote province is St. Denis, felicitously located in France’s fabled Perigord region; the person doing the policing is our old friend Bruno Courrèges.

When I say “old friend,” I refer to the nine novels that precede this one in the Bruno Chief of Police series. I’ve read seven of them and have now reached the point that I grab the newest without looking at the reviews first. (This is uncharacteristic of me. Normally I rely on knowledgeable friends and/or reviewers to swiftly steer me away from books that don’t or won’t work for me, so as to save time, currently my most precious commodity.)

The occasion of Amélie’s amazement is the peacefulness and quiet beauty of the Perigord countryside, as exemplified by scenes like this:

It had  become a perfect spring afternoon, bright sunshine with scattered clouds like white puffballs and gentle breezes that set the young green leaves of the willows by the river quivering so that the trees seemed almost to dance on the water. Mother ducks paddled serenely, each with a  row of tiny ducklings behind her like warships in a line of battle.An angler standing in the shallows was castling his fly in a long, flickering curve that just kissed the surface of the river.

Don’t know about you, but I not only want to visit there – I want to live there. And there’s much, much more.

The prehistoric art and archaeology of the region are of paramount importance to the plot of this novel. So, as you’ll have guessed from the title, is the medieval period when the Knights Templar were going about their strange and often secretive business.

In PerigordSarlat, medieval town (Dordogne)This town is well known for its medieval heritage, in the heart of a beautiful region and a landscape full of superb feudal castles. The old town has a Templar cemetery, around the cathedral, where you can see a number of tombs marked with the distinctive cross. There is also a curious tower in the form of an arch known as the “lantern of the dead”.
From The Epic of the Templar Knights in France
Having become deeply fascinated by the prehistory of the Perigord, Bruno regrets that he was never able to undertake a formal study of the subject. He wonders:

Why were those supposedly primitive creatures suddenly inspired to start making art that is instantly appealing to modern humans, who recognize instinctively an aesthetic sensibility akin to our own?

Still, he’s able to learn quite a bit from being surrounded by museums and other artifacts, most especially the art in the complex of caves known collectively as Lascaux.  (The French site features a virtual tour  that is exceptionally detailed, not to mention eerie and evocative. Be sure to turn up the sound.)

As you may have already deduced, Bruno himself is one of the chief attractions of these novels. With the chickens out behind his house – he’s always having to rush home to feed them – his endearing and ever-present scent hound Balzac, his horse Hector, his lively and restless intellect, and his maddeningly irresolute love life, he is quite simply a pleasure to spend time with, and never dull. Oh, and might I add, he is a world class cook, whose culinary ventures are set forth in loving detail and  by the author:

His fish stock had almost defrosted, so he cut  the cod he’d bought into small cubes. He put two large spoons of duck fat into the bottom of his favorite flameproof casserole and put it onto the heat. Then he peeled two potatoes and half-a-dozen cloves of garlic. He diced the potatoes and crushed the garlic with the back of his knife, mixed them together and tossed them into  the casserole. He let that cook on low heat while he went out to the garden to pick some salad, washed and chopped it and put it to one side while he added the cubes of cod, the fish stock and a can of tomatoes to  the casserole. He poured a  large glass from the five-liter box of simple white Bergerac that he kept in the pantry, added it to the fish, stirred and tasted. A touch more salt was needed, and he adjusted the heat to a very low simmer.

Surely there should be some sort of award for a recipe description that makes me yearn to partake of a meal featuring fish as the main course, something I almost never experience.

(Recipes can be found at Bruno Chief of Police.   There is a cookbook as well, but as far as I can tell, it’s only available in German. Here are the particulars, courtesy of Martin Walker:

The Bruno cookbook has been named ‘World’s Best Book on French Cuisine’ at the Gourmand International awards, which were held this year in Yantai, China, home of China’s booming new wine industry.

This is a great honour and the credit goes to my wife and co-author, Julia, who is the real cook in the family; to my brilliant German photographer, Klaus Einwanger; to book designer Kobi Benezri (from Israel) and to the glorious production by my Swiss publishing house, Diogenes; and my editor at Diogenes, Anna von Planta.

It says something about globalisation that a book on French cuisine, written by a Brit of Scottish origin who lives in the Perigord and published in German by a Swiss publisher, wins an international prize awarded in China.)

Were you wondering about the plot? There certainly is one, and it begins with a woman’s lifeless body found below a cliff, above which looms the Chateau de Commarque, a former castle stronghold of the fabled Templar Knights.

Chateau de Commarque

She had apparently been trying to climb high enough to daub some sort of graffiti on the structure’s side.But right from the beginning, nothing  is as it appears. They don’t know if her death was an accident or murder. And there is no clue as to her identity.

It’s a fairly straightforward beginning to what becomes an extremely convoluted investigation. The cast of characters seemed to expand exponentially. Matters were further complicated by the involvement of numerous law enforcement entities. Then terrorism suddenly enters the mix.

(Warning to  future readers: there is a truly awful torture scene in this novel. Mercifully it is short, but in my view, it is glaringly out of place and superfluous, not to mention horribly cruel. I wish it hadn’t been there.)

To be honest, with regard to the plot, I got lost around the back stretch. But it didn’t worry me, as I was so absorbed with the doings of the main characters as they went about their business against the back drop of the numberless attractions of the Perigord.


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Kathy, proud proprietor of Mystery Loves Company Booksellers & Chesapeake Books in Oxford, Maryland, went to to Dordogne to see “Bruno Chief of Police” country for herself. She was so enchanted by what she found there that she bought a house! It is now available for rent.   
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Whenever I write about France – or even think about France – two musical compositions come to mind: Les Chants D’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne) by Joseph Canteloube, and the Farandole from L’Arlesienne by Georges Bizet.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Patriarch: another excellent entry in Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series

April 8, 2016 at 4:27 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

9780385354172 J’ai adoré ce livre!

I did indeed love this book, from its opening at a celebration for a French patriot and war hero right through to the conclusion, where Bruno, having solved a fiendishly intricate mystery, is nonetheless still pining for the ideal wife and mother he seeks to make his life whole and rewarding.

This yearning, which from time to time retreats into the background of his life but never entirely disappears, is one of the traits that makes Bruno Courreges such an endearing character.

In addition to Bruno, the novel’s other characters are vividly depicted, and once again the beauty and fascination of the Perigord region is brought to life for the reader. But most amazing of all are the descriptions of the food and wine. Bruno is a gourmet cook, and his version of “whipping something up” is miles  above mine (canned tuna with mayonnaise thrown in and some crackers, with Diet Snapple to wash it down.).

The prep:

He filled the trout with some crushed garlic and lemon slices. He washed the large mushrooms, put a teaspoon of white wine into the bowl of the mushrooms and then inserted a cabécou [a type of goat cheese] into each one. He prepared a bowl of honey and some crushed walnuts and then opened one of the jars of black-current compôte he’d made when the hedge  below his house had been thick with the ripe fruit.

Then the actual meal, at which Bruno’s guests are understandably impressed and grateful:

“I’ve never seen  this before,” said the brigadier as J-J cut into the pate and the foie gras and sliced truffles were revealed. They ate in appreciative silence, and as the last of the pate disappeared, Bruno took the mushrooms from atop the grill and slid them beneath the ehated plate and watched until the goat cheese started to bubble. When he judged them done, he took them out, sprinkled crushed walnuts over each one and then drizzled honey on top. Bruno then put the trout onto the grill and served the mushrooms.

Don’t know about you, but I’m ready to hop on a plane and head straight for this culinary paradise!

Oh – and then, there’s the wine. In this scene, Bruno has been invited to a cave, or wine cellar, to deliver his opinion of a new vintage:

He swirled the glass a little to see the healthy crown as the liquid trickled back down the sides of the glass. He swirled it more and then sniffed, cocking his head as he’d been taught to give each nostril a chance to savor the bouquet. He smelled dark fruit, a fresh earthiness like a plowed field after the rain; that would be the merlot…He swirled the glass again and sniffed once more, recognizing the freshness of the cabernet sauvignon. He took a sip, let it settle in his mouth to reach those less-used taste buds at the back of his tongue. He recognized something mineral in the flavor….

I cannot tell a lie: Whenever my husband encounters passages like this especially the part about “the fresh earthiness like a plowed field after the rain,” he invariably lifts his gaze heavenward and proclaims: “They’re making that stuff up!” But these folks do take their wine very seriously.

And they take their fun seriously as well. The (fictional) village of St. Denis, where Bruno does his policing, seems to be by and large a delightful and welcoming place. Its residents, mostly known to one another, socialize frequently and informally. They live surrounded by beautiful countryside and a rich history that goes back to prehistoric times.

Medieval and Renaissance era history are also a vivid presence, as Bruno reflects while driving by the Chateau de Losse.

So where, you may reasonably ask, is the mystery? Oh, it’s there, all right. It begins with a decease that seems to be from natural causes – if drinking yourself to death can be termed ‘natural’ –  but might in fact be something else. Original? Not very, but it doesn’t matter. A tangled set of circumstances requires the steady persistence of Bruno and his friends and colleagues to unravel. There is perhaps too much convoluted explanatory material presented near the conclusion. (This is a tendency I’ve noted in quite a few crime novels of late.) But your interest will be held, if not by the investigation itself than by the enchantment of the Perigord region of France. (A word of warning: the local lifestyle includes an unapologetic enthusiasm for hunting and for the eating of meat. In fact, Patriarch includes a gripping subplot that concerns a fiercely uncompromising animal rights activist who thinks nothing of going up against  these and other local cultural norms.)

From the author’s Acknowledgments at the end of the book:

 The Périgordins are a convivial and welcoming folk, deeply appreciative of their good fortune in living in such a lovely and historic part of the world, and my family and I count ourselves lucky to have been allowed to share it for the past fifteen years.

Martin Walker

Martin Walker

Of the Perigordins, Walker adds: “They are the real stars of the Bruno tales.”

After Winter, Spring is a film by Judith Lit about the people of this region and their way of life:

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The mysteries of 2015; top choices: contemporary, Part Two

December 24, 2015 at 9:31 pm (Best of 2015, Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

61aCPfRpA6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  It’s been  a while since I read Martin Walker’s The Children Return, but I remember how much I enjoyed it. As with Until Thy Wrath Be Past as well as  several titles from Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series, the shadow of the Second World War hangs over this narrative. In addition, we get caught up on Bruno Courrege’s ever-changing love life as well as updates on the progress of Balzac, his basset hound puppy who’s a truffle dog in training.

But most of all, you get a rich helping of life in (fictional) St Denis, in the (real – very real!) Perigord region of southwestern France: its people, cuisine, wine making traditions, and beautiful unspoiled surroundings. In this passage, Bruno brings Nancy, his new American friend, to a ‘fete des vendanges,’ or grape harvest festival:

He felt the strange sensation stealing over him of time slipping, of the modern France of high-speed trains and computers giving way to a scene that was medieval or perhaps even older. The setting of stone and fire and meat roasting over open flames could have taken place in this valley in the days when men carried swords and wore chain mail and kept guard against English raiders, or millennia ago when they wore furs and painted prehistoric beasts on the walls of caves.

Every time I read a title in this series, I start googling tours of the Dordogne region. Martin Walker has a place there, where he spends part of every year – lucky, lucky man.

The next entry in the series, The Patriarch (published in the UK as The Dying Season), is already ensconced on my night table.

The Bruno Chief of Police site is filled with music, recipes, and information about local attractions. And here’s the author at Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse in Washington DC:

 

 

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France

November 14, 2015 at 9:57 pm (France)

Each day, just before the Central Branch Library opens to the public, a short tune is played over the public address system. I was subbing there this morning, and I was shelving books in the Young Adult area, the PA system came on. The strains of La Marseillaise reached my ears.

I stopped what I was doing and stood still. Tears filled my eyes.

I can think of nothing to add, save this:

Vive La France!

Flag_of_France.svg

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Six nonfiction titles I’ve read and esteemed so far this year

August 1, 2015 at 11:01 pm (Best of 2015, Book review, books, France, True crime)

51CgK5tPG2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  My nonfiction reading this year was heavily influenced by the presence of the true crime class in my life. Among other readings, I finally got around to reading The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule‘s classic account of her strange and curiously compelling friendship with serial killer Ted Bundy.

And so this seems like the appropriate time and place to acknowledge Ann Rule’s recent passing and pay tribute to her remarkable achievements in the field of true crime authorship. Several of Rule’s family members were involved in law enforcement and various other aspects of the criminal justice system. Thus her interest was piqued at an early age. Among her earliest achievements, she became the youngest policewoman ever hired by the Seattle police department. she also obtained a degree in creative writing from the University of Washington. Thus, in regard to her future career, the stage was set.

And yet…What were the odds that while volunteering at a crisis hotline in Seattle, a woman with a background in both law enforcement and creative writing would find herself seated next to an apparently congenial, unquestionably nice looking young man who ultimately proved to be one of the most terrifying serial killers of all time? That chance juxtaposition determined the course of Ann Rule’s professional life.

Truly, in the lives of certain people, the workings of the hand of Fate seem clearly discernible. Of course, it helps greatly when the individual in question recognizes the unique set of circumstances and is prepared to act on them.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…

 

ARAnn_Rule3_JPG_962_287871a

Ann Rae Rule October 22, 1931 – July 26, 2015

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The other true crime classic I read that  directly related to the class is one that I had read once before, when it first came out in 1976. I had a feeling Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money would be worth revisiting. Boy, was it ever. (See the link above to the true crime class.) blood_and_money_dj

So far  this year, I’ve read two additional books in the  true crime genre: This House of Grief by Helen Garner and Ghettoside by Jill Leovy.. Both were gripping narratives replete with tension and heartbreak. Beautifully written, too – that’s true especially of the Garner title. I’ve reviewed both in this space; click on the titles to read those posts.

thishouseofgrief_12  a1mftpympl-_sl15001_

I used Harold Schechter’s True Crime: An American Anthology as the basic text for the true crime course. In preparation for teaching the class in February of this year, I read nearly all of the selections in this 772 page tome, including Schecter’s helpful and illuminating introduction.  Although I’d completed this reading by late fall of 2014, I found that as February drew near, I had to reread everything I’d chosen for the syllabus in order to refresh my memory. (This is part of what made the course prep seem so labor intensive.) So perhaps this particular book does not rightly belong on this list. Yet it so dominated my thought processes over the winter and early spring that I can’t omit mentioning it in this context.  truecrimea1
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Two biographies round out my list of great reading in nonfiction: The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss and Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison.

deathofcaesarjacketimage1  51rddlpwhal-_sy344_bo120420320012_

So, what’s up next for me in nonfiction?  joanofarccastor1 What can I say? I’ve been mesmerizedby this woman’s life story since I was a girl. I date that fascination from the time I first stood before this painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (I was eight years old; my mother could hardly wait to show it to me.)

bastien_lepage_jules_joan_of_arc1

Joan of Arc, by Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879 [Click to enlarge]

 

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Once more with feeling: Simenon’s Maigret

April 27, 2015 at 7:31 pm (books, France, Mystery fiction)

In “The Maigret-a-Month Club” in the Wall Street Journal, Allan Massie begins with this pronouncement:

Georges Simenon was a phenomenon, a hack who became a great writer.

Massie’s article is filled with similar bons mots. It is a beautiful summation of the distinctive peculiarity of Simenon’s achievement in the field of crime fiction.

Massie is particularly concerned with the Maigret novels. These have been receiving renewed attention of late, due to an initiative undertaken by Penguin Press. They have commissioned new translations of all 75 of them, in handsome soft cover editions replete with eye-catching new covers.

MaigretoneMaigrettwoSimenon 2-MThe library has been acquiring these erratically, and I’ve been reading them just as erratically. (The Maigret books I’d  read previously tended to be of a later vintage.) Penguin is issuing these novels roughly in chronological order. Simenon apparently dashed off a slew of them right at the outset of Maigret’s career. Steve Trussel – the “go to guy” for all things Maigret – assigns to each of the first eight titles above the same original publication date, 1931.

I’ve skipped Pietr the Latvian deliberately. It’s the first in the series; critics seem to agree that it’s quite obviously a journeyman effort (“a somewhat rough diamond” in the words of John Banville).. Recently I’ve read – I’m almost wanting to say ‘devoured’ – the following: The Yellow Dog, Night at  the Crossroads, The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, The Grand Banks Cafe, and The Saint-Fiacre Affair (aka Maigret Goes Home, in an earlier translation). Ever since reading in Allan Massie’s article that no less a literary light than Muriel Spark considered Madame Maigret to be a her favorite character in fiction, I’ve kept a weather eye out for her appearance in the novels. (Massie observes of Madame Maigret: “She is the model wife of pre-feminist times.”)

At the outset of the series, appearances of, and references to, Madame Maigret are few in number. From The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin:

For all that she was married to a detective chief inspector of the Police Judiciaire, she had kept all the innocence of a true daughter of rural France.

Lovely phrasing, that. The same goes for this, from The Grand Banks Cafe:

The kiss he placed on the forehead of his drowsy wife was solemn and sincere.

Simenon’s depiction of the Maigrets’ married life is securely placed in this placid ground. Maigret, though sensitive to feminine beauty, seems never to be seriously tempted to stray outside his conjugal vows. For him, Madame Maigret is an entirely satisfactory life partner; she harbors the same sentiments towards him. (They have no children.) I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an element of wistfulness in this picture, as if, at least in respect of the domestic aspect, Simenon wishes from time to time that his own life could have more closely resembled that of his creation.

Not all of these early works are of the same high caliber, though I am finding, as I go along, that they’re getting better and better. The plotting becomes more deft, characters become more intriguing, the sense of place more resonant. The above two, from which I quoted, are my favorites so far. The Grand Banks Cafe in particular would be a good choice for a book discussion group.

What do “literary” novelists admire in Simenon? The combination of a positive and a negative, perhaps: a mixture of what he can do better than they, and of what he can get away with not doing. His admirable positives: swiftness of creation; swiftness of effect; clearly demarcated personal territory; intense atmosphere and resonant detail; knowledge of, and sympathy with, les petites gens; moral ambiguity; a usually baffling plot with a usually satisfactory denouement. As for his enviable negatives: Simenon got away with a very restricted and therefore very repetitive vocabulary (about 2,000 words, by his own estimation) – he didn’t want any reader to have to pause over a word, let alone reach for the dictionary. He kept his books very short, able to be read in one sitting, or (often) journey: none risks outstaying its welcome. He eschews all rhetorical effect – there is rarely more than one simile per book, and no metaphors, let alone anything approaching a symbol. There is text, but no subtext; there is plot but no subplot – or rather, what appears to be possible subplot usually ends up being part of the main plot. There are no literary or cultural allusions, and minimal reference to what is going on in the wider world of French politics, let alone the international arena. There is also – both admirable positive and enviable negative – no authorial presence, no authorial judgement, and no obvious moral signposts. Which helps make Simenon’s fiction remarkably like life.

Julian Barnes, in the Times Literary Supplement

I have recently downloaded a sample from this: SimenonAlder . I’m intrigued, and may spring for the whole book. (Maigret, Simenon and France was a 2014 Edgar Award nominee for Best Critical/Biographical Work.)

Penguin has bestowed new titles on the entries in this latest re-issue of the Maigret novels. Unfortunately, they’ve not provided information on how they’ve  been titled in the past. This has resulted in some confusion, understandably. Thus far, I’ve found two sites that display that information and are up to date. Steve Trussel’s site provides the original French language title followed by English language variants. The Wikipedia entry is equally current, though it helps to know that the new Penguin titles are listed at the bottom of each cell.

Simenon’s prose is famously stripped down and lean. Early in his career as a novelist, he was advised by the writer Colette to keep his writing from becoming “too literary.” When pressed to clarify this directive, Simenon explained:

Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.

from Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No.9, Paris Review interview

In accordance with this injunction, Simenon learned to choose his words with care. In brief bursts of dead-on prose he could conjure up a world:

He turned his head. He saw the trawler’s funnel, from which smoke was gently rising, for the boilers had just been lit. Fécamp was asleep. There was a wide splash of moonlight in the middle of the  harbour. The wind was rising, blowing in off the sea, raw and almost freezing, like the breath of the ocean itself.

from The Grand Banks Cafe

Simenon wrote with incredible speed. A story is told about a time in which Alfred Hitchcock was trying to get in touch with him:

 In the latter years of Georges Simenon’s prolific writing life, when he had already published close to 400 novels, Alfred Hitchcock was said to have telephoned, only to be told by Simenon’s secretary that he couldn’t be disturbed because he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock, knowing that Simenon was capable of writing one novel — or two or three — every month, replied, ”That’s all right, I’ll wait.”

“The Maigret Machine,” by Deirdre Blair in the New York Times

I’ve read a number of Simenon’s titles that do not feature Maigret and are not strictly speaking police procedurals. As works of psychological suspense, they can be quite gripping. This is especially true of Monsieur Monde Vanishes and Act of Passion. Now, though, I am finding the Maigret books oddly soothing. Julian Barnes has a good grasp on the reason why:

Apart from delivering the usual satisfactions of crime fiction, the Maigret books work because they offer a continuous, reliable, easily re-enterable world. Those early readers never had to look up a word in the dictionary; and we later readers, whether foreign or French, never have to get out histories of the first half of the twentieth century to understand what is going on….The world he describes may exist as a moral and economic consequence of the First World War, but in the first six Maigrets that war is mentioned on only two occasions, once as part of a rare simile: The Carter of La Providence is set among the chalk hills of Champagne, “where at this time of year the vines looked like wooden crosses in a Great War cemetery”. Where the larger, outer world has been, is and may be heading does not impinge, any more than it does on, say, the world of Jeeves and Wooster. We enter Maigretland confident that the weather will be extreme, the Inspector will solve a seemingly insoluble crime, and that we shall not need to Google anything. This blithe sense of security will now continue for another sixty-nine volumes.

(To read the Julian Barnes article in its entirety, click here.)

There have been numerous film and television versions of the Maigret novels and stories. I’m pretty much wedded to the one made by Granada Television in the early 1990s and starring Michael Gambon as the taciturn inspector. The introductory film clip is wonderfully atmospheric (even though the series itself was actually filmed in Budapest).

Simenon and his character study each other at the inauguration of the Statue of Maigret at Delfzijl, in the Netherlands, September 3, 1966.

Simenon and his character study each other at the inauguration of the Statue of Maigret at Delfzijl, in the Netherlands,       September 3, 1966.

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“….an existence so so splendid, so compelling, that the paltry realities of this world grew faint by comparison.” – Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison

January 23, 2015 at 12:52 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, France)

853693 This fanciful depiction of the maid of Orleans, or La Pucelle, is one of the images that haunted my childhood. This is another:

bastien_lepage_jules_joan_of_arc

Joan of Arc, by Jules Bastien Lepage 1879 [click to enlarge]

This is one of  the first paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I came to know and love. My mother could hardly wait to show it to me. She knew that even at the age of nine, I’d be wonder struck, as she had been. (She was right, of course.)

I’ve never lost interest in the story of Joan of Arc. So when I read of Kathryn’s Harrison’s new biography, I knew I’d want to read it.

51RddlpwHaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,2001_   I did. It was wonderful.

Ever since she made her appearance in the historical narrative, shaking that narrative to its core, people have longed to know what Joan of Arc actually looked like. The sole contemporaneous likeness we have is a marginal doodle by Clément de Fauquembergue, a clerk in parliament.

405px-Joan_parliament_of_paris

He made this drawing in 1429 without actually having seen its subject.But he was correct in making Joan’s hair black. How do we know this? In the mid nineteenth century, a single strand, inky dark in color, was found embedded in the wax seal of a letter she had dictated.

Harrison tells us that

Likenesses made in her lifetime were destroyed upon her being condemned as a witch, rendering them dangerous devil’s currency.

The image used for this book’s cover is an engraving from the 1903 issue if the magazine Figaro Iluustre: tumblr_n91a4eGm8v1ra3thco1_500

The frontispiece of this book contains a single word: the scrawled signature of the Maid of Orleans:

The_Signature_of_Joan_of_Arc

I was stopped in my tracks. You want to trace the jagged letters with your fingers. (I did.)

‘I was only born the day you first spoke to me….My life only began on the day you told me what I must do, my sword in hand.’

Joan speaking to her voices, in The Lark by Jean Anouilh

Pictorial representations of Joan of Arc have proliferated down through the centuries. And the coming of the motion of the motion picture provided a whole new means of bringing to life her remarkable story.

Harrison quotes liberally from the numerous books and plays in which some version of Joan’s life has been depicted, among them Anouilh’s The Lark (quoted above), George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, The Maid of Orléans by Friedrich Schiller, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, Saint Joan of the Stockyards by Bertolt Brecht,  and Joan of Lorraine by Maxwell Anderson. In addition, the author place’s the events of Joan’s life in their proper context. The mindset of the people of Western Europe in the late Middle Ages is of course foreign to us in many ways. This is especially true as regards the intensity of religious feeling on the one hand, and the prevalence of superstitious beliefs and fears on the other. (A good way to get a vivid feel for the period is to watch Ingmar Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal):

Harrison sums up the essence of this stranger-than-fiction individual thus:

Joan’s poise under fire demonstrated what she couldn’t by herself, even had she been erudite as well as literate. It’s one thing to assemble and polish a portrait of oneself, as St. Augustine, a professor of philosophy and rhetoric, and another to demonstrate at nineteen an integrity that a chorus of scheming pedants couldn’t dismantle, their sophistry displaying Joan’s virtues as she could not have done for herself. Few trial transcripts make good reading; only one preserves the voice of Joan of Arc. While the words of the judges are forgettable – all despots sound alike – Joan’s transcend the constraints of interrogation. Even threatened with torture and assaulted by prison guards attempting her rape, she could not be forced to assume the outline her judges drew for her. That was their script, their story of Joan’s life, and, unlike other such medieval documents, it was reproduced, bound, and distributed by her persecutors with the ironic purpose of establishing their punctiliousness in serving  the laws of canon.

In other words, she ran rings around her tormenters. Her courage and resourcefulness, both on the battlefield and in court, were almost beyond belief.

It can be seen from the above paragraph that Harrison’s meticulous and powerful prose is more than equal to the telling of this extraordinary story. (I particularly love the locution “chorus of scheming pedants.”) I do have a small caveat, however: Harrison writes this biography from a distinctly feminist perspective, or at least so it seemed to this reader. I was not troubled by this, because while she makes no secret of the gloss she places on certain aspects of this story,  she does not harp on ideological convictions. They’re there, in other words, but not to excess. They do not detract – nothing detracts, really – from this incredible tale.

Yet another biography of the Maid of Orleans is due out in May. The author, Helen Castor, is a distinguished British historian.  JoanofArcCastor

A brief biography of Joan with excellent illustrations can be found at Live Science.

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Finally, I recommend the (silent) film The Passion of Joan of Arc. It was made in 1928 by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. The history of this film is in itself rather unlikely. For one thing, it was very nearly lost to posterity. For another its star, Maria (sometimes called Renee) Falconetti did such an uncanny job of bringing Joan to life that it’s almost as though she were channeling rather than acting. Dreyer himself called her “the martyr’s reincarnation.”

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Several full length versions of The Passion of Joan of Arc reside on YouTube. The variations have mainly to do with the soundtrack. Voices of Light, a new soundtrack for the film, was written in 1985 by Richard Einhorn. It accompanies the Criterion release of the film.

 

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‘It is as if all the loathing and recrimination bottled up since the defeat of 1870 has found an outlet in a single individual.’ – A discussion of An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

July 26, 2014 at 7:12 pm (Book clubs, books, France)

9780385349581_custom-6cd17e3508ae40b386b510a06e98ad768a110786-s6-c30  On Tuesday, I attended a book discussion to which Pauline, my fellow Usual Suspect, had invited me. The novel under consideration was An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris. (This was one of those instances in which I’d already read and very much liked the book. I love it when that happens.)

Our discussion leader had requested that we read “Under Siege,” a chapter from The Greater Journey by David McCullough; in addition, he encouraged us to view “A Leap of Faith,” an episode from Simon Schama’s documentary “The Story of the Jews.” The discussion leader wanted us to have an historical perspective from which to view the events of Robert Harris’s novel. (The ‘siege’ described by McCullough occurred during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. It brought Paris to its knees and is a horrific story.)

An Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus case. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the artillery division of the French army, was accused of passing military secrets to the Germans. Having been subjected to a mortifying defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, France’s armed services still regarded Germany as the enemy and the hated former overlord. This treasonous action would therefore be regarded with the utmost outrage, with the traitor being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Completely understandable – except for one crucial fact: Dreyfus did not do it.

Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus

He was, nevertheless, convicted. Degradation_alfred_dreyfus After enduring the appalling and very public humiliation of la dégradation, he was deported to Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he was imprisoned alone, in ghastly conditions and under extreme duress, for just under five years. In 1899 Dreyfus was returned to France to be tried again. Incredibly, he was once more found guilty. But that verdict was set aside. Ultimately, Dreyfus was exonerated and declared innocent of all the charges brought against him. In 1906, he was reinstated in the army of France as a major.

Why was Alfred Dreyfus made a scapegoat in this matter? He had several factors mitigating against him. He and his family were Alsatian. The Germans had seized Alsace during the Franco-Prussian War, and as a result, most patriotic French men and women refused to go on living there. (The affect of this brusque transition is described in the most poignant way in Alphone Daudet’s story, “The Last Class.“) Dreyfus’s family stayed; they spoke German as well as French. In addition, the family possessed considerable wealth. But the single thing that told most powerfully against Alfred Dreyfus was the fact that he was Jewish.

The summary above is vastly simplified. In his review of Louis Begley’s book Why the Dreyfus Affair Still Matters, Adam Gopnik states:

The unmaking of the Dreyfus case is a very long story—so complex, and taking place at such a snail’s pace and in such wayward directions, that almost no one has ever been able to relate it simply.

Indeed, from beginning to end. L’Affaire Dreyfus is fiendishly complicated. From amidst a welter of information, Robert Harris admits that at first, he was stymied in his efforts to craft a coherent narrative. Only when Colonel Picquart emerged as a compelling figure in his own right did the material begin to assume a form that the author could work with.

As the newly appointed Chief of Staff of Army Intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart is tasked with keeping a close eye on the ramifications of the Dreyfus affair. Beginning in 1896, Picquart sets out  to do just that. At first, he is firmly of the belief that Dreyfus was guilty of treason, a belief strongly reinforced by the concurrence of fellow service members and friends. But as he looks more closely into the matter, doubts take root and begin to grow. Ultimately, Picquart risks his career and his freedom as he seeks vindication for Alfred Dreyfus. This, despite  the fact  that he, Picquart, has no particular liking for the Jews and actively disliked Dreyfus himself, a man who by all reports was not possessed of an appealing personality.

One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion of this novel involved the question of Picquart’s motivation. Why would he risk everything in order to pursue this investigation? Commenting on this point, one person said that he was always intrigued by the question of motive in a situation like this. What causes one individual to act as Picquart does in this case, laying everything on the line for a cause in which he’s not directly involved, while others turn away and seek safety in inaction? In the course of a brief conversation with Dreyfus’s brother Matthieu, Picquart himself provides a direct, if rather cold and oversimplified, response:

I make my way round the dining room shaking the hand of each man in turn. Mathieu covers mine with both of his. “My family and I cannot adequately express our gratitude to you, Colonel.”

There is something proprietorial about his warmth which makes me feel awkward, even chilly. “You have no reason to thank me,” I reply. “I was simply obeying my conscience.”

The writing of this novel came about as a result of Robert Harris’s collaboration with Roman Polanski on the filming of an earlier novel The Ghost. (In the U.S., the film was entitled The Ghost Writer.) Word has it that these two are preparing to film – may already be filming? –  An Officer and a Spy. Interestingly, they won’t be the first ones to tackle the Dreyfus case in this medium. French cinema pioneer Georges Méliès made this movie in 1899, before the final resolution of the case had even been decided on:

Inevitably, the subject of anti-Semitism in France was raised. Prejudice against those of the Jewish faith abates from time to time but apparently can never be completely extirpated. This is the message of the Simon Schama program referenced above. This subject is oddly current, what with the recent firebombing of a synagogue in a suburb of Paris.

In fairness to France, similar acts and demonstrations turning violent are occurring in other European countries as well. The ostensible reason at  the present time is the Israeli shelling of Gaza. People in our discussion group expressed dismay that anti-Israel sentiment appears to be serving as a cloak for anti-Semitism – a rather transparent cloak. (Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway: One wishes the killing to stop; one wishes for hostilities to cease; one wishes for war to stop – STOP NOW.)

Wikipedia has a highly informative entry on the Dreyfus case. I also recommend the chronology on the Georgetown University site.

This was an extremely stimulating and worthwhile discussion. I would definitely recommend this title to other book groups.

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Robert Harris has written nine novels.  I’ve read six of them. I think he’s a terrific writer.

Thanks are due to Fellow Usual Suspect Carol for directing my attention to this video. (And really – what would I do without the wonderful Suspects in my life?)

 

 

 

 

 

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And now for something completely different: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, by Fred Vargas

October 13, 2013 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

“The Ghost Riders of Ordebec” by Fred Vargas (Penguin).

“That night,” she said slowly, “Lina saw the Furious Army.”

“The what?”

“The Furious Army,” the woman repeated, in a whisper. “And Herbier was with them. And he was screaming. And three others with him.”

“Is it a club? Something to do with hunting?”

Madame Vendremot was staring at Adamsberg in disbelief.

“The Furious Army,” she whispered again. “The Great Hunt. The Ghost Riders. Haven’t you heard of them?”

“No,” said Adamsberg, staring back at her stupefied gaze. “Come back some other time and you can tell me all about it.”

“But you don’t even recognize the name? Hellequin’s Horde,” she whispered.

Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is baffled by this exchange. So was I. A tiny, nervous woman from Ordebec in Normandy has come to Paris expressly to see the Commissaire and warn him of the threat of sudden death for certain citizens of the town. Because of her sighting, Madame Vendremot’s daughter Lina knows who they are – all except one, that is. For his part, Adamsberg finds the purport of her message almost incomprehensible. Nevertheless, he decides to travel to Ordebec himself, to see the how the land lies.

I’ve known about the Commissaire Adamsberg series for quite some time. I knew they were highly thought of by  crime fiction cognoscenti. I tried several, but I couldn’t get into them. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, though, was getting such enthusiastic reviews, I decided to try again. And this one worked for me – worked, in fact, extremely well.

Adamsberg is an unusual, rather enigmatic character. “I like the way his mind works,” Frances of Usual Suspects told me when she recommended the series. I do too. Flashes of insight can be succeeded – or preceded – with profound inertia. The Commissaire is a master of lateral thinking. Or rather, of thinking about anything but the crime he’s attempting to solve. The Ordebec investigation provides scope for his strangeness. He likes to sit outside beneath a tree munching on an apple, even when it’s raining. He uses up a fair amount of mental energy trying to figure out why the cows in a distant field seem never to move.

And he takes slow, solitary walks along the Chemin de Bonnival, in the forest of Alance. This is the place where Lina claims to have seen the Furious Army. Just what is this strange, threatening entity?

Adamsberg’s second in command is Adrien Danglard, a close friend as well as a valued colleague. At Adamsberg’s house one evening, Danglard, who takes a passionate interest in all things medieval, seeks to enlighten his boss on the subject of the Ghost Riders.

….this ancient cavalcade causing havoc in the countryside is damaged. The horses and their riders have no flesh and many of their limbs are missing. It’s an army of the dead, of the putrefied dead, an army of ghostly riders, wild-eyed and screaming, unable to get to heaven.

Danglard concludes this vivid description with two words: “Imagine that.”

The Commissaire struggles to do just that:

Adamsberg approached the fireplace again, curious to hear a little more, and leaned against the brick hearth. The fact that the Riders singled out unpunished villains interested him…. You can tell yourself you don’t believe this kind of thing, but it’s difficult not to believe it. The pernicious idea digs a deep channel. It silently infiltrates the the unavowed corridors of the mind, penetrates, and trickles through. You suppress the idea, it lies dormant for a while, then it returns.

The Furious Army, Hellequin’s Horde, the Ghost Riders, the Wild Hunt – it’s a legend of many names, with many manifestations. Most likely it originated in Scandinavia.

Even in Winter, you are not safe. Stay indoors, attend your hearths. Try to keep the night at bay by the telling of your tongue. Remember your kin, honor your ancestors. For at this time the dead begin to stir, riding upon hallowed and familiar roads, galloping through villages and wastes, flying through the forests of the mind. Such raids are reminders that the past is not a dead thing, but may return, like a hunter, to follow us for a time.

(The above excerpt is from an essay entitled “Penance, Power, and Pursuit – On the Trail of the Wild Hunt,” by Ari Berk and William Spytma.)

Adamsberg is strongly attracted to Lina – he claims that she “irradiated” him – but he makes no move toward her, and nothing comes of it. This is of a piece with the general tenor of a novel in which things seem to progress – if you can call it progress – in a halting, dreamy way, punctuated by episodes of high drama. It’s an extremely effective narrative style, especially with the author’s sly wit, reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, interspersed throughout.

And what of this author? Fred Vargas was born in Paris in 1957. She has trained as an historian and an archeologist. (Her real name is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.) And she has won the CWA International Dagger Award four times, in 2006 for The Three Evangelists, in 2007 for Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, in 2009 for The Chalk Circle Man, and this year for The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, an honor given jointly to her and to Pierre Lemaitre for his novel Alex. (One is tempted to exclaim: “The French are coming, the French are coming; watch out, Scandinavians!”) A complete list pf Vargas’s novels can be found at Stop! You’re Killing Me.

While the Ordebec story moves forward – or sideways, depending on any number of things – other things are happening. Adamsberg’s twenty-eight year old son Armel, nicknamed Zerk, is currently living with him. This is a progeny whose existence was unknown to the Commissaire until a short while ago. Zerk is helping to care for a wounded pigeon. The bird’s misfortune was caused by a deliberate, cruel trick; father and son are determined to nurse it back to health. (And Adamsberg would dearly love to apprehend the responsible party.) Zerk also helps the Commissaire to  shield a hapless young man who is about to be framed for a murder he did not commit.

It’s desirable in a police procedural that the author include believable and interesting people in the protagonist’s team of investigators.  Team members can be characterized by their strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies. Vargas is especially good at this (as is Peter Turnbull).

To sum up, I liked this novel very much. Vargas writes  beautifully, and credit must also go to the translator Sian Reynolds. I look forward to  the further adventures of Commissaire Adamsberg, the singular detective with an equally singular team.

Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas

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“Bertrande stood in the sunlight and met, as in a dream, the long-anticipated moment, her breath stilled and her heart beating wildly.” – The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis

September 9, 2013 at 1:01 am (Book review, books, France)

the-return-of-martin-guerre  I vividly recall the 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre. It was a stunning recreation of sixteenth century France, and at its heart dwelt a strange and compelling mystery. The stars were the beautiful Nathalie Baye and a youthful and charismatic Gerard Depardieu.

The film was based on a true incident. Natalie Zemon Davis’s book on the actual history of Martin Guerre came out at about the same time as the movie. I read it, but I don’t remember it. I’m currently waiting for my reserve to come in so I can have another look. Martin Guerre_595

I was unaware of a novel entitled The Wife of Martin Guerre until I read about it several years ago on D.G. Myers’s intellectually rigorous and bracing Commonplace Blog.  I acquired the  book and immediately set about reading it. After a few pages, however, I put it down. The prose seemed curiously restrained, almost to the point of flatness. I was looking for something more rapturous. And so I put the novel aside. Somehow it managed to elude the periodic purges of my book collection, probably due to its diminutive size: a paperback of slight dimensions, 109 pages in length.  338234

Then last month, Michael Dirda of the Washington Post wrote this lyrical praise of the novel. I sought it out in my overcrowded library and found it wedged between two five hundred plus page behemoths. I began reading. And it was as if I’d fallen under a spell. I could not stop; I was bewitched.

Young Bertrande de Rols has married the son and heir of the Guerre establishment. Her new mother-in-law is given the task of acquainting Bertrande with the vastness the family’s agricultural estate:

She showed Bertrande the farm in detail, the stables, the granary, low stone buildings roofed with tile, like the house, set to the right and left of the courtyard before the house; showed her the room used for the dairy, the storerooms with their pots of honey and baskets of fruit, baskets of chestnuts, stone crocks of goose and chicken preserved in oil, eggs buries in bran, cheeses of goat’s milk and of cow’s milk, wine, oil. In the Chamber she showed her wool and flax for the distaff, th loom on which the clothing for the household would be woven. She showed her the garden, now being set in order for the early  frost, the straw-thatched beehives, the sheepfold of mud and wattles,and last of all, returning to the Chamber in which the marriage bed had been dressed, Madame Guerre opened certain chests filled with bran and showed the young girl the coats of mail of the ancestors, thus preserved from rust.

In time, Bertrande knows, all of this will be in her charge. That is the true purpose of this in depth survey.

The Guerre farm is a world unto itself, completely self-sufficient. All the men and women living there must play their parts, perform their assigned tasks, the men of the family and the laborers working side  by side. In return, they derive security and a sense of belonging from the community which they themselves constitute.

Janet Lewis is an author new to me. She was primarily a poet and achieved considerable success during her long life. (She passed away in 1998, at the age of 99.) In addition to The Wife of Martin Guerre, she wrote three other historical novels:  The Invasion: A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St Mary’s, The Trial of Soren Qvist, and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron. I wonder if any of these are on a par with The Wife of Martin Guerre, a tale of cunning deception and  profound love. In this novel, using prose that is pointillist in its precision and poetic in its beauty, Janet Lewis brings to light a lost world and makes it live again. Quel triomphe!

JanetLaughing

Janet Lewis, in her nineties

Click here to read the author’s obituary in the New York Times.

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Here is a clip from the film The Return of Martin Guerre. This is the moment when Martin announces his return to his family’s vast establishment. There  are no subtitles, but you can probably make out what’s happening anyway. And talk about a brilliant evocation of the past!

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