Five books on work by French authors that you should read on your commute



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Amy Wigelsworth, Sheffield Hallam University

An emerging genre of fiction in France is providing an unlikely brand of escapism. Growing numbers of French writers are choosing work as their subject matter – and it seems that readers can’t get enough of their novels.

The prix du roman d’entreprise et du travail, the French prize for the best business or work-related novel, is testament to the sustained popularity of workplace fiction across the Channel. The prize has been awarded annually since 2009, and this year’s winner will be announced at the Ministry of Employment in Paris on March 14.

Place de la Médiation, the body which set up the prize, is a training organisation specialising in mediation, the prevention of psychosocial risks, and quality of life at work. Co-organiser Technologia is a work-related risk prevention consultancy, which helps companies to evaluate health, safety and organisational issues.

The novels shortlisted for the prize in the past ten years reflect a broad range of jobs and sectors and a whole gamut of experiences. The texts clearly strike a chord with French readers, but English translations of these novels suggest many of the themes broached resonate in Anglo-Saxon culture too.

The prize certainly seeks to acknowledge a pre-existing literary interest in the theme of work. This is unsurprising in the wake of the global financial crisis and the changes and challenges this has brought. But the organisers also express a desire to actively mobilise fiction in a bid to help chart the often choppy waters of the modern workplace:

Through the power of fiction, [we] want to put the human back at the heart of business, to show the possibilities of a good quality professional life, and to relaunch social dialogue by bringing together in the [prize] jury all the social actors and specialists of the business world.

What better way to delve into this unusual genre than by reading some of the previous prize winners. Below are five books to get you started.

1. Underground Time

The first prize was awarded to Delphine de Vignan for Les heures souterraines. In this novel, the paths of a bullied marketing executive and a beleaguered on-call doctor converge and intersect as they traverse Paris over the course of a working day. A television adaptation followed, and an English translation was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. Work-related journeys and the underground as a symbol for the hidden or unseen side of working life have proved enduring themes, picked up by several subsequent winners.

2. The Man Who Risked It All

Laurent Gounelle’s Dieu voyage toujours incognito, winner of the 2011 prize, takes us from the depths of the underground to the top of the Eiffel Tour, where Alan Greenmor’s suicide attempt is interrupted by a mysterious stranger. Yves promises to teach him the secrets to happiness and success if Alan agrees to do whatever he asks. This intriguing premise caught the attention of self-help, inspirational and transformational book publisher Hay House, whose translation appeared in 2014.




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3. The Reader on the 6.27

Le liseur du 6h27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, the 2015 winner, tells the story of a reluctant book-pulping machine operative. Each day, Ghislain Vignolles rescues a few random pages from destruction, to read aloud to his fellow-commuters in the morning train. The novel crystallises the fraught relationship between intellectual life and manual work.

It also illustrates the tension between culture and commerce, arguably at its most pronounced in France, where cultural policy has traditionally insisted on the distinction between cultural artefacts and commercial products. The Independent review of the English translation describes the book as “a delightful tale about the kinship of reading”.

4. Undersea View

Slimane Kader took to the belly of a Caribbean cruise ship to research Avec vue sous la mer, which claimed the 2016 prize. His hilarious account of life as “joker”, or general dogsbody, is characterised by an amusing mishmash of cultural references: “I’m dreaming of The Love Boat, but getting a remake of Les Misérables” the narrator quips. The use of “verlan” – a suburban dialect in which syllables are reversed to create new words – underlines the topsy-turvy feel.

Unfortunately, there’s no English version as yet – I imagine the quickfire language play would challenge even the most adept of translators. But translation would help confirm the compelling literary voice Kader has given to an otherwise invisible group.

5. Woman at Sea

Catherine Poulain’s Le grand marin, the 2017 winner, is a rather more earnest account of work at sea. The author draws on her own experiences to recount narrator Lili’s travails in the male-dominated world of Alaskan fishing.

Le grand marin (the great sailor) is ostensibly the nickname Lili gives to her seafaring lover. The relationship is something of a red herring though, as the overriding passion in this novel is work. But the English title perhaps does Lili a disservice – she is less a floundering Woman at Sea, and more the true grand marin of the original.

This year’s shortlist includes the story of a forgotten employee left to his own devices when his company is restructured, a professional fall from grace in the wake of the Bataclan terrorist attack, and a second novel from Poulain, with seasonal work in Provence the backdrop this time.

The common draw, as in previous years –- and somewhat ironically, given the subject matter –- is escapism. We are afforded either a tantalising glimpse into the working lives of others, or else a fresh perspective on our own. English readers will be equally fascinated by French details and universal themes – and translators’ pens are sure to be poised.The Conversation

Amy Wigelsworth, Senior Lecturer in French, Sheffield Hallam University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Colette: writer, feminist, performer and #MeToo trail blazer



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Colette, photographed by Henri Manuel.
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Diana Holmes, University of Leeds

The French writer Colette was indifferent and even hostile to the feminist movement in the early 1900s. But both her writing and the way she lived her life represent a vibrant and radical feminism in tune with the #MeToo spirit of today.

Born in rural Burgundy in 1873, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (the abbreviated pen name came later) belonged to a middle class but unorthodox family. Raised by a mother who was as sceptical of religion as she was of bourgeois respectability, she was 20 when she married Henri Gauthiers-Villars (“Willy”), the 33-year-old charming but dissolute writer son of a family friend.

The marriage was both a good and a bad move for Colette. Willy introduced her to the rich Bohemian culture of the Parisian demimonde, and launched her career by insisting (despite her reluctance) that she write down memories of her schooldays.

But his serial infidelities distressed and depressed her. And as an unscrupulous literary entrepreneur, Willy cheerfully sold his wife’s semi-autobiographical “Claudine” novels under his own name.

The stories of a spirited, tomboyish heroine rapidly became a publishing sensation, with profitable sales of related merchandise including Claudine cigarette holders. But the profits were all Willy’s.

When, in her early 30s, Colette decided to leave the marriage, she had to find a way to support herself. Energetic and resourceful, she began to publish under her own name and took classes in dance and mime. She trained in the gym and went on stage, becoming the only great French author (to my knowledge) to have alternated writing with dancing semi-nude on stages all over France.

She combined her careers, writing both fiction and non-fiction set behind the scenes of the music hall, giving a voice to the underpaid women performers who featured so often from a male perspective in paintings and novels of the time. She also began a passionate affair with a cross-dressing lesbian aristocrat, Missy, and scandalised the nation by sharing a passionate kiss with her on stage.

In the 1907 pantomime which included a kiss with a woman.
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Director Wash Westmoreland’s recent film about Colette takes us to this point in her colourful career. She would go on to write prolifically as a journalist, novelist, essayist and innovator in the blended genre of “autofiction”.

She would nurse in World War I, marry twice more, bear a daughter at the age of 40, bolster her flagging finances by opening a beauty parlour – and finally become, for the French, “our great Colette”. But a whiff of scandal was still attached to her name, and acceptance of her as a great writer was slow.

The Catholic Church even refused to grant her a religious funeral (although she would have agreed with the Church, for religion formed no part of her passionate love of life.)

Sex and sensuality

Westmoreland’s film, starring the British actor Keira Knightley, shines a deserved spotlight on an important feminist figure. From the Claudine series on, Colette gives us a serenely irreverent perspective on a patriarchal culture.

She reverses the gaze of heterosexual desire to provide sensual, detailed descriptions of male bodies, and writes with equal sensuality and precision of same-sex desire. She writes movingly of romantic love and motherhood but insists, in her novel Break of Day that both are also peripheral to a woman’s life:

Once we’ve left them both behind, we find that all the rest is gay and varied, and that there is plenty of it.

In life, as in writing, she places female friendship centre-stage, sometimes subverting the eternal triangle by making its primary focus the relationship between a man’s wife and his mistress. She often published in women’s magazines, right up to her death in 1954 (Elle serialised her final books), and wrote comically and caustically of trying to make her own robust, food-loving body fit into the willowy fashions of the inter-war years.

In a very public life, as in her fiction, she exemplified financial and social independence and shame-free sexuality – what we would now call “gender fluidity”. She possessed a generous optimism that went against the grain of the angst and despondency which characterised so much male literature of the 20th century.

She remained, throughout, a popular writer. An author read for pleasure, for the sensuality of her prose, the dry note of humour that peppers her eloquence, the lightness of touch that means her seriousness is never heavy or self-important.

One of France’s greatest – and certainly most unconventional – writers, she has been translated – often brilliantly – into other languages. Her appearance on cinema screens should bring her even more readers.

Diana Holmes is the author of:

Middlebrow Matters: Women’s reading and the literary canon in France since the Belle Époque.The Conversation

Liverpool University Press provides funding as a content partner of The Conversation UK

Diana Holmes, Professor of French, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Outrage in France Over Book Award Winner


The link below is to an article that reports on outrage in France over a book award winner – a self-published book winner on Amazon.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/sep/15/french-bookshops-revolt-after-prize-selects-novel-self-published-on-amazon

Article: Latest on the Timbuktu Library


Recent news reports indicated that fleeing Islamists set the Timbuktu Library in Mali on fire as they fled the approaching French troops. However, the article linked to below indicates that not all has been lost.

For more visit:
http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/fine_books_blog/2013/01/timbuktus-ancient-manuscripts-may-have-been-saved.phtml

Article: French Drop Lawsuit Against Google


The link below is to an article reporting on an agreement reached between French publishers and Google in the Google Books lawsuit.

For more visit:
http://www.mediabistro.com/appnewser/french-publishers-association-drops-lawsuit-against-google_b23664.

Life of George Washington – Washington Irving


I have been reading the five volume work of Washington Irving on the ‘Life of George Washington’ over the last little while. Currently I am in the middle of the second volume. Though I am only reading two to ten pages a day and don’t view this reading exercise as particularly pressing, I am enjoying my reading experience very much. It is an easy to read book, with chapters divided into very manageable portions. As a whole, the five volumes make up about 2000 pages.

This work by Washington Irving on the life of George Washington covers the life of the first president of the United States, shedding much light on the life and times of Washington. Thus far I have covered the period of Washington’s early life, through the war against the French and Indians (in which Washington played an important role) and into the American War Of Independence (in which Washington led the fledgling nation’s army against the British). This biographical work seems to be an excellent life of George Washington, but also provides an insight into the players and the history of the times.

In short, this five volume work on Washington is excellent and I would highly recommend reading the entire work on an important person in, and period of, American history. The work is available at the Internet Archive and I have links to the five volumes on my website at:

http://tracingourhistory.com/history.html