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France: Michèle Roberts

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One way into reading French literature is to think of yourself going on holiday to France. To begin with you might choose a favourite city like Paris, tried and tested on weekend hops, easily accessible, full of famous landmarks. As well as visiting the great historic sites you'd want to make time for the classics of contemporary life: shopping and nightclubbing. Later on you might start wanting to branch out a bit, going south perhaps, exploring the countryside and the coast. You travel from desire, following instinct and whim to some extent, armed with maps and restaurant guides perhaps, even with campsite or hotel bookings, or making for a gite you have rented, but none the less open to adventures on the way, able to stop and browse whenever you choose. You're guided by appetite and chance as much as by the recommendations of friends, and your experience of the holiday is all the richer because of the spice of uncertainty, of unexpected encounters and treats.

So it is with French books. You might start with some of the famous novels of the nineteenth century and try reading them against their modern counterparts. You might want to compare city novels with country novels, for the capital and the provinces remain quite distinct in culture, despite being increasingly linked by modern technology. With the help of a few signposts, you make your own pattern of reading. What follows here, then, is a suggestion or two to start you off. It certainly isn't comprehensive and it does not pretend to be authoritative.

If you are lucky enough to be able to combine your reading of French writers with an actual trip to France, then it is great fun to match the writers to the places you are visiting. The best guide to writing in and about France that I have ever read is the Traveller's Literary Companion to France by John Edmondson. Accessible and entertaining, this not only gives you biographies of the writers born in or associated with the different regions of France, plus maps, photographs, and indexes of authors and places, but also includes over a hundred and twenty extracts from books. So, for example, if you were mooching around Normandy, you could, with the help of this guide, track the movements of the great nineteenth-century short-story writer and novelist Guy de Maupassant, who set many of his works in the pays de Caux and its coastal resorts of Étretat and Le Havre. Maupassant's work is often seen as cynical, harshly critical of the bourgeoisie, misanthropic, even misogynistic. So, for a revelation about what he's capable of, try reading A Woman's Life (Une vie; 1883). This tells a simple story, creating a surprisingly tender and compassionate portrait of a young woman growing up in the clifftop countryside inland from Fécamp, recounting the heart-breaking tale of how she is gradually stripped of everything and reduced to penury. Her honeymoon in Corsica, and her discovery of sexual pleasure, are beautifully described.

Still in Normandy, you could try Maupassant's mentor Gustave Flaubert, famous for his dissection of the materialism and illusions of provincial life in his masterpiece Madame Bovary (1857). Of course poor Madame Bovary has to die at the end. To please his close woman friend, the great best-selling novelist George Sand, Flaubert wrote his novella, A Simple Heart (1877). In this short work, he drops his harshly moralizing persona to give us the touching figure of the servant Félicité and the consolation she finds in a stuffed parrot. Flaubert's Parrot (1984) by Julian Barnes brings us up to date on Flaubert, detailing a quest to Flaubert's home at Croisset and the little Rouen museum which contains a stuffed parrot. Barnes's novel is like a love-letter to Flaubert, mixing travelogue, history, and lists, and deploying thriller techniques, and is both very funny and remarkably elegantly written.

George Sand (pseudonym of Amandine-Aurore-Lucille Dupin), in her day, was far more famous than Flaubert. Like many modern woman writers, she wrote for her contemporaries rather than aiming at literary immortality. Some of her novels have dated, but try a late one, Marianne (1876), which was perhaps inspired by her love for Flaubert. It is a charming story which examines the love between a nature-loving young woman and her philosopher-tutor. Sand wrote evocatively about country life in the Berry, the département in which she grew up, for example in The Master Pipers (1853), which combines themes of rustic life, love, and revolution.

All these writers kept one foot in the provinces, which nurtured them, and one in Paris, where they did their business deals. Typical of this is (Sidonie-Gabrielle) Colette, who is like George Sand in that she was a tremendously popular writer who is also acclaimed as a fine stylist. Colette, who flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, wrote about the Burgundy countryside in her racy series of Claudine novels, and about high and low life in Paris. To sample her writing, try The Vagabond (1910), about an actress on the road travelling from one music-hall venue to the next, dealing with problems of love and sex and identity along the way. It remains as fresh as though it were written yesterday. More recently, contemporary novelist Sylvie Germain has captured acutely the timeless qualities of life in what's called la France profonde; the wild, mysterious centre, a harsh region of mountains and forests. Germain's novels are poetic and jewelled as fairy stories. Try Days of Anger (1989), which mixes melodrama and a French sort of magic realism to convey themes of murder and revenge.

A completely different take on life in contemporary France is provided by Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Whatever (1994) satirizes urban disaffection and alienated youth, technology and psychobabble. The book is very bleak, sharp, and easy to read. Nothing could be further from the rural idylls described by George Sand, which is why it's worth reading. A female perspective on our complicated age is given by another young writer, Marie Darrieussecq. She made her name with the funny and sexy Pig Tales (1996) and followed this up with My Phantom Husband (1999)—what a woman does when the man in her life disappears. Again, this is tough, clever, and smooth to read. If it's accessibility plus strong story-telling you're after then I'd recommend Jean Rouand. The landscape this time is that of the Loire-Atlantique, and the narratives of Fields of Glory (1990) and Of Illustrious Men (1993) follow a family saga, from the male point of view, from the First World War onwards.

French writing of course includes writing in creole by authors from the former colonies who are proud to be black and not Parisian, a growth area of terrific vitality and originality. Writers translated into English include Patrick Chamoiseau from Martinique and Maryse Condé from Guadeloupe. Condé's I, Tituba (1986) is a gripping account of the involvement of a former slave in the Salem witch trials, written in the accessible style of historical romance.

See also MICHÀ ROBERTS

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