The Beckoning of French Literature

“It’s odd: there are moments when books beckon to you and the words you find in them are the ones you need then and there.”~~Marie Chaix

I enjoy reading French literature, translated to English, of course. One of my favorite French authors is Marie Chaix. I could tell you why that is so, write an analysis of her work, present to you a detailed list of the many reasons her writing is so dear to me: she’s a brilliant storyteller, she delivers profound thoughts in a succinct five word sentence (the kind that make my jaw drop open in awe and wonder), she writes with raw honesty about the interior lives of women like not many others can (or will?), she’s a master wordsmith, her writing feels more to me like a conversation between only us, as best friends or close sisters. I said I could, but I won’t:) I’ll stop here and let Marie Chaix’s writing speak for itself.

Here are a few sentences that I think should present her as the talented, introspective, perceptive writer she is. Of course, I must acknowledge the translator for his part in this. Harry Matthews does a fine job conveying Chaix’s thoughts in the English language. He should, as he is her husband of many years, as well as an accomplished author himself.

So, onto a few of my favorite sentences from The Summer of the Elder Tree:

Stones that weigh down the heart shouldn’t be thrown like stones– it’s too painful and they can kill. They must be transformed into words and passed back and forth.

Places must become imbued with emotions and sorrows that resurface years later…

It’s odd: there are moments when books beckon to you and the words you find in them are the ones you need then and there. (Her book, Silences, or a Woman’s Life about her mother’s death, was such a book for me after my own mother died.)

One day something happened to me. One day I lost confidence and decided not to write anymore. There are stories you can tell people three times, six times, people who are friends, who are close to you, even very close. They barely remember them or, as they listen, recognize their importance so little that they forget them. A year or two later they repeat the same question.

What happens is that we improvise, walking on eggshells, making up our own life and happiness, hoping with all the good will in the world that bits of them will be shared by our progeny. Later, much later, we will look back over the landscape we’ve passed through, it’s ups and downs, it’s inevitable disparities, and we put up with it…

If you believe that not everything can be told in a book, words still find their own way and, left to themselves, decide where to land.

Being abandoned has split us apart. We wander  around like actors who have never rehearsed together, thrust onto  a stage full of unfamiliar scenery and trap doors, having to perform a drama without knowing our lines. Bumping into each other, clenching our teeth in resentment, each trapped in a grief woven out of hatred.

On the one hand, I understand. Not on the other.

Absence has been sowing its fear for so long. It’s to absence one should say goodbye.

Obviously this doesn’t mean that I haven’t written “at all”– several dozen notebooks are stacked in that “at all”–but there’s no disputing, even if I dip into them here and there for “odds and ends” to soothe my anxiety, that I haven’t written anything that is presentable or fully accomplished or that, simply, satisfies me. So this still adds up to “nothing”; and that intrigues me.

What do you think? Do you agree with me? Does Marie Chaix’s writing speak to you as it does me? Do her books beckon to you? I’d love to hear any other suggestions and recommendations for French literature.  Which authors and books beckon to you?

A few of my other favorites translated from the French. Some I’ve read through. Some several times. Some I’ve dipped my toes into for short periods, using as a reference. Or inspiration. Or both.

My photos, May 2016.


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