Damaged goods: two new French novels, two tragic infants

Both of these remarkable novels are rooted in 19th-century realism, but they are profoundly subversive of its conventions.

The Foundling Boy Translated by Julian Evans
Michel Déon
Translated by Julian Evans
Gallic Books, 416pp, £9.99

 The Erl-King
Michel Tournier
Translated by Barbara Bray
Atlantic Books, 336pp, £12.99

The foundling and the child-devouring ogre are among the most haunting of narrative archetypes. By an elegant coincidence, novels on these themes by two of the greatest living French novelists, Michels Déon and Tournier, have recently been published in English translation.

Michel Déon, who was born in Paris in 1919 and now lives in Ireland, translated the works of Saul Bellow and William Faulkner and was elected to the French Academy in 1978. He has written more than 40 books, including Un Taxi mauve (1973), which was made into a film starring Charlotte Rampling and Fred Astaire. The Foundling Boy, first published in 1975 as Le Jeune Homme vert, is the second of his novels to be translated into English.

On a summer’s night in 1919, Jeanne Arnaud dreams that she hears a baby crying. Waking, she finds on her doorstep a basket containing an infant. With him is a note: “I was born on 16 August. I don’t have a name. You can find one for me if you want me to stay with you.”

Jeanne and her husband, Albert, a one-legged veteran of Verdun, are the caretakers of La Sauzveté, a chateau in Normandy owned by the du Courseau family. Jeanne was nursemaid to the eldest of the du Courseau children, 19-year-old Geneviève, but she has no children of her own and is determined to keep the foundling.

Despite strong opposition from Madame du Courseau, who wants to raise the child as a companion to her two younger children – four-year-old Antoinette and two-year-old Michel – Jeanne prevails. The baby is named Jean Arnaud and grows up an object of affectionate interest to the du Courseaus, with the exception of Michel, who loathes him.

Secrets and suppressed emotion char­acterise the lives of the du Courseau family. Whatever love there was between Antoine du Courseau and his wife, Marie-Thérèse, has long since cooled. She occupies herself with good works, to the chagrin of the local priest, the abbé Le Couec, a saintly but rackety Breton with a taste for Calvados. Antoine, meanwhile, reserves his passion for a succession of beautiful Bugattis, in which he makes long trips south, osten­sibly to visit Geneviève, who is recuperating from a mysterious malady in Menton.

Surrounded by warmth and approval, adored by Antoinette, whose affection for him soon takes a more than sisterly form, and adoring in his turn Chantal de Male­mort, the virginal daughter of a neighbouring grand family, Jean grows up intrigued rather than agonised by the mystery of his origins. Yet his sense that he doesn’t belong in provincial Normandy is piqued when, on a rainy afternoon, he chances upon a broken-down Hispano-Suiza, driven by a black chauffeur and containing a foreign prince bundled up in furs. It is a fleeting encounter but it changes the course of Jean’s life.

He has always wanted to travel, and he sets off for London to visit Geneviève, now married to the owner of the Hispano-Suiza. The chauffeur, Salah, is deputed to show him around and proves an adroit guide to the city’s loucher haunts.

Strange twists of fate also mark the destiny of Abel Tiffauges, the ogreish protagonist of Michel Tournier’s The Erl-King. Tournier, like Déon, was born in Paris, in 1924. He, too, worked as a translator (of German lit­erature in his case) and was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix du roman, for his novel Vendredi (1967). The Erl-King (1970) was made into a film by Volker Schlöndorff, starring John Malkovich.

Tournier’s novel, reissued in an exquisite 1972 translation by the late Barbara Bray, is a terrifying vision of the internal life of a perp­etual outsider. Abel Tiffauges was born in 1908 and begins his “sinister writings” – a journal composed with his left hand after his right hand is injured in an accident – 30 years later, in the shadow of a war in which he is to become deeply embroiled.

“My name is Abel Tiffauges, I run a gar­age in the Place de la Porte-des-Ternes, and I’m not crazy,” he writes. It is his dreadful sanity that makes his story so mesmerising. From his wretched childhood – when he is bullied at boarding school until he finds a protector and alter ego in a fellow pupil, Nestor – to his solitary adulthood, his passion for photography and his obsessive identification with the innocence and pur­ity of children, Abel is both self-identified monster and everyman. The stages in his progression from tormented child to de facto director of a fortress school for Nazi boys fall like hammer blows of fate: unsought, inevitable, appalling.

Both of these remarkable novels are rooted in 19th-century realism but profoundly subversive of its conventions. Déon’s third-person narrator continually breaks the narr­ative meniscus to address his audience, while Tournier’s readers, already tor­mented by the plangent humanity of Tiffauges, have their queasy equilibrium further disturbed by Tournier’s inveterate habit of “bricolage”, or borrowing from himself and other authors (there is an entire scene lifted from Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes).

While Déon’s coming-of-age novel, with its charm sharpened by its affectionate satire of the mores of provincial life between the wars, deserves a place alongside Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and Le Grand Meaulnes, Tournier’s The Erl-King inhabits a different realm: it belongs among those rare works of art that allow us to contemplate dir­ectly the darkest secrets of our humanity.

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.