New French fiction: from farm to table, between two feasts

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ANIMAL

By Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

Translated by Frank Wynne

371 p. Grove. $26.

“Animalia” is never what you expect it to be. Here, it is women who commit violence against each other and against animals. Men are decimated by war or disease. And children are raised like cattle, defined only by their loneliness. There are many descriptions of the vulva, both human and animal.

The novel, Del Amo’s fourth but his first to appear in English, is a story of life and death – pushing more towards life than death – in a French farming family struggling to survive throughout the 20th century. . At first, a girl named Éléonore lives with a dying father and a devout but cruel mother. “No one here will go through life,” writes Del Amo, “without losing a limb, an eye, a child or a spouse, a piece of flesh.” An inherent sense of fear breeds violence in his characters; and violence, by design, begets more violence.

Éléonore grew up needing to be protected not only from the stuffed animals around her but also from her mother. Before the Great War, her cousin Marcel protects her, but when he returns from the fighting, grotesquely mutilated, it is from Marcel that she and the child she is carrying will need protection. After the following war, although Éléonore has become the matriarch and the farm has become industrialized, life and death in this rural enclave are no less brutal.

Del Amo has Flaubert’s sense of performance. Even when alone, the characters and animals in the novel often act as if they are being watched. His prose springs at the reader, shining with perfection, even if at times his characters seem to deliberately blaspheme – cross a line or break a chair, too knowingly – just so as not to be found guilty of boring the reader.

By placing man in charge of the beast, Del Amo’s intention is perhaps not to draw a comparison but to draw a distinction between violence and cruelty: Cruelty is clearly a strong point of the man.

LEADER

A cooking novel

By Marie Ndiaye

Translated by Jordan Stump

287 pages. Knopf. $26.95.

A woman so good at her job must be incompetent as a mother and have no inner life. It is the perception of a brilliant woman that NDiaye explores in her latest novel. “La Cheffe” is the story of a gifted chef glorified in Bordeaux for her cooking but silent and stoic about her achievements and her fame. She wants to be remembered for her cooking and the feeling she leaves behind – “like a happiness that will never come back” – and not for her personality.

To that end, though extremely sharp and self-taught, she often plays dumb to avoid meeting people and telling them her story. But her reluctance to come forward causes her to find herself embroiled in a battle with her ruthless daughter, whose care she once ceded to her family so she could pursue her career. She may be dedicated to her craft because of its downsides—the long, exhausting hours and intense physical labor—since they leave her little room, ultimately, to reflect more deeply on herself.

It’s up to his former assistant to tell his story: describing his childhood in a family of poor farmers, his difficult professional apprenticeship, his solitary struggle to create his own restaurant. NDiaye’s novel so far succeeds, but fails to portray the motherhood of its central character; he seems unsure of how such a mother should be.

But “La Cheffe” is also the sensual portrait of the essential place of talented cooks in the world of the French bourgeoisie. NDiaye’s heroine does not wield overt power over this class, but instead pledges to deliver salt before sugar, invention and technique before pleasure.

THE IDIOT
AND OTHER MORAL TALES

By Anne Serre

Translated by Mark Hutchinson

158 p. New Directions. Paper, $14.95.

The narrator of “The Table of Wishes”, one of the three short stories in Serre’s impeccable collection, wishes to find her mother as she had found her as a child; yet, at the same time, she wants to escape her memories. The title of the short story is derived from a Grimm fairy tale in which an ordinary-looking table conjures up food and wine whenever someone says “Table, sit down.” The narrator’s childhood centered around a dining room table where she and her sisters watched, and often helped, as a “friend” called Dr. Mars had sex with their mother.

There is, for the narrator, no other way of remembering his mother than nailed to the table, because she was always naked and willingly erotic. The narrator grew up in a dysfunctional polyamorous family and clearly had a traumatic childhood, but this part of the story is described in the tone of a happy girl: others would have called it “moral misery.” And you would be wrong. … The atmosphere in the house was tense. But the tension was part of the fun, something we were born for.

The moral thing to do in Serre’s collection is to see life until it finally offers clarity. In the short story called “The Fool”, the narrator finds a particular way of speaking about her fragile mental state – by using a tarot card. The Tarot character of the Fool appears to her during walks in the mountains, as a character in her own book and as the man she loves. She forever survives the actions of the Fool, as she survives life, going through episodes of love and friendship, terror and madness. “Behave impeccably,” she advises, when you come face to face with the madman.

With its psychological reality stamped with fabulism, Serre’s fiction seems to have invented its own literary genre.

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