Books & Reading

Reading French Writers in English: Echenoz, Sobin & Colette

Since I first began learning French nine months ago, I’ve acquired all the competence of a mumbling three-year-old. My journey has been a series of stumbles and fumbles, faux pas and misspellings, verb-noun disagreements and quite a few horror stories starring dismal efforts at conjugation and communication, not least amongst them the time when I spotted a long-furred cat on a sweltering afternoon and said “La chatte est chaude“. Happily, my first tentative steps are a thing of the past, and my vocabulary has since expanded to consist of more than bonjour, oui, ca va, and the perennial favourite/highly disreputable, “voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” (From what I’ve been told, the French absolutely abhor this putain of a phrase.) In any case, if I happen to find myself in France, I’m happy to report that, in an atrocious, milk-curdling accent, I’d be able to express my needs and wants, but, unfortunately fall short of talking about my favourite books.

To complement my learning journey and make the French language come alive in context, I bought a handful of novels by French authors. Of course, since my competence is nowhere near what’s required to read an entire novel in French, I acquired translations. I’d already read the usual suspects in university – Camus, Sartre, Flaubert, Voltaire, Balzac – and, besides, these days I’m more inclined to contemporary voices. Guardian has a respectable list of crowd-sourced French books and authors; I’d recommend anyone interested in reading French authors/novels in English to start there if they’re looking to add a sizeable addition to their TBR list. That’s exactly what I did.

Jean Echenoz – Je m’en vais (1999), translated as I’m Gone


Jean Echenoz won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for I’m Gone. For a moment let’s forget that right now, the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize, is suffering from a bad reputation for being unusually sexist. I’m Gone begins simply enough: in its first sentence, Felix Ferrar, an urbane Parisian art dealer, walks out on his wife – “I’m going. I’m leaving you.” He drops his keys on the table and closes the door behind him. He then goes on to pursue a memorably pathetic international crime spree that takes him across the tundra of the Arctic. I shouldn’t reveal the plot because half the fun in reading is discovering where Felix intends to go next, but suffice to say, the novel is a sly, witty exploration of love, mid-life crises, and a biting satire on the art world. I loved it, and I plan to re-read it, if not for the humour, then at least for the little descriptions of Paris:

‘Around the Madeleine church, strings of unlit Christmas lights hovered above the streets still more deserted than the subway. The decorated windows of the high-priced ships reminded the nonexistent pedestrians that they would survive the end-of-year festivities.’

Gustaf Sobin – The Fly-truffler (1999)


Language is alive, sensual and languid in Sobin’s expert hands; the story as soft and creamy as a delicate Camembert. Set against the fading of the Provencal traditions and language, each page is a remarkable tribute to the lush romance of the region, and celebrates France’s fecundity of nature.

Since the premature death of his wife, Philippe Cabassac, master fly-truffler, has come to expect more of the truffles that he discovers every winter on his family estate in Provence. He discovers that the truffles bring him a series of dreams where his lost wife is restored to him in intimate communion. His seductive dreaming epiphanies threaten to take over his waking life, as he becomes more and more obsessed with collecting and storing truffles.

I never thought reading about silkworms could be so dreamy, or that someday I’d know the practice of something as precise as how locals in Provence discover truffles in their gardens and woods. Read this especially at night, for that is when the magic of Sobin’s prose is unstoppable:

‘He’d have to wait, though, for the ground to thaw and the first timid signals of spring to break like so many flags from their hard little shell cases. He’d have to wait until the first wild almonds had begun blossoming, bringing with them a whole host of honeybees, before unearthing the last truffle. It lay between the pawlike roots of a holm oak at a depth of no less than forty centimeters. A richly faceted “black diamond”, as they’re occasionally called, this particular truffle had a wild, oily provocative aroma.’

Read the first chapter here.

Colette – Cheri (1920)


Cheri is one of my favourite love stories. I know I mentioned being more inclined towards contemporary voices, but Colette writes so well (and without affectation) that you could easily imagine Cheri being written recently. This slim, sad novella is about the separation between the 25-year-old spoilt and beautiful titular protagonist and his lover of five years, the 49-year-old courtesan Lea. When an advantageous marriage is arranged for Cheri, Lea reluctantly ends the affair. However, despite his apparent detachment, Cheri is increasingly isolated from his marriage and haunted by the memories of Lea. Things aren’t better for Lea either, who, in spite of her extensive experience in matters of the heart, finds that she, too, has fallen in love with the young, brash boy-child. For six months, both parties find ways to escape their memories, until fate decrees that they meet again one tumultuous night.

What really hooked me was Colette’s unflinching account of Lea’s slowly crumbling beauty. Imagine an incredibly stunning woman in her twilight years, disenchanted with the suffocating company of elderly courtesans. Even better, imagine a society where courtesans are a necessary part of the social hierarchy, and celebrated rather than stigmatized for their profession. That’s a France I’d like to travel back in time to visit.

Painting by Evengy Lushpin