New French Fiction: With an Emphasis on Food, Film and Frolics
By Maylis de Kerangal
Translated by Sam Taylor
De Kerangal’s latest book is a slim, bountiful, beautifully written (and gorgeously translated) “Portrait of the Chef as a Young Man.”
Even when little, Mauro “enters the kitchen as if he were entering a magical sphere, part playground and part laboratory.” On tiptoe, he investigates saucepans and casseroles and gazes into the oven window as ardently as if it were his iPad. At the age of 10, he rushes home from school to bake a different cake each day. No “Fortnite Battle Royale” for him! The kitchen is “the theater of the world’s transformation,” and scarcely more than a decade later, he’s brewing potions in the tiny kitchen of his own restaurant, where cooking is “at once an intense improvisation, a high-flying sensory experience and a confrontation with matter.” He is an interpreter of vegetables; he communes with gnocchi.
If cooking involves a mastery of prestidigitation — for which Mauro has the hands, “a worker’s hands and an artist’s hands” — it also requires the adoption of a new vocabulary, “a foreign tongue.” Indeed, “The Cook” is as much about language as it is about mackerel with fresh raspberries, its pages overflowing with catalogs of fruits and fish, of butters (“cultured, clarified, clotted”) and instruments (“whisk, carver, peeler, scraper, zester”) that recall Rabelais joyously inventing modern French.
De Kerangal takes us through different kitchens, geographies and individuals in the life of young Mauro, whose art is profoundly social (cooking is completed in other people’s mouths) yet whose gift isolates him. To create, he must spend hours in “unshareable solitude,” and this tension is embodied in de Kerangal’s nearly invisible first-person narrator, an old friend who meets him for drinks and knows him inside-out, yet remains so peripheral we never learn her name. The effect of this intimate yet distant narrative voice is to intensify our sense of the chef’s isolation, surrounded by those he is nourishing but set apart from them. In this, he recalls the heart donor in de Kerangal’s fascinating earlier novel “The Heart.” And he reflects the human condition itself, which is to be, as the Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor has put it, “alone with others.”
100 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $20.
WAITING FOR BOJANGLES
By Olivier Bourdeaut
Translated by Regan Kramer
Narrated by two alternating voices, a child’s and his father’s, Bourdeaut’s oddball fairy tale about a family in thrall to the mother’s mental illness starts as a manic romp, hilarious until overtaken by tragedy. Naïve and buoyant, the child recounts his family’s folie à trois: the parents’ nonstop drinking and dancing (Scott and Zelda redux), his own parentally sanctioned “early retirement” from elementary school, his mother’s jumping contests with him on the living room furniture, the feral crane kept as a family pet. Mom treats her son, he remarks with delight, “like a character from a book that she loved very dearly” and instructs him: “When reality is sad or mundane, make up a lovely story.” And so he does. Bourdeaut announces at the outset: “This is my true story, with lies going backward and forward, because life is often like that.”
Scattered among the son’s pages are prose excerpts strewn with doggerel from the father’s “secret notebook,” which records his passion for his beloved: “Into her eyes I looked, and I knew right away I was hooked.” The two met at a cocktail party on the Riviera where he first glimpsed her as “a young woman in feathered cap and gossamer dress” who “began to dance with great finesse,” seducing her admirer in a “cadence that made the feathers in her headdress endlessly sway and swish, like one of those wheels Tibetans use to pray with. Shifting with the rhythm from the regal grace of a swan to the swift precision of a raptor, she had me nailed to the spot: I feared I had met my captor.”
These rhymes (which also pop up occasionally in the son’s narrative) are more graceful in the original French. Kramer is to be saluted for her efforts at translating them, but too often they get in the way. Even so, this strange little book lingers in the mind.
160 pp. Simon & Schuster. $23.99.
HOLD FAST YOUR CROWN
By Yannick Haenel
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
If he has scant use for America, the unnamed French writer who narrates Haenel’s novel is filled with admiration for two of its native sons, Herman Melville and Michael Cimino, both of whom reveal through their art “the huge pool of blood upon which the country was founded.” Working in different centuries and media, they share an apocalyptic vision of the hunt as the quintessential metaphor for America. And they also share commercial failure during their lifetimes.
Our apocalyptically minded narrator is clearly headed there himself. He’s just completed a 700-page screenplay entitled “The Great Melville” that interests nobody. Persuaded that Cimino, who’s been out of the public eye for years, would appreciate it, he tracks the director down. They rendezvous in Manhattan at the Frick, both carrying books from the Strand. (Haenel knows his New York brands.) They kill a bottle of vodka and later gaze at Ellis Island together, after which the narrator leaves his script in Cimino’s hands and returns to Paris to binge-watch old American movies and pontificate about them, pausing all too briefly for love, dinner out and endless dog-sitting for a huge Dalmatian named Sabbat, the most winning character in the novel. Ultimately, Islamist massacres transform the narrator’s own city into “a lake of blood,” which he flees for Italy to write the book we’ve just read and to go swimming.
Indefatigably translated by Fagan, “Hold Fast Your Crown,” with its biblical title (see Revelation 3:11), is an occasionally entertaining rant, larded with pages of philosophizing, long plot summaries of other people’s films and paraphrases of other people’s remarks. “Moby-Dick” it isn’t.
332 pp. Other Press. Paper, $17.99.