Tuesday, 31 January 2023

I'm reviewing Paris Echo ...

... by Sebastian Faulks.  Read on ...

Set firmly in the French capital, this story begins in Morocco.  Tariq is bored with the drudgery of his life.  He craves attention from his female friend, Laila, and he seeks approval from his ‘businessman’ father.  Nineteen years of age and testosterone-fuelled, he feels that life has somehow passed him by.  Making an instant decision one day, he packs up his college work, grabs his rucksack and a few items of clothing and tells his step-mother that he’s going to France to find the family of his birth mother who died – or was killed, he’s not entirely sure about his family history – when he was nine or ten.
As he journey’s across the Mediterranean and through France, he meets people who befriend him and shepherd him towards what they believe to be his goal.  In truth, Tariq isn’t clear about what his real goal is.  He just knows he has to do something.
In Paris, Tariq’s path crosses that of Hannah, a post-doctoral researcher from America who has returned to France after several years of absence.  As these two begin to dance around each other, it becomes clear that they both have very different attitudes, backgrounds, and needs.  It also becomes clear that they are both looking for something, but perhaps, not each other.
It was easy to like Tariq as a character.  He is full of hope and wonder and is not held back by the wisdom that age and experience bring.  Although it takes him a long time to admit it to himself, maturity, acceptance, and the self-confidence that goes with those qualities are what he’s really seeking.  The search for his mother’s family quickly becomes a secondary issue.
Hannah was more challenging to like.  She is guarded and scarred by a previous relationship and keeps herself reined in.  When she meets an old friend, Julian, who also lives in the city, I was immediately left wondering if she would change.  As I kept turning the pages, I desperately wanted there to be hope for Hannah.
Essentially a coming-of-age story for Tariq and a romance for Hannah, the dynamics between these two opposing characters are woven together and shredded apart with such finesse that I found myself going back over some passages.  In those moments, I wanted to fully immerse myself in their pain, realisations, misconceptions and miscommunications.
Throughout the book, the city of Paris sits serenely in the background, its modern buildings and routeways overshadowing the history of the old order and the past.  Internally for Hannah, there are echoes of her previous extended visit to the city – her thoughts creating yet another, perhaps weaker, echo from the recent past.  Add into the mix her research during the city’s occupation from 1940 until liberation, and you have another level of resonance.  This time much more sinister, pervasive and destructive.
The book was thought-provoking and engaging; the narrative voices flowed beautifully and were distinct - the story is told from Hannah’s and Traiq’s points of view.  I particularly liked the use of Paris Metro station names at the start of each chapter.  For me, it provided anchors within the city in my mind’s eye, and when I came across one I could not visualise, I got out my street map.  This is a novel that will be staying on my bookshelf!

In this novel, as part of her research, Hannah visits Natzwiller a prison camp in the Vosges mountains.  If you would like to read more about the significance of the camp, the link above will take you to a post I wrote following my own visit.

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

I’m celebrating the life and work of Virginia Woolf …

… on my blog today.  Read on …

I believe it was the author Virginia Woolf who said that ‘one must learn to be silent just as one must learn to talk.’  This quote has lived with me for quite some time.  Perhaps, it has never been more pertinent than at this moment when I think about the recent news and all the airing and sharing that has been spread all over my newspaper!
I first came across this piece of wisdom whilst studying for my final exams – Virginia Woolf’s books were part of my set texts.  In preparation for those exams, I also explored her life.  One hundred and forty years ago, on January 25th to be precise, Adeline Virginia Stephen was born.  She was the seventh child of Julia and Leslie Stephen, who shared an affluent household with the modernist painter Vanessa Bell.  Virginia was home-schooled and subsequently attended King’s College London, where she studied history and the classics.
With her father’s support and encouragement, Virginia began to write professionally in 1901. Her father died in 1904.  The family then moved to Kensington, bringing Virginia into contact with a more bohemian intellectual circle.  It was during this time that Virginia became a founding member of the Bloomsbury Press with Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, the Bells and the art critic and post-impressionist painter Roger Fry.
It was through the Bloomsbury Group that Virginia met her husband, Leonard Woolf, whom she married in 1912.  The couple then founded the Hogarth Press in 1917.  A lot of Virginia’s work was published through this, then, small independent press.  But the imprint still exists today as part of the Penguin Random House publishing empire.  And if you search for the right works in the right places, you find fabulous volumes of poetry and prose published under the name of Hogarth Press or Bloomsbury Classics.
It was Woolf’s flowing narratives that particularly drew my attention to her books.  I read far more of her works than I actually needed to for my exams.  Along with the set pieces, we also had a short list of other works that we were expected to read.  I read just about everything, beginning with her first novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1915.  It seemed to me back then, and now when I re-read her books, that every word on every page was specifically chosen for the pervading mood of the scene she wished to create in my imagination.  Even now, I still find myself putting her books down so that I can fully lose myself in the sentiment or the emotion of that one chapter, sometimes that one sentence.  I’ve always thought that Woolf’s ability with language and stream of consciousness to tell her stories was second to none.  And perhaps, I am a little jealous of that talent.
My collection of her books is a mix of my old paperbacks – now quite well-worn and fragile – and some first editions that have replaced my original texts from school.  But I will never stop reading them.
Bloomsbury Press Classics
During her lifetime, Woolf published 9 novels, beginning with The Voyage Out and ending with Three Guineas in 1938.  Her final novel, Between the Acts, was published posthumously in 1941.  But she also wrote and published a number of anthologies, along with a substantial body of non-fiction, essays, biography and a play, Freshwater, that has only ever been performed during Woolf’s lifetime as far as I am aware.  She also maintained journals throughout her life.
Virginia Woolf suffered from depression, and it was during one of these particular bouts that she crafted her final letter to her husband.  On March 28th, 1941, she filled the pockets of her coat with stones and walked out into the river Ouse near her home and drowned.
I have always wondered if she had learned to talk a little more or to use silence a little less, what else might she have achieved with more time.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also wish to read about Rumer Godden or A. A. Milne or Patricia Highsmith

Tuesday, 17 January 2023

Come stroll with me …

… through the magnificent royal château in the city of Blois …

Blois sits on the river Loire about halfway between the cities of Tours and Orléans and some 300 kilometres upstream from St Nazaire, where the river enters the northern corner of the Bay of Biscay.  The town is the adminstrative capitol (préfecture) of the département of Loire-et-Cher.  With a population of around 50,000, it is small by British standards (the people of Leeds number about 517,000).  But it has a fascinating history, and the best way to view that is by visiting the château.
The county of Blois was originally a feudal principality with the city at the centre, but there has been habitation here since the Romans.  Around 500AD, when Clovis 1 booted out the Latin invaders, the principality first came into being.  From about 700AD, the county became a thriving and growing power in its own right.  The château and the county were managed by the successive Counts of Blois, who also took possession of Chartres and Champagne.  Their power and wealth enabled them to enhance the original medieval fortress and grounds.  That status can be seen in the Salles des États Généraux (the Court’s Room designed to handle estate business rather than a court of law for trials).  Built at the beginning of the 13th century, it is one of the oldest seigneuriale rooms in France.  Standing in the room and looking across the walls and ceiling, the vibrancy of the colours is amazing.
As we walk through the various spaces, we are following in the footsteps of dukes and kings. In 1397 the castle was ceded to Louis 1, then Duke of Orléans and brother of King Charles 6. 
When Louis was assassinated, the château was inhabited by his widow, who retired to Blois. Subsequently, the property was inherited by their son, Charles d’Orléans, the poet.
Born in 1394, he inherited the dukedoms of Valois and Orléans, the titles of Count of Blois, Beaumont-sur-Oise, Lord of Coucy and a substantial estate in Italy from his mother.  Although privileged, life for Charles didn’t quite work out as planned.
In 1415, at the battle of Agincourt, he was taken prisoner by the English and spent the next 24 years in prison.  During this time, he wrote many pieces of poetry in English and French. During his incarceration, he was moved from estate to estate and spent time in the Tower of London, Bolingbroke Castle – the seat of Henry 4, known to us and Shakespeare as Henry Bolingbroke - and Pontefract castle, which is close to where I live in Yorkshire.  As Charles was in line for the French throne, our King, Henry 5, considered him too important to ransom and return, hence the extended imprisonment.
Charles’ canon of poetic works is extensive, amounting to two books – one in English and one in French – of poems in the rondeau and ballade forms.   When Charles was eventually released in 1440, he returned to France and married Marie of Cleves in St Omer, northern France.  They had three children, the second of which was a son who became Louis 12 of France in 1498.  You can see a magnificent statue of Louis on his horse above the doorway as you enter the property.
Since Charles’ death at 71 in January 1465, his poetry has been analysed and debated and
finally accepted.  Some of his works have been set to music by Edward Elgar, Claude Debussy and the Venezuelan-born French composer and conductor Reynaldo Hahn.
Before I leave this magnificent building with its mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Classical architecture, its counts, dukes and kings, you must see two more things.  The first is the La Chambre des Secrets.  This room once belonged to Catherine de Medici and within the panelling is a secret chamber where it is supposed that she kept her poisons!  Catherine died here in 1589 at the age of 69.
And lastly, we take a stroll out into the courtyard.  The stunning spiral staircase was part of the refurbishment of the castle when Francis 1 and his wife, Queen Claude, acceded to the throne in 1515.  Louis 12, Francis’ first cousin and father-in-law brought the Renaissance style to France.  And there is no better example of the Italianate bas-relief than here.  Others at the time concur as the staircases here became the reference point for those built at Chambord a few years later.

If you enjoyed this stroll through history, you might also be interested in a visit to Ancy-le-Franc or Tanlay  There will be more of my travels in the coming weeks and months.

Tuesday, 10 January 2023

A New Year…

…means new beginnings. Read on to find out what’s in store for you…

And new beginnings mean a refreshed look to the blog.  I had wanted to completely revise the look and design.  But when I started hunting around for more up to date themes for this, I realised that what I had fitted the best.  So, if it aint broke, don’t fix it!  However there have been some subtle changes to the sidebar.

As for weekly content there will be features from, or about, other authors.  Some in the form of articles and some as interviews. Some of the authors you may know, some may be new to you, but I can promise that the articles will be interesting and varied.  At the end of this month I will be celebrating the life and work of Virginia Woolf.  This will be a continuation of my occassional series of posts about authors of works across numerous genres that have influenced me over the years.

Travelling in France is a significant feature of this blog and it was wonderful to be able to spend time there last year.  I caught up with old friends, discovered new ones and strolled through favourite towns and villages.  You can expect more insights, observations and accompanying pics throughout the year.

I’ll be continuing my #OffMyBeatenTrack posts, too.  The items that featured extracts from my Egyptian journal will be returning as they were so well received last year.  Look out for the next instalment in February when I will be taking you to Tel el-Amarna by means of a Sand Tractor.  I’ll also be be exploring other new places a little closer to home.  So watch this space!

As for Jacques Forêt and his friends in my Cévennes-based mysteries, the sixth book has been published and I’m working on the next one.  I’m also working on a new story set in a more northerly area of France.  But there will be more infomration about that in the coming months.

The #FranceFridayPhoto will return across all of my social media accounts with the first pic appearing at the end of this week.  As was the case last year, these photos will be regularly interspersed with fabulous pictures of other locations too.  I hope you will enjoy them.

In the meantime, it’s great to be back at my desk!

Sunday, 1 January 2023

May I wish everyone a very...

  ...Happy New Year

... the blog returns with lots of interesting articles, interviews, and book reviews on January 10th...