Monday, June 20, 2016

It's a famille affaire, or What's with all those eccentric alternative households in French crime writing?

My knowledge of French literature is thin, so maybe someone can tell me the reason for and the history of French crime writing's fascination with plucky, eccentric, down at the heels households.

Daniel Pennac's Malaussène novels, Fred Vargas' Adamsberg novels, and, especially, her books featuring the "Three Evangelists" come to mind. More recently, Pierre Lemaitre's The Great Swindle won France's Prix Goncourt for its story of an epic swindle and counter-swindle that revolve around two wretched veterans of World War I who come together for mutual support.

That sort of thing can get precious and sentimental (though Lemaitre weaves it into a harsh look at social fissures and abuse of power in post-war France. Think of The Great Swindle as a meeting of the Pennac-Vargas and the Manchette-Manotti strands of French crime writing.)

But the eccentric-household novels also include something hard to imagine in American or British crime writing: Economically precarious characters, depicted in all their poverty, but without desperation, horror, sloganeering, or proletarian victimhood or nobility. The closest that Vargas' Dog Will Have His Day comes to the last of these is a passing reference to the protagonists' having come together in a tumble-down house after a recession. (Dog Will Have His Day, published in French in 1996 but not translated into English until 2014, is a sequel to The Three Evangelists, two of whom appear here.)

These characters don't drink themselves to death, and they don't turn up frozen in the street. A character loses her home, and she simply moves in with another character. Unlike their unfortunate counterparts in crime writing from other countries, these characters have driving passions, or eccentricities, that earn them a modest living, keep their minds engaged, or both.  The protagonist of Dog Will Have His Day is a former government functionary who is driven to compile journalistic dossiers and solve mysteries.  Each of the three evangelists, so called because their names are Marc, Mathieu, and Lucien, is a historian with a greater than usual devotion to the period he studies. (I like to think Vargas uses Marc, the medievalist who is a featured sidekick in Dog Will Have His Day, to poke some good-natured fun at her own work as an archaeologist of the Middle Ages.)

So, what's with the eccentric households? Are they too twee for words? Or are they brave declarations that poverty need not mean intellectual or physical death?

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Read the Detectives Beyond Borders interviews with Fred Vargas and with her translator, Sian Reynolds.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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14 Comments:

Blogger John McFetridge said...

Good question, Peter. It reminds me a little of our home province, at least the image of the place before the Quiet Revolution, a little Michel Tremblay-like.

June 20, 2016  
Blogger R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Now you've done it! I'm puzzled about your thesis, and I wonder if I overlooked something in my limited reading of Georges Simenon's novels, so I will revisit some of the Frenchman's offerings and will test your thesis. As for Vargas, I think I read one or two or hers, and I do not recall what you have highlighted. Now, back to your thesis: I wonder if the singularity of households is not a more common trope in crime fiction and not limited to the French. In any case, I'll be reading crime fiction more closely in the future. Thanks!

June 20, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John: Who knows? Maybe that strain of Quebecois culture is an inheritance from France/

June 20, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, Simenon was Belgian, though he did base the Maigret books in France. One trait he shares with Vargas is that of basing his series in Paris, but having the characters travel frequently to other parts of the country.

I would not dignify my humble observation with the name of thesis; I have done no research into the matter. And my interest is in alternative or makeshift households, rather than households per se. Families, of course, are a staple of all kinds of fiction from many countries. But I can think of none offhand other than the French who are so fond of taking a bunch of characters in straitened circumstances and bring them together under one roof.

June 20, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: I have made one observation about households in Simenon's Maigret novels. You'll know that unhappy or at least complicated domestic lives are the rule in American crime fiction. Maigret, on the other hand, enjoys meals at home, cooked by Mme. Maigret. I always enjoy those scenes.

June 20, 2016  
Blogger R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Good points, Peter. I think -- based upon my not very good memory -- that domestic scenes among Maigret's suspects and witnesses during his travels are interesting snapshots of French life in 30s and 40s. But even as I write that sentence, I suspect that is not a unique feature among crime novels; after all, the family is the one thing in common for almost every human being.

June 20, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You might like Simenon's book of non-Maigret stories called The 13 Culprits: https://www.fantasticfiction.com/s/georges-simenon/13-culprits.htm

June 20, 2016  
Blogger R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Thank you. I hope to include it in my reading soon. I have about two dozen unread Simenon novels waiting for me on my bookshelves. Perhaps no one but Simenon read all of his novels. Certainly no one but Simenon could have had so many lovers (i.e., he claimed thousands).

June 20, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Maigret's family is the onlt happy family in Sinenon's works though: they are a contrast with all the others.

June 20, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: I also don't believe that Wilt Chamberlain ever scored 100 points in one game.

I'm no Simenon expert, but The 13 Culprits make interesting comparison with the Maigret novels. The Maigret stories are notable for their interest in and empathy and commiseration with marginal criminals. The 13 Culprits shows a similar interest, but it sometimes manifests itself in horrified fascination or even disgust.

June 20, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous: You could well be right. I remember nothing approaching a happy family unit in The 13 Culprits, and I haven't read any of Simenon's romans durs.

June 20, 2016  
Blogger R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Peter, I've requested T13C from my local library, and I'm looking forward to reading it. Thanks!

June 20, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If you read it before or after some of the Maigret stories, let me know what you think.

June 20, 2016  
Blogger R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

I've read a few of the Maigret novels and I think one or two non-Maigret novels. When I receive and read T13C, I will almost certainly posting something about it at my blog, Solitary Praxis. In fact, because of our "conversation," I have taken another look at the 20 Simenon books on my shelf, and I'm motivated to read them in order of their original publication. Thanks to Penguin for their recent editions of Simenon's work!

June 20, 2016  

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