Geeky students of publishing houses, like me, will know that Harvill Secker in its various forms has been quietly putting out superior fiction in translation for many years, as well as being responsible for unearthing great English language writers like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. Their books too are beautifully produced, so the only question that arises is, how to choose from all these foreign writers we’ve never heard of? Well, here’s one to begin with.
Pierre Péju’s The Girl from the Chartreuse was acclaimed when published in the UK a couple of years ago, and now another of his novels has been brought to us. It was called The Ogre’s Laugh (Le Rire de l’Ogre) in its original form – referring to a horrific fairytale which opens and closes the book, and has allegories throughout – but for the English tranlsation they have gone for the more anodyne Clara’s Tale. But there’s nothing insipid about this story.
It begins with our narrator, Paul Marleau, a teenager in 1963, visiting the German lake town of Kehlstein where he encounters Clara Lafontaine, a girl with “intense translucent blue eyes” who is dressed in black and who “even at a distance … appears both very relaxed and as if she has recently arrived from another country, from a far-off city, or sprung from some strange book.” That she proceeds to strip naked and swim off through the lake (“her white flesh soon lost among the shimmering reflections of the water”) can’t have harmed the fixing of her in Paul’s adolescent mind: or in mine, come to that.
The story of Paul’s tentative relations with Clara (a “marvellous storm”) then takes alternating chapters with the experiences of Clara’s father as a German doctor on the Russian front in the second world war. There are some terrible sights recounted by Dr Lafontaine and his colleagues (“His cartridge clip is empty, his memory full”), and it’s to Péju’s credit that the good-man-in-an-evil-regime element seems as clear and unsentimental as the potentially hackneyed horrors described.
The story all seems to be about ways of seeing and interpreting (and shielding ourselves from) the world: through Clara’s ever-present camera, through the sculpture which Paul turns to as a career, through the memories of others; and Péju is unafraid of attacking our own perceived sophistication, as when Paul finds himself uncomfortable at the innocent village celebrations in Kehlstein:
As for me, I’m feeling rather empty-headed and old-fashioned, all of a sudden embarrassed by so much conviction. … Were one to display the tiniest bit of irony, or look in any way puzzled or aloof, it would be like dropping ink stains on a young girl’s pristine blouse.
Clara’s Tale goes much further than this, however, both in setting and scope. In the second half of the book, Paul’s narrative takes over completely, jumping through the decades to chart his continuing obsession with Clara, and Péju manages to breathe life into other well-worn fictional subjects such as the 1968 student riots in Paris:
Something is happening at last. … All around me, in the air that smells of burning, of wet sand, of petrol, of sewers and pollen, there’s an uneasy atmosphere, a seething mass of restless bodies, and a long chain of black hands pulling up the cobblestones until the streets become vertical. … I acquired one of those heavy cast-iron grills that surround the roots of the trees in the Boulevard St Michel. And I used it as a sledgehammer to break up the asphalt, then as a pickaxe and a lever to wrench the teeth from the rotting jaws of the streets.
This part of the book takes in family life, the difficulties of the artist, and the progress of age, and it seems almost miraculous that Péju has managed to fit all this into 300 pages, and still leave room for a few French essentials such as a full complement of black roll-neck sweaters and a charismatic philosophy professor. Pierre Peju himself is a philosophy professor, but fortunately in his author’s photograph has opted for an open-neck shirt.