Thursday, November 20, 2008

Vive La France, Novelistically Speaking

Here’s our paperback fiction bestseller list for this past week. It’s been about the same for the last month.

1. Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay
2. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
3. The Shack, by William Young
4. Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan
5. Run, by Ann Patchett
6. Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston
7. Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson
8. Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie
9. Land of a Hundred Wonders, by Lesley Kagen
10. World Without End, by Ken Follett

It’s generally been a truth in bookselling that nothing is harder to sell than books in translation. I could go on at length about the problem in general (and probably have, and probably will again), but for now, I want to touch on one language, French, that seems to be having a resurgence in 2008.

In past years, as a buyer, I would laugh when a sales rep told us that a novel won the Prix Goncourt or the French Giller, or some other prize awarded to folks who wrote in the Gallic tongue. It was more like the kiss of death more than anything else.

That was all before Suite Francaise. The phenom that is Irene Nemirovsky’s unfinished quintet of novels opened the doors to more wonderful releases, or perhaps more attention for them.

Perhaps nothing speaks of the moment better than Jean-Marie Le Clezio, the newest winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. Because most of his works were from small presses, we’ve actually had trouble getting stock of his titles. (Please reserve a copy at one of our shops).

Another interesting aside, his early titles were published by Atheneum, a now-dormant imprint controlled by Simon and Schuster. The trick is that Simon lost the rights on the book, but the French publisher did not own the translation—they had to come to an agreement or get the book retranslated. The first result of that agreement is Le Clezio’s first novel The Interrogation , which is scheduled for December release. As always, you can preorder from us in our shops or our web site.

Back to the bestseller list, where top bestsellers have been crowded with Francophile tales, with three books taking their place among top ten paperbacks

It hasn’t been only Holocaust stories that have benefited, though we’ve seen a number. It’s also been hitting mysteries, as foreign settings are very hot right now in the genre.

Sarah’s Key may be the most direct beneficiary to Nemirovsky’s breakout. It’s a contemporary novel about an American in Paris who discovers, while writing for the magazine, the tragedy of Vel D’Hiv, the roundup of Jews in Paris during Nazi occupation. Her story alternates with one young girl’s experiences at that time.

Parisian de Rosnay, who has both French and English background, wrote this book in English after numerous books in French. She told me on her recent visit to the JCC Book and Culture Fair that she found the language change freed her to explore a difficult subject in France.

Sarah’s Key has been a French bestseller, but de Rosnay chose to have someone else translate it. She says it would have taken years for her to translate it on her own. She thought the time would be better spent writing her next book, which will also be in English. Publishers are also now furiously translating her previous novels into English.

Sarah’s Key has become a phenomenon at our shops, particularly at our Mequon location, where Jane and Morgan are recommending it hand over fist. It’s so much fun to get caught up in the enthusiasm, which started straight from our Macmillan rep, Anne Hellman. I also would highly recommend hearing de Rosnay speak—she’s quite inspiring.

Nancy Huston also straddles two worlds, and also looks to a little-known incident during Nazi occupation in Europe. Her newest novel Fault Lines tells the story of four generations of one family, going backwards, through the eyes of six-year-old children. The story slowly unlocks the secret of one atrocity, and how the baggage passed through generations. The structure of the story is very powerful, and it’s one of those books that you feel compelled to reread to spot all the clues.

Our Brookfield bookseller Peggy made me promise not to discuss the plot at length, so you’ll have to read this article in the Independent for more. You might want to wait until after you’ve finished the book.

Huston also writes in both French and English, but she prefers to do her own translations. Another interesting fact is that she won honors from both the Orange Prize (shortlist) and Prix Femina (winner), which mirror each other in terms of qualifications. Anyone can win the Prix Femina, but the judges are all women. For the Orange Prize, anyone can be a judge, but only a woman can win.

Huston and de Rosnay are counterpoints in another way too. Huston’s a classic French leftist with mixed feelings towards the United States, whereas de Rosnay clearly has more positive feelings towards America. I found them very interesting to read together, and based on feedback from booksellers and readers, some prefer one, some the other.

Next up, the elephant, or rather, the hedgehog, in the room.

1 comment:

davidetommaso said...

Okay, I'm stepping WAY out of my comfort zone to include another popular French book into your mix. [Full disclosure: I work for the publisher ]. Short, tightly compressed, and downright quirky: The Mystery Guest, by Gregoire Bouiller. This was a sensation in France when first published, because the unnamed lover who suddenly invites the narrator to a party years after being dumped in an E-mail turned up to be a famous performance artist named Sophie Calle. One can still enjoy this tale without knowing anything about that.