When the critics of Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy finally took their eyes off the tumescent organs, a few noted what a very French affair it was: all that seething angoisse and ennui, shipped in bulk from the Quartier Latin to the Quartier Lewisham. Forget about European monetary integration; in the arts, national currencies remain as firmly rooted and tricky to transplant as ever.
As in film, so in fiction. In Britain, our fashionable bestsellers tend to be bulky, colourful, character-driven epics. In France, the compact, crystalline, ideas-led first-person récit will often top the charts. These days, a French Captain Corelli might consist of a 100-page reminiscence by the Captain of his debates with the German officer Weber, and with the massacre consigned to a brief, shocking finale.
Two newly translated Francophone sensations prove that this literary gulf runs deeper than the actual Manche. Both inspect the aftermath of deeds done or undone in the Nazi years, as courage and cowardice echo down the generations. Both short novellas unfold in dour, industrial north-eastern France. Both might sound unfamiliar to many fans of Sebastian Faulks.
And there comparisons end. One of these pocket-sized chart-stormers strikes me as an anodyne crowd-pleaser; the other, as a little masterpiece.
Strange Gardens by Michel Quint (translated by Barbara Bray; Viking, £7.99) definitely pleased the crowds as it became last autumn's runaway success in France. Drawn from Quint's own family history, this slim tale tells of two laddish Resistance fighters taken hostage by the Germans after a sabotage mission they did perform – although, to the Boche, they are simply innocent fodder for reprisals. With the aid of a friendly German guard, some fancy-that coincidences, and a sentimental tribute to the clown as a truth-teller, we learn again about the deep ambiguities of Occupation and Resistance. The only real villain is the offstage presence of Maurice Papon, the ancient collaborationist tried in 1997; otherwise, this feelgood fable comforts far more than it challenges.
The Quartet, by the Belgian writer François Emmanuel (translated by Euan Cameron; Review, £10), plays in a higher league. In a German-owned factory in France, in the present day, a high-flying psychologist who normally selects workers for the chop is ordered to spy on the MD, who seems to be heading for a breakdown. Slowly, Simon the corporate shrink unravels the terrible history behind this "rising tide of tumult", as the wartime sins of the fathers return to plague their sons. With deft strokes, the book creates a superbly sinister atmosphere, as if a Henry James narrator revealed to us a Claud Chabrol plot.
Yes, the Holocaust and its restless ghosts do figure in the dénouement. So does its legacy of inhumanity, in the sleek jargon that steals dignity and livelihood from workers today. This is a study of "dead, neutral, technical" language and the harm it inflicts, as much as of repressed guilt. On both counts, it succeeds triumphantly. Sometimes, small (and Francophone) really can be beautiful.Reuse content