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Delicious descriptions: Pierre Lemaitre on the artist

December 9, 2016

Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindleI recently reviewed Pierre Lemaitre’s The great swindle which is primarily about postwar France – specifically about the way returned soldiers were treated, and more broadly about money and the way it was driving behaviour, values and relationships. I’ll share just one little specific reference to this, a description of the scurrilous (and poverty-stricken aristocrat) Pradelle, because it contains a delightfully subversive allusion to you know who:

Anyone will tell you that a man in possession of such good looks and such a name must be in want of a fortune. This was certainly the lieutenant’s view, and indeed his only concern.

I didn’t manage to squeeze this bit of Austen-citing (as the Jane Austen Society of Australia calls it) into my post, so had to share it here before getting to the main reason for this post, the artist. Édouard, the severely disfigured soldier, had been rejected by his single-minded businessman father long before the war because he was not the right sort of son. He was effeminate and more interested in drawing than in business. For Monsieur Péricourt, this was an anathema – and is why Édouard did not want to return home after the war.

So, imagine Édouard’s disappointment when Albert, his loyal friend and carer, rejects his memorial fraud proposal:

For his pains, Édouard had only a series of worthless sketches. He broke down. This time, there were no tears, no tantrums, no sulks, he felt insulted. He was being thwarted by a pissant little accountant in the name of inviolable pragmatism. The eternal struggle between the artist and the bourgeoisie was being played once more; though the details were slightly different, this was the war he had lost to his father. An artist is a dreamer, hence of no value. This was what Édouard thought he could hear behind Albert’s pronouncements. With Albert, as with his father, he felt relegated to the role of scrounger, a ne’er-do-well interested only in vain pursuits. He had been patient, practical, persuasive, but he had failed. The rift between him and Albert was not a difference of opinion, but a difference of culture; Édouard found his friend petty, mean, with no drive, no ambition, no glint of madness.

Unlike M. Péricourt, Albert is not ruthless and he does not see his friend as having “no value”. Indeed, he liked Édouard’s art. His reasons come from a genuine moral sense combined with a valid fear of the consequences. But the end result is the same from Edouard’s point of view, a rejection of the imagination, a lack of that little “glint of madness”. This idea of the artist is not a major theme in the book – and is not really discussed in any of the reviews I’ve now checked out – but ideas about art and the imagination do underpin much of the novel.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. sylviemarieheroux permalink
    December 9, 2016 01:10

    I read this book when it won the Goncourt in France… I just loved it. Great macabre humour!

  2. December 9, 2016 02:46

    this seems a very different book to the one title I read by him – Alex – the one that seemed to have bought him to the attention of the world outside France

    • December 9, 2016 07:55

      Yes I think it is Karen… Though those who know can apparently see the detective fiction plotter in him in this book.

  3. December 9, 2016 10:37

    Loved that sly allusion:)

    • December 9, 2016 11:45

      Yes, me too (of course), Lisa … I think, from his author’s note at the end that there were many literary allusions but I didn’t pick them (and the author I did pick he didn’t mention in that author’s note. As the Americans would say, go figure!)

      • ian darling permalink
        December 9, 2016 21:05

        Interesting to see this Austen allusion in a French novel. I’m afraid I have no idea of how well known she is in France…must follow tat up!

        • ian darling permalink
          December 9, 2016 21:09

          Very interesting Wikipedia article about the reception of Jane Austen illuminates this.

        • December 9, 2016 21:55

          Yes, so it does, Ian. Long time since I’ve looked at Wikipedia for Austen – but it’s very thorough on her isn’t it.

        • December 9, 2016 21:53

          No I don’t know either, Ian, though Pride and prejudice was, I think, translated into French very early in its life – in 1813 in fact. (I realise that says nothing about its standing now, but it’s a fact I found interesting when I first heard it)

  4. December 10, 2016 03:26

    What an excellent and surprising place for an Austen-citing! And isn’t it interesting how even today we still have battles over the imagination/art and the “practical”, head in the clouds versus feet on the ground. I wonder if that will always be the nature of it or if people/culture will ever make peace over it.

    • December 10, 2016 08:51

      Yes it is, Stefanie. It would have to be a world that didn’t love to polarise things, or see things as binaries the way we (generally) seem to do?

      • December 12, 2016 09:17

        We do like our our binaries don’t we? It is so culturally and educationally engrained. We start teaching kids “opposites” before they even get to school. Sigh.

        • December 13, 2016 07:54

          We do… I certainly remember university lectures talking in these terms quite often, and what’s more, buying into it. It can make things so neat to discuss!

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