Monday, June 18, 2012

French Tales, ed. and translated by Helen Constantine

This book and I have a lot of prior history.   My dad, after my suggestion, bought me Paris Tales, which preceded this collection.  In my French short story course for my BA, the last French course I ever took (sadly), we read several of the authors in this collection, including Colette and Maupassant, and even read the final story in this collection, Prosper Merimée’s “Mateo Falcone.”  I remembered having enjoyed Paris Tales a lot, but when I went back and read my review, it seemed I wasn’t so keen at the time, due to the tones having much the same tone and a sort of postmodern lack of “story” in the short story.  However, I found no such limitation with this collection of twenty-two short stories from twenty-two regions of France, chosen and translated by poet Constantine.  

There is a wide range here in tone, genre, and historical context, ranging from the 19th century to the contemporary.  There are quite a few humorous stories and travelogues, sometimes interweaving.  “Travel, as is often said, broadens the mind; when you travel you meet people, you observe, compare, make connections, you learn—and if you are writer, you may write a poem or a play, a story or a novel about it.” 
My favorite stories were Annie Saumont’s “You Should Have Changed at Dol” (Bretagne), Maupassant’s “A Mother’s Tale” (Auvergne), Anne-Marie Garat’s “We Can’t Go On Like This” (Aquitaine), and Alphonse Daudet’s “The Pope’s Mule” (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur).  (It was fun to discover that Daudet, of whom I’d heard but never read, was an amusing, charming author.)  Colette’s “Where Are the Children?” (Bourgogne) moved me as well, and I thought “Julie” by Jacques Chardonne (Poitou-Charentes) was very well-written.  “Rue d’Évangile” by Marcel Aymé was a haunting story set in a bygone Paris, following the fortunes of penniless Arab Abdel who lives in a greatcoat and sleeps on three steps.  Unfortunately, much of the power of the tale hinged on the misogynistic portrayal of the café owner’s wife; likewise, “Julie” was marred somewhat by its misogyny.  “The Pope’s Mule” was a very funny tale about the Avignon popes (also known as the period of Babylonian captivity).

Part of the enjoyment in reading this collection comes from recognizing places I’ve been; Maupassant’s description of Lake Pavin in the Auvergne reminded me of the lakes in Annecy. 

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