Tag Archives: French literature

A Moroccan girl raised as a boy

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s 1985 fourth novel L’Enfant de Sable (translated as The Sand Child) first brought widespread attention to the Morocco-born (1943) French writer. Its protagonist is Mohammed Ahmed. Frustrated at only producing daughters (seven of them already), her father decides to raise the eighth one as a boy. Among other things, this will keep his estate from going to his brother for lack of a son to inherit. A circumcision is faked (with blood from her father’s finger), her breasts are bound, and she even marries a mistreated epileptic girl, Fatima.


The story-teller draws on the journal filled with gender confusion written by Mohammed Ahmed, who once she can becomes Zahra (flower of flowers). For the time after the journal breaks off, a multitude of endings are imagined by those who have heard the story of the girl raised as a boy. (Her imposture never caused her to doubt her true gender. That is there was no role-self merger/role engulfmen.)

Apparently, Ben Jelloun became usatiisfied with the multiple endings, and in Nuit sacree/The Sacred Night (1987), chose a singular one. At the start of the second book, the father dies on the most auspicious of nights for death to be followed by salvation, the 27th night of Ramadan. Zahra xis snatched away from her father’s funeral by a splendidly mounted rider (“the Sheikh”) and taken to a seeming paradise otherwise inhabited entirely by children.

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She is a threat to the children already there and cannot stay there. Walking through the woods away from the lost paradise, she is raped (with at least acquiescence out of curiosity). She finds her way to a bathhouse, where the ugly and surly proprietress takes her in to help care for her brother, a blind Koranic teacher.

Zahra bonds with him, reads to him, talks to him, smokes kif with him, and eventually begins bedding him (in a bordello to which his sister had previously taken him and described the available women for him to rent).

The idyll is doomed by his sister’s jealousy. She unleashes the fearsome demons (uncle and sisters) of Zahra. In prison, the five sisters still in Morocco get to her and do some horrific things. Zahra survives and becomes first a letter-writer for illiterate fellow prisoners then is regarded as a saint. Surprisingly, there is a happy ending.

Other than the visits from her sisters, prison is not too horrible an experience for Zahra:

Finding myself behind bars made me realize how much my life as a man [actually, as a boy] had been like a prison. I had been confined to a single role, and in that sense deprived of freedom. Beyond the limits of that role lay catastrophe. At the time [covered by Sand Child] I had not been aware of how much I had suffered. My destiny had been twisted, my instincts suppressed, my body transfigured, my sexuality denied, my hopes destroyed. (135)


I have to say that I like Ben Jelloun’s later realist novels more than the magic realism (or is it influence of French surrealism? Moroccan fairy tales?) in Sacred Night. I think that Sand Child is more innovative, though both books pound away at the inferiorization of women in Muslim societies. It was Sacred Night that won the most prestigious French literary away, the Prix Goncourt, however. Near the start Zahra proclaims that “there is no greatness or tragedy to my story.” This is the kind of statement that stirs a contrarian response from me, and I went on to be sure that there is tragedy aplenty (greatness in a story is not as easy to decide about).

©2019, Stephen O. Murray


Obsessions of a French writer

“In this world of lies, truth is forced to flee into the woods like a frightened white deer.”

Jean, the 50-year-old narrator of Yannick Haenel’s (1967-) Hold Fast Your Crown (first published in French in 2017 as Tiens ferme ta couronne) provides fair warning at the start: “At the time, I was crazy—let’s just say I was possessed—names, books, films, lines from books and films, were teeming, alive, inside my head, they planned bacchanals together, and there was nothing I could do to pull them apart.” Hold Fast details a period when, after publishing a few novels, he had completed and was trying to sell a 700-page (requiring a 14 hour running time) analytic biopic “to express what inhabits the solitude of a writer”, in particular, “the mystical honeycombed interior” of Herman Melville, a project “for which I had insanely abandoned my friends, my joy, the novels I was writing — in fact, life itself.”


Jean is pretty insouciant for someone with only 20 euros left: “I had already written the screenplay. I had nothing more to fear. What ruin could I dread? I had written novels, I could write more — I had a thousand ideas for novels in my head, but first I wanted to pursue the adventure of this screenplay to its end.”

Jean becomes convinced that one of his idols, American director Michael Cimino, is the person to direct his screenplay. Though Cimino had become a recluse after a series of commercial flops (and a second racist success in the 1985 “Year of the Dragon,” when Jean gets Cimino’s phone number and calls him, Cimino arranges to meet Jean at the Frick in New York City, so that he can get a book about Malraux not available in the US. (Cimino is thinking about trying to film Malraux’s La condition humaine/Man’s Fate). Jean spends hours in front of the (disputed) Rembrandt Polish Rider, waiting. After the museum closes, Cimino (in drag) finds Jean, reads 150 pages of the screenplay in Central Park, then decides they have to visit Ellis Island. It is nighttime and the (Staten Island) ferry only provides looks at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

I have failed to mention that both before his one-day round trip to NYC, Jean compulsively watches Cimino’s disastrous failure “Heaven’s Gate” and Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now, Redux). He also thinks a lot about Cimino’s great success, “The Deer Hunter,” particularly the scene in which Robert De Niro does not shoot the deer that is in his crosshairs. Other deer are important to the novel’s rambling plot. (I don’t know why Jean does not also screen Coppola’s Vietnam movie, “Gardens of Stone”—I guess it was not as obsessive. The other movie frequently alluded to by others but not watched by Jean, is Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” (a particular favorite of mine). Plus there are many quotations from Melville.

Back in Paris, on his 50th birthday Jean dines with Isabelle Huppert (star of “Heaven’s Gate”), drinks himself into oblivious, begins a romance with Léna and manages to lose Sabbat, the Dalmatian entrusted to his care by Tot, a professional gambler whose apartment Jean is occupying, and whose houseplants he has allowed to die. There are also the victims of a terrorist attack that night plus a pair of African refugees Jean whisks away from a raid on an encampment of illegal immigrants to France.

After accompanying Léna to Colmar, where she delivers a God-challenging eulogy in front of her sister’s open casket in front of Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in the Unterlinden Museum, he moves on to “Diana’s Pool,” Lake Nemi (where the goddess turned Actaeon into a stag who was quickly killed by her hunting dogs), a ways southeast of Rome, hopes that Léna will follow him, and writes the book we’ve been reading

(The book won the Prix Medicis, and was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. The title derives from Revelations 3:11, a warning from the Savior who says he is coming soon. Teresa Lavender Fagan did the English translation.).)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray



A Frenchwoman living in Russia during and after the Bolshevik revolution

Although it won both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Médicis (the first notel to do so), I was underwhelmed by Andrei Makine’s ”Le Testament Francais,” (1995). translated as Dreams of My Russian Summers , losing the power and specificity of “testimony,” but registering that the book is mostly about experiences in Russia (though more those of the grandmother than of the narrator grandson).


Other than invoking a past, particularly a grandmother, I don’t see it as very Proustlike, certainly not as a rival to À la recherché du temps perdu. It seems more like Tolstoy’s early autobiographical trilogy, albeit with a Frenchwoman (Charlotte) who had been in Siberia for many decades as well as the boy who will emigrate to France and write in French. (The narrator goes without a name ‘til nearly the end, when he is called Alyosha, called by his schoolmates “Frantsuz” (Frenchie).)

The parts of the surely autobiographical novel I like best are those with “The Dummy,” Pashka who for a time befriends the also socially outcast narrator.

I don’t find Charlotte’s memories (?) of la belle epoque credible. The 1910 Seine flooding, yes, but not the 1896 visit of Nicholas and Alexandra to Paris. I also find a guilty identification with Beria the rapist very contrived, though it is in reference to Beria that he writes: “Life did not bother about the coherence of the subject matter. It spilled out its conents in disorder, pell-mell. In its clumsiness it spoiled the purity of our compassion and compromised our just anger. Life, in fact, was an endless rough draft, in which events, badly organized, encroached on one another, in which the characters were too numerous and prevented one from speaking, suffering, being loved or hated individually” (149), though the novel has few major characters.


©2015, Stephen O. Murray

Later (and much longer!) Sartre plays

Sartre’s plays of the 1950s were appreciably longer than those of the 1940s. Indeed, all four of the later ones are 1.5 times as long as the longest of the earlier one (The Flies).


“Le diable et le bon dieu” (The Devil and the Good Lord, 1951) recalls for me Brecht’s play about the 30 Year Ward, “Mother Courage,” though its title character (singular) is male. The warlord Goetz, who has betrayed his brother and is prepared to raze Worms, is persuaded to spare it and seeks to build a utopian community instead of wage war heavy on rape and pillage.

Edmund White has claimed that this was Sartre’s favorite of his plays. I have (albeit long ago) read Sartre’s Saint Genet (1952) and don’t really see Goetz being based on the petty thief Jean Genet, even as exalted (canonize) by Sartre. For me, Goetz is not an especially interesting character, although I can sympathize with his frustratios at not being able to “go straight” (that is build a community of peace rather than lead troops into battle). His antagonists (the would-be people’s priest Heinrich and the proto-communist Nasti) are even more types, not characters, as are the woman devoted to him after he raped her (Catherine) and a would-be Mother Teresa (more Mother Bountiful), Hilda.

At the end, Goetz is resigned to doing what he must: “I have no other way of being among men. There is a war to fight, and I will fight it.” (The conclusion is the same of Arjuna in the Bahagavad Gita, but Arjuna’s duty to fight was explained to him by the god Krishna).


Kean” (1953) is like nothing in Sartre’s extensive oeuvre—a romantic comedy with a Wildean (Ideal Husband) feel. An adaptation of a play by Alexandre Dumas père about the love life of the fabled English actor Edmund Kean’s amours, notably one with Elena, Countess de Koefeld, the wife of the Danish ambassador. Kean is something of the tastemaker (at least for female flesh) of the dissolute Prince of Wales (modeled on the future Edward VII, who was 60 when he took the throne; the real prince/king was born after Kean’s death). If there is any philosophical subtext of this heavy-footed comedy, I missed it. (Goetz definitely had existential crises!)


Nekrassov” (1955) is a more original comedy that also runs on too long. Its concern with role-playing and role-engulfment brings to mind the plays of Luigi Pirandello. The play has a Cold War setting. Nekrassov is a high Soviet official who has disappeared. In the West, it is widely supposed that he has defected, though the official line from Moscow is that he is resting in the Crimea.

A swindler named Georges claims to be Nekrassov, and a government-supported paper is only too glad to publish his criticisms of the Soviet system. I like the first scene in which Georges is fished out of the Seine by a pair of beggars, before he hits upon the scheme to be a defector guest of the state. He co-opts the one person who actually knows what Nekrassov looks like and evades the regular police who were hot on his tail when he plunged into the Seine.

I don’t think that it is a great play, but, pruned, it could be an entertaining one.


After two comedies, Sartre returned to High Moral Seriousness with “Les séquestrés d’Altona” (The Condemned of Altona, also know as “Loser Wins,” 1959). It is set in a mansion owned by an industrialist (modeled on the Krupp munitions millionaires, though this one made boats for the Nazis) who is dying of cancer. Gerlach wants to see his elder son, who has been self-exiled in the attic for 13 years, having committed war crimes as a Wermacht officier in the Ukraine during WWII. (He had the chance to emigrate to Argentina with so many other Nazis, but instead chose to hide and be declared dead.)

IMHO the second act, set in Franz’s room with Leni, the sister who has been taking him food, and his sister-in-law Johanna drags on way too long. Franz believes that (West) Germany is still in ruins, rather than having rebuilt and being prosperous.

Finally, in Act 5, Franz and his father meet. Franz has already indicated that he knows Germany has rebuilt, but explains “I pretended that I was locking myself up so that I shouldn’t witness Germany’s agony. It’s a lie. I wanted my country to die, and I shut myself up so that I shouldn’t be a witness to its resurrection.” His father tells Franz he is not contemptuous of his son for his war crimes or even for hiding out. Instead the guilt is his (the father’s).

At the end, they go off together to take the crimes of the century (WWII) on themselves and expiate it by death (how German is it!), aware of how many others (e.g., Lt. Klages did nothing to oppose what they knew was wrong).

Any resonances with French war crimes in the struggle against Algerian independence were intentional, though the play is very much about “the question of German guilt,” specifically the guilt of those who went along more than the True Believers in Hitler).

(I saw the not-very-good 1961 movie directed by Vittorio De Sica, with a family including Maximillian Schell, Robert Wagner, and Sophia Loren headed by Frederic March, long long ago. It does not seem available on DVD, though the oddness of the cast should be reason enough to make it available.)


Though he was tending to lggorrhea (already in Saint Genet, but completely over the hill in The Family Idiot), I think that Sartre was a very good playwright and regret that he abandoned it, beyond an adaptation of “The Trojan Women” (1965) and an (uncredited) screenplay for John Huston’s awful Freud biopic with Montgomery Clift (1962), which was published in 1984 after Sartre’s death in 1980.

Early Sartre plays (in reverse chronological order)

I don’t know why I wanted to reread Sartre’s long 1948 play “Dirty Hands.” It’s a lot better than Malaparte’s Kaputt, but that is very faint praise. Though ancient Ilyria was in Yugoslavia at the time, the inspiration of the maneuvering between Nazis and Soviets is more wartime Hungary (with a Regent, Adm. Horthy). The uncompromising though compromised anti-hero, Hugo, holds on to purity again, ready to die, having slain the prematurely pragmatic Hoederer two years earlier. Adapt? Not Hugo. Olga regrets she cannot again harness his idealism for what The Party’s current line (accommodation) is. Some comic relief is provided by the bodyguards, Slick and George, who would not be terribly out of place in a Beckett play.

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(Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in Beijing in 1955)

I’m not sure whether I’d read Sartre’s “The Respectable Prostitute” (La putain respectueuse, 1946) before, though I think so. It is set deep in Faulkner country, where I don’t think Sartre ever visited, and certainly had not before writing the play, an existentialist melodrama in which the title character (Lizzie) tries to do the right thing, but is swayed by a honey-tongued senator before returning to defending a Negro who did not rape or otherwise attack her. (Another one who had not even been on the scene is lynched offstage: “They caught a nigger. It wasn’t the right one.  But they lynched him just the same”).


I also reread “No Exit” (Huis clois, 1944), which I found less interesting. The summation – “Hell is other people” — comes late. I’m not sure that has been shown before Joseph Garcin tells the women with who he is locked up for eternity. The lesbian Inès has been the only forthright one, though maddened that Estelle wants the only available man rather than her. (He wants to have nothing to do with either and early on asks that they all remain silent.) Estelle seems to me to see to be objectified. Does she ever see herself as the other two see her? I don’t think so. Garcin is keenly aware that Inès sees him as a coward, and Estelle as the only being around with a penis.


I was not planning on rereading Sartre’s “The Flies” (Les Mouches, 1943) but was drawn in by the first scene and stayed through the long speeches by Orestes, Electra, and Zeus. Clymenestra barely registers (Orestes does not remember her, having been expelled at a youg age), but Aegisthius is a surprisingly complex character. Not really a Nazi, though depressing everyone with his guilt. And the enemy of the freedom that Orestes (and Electra) seize in murdering their father’s murderers (and/or the soul-murderers of the Argos populace). Now I want to read or reread Sartre’s later plays. I like his essays and plays more than his novels—or politics, though he did denounce Castro for persecuting Cuban writers.


The four plays are published in English in No Exit and Other Plays. I think that Sartre’s plays are more interesting than his novels, though his later ones are so long as to be unplayable (bt not unreadable).


©2018, Stephen O. Murray



Spying on Bertolt Brecht in East Germany

Jaques-Pierre Amette’s 2003 novel La maîtresse de Brecht became the hundredth book to win the Prix Goncourt. It was translated into British English in 2005 not as Brecht’s Mistress, but as Brecht’s Lover. The young and beautiful actress Maria Eich at no point in her assignment by the KGB (The German Democratic Republic’s Ministry of State Security [Stasi] was only officially formed in 1950, though continuing to co-ordinate with the KGB until 1990) to spy on Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who has come to communist East Berlin after 15 years pereginations to Scandinavia and Hollywood is in love with Brecht, nor he with her. He uses her sexually and, for a time, promotes her career in the theater company, the Berliner Ensemble that he heads with his wife (used to his philandering with younger actresses) Helene Weigel. Maria’s KGB/Stasi handler, Hans Trow, is grateful for her zeal at copying every scrap of paper Brecht writes, including those he throws away. That Hans is in love with Maria is more plausible to me than that she is in love with him, but he is determined not to have sex with one of his agents, especially one whose assignment centers on keeping the sexual attraction of the most prominent cultural star of the East German state’s otherwise fairly dim firmament.

The novel opens with Brecht’s return to German soil in October of 1948. The “lovers” have little in common, including one-way (old to young) sexual attraction. “For Maria EIch, Germany was a new country, a series of green hills lined by birch forests, ruined motorways, clouds; for Brecht, it was a country to be rebuilt with money. A field for experimentation, a laboratory for an ideological revolution aimed at the younger generation. Neither of them had this country in common…. They would both eat at the same table, sleeping the same bed and never think the same thing at the same time.”

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(1988 German Democratic Republic stamp with Galileo, the subject of Brecht’s last major play, written and performed in his LA exile not in the GDR/DDR)


When that delight waned, by 1952, Hans Trow provided the funds for Maria to go to West Berlin, where her tubercular daughter and mother had been all along. She becomes a celibate teacher of German, most enamored of earlier German poets, Hölderlin and Heine, not paying much professional attention to the German poet she had lived with for four years. Brecht’s best-known plays other than the musicals with Kurt Weill were written in LA; he theorized and directed plays after returning to Germany, but wrote mostly poems and no major plays.

The novel captures the grayness of East Berlin and the dread of the whims of Stalin in his final years that even the secret police in far-away Berlin constantly felt. The title character is Maria, who is not an intellectual.

Though doubts have been cast (especially by John Fuegi) on how much of Brecht’s oeuvre was actually written by him, he was a gruff intellectual and an avowed Marxist, though of the heterodox Karl Krosch variety rather than a communist subservient to Moscow. Brecht’s most notorious support for the German Democratic Republic’s suppression of dissent came after the period covered by the novel, the GDR crushing of 1953 rebellion using Soviet military force. (He praised the regime for “safeguarding the socialist achievements,” even while living a life of relative privilege that included subscription western publications generally banned in the GDR.)

The characters in Amette’s novel are attempting to understand what Brecht really thought, especially about Stalinist communism. He chose to live (in comfort denied most residents) in the Soviet zone, but had an Austrian passport and Swiss accounts accruing his royalties. Many have considered him a hypocrite. I think that in a bipolar world he managed to prosper as a heterodox (usually) Marxist capitalist, and if he was a sexual predator, much of the prey, including Soviet-sponsored spies was willing to work with and submit to sex with him.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The Moroccan Jewish diaspora, memory, etc.

I’m far from sure why I find Marcel Bénabou’s (1939-) knotted books interesting. The four that have been translated into English (all published by the University of Nebraska Press) are mostly about not being able to write the books he has long wanted to write. Bénabou, who was raised in a Jewish community in Meknès, Morocco and is a professor emeritus of ancient history (specializing in Roman North Africa) at the Paris Diderot University wanted what became Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic to be titled One Always Writes the Same Book. There are many “ones” about whom this is true Bénabou’s own books have different subjects, even if the books are mostly about the inability to write the book about the subject Bénabou chose. His book Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books is not about someone else having written his books but about failing to write more than fragments of the books (not just books, but masterpieces) that he planned, wanted to write, and tried to write, though only producing a few fragments that did not satisfy his high-vaulting ambitions. Along the way, that book also imparted some information about the author’s North African Jewish background.


The closest of his books to a conventional narrative is Écrire sur Tamara/To Write on Tamara?, about which—in good Bénabou fashion—I have been unable to write a review of for some time since I read it. It includes what he presents as attempts dating back to the 1950s to write about his first great love, a sickly but very romantic girl whom he loved when he first came to Paris as a student and who died. Insofar as it is a memoir rather than a book about not being able to write a memoir of his young love, it has some overlap of characters with the book about (not being able to write the epic account of) his native Moroccan Jewish community and forebearers, Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun. The parents and sister and his best friend who was aspiring to write a novel when both were high school students in Morocco appear in both books. There is no mention of Tamara in Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun. The three names are Bénabou’s three grandfathers, none of whom he knew. He only has three because of the endogamy of his natal community (and five instead of eight great-grandfathers).


Although not by nature (or commitment) a narrative writer, Bénabou does manage to tell something about his forebearers and about the now-vanished community of his childhood and youth in the French neo-colony (protectorate). Many of the Meknès Jews emigrated to Israel after Moroccan independence in 1956 and subsequent heightened persecution of Jews. Bénabou himself has lived in Paris since he went there as a student in 1957.

Along with some analysis of the culture and history of Moroccan Jewish communities and the place of his ancestors (both with rising and declining fortunes), he writes about how he came to view books as sacred and to want to write an epic about his unknown or forgotten people (Sephardic Jews living in a world not invoked by the various writings about Ashkenazic villages and ghettoes in Poland and the Ukraine with strange things such as fur hats: “These Jews in the cold, snow, and mud seemed to me incredibly [and therefore unusably] exotic…. I could not imagine that a Jewish life could be led in any other way than the constant complicity of the sun and the blue sky ” I can see Racine is not a suitable model, but I’m less clear about why Tacitus could not be one). He writes about various models that failed him or that he failed (including W, the recreation of a childhood about which he did not remember anything by Bénabou’s close friend and collaborator in the Workshop of Potential Literature (OULIPO), Georges Perec. There is something reminiscent of Borges in the summaries of the style and substance of books Bénabou sought to write, but didn’t. (And his position as a successful Parisian with an anti-nostalgic nostalgia for North Africa is reminiscent of the Jacques Derrida who appeared in the movie “Derrida” shortly before his death.)

Over time, the aging author’s memories faded and he discovered there was some documentation of the past that he believed would be lost if he did not write a comprehensive account. Moreover, Bénabou was put off by the egocentrism. He claimed that he “had been borne along by the illusion that I was merely a narrator whose task was to finally give a voice to all those whom I had pretensiously called ‘my people’; I realized that in fact I myself was making up most of the space in order to tell a few old personal secrets I had too carefully kept. I was afraid of having upstaged in this way the people I initially wanted to honor” (in this he would be like many contemporary “reflexive” anthropologists). He also came to recognize that his “mind was much too abstract, much too attracted to systems and combinatory games to be able to give birth to flesh and blood characters” and is much better at telling and commenting on than in showing (though better at showing than he gives himself credit for).

(Given that Bénabou has seemingly read everything, it seems odd to me that he does not mention The Tongue Set Free, the great memoir of growing up in another Sephardic community by Elias Canetti, a writer whose fictional masterpiece is about a bibliomaniac (and an unliterary housekeeper).)

The result is whatever the nonfiction analog of metafiction is. Metamemoir about trying to write a memoir and hobbled by more than doubt in the accuracy of the author’s memoir? The result, despite all the self-doubt and self-criticism, is not without charm and manages to convey some things about the vanished lifeways and about Bénabou’s mother as well as about the patriarchs named in the title. Bénabou did not deliver the book he felt that the history of Meknès Jews deserved, but did produce an often witty if generally melancholic postmodernist monument to his background. If they were not epic heroes, if Marcel Bénabou is neither an epic hero nor an epic writer, the book he did produce shows that Someone Was There. And, as with the library of titles Borges imagined, filling out the volumes might be less interesting than the sketches of the books that don’t exist.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray