Notebook January 2021
Prize time in Paris
On the many book prizes of Paris and their attendant traditions.
By late autumn, France’s literary season is in full swing. Each year, various societies announce their awards for the best French fiction and nonfiction, works translated into French, specialized scholarly subjects, and first novels. Other prizes recognize that very French specialty, the graphic novel, and writers who have never previously won a literary award. There are also awards, like the Prix Sade (named after you-know-who), that celebrate more recondite subjects.
Some prizes are awarded earlier in the year. The Prix Cazes and the Prix des Deux Magots are announced in January, while the Fauve d’or is awarded in June. But the most prestigious prizes are announced just before the gift-giving season, generally after a bibulous lunch. On the second Tuesday in November, for example, the Académie Goncourt convenes at Restaurant Drouant in the Second Arrondissement and announces from a first-floor window, urbi et orbi, that year’s winner. A few minutes later, the Prix Renaudot jury emerges from its adjoining salon at Drouant to proclaim its choice from the famous staircase. Around the same time, juries for the Prix Femina, Prix Medicis, Prix Interallié, Prix Décembre, and the Prix Académie Française get together at their favored watering holes to wine, dine, and recognize their prizewinners.
Some restaurants are more than just venues: the Prix des Deux Magots, Prix Flore, and Prix Wepler are named after their sponsoring cafés, while the Prix Cazes is named for the Brasserie Lipp’s long-gone owner. While the prizes’ on-the-day value tends to be low (the Prix Goncourt presents a check—seldom cashed—for just €10), the real value lies in royalties that the red band on a prizewinning book brings. One journalist estimated that the Prix Goncourt can yield royalties not far short of a Nobel’s. There are other benefits, too—the winner of the Prix Flore gets a personalized wine glass with free refills of Pouilly at the restaurant over the next year.
Another feature of les prix—apart from their celebration of literature—was, most notably in earlier times but still around today, their bitchiness, often expressed at the jury level. The Prix Femina, with its all-female jury, was created in 1904 after the (all-male) Académie Goncourt ignored Myriam Herry’s La Conquête de Jérusalem. In the Twenties, the Prix Renaudot was founded by annoyed journalists waiting outside Drouant for the Goncourt call. A few years after that, the Prix Interallié was created by equally annoyed journalists waiting for news about the Prix Femina. The Prix des Deux Magots was born from a conviction that the Prix Goncourt singled out boring books, while Marcellin Cazes, the owner of the Brasserie Lipp (just across from Les Deux Magots), wasn’t about to let his competition steal a march.
Apart from the war years, 2020 was about the only time that the prizes were thrown off schedule. In early November, the government closed restaurants, librairies, and other small businesses. To help protect France’s independent booksellers (whose sales depend on prize custom), many juries delayed their announcements until bookstores were permitted to re-open. Happily, that happened quickly, and most of the remaining prizes have been announced.
Getting to a final selection takes a lot of reading. The better-known prizes use a winnowing process where, a few months before the prize is announced, the jury publishes its première sélection of a dozen or more books. The deuxième sélection three weeks later halves that, and the ultime sélection some two weeks later results in la dernière shortlist of about four books from which the winner is drawn. In the early stages, books are often found in several juries’ selections. L’anomalie, which took the Goncourt this year, was initially selected by four juries, as was Irène Frain’s moving and infuriating Un crime sans importance (Seuil). Several other books appeared on three lists, including Maël Renouard’s L’historiographe du royaume (Grasset), Miguel Bonnefoy’s Héritage (Payot et Rivages), and Diane Mazloum’s Une piscine dans le desert (J.-C. Lattès), all excellent books that have not yet won.
This year’s Prix Cazes went to Alexandre Postel’s Un automne de Flaubert (Flammarion). Postel’s novel shows a Flaubert beset by personal and financial problems and fearful that his best writing is behind him. Escaping to Concarneau in Brittany, he meets up with two friends: one a museum director, the other a marine biologist called Georges Pouchet. Slowly, Flaubert’s mood improves through the traditional seaside tonics: beach walks, swimming, sea air, gorging on enormous amounts of lobster (the staple at his pension), and his friends’ equable company. One day, Pouchet draws Flaubert’s attention to an aquarium where a lobster is undergoing the exhausting process of molting. Until the new carapace is formed, Pouchet says, the lobster “will be soft, weak and vulnerable. But once the molt is complete, it will be bigger, stronger, and better armed for life.” What worked for the lobster will work for Flaubert. Back in his room a few days later, unable to sleep and fidgety, he suddenly finds himself able to work again and starts sketching The Legend of Saint Julien the Hospitalier, one of the Trois Contes, perhaps his greatest work. Un automne de Flaubert is a story of loss and rebirth, of the germination of ideas, and the pain and satisfaction of writing.
Gérard Philippe, one of France’s great post-war actors, died young in 1959. Sixty years later, his son-in-law, the author Jérôme Garcin, won the Prix des Deux Magots for his description of Philippe’s last months in Le dernier hiver du Cid (Gallimard), the “Cid” being the hero of Corneille’s love-and-duty tragicomedy and one of Philippe’s great roles. Garcin takes us from Philippe’s haunted sense that he was unwell (“when he came downstairs after a restless night . . . he was already exhausted . . . [with] those strange stabbing pains that no painkiller could still”) through his death and burial. His wife concealed the diagnosis until almost the end, allowing Philippe happily to plan his future triumphs. Garcin repeats the touching eulogies for the ever-young Philippe, even those from his surgeon, who never missed a performance by his patient. “We will try to be elegant,” his wife remembered Philippe saying, “if one day we are unhappy.”
The Prix Flore—and its supply of Pouilly—went to La grâce by Thibault de Montaigu (Plon). Out of nowhere, this trendy and successful author is struck by depression. “There was no event,” he says. “No drama or warning. Even the smallest task seemed to require an insurmountable effort and I spent my days crucified in bed, hoping only for sleep.” But miraculously, and to the incredulity of family and friends, he is touched by grace during Mass and his depression lifts. Wishing to share his astonishment, he contacts his expiring uncle Christian, a rake-turned-Franciscan who dies before telling his own story of redemption. The death impels the author to discover how Christian’s encounter with God’s grace changed his life. “The miracle of hope,” writes de Montaigu, “is to accept what is going to come, no matter what. . . . [T]here is something in there for us, that we do not see at first glance, but it is for the best.”
Utterly different was the choice for the Prix Wepler. In the absurdist De parcourir le monde et d’y rôder by Grégory le Floch (Bourgois), the author finds a thing on the ground, “some kind of coin, soft and irregular, or rather a soft organ of a mouse, like a stomach or spleen,” and takes it on his travels to see what people think. The libertine Ce qui plaisait à Blanche by Jean-Paul Enthoven (Grasset), winner of the Prix Interallié, was different in its own way; though fluently written, when we eventually find “what Blanche likes,” the will to continue through all sixty-six chapters somewhat diminishes. Meanwhile, the Angoulême Festival’s Fauve d’or went in June to the beautifully drawn Révolution, the first part of a three-volume graphic novel by Florent Grouazel and Younn Locard (Actes Sud) illustrating the convulsive events of 1789. Marat and Robespierre, among others, make their first appearances—we will undoubtedly see more of them in later volumes.
Nature humaine by Serge Joncour (Flammarion), the winner of the Prix Femina, quietly celebrates resistance to change. Set between 1976, the last year when the Fabrier farm could afford to grow saffron, and the windstorms of 1999, when it survives by battery farming, Nature humaine describes how modernity is destroying rural life. Alexandre Fabrier, the family’s gentle son, succeeds his parents as his three sisters quit the farm for Paris and Toulouse. Over the years Alexandre’s gentleness changes as shopping centers expand, villages die, and rural life all but disappears. We meet Alexandre’s neighbor, Crayssac, railing about ammoniated telephone poles and polluting highways while his sister’s friend, the beautiful Constanze, slowly turns Alexandre to violence. The book evokes the disappearing beauty of rural life, warns of worse things to come, and offers a novel’s perspective on issues affecting France today.
A different but depressingly familiar form of radicalization is found in Etienne de Montety’s gripping La grande épreuve (Stock), the winner of the Académie Française’s Grand Prix du roman. Influenced by the murder of a priest in Rouen in 2015, the book weaves the stories of seven people: Hicham, the disaffected son of Moroccan immigrants (“my little Frenchman,” his adoring mother calls him); Frédéric, a policeman of Vietnamese extraction; Sister Agnès, a missionary nun who works in the Muslim-settled areas of town; Laure and François, a prosperous, self-absorbed couple; their adopted son, David, who, under Hicham’s baleful influence changes his name to Daoud; and Father Georges Tellier, the local curé. One interpretation of the title is Father Tellier’s struggle to be a good priest in a land estranged from its Catholic past, another is his martyrdom at the hands of Hicham and Daoud. The book’s opening description of morning Mass artfully sets up its murderous denouement and poignant aftermath. More than once, memories of Georges Bernanos’ novels come to mind.
At the end of November, the Académie Goncourt announced (by video) its prize for the sci-fi-ish L’anomalie by Hervé Le Tellier (Gallimard), while the Prix Renaudot followed with its award for Histoire du fils by Marie-Hélène Lafon (Buchet-Castell). The two books could not be more different.
The “anomaly” refers to a June 2021 flight from Paris to New York, which, after a horrific storm and emergency landing, is found, to universal astonishment, to be the same that landed months previously. Then the military gets involved, and the plot takes a highly inventive turn. The first third of the book engagingly introduces the characters: a French hitman, a struggling author, a film editor, an architect, a Nigerian singer, and a pilot named Markle, all of whom will be affected by the anomaly. It is an oddly engaging story, and Le Tellier’s stylish writing keeps us going through the craziness of the plot.
Histoire du fils tells the story of a family from Cantal over four generations. Its narrative leanness is balanced by beautifully colored character descriptions. André, the eponymous son, is the result of a fling by Gabrielle, a school nurse, with Paul, a much younger boy. After Paul goes to study in Paris, the relationship slowly cools, and Gabrielle leaves André to be raised by her kindly sister, Hélène. The story is the fruit of André’s long search for his family identity, through wars and upheavals. While strict chronology is not one of the book’s characteristics, André’s intuitive joining of the pieces of his life is a true pleasure, even though the fit is never precise—just as in real life.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 5, on page 78
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