The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo, Chourmo, tr. Howard Curtis (Europa Editions)        Europa Editions are re-issuing Izzo’s Marseille Trilogy in Howard Curtis’s translation. The first novel, Total Chaos (orig. 1995), ended with a tribute to Marseille as ‘une ville selon nos coeurs’, and that runs true in this second book, full, as it is, of family links and shared youths. I have to say that Izzo’s French and his ex-cop Fabio Montale’s Marseille dialect lose a lot along the way. ‘Chourmo’ is dialect for the civil society of friends and relations in the transactions of warmth and awareness of one’s debts that make Marseille feel like a village. Izzo’s books have three stand-out attributes: first, his ability to learn from the neo-polars which resuscitated French noir via American hard-boiled in the 90s (Patrick Manchette, who died in 1995, and Didier Daeninckx, who is still going strong, come immediately to mind); second—perhaps because Izzo had already read the Italian, Camilleri—his interest in writing about food and the people who create it leave one with the scent of lavender and thyme. Perhaps most important, Izzo could catch a character in no time at all. Montale is a good friend, but also a good hater (and shares experience with Izzo, whose national service to him to Djibouti). His plotting requires constant attention, and is so complex that I won’t begin to offer a precis. Marseille has long been influenced by Italian immigrants. As his name suggests, Izzo was the son of migrants, like so many in the south of France; a left-wing journalist; and someone who saw the threat of the Front National early. The influx of migrants from Algeria, the ‘Harki’ who had fought for France, is not much present. While these books have been graced with the label ‘Marseille Noir’, that’s whatever a nomenclature is worth. In addition to American noir, Izzo knew rap, jazz, and film. Booze and fags killed him young, not much older than 54. Montale out-lived his creator.

 

Colm Toíbín, House of Names (2017)  If you grew up with this story, you may be surprised by Colm Toíbín’s retelling. I did, and I was. Re-tellings and adaptations, as we now think of them, are as old as the legends of Troy, and, in the hands of great writers, such as Aeschylus, made those legends.  Toíbín‘s version of the Oresteia took the eponymous Agamemnon from one of the ‘Returns’, that of Clytaemnestra, tricked into sending her daughter to Troy in order (dixit her husband) to marry Achilles, through the duty of revenge in which Orestes made himself a captive to the Furies–those Kindly Ones. In Aeschylus’ trilogy the story moves into contemporary Athens with its public trials replacing private vendetta. That is, one of the key stories of Troy, already looking backward to Bronze Age Greece, was modernised by accepting a heroic age that belonged to a distant time but made relevant to the present. Nothing new about that, then. In 2006 the bilingual and dual national, Jonathan Littell, won both the Goncourt and the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie francaise for his resetting of the story in Chechnya, Les Bienveillants (also ‘The Kindly Ones’), and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (2011). In Toíbín‘s version, he nods from time to time in the direction of alternative truths, weaving first-person narratives into a narration. The first third of the book is Clytaemnestra’s, and addresses the book’s denial of gods, and the creation of a godless, lawless, world in which murder is normal. In the trilogy Iphigenia is the accepting sacrifice bowing to the exigencies of war and Electra is the family hysteric of myth and legend. Orestes is a damaged boy and youth, with no Pylades by his side, but, rather, yet another ambitious man hunting for revenge and for power. Usually, rewritings of myth are instrumental to some degree. This one appears to be a lingering meditation on social and individual breakdown in a society that has lost its boundaries and, with it, its governance.  Toíbín did a lot of research for this book, from classical myths, legends, and tragedies, to other people’s understanding of the family tragedy, to contemporary books, and, above all, to the over-deitied presence of .murder in Northern Ireland and in the hands of Islamic State. Clytaemnestra gets her revenge, and so do her surviving children.

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (2018) The fashion for retelling tales from classical literature may be surprising, but when one looks at which authors are engaged in revivifying the ancient legends, perhaps the movement is clear. In addition to Colm Toibin (House of Names, 2017), Christa Wolf (Kassandra), any number of fantasy recountings of the war at Troy, not to mention stand-alone books on Helen and Achilles; Ariadne and Medea (two generations before Troy’s fall). Pat Barker creates another Lyrnessus, a city near Troy, which is destroyed by Achilles and his men who break down the gates. Suddenly the city’s men and boys are all dead; the women suddenly slaves. The narrative voice is that of Briseis, the widowed young queen of the now-ruined city. In this retelling Agamemnon’s sense of his status is always at risk, not least because he is not the soldier his subordinates are. Thus, like any mafia boss, he worries about the status of his slave, awarded to him as an important prize–when he must return the beautiful Chriseis to her father when he comes to beg for his child. Women, slaves, were often named simply as ‘daughter of’ their father’s name. The attack on Achilles’ prize threatens Agamemnon’s hold on his prestige and the gathered armies, and with the loss of his slave, he simply robs Achilles of his ‘Briseis’. The struggle between the two men (really a struggle by Agamemnon) is largely is a version of the failure of balance between Agamemnon’s and Achilles’ petty quarrel about which of them gets a replacement prize: diplomacy means Achilles is forced to send Briseis to Agamemnon once Chryseis has been sent home. This is so much like little boys fighting over their toys that it is hard to believe they are grown men. I imagine that Barker may have been thinking about how much people trafficking now might resemble ancient slavery. Or how plague arrived in unhygienic army camps, brought by huge numbers of rats. What is clear is that Briseis is part of a silent population of enslaved women, who have been reduced to living and dying as objects. The amount of graphic killing and the number of dead take the breath away. There’s a compact and very good wikipedia page for Briseis, immortality of a kind, as well as an impressive list of interpretations of Briseis’s many lives.

 

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