Excerpt: Stéphanie Hochet's Combat de l’amour et de la faim

We live in an ever-growing multi-cultural world. 

Every country is a microcosmos of culture, comprising literature, music, culinary traditions, etc..

Sure, this was always the case. Since the dawn of 'nations' or 'empires', every region cultivated its own culture. The totality of this human endeavor is what sociologists and anthropologists insist on calling 'civilization'. 

But in today's world, heavily characterized by globalization and fast-communication, most of the artists who 'make it' in a given constituency, never make it outside the realms of recognition of their fellow cultural brethren; the struggle to break through the barriers of one's immediate surroundings is even greater today than it ever was.

Using the internet (Social networks, web2 ) as a platform for this desired act of transgression can help be effective in accomplishing the mission. But this is only a partial succcess, echoing Andy Warhol's 1968 prophecy that "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.

To make it through you need to be able to 'speak the language of the other'. Musicians and film makers can achieve this by earning a new crowd outside their country of origin; Writers do it by getting translated..


Stéphanie Hochet is a 36 year old French writer who has been publishing since the age of 26. She's also a Facebook friend :)

Hochet's published six novels so far. The last three of which were released in the reputable Publishing house, Librairie Arthème Fayard

Her seventh, La distribution des lumières (The distribution of lights) is due to be released this October by Flammarion, a French publishing house no less distinguished.. 

The themes of her novels are quite diverse and almost evolve around personages from the extremities of everyday life: a 15 year old who discovers he has brain cancer in Je ne connais pas ma force (I don't know my own Power), an Italian translator who flees Berlusconi's regime to France in La Distribution,

Her last novel, Combat de l’amour et de la faim ('The struggles of love and hunger'), won the prestigious Prix Lilas 2009, reserved for outstanding literature written by women, as well as the praises of fellow francophone writer, Amélie Nothomb, whose novels Fear and Trembling and The Life of Hunger have gained worldwide success and recognition (Nothomb keeps publishing novels at a rate of almost more than 1 each year - she's published almost 30 so far. Why do successful authors insist on feeding their devout lectors with so many titles to devour?!)

[Let it be said in double brackets that this somewhat annoying tendency 'famous' and well-to-do authors have of publishing novels at a pace of one or more a year is, at most times, both degrading to their oeuvre - if they have one, indeed - and to their readers. This tendency seems to have invaded 'high' literature in 1st world countries like the United States and France (England seems to have remained untouched, as of yet) for obvious commercial reasons and readers are now infested with swarms of novels to buy and read. It is the Excerpt's opinion that Readers should long for their favorite authors' word-of-mouth and not be confronted by it whither they go].

Having said that and got that rant out of the way, let us return to the original subject of this post: Stéphanie Hochet's last novel.

None of Stéphanie's novels were translated into English, or, as far as I know, into any other European language, let alone non-European.

Stéphanie's agreed to let the Excerpt Reader read and review an excerpt from her last novel. 

The struggles has all the ingredients of an international best seller, but will it make it beyond the Iron Curtain? Well, that's a different question..

Set in the puritan south of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, it relates the adventures of Marie Shortfellow, a fortune hunter set on surviving while all around him hatred and racism, misery and financial ruin threaten to bring him down along with the rest of all those 'miserable, unfortunate souls'.

Taking the reader through his life's story, from childhood to adolescence and then to manhood, Hochet chronicles the story of one hungry man's animal-like revolt and violence  against injustice. 

The excerpt provided by Stéphanie, relates a reading experience (it is always fun to read about the sensation of reading..) The narrator (is it Marie?) relates his reading from an erotic poem in a very vivid and sensual, graphic yet quite lyrical and poetic narrative.

Confronted by terotic descriptions of a very imaginative nature, the narrator can't help but wonder: "Où l’auteur avait-il puisé une telle métaphore?" ("Where did the author draw such metaphors from?"

'Reality' and fiction slowly intermingle and intertwine as the narrator describes his conquest of a woman named Heather, in a very sensuous and sweeping prose.

The excerpt doesn't reveal a lot of the book's plot. It does give us a very good glimpse of Hochet's style of prose and range of writing which are inarguably rich.

VERDICT: BUY IT (If and when it is translated. And if you read French, do it now).


Excerpt: Philip Roth's The Humbling

Up till 2004, Philip Roth used to publish new novels at a pace of one every two to three years. 

Ever since The Plot Against America, though, he's been publishing a-novel-a-year, in a frenzy characterizing a writer confronting his mortality (Roth is almost 78 after all; he'll celebrate his birthday 78'th birthday next March, 4 days after mine); or competing in a race to gain the Nobel prize for literature he's been contending for for a long time now..

Amongst the novels Roth published since The Plot are Everyman (2006), Exit Ghost (2007), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009).

Of Roth's last 6 novels, I'd read only two, Everyman and Exit Ghost (the first, Roth's 'debut' in a series short, Nemeses, novels; the latter the last installment, to date, in his Zuckerman novels). Everyman, a semi-autobiographical novel, had read to me as a 'confession' of sorts, one man's coming-to-terms with his life and with his own mortality. All in all, this was a very good read, even if dealing with somewhat 'heavy' subjects and themes. As for Exit Ghost, well, much like Everyman, heck, like most of Roth's novels, this novel too, deals with the subject of human moratlity, and is in a way a brief soul-searching journey (more in the metaphysical than in the physical way) Zuckerman, in his twilight days.

This October, he is intended to publish his twenty eighth novel, Nemesis, relating the tale of Bucky Cantor, a young playground director in 1944 Newark, who contends with a polio outbreak which ravages the kids at the playground. Seven years later, he is still (like any classic, need we say Jewish?, Roth'ian (anti) hero), filled with guilt and remorse and is haunted by bad  luck, lackluster protagonist that he is.. (again, it is uncleaar whether the archenemy eluded to in the novel's title is the protagonist himself or someone from the outside, lurking.. 

Hence, upon a chance encounter with a cheap, paperback edition of his last novel, The Humbling, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to catch up on my Roth-Reading, before Roth goes ahead and leaves me behind..

The decision was not short-lived. Many-a-book I've bought on the whim of a momentary self-persuasion; an attractive book cover; or over-hyped media.. but this will not be the case with Humbling, for, as I was soon to find out, Roth's last novel is every bit as interesting as it is a short, page-turning novella of heartbreaking, staggering genius and beauty, if I am to borrow another author's coinage.

Humbling is laid out as a greek or Shakespearian tragedy, with a a three-act structure and a . The tragedy's (anti) hero, Simon Axler, almost 70 years old, is an actor who finds himself confronted one day with an actor's block. Despaired, he slowly withdraws from an active life of acting in theaters into a nightmarish world of self-estrangement and insignificance. 

The story related in the first chapter, 'Into Thin Air', is that of Axler's demise. We find him at his lowest possible point. Without any apparent reason, he stops acting and becomes pray to morbid thoughts of suicide. 

This is a story of a man's fall. The novel's title, at least at this point in the narrative, is a bit misleading: If humbling be "meekness or modesty in behavior, attitude, or spirit; not arrogant or prideful", then Axler's behavior is more that of self-effacement, and possibly rage at his predicament, a classic tragic hero's reaction to the fate that's befallen on him. 

But the gods of Humbling are not very responsive ones. In fact, they are practically inexistent. In their stead, there's friends, and there's modern psychiatry (Axler admits himself into a psychiatric hospital after his wife, Victoria, leaves him). 

Even there Axler is denied any particularity and case is diagnosed with an acute case of 'universal nightmare', as his psychiatrist, Dr. Farr explains: 

"Going out on the stage and being unable to perform was among the sock set of dreams that most every patient reported at one time or another. That and walking naked down a busy city street or being unprepared for a crucial exam or falling off a cliff or finding on the highway that your brakes don't work."

Generally speaking, the first part of Humbling could easily be read as a speech in defense of suicide (Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus comes to mind a few times).

This could have been quite depressing, if it were not for Roth's exceptional, beautifully insightful writing. Here's a typical Roth'ian paragraph, relating the inception of Axler and Virginia's love:

"[He] used to go to the City Center to see her dance, not because he loved ballet but because of his youthful susceptibility to the capacity she she had to stir him to lust through the pathway of the tenderest emotions: she remained in his memory for years afterward as the very incarnation of erotic pathos."

What a wonderful passage. It could well serve as a short story or poem in itself. Ample work for linguistics and literary scholars alike.

On the other hand, Roth tends to overdo it at times, and get his narrative entangled around semi-tautological sentences like this one:

"You can get very good at getting by on what you get by on when you don't have anything else" 

But than again, this is Roth for you, publishing a novel a year, mostly genius, partly blurred..

VERDICT: BUY IT (because it merits a read, Nobel prize or no Nobel prize..)


Excerpt: David Bellos' Romain Gary: A Tall Story

The Excerpt Reader is used to reading and reviewing well-to-do or much-spoken-of novelty-novels for its crowd of devotees, ocasionally lending out a hand to a Twitter or Facebook buddy in need of a break, usually in the form of a quick book excerpt review (for what else can the Excerpt Reader do?!)

But from time to time, the Excerpt likes to do something for the soul.

Forget all those high-profile and much-hyped novelists and devote a reading & review to a long appreciated scholar/writer.

David Bellos is one of these writers.  

English-born translator and biographer, Bellos teaches French literature at Princeton University in the United States. He has published numerous translations of french writers, such as Georges Perec and Fred Vargas, and has translated Albanian writer Ismail Kadare's novels from previous French translations (a practice I believed was already extinct within the field of professional literary translation, but there you go..)

Translations aside, Bellos' undisputed forte are his award-winning literary biographies of great French figures: So far he's written Georges Perec: A Life in Words (1993)Jacques Tati. His Life and Art (1999).

I've been wanting to buy Bellos' Georges Perec: A Life in Words ever since I read an excerpt from it in 2004 (I am an excerpt reader after all..). The excerpt was very insightful and learned, providing new information and original perspectives into this enigmatic and wonderful French writer of Jewish decent. 

Since the book has been out of print for a few years now, there are only a handful of second hand volumes trotting the world, and these are hard to come by today (the Reader would appreciate any information about the whereabouts of a decent copy of this biography).

This November, Random House will publish Bellos' latest installment, Romain Gary. A Tall Storyanother literary biography, of a great French writer, no less monumental than Perec as he is enigmatic.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

Born Roman Kacew in Russia, and immigrated to France at the age of fourteen, Gary wrote most of his oeuvre in French, until he decided, almost as a whim, to start writing in English, a language he had only begun to acquire at the age of 30.

Quite as versatile as he was profilic (he published almost 40 novels, memoirs and screenplays), Gary lived a life as rich as no other: he was a French diplomat, novelist, film director and screenwriter, World War II aviator, and is to-date the only author to have won the Prix Goncourt twice; once, in 1956 for Les racines du ciel (The Roots of Heaven in English) published under his own name; and another, in 1975, for La vie devant soi (The Life Before Us in English) published under the pseudonym Émile Ajar. 

Funnily enough, Gary was never awarded the nobel prize for literature.

Bellos' 'calling' in writing this biography, as well as to introduce this at-times enigmatic writer to the average 21st century reader, is, it seems, to rectify this wrong and explain "how close he [Gary] came to being the twentieth century’s Victor Hugo."

Reading Bellos' biography and getting acquainted with Gary's life and oeuvre, one can easily appreciate the appeal this great writer had on Bellos, for, like Perec, Gary wrote under a few pseudonyms, toying with different literary genres, often 'inventing' a life for himself (Though a great deal of their writings were of an 'autobiographical' nature - well at least to a certain extent - both Perec and Gary invented their lives time and again in their works: Perec in W or the Memory of Childhood; Gary in Promise at Dawn, for both were "skillful liars" who obsessively reinvented their lives time and again, if only to enjoy "the experience of being someone else," or to remake themselves as someone else.

Focusing on the works as well as on the life of the person who wrote them, Bellos' task in this biography, as it must have been when writing Perec's biography, is doubly frustrating, as he confesses: 

"Nothing can be recovered of Gary’s life as a child save for a few possibly flawed documents, a couple of photographs, and the memories – but are they memories? that Gary retails in Promise at Dawn"

Life or fiction, which comes first? Sometimes it's hard to tell:

"Such was the intensity of Gary’s commitment to the shaping of the world by the imagination that his own work occasionally seems to be prophetic of his life, rather than dependent on it. [...] In these instances, experience must have seemed to Gary to vindicate his underlying belief that imagination can pattern events..."

The biographer's job then is to 'separate the wheat from the chaff', to tell the 
right from wrong, if such a thing is possible..

I love that Bellos is not recoiled by this arduous task.

Challenge is his elixir, and his readers are all but damaged by this.

VERDICT: BUY IT (but only if culture isn't some dirty word you like bringing up 
in cocktail parties)


Excerpt: Paul Kennedy's The Carpet King of Texas

The Excerpt Reader occasionally snoops outside its haughty literary realm of high-and-fine literature and lends a hand to a fellow Twitter or Facebook buddy in need of a break, usually in the form of a quick book excerpt review (for what else does the Excerpt Reader know to do?!)

Thus it was with Derek Haines' Milo Moon; & so it shall be with Paul Kennedy's The Carpet King of Texas (See, also, the Official Site).

Hailed as a "Trainspotting for the Viagra generation" (not sure what it means except for the illusion to drugs, Irvine Welsh and foul mouthed Scots), Paul Kennedy's is a "shocking debut novel from an award-winning journalist" from Liverpool (the novel's title actually reminds me more of DBC Pierre's choice of titles - Pierre's new novel Lights out in Wonderland was reviewed by the Excerpt Reader not long ago - than anything of Irvine Welsh's)

The Carpet King of Texas tells the twisted tales of "three lives a million miles apart as they come crashing together with disastrous consequences:" Drug-addicted-teenager Jade Thompson who prostitutes for her 'fixes'; Self proclaimed "Carpet King of Texas" Dirk McVee, who "prowls Liverpool's underbelly to quench his thirst for sexual kicks;" and finally  John Jones Junior, small-boy-with-a-grown-up-face who, "with a drug addicted father, no motherly love, no hope and no future, has no chance at all."

The novel's first chapter is basically a long (too-long) description of Jade's endeavors as a drug-addict/prostitute on a typical 'night out/in", and it starts thus:

"The needle on the floor wasn’t really that dirty. And any dirt in it, belonged to Jade in the first place. It was her dirt. Without giving it much thought, she picked it up and rinsed it under the tap, not bothering to clean the dishes in the sink. Blood, her blood, washed away down the plug hole along with the remains of a Chinese take-away she couldn’t remember ordering or for that matter eating.

Jade didn’t eat much anyway. Her tiny frame was testimony to that. She had always been a slim girl but never this slim, never six stone. She was probably less, it had been a while since she last weighed herself. It was one of the drawbacks of heroin abuse, not eating, along with not remembering.

There was no tea-towel in the flat. Maybe at some point there had been one, but Jade couldn’t remember owning a tea-towel, or ever buying one. She used her tee shirt to dry the syringe before sitting back down on a scruffy red couch.

Her room was sparse, there was nothing in it of value. A television, DVD and stereo system had long been pawned, along with her collection of CDs. She didn’t really miss any of them, except maybe Take That’s Greatest Hits, the first one. Her mother bought her that when she passed six GCSEs three years before.

"You’ll go to University one day, luv,” her mum told her and anyone who would listen. “She’s a bright girl, our Jade.”

The wallpaper in the flat was tired, stained with years of cigarette smoke by previous tenants and worn out at the corners but Jade didn’t care too much for the decor, it was a place to sleep, get her head down. A place to bring punters back to."

* You can read the first chapter in its entirety here.

As an Excerpt Reader (well, as any reader for that matter), I have a general problem with novels starting out in this manner. 

Readers should not be bored to death with long and repetitive Balzacian descriptive passages right smack in the beginning of a novel, where the voice of the narrator (or is it the writer?) is heard over too loudly, mopping away all hope of a genuine character, with stereotyped and cliched protagonists.

This goes on to even worser places; the tedious narrative tone hastily makes way to a gruesome description of Jade's affliction:

"Jade lifted her left leg up, bringing her knee to her chin. Her left leg was the better of the two. Although she only had three of her five toes on her left foot, at least she had a left foot. Her right one had been amputated after the gangrene had set in. Then she lost the bottom of her right leg below the knee. She had tried injecting into the stump, but it didn’t work.

The veins on her arms were well and truly out of bounds. Constant abuse had taken its toll, leaving Jade to resort to her legs to get the desired kick. She took off her faux-leather boot and tapped away at one of the three remaining toes.


Truth of the matter was there was no right foot and most of her right leg was missing. Her prosthetic one was hidden by the thigh high boots she wore every time she went out on the block. Most of the time she got away with it. No one really noticed that she was an amputee when she was sucking them off and calling them “daddy”."

O.K. You might justly point out that this is the serious topic of drug addiction we're dealing with here, and that these types of afflictions ought to be discussed in length, and I'd totally agree with you in most cases.. 

Exposing the potential reader to the perils of drug addiction (even today; even after The Basketball DiariesTrainspotting or Requiem for a Dream, for that matter) is important.

However, I seem to lack any sympathy or what-have-you from Kennedy, and this lack of 'engagement' makes the narration in Carpet King very dry and pale. 

All this is not to say that Carpet King displays bad writing. 

The topic discussed, as well as the way its presented are interesting enough to make you want to flip the old page and turn over to read the next, but the techniques employed by Kennedy to make your reading 'enjoyable' (as reading Welsh's Trainspotting is, for that matter, quite enjoyable) are not advanced enough. 

The reader is hence 'stuck' with a dragging story which seems to prance back and forward (in time, as well as in themes) between one stream-of-thought to the other. 

The second chapter leaves poor old Jade and jumps right off to tell the tale of Dirk McVee, the Carpet King of Texas.

I've had enough at this stage, sorry.. 

If you feel like reading some more you're welcome to it right here 

VERDICT: DON'T BUY (unless you're a drug addict, from Liverpool or just plain bored)