Normandy Through the Eyes of French Authors – Bill Alder

Our November ’23 talk was on French authors novels set in Normandy presented by Bill Alder.

Bill gave us an overview of eight French authors who wrote works set in Normandy, showing how their writing reflected the social and historical situation of the time.  He mentioned his particular interest in French crime fiction and his background in working as a French language lecturer for the Open University.

The authors and works discussed were as follows:

1857 Flaubert, G.  Madame Bovary

      A realistic novel, in contrast to the earlier Romantic tradition, it caused a scandal on publication and is a depiction of provincial life. Flaubert is non-judgmental and it is left to the reader to decide whether Mme Bovary is a heroine or victim or both.

1880 Maupassant, G. de   Boule de Suif

      At a time of industrialization and advances in transport, this short story of a stagecoach journey held up by Prussian soldiers demanding Boule de Suif sleep with an officer before the journey can resume. She is a high-class prostitute who eventually agrees but is poorly treated by the other travellers, even though she shares her food with them.

1890 Zola. E. The Beast in Man

     Zola did a lot of research travelling on trains to write this thriller about a murderous railway driver compelled to kill. Issues of heredity and environment are considered and the rapid advances in transport between Normandy and Paris permitted by the development of direct railway links.

1909 LeBlanc, M. The Hollow Needle

       This story concerns a quest to find the treasure hidden in The Hollow Needle and involves solving a riddle, a gentleman burglar and the history of Normandy. It was written at a time when prevailing sentiment was against the 3rd Republic.

1919 Proust, M. Within a Budding Grove

       At the end of WW1 Proust harks back to his memories of childhood with the publication of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu and Within a Budding Grove (A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles).     

1931 Simenon, G.  Grand Banks Café (short story)

       Set in the 1920’s when cod fishing was a major industry off the French coast, this Maigret thriller concerns the death of the captain of a fishing trawler. Simenon hung out in fishermen’s bars to get authentic detail and describes the lives of fishermen, often away for 6months at a time, as a society apart from the respectable middle class.

1983 Ernaux, A.  A Man’s Place

       This socio-autobiographical novel was based on events in the author’s life, her family members, loss of her father, her abortion and affair with a younger man. France and Normandy underwent enormous social change after WW11 with the loss of Empire, followed by years of prosperity and economic expansion. It was a time of social mobility and aspirations for a better life. Her father wanted more in life for her, than he had achieved in his lowly position as a grocery store proprietor.

2015  Huet, P.  Les Emeutiers

     This post WW1 novel concerns striking factory metal workers and was influenced by the 1922 Le Havre General Strike which lasted 100+ days and the development of the Trade Union movement and class struggles in Normandy.   Huet was a journalist and editor of the newspaper Paris-Normandie.

Members enjoyed an absorbing account of the historical and social contexts behind these writers works set in Normandy. I am sure some members will be tracking down or re-reading some of these books.

Lois Coulthart