It is a bit early to be thinking about Christmas, I admit, but the opportunity to take part in the book tour for this intriguing sounding book from New Vessel Press was too good to miss.
Short story collections by assorted authors can be hit and miss. Harnessing together authors from different periods with very different writing styles is quite risky. The logic behind such an enterprise is, I imagine, to seek to introduce the reader to a variety of writing united by some common theme or themes – as here where we have two in Frenchness and Christmas – at the same time bearing in mind that not everyone is going to like everything, but should at least like something! This book very successfully presents us with an excellent selection of festive French literature that I think will please and interest the vast majority of readers.
The Frenchness emerges in various ways in the anthology. France has long been thought of as a bastion of male chauvinism, something reflected in the language itself. Get one guy and a thousand girls together and you have to refer to them as ‘ils’ because of that one man! Times are changing, however, if slowly, but it was rather disappointing to see just one female author included in this anthology. Yes, it’s a long story/screenplay but it’s still just one as opposed to nine male authors. The lone female is Irène Némirovsky, of Ukranian Jewish origin, lived half her lifetime in France and wrote in French, but was refused French citizenship. Had she been awarded it, this prolific author might have avoided being arrested as a stateless Jew on 13 July 1942, despite having converted to Roman Catholicism, and sent to Auschwitz where she died just over a month later. It is thus very poignant and powerful to find her work included in this French anthology, since her adopted country let her down.
Other Frenchness emerges in how Christmas isn’t overly romanticised in any of the stories. In many, it’s mainly a background. This is how Noël is in this country. There isn’t the crazy hype starting in October that you get in other countries. There’s an air of restraint about it, but nonetheless, a good time is had by all. There is also a clear focus on eating during the festive season, and this emerges in many of the stories. The importance of food is one French stereotype that holds firm! But there are some small helpings of magic and wishful thinking, a crucial part of Christmas.
Straight talking is another Frenchness. No beating around the bush. Thus it’s a little startling and uncomfortable, for Western European readers at least, to come across an African character called Black Jo in one of the stories. It’s not offensively motivated, it’s who he is to the other boys at the school, and as the narrator of the story comes to know the boy better, he begins to call him Jo or Joseph.
But all these Frenchisms, together with the variety of writing we are offered, give a good impression of the country’s historical and present culture.
These are the stories and authors:
The Gift – Jean-Philippe Blondel (b.1964) Relationships and loneliness at Christmas.
St Anthony and his Pig – Paul Arène (1843-96) Great fun this one! St Anthony struggles with terrible temptation.
The Louis d’Or – François Coppée (1842-1908) A gambler seeks redemption.
Christmas in Algiers – Anatole La Braz (1859-1926) A soldier far from home attends a midnight mass with a difference.
The Wooden Shoes of Little Wolff – François Coppée (1842-1908) A touching tale, the most Christmassy of them all.
Christmas Eve – Guy de Maupassant (1850-93) The moral of this story is don’t pick up a pregnant prostitute on Christmas Eve…
Christmas at the Boarding School – Dominique Fabre (b.1960) A young African boy in France, because of ‘events’ faces Christmas far from home.
Salvette and Bernadou – Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) Two imprisoned French soldiers remember the Breton Christmases of their youth.
A Christmas Supper in the Marais – Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) A Christmas ghost story – or just too much wine for Christmas supper?
A Miracle by Guy de Maupassant (1850-93) Evil spirits at Christmastime.
I Take Supper with my Wife – Antoine Gustave Droz (1832-95) Husband and wife share a playful Christmas Eve supper.
The Lost Child – François Coppée (1842-1908) A sweet Christmas miracle.
The Juggler of Notre Dame – Anatole France (the pseudonym of Jacques Anatole Thibault 1844-1924) Another religious miracle based on a medieval legend.
Noël – Irène Némirovsky (1903-42) Bittersweet undercurrents during a Christmas party held by affluent Parisians.
My only gripe is with the subtitle – in my opinion it’s a little rash to claim things are the ‘greatest’ but it gets attention I suppose, and it’s acceptable ‘puff’. However, I think the anthology would have worked just as well without it. Clearly the stories are selected because the editing team considers them to be exceptionally good and worthy of inclusion, and thus it’s implicit that there is merit in reading them. I suspect an anthology of awful stories not worth reading has yet to be published…
I also take slight issue with the ‘of all time’ label as three of our ten authors were born in the twentieth century, and all the other seven in the nineteenth from 1832 onwards. But since some of the stories refer to earlier times and we come right up to the present, then we do get a taste of several periods.
The book makes for an interesting, enjoyable and educational read, will make your Christmas more multi-cultural and will, I hope, tempt you to discover more French writers after sampling the writing in this anthology.
A Very French Christmas:
The Greatest French Holiday Stories
of All Time
A Very French Christmas:
The Greatest French Holiday Stories
of All Time
(short story collection)
Release date: October 10, 2017
at New Vessel Press
A continuation of the very popular Very Christmas Series from New Vessel Press, this collection brings together the best French Christmas stories of all time in an elegant and vibrant collection featuring classics by Guy de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet, plus stories by the esteemed twentieth century author Irène Némirovsky and contemporary writers Dominique Fabre and Jean-Philippe Blondel.
With a holiday spirit conveyed through sparkling Paris streets, opulent feasts, wandering orphans, kindly monks, homesick soldiers, oysters, crayfish, ham, bonbons, flickering desire, and more than a little wine, this collection encapsulates the holiday spirit and proves that the French have mastered Christmas. This is Christmas à la française—delicious, intense and unexpected, proving that nobody does Christmas like the French.
Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, Anatole France
Irène Némirovsky, Jean-Philippe Blondel, Dominique Fabre,
Paul Arene, Francois Coppee, Antoine Gustave Droz, Anatole La Braz
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