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Buying Dora Maar’s Diary on eBay and Other Classy Tales From France | Press "Enter" to skip to content

Buying Dora Maar’s Diary on eBay and Other Classy Tales From France


By Martin Dumont
Translated by John Cullen
150 pp. Other Press. Paper, $14.99.

Whether you believe the Greeks, Victor Hugo or Maury Povich’s showrunners, you might understand single parenthood to be a curse. The children in such families are bound for misery and deprivation. Parents in this unenviable position must resign themselves to a terrible burden.

It is refreshing to encounter another view, one in which fierce attachments and idiosyncratic love outweigh any grief or hardship.

Dumont’s debut novel strives to uphold this view. The narrator, Yanis, is a taxi driver who is utterly devoted to his only child, Pierre. His wife died in an accident whose circumstances remain murky, and he maintains a chilly relationship with his in-laws. Pierre is a young adult when the book opens, a biology student who loves to write. Soon it’s clear he is gravely ill.

Pierre’s decline occupies the majority of the narrative, with occasional digressions: Yanis’s thoughts drift to his wife’s death, and he reflects on his boyhood near the sea. The title is a play on the thought experiment by the philosopher Erwin Schrödinger, in which a hypothetical cat is both alive and dead at the same time. Feeling helpless to ease Pierre’s suffering, Yanis tries to restore a life to his dying son.

This is a noble impulse. But scenes move too quickly to allow the reader to inhabit Yanis’s despair alongside him. The profound love that father and son have for each other is clear. Beyond that, we learn very little about either character; the few details on offer do little to deepen our understanding of the men.

Apart from Pierre, Yanis’s great love is diving. “That moment of letting go, that’s what you’re looking for down there,” he says. “Everything dissolves in the water. Then and only then, there’s nothing left and you let yourself go.”

The same is true of reading. It’s unfortunate that this novel rarely grants you that same sense.

An Artist, an Address Book, a Life
By Brigitte Benkemoun
Translated by Jody Gladding
216 pp. Getty Publications. Paper, $24.95.

It must rank among the most satisfying eBay purchases on record. Benkemoun ordered a vintage Hermès diary for her partner, who was highly particular about his leather preferences; new models didn’t cut it. When Benkemoun, a French journalist, received the address book, tucked away in a pocket she found a list of names and phone numbers: Breton, Balthus, Cocteau, Tzara — a roster of some of the early 1900s’ greatest artists. Bit by bit, she pieced together clues to the diary’s first owner. Slight misspellings of names suggested a foreigner. An address for Jacques Lacan? He or she must have been a patient.

It didn’t take long for Benkemoun to determine the owner. But the pleasures of this mystery are far from over.

Henriette Theodora Markovitch, the photographer and painter known as Dora Maar, is widely remembered as one of Pablo Picasso’s lovers and martyred muses. Her own artistic ventures have been eclipsed by her relationship with the Spanish painter; she was his “Weeping Woman.”

Though Benkemoun’s book is structured around Maar’s relationships, with chapters corresponding to entries in the diary, it rejects any suggestion that she was significant primarily for her social ties. Each section draws out a complicated, often contradictory, side of Maar, from her seduction of Picasso at Les Deux Magots, to her later years as a prideful and deeply religious older woman who kept a copy of “Mein Kampf” in plain view on her shelves. Even an entry for the plumber is the jumping-off point for a memory of Picasso, and an opportunity for Benkemoun to imagine Maar’s inner life: “She was delighted to see him marvel each morning at the magic of a hot bath. She was still the magician.”

Benkemoun spent two years on this spirited and deeply researched project, and often pauses to reflect on the relationship she formed with Maar while she was at work. “I was afraid of her silences,” she writes, “her fits of anger, her moods, her judgments, her gaze that looked right through you.”

Her affection for her subject is infectious. This book gives a satisfying treatment to a woman who has been confined for decades to a Cubist’s limited interpretation.

By Annie Ernaux
Translated by Alison L. Strayer
156 pp. Seven Stories. Paper, $18.95.

Ernaux, one of France’s leading contemporary writers, mines her shame to good effect. There’s no hysteria or prurience in her writing; she approaches her history with precision, never sentimentality. As she wrote in an earlier book: “I shall carry out an ethnological study of myself.”

That intention also guides her latest book, “A Girl’s Story,” in which she revisits a pivotal summer. In 1958, she was 18 and away at a camp in northwestern France. As Ernaux writes of herself: “She is all desire and pride. And: She is waiting to fall madly in love.”

That heady mix — and the shame it eventually caused her — forms the basis of Ernaux’s identity as a writer. The rules of desire she followed as a teenager are a blueprint she has yet to discard. For years, she says, she had wanted to write about this version of herself and was “haunted” by the thought “that I could die without ever having written about ‘the girl of ’58.’”

The central event is her first sexual encounter, her introduction to a new cycle of submission and rejection. Ernaux evokes the mood of that summer, drawing on her sensory memories and calling up her desires of that time. Revisiting painful periods is hardly new territory for writers, but Ernaux distills a particular power from the exercise. As she puts it, “I am endowed by shame’s vast memory, more detailed and implacable than any other, a gift unique to shame.”


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