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L'Enfant meduse.

L'Enfant meduse (The Child Medusa) made me go back and reread Germain's previous novel Jours de colere (Days of Anger), winner of France's 1989 Femina Prize. The rereading confirmed what I had suspected about Germain - that she is one of those rare novelists who can be both earthy and mystical at the same time. This is because her mysticism appears rooted in nature, as though trees, the stars, the sun and moon were evidence of a universal enchantment to which her literary characters inevitably fall prey. A closer look, however, reveals that the characters themselves are the source of the enchantment. For what they all have in common is madness; it is from the point of view of madness that trees sing in Jours de colere and insects in L'Enfant meduse glint murder from their eyes. Germain's characters, in other words, are their obsessions, and her novels are the relentless pursuit of the results of their failures to love. In Jours de colere, Ambroise Mauperthuis displays passion for a murdered woman and hatred for all who would betray her resurrection in her granddaughter, while the granddaughter herself represents life and desire, the refusal to remain imprisoned in the image the obsessive and possessive Ambroise attempts to create for her. So this book that begins with a murder also ends with one, as Ambroise inadvertently destroys he very being he had devoted his whole life to trying to keep. Beneath the lyricism of Germain's prose, within this cosmos in which there is no emotion that is not a passion, then, lurk the darkest of human crimes. L'Enfant meduse is a story of incest; the beautiful half-brother ravishes the once-happy child Lucie, shattering for her the charm of preadolescent innocence and teaching her prematurely the cold nothingness of death. It is no less a crime that the adults around her (all suffering from their own obsessions of a purely, almost caricaturally distilled "Frenchness") cannot penetrate Lucie's secret. Her revenge will be of her own making; a spell learned from the eyes of swamp bugs and frogs will do away with the evildoer and punish the uncomprehending adults at the same time. In many ways, Lucie is luckier than her predecessors in Jours de colere. She at least is granted the hope of healing through the cosmic forces of earth and air - her garden and her father's ham radio antenna. One of Germain's chief inspirations is the play of light upon surfaces; one wonders with impatience upon what murky corners of the human heart she will choose to cast her next illuminations.

It's a good idea to read a little Francoise Sagan once in a while, if only to remind oneself that the French novel doesn't have to be ponderous to be worthwhile. In Les Faux-fuyants (Evasions), Sagan capitalizes on that most traditional of topoi in the French novel, the cultural divide between the residents of the capital and the (as perceived by those residents) hayseeds of the provinces. In this case, the Parisians are so snobby as to be stereotypes of the stereotype; their excursion to the boondocks is motivated - thinly enough for most of the book - by the collapse of the French army in June 1940 and the resulting exodus of most of the capital before the arrival of the Germans. Sagan's peasant types are residents of the Beauce, a region that isn't geographically far from Paris (unless you're in a slow-moving line of overpacked vehicles being machine-gunned from Nazi airplanes along the way); psychologically, however, they and the four Parisians who find themselves stranded on their farm occupy totally different universes. Whence a plot based largely on said Parisians' attempts to accommodate themselves (or not) to their new surroundings and discover their true selves in the process. I used to think that calling a novel a good read was damning it with faint praise: don't we ask that a novel be more than just a good way to pass the time? Yet it's not condemning Sagan's book to call it a good read; she reminds us that the novel is, after all, a popular genre that can get along very well without flashbacks, foreshadowing, or weighty philosophical concerns. And Sagan does manage the occasional ironic comment on her own enterprise that, along with the surprise ending, reassure the academic critic that this read was, indeed, time well spent. Compared to the grands crus of the serious French novel, Sagan is jug wine - but you could get hooked on her.

The pretext of Racine's novel seems dubious enough: a lawyer as well versed in geology as he is in international law is called upon to mediate between a tiny Pacific island and the mining conglomerate whose business threatens to destroy it. In the process, naturally enough, he reencounters a lost love and must again decide upon the limits of commitment. What saves the novel - indeed, what wraps one up in it - is the leisurely pace Racine sets for this intertwined tale of love and litigation. Credit him also with the decision not to go for the grand finale. The identity of the good guys is all too obvious here, but if Racine doesn't let them win, they don't exactly sell out, either, and you have to admire the dispassionate touch that makes compromise in love and law a happy ending. Happy? Let's just say the narrator ends up satisfied with disappointment, and the reader with a strangely touching melancholy.
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Author:Kingcaid, Renee
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:Looking for Genet: Literary Essays and Reviews.
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