Friday, July 24, 2015

Icy Times in a Wonderful Parisian-Set Mystery. . .Vargas and Adamsberg

Last post, I wrote a bit about the role Obligation plays in my reading. Perhaps I made it sound as if Obligation was necessarily at odds with Pleasure, and of course, that is Wrong. Wrong. and More Wrong. Some of my greatest pleasures are closely linked with obligation -- at the most obvious level, one is obliged to eat, simply in order to live, but there's no need to explain how that obligation might be pleasurable.

I was obliged to do a variety of reading, in pursuing my various degrees, that I wouldn't have otherwise been drawn to, and much of that reading was, undeniably, challenging stuff. Hard work to get through. Sometimes far from obviously pleasurable. And yet. . . Working through an essay by Lacan for the third or fourth time, or by an essay on Lacan by Jane Gallop. Mind-twisting stuff, sometimes, frustrating and exhilarating in almost equal measure. A scholarly obligation, certainly, but also a very particular kind of pleasure.

I don't want to lose that kind of pleasure now that I'm retired from my formal academic life, although I'm not sure right now how much literary or psychoanalytic or critical or whatever theory I want to be reading in the next while. Or ever. But I want to balance the ready entertainment of my beloved mystery novels with at least occasional meatier reading. Lately, I've been immersed in some wonderful fiction, literature in translation, challenging and pleasurable and more than worth owning and reading and rereading, as I suspect I will -- Karl Ove Knausgaard's and Elana Ferrante's multi-volume sagas set in, respectively, Norway and Italy (Naples). More on these two soon, I hope.

But I've another trick for adding enough challenge to my mystery novels, the way you might stir a teaspoon of flaxseed, for example, into a banana loaf. I've alluded to this approach recently, but my latest stint of reading en français was even more enjoyable. I'm a big fan of Fred Vargas's Commisaire Adamsberg series, as is my husband; we've read them in both English or French, depending on where we are when we spot the latest title. I'm not sure there's a more compelling motive you could offer me right now for adding to my French vocabulary than the incentive of reading a new adventure about a favourite set of characters solving another baffling crime set in Paris, but with fascinating connections to new-to-us geographies and histories within France (with forays as well, in recent novels, to Quebec and England). (Were I younger and single, perhaps there might be a more compelling motive to be found in the form of a French-speaking lover, but I've been married 41 years, next month, so that's out for now!)

Temps Glaçiaires did not disappoint, although Adamsberg has changed in some significant ways -- his womanising tendencies may not have disappeared, but there has been little to no scope offered them in the last title or two. Also gone seems to be his inability to remember names or characteristics of his co-workers. Instead, the camaraderie and the overall dynamics of his team have deepened over the last four or five novels in the series, and readers will quickly and happily recognize Danglard, with his encyclopedic knowledge and his domestic responsibilities and his thirst for wine and his mixed disapproval and admiration for his boss. Or Retancourt, a reassuringly huge, athletic pillar of a woman, one Adamsberg likes to have nearby, perhaps because she once saved his life. Or the immense, somnolent office cat who prefers Retancourt to all her office mates. Adamsberg's late-discovered son, Zerk, is becoming an interesting background fixture as is Lucio, the one-armed, elderly Italian man who lives next door to Zerk and the Commisaire.

There is always an element of the supernatural in Vargas's mysteries, enough that I must willingly suspend my concern that the crime's solution will involve some Deus ex machina impossibility (others might applaud such supernatural solutions but I haven't the patience in my mystery-reading). I don't know quite how Vargas manages it, but the element is always treated respectfully, with a sense that there might somehow be something credible in the other-worldly-ness. There's a possibility that shimmers, beckons, tempts, threatens to veer off to the woo-woo, even as the narrative remains squarely realistic. Here, again, the Icy Times of the title emanate from Iceland whence a ghostly monster (the weather-wielding afturganga) exerts a force that seems to be connected with a spate of murders otherwise apparently linked to the guillotining of the French Revolution. Oh, and there's a massive boar as companion to an elderly woman. An enveloping fog that threatens to trap Adamsberg and his officers in an icy death. I'd offer more examples, but we don't want spoilers here, do we?!

Disparate elements, wildly entangled, form Adamsberg's challenge, or, as he says, "une monumentale pelote d'algues desséchées" (a monumental ball of dried seaweed). Will he take Lucio's advice and pay attention to those "piqûres" (stings, pricks, prods)  that must not be ignored, but must be identified and, yes, scratched, just as Lucio scratches at the spider bite on his phantom, amputated arm? Will  Adamsberg, in other words, go back through his memory and figure out what caught his attention, what is it he's noticed, what bothers him. . . and then scratch that itch?

And it's here, in his methodology that Adamsberg most fascinates me. Rather than follow the preferred linear, logical routes of his clever, learned adjutant, Danglard, and to the regular consternation and puzzlement of the many officers under his charge, the Commisaire trusts to intuition. In fact, he trusts to intuition even when it hasn't yet announced itself; he nurtures it by walking, trusting that if he makes room for process, eventually it will lead him where he needs to go. Throughout her oeuvre, Vargas has used the mystery novel as a genre for exploring hermeneutics and epistemology, to pull out my big words. In this, her work intrigues me in a similar fashion to that of John Farrow in his Emile Cinq-Mars mysteries. For all that, however, they are in no way as ponderous as my academic terminology might suggest. Good, engrossing, funny, dense romps, right from the beginning of the series. Should you be inspired to seek them out (and I do recommend starting at the beginning with the Parisian peculiarities of The Chalk Circle Man), I'd love to know what you think.


  1. Frances ,I'm so glad that you are sharing your impressions about books! I'm just reading The storm murders,am at the beginning (10%) and l-o-v-e it,thank you for discover to me such a great writer. I started with this book to compare thoughts with you. Great read!
    From Vargas I have read only Pars vite et reviens tard (in croatian,of course :-),I liked her very much ,such a atmosphere,really don't know why I didn't go with other books.
    I don't have internet where am now ( have bought To kill a mockingbird -wanted to reread before the second one-and forgot to download),so its hard to write on mobile
    Enjoy your book ( I will mine :-)

  2. You know I love mind-bending and challenging reads, but I still struggle with the for something lighter and more entertaining in between. It seems of late I have been more interested in the mindless than the mindful, but perhaps that is just my own internal, far too often self-critical, voice speaking. I actually do believe there is time for all kinds of reading, and one should just accept the flow of interest and desire. I am reading book 1 of Knausgaard. It sat on my pile far too long, but it is something I can only read in small bursts, then put aside. Well worth reading though and I still want to look up Ferranti. There is something to think about, for me anyway: why do some books seem to require wading, while others seem to require a full plunge?

  3. So glad you're enjoying the John Farrow book. I think you would like the earlier ones as well.
    There's been such a fuss over Harper Lee's "new" novel, but I'm content simply to read the reviews, quite honestly. It's such a rich experience, though, to reread--I wonder what you will find different about your perception of To Kill a Mockingbird this time around. I know what you mean about struggling to write with Mobile apps. I'm away from home now, blogging on my iPad and iPhone and I'm embarrassed by the errors I'm publishing! Ugh!

  4. Mardel, my reading goes in cycles as well. I'm probably more judgmental of my patterns right now than normally because I'm a bit anxious about where retirement may land me, but I've definitely spent swathes of time with lighter reading only...and also gone through stints where the lighter just didn't sustain.
    The Knausgaard's has so many sections that are almost essay-like, that you want to sit and think through and enjoy. It doesn't bear rushing although I felt the momentum pick up until I got to a tough-to-put-down stage. Curious to see if you'll find that as well.

  5. Have just finished the three volumes of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series and am stunned. Savage, dense, honest; can hardly wait for volume four and most importantly, your take on them. I am sure they will bear careful re reading as I tore through them. What a tour de force. Need a bit of Donna Leon as a sort of palate cleanser. Also loved All the Light We Cannot See and hated Girl on the Train. Something about alcoholic protagonists behaving badly just didn't cut it.
    On a slightly different tack; when I first retired fifteen years ago , I worried about whether I could continue to afford to buy books and I chuckled after a recent trip to Washington DC and my favorite independent bookstore, Politics and Prose. I hauled a huge bag home to Guelph, Ontario even with the dreadful exchange rate. I love the feel of a book in hand. Kindle great for the airplane not for the chair in the backyard. Again thanks for continuing the reviews.

  6. Aren't those Neapolitan novels stunning, Barbara?!! Impatient for the 4th, except then I'll be finished.... But then I know these are worth rereading and I will look forward to that. Plus I have so many titles in line right now--such a delightful problem. Is Donna Leon sounds awfully tempting.
    I didn't hate Girl although there were a few things that bothered me re plotting, narrative, etc. I was engrossed, though, I must admit.
    Can absolutely relate to your haul from Washington. . . Something about books makes me feel rather on moral high ground, budget-wise...;-)