Thursday, 6 January 2011

A Book Arrives in the Post

Lots of people, even people who have known me for years, think that I am 'well read'. This is emphatically not true. I haven't read a huge number of books in my life (although my job involves a fair bit of reading – of non-fiction – in my spare time I'm inclined to rest my eyes) and certainly my knowledge of 'the classics' is very thin. I'm not proud of this fact. You should never be proud of anything you haven't done. On the other hand, I've read stacks of strange French stuff. I've read all of the novels by Raymond Queneau that have been translated into English (apart from A Hard Winter, rare copies of which sell for £50). I've read the whole of Fantômas, the thirty-two-volume crime saga cranked out by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre at the rate of one novel per month for thirty-two months in 1911–13. I've read acres of Gustave Le Rouge and Gaston Leroux, and my bookshelves groan under the weight of great names such as Cendrars, Roussel, Pinget, Allais, Vian, Obaldia etc.

Rare but affordable.
It must have been at least ten years ago that I first read Jacques Roubaud, doubtless in the thick of my Oulipo phase. I remember buying Hortense is Abducted and Hortense in Exile, and devouring them as a guilty pleasure: impossible not to love and impossible to put down, but almost too saccharine in their cleverness and arch-post-modernism. (By contrast, his incredible masterpiece, The Great Fire of London, is one of my Desert Island books.) The other evening, Dani asked me to read her something. When I asked her what, she said: 'Nothing depressing. I don't mind, so long as it doesn't have puppies being killed.' Out of pure mischief, I reached for my copy of Hortense is Abducted, a canine murder mystery written eighteen years before Mark Haddon's book (which I haven't read), but hilarious. I suddenly remembered that HisA and HinE are the second and third novels in a trilogy. They were both originally published by Dalkey Archive, but the first novel, Our Beautiful Heroine, could only be found* in a rare and prohibitively expensive second-hand edition by Overlook Press (on their website it is listed at $22.95 with the one-line description 'An absurd French detective novel'). So I immediately reached for my laptop and searched, to see if the once-unobtainable first novel were still prohibitively expensive. To my delight, it was now possible to snap up a used copy (a decade too late, so to speak) for a matter of a few quid, plus postage from the US. And here it is, complete with ghastly mid-1980s typography (though the artwork's pretty nice, eh?). I'm going to go back and read all three Hortense novels in order now, and the plot might just make more sense this time around. Lucky me.

* In English, that is. I can read simple books in French, but it takes me a long time, and Roubaud doesn't write simple books.

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