Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Over the last two years I’ve had the pleasure to read three Philippe Claudel novels, all of which I really enjoyed. His style is simple but poetic and the subjects he tackles in each book all hold up under prolonged discussion. I’d say there are two things that each of the three books share – a subtlety in engaging with their thematic project or question and a reliance on the idea of narration as a means to catharsis.

In Les Ames Grises (2003) the narrator is literally bursting with the need to tell his own painful story, yet that very trauma keeps him from tackling the subject head on. Instead he winds around a related story, just as powerful, as a means to find the words he himself needs. I felt this technique was quite successful, mainly because it was subtly done. La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh (2005) is also about an individual wrestling with trauma, but in this story Claudel looks at how we invent our own external narratives as a way to survive a difficult past.

It goes without saying that I had high hopes for his newest work, Le Rapport de Brodeck*, and I was in no way disappointed. Like the other two books, this novel also examines how an individual with a traumatic past weaves a narrative. And much like Les Ames Grises, there are two narratives at work in Le Rapport de Brodeck. Although I think it is safe to say that this newest work achieves its goal with more elegance and subtlety than the either two. I can’t help seeing it as a culmination of the stylistic and thematic development found in his other books.

But getting to the more important stuff – what is Le Rapport de Brodeck about? In essence, Claudel takes the horror story of the 20th century (the Holocaust) and recreates it on a tiny, nearly anonymous scale. By anonymous I mean that he keeps his setting vague and doesn’t go about shouting the names or labels of his protagonists. Brodeck, for example, is never described as Jewish, the men who come to occupy the village are never called Nazi’s and even the two countries (clearly France and Germany) remain unnamed.

By doing this, Claudel removes the specificity from the event, making it much easier (and frankly, much more frightening) to see how what happened during the Holocaust is actually a timeless and location-less phenomenon. And in fact, the central event of the story occurs a few years after WWII has ended, which I took as a grim reminder that the world has not finished with horror.

So although the book purports to be a story we’ve all heard or read before, it becomes more of a prediction, a warning. This isn’t historical fiction, but a bleak meditation on the mediocrity of the human soul. There is no hero in Le Rapport de Brodeck, no one who completely overcomes their own powerful instinct for self-preservation. And Claudel seems to be asking whether this is reason enough to condemn us all.

I could hardly put this book down, but I found it quite disturbing in the absolute. Claudel takes great pains to portray humanity in shades of gray – even Brodeck doesn’t escape this notion of mediocrity. Which is something I approved of. At the same time, I felt Claudel’s spectrum a little lopsided. While he does provide examples of pure evil, the pendulum never swung to the highest point in the opposite direction. That isn’t an answer I can accept. I don’t believe there are hordes of brave heroes and heroines, but selfless, noble people do exist and will continue to work against the kind of world Claudel describes.

For those of you who do not read French, the rights to Le Rapport de Brodeck have been sold in both the UK and the US, so this book will appear in English at some time, hopefully soon.

*The title can be translated as Brodeck’s Report and the novel centers on a report that narrator Brodeck must write about a horrible event which occurred in his small village.

13 Responses to “Philippe Claudel – Le Rapport de Brodeck”

  1. Stefanie

    Wow, does this ever sound good! I like how you know what he is writing about but because the historical details are not mentioned it makes it so much more menacing. I am so glad the translation rights have been sold. When it comes out, I will definitely read it!

  2. Care

    Your review is certainly NOT mediocre! What a word, huh? I had to go look it up to make sure I was getting its essence applied correctly. It’s such a conundrum to me when confronted with goodness and evil within the same person – does it balance out? Is that addressed or am I just going off an a tangent.?
    (YEA! The link-back works!)

  3. ds

    “A bleak meditation on the mediocrity of the human soul.” Wow. I can understand how removing the “specifics” would increase the horror of events–fog can be much more ominous than darkness. Wonderful review; once again, I wish that I could read French. Are the earlier novels available in English? Will be watching for this one. Thank you!

  4. verbivore

    Stefanie – Removing the details specific to the Holocaust really did make the story more menacing, this is something we talked a lot about in my book group. And I do hope you’ll get a chance to read it sometime!

    Care – Oh absolutely. Brodeck, as a hero, is put through some incredible challenges and Claudel asks the reader to evaluate what he does and whether he should be judged in the same way that we judge the “bad” guys in the book. It was fascinating!

    Litlove – I think you would really like his stuff, Litlove, highly psychological!

    DS – Yes, so far Les Ames Grises has been translated in England as Gray Souls and By a Slow River in the US. And I do know that the Brodeck book will be translated. I’m at a loss as to why Mr. Linh’s Granddaughter has yet to be translated..

  5. Smithereens

    I’d loved Les Ames Grises but had mixed feelings about Mr. Linh’s granddaughter, because I’d found it too sentimental and “politically correct”, but I should probably give Claudel another chance and try Brodeck.

    • verbivore

      I would agree that his Mr. Linh book is a bit too pat, although I like what he did with trauma in that book (some people didn’t like the seemingly trick ending, I think, which I can also understand). The writing isn’t as good as Les Ames Grises. And I would say that Brodeck went far beyond either book…the writing was both richer and denser and I think he treated the subject with a lot of respect. I’d love to know what you think if you do get a chance to read it.

  6. Claudine

    Amazing, I was trying to find the US publisher for “L’elegance du Herisson” and found your comments on other books I have read, as ” Le rapport de Brodeck” which I could compare to the movie: “The Life Is Beautiful ” in its indirect and subtile way of telling very difficult subjects.
    Philippe Claudel directed an extraordinary movie: “Il y a Longtemps Que Je T’aime” and it is about love, but not what we think. So he also have something to say about goodness.
    And I met once an old man who was cleaning the sidewalk who could recite poems from Baudelaire and others. Just could not find an appropiate position. But I agree that ittook me some time to accept the sophistication of Renee, the way it is described in the story. At the end, it is a book I cannot forget.

  7. verbivore

    Hello Claudine and thank you for your comment. I have been wanting to see the Claudel film, and perhaps I can find it this weekend. I^ve heard wonderful things about it.

  8. Claudine

    I hope that by now you have seen the movie and would be interested in knowing your comment.
    Thank you!

    • verbivore

      Claudine – I have not yet seen the film. I didn’t realize it was even out yet…I’ll have a look for it soon.

  9. Arti

    The name Philippe Claudel jumps out as I scan your sidebar. As a film lover, I’m most impressed with his directorial debut Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (2008). Do you know whether the movie is based on a book or did he write it directly as a screenplay? Any of Claudel’s writing been translated into English? I don’t read French, but am eager to read his work. Thanks for a very informative book blog!

    • verbivore

      Arti – I have yet to see any of his films, although I’ve heard such wondering things about his work. I do not believe that Il y a longtemps que je t’aime was first a book, but I’d have to do some more checking to be sure. I have most of his novels here and that isn’t among the titles. As for translations, his Les Ames Grises was translated (Grey Souls) and Le Rapport de Brodeck (Brodeck) just came out. Both are excellent.

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