Book Review

Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre

Some newly-translated cracking French fiction

Les Fugitives is an independent publishing house with a very precise remit. It publishes only short books that have been written by award-winning, female, francophone writers who have previously not been translated into English. If that sounds incredibly niche, it isn’t1. Think of how many books are published, think of how many literary awards are given, think of how many writers are women and think of how many places in the world people speak French. With these rules, they obviously have a limited pool of books to choose from, but still a large one. And though I haven’t read the previous two books they’ve put out, if Blue Self-Portrait is anything to go by, then Les Fugitives is clearly doing the English world of letters a great service, because this is a belter.

Blue Self-Portrait is written by Noémi Lefebvre and translated by Sophie Lewis, and was originally published (in French, obvs) in 2009. It is a short stream-of-consciousness novel from the perspective of a woman as she flies from Berlin to Paris, reflecting on a romantic interaction she had with a German-American pianist/composer. It’s funny, it’s engaging, it’s fiercely intelligent and it often teeters on the edge of being deeply moving. In short, it’s a very good book.

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The eponymous image

The novel’s protagonist and her sister sit side by side on an aeroplane, looking out of the window and looking into the past. There is a lot in this book about classical music (including contemporary classical music), which is not something I know very much about, so was worried I might find the text a little alienating. However, the way the music is written about is very much from a responsive position, the way music affects feelings, affects moments, affects mood, and Lefebvre engages with this almost indirectly by having her protagonist recount in great detail the (male) pianist’s response to a painting (guess the colour and the subject from this novel’s title) and his desire to make music about it. The painting – which you can see above – is by the composer Arnold Schoenberg, and as the pianist struggles to formulate an artistic response to this piece of visual art and understand his own place within the canon of musical creativity, the protagonist evokes at length the problematic responses she regularly has to art, to music, to existence, which seems to constitute a simultaneous indifference and over-engagement. As a human, she obsesses over the accusation of her ex-husband’s mother that she is “uncaring” (also translated as “insouciant”, “indifferent”, “not-caring” (there’s a note about it at the end)), which in itself exposes the hypocrisy of the statement. She cares too much to appear caring, she cares about caring, the book is a near-breathless exercise in awkwardness, anxiety, worry, it’s an exciting evocation of a kind of mind I recognise, one where an individual obsesses over the way she is sat and how other people will judge that decision, one where weird ideas recur in a way that other people find confusing, one that considers, remembers, recalls, both her own memories and other people’s.

We slip into the memories and experiences of the pianist almost by accident, as the narrator recounts stories he has told her; we are almost dragged into them as if they’re first-hand. Her empathy is important, her emotional intelligence is astute, her perceived notion of not-caring is wrong because she is overwhelmed by caring, by thought, by memory. Like Proust (whose name crops up a lot) she is sucked into memory after memory, but unlike Proust this is a short work, and one where the character doing the memorialising is moving, rather than static. The protagonist flies, and the view from the window changes – which in itself provokes the resurgence of memories – and she comments on her experiences in the plane with her sister (who threatens to begin playing the violin mid-air at one point) and with the book[s] she is reading, letters between Thomas Mann (also a literary writer with a keen interest in music) and Theodor W Adorno, a critical theorist.

This is a text filled with ideas, with cultural and artistic references, and also to the recurring motif of a cow grieving for the loss of its calf, removed at birth. It is a novel about displacement, about loneliness, about disconnection and the fear of disconnection, about family and love, about art and regret; in a short work it is a deeply exploratory tone, and its content in combination with its long sentences and huge paragraphs make for a demanding read, but one that is very rewarding. We are in Berlin, we are in France, we are in a plane; we are between countries and places and present and past, we are between different minds and different moments… Lefebvre’s narrative is rich and engaging, and Lewis’ translation – which I imagine must have been a tough one to do – never falters for a moment. This is a weighty, literary, text, and other than length it is not a “small” book. It is ideas and emotion-rich, and for anyone else who’s all into this contemporary stream of consciousness revival, it’s definitely worth your time.

Read something literary, something deep. Go go go.

Blue-Self Portrait is published by Les Fugitives. Clickaclickaddyclick for more information.


1. And if you do think it’s niche, think of the long French literary tradition of imposing rules on fiction, like the Perec-centred Oulipo movement. If you’re into rule-based literature, you might also like to check out the forthcoming release from Morbid Books, 100 Haikus About Boris Becker’s Breakfast, which contains 100 formally-precise haikus where every single word begins with b and all the pieces are about Boris Becker and/or breakfast. Some of them are written by me, so BUY BUY BUY.↩

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