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Week in Review: September 21, 2020

by Erin Bronner

Remembering Dominique Kalifa

Historian Dominique Kalifa passed away this week. An eminent professor at the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne and director of the Center of 19th Century History, his early work focused on the history of crime and policing and its representation at the end of the nineteenth century. In L’Encre et le Sang. Récits de crimes et société à la Belle Epoque (Fayard, 1995), he analyzed the media’s new fascination for faits divers at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. In Biribi. Les bagnes coloniaux de l'armée française (Perrin, 2009), he penned a brilliant essay on violence in penal colonies. And in La véritable histoire de la "Belle Époque" (Fayard, 2017, Winner of the Académie Française’s Prix Eugène-Colas) Kalifa explored the usage of “chronymes,” historical eras that come to bear specific names such as the Belle Epoque. Recognized for his insightful body of work, he became a member of the Institut Universitaire de France in 2015, of which only 2 percent of university professors in France are members. Kalifa regularly wrote book reviews for the daily Liberation for over thirty years. He also frequently visited the U.-S. to present his research, most recently to promote his Vice, Crime and Poverty (Columbia University Press). Many tributes by his peers and journalists have appeared online. Among them, the historian Thomas Dodman wrote a moving send-off to the historian, his friend, for Frenchculture.org.

First Selection of the Prix Goncourt

The first selection for the Prix Goncourt, the prestigious literary prize, was announced this past Tuesday. Fifteen novels are on the list. In addition to nominations for the Médicis and Femina prizes, Saturne, by Sarah Chiche (Seuil), is contending for the prize this year. Le Monde refers to the novel, about a woman learning of her late father’s past from another woman who knew him in childhood, as “a story imbued with a bewitching melancholy.” Mohammed Aïssaoui’s beautiful Les funambules (Gallimard) is also on the list: the protagonist reminisce about his past as a child immigrant living in poverty and about how literature gave him a way out. Another contender, Yoga, by Emmanuel Carrère (P.O.L), has generated a great amount of attention from the press. In this autobiographical work, Carrère details how, his project to write a short text about yoga helped him fight his recent battle with depression. While some have stressed that the latter could be considered an essay–a category somewhat shunned in the past, the Goncourt being mostly geared towards works of fiction–others speculate that Yoga could very well win the prize this year. The bets are on. The winner of the Prix Goncourt will be announced on November 10.

First Selection of the Prix Femina

September 15 also marked the announcement of the first selection of another prestigious award, the Prix Femina. Established in 1904, it is decided by a jury exclusively composed of women. 33 novels made the list this year, 18 written in French and 15 translated into French. Among these titles is Chavirer by Lola Lafon (Actes Sud), which was longlisted for the Prix de Flore and Prix Décembre, and shortlisted for the Prix du Roman Fnac. Also in the running is Une bête aux aguets by Florence Seyvos (L’Olivier), a troubling story about a girl who suffers from unsettling hallucinations and fears she will be attacked by a wild beast. Le Monde, which included the novel in its shortlist for the Prix Le Monde 2020, commends its pacing: “It jostles, it agitates, it suddenly calms down. The worse, the better.” Another novel on the list, Un jour ce sera vide by Hugo Lindenberg (Bourgois), is narrated by a young boy in Normandy who befriends another boy with a “perfect” family and contends with the troubles his own family faces. Les Echos reported that “It's hard to say what charms the most” in Un jour ce sera vide, lauding its tenderness and focus on friendship. The winner of the Prix Femina will be announced November 3.

America, Now In Translation

This week, the English translation of America: An Anthology of France and the United States by François Busnel (Grove Atlantic) is now available in the United States. Following the 2016 United States election, the TV and radio host Busnel sought to create a literary magazine that provided an outlet for writers to share their personal experiences with America. In this collection of essays and fictions, one can find accounts as varied as Busnel’s own encounter with renowned American nonfiction writers Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe, Joël Dicker’s run-in with a bear while visiting Yellowstone National Park. Leïla Slimani examines the question of the #MeToo movement and college campuses, while journalist Philippe Coste comments on a trip to the Creation Museum in Kentucky and the Evangelical movement. American writers are also included in the issue: Colum McCann, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, and Richard Powers wrote for the publication. Publishers Weekly praises this anthology as a “thought-provoking tour,” stressing that “even for readers familiar with the issues at play, the pieces [are] consistently entertaining,” and Columbia Journalism Review refers to it as “A kaleidoscopic reading list of a divided nation.”

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