Vargas Plagues Paris, Orsenna’s French Lessons, And Brouwers Skewers Dutch Boomers
The specter of bubonic plague coming down the mail chute rattles all of Paris in an uncannily topical work by the French archaeologist and crime writer Fred Vargas. In the author’s latest novel, Leave Quickly and Return Late (which, incidentally, was written over a year ago), hundreds of doors are found painted with a symbol last used during the Middle Ages to protect households from the Black Death. Then pandemonium ensues when the postman comes calling with suspicious missives allegedly infected with the deadly disease, and things get grimmer a few days later, when strangled corpses turn up looking like they’d contracted the plague. The book’s title, by the way, is the advice that sages once imparted to citizens whenever the plague reared its head: leave quickly, flee far away, and take the slow boat back. Vargas has been praised for “exceptionally well-made and well-written contributions to the roman policier,” and her other titles have sold more than 100,000 copies. She mines her archaeological research (specialty: animal bones) for forensic subplots. Her earlier novel Waking the Dead was published in seven countries, including Germany (Aufbau), Italy (Einaudi), Greece (Diamantis), and Japan (Tokyo Sogensha). The new one sold 31,000 copies in two weeks, and both US and UK rights are available, says Frédéric Martin, rights manager at Viviane Hamy.
Also raising a ruckus in France this month is Goncourt winner and Académie Française member Erik Orsenna’s “lighthanded, dreamlike” new work that takes playful aim at that most hallowed of French obsessions: grammar. Said to be an homage to literary lion Saint-Exupéry, Grammar Is a Sweet Song is a tale told with “supreme elegance” that follows the adventures of a brother and sister who are shipwrecked on a desert island, as the sea empties their heads of language. Happily for Francophiles everywhere, they’ve landed on a treasure island inhabited by millions of words, which flit about like butterflies. The book has sold 110,000 copies in France, with rights deals soon to be completed in Germany, Italy, and Korea. English rights are available; see Fabienne Roussel at Stock. And finally in France, Algiers: White Town by Régine Deforges is one of eight volumes in the series known as The Blue Bicycle, which kicked off in 1981. In the latest installment, intrepid heroine Lea wends her way back to France 15 years after World War II, as the Algerian War rages on. She and lover Francois take up spying on behalf of Algerian militants — even as Francois serves the Gaullist cause. Though it has slipped off this month’s list, the book has a first print run of 130,000 copies, plus 100,000 for book clubs, and world rights are being negotiated, according to Martine Bertea at Fayard.
In Holland, bestselling author Jeroen Brouwers is back in action after a lengthy furlough with Secret Rooms, a “wide panorama of intrigues, backbiting and adultery” said to be “blowing apart the baby-boomer generation’s belief in themselves.” The book handily skewers what one critic calls “the generation that wanted to better the world, but above all better their bank accounts,” and questions the wisdom of keeping “secret chambers” in our lives that we shield from others. Protagonist Jelmer is besieged by repressed emotions after his daughter gets locked up in an asylum and his estranged wife turns out to have a few secrets of her own. As one critic explained: “This is a book full of sucking, plopping mud, torrential rains, and no less ominous storms.” Brouwers’ earlier hit Sunken Red won the Prix Fémina for best foreign novel in 1995, and to date 60,000 copies of the new one are in print. Rights have been sold to Germany (DVA). See Laura Susijn at the Susijn Agency in London.
Also in Holland, the perennially popular Geert Mak is getting raves for the “instant classic” My Fathers’ Century, which is a nonfiction chronicle of three generations in the intriguing Mak lineage. Grandfather Mak was a sailmaker with a stalwart faith in tradition, and his son was a Calvinist clergyman who worked amid the decolonization of Indonesia. Making his familial saga a parable of modern times, Mak fils endeavors to show that his father’s generation “marked the pivot on which our century tipped over.” The author’s earlier work Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City (“highly readable,” sayeth the Financial Times) was published in the UK by Harvill in 1999, and is reportedly forthcoming in the US from Harvard, in addition to rights sales in Germany (Siedler), the Czech Republic (Cinemax), and Russia (Ves Mir). More than 180,000 copies of the new one have been sold since the book’s publication in 1999, and rights have been sold thus far to Hungary (Osiris). See publisher Atlas for rights.
Meanwhile, divine intervention gets a sly political spin as Argentina wakes up to A Day in the Life of God, a sort of theological farce from journalist and historian Martín Caoparrós. In this irreverent story, God, in her feminine incarnation, can never understand the beings she has created. Following a sojourn on Earth (in the various guises of a Theban fighter, a spy in Rome, and Voltaire’s confessor), she takes matters into her own hands, with much metaphysical fallout. The 44-year-old Caoparrós was co-author of the acclaimed three-volume work The Will, which roiled the debate over Argentina’s “dark years” during the military regime of the 1970s. Caoparrós has lived in Paris, Madrid, and New York, and is now filming his cosmopolitan capers for Argentine television. Though the new book has slipped off the list this month, it has about 7,000 copies in print, which our source assures us “is very promising given the present economic circumstances of our country.” Rights have been sold only in Spain (Seix Barral). See Mónica Herrero at the Guillermo Schavelzon agency in Buenos Aires.
Lastly, a note from Germany, where the journalist Ildikó von Kürthy is back with a vengeance in her second novel, Fluttering Heart. A seemingly carefree couple of two years ram the shoals of disaster when Amelie hears a voicemail message meant for Philipp’s ears only. The jilted gal-pal douses philandering Philipp’s silk suits with red wine and promptly hits the road: “She is out for revenge. Maybe even sex.” Look out, Hamburg. The author’s first book, Moonshine Duty, sold 240,000 copies and was published in Norway, the Netherlands, Korea, and Hungary. The new one has 50,000 copies in print, and no foreign rights have been sold as yet. See Ariane Fink at the Greenburger agency for rights.