Cafés-philo all over France are abuzz with the newly hip notion of “anti-anti-Americanism,” and the headiest homage to contrarian Frenchness comes from Yves Berger, the legendary literary director of Editions Grasset — and a member of the august Conseil Supérieur de la langue française — who has hit the charts with his Dictionary for Lovers of America. Awarded the Prix Renaudot last month for nonfiction, this “deliciously subversive” ode to purple mountain majesties posits that “for Europeans, the greatest, the strongest, the most compelling dream of all is the American dream.” Berger conjures up all 124 trips he’s made to the US, painting the history, geography, flora and fauna, and culture of the nation that seduced more than thirty million Europeans in the 100 years between Waterloo and World War I. Touching on wide-ranging topics such as the plight of Native Americans, the Civil War, and the great American writers he personally came to know, Berger ultimately registers disgust at the Yank-bashing antics of his home country. “Anti-Americanism is a national shame,” he declared. “America has never forced its soup upon us; we eat it because we no longer possess the spirit of Gaullist resistance.” The 69-year-old author’s ardor for the US is said to be matched only by his fury over franglais: his ode to America, he boasted, was written tout court in unsullied French. Berger’s first novel, The South, was awarded the Prix Femina, and his Dictionary is on submission in Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Holland, the UK, and the US.
We’re not even going to ask whether there’s an entry for “freedom fries” in Alain Ducasse’s Food Lover’s Dictionary — also a splashy bestseller this month — but on a final nonfiction note in France, we hear a contemporary philosopher likened to Jean-François Revel and Bernard-Henri Lévy has hit the charts with a slightly more nuanced take on geopolitics. In his deftly argued West Against West, André Glucksmann points to the arrival of American troops on Iraqi soil as a moment of paradox in which both the “pro-peace” and “pro-war” contingents claimed to be inspired by the same litany of principles: “democracy, tolerance, liberty, and the law.” Amid growing concern that events in Iraq have revealed an aging Europe burdened by its decrepit ways, Glucksmann peeks “behind a smoke screen of clichés” from both sides to assess differing interpretations of the violence that has marred the 21st century in its infancy. Rights have been sold to Italy (Lindau) and Spain (Taurus/Grupo Santillana). Contact Heidi Warneke at Plon for all three French titles.
Stepping back into the world of fiction, the gothic horror novel gets a face-lift in the Czech Republic at the hands of rising literary star Milos Urban. In his latest spine-tingler The Shadow of the Cathedral, Roman Rops is an author toiling away on a book about the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, often wandering around the hill that is home to the imposing house of worship. One night an anonymous note is slipped under his door urging him to visit the cathedral, where he finds a curious reliquary in one of the side altars containing a well-preserved piece of a hand. A young female detective appears and promptly arrests him, having discovered that the hand belongs to a priest whose body has been found entombed in the foundations of the cathedral. The author has achieved such stellar notice in the Czech Republic that one fellow countryman declares: “In a few years’ time when speaking about Czech literature, we will talk (and not only in our own country) above all about Milos Urban.” An earlier novel, The Seven Churches, is the story of Kvetoslav Svach (it translates roughly as “Weak Flower”), who witnesses a series of bizarre murders and sinister rituals, eventually hooking up with a mysterious trio led by a knight determined to restore 14th-century law and order — and roll back the march toward modernity. Deemed “a true heir of Edgar Allan Poe,” Urban publishes a new novel nearly every year (don’t miss the elaborate illustrations by Pavel Rut) and has also been likened to Umberto Eco. His latest has been sold to Holland (Ambo/Anthos), Hungary (Kalligram), and Bulgaria (Colibri). Talks are under way with publishers in Italy and Spain. Contact agent Edgar de Bruin at Pluh in Holland.
Jette Kaarsbøl’s first novel, The Closed Book, continues to hold strong in Denmark this month, offering a view of Copenhagen as it expanded both physically and intellectually in the late 19th century. When a young, unassuming gal embarks on a romance with a budding intellectual, she is drawn into a circle of feisty modern freethinkers under the influence of Danish critic Georg Brandes. The book begins with the woman’s death, then turns back the clock to chronicle her youth and subsequent marriage and divorce, delving finally into her ruin and bitter frustration at a life that never suited her. In a surprise twist, however, she makes a last-ditch effort to make sense of her choices and track down her former husband, whom she has not seen in 30 years. Rights have been sold to Norway (Cappelen). Contact Esthi Kunz at Gyldendal.
Lastly, a mainstay of the Dutch literary scene for over 50 years, the Jakarta-born octogenarian Hella Haasse, has reached a new career peak with her latest opus, The Key’s Eye. It’s a “tale that has everything: drama, suspense, intrigue, infidelity, broken friendship, and a whole lot of clashes between Indonesia and Holland,” tracing the friendship of two young girls in Indonesia, Herma and Dee, and the racial tensions that force them apart. Herma is of Dutch extraction, fascinated by the Indo-European family of landowners to which Dee belongs. But she’s troubled by her own fixed perceptions of colonial history. Much later in life, a journalist approaches Herma for information about Dee, who has assumed an alias in the meantime. Herma dashes to her old ebony chest containing photos and documents that might refresh her memory, but she has lost the key marked by the ornamental Old Arabic writing in its “eye.” Haasse has been awarded the Constantijn Huygens Prize, among others, and received the medal of the French Légion d’Honneur in 2000. Her latest has been sold to France (Actes Sud) and Italy (Iperborea), while earlier titles have been sold to Germany (Wunderlich), Vietnam (Center for Research of International Cultures), Spain (Peninsula), the Czech Republic (Brana), and the US (Academy Chicago Publishers), to name a few. Contact agent Marianne Fritsch at Liepman in Switzerland.