28 DECEMBER 2002, Page 38

Prize-winning novels from France

Anita Brookner

It has been calculated that a record number of novels — in record quantities — were issued between late August and early October, in time for the season of literary prizes which takes place in France in late October and early November. Things were simpler in the old days. Stendhal's publisher issued a print-run of a mere 750 copies of Le Rouge et le Noir in 1831; in 1857 Madame Bovaty benefited from a print-run of 1,000 copies, admittedly after serialisation.

This year reading represented less a pleasure than a task, and writers seemed to fall foul of the procedure, eager to attach themselves to simpler examples and a more comprehensible past. For example Olivier Rolin (Tigre en Papier, Fiction et Cie) composed his novel around the excitements of 1968, Marc Dugain (Heureux comme Dieu en France, Gallimard) harked back to the second world war, Jean-Pierre Milovanoff (La Melancolie des Innocents, Grasset) to the Pagnolesque days of life in the French provinces, Quentin Debray (L'Impatiente de Freud. Albin Michel) to the time of Freud's apprenticeship with Charcot ... Many more examples could be given.

If there was an air of fatigue on the part of the writers this was more than matched by the fatigue of the reader. A certain lassitude, a certain predictability, a certain sameness and safeness were noticeable, and also a lack of distinction. Between those austere and immaculate covers there was little sign either of originality or even of well-loved stereotypes. The heroic male (Le Rouge et le Noir) and the tragic female (Madame Bovary) seemed to have relinquished their status to anxious and less satisfying exemplars of our current malaise, and no Sartre, no Camus has arisen to question our bad faith.

Pascal Quignard's Les Ombres errantes (Grasset) was awarded the Prix Goncourt, largely on grounds of its majestic impermeability. This was not a novel but part of a three-volume series of musings about time. Not time in the Proustian sense, but the time that preceded recognisable time, the void of unknowable antenatal time, which hardly qualifies as time at all. Expressed in very short, discrete chapters, the various axioms and aphorisms of which this is composed aspire to philosophy but bear a closer resemblance to free association. Quignard seems to have set himself the task of abjuring limits, sequence, direction or form, and in addition to have attempted to exist in this rarefied atmosphere while sending out the occasional reference to the Emperor Tiberius or Lao-Tse. Most of his propositions are unintelligible and therefore unsustainable; an additional worry was that this exercise need never have ended. Quignard's undoubtedly distinguished mind remains far too inaccessible for the general reader, whose reaction is likely to be one of gratified humility, gratified because of the loftiness of the undertaking, humility by virtue of the fact that he cannot understand a word of it.

The Prix Renaudot went to Gerard de Cortanze for Assam (Albin Michel), the final volume of a trilogy charting an unusual family history and a peregrination from Piedmont to India. The two preceding volumes took the Cortanze family from Italy to Cuba, to Spain in time for the civil war and on to France in the second world war. Assam, which should have concluded the story. in fact returns to the beginning, and is less a history, says the author, than a species of research into the family unconscious, with the emphasis on those minor characters who supply much of the period detail. Thus the saga, less fiction than variations on fact, joins many of the other contributions to this year's literary debate in leaning towards the recent past rather than engaging either with the present or with the interior life of the writer. The latter honour goes to Jean-Marie Rouart (Nous ne savons pas ainier. Gallimard), which is imprinted with the existential melancholy we have come to respect in the traditional French novel.

Of the titles cited above I liked only La Melancolie des Innocents. This is a deliberately retrograde novel but a beguiling one. Set in the countryside around Aix, it is again a family saga, peopled with characters whose names strike an old-fashioned note — Baptistine, Leonce, Paulin — but whose conduct is quietly rebellious: none of the couples is married, assignations take place in unlikely settings, renegade daughters emigrate without notice, and yet an air of gentility is maintained which has as much to do with the landscape and the ancestral home as with the actions of the characters. This is a world in which respect is earned not by good behaviour but by a certain steeliness of purpose, which is reinforced by the George Sand-like calm of the writing. My only quibble: the well-worn device of a confession to an astute confidant, referred to in the text as Milanoff. But this narrative is, or may be, a true story, and Milanoff/Milovanoff merely an accessory. Unfortunately Milovanoff then cites his own references and acknowledgments, which do less to add veracity than to obscure it.

La Princesse de Mantoue (Gallimard) by Marie Ferranti won the Grand Prix du Roman de l'Academie with a story of a German princess, Barbara of Brandenburg, at the court of the Gonzaga, based on a genuine correspondence, unearthed by the author, between Barbara and her cousin Marie von Hohenzollern: thus an authentic historical novel of some originality. A similar pattern was observed by Chantal Thomas in Les Adieux a la Reine (Fiction et Cie), which was awarded the Prix Femina. Here we are in Vienna in 1810, where Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, formerly reader to Marie-Antoinette, remembers the court of Versailles and what took place there on 14, 15 and 16 July 1789 when that court collapsed. An unusual and unusually nostalgic look back at what was, by 1810, a vanished world, almost a feminine version of Saint-Simon, but singularly free of pastiche.

Nothing could be more different than Pas un Jour (Grasset) by Anne Garreta, which was awarded the Prix Medicis. This was an autobiography in the form of 12 nights spent with 12 different women, in a largely American setting (the author has taught in America and relives specifically American scenes and vistas). A book, then, about desire, written in a scrupulous, almost passionless style which nevertheless has nothing classical about it, but is in fact pedantic and even cruel, much concerned with language, with semiotics and hermaneutics, and as such not within everyone's reach. This is arguably the most intellectually challenging of this year's offerings, but with a sizeable element of self-parody.

The Prix Interallie went to Gonzague Saint Bus for Les Vieillards de Brighton (Grasset), which purports to be fiction but may indeed be factual. At the age of five this son of a French diplomat in London was sent as punishment to an institution — which turned out to be an old-age home — in Brighton, forced to sleep in a dormitory with the other inmates and to come to terms with the various delusions confided to him by those who were to be his companions. The interest of this piquant but overwritten account lies in seeing the England of the Fifties through French eyes. It emerges, not surprisingly, as a place of Dickensian weirdness, yet when later repatriated to Paris the author pays the rue de l'Elysee the supreme compliment of reminding him of a Brighton which, against the odds, retains its charm.

Altogether not a good year. The Milovanoff and the Rouart stayed with me. The rest were instantly forgotten.