27 DECEMBER 2003, Page 37

New books from France

Anita Brookner

Unheralded and largely unsung, the Prix Goncourt was announced two weeks early this year, to no very great acclaim: even booksellers seemed indifferent. La Maitresse de Brecht by Jacques-Pierre Amette (Albin Michel) is, as it announces, what might have happened to Brecht when he returned to Berlin in 1948 after 15 years of exile in America. He finds a city in ruins, old alliances broken, and a new political caste in power. Although his concerns appear to be purely professional he is regarded with suspicion and is the object of surveillance. The plant is a young actress, Maria Eich, with whom he has an affair.

The choice of this novel for the most prestigious literary prize in France is inexplicable, although the status of the prize was fatally compromised last year by Pascal Quignard's volume of ruminations, which were neither fictitious nor enlightening. Indeed the mention of the Goncourt name is the only means of injecting gravity into what has become a fairly farcical procedure. Stagily written, with many short verbless sentences, La Maitresse de Brecht appears to aspire to the condition of a film script. A more reasonable objection might be the lack of any sort of characterisation. The accoutrements are there — Brecht's cigar and cap, the dilapidated appearance of the Stasi operatives — but of their inner life there is no sign. Edmond de Goncourt, who founded the prize and whose delicate and tragic novels stand in bleak contrast to La Mattresse de Brecht, and indeed to most recent fiction, would have been appalled. It may be that another form is called for, but of that there is no sign.

The Prix du Roman de l'Academie Frangaise was awarded to Jean-Noel Pancrazi for Tout est passe si vite (Gallimard), a novel so morbid and so affecting that I was unwilling to read on. It is about a woman, Elisabeth, who is dying of cancer. She has been a successful writer, an editor in a prestigious publishing house, but now she spends more time thinking about the men she has loved than of her books. She goes about her neighbourhood valiantly but unsteadily; at the cinema she sits on the end of a row in case she has to leave suddenly ... All this is recounted in long sentences that almost leave one breathless, But as well as being alarming, this is a fine novel, or perhaps account, for the author seems to have been involved, as a particular witness, in the process. Tout est passe si vire, with its reverberant title, is above all a tribute not only to a woman but to what will be missed, the excitement of work, meetings in Paris by night, Paris itself. It is a measure of Pancrazi's success that he manages to bring these matters home to the reader. That reader will acknowledge the bravery of the undertaking but will put the book aside with something like relief.

Equally unnerving is Patrick Modiano's Accident Nocturne (Gallimard), which was unrewarded: even the best authors can fall out of favour, A man is struck by a car driven by a woman in a fur coat in the Place des Pyramides late at night at an unspecified but probably distant date. Both are taken to hospital in a police van and placed in the same room. After an anaesthetic the writer — Modiano or his alter ego — wakes up in a different clinic and alone. Discharging himself at the reception desk, he is handed an envelope containing a considerable amount of money. He assumes, rationally, that this is a gift from the woman, guilty at having caused the accident. So far, so almost believable. But all this is merely a pretext for an entirely characteristic trawl through the past as the author attempts to find the woman, who has left her address but not the number of her house. Various characters are brought back into consciousness, notably Dr Bouviere, a guru (and fraud) who used to hold forth in cafés in the 14th arrondissement, and that shady and elusive father so familiar from Modiano's previous novels. The effects of the anaesthetic appear not to have worn off: how else to account for those rediscovered memories of other accidents undergone at the ages of six and of seventeen? All this is interspersed with long walks in the cold, at night. Street names occur as in a lucid dream, or rather nightmare, which begins to encompass an entire life. Surprisingly, and perhaps disappointingly, he does find the woman who ran him down. Had he not done so the book might have continued indefinitely.

The Prix Femina went to Dai Sijie for Le Complexe de Di (Gallimard), a naive young man's attempt to introduce Freudian analysis into China, and the Prix Medicis to Hubert Mingarelli for Quatre So/dais (scenes from the Russian Army in 1919). The Prix Renaudot was awarded to Philippe Claudel for Les Ames vises (Stock), a story set in the first world war which looks promising.

All these books dwell on life's more uncomfortable moments, but that is in order, making straightforward fictions seem slightly old-fashioned. It is even seen as a correct development. According to an excellent book by Georges Minois, Histoire du Mal de Vivre: De la Melancolie a la Depression (La Martiniere), we should all be feeling uncomfortable, even afflicted. As well as dwelling on the reasons for this Minois provides a thorough survey of melancholia from classical times to the present day, with poignant witness statements from various sources. He concludes that historical pessimism, together with the loss of good authority (something from which we suffer at the present day), has accelerated the process. He also cites the consumer society, the infantilising effect of popular culture and consequent absence of catharsis, the lack of intimate satisfaction, and the medicalisation of what is essentially a metaphysical condition. He offers no hope, not even from the pharmaceutical industry, which has done so much to make this state of mind a commonplace. The crisis (for it is one) must be alleviated by other means. What those means might be he prudently does not say.