Gemma Betros

One of the frustrating things about being a historian is the number of times you are told by others that surely everything in your specialty must already have been ‘done’. After so many decades or centuries, what more could there possibly be to discover? One of the answers is that what interests scholars, and what topics are considered worthy of examination, changes over time. This explains how ‘new’ material – often sitting in the archives for centuries – comes to light. It also explains why women have not always made the cut, a problem compounded, as recent Twitter discussions have highlighted, by how often research about women by female scholars still goes unpublished.

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French journalist Agnès Poirier has a flair for relating the saving of France’s artistic treasures. One of the most gripping chapters of her previous book, Left Bank: Art, passion and the rebirth of Paris, 1940–50 (2018), told the story of Jacques Jaujard, who skilfully evacuated the Louvre’s greatest works mere days before the outbreak of World War II. In Poirier’s brief volume on Paris’s cathedral of Notre-Dame, devastated by fire on 15 April 2019, it is the turn of curator Marie-Hélène Didier and Notre-Dame’s operational director, Laurent Prades. As Poirier tracks the fire from outbreak to containment, we watch them battle Paris’s traffic-locked streets by car, RER, Vélib’, and foot to reach the cathedral and rescue what they can. Prades’s sudden (and entirely understandable) inability to remember the code for the safe in which the Crown of Thorns is kept makes for tense reading.

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I wanted to like this memoir very much, not least because the inside of the book jacket promises, with some originality, a ‘not-uncritical love letter to Paris’. People (myself included) have a tendency to wax rhapsodic about France’s capital, but anyone who has ever lived there for any length of time knows ...

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The Years by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer

by
March 2019, no. 409

The word indicible appears frequently in the work of French author Annie Ernaux. In English, it means ‘inexpressible’ or ‘unspeakable’. Yet saying the unsayable – or rather, exploring the crevice between what is discussed openly and the inexpressible within – is where Ernaux excels ...

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A country that fails its purge is about to fail its renovation,’ warned French-Algerian writer Albert Camus in a January 1945 editorial. Camus’ ominous edict, issued in the weeks following the end of Germany’s occupation of France, encapsulates something of what Agnès Poirier is trying to say in this ...

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Based on Pierre Lemaitre’s Prix-Goncourt-winning 2013 novel of the same name, 'Au revoir là-haut' (See You Up There) is a French film about World War I that takes aim at a society more interested in commemorating the war’s dead than in looking after its survivors. Albert Maillard (Albert Dupontel, who adapted the novel ...

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As we approach the end of what might be considered another pretty terrible year, it’s worth being reminded that every age has its tribulations ...

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