Phaéton (1683): Jean-Baptiste Lully

Lully: Phaéton

★★★½

(Opéra Royal de Versailles, 30 May 2018)

When business took me to Versailles this week, I just happened to arrive on the first night of the Opéra Royal’s new production of Lully’s Phaéton. As you know, French Baroque opera is still something of a terra incognita for me, so I decided to see if there were tickets available, and discovered a last-minute return. It would’ve been rude not to. That evening, perched in a velvet-lined box, with gold and glittering crystal overhead, I settled in for an epic four-hour tale of ambition, love and hubris. It was a steep learning curve, with marked differences from the Italian operas that I know and love, but I can’t think of a better place to experience the Sun King’s composer for the first time, and the production was blessed with a terrific performance in the title role by Mathias Vidal. So join me, as I bumble my way through this first extended encounter with Monsieur Lully…

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The List of my Desires (2012): Grégoire Delacourt

★★★½

We all have dreams about what we’d do if we won the lottery. In my case, it’d involve a lovely house in a garden square in Kensington, with enough room for a proper library; and even more travelling. We like to imagine that these things would make us happy and finally allow us to become the people we’re meant to be. But is that really so? What would it really be like to find our bumbling, workaday lives transformed by the sudden influx of riches? This bittersweet little novel is based around the eternal truth that wealth and happiness don’t always enjoy a positive correlation. With its modest heroine and cosy small-town air, it’s a moral fable with a surprisingly bleak sting in its tail.

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Thalia (1957): Frances Faviell

★★★

Eighteen-year-old Rachel is a dreamy, idealistic student at the Slade and wants nothing more than to become a painter. When she paints an unflattering portrait of the local vicar, her aunt decides that this ungrateful girl doesn’t deserve to come on her planned trip to Egypt (despite Rachel’s obsession with Akhenaten and Nefertiti). Instead, Rachel is packed off for a year-long placement with an English family living in Brittany, to act as companion to their teenage daughter Thalia. Rachel’s first impression is that the Pembertons are much the same as any other military family wintering in a cheap, congenial climate. But, when Colonel Tom Pemberton returns to his regiment in India, she begins to notice deeper currents swirling through his household and, in particular, running in the veins of unloved, overlooked, lonely Thalia.

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The Voyage of the Short Serpent (2004): Bernard du Boucheron

★★½

Literary prizes are strange things. This novel won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 2004, which led me to expect something rather brilliant, but it fell gloomily short of expectations. Austere, cold and brutal, it tells the story of the medieval Catholic priest Insulomontanus, who is dispatched to New Thule (Greenland) to minister to the faithful. The New York Times regarded the book (translated by Hester Velmans) as a tour-de-force of black humour, but I found it an increasing slog of horrific cruelty and almost unbearable suffering. Framed as Insulomontanus’s grovelling report back to his master, it plays deftly with notions of the unreliable narrator – but that in itself isn’t enough to transform this monotonously miserable story into an engaging read.

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Clisson and Eugénie (1795): Napoleon Bonaparte

★★

During a hard-fought game of Trivial Pursuit the other day, I discovered that Napoleon Bonaparte had written a romantic novel. Obviously, I decided that I had to get my hands on this as soon as possible. I had visions of balls and the language of fans, of brooding heroes, comic misunderstandings and smart-tongued heroines. This was foolish, I admit. In fact, this isn’t a novel so much as a short story, barely more than twenty pages long. It’s also very clearly Romantic rather than romantic. And Napoleon may have been a great general, but he wasn’t all that good as a novelist. Personally, I don’t believe this would have received any critical attention whatsoever were it not for the identity of its author; but that is interesting enough to warrant a bit of discussion.

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Frantz (2016)

Frantz

★★★★

(directed by François Ozon, 2017)

Anna’s life has ended before it’s even begun. Like so many young men from her small German town, her fiancé Frantz never came home from the war. Widowed without ever having been a wife, she lives with his bereaved parents, two good old people who love her like their own daughter. Every day she goes to tend Frantz’s grave in the cemetery – an empty grave, for his body was never identified – and it’s here, one day, that she sees a stranger standing in front of Frantz’s headstone. A tall young man, who leaves a flower on Frantz’s grave and walks away with tears in his eyes. Anna is intrigued. Who is this young man? How does he know Frantz? And can he give them any of the answers they so desperately seek? With the emotional intensity of a chamber piece, this film is a very moving meditation on grief, loss, guilt and learning to live again.

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The Absolutist (2011): John Boyne

★★★★

It is 1919 and Tristan Sadler arrives in Norwich to meet Marian Bancroft, the sister of his friend and comrade Will Bancroft. Tristan has come to return the letters Marian wrote to her brother, which he has kept ever since Will’s death. And yet he hasn’t made this journey solely for the sake of restoring a piece of her family history. There are things Tristan needs to say; amends he needs to make. Will Bancroft didn’t die in action, but was shot by a firing squad of his own peers, hauled up on charges of cowardice after proclaiming himself an ‘absolutist’ – the firmest kind of conscientious objector. Tristan needs to tell Marian that her brother wasn’t a coward; but he also hopes, in meeting her, to find some closure for his own traumatic experiences on the Western Front.

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Holy Fools (2003): Joanne Harris

★★★½

For five years, Juliette has lived in peaceful isolation at the convent of Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer, on the island of Noirs Moustiers (modern Noirmoutier) in eastern France. Within the abbey walls, she has reinvented herself as Soeur Auguste, a young widow who has sought sanctuary with her little girl Fleur. None of her sisters knows her true identity. But others do, and Fate – or God – works in mysterious ways. When the old Abbess dies, her replacement arrives with a confessor in tow: a glamorous, silver-tongued, charismatic man who Juliette knows, only too well. Against her will, she finds herself being drawn back into a dangerous game she thought she’d escaped long ago… for her dark nemesis is a gambler and this time he is prepared to play with sanity, faith and even lives at stake.

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Honour and the Sword (2010): A.L. Berridge

★★★★★

Chevalier: Book I

Very occasionally, as a reader, you have the wonderful sensation of finding a book that might have been written especially for you. It feels as though the author has looked into your head, seen all your favourite things and put pen to paper with an indulgent sigh of, ‘Oh, go on then’. And this book did that for me. It’s a rip-roaring old-fashioned adventure story set in France in the early 17th century, full of courage, loyalty, duels, romance, dastardly Spaniards, impossible odds, hair’s-breadth escapes, skirmishes, secrets and, of course, honour. And, at its heart, there’s an irresistible young hero: a fierce little firebrand with his head full of chivalry, a sword at his side and vengeance in his heart. Even better, it’s the first of a projected series. I want more. Right now.

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The Return of Martin Guerre (1983): Natalie Zemon Davis

★★★★

In 1560 Jean de Coras, judge of the Parlement of Toulouse, found himself faced with an extraordinary case which had come up on appeal from the court at Rieux. A woman, Bertrande de Rols, claimed that the man with whom she had lived for four years was not, in fact her husband Martin Guerre, but an impostor. The husband himself denied the charges and claimed that his wife was being unwillingly coerced by his avaricious uncle, who hoped to get his hands on the family inheritance. This alone would have offered de Coras an intriguing case, but the complex tale of Martin Guerre presently developed an unexpected twist that elevated it into one of the most fascinating courtroom dramas in history. Natalie Zemon Davis’s reconstruction is a classic of modern historical writing, offering an irresistible glimpse of the social and sexual mores of the Renaissance.

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