If there's one thing I know without a shadow of a doubt about Emma Becker's Monsieur, it is that it's going to be an absolute Marmite-book that people will love and loathe in equal measures. Personally, I haven't quite decided if it's a book I hate to love or love to hate.
The book reminds me of a more artistic, literary version of 9 & 1/2 Weeks. I remember the mixed reactions that that film provoked - women secretly lusting after Mickey Rourke's character while screaming at Kim Basinger's on-screen persona to flee the manipulative, toxic lover who was definitely not making her happy, viewers both scandalised and titillated by the (by the standards back then) graphic sex scenes ... Monsieur follows an equally toxic car crash of a relationship between a young, impressionable 20-something woman called Ellie and her domineering, rather aloof, married older lover.
My mother would dismiss it as utter filth (and she'd have a point) - but that's actually rather apt, as Ellie's own mother finds her daughter's love of erotic literature just as scandalous, despite strangely using this awakening sensuality to push her into the arms of the older man who happens to share her dubious literary tastes. Psychoanalysts would have a field day analysing the budding relationship and the power struggles going on between the mismatched pair but also her mother's reasons for introducing them.
The text is at times utterly crude, almost uncomfortably so, and I started to wonder if the author was purposely trying to shock her readers. Then - being fluent in French - I started to think about the language she must have used in her native tongue. The translator Maxim Jakubowski (it strikes me as odd that a semi-autobiographical novel written by a woman has been translated by a man - surely this would colour the translation ?) has done a perfectly reasonable job but is limited by the language he is translating into. There must be a reason why so many English-speaking men fantasise about French women muttering Gallic sweet nothings - French is often seen as the language of romance and lovers. Feeling rather wrong-footed by the repeated use of the overly vulgar and low-brow "arse" (and worse - but this is a family blog!) in the bedroom scenes (I think several years of watching Father Ted have rendered me incapable of ever considering it as a part of a sensual or romantic vocabulary !), I tried to think of a better alternative. "Bum" is too childish, "bottom" too prudish, "buttocks" too medical ... there really is nothing to equal the slightly more refined and poetic "fesses" or even "cul" in French !
I haven't given in to the media hype surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey but from what I have gathered, it's being classed as "mummy porn" - a much softer, less explicit and less brutal form of erotic literature than Emma Becker's novel. If you are looking for your latest literary cheap thrill, be warned that you just may bite off a whole lot more than you can chew ! Monsieur is extremely graphic, many may say pornographic.
I can see the book getting a good reception in France, where attitudes to sex are often more relaxed, but I'm wondering if it will be just too full-on for the Anglo-saxon market. Whatever you think, it certainly won't leave you indifferent. Just don't buy a copy for your mother-in-law for Christmas or you'll never be able to look her in the face ever again !
star rating : 3/5
RRP : £7.99
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Constable (18 Oct 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1780334761
- ISBN-13: 978-1780334769
- Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 13 x 2.6 cm
Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book, and am participating in the Monsieur blog tour.
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