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The Eleven Paperback – Deckle Edge, January 18, 2013
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A brilliant, surprising book, "The Eleven" is historical fiction at its best: a wholly imagined work that scrutinizes and reconceives how we construct history, time and experience. — Martin Riker, The Wall Street Journal
It will bring you to your knees. —Le Nouvel Observateur
An astonishingly rich, mythic new direction in modern French narrative. —Guy Davenport
Reading Small Lives, I felt profoundly that Michon was carrying on the mark of a true writer: one who speaks in his own voice while conveying with all its immediacy and flesh-and-blood possibility of what it means to be human. —The Review of Contemporary Fiction
The emotion, the forceful claims of the imagery . . . Michon achieves what other writers wouldn’t try, licensed as he is by keen regret and transfigured loss. Michon misses the poetry of the past, and in missing it he possesses it. —Benjamin Lytal Michon’s prose tends to slow down in order to oblige you to hear its rhythms and also to see and touch and smell what is happening beneath it. —Harper’s Magazine
Michon describes with such precision, with such force, that you start to think [it] exists. —Liberation
[Michon's] aesthetic integrity and strict austerity have earned him the adoration of critics and made him worth teaching in every university. —L'Express
A great book that, in an honest language, honed with gueuloir, was delivered to the world after years of labor, says the story. —Le Magazine Litteraire
This limpid, beautifully understated novel, winner of the French Academy’s Grand Prix duRoman, recounts the rise from humble origins of painter François-Élie Corentin, who eventually produces a masterpiece called The Eleven that represents the members of the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror. — Library Journal (Best Fiction in Translation 2013)
About the Author
Pierre Michon, born in Cards, France in 1945, is one of France's foremost contemporary writers. He was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Roman for The Eleven, the Prix Decembre for his short novels Abbes and Corps du roi, the Prix Louis Guilloux for La grande beaune (The Origin of the World), and the Prix de la Ville de Paris in 1996 for his body of work.
Jody Gladding is a poet and translator. Her most recent collection of poetry is Rooms and Their Airs. She has translated over twenty books from French, including Serpent of Stars by Jean Giono. She teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Vermont.
After devoting a part of her life to specialized horticulture, Elizabeth Deshays now works as a teacher and translator. She is the author of a study on bilingual education, L'Enfant Bilingue. In addition to Michon’s novels, she translated Julien Gracq’s La Presqu’ile (The Peninsula). She lives in Provence.
Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays were awarded the French-American Foundation for Translation Prize in 2008 for their rendering of Pierre Michon’s Vies Minuscules (Small Lives).
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More than 200 years after its creation, an unnamed narrator stands alongside his voiceless subject in the Louvre as they study The Eleven, "the world's most famous painting". Created by François-Élie Corentin in 1794, the painting portrays the eleven members of the Committee for Public Safety led by Robespierre, as they stand around a table filled with four-pound loaves of bread and Clamart wine. The French historian Michelet described the painting as a "secular last supper" in his 1852 work History of the French Revolution, and his 12 page description of The Eleven in his book has stood as the definitive interpretation of the masterpiece since then.
The narrator of this novel discusses the painting with his subject, and claims that there is much more to its creation than Michelet's flawed description of it. He briefly describes the life of Corentin, who grew up the river town of Combleux and flourished under the undying devotion of his mother and grandmother; his father, a failed poet; and the reason for the painting's commission during the Reign of Terror which followed the French Revolution. The Terror, which lasted from 1793-94, was a time in which a power struggle between Robespierre, Danton and Hébert led to the execution of tens of thousands of French citizens deemed enemies of the Revolution. The narrator describes the actions and motivations of the eleven members of the Committee for Public Safety, and portrays the difficult position that many supporters of its leading members found themselves in.
"The Eleven", which was originally published as "Les Onze" and won the prestigious Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française in 2009, is a deliberate and nonlinear short novel, which was a tedious read at times but ultimately gelled into an interesting and worthwhile story at its end. I suspect that the book is far more rewarding in its original language, but the patient reader of the English version may enjoy it as well.
Pierre Michon takes on the French Revolution, art as history, class culture, social mobility, politics, the love of a mother for her son, and the role of chance in life. He covers these and many more topics in 97 pages of beautifuly translated text. This he does by inventing then discussing what his narrator describes as the most famous painting in the world, a large group portrait of eleven figures from the infamous Committee of Public Safety during the tumult of 1794.
Without internet research, this would have been slow going for me, but I think even if I could not have grasped some of the context, the book would have still entranced me by its pure, clean and expansive language.
that all really prevented me from enjoying the novel in full. I appreciate, however the complexity of the painting description and amount of the geosocial and geopolitical work and effort put into the construction of this novel.
I only read the English translation of the French original, so it is very possible that the book lost a lot of charm, especially due to the translation. Perhaps in the original version it maintains a lot of linguistic and stylistic beauty.