Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2021

All Human Wisdom (Couleurs de l’incendie), by Pierre Lemaitre, translated by Frank Wynne

All Human Wisdom is the second of what will be a trilogy titled Children of Disaster (Les Enfants du désastre). Like The Great Swindle it is an historical novel set in the wake of World War 1, a period of reconstruction in the ruins of Europe.  It is book-ended by two funerals, symbolic of Death as Master of Europe in the 20th Century. This is the blurb:

February, 1927. The great and the good of Paris gather to attend the funeral of the powerful millionaire, Marcel Péricourt. His daughter, Madeleine, is poised to take charge of his financial empire, but it seems fate has other plans for her. Her young son, Paul, with one unexpected and tragic act, will place Madeleine on the path to ruin and degradation.

Faced with the adversity of men, the greed of her time, the corruption and the ambition of her associates, Madeleine will have to deploy reserves of intelligence, determination and also a Machiavellian instinct to survive and rebuild her life. This task is made all the more difficult in a France that can only watch, helpless, as the first flames of the inferno that will soon ravage Europe begin to take hold.

Revenge is a tawdry emotion.  They say that at some time everyone feels a desire to avenge some wrong, because vengeance is tied up with perceptions of wickedness, injustice and betrayal. Parents and teachers often deal with a desire for revenge because children have a primitive view of right and wrong and its consequences. Children mostly grow out of acting on these feelings. Most of us grow a sense of perspective, and we either allow justice to take its course, or simply move on, absorbing the sin against us as part of life’s journey. We learn that revenge does not make us feel better.

But if justice fails, or the damage is profound and irreversible, what then?  And is the role of Avenging Angel different if a victim extends her own vengeance to avenge also on behalf of another, an innocent?

These are weighty questions which define the difference between the Old Testament and the New: an eye for an eye, or forgiveness and love.  More prosaically, these alternatives lie at the heart of our justice systems: rejection by society and punishment versus rehabilitation and restitution.  It is easy to forget that they lie at the heart of this novel as it rampages along in a complex plot which is often exciting and sometimes droll.  But when the reader reaches the end of the book, the question remains: Is Madeleine, (sister to Édouard, the disfigured central character of The Great Swindle) more sinned against than sinning?

As in The Great Swindle, the novel traverses a scandal which exposes the French Establishment as corrupt and venal in high places.  Madeleine loses everything not because of the Great Depression but because professionals she should have been able to trust manipulated and exploited her.  But the corruption of values extends below stairs too.  Madeleine is also betrayed by those close to her, people exacting their own revenge for the careless way that a very rich and indifferent woman has behaved.  All societies have values which bind them together: when the national motto of France Libertéégalitéfraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity), ceases to mean anything, society falls apart and chaos ensues.

The corruption of the media, along with its cynicism and its power to influence, is likewise relevant to contemporary life.  In a subplot involving an opera singer performing for Hitler, her spectacular refutation of Nazi appropriation of music is suppressed by the master propagandist Goebbels, leaving the restoration of her reputation to one lone and powerless voice.  The novel asks, is the French media any more truthful?

Let none of these musings overwhelm the pleasure of reading this novel.  Like its big, baggy fore-runners in Victorian narrative, there are secrets, betrayals, and subterfuges along with lively plot twists and reversals.  There are numerous characters all conspiring against each other, all in the looming shadow of the coming debacle.  Does—should? a world war dwarf their concerns? Where does the last book of the trilogy go from here?

Author: Pierre Lemaitre
Title: All Human Wisdom (Couleurs de l’incendie)
Children of Disaster #2 (Les Enfants du désastre #2) Trilogy
Translated by Frank Wynne
Design by Andrew Smith
Publisher: MacLehose Press (Quercus), 2021
ISBN: 9780857059000, pbk., 423 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. I don’t recognise this author’s name, but I like the sound of this trilogy. I presume you’re still typing with the wrong hand – I marvel at your determination!

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    • Lemaitre is v popular in France and yes, this trilogy shows why.
      But I think he’s a bit uneven… I started reading Three Days and a Life and bailed at about page 75…I couldn’t see the point of it.
      Whereas as I hope I’ve indicated in my reviews there is a point to The Great Swindle and to All Human Wisdom.
      Yes, left hand, and one finger of the right hand! I can move more than that though not all four fingers and not the thumb but it hurts. So it’s just hunt and peck with my middle finger by moving my arm not my hand. And not for very long:)

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  2. This sounds very interesting. Your commitment to writing and literature is amazing Lisa. What a legend. I did my right wrist slipping on wet floor some years ago. Healing went well thank goodness. You will be the same and soon I hope.

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    • Alas, last week’s MRI confirms that I have torn the ligament too, which it’s not great news…

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  3. Well you know what I think about historical fiction. I hope he has something new to say that wasn’t said and better at the time. I see the author was born the same year as me. He’d better get a move on if he’s going to knock out another 400 pages.

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    • I can’t say about what was written at the time, the French authors I know from that era were Camus and Sartre!

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  4. I’ve read 2 books by Lemaitre, neither of which were historical fiction. One was a thriller and the other 3 Days and A Life which I enjoyed more than you did. So he seems extremely versatile

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    • I think he’s one of those versatile writers who write enough popular fiction to fund the time to write the kind of literary fiction that he really wants to write.

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      • I hadn’t thought of that but it does make sense .

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  5. I had the pleasure to interview Lemaitre when his first book was translated in English and was hoping some of his other work would get translated as well. He can mix the registers so well, from gripping crime to literary and historical. Never boring, that’s for sure.

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