Review: Poum and Alexandre

The Stella Prize shortlist celebrates the six best fiction and non-fiction books written by Australian women, noted for their excellent, original and engaging prose.
In the six weeks leading up to the winner’s announcement on April 18 Sinéad Fogarty reviews each of these books for Hatch.

This week, Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir by Catherine de Saint Phalle.

The artistry of a well-tuned insult balances filth of the gutter with the crack of fine wit. A lyrical ballad of boorishness. Ho hum horridities (of the four-letter variety) are belched forth on a daily basis. Yet the nose-clearing bite of a finely ground peppery insult is reserved for use by the most seasoned of muck spouts. A fine example, Shakespeare.

So it was to The Bard I turned when attempting to convey the sweeping fields of poppycock that is Poum and Alexandre. Author Catherine de Saint Phalle’s first work of non-fiction is a memoir charting her childhood years growing up in 1950s’ Paris. The book is divided into two parts.

The first details memories principally featuring her mother, Marie Antoinette, nicknamed Poum. Catherine is treated by her mother like a doll of a child – neglected for hours, even days on end, while her mother stayed where she was most secure; in bed surrounded by a sea of books.

“… she was some kind of fraud, some Briseis, pretending she was still in her father’s court when it had long been burnt into the ground, salt poured over its ashes so nothing would grow there.”

Suddenly Poum would sail from inertia to energy, seizing upon the moment at hand for a brief sojourn. While Catherine yearns for affection, she does not object to the eccentric and erratic behaviour, quietly observing her parents with fascination.

“Her love just lives in places love usually shies away from, places where other mothers fear to tread.”

The second half of the book is headlined by her father, Alexandre, a mountain of a man with a character to match. Almost 60 years her senior, he treats Catherine like an adult, and relates each moment in time to an episode in ancient history. In one scene, Alexandre sweeps into a camera store and, as quickly, sails out with the first (and most expensive) camera he sees, flummoxing the shopkeeper.

“When I look back, he looks bereft – Hannibal has just vacated the premises with all his elephants.”

This novel is resoundingly elegant; beautiful to behold, though not enjoyable to wear. The journey to page 100 wasn’t exactly a pleasant one – every simile, and believe me, there are many, are all tempered with greek mythology and ancient history. Unversed in these, you’ll find yourself lost.

And so I must borrow from Shakespeare an opportune insult from Henry V: “Thou damned and luxurious mountain goat!” While in 16th century England luxurious was defined as hedonistic, I’m not suggesting that Catherine de Saint Phalle’s memoir is reminiscent of a randy cliff-side mammal. Rather, her prose is pockmarked with self indulgence. My desire to drink in her stories faded with each passing page. – Sinéad Fogarty

Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir
By Catherine de Saint Phalle
Published by Transit Lounge, 285pp. RRP $30

About Sinead Fogarty 18 Articles
Sinéad Fogarty is a Sydney-based writer and video journalist, interested in unearthing stories full of quirk and character. You'll often find her with her head in a book, or with ice speed skates on her feet.