PERSONAL: Born in Cairo, Egypt.
ADDRESSES: Office—Le Monde, 80, bd Auguste Blanqui, 75707 Paris Cedex 13, France.
CAREER: Writer, editor, and journalist. Le Monde (newspaper), Paris, France, editor.
AWARDS, HONORS: Prix Mediterrané, 1992, for Birds of Passage.
Les chrétiens en France, Presses Universitaires de France (Paris, France), 1972.
Les nouveaux chrétiens, Seuil (Paris, France), 1975.
Le défi terroriste: leçons italiennes à l'usage de l'Europe, Seuil (Paris, France), 1979.
La Tarbouche, Seuil (Paris, France), 1992.
Le sémaphore d'Alexandrie, Seuil (Paris, France), 1994, translation published as The Alexandria Semaphore, Harvill (London, England) 2001.
La Mamelouka (novel) Seuil (Paris, France), 1996, translation by John Brownjohn published as The Photographer's Wife, Harvill (London, England), 1999.
L'Egypte, passion française, Seuil (Paris, France), 1997.
(With Carlos Freire) Alexandrie l'Egyptienne, Stock (Paris, France), 1998.
Les savants de Bonaparte, Seuil (Paris, France), 1998.
Mazag (novel) Seuil (Paris, France), 2000.
Birds of Passage (novel), Harvill (London, England), 2001.
Dictionnaire amoureux de l'Egypte, Plôn (Paris, France), 2001.
Le grand voyage de l'obélisque, Seuil (Paris, France), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Born in Cairo, Egypt, French writer and editor Robert Solé spent his childhood and early teen years in Egypt before moving to France at age seventeen. Solé writes both fiction and nonfiction, primarily in French, and he works as an editor for the prominent French magazine Le Monde. Many of his works have been translated into English.
Solé retains a great interest in Egypt, and in 1998 published L'Egypte, passion française, in connection with "Egypt's Year" in France. In the book, Solé traces the long-held and deeply felt cultural, artistic, and scientific interconnections binding France and Egypt. Solé discusses interactions between French and Egyptian society from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, outlining contributions made by prominent personalities in both countries. Solé stresses "the French fascination with the great civilization of Egypt," noted a reviewer on the Egyptian State Information Service Web site.
The Photographer's Wife, originally published in French as La Mamelouka, is set in the politically tumultuous days of the late nineteenth century in Egypt, when Britain and France were in conflict over control of the country. While taking a family portrait on a beach at Alexandria, Milo Touta meets Dora, a talented watercolor artist and free spirit. The two eventually fall in love and marry. Dora begins to help her husband in his prosperous photography studio, where he takes portraits of Egyptian aristocrats. Though Dora comes to photography largely as a fluke, her artistic skills infuse her photographs with a vibrancy that her husband's more formal work cannot match. Soon, her work eclipses his, causing Milo great shame. As his drinking and violence escalate, she is prompted to take an assignment in Khartoum, where she will photograph the British occupation. There she meets British officer Elliot, who has corresponded with her for two years. Though tempted by Elliot, Dora eventually realizes that her place is with Milo and their three children. "Falling gracefully between a family saga, a history lesson, and a love story, the book is a meditation … on how political change affects domestic relations, and how art can encompass and reinvent both realms," observed a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. Solé "is skilled in his portrait of a marriage that starts off with great promise and sours, almost imperceptibly at first, before our eyes," commented Dana Kennedy in New York Times Book Review. "The whole charm of this novel stems from its evocation of Egypt's monarchical society" which existed under British occupation, stated a Times Literary Supplement reviewer.
In The Alexandria Semaphore, Solé offers an earlier episode from the history of the Touta family. As the social and political scene surrounding the building of the Suez Canal unfolds, Maxime Touta struggles with his unrequited love for married cousin Nada, who married the wrong man too early in life, while balancing his day job in a bank with his strong desire to become a journalist. Maxime's journalistic career hits a high point as he witnesses the results of British intervention in Alexandria. Other family members enter and exit Maxime's narrative, but Nada gradually fades from his life forever. "Combining the personal with the political, Solé recreates the lost world of a marginalized community that was never quite at home anywhere," observed Library Journal contributor Andrea Caron Kempf.
Birds of Passage chronicles the social and economic growth of the Bakatrani family in the mid-twentieth century. The family's status is symbolized by that of the tarboosh, a piece of traditional headgear that was commonly worn throughout the Middle East during the early twentieth century, but which had vanished by 1952. Solé's own fictional surrogate, Charles Batrakani, appears in the novel, and an extended family endures the modernization of Egypt even as the old customs fall away. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "this leisurely, satisfying novel breathes the nostalgia of a crowded family gathering."
Basile Batrakani, the main character in Mazag, has a knack for getting what he wants as he interacts with French society in Paris. He returns the favors afforded to him by helping those who appeal to his own sense of generosity and he applies his talents to their aid. When an ageing politician comes seeking to end his own life, Basile's philanthropy is presented with its greatest challenge. The novel "is at once sad and funny, human and refreshingly unassuming," commented Amelie Northomb in the Economist. "The reader is left with a wistful, orphaned feeling at the end."
Solé's nonfiction works include The Rosetta Stone, written with Dominique Valbelle. The book recounts the story of the discovery and decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, the critical linguistic key that allowed Egyptian hieroglyphics to be deciphered and understood for the first time in more than 1,400 years. The book covers the intrigues and rivalries among language experts and Egyptologists as teams of professionals raced against each other to be first to crack the centuries-old code. The story is told as a "grand adventure, the pages fizzing with a peculiarly French delight in intellectual puzzles," commented Ian Pindar in the Manchester Guardian.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Economist, November 25, 2000, Amelie Northomb, "The Young and the Restless; New Novels from France; New French Novels," review of Mazag, p. 9.
Guardian (Manchester, England), August 10, 2002, Ian Pindar, review of The Rosetta Stone, p. 25.
Library Journal, November 15, 2001, Andrea Caron Kempf, review of The Alexandria Semaphore, p. 98.
New York Times Book Review, December 19, 1999, Dana Kennedy, review of The Photographer's Wife, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, September 20, 1999, review of The Photographer's Wife, p. 71; July 10, 2000, review of Birds of Passage, p. 45.
Spectator, July 14, 2001, Penelope Lively, review of The Alexandria Semaphore, p. 33.
Times Literary Supplement, November 29, 1996; March 19, 1999, Adrian Tahourdin, review of The Photographers Wife, p. 22.