Too many reviews, not enough time! But I noticed that I read three French novels last month, and decided to make one post with three short reviews of them. Because, you know, they are all French 😉
Seventeen year old Cécile spends the summer with her father, Raymond, and the latest of his lovers, Elsa, at the French Rivera. They are all enjoying the sun and water during the day and the casinos at night until Anne, the friend of her late mother arrives. Elsa has to step aside for sophisticated and serious Anne, and Cécile finds their lifestyle of pleasure and idleness threatened.
Bonjour Tristesse is Francoise´s Cécile´s coming-of-age story, and perhaps the ultimate one. Cécile is, surprisingly, a likable character. She is bitchy and immature one minute, contemplative and precocious the next. I wonder if it helped that Sagan was very young when she wrote this novel, or does one need to be distanced from that age to better reflect on it? I think Cécile´s conflicting behaviour is well-explained, and I always find it a pleasure to read books with characters who are complex and not straightforward. Cécile schemes and plays the adults around her beautifully, but she doesn´t do it coldly. Besides the worry about Anne changing their hedonistic lifestyle to one that is serious and stuffy, the fear that her close relationship with her father might change, too, always shines through. As long as Raymond changes lovers often and never becomes attached, Cécile will come first with her father. I enjoyed reading this classic a lot, it´s very atmospheric, I would recommend reading it in summer (so now! 🙂 ). There´s also a lot going on despite the relative shortness of the book, there´s the description of the French Rivera in the 50s/ 60s, existentialism, people´s loneliness and superficial pleasure, drama, and more.
Another book, nearly everyone has read and reviewed, so what is there left to say? For those who haven´t read Bord de Mer (engl: Beside the Sea) yet, this is all that should be said about the content: A mother takes her two young sons to see the sea.
I can only agree that this is a darkly atmospheric little book. It quickly becomes obvious that the trip to the sea is not as innocent as one might expect. The fact that they set out at night should be a clue. As readers we are restricted to and nearly imprisoned by the mother´s narrative voice. There is a sense of foreboding from the very beginning and the atmosphere becomes more and more oppressive. Olmi turns expectations of the sea and motherhood upside down. This is a haunting story, and I can see why it got so many glowing reviews. Olmi has written other short novels, but is also very well-known for her plays.
La Tête en Friche (German title can be translated as The Labyrinth of Words) is narrated by 40-year-old Germain who is not so smart but big and strong. In the park he meets an old lady called Margueritte who is basically his opposite in everything. A tentative friendship grows between them, at first because of their shared interest in counting doves, and then because Margueritte teaches Germain to think about the world by reading books to him.
This constellation reminded me strongly of The Mighty, physical versus intellectual prowess. I enjoyed reading this book, although I have to say that there are two levels on which you can read it. Strangely enough this coincides a bit with what the two main characters represent. You can read this book the way Germain looks at the world, very matter-of-fact and not aware of the deeper meanings. Then this will be a charming story about unlikely friendships and the power of literature (and this is how I read it, until I started thinking about what to write in my post, and suddenly became aware of a less flattering meaning of this book). This reading has a lot of advantages, I think we all like to believe that books can teach us to understand the world better or to look at it in a new way. And a nice older woman acting as a sort of grandma and mentor in one can be a wonderful and enriching influence.
However, and I hope I´m not overanalysing this, there is another level to this book, and it is one I found slightly disturbing. Margueritte and Germain are so very cliché and representative of what should be an old-fashioned class system. Germain is a stupid working class man, loud and very physical. But through Margueritte´s (and the intellectual elite´s) influence he is miraculously transformed, and he is happier and a better person because of it. But then, I might be overly critical and this is just a charming and heartwarming story. I wish you´d all read it and let me know what you make of it, but it hasn´t been translated yet, so you have to know French or German (I´m not sure if it´s been translated into any other languages). La Tête en Friche has been adapted to film, here´s the trailer, but again, it´s French.
Have you reviewed any of these books? Let me know and I´ll add the link.