Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

s-l300This is a perfect book for the hot weather, Bonjour Tristesse especially takes place on the Riviera on a summer holiday and the betrayals, affairs and rising tension take place in the summering heat.

This edition consists of two stories; Bonjour Tristesse is the story of the young girl Cecile on holiday with her father and his various girlfriends and A Certain Smile, a novella, the tale of a young woman who, bored by her lover, starts an affair with a married man.

Part of the reason this work became an overnight bestseller in the 50s is because of the young age Sagan was when she wrote it. She was only eighteen when it was published and her coming of age story is coloured with the influence of Sartre and Camus. It shows a level of sophistication that is incredible. The themes of existentialism are interwoven into the threads of this story, the way Cecile lies around in the sand, smokes, and manipulates with an air of nonchalance and bemoans her lack of authenticity.

Sagan’s writing style (translated by Heather Lloyd) is cool and elegant:

 “A Strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow. The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.” 

Did that sounds pretentious? It is pretentious. This is very much a novel written by a teenager and while I admired her stylish and atmospheric way of illustrating a story I also couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Its major shortcoming is that it tries and fails to hit the true emotional mark and so becomes very much style over substance.



The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé

aymeThe man who walked through walls, Marcel Aymé, tr; Sophie Lewis, Pushkin Press, 2012

I am extremely picky when it comes to short stories, much more than novels. I generally try reading anthologies of stories hoping I’ll come across an author who delights me. So I surprised myself when I bought a book of short stories from an author I’d never heard of before.

And I’m in love! I’ve never raced through a book of short stories so fast. I’d finish one and move onto the next but find the last was still lingering around me like a delicious complicated scent. I’d be thinking and smiling about them while I was on the tube, at the pub, having dinner or with friends.

Aymé takes an idea; what if a man could walk through walls? What would he do? How would people around him react?  Dutilleul does nothing with his power until he is overly irritated by his boss and decides to surprise the man in his office:

Looking up, with an unspeakable fright, he found Dutilleul’s head mounted on the wall like a hunting trophy. But the head was still alive. Through its pince-nez, the head flashed a look of hatred at him. Even better, the head began to speak.

“Sir,” it said, “you are a ruffian, a boor and a scoundrel.”

Statue of Marcel Aymé

statue of Aymé in Monmarte

The stories are darkly comic and the leaps of his imagination made me gleefully anticipate what he would come up with next. Each one is like a reverse gothic parable. Aymé satirizes bureaucracy throughout society whether in a story about time being rationed due to shortages or the tedious queuing at the gates of heaven.

I don’t think I’ve owned a book by Pushkin Press before but I was impressed with the thick matte pages and the clear spaced layout and that it was quite sturdily made. It is one of those books you think could never be read as enjoyably on an e-book.

The author loves his characters. And he makes me love them too. How does he do this in such a short literary form? I knew each story would be wonderful, it would be humourous, sympathetic and poignant. I also knew I would care deeply about each protagonist however ridiculous or mundane their situation was. The relationship between a boy and his mother in The Seven-League Boots made my heart ache. I am so happy I took a chance and picked this book up.

Review: The Wine of Solitude by Irene Nemirovsky

Helene is a troubled young girl. Neglected by her self-absorbed mother and her adored but distant father, she longs for love and for freedom. As first the Great War and then the Russian Revolution rage in the background, she grows from a lonely, unhappy child to an angry young woman intent on destruction. The Wine of Solitude is a powerful tale of an unhappy family in difficult times and a woman prepared to wreak a shattering revenge.

Reading this novel was like immersing myself in a vivid, sensual and unhappy dream. I ended up racing through it in a matter of hours. Nemirovsky’s artistry with language is heady and sensory and is wonderfully translated into English by Sandra Smith.

The sleigh rushed towards a faint light that seemed to disappear then return, happily twinkling through the falling snow. The night was crystal clear and bitterly cold. The snowfields of Finland were endless, without a single rock, a single hill, just an enormous expanse of ice as far as the eye could see; at the horizon the ice seemed to curve slightly, as if it were embracing the entire world.

The protagonist, Helene, continually professes how hard hearted she is becoming throughout the novel like the adults that surround her but we see her continually grappling with her morality with a dark humour from a young age. Half the book seems to take place inside Helene’s mind and her thoughts of the world around her and analysing the type of person she is herself. Dismissed cruelly and neglected by most of the adults around her this makes her observations even more engaging.

Determination to get revenge on her mother by using the same weapons has Helene’s constantly uneasy about the similarities between them. While Bella has life experience, Helene does not and several times when she thinks she has control over her own interactions with men she is left floundering. Despite her belief she is an adult, when she successfully seduces someone she is lost on exactly what to do with him. The war and revolution come second in the novel to the sledge rides, love affairs, card games and Helene’s sexual awakening and the realisation on how she can use it.

Written in 1934, this is Nemirovsky’s most autobiographical novel. Knowing this after finishing it makes the story even more melancholic and the ending more satisfying. It is not blank space after Helene’s story but the possibilities of Irene Nemirovsky’s life. This is the first book by Nemirovsky I have read so I don’t compare it to her most famous work Suite Française, although this has encouraged me to read it.