“Bonjour Tristesse” and “A Certain Smile” by Françoise Sagan (1954)

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“This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’.”

Despite it only being a short boat ride away, I’ve never been to France. It’s not somewhere that holds a great deal of appeal for me, despite the wine flowing like water through the countryside. Besides, it’s much cheaper to travel by book. I’ve just paid two visits with this collection by one of France’s finest young writers.

In the first story, Bonjour Tristesse, we meet seventeen-year-old Cécile who enjoys a life of laziness on the French Riviera with her father, the philandering Raymond, and his new mistress, the superficial Elsa. Because Raymond has no intellectual interests, instead spending his time meeting women and socialising, Cécile in turn doesn’t show any interest in her studies, instead spending her time achieving a sexual eucducation from Cyril, the student in the villa next door.

Things change, however, when Anne, an old friend of Cécile’s mother appear at the villa. She is intelligent and cultured, and the same age as Raymond, making her a far more suitable match for marriage, and within days Elsa has been turfed out and Anne and Raymond announce their engagement. Seeing this as a threat to her lazy, privileged life, Cécile schemes with Cyril and Elsa to get Anne out of the picture, with tragic consequences.

In the second story, A Certain Smile, Dominique is a young Parisian student who embarks on an affair with Luc, the uncle of her current boyfriend, despite knowing that if his doting and very sweet wife Françoise was to find out, it would ruin their blossoming friendship. Unperturbed and acting on base instinct, the affair continues but Dominique is sure that Luc will never leave his wife, meaning more than one person’s heart will get broken as events unfold.

The Guardian, and I sense they aren’t alone, called Sagan “the French F. Scott Fitzgerald”. I’m not sure I’d go that far. There is perhaps a similarity in style, but my overall sense is that she’s a 1950s Sally Rooney. Like her, the stories are led by unlikable, selfish young women who have read too many stories and think they understand what love is. Cécile and Dominique both act without realising that everyone else around them is also human with their own emotions and failings, and one gets the impression that even when you leave them to deal with the fall out of their actions, they’re never going to learn from their mistakes.

The writing, however, is beautiful (it’s French and the French don’t do ugly) and conjures up the long days of French summers and the need to do nothing in a hurry. Despite being written sixty years ago, in many ways it feels surprisingly modern, and I suppose it just reveals that people haven’t really changed all that much, not at a fundamental level anyway. We’re all just looking for ways to stem the boredom that encroaches some days, but we may not always go about it the best way.

Of the two, I think I preferred A Certain Smile, but with both I found myself sympathising with the older female characters most of all. Anne and Françoise do not deserve their fates in these books, whereas the protagonists are, as I said, not people I want to befriend and the men are all, well, men. That’s maybe the bit that tells you more that you’re in a different era. A book like this could be written now, but must be prepared to face a backlash. It is of its time, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it is now, too.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Suddenly, A Knock On The Door” by Etgar Keret (2012)

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“‘Tell me a story,’ the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands.”

Short story collections remain, like sketch shows, somewhat hit and miss. When a writer packages together a lot of their work in one go, it is easier to compare them and see what you do and don’t like. That’s not to say that there aren’t some good stories in here, but some of them definitely left a bit to be desired.

The title story of Suddenly, A Knock On The Door features a writer being held at gunpoint by a man who demands he tell a story, which begins to fold in on itself as every time he tries, someone else arrives with the same plea. In the dark “Teamwork”, a divorced man tries to work out a way to save his son from an abusive grandmother. In “A Good One”, a board game designer arrives to a meeting with a bloodied nose and a briefcase containing nothing but a half-eaten apple. In “Surprise Party”, a wife tries to make her distant husband happy but ends up spending time with some distant acquaintances instead. And then there’s “What, of this Goldfish, Would You Wish?” where a man begins a documentary project about the wishes people would ask for if they had the power.

Set mostly in Israel, the stories have a large focus on uncertainty, loneliness, divorce, family and sadness. Few characters in the stories are happy and a lot of them seem to be trapped and unable (or unwilling) to prise themselves out of their ruts. A lot of the stories end abruptly or without giving us a firm resolution, leaving us to make up our own minds about what happens next. Sometimes this works, sometimes I wanted a solid answer.

“Pick a Colour” was a particular favourite story, highlighting in a very clever way the truth of racism, immigration and intolerance. “Lieland” was also interesting, and is one of the many stories to dabble in magic realism, with a compulsive liar finding out that all of his lies have come true and now he has to deal with the consequences. “Healthy Start” is also an interesting one, about a lonely man who has breakfast in the same cafe every morning by himself. Whenever he sees someone come in who is looking for someone, he waves them over and pretends to be whoever it is they’re meant to be meeting, be it a wife’s lover or a business partner.

It’s hard to know quite what else to say about this collection. Yes, there are some great ideas in here – some dark, some funny – and the prose style is easy, but then again it’s a translation, so as ever, I don’t know what’s been lost. Overall, though, I feel there’s something lacking and it didn’t resonate with me as much as I perhaps hoped it would. You might have better luck.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Reader On The 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2015)

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“Some people are born deaf, mute or blind.”

The creation of books is, to my mind, a symbol of humanity’s hope for the future. It’s a sign that we think it’s important to put down all we’ve learnt and think we’ve learnt for other people to read. The act of destroying books, therefore, is horrendous to me. A task we had to complete during my university degree involved ripping up a book to reconstruct the text in a new order, and that was hard enough. The idea of destroying books en masse … I can’t bear it.

Guylain Vignolles, the hero of this tale, shares my view. He adores books and hates the idea of destroying them – which is unfortunate, as his job is to run the book pulping machine at a factory in France. Every day, lorry-loads of remaindered books turn up and are shovelled into the machine’s maw and reduced to sludge, which is then taken off to be recycled into new books. Perhaps that’s admirable, but Guylian takes no pleasure from it, especially when everyone around him seems to enjoy their work. Guylian’s single joy is, once a day, when the machine is turned off, he climbs into its inner workings and rescues the handful of pages that has survived. He takes them home, dries them off, and reads them to his fellow commuters on the morning train, regardless of what they say or where they came from.

Guylian’s life takes on a new layer of excitement, however, when first he is invited by two elderly passengers to read at their nursing home, and then when he finds a memory stick on his usual train seat which contains the diary of an enigmatic and engaging lavatory attendant from somewhere in Paris. He begins to see that there may be more to life than he’d allowed there to be, and soon things begin to change.

The book’s own blurb describes the finding of the diary as a pivotal plot point, and while it is, it doesn’t actually occur until over halfway through the novel. The rest is equally compelling, though. Guylian is surrounded by a number of eccentric figures, including the plant’s security guard who speaks only in alexandrines and spends his time reading poetry aloud to an invisible audience in his little hut, and Guiseppe, a former colleague who is on a hunt for his legs after having them torn off in an industrial accident involving the book pulping machine. His story, particularly, is a beautiful one which I’m not going to go into here because I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a great example of how white lies can be beneficial.

To return to where I began, the book is dripping with hope. The love of books and the written word is hopeful. Guylian manages to give Guiseppe a shot of hope just whenever he is most in need of it. Julie, the author of the diary, is hopeful for something that’s missing in her life. As always with translated books, you can never be quite sure how it would have read in the original language (unless you happen to speak both, and my French is practically non-existent). Kudos must go to Ros Schwartz who translated this one, which must have been especially difficult given the large amount of rhyming poetry present. Some things don’t translate, though. Guylian’s full name is a spoonerism pun that only works in French and while it’s explained here, the impact is less striking to an English reader.

It’s a quick, gorgeous read and one for anyone who needs a bit of hope in their lives.

“The Creator” by Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir (2008)

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creator“Sveinn hung the last ones out to dry: the hooks pierced the back of the necks.”

I don’t know much about Iceland. In fact, I know three things about it. Firstly, naming conventions work so that parents and their children have different surnames. Secondly, they are the country with the most Nobel Prizes per capita (with 1 prize). Thirdly, every Christmas Eve it is traditional to buy people books, which I think is one of the most wonderful traditions on the planet. Had I got my skates on and finished this book on Christmas Eve, then it would have been thematically appropriate to present the world with an Icelandic novel on my blog on that day. As it is, I’ve been full of alcohol and food for the last few days, so you’re getting it on Boxing Day instead. Cheers!

In the small Icelandic town of Akranes, Sveinn lives a fairly solitary existence. Most of the time, the only company he has are the dolls he makes by hand, but these are far from children’s playthings. Sveinn makes sex dolls, and because of this, most of society seems to have shunned him, except the men grateful for his products, which are regarded as things of beauty and shockingly realistic.

One night, Lóa, a woman who is only just holding it all together, breaks down outside Sveinn’s house. He takes her in, cooks her dinner and fixes her car. Too tired and drunk to drive home, she sleeps in his living room, and when Sveinn wakes up the next morning, he finds that Lóa has gone – and she’s taken one of the dolls with her.

Like so many books that draw me in with some kind of magnetism, this one again deals with themes of loneliness and the struggle of coping without a network around you for support. Given that Iceland could be thought of as being rather a cold and empty island, the sense of being alone seems magnified, and you feel for Sveinn and Lóa in their difficult circumstances. Chapters alternate between their viewpoints, and sometimes the events overlap, giving you slightly different versions of what happened or how conversations went depending on which side you’re hearing. The novel takes place over the space of a week or so, and it is a week that will change them both profoundly.

As ever with translated books, you never really know how much of it is down to the writer and how much to the translator, but the book is full of some very beautiful and meaningful lines. At one point, Sveinn ponders, “There are some days when you are only sure of what you don’t want”, which about sums up my life, and later there’s one of my favourite analogies in fiction: “Sunday was as dreary and discordant as a church choir in a sparsely populated country parish…”

It’s a strange but rather charming book, with likeable, odd characters and a melancholic sense of whimsy. I liked it, and I think I’ll definitely be returning to this most literary of countries for more fiction in the future.