“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!

“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman (2007)

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“‘Later!’ The word, the voice, the attitude.”

I’ve been away at a wedding this weekend, and a trip away always requires at least two books to be packed. As it was (and as I think I expected) I had hardly any time to read, so most of this was completed once I was back. It felt right to take a romance with me to a wedding, and this one ties into the fact it’s Pride Month, too. Where better to spend a few days at this time of year than the Italian Riviera. Come with me, let’s go.

It’s the late eighties, and seventeen-year-old Elio has just met the man who’ll be staying with his family for the summer. His parents take in a lodger every summer, someone who is working on a book and needs time and space to write. This year, it’s Oliver. He’s twenty-four, intelligent, effortlessly cool, and utterly beautiful. Elio is smitten from almost the moment Oliver gets out of his taxi and becomes conflicted about whether he should make his feelings known. Oliver is at times friendly and perhaps encouraging, but at others distant and determinedly ignores Elio, who begins to wonder if he should start a relationship with the local girl Marzia instead.

As the weeks progress, the two young men grow closer and become more entangled in one another’s lives and emotions. The six weeks of the summer may not mark a particularly long time on the calendar, but they will forever change Elio and Oliver as they seek out true intimacy for the first time, and maybe the last.

At its heart, the book is simply about the difference between sex and intimacy and how they can easily be confused. Pure intimacy is perhaps the rarest relationship one can have with another human, and while at times you could argue that Elio tries to force it here, there’s no denying that they do have something pretty special, if at times somewhat bizarre. Although the sex scenes with them together are kept discreet and half-hidden, there are still enough scenes of Elio pleasuring himself – often in fetishistic and unusual ways – to counterbalance.

Anyone of any sexual stripe will be familiar with this sense of lust; a longing for someone that you can’t be sure returns the feeling. This being literary fiction, however, the characters are not necessarily people we know, even if their emotions are. Elio is precocious at seventeen, transcribing music and blending artists together for his own compositions. Oliver teaches at Colombia and spends most of his time in Italy working hard on his new book. The characters around them all have an other-worldly sheen, too, as if the Riviera polishes everyone to a high gleam and makes even their faults look more acceptable.

As for the prose itself, like much literary fiction, the book is awfully fond of itself and its use of extensive paragraphs that detail very little action at all. Elio spends much of his time fretting and while he’s not unpleasant as a person, some may find him beginning to grate after a while. Fortunately, the book’s wise words and descriptions of life are rather good. It’s also notable that despite being a book about two gay lovers, I don’t think the words “gay” or “love” make a single appearance. The book is open and aware of bisexuality, which is a novelty, and does its very best to avoid labels. Love is love, after all.

A warming and thoughtful novel, which can make even the hardest heart believe in the worth and power of intimacy.

“Generation X” by Douglas Coupland (1991)

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gen x

The book that defined a generation

“Back in the late 1970s, when I was fifteen years old, I spent every penny I then had in the bank to fly across the continent in a 747 jet to Brandon, Manitoba, deep in the Canadian prairies, to witness a total eclipse of the sun.”

My list of books I still have to read – even those already on my shelves – is huge. As such, I do my very best to not re-read things if I can help it. However, last week a friend of mine – the psychologist – requested a new book to read and asked if she could borrow something off me, my choice. As I trawled the shelves for something really worth sharing, I came to the conclusion that I loved practically every book I own, but for many of them I can’t remember why.

Reading a lot is great, but unfortunately I lose a lot of the minutia after a certain amount of time. I remember loving a book, or crying at it maybe, or even just being haunted by it, but I seldom remember the exact details of what caused that. It was when I was staring at my bay of Douglas Coupland novels that the feeling became particularly pronounced. Coupland, I will always say when asked, is one of my favourite authors, but as I looked at the thirteen books of his on my shelf, I realised that I hadn’t read one since 2011 and that the exact reason for my love of him had vanished. That had to change.

As such, I intend to now read a Coupland novel once a month or so until I’ve re-read his back catalogue. And I’ll be reviewing them again, because reading this has reminded me why I love him and how much I love him, and I want to be able to share that with you, and maybe encourage you to explore his work.

So, this is Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture, his first novel, the one that made his name and helped define an entire generation. The titular generation are those people born between the early 1960s and early 1980s – in short, the offspring of the baby boomers. Coupland didn’t invent the term, but he sure as hell made it popular. This is the story of three friends who have dropped out of the real world and are living in the Californian desert, slumming it in dead end jobs and avoiding the horror of responsibilities and yuppies. They are Andy (the narrator, with two dogs and six siblings), Dag (obsessed with nuclear annihilation and prone to damaging cars for fun) and Claire (wanting to live like Andy and Dag, but still pining for her sometimes-lover Tobias), and they live a relatively simple life. They enjoy telling each other stories, and it is these stories that make up the novel.

We meet other friends of theirs, Tobias the yuppie and Elvissa the mystery, who also have their own stories to tell. The stories are usually slightly fantastical in nature, or somehow involve the end of the world. In fairness, not a huge amount happens, but it is a wonderful patchwork quilt of interior monologues, apocalyptic scenarios and the power and joy of storytelling.

The book, like all of Coupland’s work, is phenomenally quoteable. For example:

“I wonder that all things seem to be from hell these days: dates, jobs, parties, weather …. Could the situation be that we no long believe in that particular place? Or maybe we were all promised heaven in our lifetimes, and what we ended up with can’t help but suffer in comparasion.”

The book discusses the difficulties of growing up in a world that has been pissed on by the previous generation. I’m not one of Generation X, I’m from Generation Y, but a lot of the themes are similar to things that I’ve experienced. It’s one of those books that creeps inside your brain and lodges somewhere uncomfortable just behind your hippocampus and makes you occasionally think a little bit too deeply about what you’re doing with your life and where it’s going. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it is just what Coupland has the power to do. He builds a complete scene, not only always using the perfect metaphor or similie, but by populating the scenes with food, products and names from the era that mean it can only be set in that one place.

The book also includes quaint little cartoons and slogans, and definitions for new terms that sum up experiences that most of us have from now on. Probably the most famous one of all, which is now in fairly common usage, is “McJob”, defined as “a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.” Some of my other favourites are below.

Survivulousness – the tendency to visualize oneself enjoying being the last remaining person on Earth.

Black Holes – an X generation subgroup best known for their possession of almost entirely black wardrobes.

Mental Ground Zero – the location where one visualizes oneself during the dropping of the atomic bomb; frequently, a shopping mall.

Douglas Coupland is so in touch with the zeitgeist that he’s all but clairvoyant (not my line, stolen from another review of his later book Generation A), and his books are a beacon of genuinely great literature. Sure, the general theme seems a little depressing, and the characters are lovely but seem to have little of any real value going for them, but there is an underlying current of hope throughout, a sense that everything will be OK in the end, and that to really enjoy life we need to stop worrying about money and success and just seek solace in the little moments, like watching egrets and lighting candles. The book harks back for a simpler time, but knows that it’s never coming.

Coupland’s position as one of my favourite authors is reaffirmed. I can’t wait to re-read the rest.