Category: French literature

Anna Gavalda’s French Leave: Childhood’s very final (and very fun) hurrah

Anna Gavalda’s French Leave: Childhood’s very final (and very fun) hurrah

Some families are enviably idyllic. They traverse, like great big sail ships of old, through azure treachery of life’s turbulent waters, and no Pacific mega-storm or some ghastly kraken could break up the merriment on deck.

Gavalda gives us such a family in her 2011 novel French Leave. Four siblings, four nodes of a single pulsating system, each with their own prosaic cross to bear as they go forth adulting in life. And yet, in spite of the distance and the in-laws and the brutality of comfortable middle-class ignorance, these siblings, these saplings of a very cherishing earth, keep the gentle strings that maintain the delicate ecosystem of their connection in perfect balance.

They find their sanctuary, this joyful quartet, in a picturesque French countryside, with a chateau, wine, and music, an endless mixtape of carefully curated gems, each a token from not-so-distant past, the before-parents-divorced past, the before-the-gadgets past, complete with outdoor fun and scraped knees and crazy fun games. This is a lovely eulogy to Childhood, a sacrosanct interval on life’s measuring tape, and no amount of fussy sisters-in-law can commandeer it.

We don’t always burst with love for our siblings, but if we do it probably should be done like Gavalda’s four witty thirtysomethings. How do adults retain that level of effortless panache? That perfectly executed series of witty repartee? That intuitive, worldless understanding of the other heart’s rhythm? Is this even normal? Is this even real? Maybe distance, geographic and temporal, jump-starts the soul to its optimal performance level? How’s this, from the mouth of the youngest sibling (and our narrator):

“A huge wave of tenderness washed over me looking at the three of them: somehow this felt like the last magic show, the last birthday party of our childhood…

For almost thirty years they’d been making my life a place of beauty. What would I become without them? When would life decide it was time for us to part?

For that’s the way it goes. For time parts those who love one another, and nothing lasts.”

A gentle, silver-webbed kind of melancholy pierces this moment of universal experience. Who are we without our dear ones, those chance witnesses of our brief pilgrimage through life with all those monotone photocopier struggles and grocery store runs and weddings and divorces and the occasional sneaky cigarette. They liberate us, our dear ones, just as Adulthood pins us, like butterflies, to its collection board.

“For how much longer will we have the strength to tear ourselves away from everyday life and resist? How often will life give us the chance to play hooky? When will we lose one another, and in what way will the ties be stretched beyond repair? How much longer until we become too old?”

In the world of this novel, the happy recess from Adulthood comes to an end, waving goodbye to old castles and cassette tapes. This is all too neat, too careful, like a polite curtsy at the end of some country dance. For what would happen if this amusing recess were to turn into a whole lot of skipped classes for the rest of the afternoon..? Pearls never lie on the seashore.

Frederic Beigbeder and the decadent ennui of the upper-middle

Frederic Beigbeder and the decadent ennui of the upper-middle

Time cynically melts us all into oatmeal-variety curmudgeons… When I first familiarized myself with Beigbeder’s eloquent prose I was but a wee lass, deep in the throes of undergraduate know-thyselfing. A French Novel and Windows on the World had enthralled me by their world of nonchalant elegance and existential masturbation, carried on the sleek back of comfortably high Parisian incomes. Wide-eyed working-class Cinderellas always long to hatch into twenty-first-century Marie Antoinettes, toying with theatrical suicides as they soak up boredom and prosecco in a bath filled with diamonds and euros.

That was then and this is now. Beigbeder’s world still ravishes the reader’s senses, but whether it’s due to the throbbing waves of geopolitical metamorphosis, or merely due to something as banal as aging, my awe over his characters has withered into a very maternal sort of pity with a pinch of proletarian disgust.

Beigbederian hero, who is he? Young. Wealthy. Smart. Addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, and partying. Adorably self-aware, self-hating and, to complete the initial data set, hopelessly narcissistic. He is a contemporary Nero longing for a return to childlike innocence as he parties his way toward a spiritual grave, wilfully mistaking its high-octane throbbing for the cavernous warmth of a womb. In Holiday in a Coma and Love Lasts Three Years, the hero is Marc Maronnier, a beautifully vapid butterfly, sadder than “a saucepan of milk boiling over,” a writer with a democratic libido (“some girls are so bovine they make you feel like a country vet…but I have to keep going”), and an eager documentarian of Parisian party scene with self-awareness of his privilege gnawing at him like an ulcer:

“Never has he been more forcefully aware of his standing as a snot-nosed brat from a good family than now, as he shakes his thang across the white marble floor, dreaming of being a rebel when in fact he is one of the landed gentry, alone in the midst of a herd of jaded ravers with no valid excuse while millions of the homeless sleep on scraps of torn cardboard when it’s -15 outside. He knows all of these things, which is why he hangs his head.” 

This is before the gilets jaunes and even before the Occupy movement, yet one can already smell the gunpowder of class friction, a scent far more potent than others emanating from Parisian nightclub loos Marc frequents (to amplify the metaphor, the nightclub in question is called Shit and is actually shaped like a massive toilet bowl). It is a miasma of glorious decay of Western masculinity, of euro-optimism, of bourgeois smugness, of cosmopolitan decadence. Like a Salvador Dali painting, the contours of past virtues are irreparably skewed. This is Peak Chaos, an infernal cauldron in which all these people with very classically First World problems simmer into a delectably poisonous stew.

And yet, it’s always most dark before dawn, isn’t it? Cynic he may be, but our privileged hero leaves us with the following axiom: “The most wonderful thing about life is that it goes on.” A couple hundred pages of entertaining mental masochism kamikaze themselves into a rather normal, even optimistic, finale. I’m not buying it though. By my reckoning, every Beigbeder ages into an Houllebecq, and there’s no stopping it.

Image: A Man Staring by Egon Schiele.