Our school was very big on French. And because I was in the top set, it was very intense indeed. We had to speak French all the time during lessons, no English at all (which I admit is the only way to learn) and by the time we were 14 we were reading full length novels, reviewing them for homework, presenting on them in class. We were supposed to choose our own from the library, and the popular ones were Camus, Sagan, etc. Because I hated being like other people, I deliberately chose not to read these books, and as an adult, chose to rebel retrospectively by never again doing anything in French.
It was only recently, while I was reading the very informative Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide, that I came across Camus again and got me curious. That, and the fact that I was going to Paris for a couple of days just before Christmas. So I ordered myself a copy of The Outsider to read on the Eurostar and completed a piece of my education that I’d refused to allow myself until then.
The Outsider is the story of a man called Mersault who has an odd viewpoint in the world, who sees things very logically and in a very detached manner. He has a faultless internal logic, but cannot see others’ motivations, and is hypersensitive to certain physical situations – slightly as if he is on the ASD spectrum, but that is not the point of the book. The book looks at many fascinating questions on guilt, responsibility, judgement, but the thing that I was most struck by was the creation of a person and a world that bore close relation to all the phenomena that make up our own everyday lives, yet was twisted to be ever so slightly different. A sort of dream likeness and detachedness, which I would pinpoint down to the precise logic with which the narrator explains the reasons for all his actions, but a pointed omission of many events in his past life which we tend to think of as making up “a life” or “a character”. For example, Mersault’s mother dies early on in the book, and he explains his responses to this death, but reveals very little about his past life with his mother.
This made me think of one of my favourite books ever, A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan. So this book entered my consciousness about ten years ago when it was broadcast on Radio 4. It’s about a student who falls for an older man who is already married. It mirrored so closely the relationship I was in (not the being married part, but other problems that stopped the relationship from being equal/accessible for both of us) that I almost memorised the whole book, I read it over and over so often as being an almost perfect representation of the longing I had for what I could not have. Re-reading it ten years later, and being free from those emotions, I still wonder that Sagan was so precociously able at the age of twenty-one to describe the sometimes bold, sometimes self-conscious, naivete of a twenty-year old girl with the detached insight of someone much older. The logic of the narrator’s feelings is, as in The Outsider, faultless. Likewise, details of the narrator Dominique’s childhood are few (“grey” and populated by distracted, grieving, emotionally absent parents), but there’s enough there to make a mental leap into discerning how the hunger of the unnoticed child turns into the subconcious hunt for a relationship that will fulfil as an adult.
Lastly, it was Victoria who alerted me earlier in the year to the existence of this year’s Nobel Prize winning Patrick Modiano. When I came back from Paris, I decided that, while in the French mood and stuck in a period of “empty time” while away at my parents’ house, it was time to finally get to grips with what sounded like a fabulous, and important, author. Which was when I discovered that there were no Kindle editions of the books I wanted; the one Modiano that had been translated into English was three novellas, and I didn’t want three short books, I wanted one whole one. I didn’t want to wait until I got home for the paperback, or come to that, to pay over ten pounds for it. So I chose Voyage de Noces (Honeymoon) and downloaded it in French, and ended up reading French after all, twenty years after having decided never to do this again.
It was quite a different experience having to hang on to every word in the story in case I got lost, as I am so used to speed reading these days. The book is about a man called Jean who hears of the suicide of Ingrid, an old acquaintance of his, and decides to go on the trail of Ingrid’s husband, M.; Rigaud, (in the present) as well as reminiscing about their meeting as a threesome twenty years ago (past) and then some more about episodes from Ingrid and Rigaud’s own past (which takes us all the way back to the Nazi Occupation.) There was, again, lots of detailed and earnest explanation about why people felt certain things, or did certain things, and total omission of very important facts. For example, as a young man, on discovering that he has been robbed of all his money, Jean decides there and then that he will henceforth give no thought to the future. Or, during the war, Ingrid decides to leave her father and wander off into curfew-ridden Paris.
There were parts when I suspected that the dreamy sense of logic was just to do with me and my dodgy French, but overall, I think that was supposed to be the effect. I found it very impressive that Modiano managed to convey mystery and suspense within this “backwards story”, which I think are harder to keep infused with a sense of dynamism than it appears on the surface. My favourite play, Pinter’s Betrayal, also works on a backwards structure, and on reaching the end of Honeymoon, I experienced a similar, gut-wrenching sense of loss relating to the sadness of the passing of time, and the way that things which are so intense and important at the time inevitably erode into nothing.
On a more cheerful note, here is a dusk time picture of my trip to Paris :-) Taken from a window of the Louvre, from the Decorative Arts section, I think.