This, then, is a book about the intersection between Frenchness and happiness through reading, as that is a place I have always found great comfort. My hope is to demonstrate, through the French writers I first discovered in my teens and twenties, how that intersection might help us all get more joy into our lives.
Viv Groskop is an English author and comedian whose last book I absolutely loved, The Anna Karenina Fix, about the unexpectedly upbeat life lessons we can draw from the notoriously gloomy well that is classic Russian literature, interspersed with memoir of her life as a Russophile.
Turns out she loves French culture and literature too, and spent time in France as an exchange student and is fluent in the language. In a lighthearted examination of French literature, she focuses on the concept of happiness, what it meant to these authors, and what readers can draw from classic stories that sometimes don’t seem all that joyful on the surface.
It didn’t have the magic for me that her look at Russian literature did. It felt a bit like an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle, and can read somewhat scattered and thin. Her message seems to be something of having it both ways — having your butter and the money to buy the butter, as the French would say, she tells us.
She has an airy, jokey, chatty tone and intersperses the light literary analysis with memoir, as she shows how she’s interpreted these lessons in happiness herself. At its core there’s something lovely in the connections she draws, however surfacey they can be: “Being able to dip into the books mentioned… in order to keep that part of me alive has been a wonderful thing to cling to through life’s ups and downs.” Who can’t relate?
In addition to Francoise Sagan, whose Bonjour Tristesse inspired the title, Groskop looks at the works and lives of, among others, Albert Camus, Colette, Victor Hugo, Marguerite Duras, Stendhal, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, and Honoré de Balzac.
The authors’ lives are interesting enough, if all blurring together at some point, for the men especially (so much syphilis). Sagan’s was the most interesting, and poignant, maybe because she’s clearly the one Groskop has the strongest affinity for. Describing the BBC documentary when her interest in Sagan and her fuck-all attitude was piqued: “She is a joyously indifferent shrug in human form. She embodies joie de vivre and the freedom to do whatever the hell you want.”
Groskop interrogates the idea of ascribing properties to French people that they don’t really have, at least not more than anyone else. Like discussing Cyrano de Bergerac: “One of our stereotypes about the French is that they are chicer, cooler, and more elegant than us and therefore above such things. The truth is, they basically invented pratfalls, and traditional French comedie is full of them.” But here there’s some back and forth — there was a lot of “We think the French are like this, but they’re really not”, spliced with stereotypical scenes and examples. It just didn’t feel cohesive somehow.
I really enjoyed her dips into the French language though. Her (quick) exploration of the French version of #MeToo (#BalanceTonPorc — “rat on your pig”) was eye-opening. And I’m glad to have the French phrase “un coup de vieux” in my vocabulary: “It literally means ‘a knock of the old’ or ‘a blow of the old,’…It basically describes that sudden feeling when you think, ‘Oh, I have aged!’ Or ‘Oh, I really am old now,’ and it feels as if someone has punched you in the stomach.”
The books I’ve examined here…can be useful at different times in our lives. I recommend Bonjour Tristesse as an elixir of youth to catapult you back to the feelings you had when you were seventeen: the sun feels different on your skin, people are mysterious and exciting, the prospect of love is fresh and uncomplicated.
This is when Groskop is really at her best — when she ties these books and their authors, with their historical significance (Sagan wrote this wildly successful first novel at age 17) into life lessons that resonate. Nothing earth-shattering, but a little uplifting, a little reassuring, with some laughs here and there. published June 9, 2020 by Abrams Press (Amazon / Book Depository)
All the Way to the Tigers: A Memoir, by Mary Morris
Thomas Mann wrote in A Death in Venice, “He would go on a journey. Not far. Not all the way to the tigers.” These words were enough to ignite a fierce desire in author and travel writer Mary Morris’s brain to go that far, all the way to the tigers.
She’d seriously injured her ankle in an ice-skating mishap, which dramatically reduced the boundaries of her world (we can all now relate). As she heals, she becomes fixated on the idea of traveling solo in India to see a tiger in the wild.
It’s quite a mishmash of topics, with short chapters flitting between recollections of her childhood with her troubled parents to facts about tigers, through the process of healing of her shattered ankle, travels long past, and finally the dreamed-of 2011 trip to India with high hopes but no promises of whether she’ll actually be able to see the tigers.
It was this part set in India that I found the most interesting, although the outcome, not quite what she’d anticipated, ends up revealing more to the traveler about herself than whatever she’d expected to draw from the trip. Her descriptions of Mumbai and surrounding areas were the standout highlight.
It’s very gently, delicately written, and less linear and more meditative. Morris reflects on specific scenes instead of depicting one big narrative. I think it would appeal most to those who find something in common here, like the desire to travel alone in India. I didn’t connect with it as much as I’d like to, but I appreciated the thoughtful, often deceptively deep observations and rich descriptions.
Any new nonfiction that caught your eye this week?
I received these titles as advance copies courtesy of the publishers for unbiased review.