Two New Memoirs: Happiness in French Lit and Looking for Tigers in India

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Au Revoir, Tristesse: Lessons in Happiness from French Literature, by Viv Groskop

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 Fixabout 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)

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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.

published June 9, 2020 by Nan A. Talese (Amazon / Book Depository)

Any new nonfiction that caught your eye this week?

I received these titles as advance copies courtesy of the publishers for unbiased review.

10 thoughts on “Two New Memoirs: Happiness in French Lit and Looking for Tigers in India

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  1. Years ago I read Morris’s NOTHING TO DECLARE and recommended it to many library readers. I have the latest on my Kindle but haven’t delved into it yet but unsure if it’s going to be something I like. I may give it a “skim.” 🙂

    Is Benjamin Lorr’s SECRET LIFE OF GROCERIES on your radar? Even though a bit dry at times (and he admits part of it will be), the topics he addressed were very interesting and eye-opening.

    I also skimmed AMAZON WOMAN, about the first woman to navigate the entire Amazon River. It was interesting to skim but it didn’t appeal to me at this time and it may have been my mood as I usually love this kind of adventure story,

    There is also a glut of new “foodie” type memoirs on the horizon. If interested, I’ll get the titles together for you. Haven’t read any of them but all appear to be worth trying.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was thinking that maybe I should’ve read something else of Moore’s first. It felt like some context or familiarity was missing here that might’ve made me appreciate it more. I’ll check out Nothing to Declare!

      I have Secret Life of Groceries on my list,
      I think I heard about that one from you! That’s so funny that even the author acknowledges it’s dry in pets. I would be interested in it anyway, will see if I can get it at the library. Amazon Woman sounds good too, but like one that you’d need to be in the mood for.

      I actually hadn’t noticed that many new foodie memoirs coming out, I haven’t been perusing the publishers catalogs lately. I would so love that list, if it’s not too much trouble to put together!!! That would be wonderful!! You always find such interesting stuff that I never come across!

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  2. SECRET LIFE OF GROCERIES doesn’t out until early September but the DRC is on Edelweiss.

    If you go to Goodreads “food-nonfiction” shelf, you can see my added books. I sorted it by date added so see if this link works.
    https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/1496564-robin?shelf=food-nonfiction&sort=date_added

    I’m also looking forward to the following in nonfiction titles:
    Anthony Bourdain – WORLD TRAVELS
    Bryce Greyson – AFTER
    Suzanne Roberts – BAD TOURIST
    Terry Virts – HOW TO ASTRONAUT
    Eric Weiner – SOCRATES EXPRESS
    Conor Knighton – LEAVE ONLY FOOTPRINTS

    Robin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That list worked, thank you!! I’ll see if I can get the DRC of the grocery store book too.
      I hadn’t heard of any of your others besides Leave Only Footprints, I’ve been looking forward to that one (but they denied me a review copy on Edelweiss, heartbreak). I’m looking up your others!

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    2. PS I’m reading Chaos, the Charles Manson/CIA book right now. I saw it on your to-read shelf on Goodreads. It’s quite the wild ride! I wasn’t ever particularly interested in the Manson story but the book and the journalist’s decades working on it are totally fascinating.

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  3. Might get the Tristesse book for my 90 year old mother. She used to be a French teacher and is a voracious reader. BBC iPlayer have an old Clive James programme where he visits Paris and meets Sagan. She drove him around Paris and was a terrifyingly bad driver.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Omg she opens the book with an anecdote about that very documentary!!!! I can’t believe you mentioned it!! It forms the whole basis for this story and why she loved Sagan’s attitude, what it conveyed, etc. That is TOO funny. You should definitely get this for her, it’s a fun, light read!

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