A few years ago I was sent a copy of The President’s Hat which I quickly dismissed as a piece of fluff, far too whimsical for me. Then, after a few too many literary gloomfests, I picked it up, cynical hat firmly on my head. I loved it, gave lots of copies away and recommended it right left and centre. The next Antoine Laurain to be translated into English was The Red Notebook which, truth be told, was a little disappointing. When French Rhapsody turned up I decided to give it a try more for old times’ sake than anything else. As with the other two novels, Laurain takes a mislaid object and uses it to set in train a chain of events which has surprising results. This time it’s a letter which slipped through the cracks of the French Post Office delivery system.
When Alain Massoulier receives a letter post-marked 1983 he’s first amazed then a tad put out. Alain is a doctor, fifty-two years old and beginning to look dismaying like his father. Thirty-three years ago he and his band, The Holograms, sent a demo tape to Polydor hoping, as so many young bands do, to make it to the big time: the letter is a summons to a meeting with a producer. Alain takes to his bed, ostensibly with back pain but it’s his heart that’s hurting. Once over the initial shock he decides to track down the rest of the band and, many googling hours later, sends off a series of emails. Unsurprisingly, much has changed for the erstwhile band members: the drummer is a contemporary artist renowned for sharpening 30,000 pencils into shavings and selling the result; the keyboard player is running a hotel in Thailand; the bassist is busy rabble-rousing with his new party slogan ‘To the Right of the Right’ and the manager is a respected economist and entrepreneur, unbesmirched with even a hint of corruption. Alain decides not to trace the band’s beautiful singer because she’s probably married and has changed her name – hmm, well this is France and maybe they do things differently there – but she crops up anyway. Put together these characters and you have the ingredients for an enjoyable romp, nicely bookended by a second letter from Polydor.
There’s a rich vein of nostalgia running through French Rhapsody which made me wonder if Laurain might be the same age as his protagonists. He takes cheerful swipes at the art world, middle-aged angst, technology and our preoccupation with fame, saving his sharper barbs for politicians and the far Right giving it an altogether darker edge than the feelgood The President’s Hat. Bang up to date, it’s set in a post-Charlie Hebdo, post-Bataclan – even post-Nice – world and although none of these are mentioned there’s a consciousness of a changed France throughout. Laurain’s characteristic playful humour together with an enjoyable romantic backstory sweetens the pill. Even the political thread ends well, leaving you yearning for a similar resolution in the real world. Well worth reading if you need cheering up despite that dark edge.