Let Us Be True by Alex Christofi: A story about love

Cover imageAlex Christofi’s Let Us Be True is one of those books I’m delighted was sent my way. I’m not sure I would have happened upon it otherwise but it turned out to be absorbing, insightful and beautifully written. Largely set in Paris during the middle of the twentieth century, it’s the story of Ralf who becomes smitten with Elsa and remains so for decades after their brief affair ends.

In 1958, Ralf spends his evenings drinking at Jacques’ bar and shooting the political breeze with his Algerian friend Fouad. He and his mother fled Germany for London in 1933 after the death of Ralf’s Jewish geneticist father. His mother still lives in London but Ralf left to study in Paris, distracted by easy ways to make money tutoring language students. One evening, rifling through an apparently abandoned handbag, trying to find details of its owner, he’s punched in the face by a woman. This seemingly unpromising meeting marks the start of Ralf and Elsa’s affair in which she apparently blows hot and cold, rarely telling him anything about herself until Ralf decides to find out who she is. What he discovers is hardly a surprise but it’s far from the entire story. When Elsa leaves Paris, Ralf stays, occasionally involving himself in the Algerians’ protests against French oppression alongside Fouad and later becoming caught up in the student protests of ’68 before moving back to London. Ralf’s is a life lived alone, continually buffeted by the events that marked both the century and the countries in which he lives, adopted or otherwise.

Christofi explores the way political events can shape ordinary lives through the framework of Ralf and Elsa’s love affair: both are Germans who survived the war which ripped apart their childhoods; Fouad fought for the French but finds himself without rights as an Algerian; Ralf’s dulling of his pain leads him into the student protest against French political stalemate in 1968. All this is done with a light touch, a vivid background to Ralf and Elsa’s stories, told from both perspectives before and after they knew each other. The striking opening sentence sets the tone for the rest of the novel which is pleasingly uncluttered, letting its characters and their histories speak for themselves. It’s an engrossing, thoughtful novel with important things to say exemplified by Ralf’s reflections on his solitary life after the death of his mother: ‘How easily one might neglect those one loved by chasing the big story, the big lie that history was a matter of ideals and not compassion’. It ends, I’m pleased to say, on a hopeful note.

16 thoughts on “Let Us Be True by Alex Christofi: A story about love”

  1. This is definitely one for me. I knew Paris in the late 60s through friends whose grandmother used to let us have her flat while she was away for the month of August. We were broke teenagers so we would walk for hours and just drink in the atmosphere which at times was truly explosive. It would be great to live through that again vicariously.

    1. That’s an interesting story, and I love that you experienced such freedom with your girlfriends. For me, the description of the plot sounded like all these lives with different experiences being thrown together so we can see how different and yet alike they all are, a type of plot I don’t typically enjoy.

      1. I’d say there’s an overarching theme about the way that history can shape our lives but Christofi is good at catching relationships, both platonic an romantic, so it never feels clunky.

  2. I loved his debut, Glass, and had no idea he had another book out!.This sounds completely different in tone, though. Glass was the rather madcap adventures of a hapless window cleaner, and reminded me of Ned Beauman’s early work. Sounds like he’s come on by leaps and bounds. I’ll have to get hold of this one somehow. Thanks for making me aware of it!

    1. You’re very welcome. I had Glass on my ever-lengthening list but hadn’t got around to buying a copy. This does sound very different, nothing madcap about it – or Ned Beauman-like – at all. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  3. I love it when uninvited book-guests turn out to be terrific matches. Especially in your case, with this one, as you’d lost track of the idea to read his first book (that kind of thing happens to me frequently too). Nice ending for you, too, then!

    1. Yes, I’d say it is literary. It explores the way that ordinary people can become caught up in events far bigger than their personal lives through a love affair. I haven’t seen much coverage of it, sadly.

  4. I like the sound of this… I haven’t seen it around at all. One of the things I like about your reviews is that they are often new-to-me!

    1. Very pleased to hear both these things! I try to resist the obvious shiny new things after years in bookselling watching some wonderful out-of-the-way books sink without trace.

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