Tag Archives: Antoine Laurain

French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain (translated by Jane Aitken & Emily Boyce): More than just a bit of fluff

Cover imageA 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.

The Red Notebook: A sweet indulgence

Cover imageBack in 2013 I was sent a copy of The President’s Hat. I wasn’t at all sure about it – a bit too much of the whimsy for me it seemed – but it turned out to be one of my favourite books of that year. Not a literary masterpiece but clever, witty and uplifting. So, when I heard that another of Antoine Laurain’s novels had been translated you can imagine my expectations were high. Did the book live up to them? Well, perhaps they were a little too high.

Coming home one morning, in the early hours, Laure is mugged – her stylish handbag, filled with precious irreplaceable things, ripped from her arm. She fights back but is dashed to the ground and hits her head, only managing to get up when the thief is well beyond her reach. What to do? Her keys are gone, along with her money. She manages to persuade the night porter of a local hotel to let her stay there but the next day is taken to hospital, unconscious. Meanwhile, Laurent, a bookseller – divorced but of a similar age – finds an abandoned handbag and takes it to his local gendarmerie where they’re far too busy to deal with the problem but make a few helpful suggestions. Laurent takes the bag home and looks through its contents, a little squeamish at examining a stranger’s private possessions. In it are a red notebook, some photographs, lip balm, a recipe, a few pebbles, a dry cleaner’s ticket for a dress and a signed copy of Accident Nocturne by the notoriously reclusive Patrick Modiano, to name but a few of the capacious bag’s contents. As he examines these, hoping for clues to their owner’s identity, Laurent begins to feel an affinity with her. He wants to give the bag back but with no name and address what’s he to do?

I suspect no one will be surprised by The Red Notebook’s ending but the fun is in how we get there. Laurent proves himself ingenious in his attempts to track Laure down. There are some delightful bookselling passages and a great cameo featuring Patrick Modiano.  The novel ventures once or twice into darker territory but this is a book of sweet indulgence, something to curl up with when you need a bit of cheering up.

A quick scan of the comments below will show you that Claire from Word by Word can share some light on that Modiano connection, and if you’d like to read her review of The Red Notebook replete with a picture of a luscious handbag just click here.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2015: Part 1

Cover imageAs you can tell from the title there are so many tasty paperbacks on offer in April that I’m gong to have to spread them across two posts. Such a shame! I’ll kick off with the novel that will no doubt be top of many readers’ lists, Ali Smith’s Baileys Prize longlisted How to Be Both which alternates between the stories of a Renaissance artist and a contemporary teenager. It was described by the Goldsmith Prize judges as a book that ‘pushes the novel into thrilling new shapes’ and Jacqui’s excellent review at JacquiWine’s Journal has whetted my appetite for it even more.

Less well known but still one to look forward to, Lisa Moore’s Giller Prize shortlisted Caught follows prison escapee David Slaney who embarks on a road trip in 1978 hoping to find a new life, encountering friends, foes, undercover cops not to mention all the weather that Canada can throw at him along the way. I very much enjoyed February, Moore’s sensitive novel about the consequences of the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig in 1982, so I’m looking forward to this one.

My third choice, and another Canadian one, is MiriamToews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Although I was a little underwhelmed by her much-lauded debut, A Complicated Kindness, I very much enjoyed Irma Voth so have hopes for this one which explores the painful dilemma faced by Yoli whose beloved, apparently happy and successful sister has attempted suicide. Is it time to let Elf go? Reviewers described Toews’ writing as exquisite and heart-wrenching.

Earlier this year I read Darragh McKeon’s All That is Solid Melts into Air which felt quite timely set, as it is, in Ukraine. Ten years in the writing, it’s about the catastrophic explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant which resulted in radioactive contamination on a horrific scale made all the more disastrous by the authorities’ attempted cover up. McKeon’s elegantly expressed novel explores the tragedy through the experiences of a doctor, his ex-wife and her child prodigy nephew. Colm Tóibín described it as ‘daring, ambitious, epic, moving’ and I won’t argue with that.

Last, but by no means least for me, is Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook. Laurain’s The Cover imagePresident’s Hat was one of my favourite books of 2013. The Red Notebook follows bookseller Laurent Letellier who finds an abandoned handbag containing little but the eponymous notebook. As Laurent leafs through it he becomes increasingly determined to find the woman whose jottings reveal someone he very much wants to meet but with no contact details what are his chances? If this is even half as good as The President’s Hat – and Janet’s review at From First Page to Last suggests it is – I’ll be a happy woman.

That’s the first half of April’s affordable treats. A click on the titles not linked to a review will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis, and if you want to check out my April hardback choices here they are. My second post on April paperbacks to look out for will be up in a week or so.

Books on Prescription for Dementia: A very fine initiative

From thenReading Agency's websiteAround this time last year I mentioned the Reading Agency’s Reading Well initiative in a post on Vintage’s Shelf Help promotion. They’d just launched their second list of books aimed at people suffering from depression. Since then I’ve been keeping an eye open hoping for the chance to vote for titles on a third list, eager to get my old favourite The President’s Hat in with a chance. Instead I spotted a new scheme: Books on Prescription for Dementia, launched a week or so ago. The list associated with this particular initiative includes twenty-five titles ranging from books offering information and advice on living with dementia, support for carers and personal stories about the disease. All are endorsed by health professionals and all should be available from your local library if you live in England. A quick trip to the Reading Well website will explain the way the scheme works better than I can.

This seems an excellent idea to me. The initiative is estimated to cost taxpayers around a mere £1 per person on average – peanuts given the help and support it offers. What an innovative and imaginative use of public money.

Books of the Year 2014: Part 3

The ConfabulistThe last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, allCover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night ComesCold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?

The President’s Hat: c’est tres bien

Cover imageI have to admit I was a little sceptical about The President’s Hat. I thought it might be a tad whimsical for me but it turns out to be an absolute delight from start to finish. It begins with an accountant, a little out of sorts with his job, treating himself to a solitary meal in a brasserie. Just as he is tucking into his plateau royal de fruits de mer, François Mitterrand takes the seat alongside him and begins a conversation with his ex-Foreign Minister sitting opposite. Daniel is thrilled. After Mitterrand has left he collects himself and his belongings only to find that the President has left his hat behind. Rather taken with it, Daniel decides to wear the hat and next day he finds the courage to stand up to his irritating boss. When he forgets to pick it up on a train a young woman on her way to an assignation finds the hat and with it the courage to break off her dead-end affair. Recognising its power, she leaves the hat on a park bench and watches as an elderly man picks it up, sniffs it and puts it on his head. Pierre Aslan, a perfumier, recovers his celebrated nose but loses the hat in a restaurant where Bernard Lavallière, a disenchanted member of the French upper classes, picks it up thinking it to be his own and suddenly finds his inner socialist. Eventually, and satisfyingly, the hat comes full circle. There’s a nice little moral, as there is in all fables, which becomes clear at the end of the hat’s journey.

Gallic Press have done a superb job in the production of The President’s Hat – there’s even an integral bookmark in its jacket. Unusually, the translation is attributed to them and each of the team gets a credit at the end of the book. It’s a technique which works extraordinarily well, giving each individual character and their story a distinct voice. This is a book for summer reading lists, that’s for sure, but the best time to read it would be a wet British weekend when you’re badly in need of cheering up. The Reading Agency has come up with a two brilliant lists of mood-boosting books as an aid to treating depression – I hope they’ll include this joyful, optimistic often very funny book on their next list.