Tag Archives: Jane Aitkin

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (transl. Jane Aitkin and Emily Boyce): 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.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (transl. Jane Aitkin and Emily Boyce): 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.