Little French novels: bookshops, notebooks, lovers and cats


Who among us (women anyway) can deny that at times we feel like reading a whimsical and touching work set in Paris?  But it has to be an ideal Paris. No gritty banlieus or disaffected immigrants. We want the Paris of our mother-in-law’s wallpaper. Men with berets riding motor scooters with baguettes tucked under their arms. Little Eiffel Towers floating amongst spring blossom, young women wearing striped matelot tops, every one a version of Audrey Tautou. And indeed while being wildly popular in France, these novels are often so successful in English translation that they make the transition to film.

Audrey Tautou herself starred in the film adaptation of Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda, playing the somewhat neurotic and anorexic Camille. It also involves a rather macho chef whose heart of gold is revealed by his attachment to his granny. She is deeply attached to her cats. And there you have the little French novel. An old person, some as yet unawakened lovers, and lots of cats.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, has an old person as the heroine of the novel (she is 54!) but the book is written by Muriel Barbery, a professor of philosophy, and covers a wide range of topics; Husserl, Kant, the films of Yasujiro Ozu and the music of Mahler, because the concierge is a self educated woman who hides her light well under a bushel. But young Paloma, a world-weary twelve year old, sees through her, and begins to think twice about her plan to commit suicide. Throw a learned Japanese tenant into the mix and there is the love story, and a cat. (The cat is named Leo, after Tolstoy.) This book too went to a film adaptation with Josiane Balasco playing Renee, the concierge.

It has been a while since I read these books, so when I saw The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, translated by Simon Pare, and another tale set in a Paris bookshop, The Red Notebook, by Antoine Laurain, translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce, I couldn’t resist.

Titles can be misleading though. Nina George is a German writer, and her book was a runaway success in German before it went into other translations. I can’t quite work out if the film rights have been sold yet. Nina George seems to be toying with the idea at present, and I read in an interview it had been suggested George Clooney play Jean Perdu, her hero. It should be a runaway success, because it is a deeply sentimental tale, with a trip through the French countryside from Paris to Provence on a barge, a session of wild tango dancing, and many good meals.

Jean Perdu (get it, those of you who have Form Four French, perdu means lost) is a man who is dead inside. He lost his great love. She left him without an explanation. They did have an unusual arrangement, in that she was married to Luc and spent time in Paris with Jean several times a year. Luc was very understanding. They have a rhapsodic relationship of lovemaking by the sea and poetic interchanges. But one day she goes away. He cannot bring himself to mention her name at first, but we soon learn it was Manon. We also learn that she had left a letter, which he could not bear to read. Then he meets Catherine who somehow persuades him to read the letter. Oh if only….How guilty does he feel now? (And you’ll have to read it yourself to find out why.)

Jean is a ‘lovely’ man with a deep understanding of the inner pain of others. So much so he calls his shop The Literary Apothecary and refuses to sell books when he feels they not right for the customer. It is fortunate his shop is on a barge, because when he realises the grave error he has made, (in not reading aforementioned letter) he is somehow able to pull out a plug and set off down the Seine on his journey to reconciliation.

I don’t mind the odd bit of purple prose or even a love interest. What annoyed me with this book is the pontificating about the nature of men:

Love. The dictator whom men find so terrifying. No wonder that men, being men, generally greet this tyrant by running away .

And women:

‘Jeanno, women can love so much more intelligently than us men! They never love a man for his body, even if they can enjoy that too-and how….But women love you for your character, your strength, your intelligence….

And the sexes as authors:

‘Women tell you more about the world. Men only tell you about themselves.

And books:

‘Books are more than doctors, of course. Some novels are loving lifelong companions; some give you a clip round the ear; others…’

But you’ve got the idea.

Jean Perdu of course has two cats. Their names are Kafka and Lindgren. What did you expect?

I enjoyed The Red Notebook a great deal, however. Antoine Lauraine has a sense of humour. Occasionally a smile played across my severe countenance and once or twice I laughed out loud.

His device is more fun, too. Instead of a twenty-year old unread letter, our bookseller, Laurent Latellier, out in search of coffee one morning, sees a large fancy purple handbag dumped on top of some dustbins. Being a conscientious sort he picks it up to hand in at the police station. Of course this proves too difficult, and he ends up with it at home. After work that night he goes through the handbag seeking a clue about its owner. He reads the jottings in the red notebook for which the book is named. Among others:

I like:

Walking along the water’s edge just as everyone else is leaving the beach

The name ‘americano’ but I refer to drink ‘mojito’

The smell of mint and basil

Sleeping on trains.

Paintings of landscapes without people……

He is charmed by these jottings, which are never meant to be seen by anyone but their author. He is even more charmed when he finds a book, Paris Nocturne (in French, Accident Nocturne) by Patrick Modiano and inscribed to, he assumes, the owner of the bag, ‘For Laure, in memory of our meeting in the rain. Patrick Modiano.’

And the text goes on to say:

The author of Rue des Boutiques Obscures had just provided him with the first name of the woman with the mauve bag.

How he takes the advice of his teenage daughter Chloe to discover where Patrick Modiano takes his morning walk (the Orangerie) and summons up the courage to accost him and ask for a description of Laure is highly amusing. Modiano is portrayed as a most hesitant speaker, but an excellent observer.

…We were both of us a bit…you know…We weren’t quite sure…what to say to each other…There was a rather wonderful yellow light, probably a storm coming…

So through the red notebook Laurent (whose bookshop is also called Le Cahier Rouge) comes to know something of the inner Laure, and by his persistent detective work he finds her surname and where she lives. In no time at all he is enlisted by one of her friends to feed her cat Belphégor and is sitting by a cosy fire in her apartment.

He, too, is consumed with guilt for his prying behaviour when Laure returns to her everyday life, but I’ll leave you to guess if things work out well for him.

I liked the lightly satirical tone and rather dithery main character of The Red Notebook. And the daughter who could run rings round him. And of course her cat, a most unpleasant animal called Putin.



5 thoughts on “Little French novels: bookshops, notebooks, lovers and cats

  1. Lovely! I enjoyed Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat when I read it a few years ago. The Red Notebook sounds great too. There is a lightness of touch to his writing which is very appealing.

  2. When you mention book stores and Paris, Shakespeare’s Book shop immediately pops into mind. Then when you mention French novels the work of Françoise Sagan comes to my mind. Yes indeed they are charming. But now you mention these new additions to the list. Do they stand up to the old master/mistresses?

    1. Hard to compare really. Novels for a different time and a different audience. I remember being deeply impressed by Bonjour Tristesse when I read it as a young person. Think I would probably find it deeply annoying now.

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