Novella a Day in May 2020 #24

Astragal – Albertine Sarrazin (1965, trans. Patsy Southgate 1967) 190 pages

I first came across Astragal on Kaggsy’s blog last year, and not long after reading Kaggsy’s post I found a copy in my favourite charity bookshop (how I miss browsing those shelves… it’s been good for my wallet though…) It’s sat in the TBR since then but NADIM prompted me to pick it up.

Generally I’m not one for biographical readings of novels, I prefer to let the work speak for itself and not get too caught up in looking for insights into the author’s life. In Astragal though, it’s pretty unavoidable. Albertine Sarrazin wrote Astragal in prison; she was a French-Algerian who spent her childhood in care and then in reformatory school after being abused by a family member; she escaped to Paris and earned money as a sex worker and through crime. She died at the age of 29 after complications from surgery. It is her picture on the cover.

You’d expect that Astragal was thoroughly depressing, but maybe due to the author’s youth, it stays resolute and optimistic. It begins with Anne leaping to freedom from a prison wall and shattering her talus bone (astragale in French) in the process.

“A match striking. A shooting star, a searchlight. No, it’s the forge in my ankle illuminating the whole crossroad: the sparks whirl around for a moment, then gather and freeze into a brilliant circle of light, a huge torch whose beam passes through my head, and lands, without striking me, on the tree trunk.”

She is rescued by Julien:

“Long before he said anything, I had recognised Julien. There are certain signs imperceptible to people who haven’t done time: a way of talking without moving the lips while the eyes, to throw you off, express indifference or the opposite thing; the cigarette held in the crook of the palm, the waiting for night to act or just to talk, after the uneasy silence of the day.”

These two jailbirds fall in love and go on the lam while Anne’s ankle heals, or fails to. What follows is a series of safe houses where Anne is left while Julien disappears to commit robbery and visit other women. Eventually Anne makes it back to her beloved city:

“Beaten, broken, I’m here all the same; furthermore, as we often said in jail, the winner is the one who gets away. I’m coming back, Paris, with what’s left of me, to start to live and fight again.”

I liked Astragal more than I thought I would. Anne and Julien don’t always behave well, but Sarrazin doesn’t ask the reader to like or excuse them. She also writes beautifully without overwriting:

“I was busting with images anyhow: I’d been locked up too young to have seen much of anything, and I’d read a lot dreamed a lot and lost the thread.”

She also has a hard-won wisdom about the impact her life is having her. It’s not that she unthinkingly follows destructive paths but rather that she does what is familiar to try and improve her situation while knowing how unlikely this is.

“You can’t wash away overnight several years of clockwork routine and constant dissembling of self.”

Sarrazin was undoubtedly a writer of talent, its truly sad that she didn’t live to see what else that talent could produce and where it might have taken her.

To end, this edition features a rhapsodic introduction by Patti Smith “My Albertine, how I adored her!” If you’ll permit me a paraphrase: “My Patti! How I adore her…” Here she is singing about lovers, which I thought was apt for Anne and Julien:

 

Novella a Day in May 2020 #20

Lie With Me – Philippe Besson (2017, trans. Molly Ringwald 2019) 148 pages

(For those of you who have noted the translator’s name – yes, that Molly Ringwald!)

Lie With Me tells the story of a closeted gay love affair between two teenage boys living in small town called Barbezieux, in southern France. The narrator is looking back on his relationship with a slightly older boy called Thomas Andrieu (the novella is dedicated to a man of the same name, but Lie With Me is presented as fiction):

“I recently returned to this place of my childhood, this village that I hadn’t set foot in for years. I went back with S. so that he would know. The grid was still there with the ancient wisteria, but the lime trees had been cut down, and the school closed a long time ago.

[…]

‘It must have taken great determination to have lifted yourself out.’

He didn’t say ‘ambition’ or ‘courage’ or ‘hate’. I told him: ‘It was my father who wanted it for me. I would have stayed in this childhood, in this cocoon.’”

The narrator knows he is different to his schoolfriends, and he knows why. It isn’t because his father is the schoolteacher, or because he is physically awkward, although these things don’t help. It is because he is gay:

“In this one regard, I would stop being the model child. I wouldn’t follow the pack. Out of instinct, I despised packs. That has never changed.”

Thomas is older than him, a mysterious and much cooler boy who both fits in and holds himself aloof:

“He also likes his solitude. It’s obvious. He speaks little, smokes alone. He has this attitude, his back up against the wall, looking up toward the sun or down at his sneakers, this manner of not quite being there in the world.”

The narrator is interested in Thomas but he seems entirely unobtainable. It is Thomas who makes the first move:

“I feel this desire swarming in my belly and running up my spine. But I have to constantly contain and compress it so that it doesn’t betray me in front of others. Because I’ve already understood that desire is visible.

Momentum too, I feel it. I sense a movement, a trajectory, something that will bring me to him.”

Lie With Me follows their relationship from beginning to end. There is an elegiac quality from the older, now successful writer – openly gay, well-travelled and living a cosmopolitan urbane life – looking back, but there is no sentimentality.

Instead, there is a pervading sadness, even following the first time they sleep together:

“I should be able to stay in this state of ecstasy, Or astonishment. Or let myself be overwhelmed by the incomprehensibility of it all. But the feeling that prevails the moment he disappears is that of being abandoned. Perhaps because it is already a familiar feeling.”

In this Guardian article, Tessa Hadley felt Lie With Me suffered from not enough focus on Thomas. The characterisation of the lover is thin, but personally I felt this worked. The first throes of romantic love, especially teen romantic love, can be very much wrapped up in how exhilarating it is for the individual. The narrator is waking up to the possibilities of life, the possibilities of gay life, far away from his childhood town and its constraints, and I felt his self-focus worked well.

Lie With Me is a coming of age tale, with the narrator realising not only who he is as a gay man, but of all that he could be, reflected in his lover’s eyes:

“In the end, love was only possible because he saw me not as who I was, but as the person I would become.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #17

Those Without Shadows – Françoise Sagan (1957, trans. Irene Ash 1957)

I really wanted to include something by Françoise Sagan in NADIM this year, as I recently saw a repeat of Clive James’ Postcard From Paris on BBC4 which included a lovely interlude driving round the streets of the city with Ms Sagan. Why anyone would get into a car with her when she had the reputation for driving the way she did is beyond me, but I’m glad he did as it was very entertaining to watch from afar. I can’t get the clip but the whole episode is available on YouTube, and you can see the Sagan section from 2:35-6:36:

When I posted about The Suicide Shop I mentioned that other readers seemed to like it more than I did. I’ve had the opposite experience with Those Without Shadows (Dans un mois, dans un an). A quick search tells me this is not a popular read! Admittedly its not Bonjour Tristesse, but then so few books are 😉

Those Without Shadows was written four years after her classic work, when Sagan was still only 22. It follows a group of entirely vacuous Parisians as they live their lives without any purpose. I didn’t find it nihilistic though, I felt Sagan was treating her characters with amused affection.

The novel opens with Bernard ringing his lover Josée in the early hours of the morning, where her phone is answered by an unknown male voice:

“Now he was going home to find his bad novel lying in disorder on his desk, and his wife in bed asleep.”

His poor wife Nicole adores him, who knows why?

“After three years she loved him more every day, and this, he felt, was almost repulsive, for she no longer attracted him. He liked to remember the picture of himself when they had been in love, the decision he had shown in marrying her, for since that time he had never been able to make any decision at all.”

I thought that was so incisive, and so brutal. Bernard’s love for his wife (or lack thereof) is all about himself. He is repulsed by her because she no longer reflects the vision of himself he wants to see. The clarity of this dynamic is so believable and destructive.

This is echoed in Josée’s new relationship with a medical student, Jacques.

“It is really quite amusing. It’s not even a question of physical attraction. I don’t know if it is the reflection of myself in him that I like, or the absence of that reflection, or just him himself. But he is not interesting, he is probably not even cruel. He just exists”

Bernard and Josée are part of a group who congregate at the Maligrasse’s parties. Alain and Fanny Maligrasse like to surround themselves with younger people. Alain is “badly paid, cultured, and very fond of his wife. How had it happened that their joke about Béatrice had become the enormous weight he had to lift every morning as he got up?”

Béatrice was the character I liked least. Generally the people who inhabit this world are self-focussed but not deliberately cruel (Bernard tries to be kind to Nicole but generally fails through his own self-regard). Béatrice, desperate to be a successful actress, is happy to attract men to her as a distraction but really cares nothing for how hurt they get when she inevitably discards them.

Sagan doesn’t cut her characters any slack, but she does it through the judgements they place on themselves, which makes it more readable than if an authorial voice was constantly reminding us how dreadful they all are:

“He re-read it dispassionately and realised how bad it was; worse than bad, not merely tedious but intensely tedious. He wrote in the same way people cut their nails, attentively and absent-mindedly.”

I love that banal domestic detail of nails, next to ambitions for high art. While I can understand why people would not enjoy this novella, it was this sort of wry humour that meant I quite enjoyed it.

There are some decent people amongst the crowd too: Josée’s lover Jacques, Édouard who is provincial and naive and in love with Béatrice, and Jolyet, a theatre producer who is old enough to see himself clearly:

“as always when his own mediocrity was brought home to him, he felt a fierce sort of pleasure.”

So, definitely not one for when you need characters to root for, but as a quick, insightful portrait of pretentious and self-obsessed young things, I found it pretty enjoyable.

My post earlier this month on Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark led to a discussion on the questionable decisions made by Penguin’s art department in the late 1970s/early 80s. My copy of Those Without Shadows is another prime example:

“It was a symbolic awakening, but Édouard did not realise it. He did not know that his passion for Béatrice would henceforth be reduced to the contemplation of her back, We invent our own omens which seem bad when things are going against us. Édouard was not like Josèe who, waking at the same moment, looked at her lover’s smooth, hard back in the dawn, and smiled before going off to sleep again. But Josèe was a great deal older than Édouard.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #11

The Suicide Shop – Jean Teule (2007, trans. Sue Dyson 2008) 169 pages

It’s a funny one this. I only post about books I recommend and I do recommend this quirky, gothic, post-apocalyptic tale, but something stopped me loving it as much as some of Gallic Books other offerings.

The titular shop is run by the Tuvache family, who for generations have offered people ways to end their lives. They are mournful in nature and bleak in outlook, apart from Alan, the youngest Tuvache who is bad for business.

“please PLEASE stop smiling! Do you want to drive away all our customers? Why do you have this mania for rolling your eyes round and wiggling your fingers either side of your ears? Do you think customers come here to see your smile?”

Poor Alan’s schoolwork is no better, failing to capture the environmental desolation that humans live with:

“A path leading to a house with a door and open windows, under a blue sky where a big sun shines! Now come on, why aren’t there any clouds or pollution in your landscape? […] Where’s the radiation? And the terrorist explosions? It’s totally unrealistic. You should come and see what Vincent and Marilyn were drawing at your age!”

Alan and his siblings are named after famous suicides: Turing, van Gogh and Monroe. Vincent refuses to eat and is planning a grisly theme park where people can die in various inventive ways, Marilyn is depressed and feels ugly and cumbersome. They are a perfect fit for their family; only Alan resolutely forges his own path, despite living in a shop where the carrier bags state: “Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success!”

There isn’t a plot so much in The Suicide Shop, rather we follow the family through the years as Alan proves an irresistible sunny force, exerting more influence over his family than they initially realise. Their bafflement with Alan reminded me of The Addams Family, (which I loved as a child), completely at a loss as to what to do with someone who doesn’t share their world view.

“We force him to watch the TV news to try and demoralise him”

As you’d expect, the humour in The Suicide Shop is very dark. It sells rusty razor blades with a sign that says “even if you don’t make a deep enough cut, you’ll get tetanus” but overall it’s a gentle humour, like the woman who grows attached to the trapdoor spider she buys to end her life, names it Denise and starts knitting it booties.

Looking on goodreads, there’s plenty of people who adored this story and I’m not entirely sure why I’m not one of them.  But I still found The Suicide Shop a quick, diverting read with some entertaining touches.

“Life is the way it is. It’s worth what it’s worth! It does it’s best, within limitations. We mustn’t ask too much of life either. It’s best to look on the bright side.”

The Suicide Shop was made into an animated film in 2012, directed by Patrick Leconte. Here’s the English language trailer:

Novella a Day in May 2020 #9

The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain (2014, trans. Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken 2015) 159 pages

The Red Notebook walks a very thin line and I suspect for some readers it will have crossed that line, from whimsical romance at a distance, to creepy stalker tale. Looking at goodreads most seem to have gone for the former, and that’s how I read it too, but I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the latter view.

Anyway, I’ll put my psychological reservations to one side and let you know about a charming novella that conjures Paris beautifully, features a cameo from Patrick Modiano, and plays into that old romantic trope of lovers that are destined for one another.

Laure is a widow in her 40s who mugged for her mauve handbag and ends up in hospital in a coma. Bookseller Laurent – similar name, similar age to Laure – finds her bag after the mugger has dumped it having removed ID, purse and mobile phone. He tries to hand it in but police bureaucracy means he ends up holding on to it, trying to piece together the owner from its contents:

“a little fawn and violet leather bag containing make-up and accessories, including a large brush whose softness he tested against his cheek. A gold lighter, a black Montblanc ballpoint (perhaps the one used to jot down her thoughts in the notebook), a packet of licorice sweets…a small bottle of Evian, a hairclip with a blue flower on it, and a pair of red plastic dice.”

The titular notebook is part of the contents, and it is a diary which Laurent reads to try and find clues to who Laure is:

“I’m scared of red ants.

And of logging on to my bank account and clicking ‘current balance’.

I’m scared when the telephone rings first thing in the morning.

And of getting the Metro when its packed.

I’m scared of time passing.

I’m scared of electric fans, but I know why.”

Laurent has some success in piecing together Laure’s life, and in the process we learn about them both. Laurent has a teenage daughter who is brattish but loving, and a girlfriend to whom he’s not entirely committed. He likes his job and he’s interested in literature.

He’s also increasingly interested in Laure and a sequence of events lead to him collecting her dry cleaning and cat-sitting for her (!) It was at this point I thought things had gone too far, but then Laurain manages to tip the balance of power in a believable turn of events that meant the story kept me on side.

If you’re in the mood for some escapism across the channel and some gentle romance, then The Red Notebook could be just the ticket.

Novella a Day in May 2020 #7

Monsieur Linh and His Child – Philippe Claudel (2005, trans. Euan Cameron 2011) 130 pages

I only knew Philippe Claudel as a film director until Emma’s review of Monsieur Linh and His Child put his work as a novelist on my radar. Do head over to Emma’s review as she has lots of interesting things to say about this novella. She also rightly pointed out it would be a perfect read for NADIM, so here it is!

Monsieur Linh arrives in an unspecified French port town as a refugee from an East Asian war. His son and daughter-in-law were killed, and he has fled with his baby granddaughter, Sang Diû.

“Six weeks. This is how long the voyage lasts. So that when the ship arrives at its destination, the little girl has already doubled the length of her life. As for the old man, he feels as if he has aged a hundred years.”

Monsieur Linh is a lonely and isolated figure. His fellow refugees cook for him but do so without any warmth or affection. He is deeply traumatised and lives only for his granddaughter.

One day, walking in the unfamiliar town with its cars, strange food, odd smells and a language he doesn’t understand, he meets Monsieur Bark, when they sit on the same park bench. Monsieur Bark is a widower who is grieving deeply for his wife.  He smokes and talks incessantly, although Monsieur Linh cannot understand a word.

“When Monsieur Bark speaks, Monsieur Linh listens to him very attentively and looks at him, as if he understood everything and did not want to lose any of the meaning of the words. What the old man senses is that the tone of Monsieur Bark’s voice denotes sadness, a deep melancholy, a sort of wound the voice accentuates, which accompanies it beyond words and language, something that infuses it just as the sap infuses a tree without one seeing it.”

The language barrier does not mean that there is a lack of understanding between the two men. Claudel demonstrates without sentimentality how a true friendship develops between them, affectionate and accepting and full of meaning for both. These two deeply traumatised men are able to help each other heal in a way that is wholly believable and deeply moving.

Monsieur Linh and His Child is a wonderful, heartwarming story about the nature of unconditional love, friendship, and how we can help alleviate others’ pain without words. It’s about the humanity that bonds us all, and that is a timely reminder in today’s political climate. Highly recommended.

Here is the French cover, because as Emma rightly pointed out, the UK edition is ugly:

“A library is a place where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity.” (Germaine Greer)

I really feel I’ve lost my blogging mojo over the last year. It started with the 2018 heatwave which killed off my reading for a few weeks; my reading recovered but my blogging never really did. I’m hoping Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) hosted by Meytal at Biblibio will help, but given we’re nearly halfway through, maybe not 😀 If any of you lovely bloggers have any tips on how to recover they would be gratefully received!

Anyway, here is what I hope will be the first of a few posts for WITMonth; starting with two novels loosely linked by themes of virginity, or lack thereof.

Firstly, Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (2007, trans. Clarissa Botsford 2014) published by the wonderful AndOtherStories. Set in Albania, its also another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit (Dones is Albanian but wrote this originally in Italian).

Sworn Virgin looks at the experience of Hana, who has taken on a mostly extinct northern Albanian Kanun tradition. The tradition is that a family without male heirs can nominate a female to become a sworn virgin; she will live as a man and fulfil male roles. Hana took on the role willingly to avoid a marriage she didn’t want.

“ ‘It’s not that hard to be a man, you know?’ she says. ‘I swore never to get married, it’s a tradition that exists only in the north of the country. Let me explain: when there are no boys in a family, one of the girls swears to behave like a man and to remain a man for the rest of her life. From that moment on, she has to play all the roles and take over the tasks of a man. That’s why I became the son my uncle never had. Uncle Gjergj was my father’s brother; he took me in and brought me up after my parents died.’”

At the start of the novel Hana is travelling to the US to live with her cousin Lila and begin the process of becoming Hana again. Lila is highly feminine and doesn’t quite understand that for Hana, who has been living as Mark for 15 years, the transition back is not straightforward.

“ ‘You need to take off these men’s clothes.’

‘There’s no hurry.’

‘The sooner you get rid of them the better.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘I thought that was the deal. That you were coming here to go back to what you were.’

‘Yes, but there’s no hurry.’”

Hana has to adjust to a new country as well as a new way of presenting herself to the world. Although a story of immigration, Sworn Virgin is also a story of homecoming – to oneself. Hana has to decide how her appearance will express who she is, but also look at her life and think about what she wants. She had loved books and wanted to go to college, but had to return home when her beloved uncle Gjergj was dying. When her studies became impossible and she was facing marriage she didn’t want, she chose to become Mark instead.

“She had men’s clothes and a flask of raki in her pocket, and these had been her mirrors. She had needed nothing else. Up there in the mountains, time and place had been equal partners.”

 Although the sworn virgin tradition may be seem extraordinary to those of us unused to it, Dones has made a documentary about sworn virgins before she wrote this novel and to me it never felt sensationalist or exoticised. There is much in Hana’s story that is relatable. Sworn Virgin is about reconciling yourself to the past, and how it is never too late to make changes when you find you’ve outgrown certain decisions.

“Hana tries to bring her attention back to her body. The man she thought would still be tenaciously inhabiting her is no longer there. That man was only a carapace. Lila was right: Mark Doda’s life had been no more than the sum total of the masculine gestures Hana had forced herself to imitate, in the skin worn leathery by bad food and lack of attention. Mark Doda had been a product of her iron will.”

The focus on virginity is given a wider scope too. Hana’s virginity has become a burden to her, something to discard to help her move forward. Losing it is about Hana acknowledging herself as a sexual being with desires, and prioritising her own needs  – both sexual and non-sexual – in a way she hasn’t been able to before. This is dealt with non-romantically but still sensitively.

Obviously there is a strong theme of gender roles in Sworn Virgin, but for me it was first and foremost a character study of Hana, and the many binaries she has to adjust to: home/new country, rural life/urban life, family/independence.

“She tries to penetrate the unique spirit of the individual, she analyses their face and eyes, she tries to imagine the thoughts hiding behind those eyes, but she tends to avoid thinking about the fact that the thoughts are inextricably linked to male or female ego…She’s only just realizing now that for a long time she has had to consider things from both points of view.”

Secondly, from one extreme to the other. If there’s a character in literature not remotely associated with virginity, its probably Emma Bovary. Although I can’t stand Emma, I still picked up Sophie Divry’s Madame Bovary of the Suburbs (2014, trans. Alison Anderson 2017) with anticipation because I  had really enjoyed The Library of Unrequited Love. This isn’t quite so sparky as her previous novel, but then I don’t think its supposed to be, given as its dealing with a pervasive sense of middle class ennui.

M.A. (geddit?) is born in the 1950s and dies around 2025. In between, she is bored.

“You could not voice your feelings of dissatisfaction, because – and images from all over the world came to remind you – everything had been programmed for you to be happy.”

As the quote above shows, the novel is written in the second person. Normally I would hate this technique, but here I thought it worked quite well. The reader is constantly being told ‘you’ are doing/feeling these things, but we’re not. Essentially we feel the same sense of disconnect as M.A. does to her comfortable middle class life, living in the titular area, in a house she owns with her husband Francois, raising their children.

“In those days it didn’t bother you, or not for very long, that you never had a break. Inventing a marinade, discussing your daughter’s progress, teasing your husband about his incompetence at household chores; you got the impression that at last you were enjoying a certain return on your investment, after so many years of movement, migration, studies, pregnancies.”

Of course, as we know, Madame Bovary found one way to alleviate her boredom, as does M.A. with the vacuous Phillipe. Inevitably the affair is doomed, but unlike Emma, M.A. carries on. In this way I actually found it more depressing than its namesake; Madame Bovary is quite melodramatic, whereas this novel suggests there are plenty of lives of quiet desperation being carried out across the land.

However, I don’t want to suggest this is a bleak read, it’s not. The things I enjoyed about The Library… are evident here: the light touch, the wry humour:

“The eldest among us aware of what awaits the newlyweds once everyone has left, once the tables have been cleared, the last goodbyes are said, and we find ourselves in front of a refrigerator.”

Flaubert famously said ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’ Divry suggests ‘Vous êtes Madame Bovary’.

“Deep down no-one knows whether supreme happiness is attainable in one’s lifetime, physical pleasure remains one of its earthly traces, a trace we cling to, as long as we have the strength.”

To end, there’s an obvious 80s pop tune I could include on the theme of virginity, but for once I’m not going the obvious route 😊 I love the Pet Shop Boys and I don’t think I’ve ever managed to shoehorn them in so here they are singing about sinful urges:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #22

The Cat – Colette (1933, trans. Antonia White, 1953) 96 pages

Back in January when I wasn’t sure I’d manage NADIM this year (I’m still not sure – 9 posts to go!) I did a week of novellas by Colette. I loved immersing myself in her writing that week so I couldn’t resist including another of her novellas this month.

The Cat is familiar Colette territory: a young, slightly feckless couple failing to communicate. The difference is that there are three beings in this marriage: Alain, Camille, and Alain’s Russian Blue cat Saha.

Alain is from old money that is rapidly dwindling; Camille is new money that is much more abundant.

“Alain listened to her, not bored, but not indulgent either. He had known her for several years and classified her as a typical modern girl. He knew the way she drove a car, a little to fast and a little too well; her eye alert and her scarlet mouth always ready to swear violently at a taxi driver. He knew that she lied unblushingly”

They desire one another but they don’t communicate in any meaningful way. Alain almost seems to despise Camille at times – finding her tacky and invasive – unlike his pedigree cat, whom he adores. The three of them move temporarily to a friend’s flat while their home is being refurbished:

“He was incessantly and increasingly aware of his repugnance at the idea of making a place for this young woman, this outsider, in his own home. He nursed this resentment and fed it with secret soliloquies and the sullen contemplation of their new dwelling.”

For Camille, the resentments and disappointments which begin to build in their marriage become focussed towards Saha. As she points out, it is worse than another woman. Saha isn’t a competitor, but Alain loves her unconditionally and has an easy sensual relationship with his cat, whereas his sexual relationship with Camille is complicated by his feelings of contempt.

“As soon as he turned out the light, the cat began to trample delicately on her friend’s chest. Each time she pressed down her feet, one single claw pierced the silk of the pyjamas, catching the skin just enough for Alain to feel an uneasy pleasure.”

Spoiler alert: I must admit I did what I never do and skipped to the end of this story before reading very far, to check the cat wasn’t killed. I couldn’t face a story where that happened. But thankfully Colette is more subtle than that. Saha doesn’t die, which means the failures in the human relationship occur not in the rage of grief, but in something more subdued and sadder. Saha is a focus for the confused, antagonistic feelings the young couple have for one another. The cat brings these feelings to the surface more quickly than perhaps they would have done without her, but there is no doubt they would have occurred at some point.

You don’t need to be a cat lover to enjoy this story. It is a study of a young, naïve, selfish couple and the unthinking damage they do to one another, while professing their love. This being Colette, alongside the psychological insights, there are beautiful descriptions of the natural world:

“High in the sky a hazy moon held court, looking larger than usual through the mist of the first warm days. A single tree – a poplar with newly opened glossy leaves – caught the moonlight and trickled with as many sparkles as a waterfall. A silver shadow leapt out of a clump of bushes and glided like a fish against Alain’s ankles.

‘Ah! There you are Saha! I was looking for you. Why didn’t you appear at table tonight?’”

To end, here’s the lady herself with a couple of her beloved pets:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #13

Scars on the Soul – Francoise Sagan (1972 trans. Joanna Kilmartin 1974) 124 pages

This is a strange novella. It’s a story of a Swedish brother and sister living in France, and an extended reflection on Sagan’s writing life: a direct address to the reader.

“It isn’t literature, it isn’t a true confession, it’s someone tapping away at her typewriter because she’s afraid of herself and the typewriter and the mornings and the evenings and everything else.”

Sagan tells the story of Sebastian and Eleanor van Milhelm who are entirely feckless and devoted to one another.

“Life without her, drink without her, were like lukewarm water, Not a bad thing, all said and done, to have one’s life circumscribed to that extent by someone who – whatever she might say – was as much his slave as he was hers.”

While they are not quite incestuous, they certainly have an unhealthy attachment to one another. They move around living off their looks, finding benefactors who will pay for their lifestyle so that neither have to get jobs.

“ ‘Someone’ being that providential person who, because of their charm, their wit, their luck, would act as temporary provider for brother and sister. This person so far had never failed to materialise and was usually discovered by Sebastian, Eleanor, as in this case, being too lazy to go out.”

Yet the van Milhelms are not despicable. They are not malicious or even particularly manipulative; there is the sense that those they live off share an understanding whereby everyone knows what the deal is. There is a sense of ennui as their lives are essentially empty, yet it’s a sad story rather than a depressing one.

Scars on the Soul is certainly a post-modern novella, drawing attention to the art of Sagan as a writer and the artifice of the novel.

“There are moments when I’m on the point of writing ‘But I digress,’ an old-fashioned courtesy to the reader, but pointless in this case, since my purpose is to digress. Nevertheless, this blow-by-blow account of eroticism has irritated me. I’m returning to my van Milhelms ‘who frequently indulge in that sort of thing but never talk about it.’”

I think this novella wouldn’t be for everyone, as it is neither one thing nor the other – not fiction or non-fiction, not short story or essay. Yet I found it satisfying. I was invested in the van Milhelms story and I enjoyed Sagan’s witty reflections on writing and her fame after many years (this was written in her late 30s after the success of Bonjour Tristesse at the prodigiously young age of 18). It’s not something to read when you want a meaty, plot-driven story but Sagan is a hugely talented, skilled writer and there is much of interest here both in the fiction and in the portrait of one writer’s life.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #5

Breaking Away – Anna Gavalda (2009, trans. Alison Anderson 2011) 143 pages

Breaking Away is a simply plotted novella which appears deceptively straightforward in its storytelling, but builds towards a meaningful resolution.

Garance is in her late twenties and cadges a lift to a wedding with her brother Simon and annoying sister in law Carine. The characterisation of Carine starts the novella off on an enjoyably bitchy note as the chaotic Garance, who has stayed up all night playing poker and is waxing her legs on the backseat, offends beauty pharmacist Carine’s sensibilities.

“Carine is utterly perplexed. She consoles herself by stirring sugarless sugar into a coffee without caffeine.”

They stop and pick up another sibling, Lola, who likes to conspire with Garance to wind up Carine. At which point I began to feel for Carine – maybe she wouldn’t be such a nightmare if the siblings weren’t so cliquey and excluding. At this point though, the portrait of Carine does modify slightly.

“She may be a first class pain but she does like to please others. Credit where credit is due.

And she really doesn’t like to leave pores in a state of shock. It breaks her heart.”

Their fourth sibling, Vincent, isn’t at the wedding, so the three of them leave Carine and bunk off to go and collect him. Garance reflects on her various siblings’ trials and tribulations and how their upbringing has influenced who they are. She decides her parents are culpable:

 “Because they’re the ones who taught us about books and music. Who talked to us about other things and forced us to see things in a different light. To aim higher and further. But they also forgot to give us confidence, because they thought that would come naturally. That we had a special gift for life, and compliments might spoil our egos.

They got it wrong.

The confidence never came.

So here we are. Sublime losers.”

But the humour in the novella stops it being self-pitying. In fact, the four of them are doing OK. They’re just enjoying taking a rare moment to spend time together.

Breaking Away captures a moment in time for the four siblings, and has an elegiac quality, for time past and relationships that must inevitably change. The tone isn’t sad however, more resolute; it’s about how love endures beyond all the external changes.

“What we were experiencing at that moment – something all four of us were aware of – was a windfall. Borrowed time, an interlude, a moment of grace. A few hours stolen from other people.”

To end, plenty of songs are name-checked in Breaking Away, including this one which “taught us more English than all our teachers put together”: