Monday, March 08, 2010

ensemble, c'est tout

Ensemble, c’est tout
(Hunting and gathering)
Anna Gavalda


I am having trouble reviewing this book with anything like the necessary critical distance, as I loved it so much I wanted to live inside this fiction. Not just for the 300 sqm flat in central Paris furnished with random antiques, but for the whole feel-good package, suggesting that there is such a thing as society, and people can help each other out in spite of all differences that may seem to separate them. The characters who find surprising ways of helping each other include: a twenty-something failed painter (f) with an eating disorder working as a cleaner; a young chef (m) with a stressful life involving lots of work and disposable girlfriends; the chef’s granny who needs looking after; and the only son of an ancient tribe of aristocrats, a walking talking history book with a stutter.

So, trying hard for a moment to view the book as literature, not as a lifestyle, I can think of a few points that may make it attractive even to those who aren’t Parisian BoBos at heart. First of all, as we know from her previous, shorter works, Gavalda is a people watcher more than a writer, so all her dialogues sound real and her characters are so alive that it doesn’t require much imagination to feel one could move in with them.

Then she also does clever things such as manipulating the reader by withholding crucial information, and reporting the “unheld speeches” which the characters wanted to deliver but didn’t. As we do, of course, all the time. I would feel uncomfortable, though, if someone put my unuttered thoughts on a page like this. Maybe her characters should have a word …

Culturally, the novel contains references not just to the art which is part of our heroine’s life, but also to the francophone cartoons including Tintin and Asterix, and I had the impression that the work of Hergé had some influence on the grandiose locations and description of the characters as well. This brings us back to the feel-good factor, as I grew up with these bandes dessinées rather than their American counterparts, so appreciated these reminders.

The book has been enormously successful in France: it made a shortlist for the best novel of the decade (it came second, behind Les Bienveillantes by Jonathan Littell) and was filmed with Audrey Tautou (not surprisingly, as Amélie is another obvious cultural influence), but practically didn’t make any appearance this side of the English Channel, which seems to be widening all the time.

PS after watching the film on DVD, I feel like I've seen the ladybird edition of the story: simplified, nicely illustrated, and much too short (90 mins). Casting is great, but I got no sense of place, and only 1% of the human complexity. It might work the other way round though, watching the movie first, as a trailer advertising the book.

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