This weekend I sat in the garden, the sun shining, and read the most beautiful, lyrical and vividly written book – Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew.This weekend I sat in the garden, the sun shining, and read the most beautiful, lyrical and vividly written book – Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew. This isn’t the first book I have read by this author (more on that later) so I knew that I was in for a treat and I wasn’t let down in the slightest.
This book is a feast for the senses. From the very first sentence, I was whisked immediately away to the Provencial countryside as a new spring is dawning and I was immersed in colours and fragrances and sensations that can only be brought about by the most talented author. I was there under the lime tree, I felt the breeze lift the hem of my skirt, and heard the parched earth drink the water from the upturned pail.
The man of the book title is, in fact, Vincent van Gogh, however, he isn’t the protagonist; that is Jeanne Trabuc. Van Gogh is more of a supporting character to enable Jeanne to evolve and blossom, and the story is really hers. The year is 1889 and set in the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy, where Van Gogh admitted himself and was a patient for a year, painting some of his most loved paintings during that time before he became more well known. Jeanne lives with her husband Charles in a little white cottage next to the asylum in the French countryside as Charles is the Manager there. Jeanne, whose three grown up sons have all left home, lives by the rules she has become accustomed to over the years and is forbidden to enter the asylum grounds but she finds a way to meet with Vincent often and through their conversations while he paints, she learns to remember the woman (and child) she was; the playful, independent girl who grew up with just her belovèd Father and wore yellow silk dresses, wore her hair unpinned, and who did handstands in the square. It’s an incredibly moving story as Jeanne considers her life and contemplates her future. Van Gogh’s paintings awaken something in her; a desire and a longing for something more than the life of conformity and routine.
Seven years ago, I interviewed this author about her book Corrag (which is now re-published as Witch Light and is still one of the most perfect books I’ve ever read) and in this interview, she explained about spending half-an-hour of watching a bumble bee visit foxgloves, writing down how it looked and sounded, and I can completely see this. The scenes of nature in both books are exquisite; full of vibrancy and sentiment. Just stunning. When I read a book I want to believe I’m right there in the pages. Few authors make me feel this as well as Susan Fletcher. Others that have had a similar impact are Joanne Harris (particularly the Chocolat series) and more recently Sealskin by Su Bristow.
This book was a joy to read from start to finish. Susan Fletcher can write. I mean, REALLY write. If you love beautiful storytelling and pitch-perfect prose, you need to read this book. I cannot recommend highly enough....more
After having read, and loved, Sagan’s more famous Bonjour Tristesse about a year ago; when I saw this book and two others by Sagan for only £2 each inAfter having read, and loved, Sagan’s more famous Bonjour Tristesse about a year ago; when I saw this book and two others by Sagan for only £2 each in a little second-hand bookshop, I dutifully rescued them from the shelves and brough them home to be loved and nurtured by me!
I loved this book! Really loved it. Francoise Sagan is such a talented writer. She wrote Bonjour Tristesse at the age of 17 when she had failed her exams so “decided to write a novel instead”. For one so young, that particular book is truly amazing (or am I just forgetting – now I’m older – how complex a teenagers emotions really are?).
Sunlight on Cold Water was written at the end of the 1960′s so by this time Sagan had matured and had the time and experience to hone her craft. For such a short book (a novella, really) not a word is wasted and I found myself, over and over again, marvelling at her insight into human beings and their actions and motivations. She really gets under the skin of her characters and has the most incredible empathy for what makes them tick.
Gilles Lantier is a successful journalist in Paris, living a life of frivolity with a model for a girlfriend (and women whenever he pleases). At age 35, he finds himself in a very unfamiliar and very frigtening place. What used to interest him now makes no sense, what used to please him now repells him and for the first time in his life he is struggling to even function, let alone live with any purpose. Gilles, although he doesn’t realise it at first – being so overwhelmed by fear, is suffering from depression of the most crippling kind.
“He had spend the whole morning at his newspaper, where he worked on the foreign desk. The world was full of violent and absurd happenings, to which his colleagues reacted with a smug indignation which he found exasperating. Three months ago, he would have been delighted to join in their protests, but it was out of the question now. He even felt midly irritated that the people in the Middle East, the United States, or anywhere else, kept trying to distract him from his real problem: himself.”
The way Sagan depicted Gilles unravelling was astounding. Speaking as one who has suffered depression previously and knows how crippling and debilatating it can be, she got this spot on.
Gilles finally (on the advice of everyone telling him he needs a break) heads down to Limoges, in the Limousin, to stay with his older sister and her husband. Far from him miraculously becoming well again, as everyone expected, in the fresh country air and slower pace of life, Gilles still struggles to do the simplest of things and sleeps as much as possible.
“The simple, homely pleasures of country life! What a pity such clichés could only sustain him for a few minutes at a time before life and his obsession caught up with him again like a pack of hounds in full cry that has given the stag a few minutes’ breathing space merely to prolong the hunt.”
A few weeks into his stay in the provinces, Gilles is dragged along (unwillingly) to a dinner party in the village where he meets Nathalie, the young wife of a very well-to-do lawyer. She instantly falls in love with Gilles (quite to his amusement) and finds reasons to pop along to Gilles’ sisters house to see him. They begin an affair (not very successfully at first) but he eventually falls in love with Nathalie too and his life suddently begins to hold some sort of meaning again.
The title of the book, Sunlight on Cold Water, is a perfect metaphor for Gilles and Nathalie’s budding relationship. Gilles starts to live again, to breathe again. I don’t want to spoil the rest of the book, but there is some soul-searching to be done once back in Paris and the ending really does come completely out of the blue!
I know I have only read two Sagan books so far but I am now declaring myself a huge fan! I find her prose so crisp and clear and not a word wasted and she is also an author who knows her characters so well that her books don’t need to be padded out with non-necessities. Brilliant, just brilliant! ...more
Who would have thought that such a little book (just 202 pages) could incite so many different emotions (on the part of the reader as well as the charWho would have thought that such a little book (just 202 pages) could incite so many different emotions (on the part of the reader as well as the characters). One minutes I was swooning over landscape and seascape and melting in Maupassants prose, and the next I was wanting to ring the protagonists neck!
The book starts with a young Jeanne who is on her last ever day at the convent school in 1819 and who is desperate to taste freedom and start her life after being cooped up for so long, only being able to stare out of windows and dream what her life will be like when she is finally out in the world. Jeanne’s daydreams are filled with longing and a restless spirit that is aching to see far away lands and nature and finally breathe after all these years at school. Jeanne’s parents (a Baron and Baroness) pick her up on her last day and drive her to Poplars which is to become her home by the sea. Maupassants narrative is so beautiful in parts that I longed to be there too; to experience what Jeanne was experiencing.
“First of all facing her was a broad lawn as yellow as butter under the night sky. Two tall trees rose up like steeples in front of the hous, a plane to the north and a linden to the south.”
“Jeanne gazed at the broad surface of the sea, which looked like watered silk, sleeping peacefully under the stars. In the quiet of the sunless sky all the scents of the earth rose up into the air. A jessamine climbing round the downstairs windows gave a penetrating scent, which mingled with the fainter smell of the young leaves. Gentle gusts of wind were blowing, laden with the sharp tang of the salt and the heavy sticky reek of seaweed. At first the girl was happy just breathing the night air; the peace of the countryside had the calming effect of a cool bath.”
Jeanne’s first few months are spent getting to know her new surroundings and enjoying her freedom and soon she is introduced to a young man by the name of Julien who is a count and after a breif and all-consuming romance they marry. Jeanne starts to pick up clues that all is not what it seemed as early as the wedding night when he forces himself on his new bride but desperately wanting to believe that she has married the right man and stay happy she puts it to one side. I feel the need to note here (for amusements sake) that Julien calls his wifes breasts Mr Sleeper-out and Mr Kiss-me-quick and certain other part of her womanly anatomy The road to Damascus. Fortunatley these aren’t mentioned more than once.
The story is very much about the downward spiral of one woman’s life. We watch Jeanne’s hopes and desires and dreams turn into boredom and frustration and self-pity.
“Suddenly she realised that she had nothing to do and never would have anything.”
“But now the magic reality of those first days was about to become the every day reality, which closed the door on those hopes and delightful enigmas of the unknown.”
“Habit spread over her life like a layer of resignation like the chalky deposit left on the ground by certain kinds of of water.”
“Sometimes she would spend the whole afternoon sitting looking at the sea; sometimes she went down to Yport through the wood, repeating the walks of old days which she could not forget. What a long time it was since she had wondered through the countryside as a young girl intoxicated with dreams!”
Maupassant has such a way with words that he drew me into Jeanne’s world and I felt the same longing she felt. It took me back to days when I had the world at my feet too and thought I could do anything, had no cares in the world – OK so my carefree days were a little different to Jeanne’s as in rather than floating round some big mansion by the sea, it was made up of nights out on the town, no mortgage to pay and a feeling of being able accountable to nobody except myself (ahh, to be so naive once more!). I do sometimes wonder how I would have coped in those days – one part of me thinks how lovely to do nothing all day other than read my books and take little walks round the garden with my parasol in hand, and the other part thinks but what would happen when you got bored of that? A woman didn’t have a choice then. In those particular circles they were there to look pretty and be seen but not so much heard. How dull!
Despite my sympathy towards Jeanne, not just because of her longing for something else but also because of her brutish husband and selfish son, I still found myself wanting to grab her shoulders and give her a good shake! My God, this woman can make a fuss. Her level of self-pity knows no bounds – we have hysterics, weeping, falling on someones breast and weeping, collapsing on a chair and weeping, we have fainting, panic attacks and wailing. There were times when I wanted to yell “get a grip, love!” at the pages.
“She continually repeated: ‘I have no luck in life.’ But Rosalie would retort: ‘What would you say if you had to earn your living and had to get up at six every morning and go out to work? There are plenty of women who have to do that, and when they are too old to work, they starve to death.’”
This book, I believe, should have been translated as One Woman’s Life rather than A Woman’s Life as it is very much about Jeanne and her personal story.
I read quite a few Maupassant books when I was at school (we studied Boule de Suife and some of his other shorter stories) but it’s far too long since I have read anything else of his. I’m glad I did – it reminded me why I liked him. Recommended. ...more