Nothing distills complex, at times ambivalent, at times frustrating, at times enchanting emotional responses quite like a GIF. Am I right?
The Story of Babar: The Little Elephant by Jean De Brunhoff
This isn’t really a spoiler because it happens at the beginning of the book: What is with killing off mothers? Can someone please enlighten me? Though, truth be told, it doesn’t seem to have traumatized me as a child: When I bought the book to share with my son, I’d forgotten the story begins with Babar’s mother being killed by a hunter. I was probably inured to it owing to the pervasive matricide in children’s books/cartoons. I have, however, harbored a lifelong revulsion towards hunting for sport – maybe it all started here?
Reading the story as an adult made me see distressing allegorical elements. As a child, though, Babar’s story, and his iconic bespoke green suit, enchanted me, and I carried this impression of the book into adulthood (maybe it was the illustrations?):
The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery
The Little Prince and I first met when I was in elementary school. I was jealous he had a whole planet to himself, even if it was an itty-bitty, teeny tiny planet. (I’m an introvert – can you tell?) Something about the way he tended his single (high-maintenance) rose moved me. This sounds weird to say, but here it is: The book inspired me to appreciate the act of nurture, even if the thing being nurtured can be kind of imperious and ungrateful at times. So basically, the book prepared me for motherhood … oh, I’m only joking … for the most part.
Anyway, there was a bit of this involved, but in a good way:
These books are the French literature I read in high school (Sartre, in French hence the original title), college (Camus in translation), and graduate school (Flaubert in translation). They did a bang-up job of dismantling the positive associations of French literature cultivated in my youth. What with being frustrating (Flaubert), depressing (Sartre), and soul-crushing (Camus). At the same time as I was reading these walking nightmares, I was reading Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, and Vanity Fair. And that’s the story of how I joined Team British Literature.
Anyway … my feelings about the aforementioned French books – and, to be fair, much of post-Civil War American literature – combine both of these reactions:
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Oh, this [expletive deleted] book. It took me three attempts before I finally got into it. There I was, humming merrily along, enjoying the beautiful language of the translation. And then a very bad and unacceptable thing happened that I will not tell you because it’s a major spoiler. I’ve gotten pushback on this, but I stand by my response.
Of which this is a reasonable approximation, minus literally throwing the book through a window (I already spent money buying the book – no way was I going to spend money getting my window repaired):
The Ingredients of Love by Nicolas Barreau
Now we shall fast forward to a few years (of assiduously avoiding French literature) later. I saw this title at a bookstore and loved the concept (bookstore, food, Paris, love). Seeing it was written by a French author, I hollered, I will not be fooled again! Not out loud or anything. Just in my head. But then, I read the first line anyway: “Last year in November a book saved my life.” I cannot be expected to resist a book with that opening line. And the novel delivered: It was a funny, wacky delight.
Me reading The Ingredients of Love looked quite a bit like this:
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
And that brings us to the book that initiated this discussion. Several trusted friends recommended The Little Paris Bookshop to me. It definitely has its crushing moments. It also has humor and beauty and light. (I wrote more about it here, if you’re wondering.)
I’m giving the novel the best compliment in my compliment arsenal by comparing its overall effect to this moment from Harry Potter:
So that’s my journey with French literature. Have you read any of these books? Thoughts?