Sunday, 29 December 2013

Xmas Presents: A Very Long Engagement by Sebastian Japrisot

First published in French 1991 This translation by Linda Coverdale 1994





So here it is. I saw Valentina again on Sunday the ninth of this month, after more than a year she had been gone, and it was early in the afternoon, she wore a coat of midnight-blue velvet with a beaver collar and matching muff and bonnet, they must have cost an arm and a leg, but certainly they were a Christmas present, she was all chic and pretty and looked happy, cheeks red with the cold outside and her lovely black eyes shining. I was that happy to see her again and kiss her, I had to sit down. To me she brought presents too, a woollen blanket from the Pyrenees, slippers, oranges from Spain, and a little cross of real gold I wear since then around my neck, even at night, oh yes I was happy, you cannot imagine.



observations: Should be read with previous entry on this book, which explains the plot.

This is Tina’s godmother speaking, reporting by letter to Mathilde. Tina is a wonderful character, because she does not ever appear directly in the book, she is always being glimpsed through other people’s eyes. Eventually there will be a letter from her, but her speech and appearance are always reported, mediated. In the film she appears a fair bit, and is marvellously played by Marion Cotillard (pre-Piaf), as the subtlety of her non-appearance in the book could not be maintained.

When you finally find out what she is up to and what has become of her, it is a shocking twist. Her lover Ange has been with Mathilde’s fiancĂ© Manech at the frontline: they are sent to die together. Although Ange is clearly shown as, pretty much, a worthless brute, while Tina is a prostitute, Japrisot treats them as no less important than the other characters. Tina and Mathilde are both trying to find out exactly what happened to the men.

As well as being a great book about war, the details of life in France are fascinating – and details are something Japrisot is very good at (the red mitten, the motor-bike, the plane tree and the poplar tree), along with dialogue and funny sideways comments – this is Mathilde:
Just as she is about to sit down at the table for her last meal with the family – no, I don’t hate you but how I’d like to strangle a few of you – she receives a telephone call…
The call contains devastating news, and it is the typical Japrisot touch to have such a light-hearted leadup to it.

Links on the blog: This book before. For other Christmas entries click on Xmas below. Louisa May Alcott’s heroine is offered clothes in velvet with a muff.

The picture is a fashion magazine illustration of clothes designed by Madeleine Cheruit, who has featured before several times on the blog.

6 comments:

  1. Possibly something I might enjoy if I gave it a chance....eg was stranded on a desert island and it was the only thing in Crusoe's abandoned library....but let's be honest I won't be tracking this one down.

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    1. No I can see that - but if you ever are on a desert island I think you'll enjoy it.

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  2. Moira - I'm glad you've posted about this one again. The historical details interest me to begin with, and the picture of life in France just adds. And the tension of dealing with the war and its losses... little wonder you thought this was great. I'm glad you've reminded me of this; I really ought to read it.

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    1. Thanks Margot - this is such a favourite book of mine, I have read it several times and probably will do so again...

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  3. I don't even remember that part of the book, and I have read the book and seen the movie. Guess it is time to re-read it (when I can fit it in); I might enjoy it even more the 2nd time around.

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    1. It's not a terribly important part of the book Tracy - I just liked it as a Xmas entry. BUT, as I said to Margot, it is a book to re-read... I very much liked reading it again when I knew what had happened.

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