UNE NEIGE FINE VENAIT DE TOMBER. /
LIGHT SNOW HAD FALLEN.
(novel – 271 pages)
Paris in 1948
It is the winter of 1948, in Paris. We follow a group of friends, arts and science students in their first year at university.
The first thing the novel does is to paint an enticing picture of the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne at the time. The students, rowdy and boisterous, with their hunger for knowledge and their friendships, full of questions, jokes and pranks, seek refuge in the warmth of cafés, in the midst of cigarette smoke and the aromas of espresso coffee.
But the Latin Quarter is only the starting point for the discovery of Paris, the novel's real theme.
Every neighbourhood had its own life, each one existing next to the others like villages in which everyone could feel at home, part of the family, sheltered from the outside world. Everyone knew everyone else, people greeted each other, talked to each other, helped each other. People had jobs that have now gone. They spoke a slang that has disappeared with them.
Those neighbourhoods have the capacity to surprise. Of course, Paris is a byword for street life, for crowds, for rows of impressive buildings, for magnificent monuments, for luxury stores, for tourist attractions, museums, cinemas, theatres, the Eiffel Tower. But it is more than just that: it is also parks and gardens where you can walk around in relative peace, hidden corners of an erstwhile countryside, street parties, artists' studios, the funicular.
It is amazing to find that places now so dull and ordinary used to be full of intense, richly textured life. People really used to jump off the back of moving buses and talk about art and literature on subway platforms. They used to give running commentaries during films, taking the mickey out of the characters and the actors. They used to set up their easels in the Louvre to copy Old Masters. They used to stroll the streets at night, always with a couple of minutes and a kind word to spare for the tramps on the Seine embankments. They would hunt for treasures – or at least a bargain – at the flea market. They would do their shopping with affable and alert shopkeepers.
While Paris life was brilliant and full of history, life elsewhere seemed poor and dull in comparison. At least that is what Parisians thought, scornfully looking down on backwaters not fortunate enough to be the City of Light.
Dryad, who comes from Annecy, in Savoy, is accepted with benevolence by her friends at the Sorbonne. The hero, a Parisian on sufferance, shows her around the city. They embark on an idyll and Dryad invites him to spend the holidays with her and her family in Savoy. The young man finds himself questioning everything that has conditioned his life so far.
He realises that there is more to life than Paris, that there are things and wonders of which Parisians are utterly ignorant. He realises that Paris, like a monarch exacting tribute, strips other parts of the country of their wealth, even going so far as to stop them speaking their own language. Savoy has been French for barely a century and the inhabitants of Annecy look much more towards neighbouring Geneva than towards Paris.
Of course, life in Savoy is not like life in Paris. Modern conveniences are lacking, the food is simple and plain, the rhythms of life are those of cattle and nature. It has made the people who live there hard-working, careful and attached to things that are hard earned. And yet
the countryside is beautiful, magnificent. Simple things bring peace and harmony. The people of Savoy are solid and substantial. Dryad's friends extend a warm welcome to the foreigner who doesn't despise their country-cousin airs and dialect. What fun to chat together and go on bike rides through the hills around Annecy.
At the end of the story, the two friends go out into the countryside around Geneva with its rearing mountains and verdant pastures, its vegetable gardens and clear spring water. That is where Dryad's grandmother lives and, more interestingly, Dryad's cousin, a downtrodden young girl, stuck up in the mountains, ploughing her way through snow to get to school, avid for life and experience, so short-sighted but so acute. And her question becomes ours: is there something over the crest of the hill, where the sky stops?
The two central characters will leave their hearts in Savoy, but their heads will take them back to Paris.