findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Archive for the tag “parenting”

My 150th book: Grégoire Delacourt

lalistedemesenviesToday I reached my reading target for the year: 150 books. So everything else from here on is a bonus. But what a book to finish my challenge on!

It’s the story of a family haunted by coldness, lack of communication, lack of love and overflow of sadness entitled (ironically) ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur’ (All you could see was the happiness) by Grégoire Delacourt, which has just been published this rentrée littéraire (the autumn publishing frenzy in France, just ahead of all the literary prizes). Delacourt is a PR specialist/copywriter who started writing at the age of 50. He achieved considerable success in France with his second novel ‘La Liste de mes envies’ (The List of My Desires) – which has since been adapted for the theatre and film – about a lottery-winner, and some notoriety with his third novel ‘La Premiere chose qu’on regard’, featuring a Scarlett Johansson double, which the American actress did not appreciate and for which she took the French publisher to court.

This fourth book is fiction, but you might be forgiven at first for thinking that it’s a misery memoir. It’s the story of a seemingly boring insurance expert nearing middle age, Antoine, who muses about his unhappy childhood and the impact it has had on his own life and parenting skills. But misery memoirs are miserable only when they are badly written; when deftly handled and improved by the lack of constraints of fiction, they transcend the specific details and allow the reader to identify with the universal emotions and truths expressed therein.

DelacourtIt starts off deceptively low-key. Antoine sounds like a pessimistic sod, but perhaps for good reason. His job is to investigate insurance claims and car accidents, making sure that the payout is minimal for the insurance company he works for. In the process, he has to ignore people’s heartbreak and suffering. He berates himself for being a coward, for not having any integrity, for not standing up for the oppressed little man. Bit by bit, through slivers of pictures and scenes from the more distant and more recent past, we discover his unhappy childhood. His parents were terribly mismatched: a cold, clinical father who never shared his heart or secrets or games with his children. A Madame Bovary type of mother, clinging to her illusions, cigarettes and Sagan novels. Twin sisters five years younger than him, much more his parents’ darling than he ever was – until the day when one of them dies in her sleep. The other twin then develops a strange speech impediment, losing half of her words, while the mother abandons the family, never getting in touch again. Antoine and his little sister cling to each other in a touching story of sibling love and protection.

So far so plausibly grim, you might think. In the first part of the book the first person narrator (Antoine) is addressing his son Leon, trying to explain how he ended up being the kind of father he was, how he met his future wife and Leon’s mother, how they tried to play at happy families for a while. There is a lot in the book about the gap between appearances and reality, between façade and the unhappiness or darkness lurking underneath. But then the book descends into the shocking, the unthinkable, and it becomes deeply disturbing. Especially to a parent. Most especially to a parent who feels not entirely confident that they are always providing their children with all the love, opportunities, attention and balance that they deserve. (So that would be all of us, then.) There are a lot of loving details in the memories Antoine has of his mother and yet:

Un jour, je lui ai demandé si elle m’aimait et elle a repondu à quoi ça sert. Aucun enfant ne devrait entendre ça. Ca m’a tué. Je veux dire, c’est ce qui a commencé à me tuer.

On day I asked her if she loved me and she replied: what’s the use. No child should have to hear that. It killed me. Or rather, that’s what started to kill me. (my translation)

Gregoire-Delacourt_1705The second part of the book is more about Antoine’s gradual redemption abroad, in an isolated and very poor part of the world, while the third part is written by his daughter Josephine. It’s a very powerful story about the fear of loving and the need to feel loved, but also about forgiveness, about understanding the reasons for extreme behaviours which we usually condemn. It was an emotionally wrenching read, but also strangely fascinating. I found myself unable to concentrate on much else until I had finished the book.

One final word on the author’s predilection for list-making. At many points in the book, you find whole pages of phrases or sentences repeating certain rhythms, words or structures. Of the type (my translation and slight cutting):

In the photos,  you can’t see how overcooked the fish was. You can’t see the false compliments: yes, it was perfect. You can see our new car. You can see me, stupidly proud, next to the car. You can see the Barbie tricycle. You can see Josephine and Nathalie in the bathtub. You can see Anna and her husband Thomas in our tiny garden, next to a faded hyacinth. You can’t see my mother. You can’t see the lies. You can’t see the baby that Nathalie hadn’t wanted to keep the year before because she wasn’t sure she loved me anymore. You can’t see my tears at the time. My nights spent on the couch. My insomnia. The beast that was awakening. All you could see was the happiness.

And there are many, many more like that throughout the book. Is Delacourt just being stylistically lazy, or does the gradual piling up of details and the repetitions add to the layering on of emotions? It’s certainly an effective way of presenting the disparate, almost pointillistic thoughts that both Antoine and his daughter have – reminding me of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique.

In summary, a haunting, compelling, gut-squeezing read, an opportunity to end my reading challenge with a bang, not a whimper!

completed

 

 

 

 

 

Memories or Possessions?

20140707_214456Yesterday my family and I went to Montreux to try and get last-minute tickets for Pharrell Williams. I’m a big jazz fan and I’ve always dreamt of going to the Montreux Jazz Festival (although it is debatable just how much Pharell Williams is a jazz musician). However, my children are obsessed with his ‘Happy’ song and we sing it beautifully with 3 voices in the car (I do the back-up vocals, in case you are wondering about my singing capabilities).

With the benefit of hindsight, it was perhaps not the best moment to embark upon such an adventure:

  • 9 and 11 are a bit young to really appreciate a concert with standing room only
  • the concert was late, started even later, my husband had to wake up very early this morning to catch a plane and we had to wake up early for swimming lessons
  • there was a real risk of not getting any tickets; as it is, we got the last four available after queuing for nearly 2 hours
  • the tickets were very expensive
  • we were also planning to soak up the atmosphere at the jazz festival (which has many free events outside), but it was raining on and off all day, which rather spoilt our plans
  • we nearly fainted with heat and exhaustion while waiting for the main act and my kids did not appreciate the opening act (I did though: the perfectly decent rockabilly-grungy Bosco Delrey, albeit with instruments not perfectly tuned to the size of the auditorium, i.e. it was all TOO LOUD)

20140707_214023Yet in the end, we forgot all our tiredness and moaning when the electric Pharrell Williams came on-stage with his fantastic crew and perfectly coordinated light-and-sound spectacular show. [My pictures do not do the show justice at all.] We were so close we could almost touch Pharrell and we boogied along to every song. I lifted up my older son and he waved and made eye-contact with Pharrell – so proud and overjoyed. But it was hard, hot work for their first concert experience and I’m not sure if they felt it was completely worth it.

This sparked a bit of a row between my husband and myself, as we have two very different views of what makes a childhood memorable. Neither of our families had much money when we were growing up, so we were never spoilt, but the priorities were very different for each of us. My husband’s parents spent all their money building a house and decorating it, to have something solid for their children to inherit. They are now the grandparents who always buy far too many presents for our kids: security and material possessions are clearly important to them. Meanwhile, my parents spent all their money on books, education and cultural activities or holidays. I don’t remember having a single present that I could really boast about during my childhood (on the other hand, they rarely turned down my request for a specific book), but my fondest memories are of museums, theatres and family excursions. Eating 13 ice-creams on my first day in Italy, sleeping on a park bench in Seville, getting on the wrong train in Poland and ending up somewhere completely unexpected… crazy things like that.

20140707_140436

In front of Freddie Mercury statue

So I’ve wanted to create memories for my own children, because I feel that’s the only thing that cannot be taken away from us in life. Unfortunately, memories can be both good and bad… and you never quite know beforehand which kind you’re going to get. I’m sure it’s much easier to buy children’s affection with an Xbox or computer games (and yes, affection can be bought – children are quite materialistic after a certain age, and I don’t think it’s just mine). But perhaps I’m being selfish, choosing those things that made me happy in childhood, rather than those things which they prefer.

An ongoing debate. And sense of guilt.

 

The Birthing Pangs of a Poem

I’ve got an issue with privacy. I’ve never liked open plan offices, I don’t like people coming into my study at home, I don’t like showing my work in progress. Psychologists may see a link there with the fact that my mother read my diaries and opened my letters when I was a teenager. I just call it personal space: I’m happy for those around me to have theirs, and hope they will allow me mine. So it’s unusual for me to show you a first draft, but I thought it would be interesting (for a later version of me too, perhaps) to see how my poetic mind works. This is still too explicit, personal and verbose. It leaves nothing to the imagination. It was written after a rather frantic weekend alone with the children. I will come back with an edited, perhaps even a final version and would welcome any suggestions for improvement.

It’s been a day of shouting

Coffee-ad family picture frayed and curled,

burnt up in blood-hot temper.

Sullen moods, sulk and whine, heave and lift

of bone-breaker words:

careless second of uttering,

then a lifetime of regret.

It’s been another day of failing…

my children, my ideal, myself

and all the compensatory cakes I bake

turn to sand in our mouths.

I’m left chasing words on empty beaches,

finding other people’s discarded treasures

more plentiful than shells.

I pick up a conch and pour my anguish in its ear.

I pour all my inadequacy into a jar,

screw on the jam-stained lid so tight

then fling it back into a sea just lukewarm.

So my poems are merely turgid,

my thoughts piddling, my family average.

We muddle on and on,

imperfect and random

victims of illusions

drunk on lost words.

I’m linking this to dVerse Poets Pub, a friendly community of poets who support and help each other.

Signs You May be Turning French…

You know your children are turning French when…

… they know more swear/slang words in French than they do in English.

… every sentence is prefaced by the exclamation ‘La vache!’ (and no, they weren’t referring to the Montbeliard cows producing Comté cheese, who were grazing peacefully on every field we passed during our holidays).

… they demand ‘explications’ for every single command you issue.

… older son is writing an encyclopedia because he likes to pontificate about things and he has heard of Diderot.

… younger son builds Eiffel Towers with rulers, protractors, pens and rubbers (in earlier years, it used to be the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth).

… they have opinions on the policies of François Hollande and compare him with Sarkozy

Maybe it’s time to head home soon?

Then again, on a sunny day like this…Image

 

Fun at Ski School: 5 Sentence Fiction Challenge

Not fictional enough, but a story that haunts me still…

‘Not more snow!’ moaned the littlest bear.
We moved to this snow-filled country for Daddy’s work: Mummy loves the winter sports, your brother the food. But you, the smallest and most curious of bears, the one who makes friends as easily as others make mistakes, you the smiley human bouncing-ball, you hate the cold and the white stuff.

Drunk and dizzied by the gleam of the sun on the slopes, I strap on your boots and nudge you into ski school. You nurse your frozen paws, slide miserably through puerile hoops, and ask yourself: ‘Why?’

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