We literary critics have a problem. It’s hard to get people to read our stuff. Individual reviews may still attract a decent-size audience. But, like contemporary poetry, books of criticism tend to find few readers beyond a microscopic niche of fellow initiates.
One common strategy for avoiding the remainder bin consists of blending the intricate work of critical analysis with the more approachable concerns of memoir and self-help. In Au Revoir, Tristesse, Viv Groskop duly frames her discussions of 12 classic French novels as a series of lessons in how to be happy. These literary life hacks are illuminated by anecdotes from the British journalist and comedian’s long “love affair” with France, which began typically enough with school French lessons and estival trips across the Channel as an adolescent.
In contrast to the straightened mores of rural England, France offered the young Groskop a glimpse of a more glamorous and carefree existence, epitomized by the life and work of literary wunderkind and chronically reckless driver Françoise Sagan. Written when she was 17, Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (1954) lives up to its title as the teenage heroine Cécile’s romantic machinations ultimately lead to disillusionment and a car crash that kills her father’s fiancée. But, for Groskop, the best-selling novel’s portrayal of sexual liberation—and Cécile’s unyielding pursuit of her own desires—encapsulates “the French version of happiness,” which may not be “perfect or unbroken, but it’s real.” And though Sagan’s indifference to the rules of the road nearly killed her, Groskop describes the drug-addled novelist’s hectic excursions around Paris in a white Citroën as her “own personal fantasy of what it meant to be a certain kind of French person.”
This determination to say good-bye to sadness by looking at the bright side of calamity strikes a pleasingly irreverent note. And Groskop goes on to offer a nuanced interpretation of Marguerite Duras’s L’Amant (1984) that emphasizes the joy of sexual discovery lurking within that novel of youthful heartbreak set in colonial Vietnam.
Bonheur ou Tristesse?
But the focus on happiness becomes hard to sustain as Groskop moves on to the overwhelmingly pessimistic work of authors such as Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Guy de Maupassant. Their novels can be very funny. But these are not happy laughs. The jokes typically come at the expense of some nattering snob or hapless naïf whose search for fulfillment either backfires or heaps untold misery upon others (sometimes both at the same time).
For Flaubert, the most devastating unintended consequences stemmed from literature itself. In his Madame Bovary (1857), what dooms the eponymous protagonist is precisely her eagerness to emulate the tragic heroines of romantic novels, culminating in an agonizing and grimly risible suicide by arsenic. Groskop alludes to that penchant for literary escapism—since dubbed “bovarism”—but omits to explore its implications for her own premise that reading French novels can help us become happier.
“The French version of happiness” may not be “perfect or unbroken, but it’s real.”
Groskop initially approached Flaubert in a more earnest frame of mind as she prepared to study French at Cambridge. Her account of trying to battle her way through the “unreadable” Salammbô (1862), Flaubert’s ultra-violent novel set in ancient Carthage, will resonate with anyone who has ever been bamboozled by an overstuffed undergraduate reading list. She also supplies entertaining riffs on Balzac’s coffee addiction, Victor Hugo’s slide down the stock market of literary reputation, and the ubiquity of syphilis among 19th-century authors. “More or less everyone has it,” as the pox-ridden Flaubert noted in his Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues, a compendium of contemporary banalities that was posthumously published in 1911.
Equally droll is Groskop’s candid account of the difficulty of reading the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (1913–27). Echoing Roland Barthes, who said that one never twice skips the same passages in Proust, she offers a “heathen’s recommendation” to indulge in judicious skimming. Groskop also offers a nifty précis that would surely triumph in Monty Python’s “Summarize Proust” contest. But she dwells too much on the fabled tea-soaked madeleines, which, though pivotal to the narrator’s experience of involuntary memory, come to the fore in only two passages throughout Proust’s approximately 3,000-page novel. And her vague gloss of involuntary memory itself as “a strange kind of supernatural meditation” misses the point that it is an earthy, sensual phenomenon that allows Proust’s narrator to access the deepest reaches of his being.
A more grievous faux pas is Groskop’s dismissal of Colette as an author of outmoded romance novels akin to Barbara Cartland. That judgment hangs on a tendentious reading of her late novella Gigi (1944), whose portrayal of an arranged marriage between a teenage girl and an older playboy is more ambiguous than Groskop allows. And she overlooks the bold vision of female emancipation found in Colette’s earlier, more significant works, such as La Vagabonde (1910).
Another problem here is Groskop’s own writing, which often lapses into cliché. Her book has a spirited, chatty tone that can be refreshing if you are used to plowing through works of criticism that read as if they have been hastily translated from the Bulgarian. But telling us that Bonjour Tristesse is about “living in the moment,” or that Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) encourages us to “make the most of what you’ve got,” adds little to our understanding of life or literature. Such insights belong in Flaubert’s Dictionnaire.
Max McGuinness recently received a Ph.D. in French literature from Columbia University