French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain

Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce

Reviewed by Annabel

french-rhapsody-largeI experienced the sheer joy of reading French author Antoine Laurain earlier this summer when I finally read his first novel to be translated into English, The President’s Hat, and discovered why everyone loved it so much.  In less capable hands, this novel could have been too sweet, but the author has perfect restraint and although he steers close, he never crosses the line into pure whimsy. It was light, heart-warming and the ideal pick-me-up for a spirit-lifting read. A charming romance, The Red Notebook, followed and now a third, French Rhapsody.

French Rhapsody takes its premise from the feel-good news stories much-beloved of local news broadcasters – that of a misplaced letter finally being delivered many years late, followed by a reunion between its writer and addressee amidst hugs and happy tears.

However, in this case, it’s not a long-lost lover or relative you never knew you had, and the letter is delivered without fanfare to Dr Alain Massoulier, who is made very grumpy by the postmaster who proffers no apology for it getting lost down the back of some shelves for 33 years.

Written on a typewriter and signed in turquoise ink, the letter had arrived in the morning post. In the top left-hand corner was the logo of the famous record label: a semicircle above the name, featuring a vinyl record in the form of a setting sun – or maybe a rising sun.

It reads:

polydor-logoParis, 12 September 1983

Dear Holograms,
We listened with great interest to the five-track demo tape you sent us at the beginning of the summer. Your work is precise and very professional, and although it needs quite a bit of work, you already have a sound that is distinctive. The track we were most impressed by was ‘Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On’. You have managed to blend new wave and cold wave whilst adding your own rock sound.
Please get in touch with us so that we can organise a meeting.

Best Wishes
Claude Lalan
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR

Oh, what might have been. Alain then remembers the tape – Aargh!  He’d had a copy on a shelf for years, but eventually threw it out.  ‘Idiot, idiot, idiot.’

The Holograms had one girl and four boys: Alain on guitar, drummer Stanislas, Frédéric on synths who wrote the music, bassist Sébastien and singer Bérengère. They were supplemented by lyricist Pierre and managed by Pierre’s brother JBM: a diverse group who had music in common.

Alain can’t help wonder if they could have made it, like their idol David Bowie who has just died (a little bit of topicality there!).  They had all gone in separate directions, never having heard back from the record company. Alain feels compelled to find them all again; surely one of them will still have a copy of the tape too. I couldn’t help thinking of the line from The Blues Brothers – ‘We’re getting the band back together,’ but it’s not going to be that easy thirty-three years later.

The only former band member that Alain doesn’t really want to see turns out to be the easiest to track down – Sébastien has become the leader of a right-wing extremist group. The others are more elusive. Alain searches the web and sends off exploratory e-mails, and immerses himself in a wave of nostalgia and imagines an alternative version of what really happened back when he was nineteen – ‘for Bérengère was not his girlfriend.’ She’d been going out with JBM.

At this point we change points of view to that of JBM, now a multi-millionaire businessman who is on his way to a TV appearance with his PA Aurore. Sharing the interview with the hopeful presidential candidate in the forthcoming elections, JBM wipes the floor with the politician, and is asked, ‘Why not throw your hat in the ring?’

The different characters in the band thus present in microcosm the current state of the French nation and this makes French Rhapsody a rather different novel to The President’s Hat which, although it featured François Mitterrand as a minor character, was about the power of positive thinking and not politics. French Rhapsody, although still full of charming one-liners and wishful thinking as Alain relives his youth, it is also more serious in tone in its picture of contemporary France.

Between the main threads featuring Alain and JBM, each of the wives and girlfriends and Bérengère herself give their side of the story in the present timeline. It is in these sections in particular as the plot develops, that there are some delightful twists, leading to a wonderful ending that made me laugh.

The translation, led by Gallic’s in-house translator Emily Boyce, (who wrote an article for Shiny here), is assured. All three of Laurain’s novels have a central item that is lost or misplaced at their cores – a hat, a notebook, a tape – what next?  All three are brilliant, but with French Rhapsody, his comedy is a little harder-edged, I loved it.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and wishes she’d been in a band.

Antoine Laurain, French Rhapsody (Gallic Books, 2016). 978-1910477304,  232 pp., paperback original.

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