Translated by Jennifer Rappaport
Reviewed by Harriet
Anna Gavalda is a greatly admired novelist in her native France. All her books have been bestsellers and one, Ensemble, c’est tout (rather curiously retitled Hunting and Gathering in English) was made into a 2005 film starring Audrey Tatou. But it’s my impression that, though her all work has been translated into English and many other languages, she is not very well known outside France. I certainly hadn’t heard of her until a couple of years ago when Ensemble, c’est tout appeared as the set book in a French class I was taking. It was a tough read for learners because of the way she uses language, but I absolutely loved it and was very excited to get a chance to read Billie, another bestseller in France since its publication there in 2013 and now available in English (phew!) thanks to Europa Editions.
Ensemble, c’est tout was a real chunkster, but Billie is a slender little volume of just 176 pages. The action takes place over the course of a single night. Two young people, Billie and Franck, are trapped in a gorge in the Cévenne Mountains following an accident on a walking holiday. Billie is blaming herself and is wracked with fear and anxiety for Franck, who she thinks may not make it through the night. To calm and comfort them both, she starts telling the story of their lives and their friendship, which began when they were teenagers at school. Not that their friendship was a foregone thing – with Billie living in a trailer on the outside of town, and Franck in a nice middle-class home, they didn’t appear to have any common ground. But when their teacher announced that the class was going to perform scenes from a play by Alfred de Musset, and cast Billie and Franck as a pair of ill-fated lovers, both their lives and futures were irrevocably changed. Billie unwillingly agreed to come to Franck’s grandmother’s house to rehearse…
The first time I visited, we went into the dining room where it was so clean that no meal could ever have been served there. It smelled strange…like old people…sadness…We sat facing each other, and he suggested that we begin by re-reading our scene together once through before figuring out how we would rehearse.
I was embarrassed. I didn’t understand a thing.
I understood so little that I read the text like an idiot. As if I was deciphering Chinese.
Finally he asked if I had even read the play or at least our section, and when I didn’t respond right away, he closed his book and looked at me without saying anything.
Through Billie’s memories, both pleasant and painful, of the subsequent years, the stories of both their lives slowly emerge. Billie’s background of poverty and abuse could well have damaged her irrevocably, but Franck’s admiration, respect and loyalty gradually enable her to drag herself out of her appallingly dysfunctional home and finally to forge a happy and successful life for herself. Franck too, although living in relative comfort and security, has not had an easy life. An alcoholic mother, a right-wing, bigoted failure of a father who constantly pressures him to succeed in a career he doesn’t want to pursue, and the burden of his own hidden homosexuality to contend with, he certainly needs Billie as much as she needs him. It’s not smooth sailing for either of them, and there are plenty of ups and downs along the way, but essentially this is a story of redemption through love.
I’ve mentioned the way Gavalda uses language, which she does in a very playful, very French, way. In the earlier novel I read, she constantly switched between registers, from totally classical and formal to extremely colloquial and slangy, with everything in between. Obviously Billie’s narration, given her age and background, generally falls well onto the colloquial side of the scale: very idiomatic, lots of swearing. I did feel sorry for the translator, trying to convey all this in English. I honestly believe that French is one of the most difficult languages to translate well at the best of times – they just express everything in such a different way, and it’s very hard not to end up sounding like Poirot. There were moments here where I thought I’d probably have done it a bit differently, but I think this is a novel where you just have to surrender to the Frenchness of it all rather than trying to pretend you’re reading a book originally written in English. And that doesn’t just apply to the language. There’s a certain whimsiness – or should that be whimsicality? – here – the whole novel consists of Billie’s monologue, which is addressed to a little star she sees twinkling above her throughout the long, cold, hungry night, which to my perhaps rather cynical English ear sounded rather twee.
But please don’t let all this put you off. Billie is a great introduction to a side of France we don’t all that often encounter – a France of small towns, trailer parks, bourgeois households – though there’s enough of Paris, too, to satisfy anyone who loves or longs for life in that great city. And of course both characters, with all their various insecurities, are wonderfully conceived: damaged Billie who is brave and strong and full of love and loyal to the death, and Franck, who we only meet through Billie’s recollections, tender, sensitive, fearful, protective. Gavalda brilliantly conveys the way they, and their relationship, develop and grow, in what is essentially a novella. And there’s even an unexpected twist at the end. Lovely.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and lives in France, though happily not in a trailer park.
Anna Gavalda, Billie, translated by Jennifer Rappaport (London: Europa Editions, 2015). 978-1609452490, 176 pp., paperback.