Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer

Review: Au Revoir, Tristesse: Lessons In Happiness From French Literature By Viv Groskop

Viv Groskop
Viv Groskop
‘To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s’, said Fyodor Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), the French Renaissance philosopher and putative father of the essay form, tells us in his Essais that, ‘There is no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally’. Helpfully, he provides a little written guidance, ‘Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself’. The same chap, though, is also famously remembered for another quote, ‘What do I know?’. Didactic musings upon a question so large as how one should live in order to be happy are necessarily individual. Fortunately for us, Au Revoir Tristesse scoffs at such a Herculean task with something approaching a swagger and its author responds to the challenge with a Francophile vim guaranteed to entertain. This is a book stuffed to the brim with intelligence, personality and unashamed bof!

Before examining the newly published Au Revoir Tristesse by Viv Groskop, let us turn to another intellectual luminary. Groucho Marx once said ‘Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read’. Groskop’s relationship with books is the cynosure through which she explores her own search for la joie de vivre. Her lifelong friendship with books colours her every sentence and her book is now one of my own cherished friends. I did however take Groucho’s advice and did not try to read it within a dog!

Groskop understands these sagacious souls and her personal journey towards agreement with them is played out with effulgent legerdemain in this gloriously amusing and gently didactic book. Part autobiographical odyssey, part literary analysis, this book gives its readers a thoroughly entertaining mix of delights as we explore the classical French canon, our relationship with books and the life lessons we can draw from our reading. We are told by the author in her introduction that, ‘this is a book about the intersection between Frenchness and happiness through reading, as that is a place I have always found great comfort. My hope is to demonstrate through the French writers I first discovered in my teens and twenties, how the intersection might help us all get more joy into our lives’. I can confidently report that this reader believes Groskop nailed her authorial objective in spades.

Groskop, not only examines the literary works of the authors she focusses upon, but also explores the lives and character of this rich cornucopia of literary icons in both learned and gossipy detail. So, a brief look at Groskop is in order. She has an impeccable academic pedigree, a hugely successful career as a journalist and writer and is also an award-winning stand-up comedian. Suffice to say that the reader is in acutely erudite and dexterous hands. What may sometimes come over as amour proper, is in fact the self-confident intellectual elan of a true bibliophile. We engage with a vivacious personality and an impressive talent for literary criticism, infectious enthusiasm and even sagacity spiced with a finely judged sense of humour. Groskop is no shrinking violet and all the better for that fact.

Given the book’s quasi-autobiographical nature, Groskop is very much the central character of the book and her irrepressible personality animates and infuses it. It is the idiosyncratic filter through which she interprets and assesses the masterpieces illuminated for both our benefit and her obvious cathartic pleasure. Mettlesome, opinionated, self-deprecating and passionate, this is no dusty academic thesis, but more a gloriously indulgent memoir and sharing of her love of books and French literature in particular. There are few more satisfying reading delights than meeting a mind as vibrant as hers, even if she does occasionally irritate when she means to delight.

Structurally, we are given twelve essays, each focussing upon an author specifically plucked from the classic French canon because of their significance to Groskop. Within this heterogenous panoply we encounter Sagan, Proust, Collette, Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, Flaubert and Camus amongst others. Montaigne seems to me to hover unseen within the pages, inspiring Groskop to respond authentically to a chosen work from each of her selected authors. In each ‘essay’, she embarks upon a spirited examination of what she has taken from the work in terms of life lessons it offers the reader.

Key themes are astutely examined, cultural context and ‘Frenchness’ delightfully elucidated and the authors themselves brought to life, warts and all. Syphilis, coffee and prostitutes intermingle with first class literary criticism, self-refection and badinage. Cleverly, Groskop adopts a confabulatory authorial voice which invokes a warmth of tone guaranteed to maintain our engagement and amusement.

This essay-like quality is for me the book’s pièce de résistance, in that it allows Groskop to deliver an ambitious platter of intellection and personal biography with aplomb. Central to this canny literary device is the propensity to offer sincere personal observation and orbit a thematic hub without allowing discordant musings to obfuscate essential truths. Groskop has the art of musing down to a tee, her references being both salient and deliciously illuminating. We are given the benefit of her erudition but never at the expense of our amusement or willing enlightenment. What struck this reader most forcefully, was Groskop’s sheer eclat. Potentially intimidating texts are made invitingly accessible, luminaries both applauded and joyously impaled upon satirical spikes. Intellectual vigour is displayed without condescension, or the sour whiff of the cognoscenti. Wisdom is distilled, untainted by hubris.

Thematically, the book may be read on two interdependent levels. On one level, Groskop is addressing her own youthful craving for self-affirmative identity actualised by a desire to ‘pretend to be French’. The reader is given an intimate portrayal of one person’s character development as a consequence of the idée-fixe that French literature and French authors have all the answers. We also bear witness to how that person has evolved and, in so doing, altered their relationship with their formative muse, transmuting it from puerile infatuation to mature affection; individual agency gradually replaces unconditional adulation. This metamorphosis is skilfully conveyed and shared with an authenticity worthy even of Camus.

On a related level, Groskop encourages her reader to consider the messages distilled by her flawed literary giants, and to dynamically assess the potency of the guidance offered, whilst examining their own existential dilemmas. The ‘life lessons’ offered range from Camus telling us that life is pointless and all that really matters is personal freedom and authenticity, through to salutary warnings about the perils of hypocrisy offered by Flaubert. Not so much self-help gleaned from unimpeachable literary sages, more a selection of ideas for any reader to enthusiastically contemplate.
Groskop herself concludes that ‘Happiness is…not feeling that you have to pretend to be French’. She says towards the end of the book, ‘ Ultimately the lesson here is not so much about happiness as about authenticity…unless you feel that you are being an authentic, honest, real version of yourself, there’s no way you can be happy’. Her reading, like our own, is ‘an intensely personal experience’ and this is the reason that ‘novels can operate as a window into your soul, one that only you know about’.

So, we are treated to the iridescent musings of a wonderfully unbridled personality, as avuncular as it is quirky and playful. This authorial voice has successfully wrestled with the problems of self-actualisation and presented us with a literary banquet replete with provocative insights and philosophical axioms. Groskop has one more ace to play - she infects the reader with an ineluctable desire to read the classic texts she has herself grown to love. I suspect few readers of this book will not be possessed by l’appel du vide, but by the allure of the French section of the nearest book shop!

I do have two minor criticisms of the book to share, though neither would prohibit an otherwise hearty recommendation. Firstly, we are familiar with the hackneyed expression, ‘never judge a book by its cover’. Substitute ‘introduction’ for ‘cover’ and the cliché rings true for me. Bluntly, Groskop’s introduction to the book is a troublesome jardinière which edges towards an importunate attempt to coax the reader into accepting the author’s, ‘Rules of Engagement’.

The indomitable authorial voice stridently tells us what to expect, how French as a marvellously peculiar language will be used within the book, and becomes almost prolix in terms of giving us the biographical detail underpinning a rebellious interest in French literature. For me, this section of the book is perhaps too long and too loud. The introduction left me with an appetite for less, not more. Fortunately, I ignored this knee-jerk response and have almost forgiven myself for nearly missing out on a fabulous read. Tant pis!

Secondly, whilst Groskop tells us that plots in French novels are not particularly important, she excuses herself for deciding to give us the plot details of each novel she explores within her book. I found myself thinking that her thoughts could have been just as powerfully realised without the need for such a blunt and uncompromising instrument. I find myself agreeing with Stendhal, who ‘regarded spoilers as theft, stealing the experience of reading’. Even Groskop says, ‘you can only read a book for the first time one time. Upon reading you never quite recapture that experience because you know what is going to happen’.

Any literary review must address this thorny question and each case for plot revelation is to be finely judged. Given that Groskop’s book will likely quench the appetite of those new to French Literature, or unacquainted of late, I think her decision to give the reader a blow-by-blow plot synopsis is both reductive and counterproductive. An entirely subjective opinion, of course - to once again echo Montaigne, ‘What do I know?’

So, an exquisite book of multi-layered complexity which might be read on the beach for light amusement or pored over whilst pondering the meaning of life and savouring a Madeleine, or the memory of one. Quite an achievement! C.S. Lewis said, ‘We read to know we are not alone’ and Groskop and her literary guides are wonderful company. Einstein concluded, ‘happiness is a table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin’. For me, it consists in reading books like this, sans the violin. Perhaps the French do have all the answers after all! C’est la vie!

Au Revoir, Tristesse: Lessons in Happiness from French Literature is published by Abrams Books.