The Great and the Good
I rejoiced at the possibility of reading Michel Déon, a very famous and popular French author, not even remembering if I had read him in French decades ago. He passed away at the age of 97, just as I was starting to read The Great and the Good, his latest book translated into English!
The book (which has no numbered chapters) comprises an inclusion, the first and last pages of the book pertaining to the situation of the French main hero, Arthur, when the author writes his novel. In between, we have his story, mostly what happened to him around 20 years earlier.
In 1955, as he was 22, he went to the US on board The Queen Mary to study commercial law in an American university, on a Fulbright scholarship. Not unlike the author himself – you can watch this great interview, in English, about his own experience and his book.
Arthur is from a rather poor milieu. His mother, proud of him, kept sacrificing to allow him to join “la cour des grands”, as we say in French. Originally, it’s an expression used in grade school, where you traditionally find a schoolyard for younger graders and another yard for “les grands”, older graders.
This has actually been translated here as “The Great and the Good”, losing the first origin of the expression. “With the big boys” or something similar would have kept closer to the idea.
On the boat, Arthur starts getting a flavor and introduction to the totally new to him milieu of the great and the rich, when he meets one of the teachers of the university he’s going to; and also Elizabeth, and her Brazilian friends, Augusta and her brother Getulio. The last two have known some tragedy in their childhood, and they cope with it in very different ways.
Arthur meets also on the boat President Eisenhower’s special adviser.
All these people are different, with all kinds of eccentricities that make them attractive to Arthur. Money is extremely important for all of them, and in their frivolity, they don’t mind shocking people. Definitely not the type of people Arthur is used to, but he will also fall under their charm, especially through the two women.
It was fascinating to see Arthur little by little getting enchanted by them and by this world of a few elect, though like a butterfly near by the fire, at the risk of his life, and how he ended up changed and forever wounded. Even though he eventually more than succeeded financially, thanks to his profession in “Wall Street jungle”. Emotionally and humanly though, he becomes a wreck.
If the teacher is a wreck through alcoholism, Getulio through gambling, Augusta through antidepressants and her brother’s unhealthy relationship with her, Arthur is by losing his own identity and sense of time and succumbing to a passion he knows cannot be real for long. He ends up with two faces, neither of one being his true self.
The world would never be his world. But where was his world?
…his arbitrary allocation of lived time having been frozen and there being no longer either present or past in anything that concerned him personally
I really enjoyed the description of the characters with their unicity, their asset and weaknesses. And the way loneliness is evoked, in its different facets.
There were also great scenes on the enclosed life aboard a major ocean liner.
There are here and there interesting or sometimes humorous reflections on general issues:
A country has to look after its poets, or at least… if not its poets – that divine gift is unevenly distributed and a number of civilizations have fallen so far behind that they will never catch up – at least, if not the poets, then its pleasure-seekers, who enjoy life to the full and without thought of tomorrow.
He has, in the space of a few minutes, realized that this country, so often described to him as a paradise, is also the anteroom of a hell devised by human beings
– at his arrival in the US.
I am not familiar with the book in its original version, but it did seem nicely translated.
There was just a weird sudden change from the third to the first person narrative, for a short period, which didn’t make too much sense and was actually confusing. But I assume it is also the case in French.
Even though the book has some themes in common with The Catcher in the Rye, I enjoyed it much more, possibly because I have been reading it in the current situation, when it is essential to remind ourselves that if we remain at a superficial level, with no inner depth, our lives can only end in despair. Money and power will not fulfill our lives.
VERDICT: A coming of age story, where the great may not be good enough to give sense to your life. So currently relevant.
Author: Michel Déon
Translator: Julian Evans
US Release date:
January 10, 2017
La cour des grands
was first released in French in 1996
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
What older novel do you find relevant to the current situation?
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I enjoyed this for its French-eye view of 1950s New York, but I found the object of Arthur’s passion rather dull. I thought it could make a terrific movie (a la Brooklyn) though. I’d like to read some more Deon as well.
yes! Les poneys sauvages was quite popular, but not sure it’s been translated in English
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