8 April 2014

Véronique Olmi: Cet étè-là (2010)

There's a paragraph on pages 101 to 102 in Véronique Olmi's Cet étè-là when fifty-five-year-old Denis talks about his mother, who at times 'loses her head', and Denis asks himself 'why should words always exactly express our thoughts?'. He sees his mother as 'deconstruct[ing] the world and its logic', and they both find themselves laughing stupidly at something others tend to cry over. I found this a fascinating moment, although I have to say that it's the only moment in the book when I thought that Olmi was beginning to speak to me, to break out of the rather conventional content of the novel and begin to say something of real interest. There are certainly a number of moments of interesting psychological insights in the book, although I felt that this paragraph was never surpassed.

Right from the first paragraph we know that there's something wrong – at least from Denis's wife Delphine's point of view – with their marriage: as with 14 July holiday weekends for the last sixteen years, the couple have invited friends to join them at their holiday home in Coutainville on the Cotentin peninsula in the north-west, and Delphine thinks the more people there the better, as they put more distance between herself and Denis.

We know virtually from the beginning that Delphine is leaving Denis for good, and there are problems in the relationships of the other two adult couples. Lola is thirty-eight and regularly comes with a new boyfriend – this time it's with the twenty-six-year-old Samuel, who unsurprisingly comes across as somewhat immature to her: Lola can already see the end. And there are Nicolas and Marie, who are more Delphine and Denis's age, and have been married for many years, although for three years Nicolas has been keeping a secret from her: his breakdown was caused by the fact that he was most probably responsible for the suicide of a female teacher colleague who was having an illicit relationship with a male pupil.

The three couples are of varying financial circumstances, although they're all middle class, but with different reactions to the strange Caliban-type figure Dimitri, a surprisingly shy twenty-year-old who befriends Denis and Delphine's daughter Jeanne (aged sixteen). He's a young man of few – but very unsettling – words who will affect all the characters: Delphine is frightened for Jeanne's (sexual) safety, Nicolas fears that he's the brother of his dead colleague come to seek revenge, Lola is reminded of the child she had at sixteen whom she was forced to send away, etc. The major statement he makes is to say that the pine tree near Denis and Delphine's house is dying: the tree is the main thing that distinguishes the couple from the others, where people congregate, and is an important symbol of their little community.

Towards the end – after the traditional firework display in the village – there's the high drama of Jeanne going missing with Dimitri*, and then, well, nothing much at all: the end of the book is something of a damp squib.

*I forgot to mention that Jeanne doesn't seem to be interested in her smartphone too much. What? She's sixteen! Now that really is stretching credibility to its limits to make way for the plot.

Véronique Olmi: Le premier amour

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