6 November 2014

Régine Deforges: La Bicyclette bleue | The Blue Bicycle (1981)

There's a great difference in time and space between Atlanta of the Civil War and France of World War II. But although there are a number of similarities between Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and Régine Deforges's La Bicyclette bleue (which Deforge freely acknowledged as an influence), she eventually defeated the litigious Mitchell estate after a series of court cases.

The principal settings in La Bicyclette bleue are the fictitious Montillac near Bordeaux, and Paris, and the story follows the spunky seventeen-year-old Léa Delmas from the beginnings of the war, through the Armistice of 1940, to the early period of the Resistance against the Pétain régime. On a personal level, it is very much a sexual and political coming-of-age of Léa.

We follow Léa and her three lovers: Clément (who is married to her cousin Camille and whom she at last makes love a few times towards the end); the more mature François Tavernier, who is almost as madly in love with her as she originally was for Clément; and Mathias Fayard, her long-time schoolfriend who leaves with the STO (the 'service du travail obligatoire'). And we follow the various political affiliations of the central characters, which creates much of the tension that drives the plot.

Deforges doesn't depict a saintly Léa, who out of spite gets engaged to the (soon to die) Claude, and makes love to Clément behind (her supposed friend) Camille's back, for which she has no remorse. But on a number of occasions she risks her life for the Resistance, delivering messages and other items on her blue bicycle.

This blue bicycle is of course a symbol, and is a force of opposition to the Nazis in general and the Vichy regime and its 'collabos'. This is a world in which everything must be done clandestinely, in which no one can be trusted: for instance, the Delmas family itself is deeply divided – Léa's paternal uncles are on opposite sides of the political camp, with Luc (whose face Léa savagely spits on) a Nazi sympathiser while Father Adrien is a resistance fighter on de Gaulle's side; and then Léa's sister Françoise is pregnant by a German officer and they want to marry.

This book is the first of the series and it's one of resistance in more than one sense: forget the Léa Delmas/Scarlett O'Hara and François Tavernier/Rhett Butler comparisons, the natural ancestor of this book is the weighty, linear nineteenth-century novel; this is simply an updated, sexier version of it. But that didn't put me off as sometimes it's a refreshing change to read such 'old-fashioned' books, and I'll probably read the next two in the series.

My other Régine Deforges posts:

Régine Deforges's grave
Régine Deforges: 101, avenue Henri-Martin
Régine Deforges: Le Diable en rit encore

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