10 October 2015

Lucien Bodard: Anne Marie (1981)

Lucien Bodard's Anne Marie was the prix Goncourt of 1981. To some extent (although I've no idea how much) this is autobiographical, and the dust jacket shows a (rather badly cut: this was long before Photoshop) portrait of the author's mother freed from a family picture. It's the seventy-ninth book I've read so far this year, and almost all of those books have been French. This is one of the best of the bunch, and one of the longest.

Anne Marie describes a world which is openly violent for young people but only, er, diplomatically violent for adults. It is narrated by a ten-year-old, or rather, from a ten-year-old's perspective: no ten-year-old could relate this with such maturity and understanding. The back cover would like the reader to believe that this is a story of filial love, which it certainly is, although it is so much more.

Lucien Bonnard (sic) leaves China with his mother Anne Marie, where his father Albert is the vice-consul of Tcheng Tu: the myth is that Lucien is becoming too Chinese, that he needs a sophisticated and French education. So goodbye to his former life, where the female Chinese help for a time sent him to sleep after a (rather too) loving gesture, and welcome to the world of Edmée and her important diplomat husband André , who (we learn later) has been rejected by Poincaré, but who (we also learn later) is responsible for getting Albert his post.

We learn a great deal later, as the backstory is told in a series of flashbacks, and begins with Lucien's beloved Anne Marie arriving in a superior hotel in Paris and dumping him in one of the best schools in France, where he will be abused, bullied, insulted, at the point of despair, but eventually 'reprieve' himself by fighting back, nearly throttling his young aggressor, and score countless points for doing so: the Hobbesian world of the private French school is a kind of microcosm of the much more subtly violent (diplomatic) world from which he's come.

Anne Marie, although much loved (but rather stupidly) by Lucien, doesn't go to see him on Sundays, preferring to mail excuses saying she's too busy, although she's only too busy putting on airs in French diplomatic society, thrilling to the new world she now feels so much a part of as opposed to her humble beginnings.

As a long letter written by Albert (and rather incredibly (albeit wilfully mistakenly?) understood when Lucien clandestinely reads it) states, Anne Marie (although loved by Albert) is a parasite who has inveigled her husband into illegal activities to secure for herself and (ostensibly) for her son but not Albert a very comfortable existence in France – with a luxury apartment to come – and what can he do about it?

Well, Edmée is in correspondence with Albert, and knows all about what's going on. In another life though – long before Edmée met Albert the salesman soon turned into a diplomat by her husband – she remembers the (literally) fantastic existence she lived in the woods in Fontainebleau with Amédée Rien – who thought he was the Lord of the Renaissance – in his extravagant home, before he met and fell for the insane Dora the Scandinavian, who killed herself shortly after giving birth to their son Hector, whom the childless Edmée and André raised as their own, and of whom Edmée is insanely jealous and criticises all the time.

How wonderful to plot Anne Marie's fall, although of course there's always the danger that André will fall for Anne Marie as Dora fell for Amédée. No, it's worth betting on, as in poker or (more relevantly) the mah jong that these sinophiles play so regularly.

Lucien Bodard's Anne Marie sold an enormous number of copies, although he now seems to be almost forgotten. Which is a huge pity.

No comments: