BOOK REVIEW / This acting life: all bonjour and no tristesse: 'Simone Signoret' - Catherine David, trs Sally Sampson: Bloomsbury, 17 pounds

Click to follow
FEW actresses make such legitimate claims on public interest as Simone Signoret. Independent, passionate and shrewd, she lived a life beyond the usual run of one-night triumphs and luvvie disasters. Her career moved successfully from romantic leads to complex character parts. Her marriage to Yves Montand was one of enduring passion, which survived his affair with Marilyn Monroe. Signoret also had time to involve herself in public life and to befriend the most important French writers and thinkers of the day.

In the triple brilliance of their careers, their marriage and their political championship of the unfortunate, Signoret and Montand provide a story that no biographer could refuse. Catherine David is a journalist for the Nouvel Observateur and has chosen to tell the story of Signoret's life in a style one does not normally associate with biography. Perhaps the closest you can come to imagining it, until you read the book, is to picture a novel by Francoise Sagan rewritten by the staff of Hello]; a sort of Bonjour], if you prefer, without the Tristesse.

When Signoret and Montand go to America, David writes that it 'had at first been like a fairy-tale land of dreams' for Signoret, then gives us another, altogether more austere picture of the place: 'America was the homeland of the cinema, the factory where myths were made, the firmament of the stars, the Mount Olympus where the shadowy gods from the silver screen lived.' This is not really 'writing' in any conventional sense of the word.

When Signoret herself becomes a writer, late in life, David dismisses the critics who wondered whether an actress would necessarily be a good author: 'At school in Neuilly she had been good at writing essays and she had had no problems in passing her Bac . . . Spelling and grammar had no secrets for her.' This glimpse of the writer's art is not the only one David gives us; earlier on she wonders: 'How did she settle down in her chair when she began to write? Did she cross her legs under the table, like me?' The question of whether or not David's legs are crossed at any given time threatens to overpower all but the most dramatic moments of her tale.

The story is of considerable interest, though only the really dedicated will disinter it from beneath the received ideas with which David has teasingly concealed it. Middle-class, half-Jewish, Signoret took her mother's surname rather than her father's (Kaminker) during the Occupation. Father was a translator who had to translate Hitler's speeches for radio and who accompanied Edouard Daladier to Munich in 1938. Mother was - but no, mother is unavailable to this reader because 'Only daughters will know what I am talking about, especially those with elusive fathers'.

Through the Cafe de Flore Signoret met Jacques Prevert, Sartre and other grands fromages of the time. They did not join the Resistance, but later felt guilty about not doing so and thus backed the Communist Party long after the true nature of the Soviet Union had been revealed. Montand and Signoret toured the Soviet Union after the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and, in a scene worthy of Dostoevsky, dined with Khrushchev. But who needs Dostoevsky when the indefatigable Catherine David, legs crossed and no fear of spelling, is at hand? 'The Ukrainian peasant (Khrushchev) also made the most of his tete- a-tete with the glamorous Parisienne; he had taste, an eye for beauty. He admired her elegance, her refinement, her Hermes suit. . . '

It is difficult to say what 'picture emerges' of Signoret from this book because the picture becomes less clear as the book goes on; by an unusual mental process one ends up knowing less about the subject than when one had started. You feel as though everything you might once have known has been drained from you. Perhaps that was David's purpose. Towards the end of the book her prose finally, gloriously breaks clear of mere meaning: 'The void left by her death is still enormous. The void extends beyond her physical presence. Of course we have changed epochs, but in truth we have already changed centuries.'

This is brilliant, though not altogether unexpected; or, as David puts it: 'She should have known that writing, like love, defies proof.'