Books: Wanting to be liked

THE WORLD MORE OR LESS by Jean Rouaud translated by Barbara Wright Harvill pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
THE DEFINING characteristic of Jean Rouaud's work is its charm. This is the final part of a trilogy that began with Fields of Glory (Harvill), a novel that captivated the jury of Prix Goncourt so much that in 1990 they awarded it the most prestigious of French literary Prizes, an honour hardly ever accorded to a first novel. Rouaud was 38 and became something of a literary legend: he had once been a philosophy teacher, but had also worked as a nightwatchman and as a newsvendor. His face looked out from the publicity photographs with an endearing, rather boyish smile, under a crop of slightly windswept hair. He was clearly eager to please.

Each of the three novels is written as an interior monologue, in the case of this final part, in the first person, evoking the history of a family on the west coast of France, in the departement of Loire-Atlantique. The narrative does not always proceed either logically or chronologically, but weaves a pattern that eventually develops its own internal logic and chronology, while exercising enough fascination over the reader to hold the attention while this pattern develops. The quality of Rouaud's prose is not easy to capture. The first volume was translated by the late Ralph Manheim, and the other two, after Manheim's death, by Barbara Wright. Both have done a fine job - Wright is among the most experienced British translators of modern French fiction - but with variations in tone and a different policy on cultural references: Manheim, in Fields of Glory, chose to explain these in footnotes. Wright prefers to make them as clear as possible in the text itself, hoping that readers who are not too well- informed about, say, "Montaigne's loving relationship with Etienne de la Boetie" will either take the trouble to look it up for themselves or, more probably, read on regardless.

The first novel explored the world of the grandparents, conjuring up the France of the First World War with tenderness, humour and an inevitable sense of loss. The second volume, Of Illustrious Men (Harvill), brought us up to the last war; and the narrator of The World More or Less brings the story into the author's own time, centring on the events of the Sixties. Each volume stands - more or less - on its own and is guided by the same desire to be liked, offering slyly humorous, slightly oblique, occasionally whimsical observations on life and its oddities.

This novel starts and ends on the football field, seen from the point of view of the myopic narrator who looks with a sense of bewilderment on a landscape that he is more inclined to interrogate than to describe. We go back in time to discover the source of his friendship with Gyf, the schoolmate whom he admired, the one who was always in trouble with the teachers, always ready to answer back or protest; we have a foretaste of the student rebellion of 1968. But when Gyf the rebel arrives on the scene in person, he turns out to be less admirable: his factional politics are ludicrous, his great project - a film of himself making love in a field - not quite the pure art he pretends. The naive narrator blunders on, charming us with his vulnerability, yet at the same time watching himself with ironic detachment, not quite as naive as he seems. When Gyf reappears, the narrator gets horribly drunk and falls in love with the bewitching Theo (a girl) - the enchanter is himself enchanted.

There is no harm in wanting to be liked. Indeed, those whose acquaintance with modern French fiction is confined to the austere moralising of Camus and Sartre, or the dry analyses of the New Novel, or the erudite puzzles of Georges Perec, may be refreshed at meeting a writer so attentive to their feelings. And they may find hidden depths beneath the engagingly light surface narrative. Precisely because of its many allusions (which make it so awkward for the translator), The World More or Less succeeds in capturing some of the underlying texture of everyday life in its corner of provincial France.