The French aren't renowned for chirpiness. Even in 1928, D H Lawrence hammered on about how sad they look: "Just weary to death, and still not sufficiently Americanised or Londonised to hide the weariness under a mechanical jig-jig-jig!" Jean-Paul Dubois's A French Life, although a comic novel, is freighted with such weariness, and much grief.
It's narrated by a 54-year-old Toulouse native, Paul Blick, who comes of age as the Fifth Republic is born. The day that De Gaulle becomes its first president, Paul's shining brother Vincent dies. This is a time, though, when lovely French-made Simca cars (which Paul's father deals in) chug up poplar-lined roads, and on French-made TVs the Gé*éral can still huff and puff about keeping France great.
Paul will throw cobblestones in May 1968, play in a rock band, be kicked out of the army. Later, as a sportswriter on a local paper, he marries Anna, his boss's daughter. With Giscard d'Estaing in power, Paul's leftist-humanist views are doused in the cold water of Anna's penchant for all things free-market. While she turns fast bucks selling Jacuzzis to the new rich, Paul disengages from life, becomes house husband and dabbles in photography. A publisher invites him to photograph France's trees.
The ensuing book is a coffee-table bestseller, but success does not reconcile Paul to a vulgar acquistive age. Meanwhile, Giscard cedes power to the pharaonic Mitterrand, and while France descends into sleaze, while dazzling public monuments rise up, Paul's life becomes cluttered by the dead. Anna perishes in an air crash with her lawyer lover; the bankrupt Paul takes up horticulture, but cultivating gardens can't bring peace because his daughter Marie goes mad.
A French Life won the Prix Femina in 2004, and is soon to be a TV series. Each chapter is named after successive Fifth Republic presidents. Illnesses, deaths, erotic encounters coincide with historic events: JFK's death, Armstrong on the moon, the oil crisis, the first Gulf War. Just as in the film Forrest Gump, this history feels like borrowed profundity.
That said, A French Life is a very likeable book, served up in English by the impeccable translator Linda Coverdale. It reminds you of how incorrigibly "other" the French are, the way they stream from Waterloo station or Gare du Nord with polished, defiantly pessimistic expressions. They don't do the "mechanical jig-jig-jig", and, as with this book, you can't help admiring that.
Hamish Hamilton, £16.99. Order for £15.50 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897Reuse content