Books: The hippiest days of their lives

Gabriel Josipovici checks out a French school yarn and finds it too cute to convince
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The World More or Less

by Jean Rouaud, translated by Barbara Wright

Harvill, pounds 14.99

Nathalie Sarraute is well into her nineties, and her latest work of fiction, Ouvrez, has just been published in France. Meanwhile, in the foothills of literature, the prizes go on and bestsellers come and go. Some of the works rewarded are simply bad, some respectable and a few are even rather good. But they are ephemeral, easily read and easily forgotten.

Jean Rouaud's first novel Fields of Glory, which won the Goncourt Prize in 1991, was one of the better ones. It was a deliberately off-hand, cunningly constructed account of the impact of the First World War on the survivors. The main character of that novel was the narrator's grandfather; that of Rouaud's second novel, which deals in similar fashion with the Second World War, was the narrator's father; and now comes a novel about his own, postwar generation.

Like the others, it is set mainly in a Brittany in which the rain rarely seems to let up and the sea and wind are ever-present; and though it moves on at the end to university days and the troubled Sixties, two-thirds are taken up with the narrator's schooldays. Again the tone is off-hand, colloquial; and again the effect it clearly wishes to produce is that of innocence, spontaneity, insouciance, while at the same time hinting at the larger events of the time.

But while this may work when those events are the world-shaking ones of 1914-18 and 1939-45, I'm not sure it does so when they are nothing more than the aftermath of the war, Algeria and the riots of May '68. Nor does Rouaud's English-translator, Barbara Wright (herself a fine translator of Nathalie Sarraute) seem entirely at ease.

For the English reader there is the further problem that the English have a far more varied tradition of schoolboy fiction, from Tom Brown to William, and a rich store of memoirs which capture every aspect of school experience. The French, it is true, boast one filmic masterpiece of the genre, Jean Vigo's Zero de conduite, and one novel, Le Grand Meaulnes, often regarded as the greatest school story of all time. The trouble is that Alain-Fournier's novel tends to cast its shadow over all subsequent endeavours by French writers, and it does so here.

The narrator turns out to have a friend who is also his hero: "Gyf, who was the most insolent, and hence the most courageous of us all, one day responded to this repeated delay by ostentatiously doing up his school bag and, braving the professional wrath, getting up and marching out, slamming the door. Naturally, he already knew that he was going to be expelled at the end of the school year but it shows amazing panache." This is tired, uninspired stuff. Gyf never comes alive, and neither do any of the other characters.

There are a few good scenes, notably the opening game of football, but the constant attempt at a humorous tone, the constant plea implicit in the prose - love me, love my simplicity and modesty, I'm not an intellectual, I'm just like you - soon becomes unbearable. Let's hope Rouaud now changes direction completely and turns his undoubted talents to a quite different kind of subject; but I fear we may be in for a novel about his children's generation.

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