A Gallic version of Noël Coward

Share
Related Topics

Have you noticed how many fungi there are this autumn? Well, there are. All round us. And in the Chilterns. We were staying with friend in the Chilterns last weekend, and all through our autumnal walks in the woods we were oohing and aahing over the tall fungi, the ones in big rings, the white ones like little tongues, the bright red spotty ones...

As you can tell, I am unable to identify fungi. The comforting thing about this is that even the French get it wrong too. My authority for this comes in one of the greatest passages ever written about mushrooms, in the opening pages of a novel called Memoires d'un Tricheur by Sacha Guitry, written in 1935.

On the first page of the novel we are introduced to the narrator, then aged 12, and to the other 11 members of his large family. By page two, only the narrator is left alive. They have all sat down to a feast of wild mushrooms, you see, gathered by the uncle in the woods. At least, they thought they were mushrooms.

And why was the narrator spared? Ah, because he had been caught stealing from the family piggy bank, and as a punishment was forbidden to join the great mushroom supper. As a result, he was the only survivor.

"Have you ever had 11 bodies lying around in your house?" he asks the reader. "If you haven't, you will have no idea how they add up. They get everywhere."

When he goes to the funeral, a lone figure following 11 coffins, he feels vaguely guilty, as if his survival somehow made him responsible for their deaths. He hears someone in the crowd say: "Did you hear why the boy didn't die too? It was because he was a thief!"

"Yes," says the narrator, "I was alive because I was a thief. Which meant, of course, that the others had all died because they were honest!

"And that night, lying alone and awake in the deserted house, I came to some highly paradoxical conclusions about the workings of justice and crime. The experiences of the subsequent 40 years of my life have done nothing to change my opinions."

After that wonderful opening, sad to say, the novel falls away, and the hero gets involved with cardsharping and cheating in casinos, and it all gets rather smart and tedious, perhaps a bit like Guitry himself. He was a suave, witty figure on the French scene, not unlike a Gallic Noël Coward. I have now discovered that he made a film of the very same Memoirs of a Cheat, in 1936. An extraordinary film it was too, according to no less an authority than François Truffaut.

Guitry had made several films already, usually of stage pieces, and had got tired of transferring the theatre to the screen. So he decided to transfer a novel instead. In the theatre things happen now. On the screen, things have already happened, just as in a novel. So why not do it the same way? If a character on screen looks unhappy, he normally says: "Oh, I am unhappy." But Guitry wanted to see what would happen if the character just looked unhappy and we heard his off-screen voice say, "Ah, I was so unhappy that day ..."

And that, apparently, is what he did. The actors said very little. All the narrative was in the voice-over. As Truffaut says, "It must be the only fiction film in the history of the cinema in which 90 per cent of the story is told by an off-screen voice." And he adds: "If you agree that the definition of a masterpiece is a work of art which has found its perfect and definitive form, then anyone who has seen Le Roman d'un Tricheur will also agree with me that we have here a true masterpiece."

Halliwell's Film Guide isn't so sure. "A first person singular comedy," it says, "a tour de force performance in which only the narrator speaks, the rest use pantomime only." Tour de force it may be, but it only gets one star from Halliwell. Still, I would like to see it one day. Well, the first 10 minutes, anyway. For the mushroom sequence ...

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The woman featured in the Better Together campaign's latest video  

Tea and no sympathy: The 'Better Together' campaign's mistake is to assume it knows how women think

Jane Merrick
On alert: Security cordons around Cardiff Castle ahead of this week’s Nato summit  

Ukraine crisis: Nato is at a crossroads. Where does it go from here?

Richard Shirreff
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution