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A Very Long Engagement (thoughts)

May 5, 2008

Orbis Terrarum ChallengeMy trip around the world began in France. And I must have gotten there by steamboat, because when I landed in Sebastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement, it was the early twentieth century! The book centers around Mathilde, a well-off and spunky young girl whose fiancee, Manech, was reported ‘Killed in action’ during World War One. However, several things about the circumstances don’t seem to make sense, and in her heart Mathilde is convinced Manech is still alive. So when a dying soldier summons her to a hospital to reveal to her that her fiancee was actually executed by the French for cowardice, she sets off to discover everything that happened on that day.

From the beginning, the reader knows a bit more than Mathilde: the first chapter is a description of five French soldiers being led through a trench to their executions. This chapter is pitch-perfect, from its opening sentence (“Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that’s the way of the world.”) through the introduction of all five soldiers and Mathilde, and in creating a precise sense of what that trench was like. I wouldn’t change a thing about it, and I’d type the whole thing out to share with you here if it were at all practical!

Unfortunately, somehow the rest of the novel didn’t live up to that first chapter. It’s a pastiche of letters and stories that Mathilde collects on her search, Mathilde’s memories of her childhood, and descriptions of Mathilde’s current life. While I’ve enjoyed other books written in this style, here the result was a bit disjointed, and something about the narrative tone kept me from really connecting with Mathilde. While the stories of many of the other characters moved me deeply, I honestly didn’t care whether Marech was alive and whether Mathilde ever found him. This took the sparkle away from the story. (In the interests of full disclosure, I saw the movie a few years ago and absolutely loved it. So I already knew the ending, which may have also made the plot seem less interesting. And Audrey Tatou brought an adorableness to Mathilde that isn’t really there in the book. Personally, I’d recommend seeing the movie over reading the book, and I never say that.)

There’s the bad. The good was how powerfully the novel portrayed the senseless, futility, the staggering loss that was World War One. It seems like the second world war tends to get more attention, so this is an important novel. France really came alive as well: Japrisot had a talent for setting that I appreciated. And then there were parts where the luminosity of the first chapter suddenly flared out again, and they made the in-between bits worth it.

That about sums up my feelings, but I plan on trying more Japrisot in the future. Perhaps my expectations were too high going in, so I’d like to approach a book of his with a bit more of a blank slate! For anyone else who’s read this one, I’d love to know your opinions! (Especially if you read it before seeing the movie) As for me, my next stop is Egypt, in the late 60s and 70s. Looks like I’ll get to fly this time!

Favourite Passages
He was afraid of the war and of death, like almost everyone, but he was also afraid of the wind, that harbinger of gas attacks, afraid of a flare tearing through the night, afraid of himself, for he never knew what me mmight do when he was afraid, afraid of his own side’s artillery, afraid of his own fun, afraid of the whine of aerial torpedoes, afraid of mines that explode and engulf a whole sectino of infantry, afraid of the flooding that drowns you in the dugout, afraid of the earth that buries you alive, afraid of the stray blackbird that casts a sudden shadow before your eyes, afraid of the nightmares in which you always wind up gutted at the bottom of a shell hole, afraid of the sergeant who dreams of blowing your brains out bceause he’s fed up with carping at you, afraid of the rats that come for a little foretaste, sniffing you as you sleep, afraid of the lice and the crotchcravs and the memories that suck your blood, afraid of everything. Before the butchery began, he hadn’t been like that. Precisely the opposite, climbing trees, clambering up the church steeple, braving the ocean on his father’s boat, fighting forest fires, bringing sailboats scattered in a storm safely into port, so intrepid, so generous with his youth that his friends and family all thought him a daredevil. Even at the front, in the beginning, he’d behaved fearlessly. And then there had been an aerial torpedo, one too many, on a summer morning in front of Buscourt, only a few short kilometers from the trench where he was now plodding through the mire. The explosion hadn’t touched him, merely blown him off his feet, but when he’d gotten up again, he’d been drenched in another man’s blood, completely covered in gore and unrecognizable bits of flesh, he’d even had some in his mouth, he’s spat out the horror and shrieked his head off. Yes, he stood there sreaming on the battlefield before Buscourt, in Picardy, weeping and tearing off his clothes. They had brought him in naked.

Today, under a big umbrella, sitting in her wheelchair, Mathilde gazes down at Manech. The rosette on the cross is a bit discolored; Sylvain tidies up the rest. Jean Etchevery, nineteen years old. She is now older than her lover. She has brought him, from the shore of Lake Hossegor, a spring of mimosa, which doesn’t look too perky when she unwraps it from the piece of paper she has been carring in her handbag, but as Sylvain says, “It’s the thought that counts.” Mathilde replies, “I’d like you to tuck the thought into the earth, just in front of the cross.” His big hands dig a small hole over the grave of the boy who once called him “that redhead,” and he lays the mimosa, tenderly, in the bottom of the hole. Before he fills it with dirt, Mathilde gives him a pack of gold-tipped cigarettes, telling him, “Put these in, too, it’ll make his mother happy. You never know. Wherever he is, even if he doesn’t smoke, he can always make some new friends.”

“I can wait. I’ll keep waiting, for as long as it takes, for this war to be seen in everyone’s eyes for what it always was, the most filthy, savage, useless obscenity that ever there was. I’ll wait until the flags stop flying in November in front of the monuments to the dead, I’ll wait until the Poor Bastards at the Front stop gathering, wearing their damned berets and missing an arm or a leg, to celebrate what?”

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2008 8:12 pm

    Well I sure am glad that you loved the movie because I have it coming up on Netflix in a couple of days! I love Audrey Tautou…she’s such a great actress. I wish the book had turned out better though…it’s such a disappointment when you just don’t care about the characters. I have a hard time even finishing books when I feel that way. Oh well. Hope you have better luck with him in the future!

  2. May 5, 2008 10:49 pm

    I really enjoyed the book, I must admit; I wonder if it’s as much to do with the translator as anything else? I don’t have my copy to hand so I can’t check who it was, but I found the book very moving and the characters convincing. Have the film, haven’t watched it yet, but will pull it up my list given your review, thanks!

  3. May 6, 2008 1:43 am

    I have to say I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by Japrisot but I haven’t seen the movie of this one. I think it’s difficult for another version of the same story to top the the one you’ve really appreciated, if you see what I mean. Having really loved the way the story was told in the movie, it would probably seem less vivid, less stirring, less overwhelming in the pages of a book. I wonder, like brideofthebookgod, whether the translation wasn’t a little off perhaps? Anyway, do consider Japrisot again. It’s not just me – Danielle, that book goddess, loves him too!

  4. May 6, 2008 3:54 am

    Okay, I obviously need more sleep. The first thing that popped into my head when I popped over here and saw the title of your post was, “Eva’s been engaged, and I never picked up on that before!”

  5. May 6, 2008 4:55 am

    Chris, I did love the movie! I want to own it. :)

    Brideofthebookgod, I loved all of the characters but Mathilde. But in the back of my mind I was wondering about the translation too!

    Litlove, what would you recommend I try next? I definitely want to give him another go! I agree-I think I just adored the movie too much. Usually I have the opposite problem: I can’t appreciate a movie because the book was so good!

    Debi, you make me laugh! Nope-I’m happily single right now. :D

  6. verbivore permalink
    May 6, 2008 5:30 am

    How fun is this – I own the film but have never watched it. (weird, I know) But I look forward to watching this sometime soon – and I love Audrey Tautou so that will be an extra treat.

  7. May 6, 2008 8:06 am

    I too loved the movie, though I didn’t read the book. So you are disappointed…

  8. May 6, 2008 1:21 pm

    I loved this movie, but I haven’t read the book. It’s going straight on to my wishlist, though!

    I wanted to let you know, also, that your comments are linking to your old blog again. It might just be that you typed in the old address by mistake, but I thought I should tell you, because I remember that your old blog url was being stored by my blog in the comment field, and I hope that’s not happening again, especially if it’s all wordpress blogs and not just mine!

  9. May 6, 2008 2:12 pm

    Eva you just confirmed my fear that the book would lose its hook on me. I was flipping through it at the bookstore for a *long time* and couldn’t decide if I really wanted to take it home with me. The letter correspondence renders the reading a bit disjointed.

  10. May 6, 2008 8:22 pm

    I loved this book; I like an epistolary format and found this one engaging. I do have to admit though, that I did love Audrey Tautou in the film – but how can you not love Audrey Tautou?

  11. May 6, 2008 10:10 pm

    Verbivore, that is a little weird. But I’d probably by an Audrey Tautou movie without seeing it too!

    Catherine, I really want to give him another shot, because I think a lot of my disappointment has to do w/ the movie.

    Dew, oy! I’ll go over and leave a random comment to try ti fix that. *sigh*

    Matt, glad I’m not the only one who find styles like that disjointed.

    Melanie, for me epistolary novels are a bit tricky…sometimes I like them, but it’s the exception rather then the rule. I agree-while I might envy Audrey Tautou, I still must love her!

  12. May 8, 2008 1:29 pm

    Eva, the first Japrisot novel I read was Trap for Cinderella, and I really enjoyed it. It begins with a young woman waking up in a hospital with amnesia after having been so badly burnt in a house fire that she has had extensive cosmetic surgery on her face. The other girl in the house at the same time was killed and disfigured beyond recognition. So the question is, which girl survived and which, by definition, murdered the other? I’d love to know what you think of it if you do get a chance to read it!

  13. May 8, 2008 4:43 pm

    Litlove, ohhhh-that sounds good! I’ll definitely try to get my hands on a copy. :D

  14. May 10, 2008 7:37 am

    I have that problem with high expectations for books as well. It’s often better if I come to something thinking it won’t be very good and am pleasantly surprised (well, you know, barring such “not very good” authors as Jackie Collins, of course).

  15. May 10, 2008 6:16 pm

    Emily, I like the pleasant surprise thing too!

  16. June 2, 2008 3:09 pm

    It does sound like an amazing first chapter! I haven’t heard of it, or the movie…I am generally out of the loop!!! Thanks for the great review, I like that you gave positive and negatives! Great work, glad to see your travels are coming along.

    happy voyage!

  17. June 2, 2008 5:31 pm

    Bethany, thanks for stopping by! ANd I’m glad you liked the review. :) I’m really enjoying this challenge!

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