French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain
Translated from French by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce
Gallic Books, London
A few months ago I was contacted by Meryl Zegarek asking if she might send me a particular book to review as she had discovered my blog. The book sounded wonderful and I said yes. However, I never received that particular book. Every so often different books have arrived in my mailbox from Ms. Zegarek’s firm. I have not read any of them yet and I have been too lazy to get in touch and tell her I have no space for all these books her firm keeps sending me having never received the one I agreed upon to review. A few days ago, I received another envelope. I had just finished the wonderful Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson and needed something to read. The cover and title of this particular book sparked my interest immediately after removing it from the envelope. Reading French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain was a pleasure. Needless to say, I am very happy I never got in touch with Ms. Zegarek and will definitely look more closely at the books she has sent.
The book was written in French and translated by two Gallic Books translators. Gallic Books specializes in publishing French books for English speakers. Apparently, Mr. Laurain has had two recent and earlier publishing successes. The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook were both well received by readers and book sellers in the U.S. as well as in Europe. After reading French Rhapsody, I have to add my name to the list of admirers of Mr. Laurain’s writing. I have wanted to read more books from overseas that have been translated into English since I finished Elena Ferrante’s wonderful series about the lives of two best friends that I discovered all on my own. French Rhapsody is a fun, nostalgic, quick read compared to Ms. Ferrante’s books, but I enjoy reading about people in a different setting, especially set in such a place forever dear to me, which is Paris.
The book presents the viewpoints of several people who were in or know some of the other characters that were in a band named The Holograms in the early 1980s. They were into “cool wave” music and even had a demo tape made that was sent to a record company. Unfortunately, the company never contacted them and after a while the band split up and the five members went on their separate ways. Alain, the lead guitarist who is now a doctor in Paris, receives a letter that had been lost in the mail for 30-plus years, telling the band that the company did like the band’s music and wanted them to get in touch. Alain is flabbergasted and starts thinking about the band and the other members and decides to get in touch with some of them and see if anyone kept a copy of their demo tape.
Alain’s sections gave the most background and information on the past of the ensemble cast of characters. Whenever a woman was writing, the author had his publisher change the font, which was curious and noticeable. The band was composed of four guys and one girl singer, Bérengère. One of the members was a successful business person named Jean-Bernard Mazart, or JBM for short. He has a superb, much younger personal assistant named Aurore and is married to Blanche, who inherited her parents’ fortune. Another member of the band was now a famous artist à la Jeffery Koons. Yet another member was a right-wing, immigrant-hating, ex-fatty and now buffed up leader of a skinhead type group. Bérengère lived near Dijon, divorced and managing the hotel her parents had left her from which she wanted to escape all those years ago. I really enjoyed Alain’s (or author Laurain’s) musings on how things were different now from the 80s:
What remained now of the 1980s? Very little, if anything, concluded Alain. Television channels had multiplied from six to more than a hundred and fifty according to the satellite subscription he had. Where there used to be just one remote control, now you had to juggle with three (flat-screen TV, DVD player and satellite box. These machines were constantly updating and three-quarters of their buttons remained an unused mystery. Everything was digital now and so sophisticated that it was possible to do almost anything sitting in a café. The web had given unlimited access to everything, absolutely everything: from Harvard courses to porn films, by way of the rarest of songs that previously only a few fanatics scattered across the world would have possessed on vinyl, but which were now available to anybody on You Tube.
And what of the ‘idols’ of that era? David Bowie had emerged from his British solitude to launch a final album, Blackstar, only to bow out of life two days later. The accompanying video was a carefully orchestrated farewell to his fans. U2’s Bono only cared about poverty and about becoming Secretary General of the United Nations — and perhaps that’s what he would become one day. Ravaged by plastic surgery, Michael Jackson had finished his life as a quasi-transsexual dependent on sleeping pills right up until the final overdose, with his career overshadowed by sordid rumors of his behaviour with little boys. As for the enigmatic Prince, before he was found dead at his Paisley Park studios, he had only made rare appearances for unexpected secret concerts, and other than that only communicated through the web, making new songs available for download. No one knew if he still had a following who bought them.
So the ensemble narrators and the catching up with their lives from past to present is the French rhapsody of the title. The group of college-age musicians now were from all walks of life, and I enjoyed how the group varied in their politics and social status. I also enjoyed the flashbacks and memories of the various narrators. Another plus for me was that the subject was mostly music and art and business, with the ever-changing French political scene thrown in. This was especially enjoyable in light of the political scene in the U.S.
From the publicist about Antoine Laurain:
Antoine Laurain is a novelist, journalist, screenwriter, and director. He was born in Paris and after studying cinema, he began his career directing short films and writing screenplays. His passion for art led him to take a job assisting an antiques dealer in Paris. The experience provided the inspiration for his first novel, Ailleurs si j ‘y suis, the story of a collector, which was awarded the Prix Drouot in 2007. Fume et tue, a satirical tale of addiction and murder, was published the next year, followed by Carrefour des Nostalgies, whose central character was a failed local politician. His books have been well reviewed in the French press including Le Monde, Le Figaro, la Magazine Littéraire and more.
The President’s Hat was originally published in Paris to critical acclaim and was awarded literary prizes including the Prix Landerneau Découvertes and Prix Relay des Voyageurs 2013, and the book flew off the shelves, and it is being adapted for television. Gallic Books, the boutique publishing house that is known for discovering the best-selling sensation, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, published it in the U.S. Combining a philosophical idea with an uplifting narrative, it captivated American readers. The American Bookseller Association selected The President’s Hat for the prestigious Celebrate Debut Author’s promotion, and Mr. Laurain did readings in cities across the country. It was followed in 2015 with The Red Notebook, which continued to add readers to Mr. Laurain’s fan base in the U.S.
Mr. Laurain will be touring the U.S. to promote French Rhapsody in late October. More information about his tour stops can be found HERE.