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French without Tears

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Sébastien Japrisot is a name that sounds thoroughly French, though it snags awkwardly on the hinges of the surname. Which is because it’s actually an anagram of the author’s real name, the more euphonious Jean-Baptiste Rossi. The intriguingly verbose title of his most memorable thriller, however, is a literal translation of the original French – La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil.

Lady, car, gun – you get the picture – but the glasses? There’s the snag, the detail that doesn’t feel quite right. What’s going on? I’m afraid I can’t possibly tell you. The plot of this thriller is so fantastically bizarre, so impossible to figure out – at least on first reading – that to disclose it in any detail would be an act of literary desecration. But let me set it up for you. Dany Longo, our heroine and part-time narrator, commits a rare spontaneous act. She borrows her absent boss’s car and heads south, fleeing an empty 14 July weekend in Paris. She wants to see the sea, or, more specifically, the glamorous Riviera. But as she drives, weird stuff starts to happen.

She’s not gone more than fifty miles before an old woman sitting outside a café signals to her to stop. ‘I got out of the car. Her voice was very loud but hoarse and asthmatic. I could hardly understand her. She told me that I had left my coat at her café that morning.’

How could that be? Dany had been in Paris that morning – the reader knows that and so does she. But there’s more. This crone turns out to be only the first of many people she encounters who assure Dany that she is repeating the journey she made a day earlier.

And that’s all I’m going to reveal, plot-wise. Sufficient to say that the complicated character of Dany – one of those colourless little office drones whose meek appearance is a calculated mask that covers a seething mess of resentment and bitterness formed, in her case, by an orphanage childhood – becomes m

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Sébastien Japrisot is a name that sounds thoroughly French, though it snags awkwardly on the hinges of the surname. Which is because it’s actually an anagram of the author’s real name, the more euphonious Jean-Baptiste Rossi. The intriguingly verbose title of his most memorable thriller, however, is a literal translation of the original French – La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil.

Lady, car, gun – you get the picture – but the glasses? There’s the snag, the detail that doesn’t feel quite right. What’s going on? I’m afraid I can’t possibly tell you. The plot of this thriller is so fantastically bizarre, so impossible to figure out – at least on first reading – that to disclose it in any detail would be an act of literary desecration. But let me set it up for you. Dany Longo, our heroine and part-time narrator, commits a rare spontaneous act. She borrows her absent boss’s car and heads south, fleeing an empty 14 July weekend in Paris. She wants to see the sea, or, more specifically, the glamorous Riviera. But as she drives, weird stuff starts to happen. She’s not gone more than fifty miles before an old woman sitting outside a café signals to her to stop. ‘I got out of the car. Her voice was very loud but hoarse and asthmatic. I could hardly understand her. She told me that I had left my coat at her café that morning.’ How could that be? Dany had been in Paris that morning – the reader knows that and so does she. But there’s more. This crone turns out to be only the first of many people she encounters who assure Dany that she is repeating the journey she made a day earlier. And that’s all I’m going to reveal, plot-wise. Sufficient to say that the complicated character of Dany – one of those colourless little office drones whose meek appearance is a calculated mask that covers a seething mess of resentment and bitterness formed, in her case, by an orphanage childhood – becomes more disturbing as the mystery, paranoia and increasing sense of dread and menace build. Helped along by the discovery of a very stiff stiff, the story achieves an intensity that even the eventual explanation – just when you were thinking there couldn’t possibly be one – can’t dissipate. So, aside from hinting at the devilish plot, what can I tell you about this remarkably atmospheric book? It was published in France in 1967 and I read it about twenty years later in the English translation by Helen Weaver, which is in entirely appropriate American English (‘faucet’ rather than ‘tap’ for example, terms like ‘cheapskate’ and a character called Big Paul). This reflects the 1960s’ love affair between French cineastes and Hollywood’s noir cinema – a passion that involved us Anglo-Saxons merely as voyeurs. Think Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. Japrisot was also a scriptwriter and film director, and the book reeks pleasurably of the classic cinema, featuring as it does gusts of cigarette smoke, a neurotic blonde and a sexy automobile. The latter is an American Thunderbird, huge and sleek, ‘a big white bird under the summer sky, a Bird of Thunder . . . The leather seats shone the color of golden sand, everything around me was sand and glittering chrome.’ (Nonetheless, books that read like great screenplays don’t necessarily make great movies. The Lady has been filmed twice. The critical reception of the 1969 version starring Samantha Eggar ranged from ‘oddly hypnotic’ to ‘ludicrous’; the 1992 Estonian production appears never to have been shown to Western audiences.) But there’s another potent aroma to be inhaled from the pages of this book as it follows Dany’s nightmare journey – the smell, the texture, of France as it used to be, and as sentimental, nostalgic Francophiles still dream that it is, despite contemporary experience that tells us otherwise. Dany’s trip begins when she drops her boss and his family at Orly airport to catch a plane to Geneva – a mere, but comfortable, fifteen minutes before take-off. She is leaving behind a Paris about to subside into the deathly, closed-up quiet of the 14 July long weekend, yet there is no nightmare of périphérique and eight-lane motorway to negotiate. Just regular roads, where real life is close enough to allow crones outside cafés to summon you to stop, and where roadside establishments have real character; where there are oily mechanics who fix your car on the spot, rather than the chain of bland motorway service stations anyone driving to the Midi today would encounter. And when Dany gets there, even on the holiday weekend, she can just drive into Cassis and park the Thunderbird where she likes. Read that and weep. To Japrisot such details must have been unremarkable, but, a mere forty years on, they provide an additional dimension that makes this distinctive thriller wonderfully enjoyable. And I don’t think I’ve spoiled it for you by telling you that.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 12 © Karen Robinson 2006


About the contributor

Karen Robinson is supplements editor of the Sunday Times – and a frequent visitor to France.

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