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Small is Beautiful

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Recently, ailing and housebound, I looked for succour in a book by a contemporary French novelist, one I remembered hugely enjoying when it first appeared. A good read has to be high on the list of restoratives, and I reckoned that Philippe Delerm’s La Première gorgée de bière (The First Swig of Beer) might be just the ticket. Not because it’s all about beer – in fact the title is rather randomly lifted from one of the book’s thirty-four essays – but because I recalled it included some cheering pages on illness.

The book is classily produced, in that way the French do paperbacks, and slim at only around ninety pages. Its subtitle clarifies the cryptic swig of beer: ‘and some of life’s other minuscule pleasures’. I’d bought it on a whim when it first appeared in 1997, and read many if not all of its essays – meditations, reflections might be better words – over a large coffee in the Art Deco lounge of the Hotel Lutetia, one of Paris’s not-so-little pleasures. The book went on to become a big hit in France, and was soon followed by Sarah Hamp’s English translation, the hardback edition of which goes under the title The Small Pleasures of Life, the paperback reissue, We Could Almost Eat Outside. It’s easy to account for its success; each of the chosen pleasures is carefully and affectionately observed, every line exquisitely written. It’s an uplifting book. There may be others like it, but if there are, I don’t know them.

Philippe Delerm is principally a writer of full-length fiction, but here his concern isn’t the novelist’s complex weave. No, the idea is quite simple, and it’s compelling. Delerm focuses his microscope on a variety of those small, easily disregarded situations, circumstances, experiences that enrich our lives. I say ‘our’, because generally the topics are things familiar to those of us who live in sufficient economic comfort, certainly in the West. H

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Recently, ailing and housebound, I looked for succour in a book by a contemporary French novelist, one I remembered hugely enjoying when it first appeared. A good read has to be high on the list of restoratives, and I reckoned that Philippe Delerm’s La Première gorgée de bière (The First Swig of Beer) might be just the ticket. Not because it’s all about beer – in fact the title is rather randomly lifted from one of the book’s thirty-four essays – but because I recalled it included some cheering pages on illness.

The book is classily produced, in that way the French do paperbacks, and slim at only around ninety pages. Its subtitle clarifies the cryptic swig of beer: ‘and some of life’s other minuscule pleasures’. I’d bought it on a whim when it first appeared in 1997, and read many if not all of its essays – meditations, reflections might be better words – over a large coffee in the Art Deco lounge of the Hotel Lutetia, one of Paris’s not-so-little pleasures. The book went on to become a big hit in France, and was soon followed by Sarah Hamp’s English translation, the hardback edition of which goes under the title The Small Pleasures of Life, the paperback reissue, We Could Almost Eat Outside. It’s easy to account for its success; each of the chosen pleasures is carefully and affectionately observed, every line exquisitely written. It’s an uplifting book. There may be others like it, but if there are, I don’t know them. Philippe Delerm is principally a writer of full-length fiction, but here his concern isn’t the novelist’s complex weave. No, the idea is quite simple, and it’s compelling. Delerm focuses his microscope on a variety of those small, easily disregarded situations, circumstances, experiences that enrich our lives. I say ‘our’, because generally the topics are things familiar to those of us who live in sufficient economic comfort, certainly in the West. Here’s a sample: reading on the beach, buying a new pullover for the autumn, Sunday evenings (how many of us would agree with that, though?), old-style railway carriages, an impromptu invitation to eat with friends, an Agatha Christie novel, shelling peas, the scent of stored apples, being in a cinema, the morning newspaper over breakfast, blackberrying, the sound of a dynamo rubbing against a bicycle wheel, and, of course, the first swig of a cool beer. I turned to the essay about illness, or, to be more specific, about inhalation, about those bowls of boiling water with their pungent fumes, that towel wrapped around the head like a monk’s cowl. It’s a vivid and evocative piece, quite wry too. Delerm re-ties that knot of secret pleasure which accompanied childhood indispositions, so long as they were only mild, a pleasure created, no doubt, by being well looked after. Illness in adulthood, alas, gives none of this pleasure, except possibly during those self-same inhalations. As we start to breathe in the vapour, ‘a kind of cerebral softening occurs, and we plunge into a world of damp confusion. Sweat rises. Perfectly still, we navigate a pale, delicious underwater jungle of green and tender poison.’ Inhalation and its pleasures are international. A number of Delerm’s pleasures, however, are firmly rooted in France. There’s the escalator at Montparnasse station in Paris, the game of pétanque, the Tour de France and – one of my favourites – those little boxes of cakes, the giving of which is a social ritual of French bourgeois Sundays. It’s a ritual I remember well myself from childhood sojourns among my Parisian relatives. When we had an invitation to Sunday lunch, we would show up either with a bouquet of flowers orchestrated like a symphony (what might Delerm have written about the heady grotto that is a French florist’s!) or with the alternative, pâtisseries. Delerm is riveted not so much by these confections themselves as by the artistry that goes into their presentation. Anyone who, in oldstyle French shops, has made purchases of clothes, jewellery, books, even an escalope or a wedge of cheese, will have observed practitioners of the High Art of Wrapping. Whether delicate tissue or heavy greaseproof, the paper is worked elegantly, the correct length of ribbon is passed over, under and around, and finished off with the neatest loop for the carrying finger. The buying ritual is incomplete without this closing ceremony. Left out, it’s sacrilege, like leaving church before the blessing, or a theatre before the curtain. We exit the shop, and then the baton passes to us; our duty is to carry the package the way it should be, elbow slightly out to let the box hang properly balanced. On our gruff side of the Channel, we might consider all this rather precious and altogether Gallic, but that would be to discount the satisfaction so many have, in the run-up to our Dickensian Christmas, of sitting at a table, wrapping gifts in sumptuous sheets of festive paper, an essential rite in British households, though hardly in our shops. Not just a French matter, then, the joy of wrapping, and neither are the topics of most other essays. There are two pages about taking a slow train, for example. Boarding one such on a quiet line away from javelin TGVs, Delerm is overjoyed to find that it’s made up of elderly carriages with compartments and corridors. He’d thought them lost to France, just as they are to Britain. In his closed compartment, Delerm is able once again to choose a corner seat in preference to a middle one, to stretch his legs, careful to avoid those of the other passengers, and ready with apologies if contact unfortunately happens. He can engage with his fellow passengers or he can study the framed photographs above their heads, images of, say, a village in the Hautes-Alpes. I could add that he might want to stand at a window in the corridor, have a smoke, chat to someone doing the same. Simple pleasures of social intercourse, so difficult among the isolating aircraft seats, mobiles and headsets of today’s trains. The ironical alternative is the Quiet Coach. But many of life’s little pleasures haven’t been lost to history or progress. One is choosing a new pullover for the autumn. In a beautifully honed piece, Delerm conjures up not only a comforting garment, but the reality of a particular season, and what it means to us:
Autumn’s here. We know that it’s just a short parenthesis before winter . . . Nights of real frost, by day blue skies over the first yellow leaves. October’s warm wine, the light’s gentleness, four p.m. the sun’s one good moment . . . A new pullover is required. Around our torsos we wrap chestnuts, the forest floor, the red-pink of Russula mushrooms. The season contained in the softness of wool.
Delerm’s essays are like a gallery of landscapes and still lives. They may be miniatures, but they do something important. They reassure us, remind us of a more wholesome side of life. Occasionally I wonder if they’re going to drift into sentimentality, but they stay short of it. If there’s one theme running through them, I’d say it’s generosity, generosity of every kind, and nowhere better on view than in the essay on an impromptu invitation to stay for supper, extended to someone who’d merely dropped by on some errand. As a result, says Delerm, a day which had been drab suddenly blazes into colour, as if life itself had been invited to the table and had said yes.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 43 © Martin Sorrell 2014


About the contributor

Martin Sorrell lives in the UK, but earlier lives in Toulouse and Paris brought him most of Delerm’s little pleasures, and others besides.

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