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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