‘Beside the Sea’ by Veronique Olmi

March 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

This account may give away too much of the plot.

A single mother takes her two sons on a trip to the seaside. They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate and go to the funfair. She wants to protect them from a cold and uncomprehending world. She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys. From the blurb of Peirene’s first translation Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi.

‘Beside the sea’ has cheerful connotations for most but cheerfulness (though there is humour) is not part of this story. It is a sad and terrible story.

Don’t we sympathise with all of the main characters, the two little boys who could have done with a different kind of mother, and the mother herself who is not coping and who has come to the attention of the social services?

We don’t, I think, learn what went wrong in the mother’s life. And despite her personal weaknesses she can provoke us to reappraise the world we live in. Where do we belong in this mother’s world? Would we be grouped, to our detriment, with any of those transient characters that appear in the book? Are our lives empty? Where are those people when they aren’t at the funfair? Maybe the girls sold shoes and the men were mechanics or delivered pizzas? Maybe they only laughed at the fair and the rest of the time they were just getting ready for it? (page 89)

When I put this book down, I could not say that I had caught all its meaning or understood all its implications but the book made sense, as many books do not.

Let us writers be confronted with a problem Veronique Olmi had to solve: she wanted to show the real affection between the two brothers, and to show it economically and movingly. She had to avoid ‘telling’: “The two brothers were very fond of each other.” So she wrote this:

His first word came one morning when he was lying on the floor with loads of cushions round him because he couldn’t sit up very well, he was blowing bubbles of spit, Stan was lying on the lino laughing, his head on his hands, really close to Kevin, and the littl’un leant forwards, he took a handful of his hair and said Stan. That was his first word. That evening in the kitchen Stan told me he wasn’t his half-brother, he was his whole brother now, I said okay. (page 101-102)

I wonder how long Veronique spent getting that right. Did it come to her out of the blue? Had she many failures? Other writers’ processes intrigue me. I imagine they are much more organised about writing than I am, and don’t waste as much time blundering about.

There is much else that is quotable:

Will you write a note? the littl’un asked as he zipped up his flies. That’s right, I said, I’ll write a note. It reassured him. There are magic sentences like that. I’ll write a note.  (page 53)

Apparently there are these priests, no, not priests, monks. Apparently there are these monks who pray for the sorrows of the world, day and night, never stopping, taking it in shifts so there’s never a break. Me, I don’t know how to pray. I’d rather not believe in God, it’s too frightening and, anyway, how can I understand God when I don’t understand his representative, the Pope, that rich, crumbly old man? God must be like a bunch of popes put together, thousands of popes in one single person, terrifyingly powerful. . . yes, but knowing there are these monks thinking of me night and day, that’s reassuring.  (page 61)

Keep an eye on your brother, such simple sentences, they belong to everyone and we say them all the time so they never go out of circulation. Our parents used to say them. And our parents’ parents. They’re sacred, compulsory, make you feel alive.  (page 62)

Kevin and Stanley were clean, they were ready for the night, as they said, yes, they often said, I’m getting ready for the night, it’s nice, getting yourself all sorted for the night, they never say I’m getting ready for the day, because daytime doesn’t really warrant it, you’ve go[t] to do it so you do, that’s all, but at night there’s a sort of preparation, like before a journey.  (page 95)

I remembered the day Kevin wrote a word on the wall, his first word, it was me, it was mummy in stick letters, he was proud and so was I, that’s who I was, he’d recognised it straight away, I was mummy, no more or less than the others, mummy that’s what I did, what I knew how to do, mummy, and I left it there, I’d never covered it with white paint so all the pictures had to be done round that word MUMY, like the little stick men he drew, maybe I even saw their hands behind their backs while the red aliens spiralled round me, and I showed it to the social worker, my name on the wall in stick letters, how could she compete with that?  (page 101)

What can we say to this French novelisat and dramatist but Encore! Encore! Encore!

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