Friday, 5 December 2014

Book Review: A Monkey in Winter by Antoine Blondin

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Literature is (or should be) a reproduction of reality and therefore it often portrays people who drink more than they should, and even worse, people who are slipping or have already slipped into the vicious circle of alcoholism. Authors – especially those who are known for their own excesses in drinking – seem to love displaying them in their desperate, though useless attempts to find an easy way out of their problems or at least “cheerful” oblivion. Usually, a drinking or drunk protagonist just serves plot development or character study, but it’s rare that an entire novel revolves around the short-lived pleasures of drinking like A Monkey in Winter by Antoine Blondin. It’s my last but one contribution to the Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge.

Antoine Blondin was born in Paris, France, in April 1922. He excelled in high school and earned his licence en lettres at Sorbonne University, before he was deported to Germany in 1942 to work as forced labour. The experience inspired him to his first novel titled L'Europe Buissonnière (literally: Europe Living in the Bush, but the title seems to insinuate l’école buissonnière and thus might be better translated as Shirking Europe) which came out in 1949 and was an immediate success with critics. It was followed by The Children of God (Les Enfants du bon Dieu: 1952), L'Humeur Vagabonde (1955; Vagrant Spirit) and A Monkey in Winter (Un Singe en hiver: 1959). All his life the author worked as a journalist best remembered today for having repeatedly covered important sports events like the Tour de France and Olympic Games. Notable among his later work are the autobiographical romance Monsieur Jadis ou L'École du Soir (1970; Mister In-former-times or the Evening School) and the short story collection Quat'saisons (1975; Four Seasons). Antoine Blondin died in Paris, France, in June 1991.

The protagonists of A Monkey in Winter are Albert Quentin, the owner of the small hotel Stella in the fictitious, once mundane summer resort Tigreville at the Atlantic coast, and Gabriel Fouquet, a stranger from Paris who turns up there on the first day of October, thus already in the off-season. Albert Quentin is sixty years old and leads the quiet life of a small town, but in his dreams he relives the adventures of his military service in Chongqing, China, shortly after the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1905. He also is a reformed drinker because towards the end of World War II, when he fled Tigreville and was separated from his wife Suzanne, he made the vow to never again touch a glass, if he found Suzanne safe and sound in the hotel at his return – which he did. Much to the relief and pleasure of his wife, he has been indulging in candy instead of alcohol for the past ten years and he no longer feels any longing for a drink. He has resigned to his petty and monotonous life. Gabriel Fouquet is thirty-five years old and the only guest in the hotel. He takes long walks exploring the surroundings, above all the quarters of Dillon School where he secretly observes his thirteen-year-old daughter Marie whom he hasn’t seen since she was a little girl. However, nobody divines what led him to Tigreville and neither of the Quentins wishes to be intrusive. The young man is friendly and behaves well, so before soon they begin to think of him almost as a son. After three weeks the true nature of Gabriel Fouquet shows for the first time. At night he returns dead drunk from his stroll and Albert who takes him to bed is reminded of himself when he still was in the habit of drinking. Albert realises that this young man can make him break his vow. A few days later Gabriel Fouquet bets with customers of the Café Esnault that he can persuade Albert to have a drink again...

At the heart of A Monkey in Winter is the passion for (heavy) drinking which the protagonists share with their creative father Antoine Blondin. In fact, the author is known to have indulged in it during his entire life and to have done all the foolish and dangerous things that also Gabriel Fouquet and Albert Quentin enjoy so much. It is thanks to the clownish effect of their unreasonable behaviour under the influence of alcohol that the novel can be called a comedy. The sad side of it is that they seem incapable of having fun or at least of being at peace without drinking. But how can anyone truly enjoy life with a dull mind? There’s so much that escapes the attention and what remains uses to be little more than a blurred memory, often even an embarrassing one. In one passage Gabriel Fouquet explains his egotistic reasons for drinking and that it’s beyond him why others would wish to do without it. Most of the time he – like many addicts – is blind to what he sacrifices for his alcohol-induced happiness or light heart and also to the grief that he causes others, notably his teenage daughter. The language of Antoine Blondin is clear and unpretentious with a rich imagery and several reminiscences of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s kind of irony.

All in all, A Monkey in Winter by Antoine Blondin has been an interesting read although I definitely didn’t appreciate the author’s positive attitude towards heavy drinking. The novel’s greatest achievement, apart from being funny, may be that it makes better understand the workings of an alcoholic’s brain… which is quite something. The book has been adapted for the screen. Thanks to Jean Gabin and Jean-Paul Belmondo in the leading roles the comedy has become as classic of French cinema which may be a lot easier to find than the English translation of the novel that has been out of print already for a while. However, if you can lay hands on a copy, I recommend you to read it.

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