Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

How wonderfully tricky French can be. I wrote on Thursday that I was reading Anna Gavalda’s novel Je L’Aimais and I translated the title as I Loved Him. But this was wrong – or at least it was only partly correct. In French the article gets placed before the verb and when the verb begins with a vowel, like aimer, the “le” or “la” is contracted so we don’t know without more context whether it is “him” or “her”. I assumed “him” because the story seemed to belong to Chloé, the narrator, who has just lost her husband to another woman. But as the novel progresses I realized that the story belongs just as much to Pierre, Chloé’s father-in-law, and his own story of love lost…so the title could just as well be I Loved Her.


Well, I did a quick check and the title of the novel has been translated as Someone I Loved – that’s just perfect.


This is a novel about adultery. About the worst kind of betrayal most people can imagine and the shock of having to try and understand why the person you love doesn’t love you anymore.


Au bout de combien de temps oublie-t-on l’odeur de celui qui vous a aimée ? Et quand cesse-t-on d’aimer à son tour ?

Qu’on me tende un sablier.


La dernière fois que nous nous sommes enlacés, c’était moi qui l’embrassais. C’était dans l’ascenseur de la rue de Flandre.

Il s’était laissé faire.


Pourquoi ? Pourquoi s’était-il laissé embrasser par une femme qu’il n’aimait plus ? Pourquoi m’avoir donné sa bouche ? Et ses bras ?


Ca n’a pas de sens.


[How long does it take to forget the scent of the person who loved you? And when do you stop loving them?

Someone hand me an hourglass.


The last time we held each other, I was the one who was kissing him. It was in the elevator on the rue de Flandre.

He let me kiss him.


Why? Why did he let himself be kissed by a woman he no longer loved? Why did he give me his mouth? And his arms?


It makes no sense.]


But it’s also a novel about love. How do we know we’ve found love? How do we know it will last? What happens when love arrives at the most inconvenient moment? When you think about it, this whole loving thing is a pretty fragile affair. And I think this is what Gavalda wants to explore in Je L’Aimais. Love is often a tricky experience to negotiate, filled with some wild ups and downs and often a lot of unexpected and potentially dangerous mundanity. Gavalda presents two versions of the experience of love – first through Chloé and her raw, painful astonishment of what has just become of marriage. And then through Pierre, thirty years her senior, and what he reveals about his own passionate discoveries.


Stylistically, the novel is interesting because it unfolds almost completely as a long conversation between Pierre and Chloé. I felt Gavalda managed this back and forth really well, dropping well-placed hints to remind us of their surroundings but for the most part she just let their dialogue do all the hard work.


And Pierre and Chloé do venture out into some thorny territory, especially in terms of duty vs happiness. Still, the book is an easy read and I might even argue that Gavalda’s attempt at a moral (a very small one, but its still there) might not have been a good idea, because I think, as horrible as it is, there just aren’t any straightforward answers where adultery is concerned. But despite her debatable conclusion, I liked very much how the book mostly focused on negotiating/exploring the very frightening reality that love is not always a permanent experience.



9 Responses to “Anna Gavalda – Je L'Aimais”

  1. Litlove

    Ooohhhh I absolutely have to read Gavalda now. She sounds just what I’m looking for in French at the moment – something easy to read and yet still a little provocative (I have to read Claude Simon and keep putting him off…). Thank you for the wonderful review, verbivore!

  2. verbivore

    Litlove – I read it in two sittings and it was exactly what I needed at the time. Not a difficult book by any means, but she is looking at some tricky questions…so I do hope you enjoy it!

  3. nicole

    Similar to litlove, this sounds just right for me right now. I hope I can pick this up around here without too much trouble. Thanks for writing about such gems off the beaten path!

  4. verbivore

    Nicole – You might be able to find a copy on bookmooch if you can’t get it in French easily where you are. And it has been translated, so there is that option too. I hope you enjoy it, and look forward to your thoughts!

  5. iakttagelse

    I realized too that “l'” rather means “la” than “le”. I think the English translater solved it well with “Someone I loved”. The Swedish translater (I’m Swedish!) translated it into “I loved him”, which I now consider not only partly wrong, but completly wrong. After all, the book hardly tells about Chloë’s relationship, it’s all about Pierre’s. I’m trying to write an essay about it in this very moment, and analyze it is very difficult not only because of the language (I’m writing in French..) but also because I really don’t know how to analyze it. It’s an interesting story, and I’m trying to put some deep thoughts into it, but I don’t know if I’m just trying to see deep thoughts behind it.
    Anyway, nice to hear that I’m not the only one having difficulties trying to interprete it.

  6. verbivore

    iakttagelse – Isn’t it funny about the title. I didn’t realize how sly the author was until I’d finished the book and realized it could be read both ways. I love things like that. It’s a shame the Swedish translator didn’t work that nuance into the title. I like your comment about whether or not the book is deep or if yourself as reader is trying to make it more interesting…I struggled a bit with it in that way as well. I would say one of the more interesting aspects of the book for me was looking at Pierre and Chloe’s relationship – an unusual one to throw a spotlight on. Good luck on your essay!

  7. mizwrite

    Beautiful review! My favorite topic — the mysteries of love.

  8. Em

    I have never read anything by Gavalda, although she is on my TBR list. I once saw an adaptation of one of her novels when I was on holidays in France and relly enjoyed it. Your review makes the novel really tempting. I think it was also adapted to the big screen, although I might be wrong…

    • verbivore

      So far this is the only Gavalda I’ve read, but I’ve heard good things about some of her other work. And I’d like to try one of the films as well. Thanks for stopping by!

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