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.