No et moi: Just how clever is Lou?

posted by Simon Kemp

D’où vient qu’avec un Q.I. de 160 je ne suis pas foutue de faire un lacet ? (p. 13) says Lou in Delphine de Vigan’s No et moi, looking down at her untied shoelace. An IQ of 160 is very high – it puts her on a par with Stephen Hawking. Her genius, and the effect it has on her life, comes up for discussion a few pages later in Lou’s first conversation with No, the homeless girl she meets at the station. No asks:


— T’as quel âge ?

— Treize ans. […]

— T’es en quelle classse ?

— En seconde.

— C’est pas l’âge normal, ça ?

— Ben… non. J’ai deux ans d’avance.

— Comment ça se fait ?

— J’ai sauté des classes. […] J’ai appris à lire quand j’étais à la maternelle, alors je ne suis pas allée au CP, et puis après j’ai sauté le CM1. (pp. 17-18)

This is one of the main ways Lou’s high intelligence has shaped the situation in the novel : she has skipped two years of school, and is a thirteen-year-old in a class of fifteen-year-olds. The references to the French school system might benefit from a little explanation. ‘Maternelle’, where Lou learned to read, is pre-school, which is not compulsory in France but available for three- to five-year-olds. Then come five years of École primaire (Primary School). They begin with a year of Cours préparatoire or CP, the first year that Lou skips), then two years of Cours élémentaire (CE1 and CE2), followed by two years of Cours moyen (CM1 and CM2), the first of which Lou also skips. After that comes collège, which is Middle School, equivalent to Years Seven to Ten in the British system. The class names count down from sixième (Year Seven) to troisième (Year 10). Finally come the three years of lycée (High School), beginning with seconde, where Lou is currently studying, then première, and finally terminale (Year Thirteen). The names are all feminine, by the way, because ‘la classe’ is a feminine noun.

Lou is not the only person in the novel to be in the ‘wrong’ year of school. Lucas is also in seconde, but at seventeen years old he’s two years out of step from the other direction. The opposite of ‘sauter une classe’ is ‘redoubler’, and redoublement, repeating a year, is obligatory in France for students who fail to make the required grade to progress to the next level at the end of the year. Having students of different ages in the same class is very common in France. Vigan only tweaks the typical situation a little to create the intriguing premise of the brilliant thirteen-year-old as classmate to the slacker seventeen-year-old, to allow their unlikely friendship to form.

There are other effects too of Lou’s cleverness on the story beyond setting up her relationship with Lucas. For a start, it allows Vigan to narrate the story with the sophistication of an adult. Lou does not write like a normal thirteen-year-old: her grammar and vocabulary are of adult standard, and her use of narrative structure, metaphor, and everything else you expect of a novel are operating at the height of Vigan’s storytelling powers, without it seeming implausible that a thirteen-year-old should be doing this.

But what’s crucial to the story is not just that Lou has the intelligence of an adult. It’s that she combines the intelligence of an adult with the personality of a thirteen-year-old. She has a passion for justice, and when she sees homeless people in the streets she has a burning desire to put things right. Older people may be content to walk on by, blame the government, or shake their heads about insoluble problems, but not Lou. Combined with this is a thirteen-year-old’s naivety. She has confidence that No can be fixed. All it will take is a roof over her head, some kind words and a few square meals. Much of the novel’s narrative development comes from Lou’s slow realization that the happy ending which seemed so easy may not ever be in reach. Over the course of the story, we see her become a wiser person, but also a more disillusioned one, as No’s problems prove increasingly beyond her ability to solve, no matter how clever she may be.

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