Tag Archives: A-level texts

No et moi: What’s with the kitchen gadgets?

posted by Simon Kemp

Here’s an odd little detail from No et moi, Delphine de Vigan’s novel about a thirteen-year-old genius who befriends an older homeless girl. Towards the end of the novel, Lou (the thirteen-year-old) is feeling overwhelmed by the situation. A few weeks earlier, the story almost seemed to have reached a happy ending, with No installed in Lou’s family home, happy, sober and in employment, and Lou’s mother lifted out of the long depression caused by the death of Lou’s baby sister Thaïs by the experience of helping No put her life back on the rails.

Now, though, all of this has fallen apart. No’s drinking and pill-stealing have seen her thrown out of Lou’s home, and Lou has reason to believe that the temporary refuge she has found with Lucas is now under threat. Lou’s own secret crush on Lucas is running up against the harsh reality of their four-year age difference, and she is filled with jealousy at his attention to other girls his age. When No gives Lou an expensive thank you gift, Lou is struck by the contrast between the bleakness of No’s situation and the fake glamour of the perfume advertisement on a poster that forms the backdrop to the scene.

She heads home in a black mood, slams her bedroom door in her mother’s face, and later tells her father:

Depuis que Thaïs est morte maman m’aime plus. 

(The scene, by the way, is pp. 221-22 in the Livre de Poche edition.) Her father tells her she’s mistaken:

Lou, tu te trompes. Maman t’aime, elle t’aime de tout son cœur, elle ne sait plus très bien comment faire, pour le montrer, c’est un peu comme si elle avait perdu l’habitude, comme si elle se réveillait d’un long sommeil, mais dans ses rêves elle pensait à toi, beaucoup, et c’est pour ça qu’elle s’est réveillée.

Lou says ‘d’accord’ to show she’s understood him, and even smiles. But inwardly, she’s thinking… what?

She’s thinking about kitchen gadgets:

J’ai pensé aux vendeurs devant les Galeries Lafayette, perchés sur leurs petits stands, ceux qui font des démonstrations avec des machines incroyables qui découpent les trucs en cubes, en tranches, en rondelles, en lamelles, en roses des vents, qui râpent, pressent, broient, mixent, bref qui font absolument tout et qui durent toute la vie.

N’empêche que moi je ne suis pas tombée du dernier RER.

And there the chapter ends. What does it mean?

Galeries Lafayette is a deluxe department store in Paris, and these salespeople are in the street outside it. (Do they work for the department store, or are they just hoping for a little reflected glory on the product they’re selling?) The kitchen gadget they’re demonstrating is a kind of miracle all-in-one food preparation device that can dice, slice, grind, mix and do all of the other things listed above, plus more besides, and which will never break down as long as you live. Or at least, that’s what they claim.

Lou’s comment on this loosely translates as ‘Even so, I didn’t fall off the last RER’, the RER being the Paris crossrail linking the suburbs to the city centre. Even if you don’t spot the similarity to the more usual French expression, ‘je ne suis pas tombée de la dernière pluie’, you can probably guess from the context that this is Lou’s urban version of the expression meaning ‘I wasn’t born yesterday’.

With that, things start to become clear. The gadgets are just too perfect: they do everything, you can rely on them for ever. Clearly, the salespeople are lying, and the thing will spend a couple of weeks grinding when it’s supposed to grate and slicing when it’s supposed to dice before breaking down completely and spending the rest of its life at the back of a cupboard.

If the kitchen gadgets are a symbol, then, they must symbolize the idea that Lou’s father’s reassurance is also a lie, that the picture he paints of a mother who loves her daughter dearly but just needs a little more time to recover from her depression is also too perfect to be true.

Lou has witnessed how No managed to bring her mother out of her shell, make her smile again and engage with the world, in a way that Lou herself has never been able to. Earlier, Lou was left ‘très en colère’  (on p. 157) when her mother shared a bottle of wine with No and opened up to her about Thaïs in a way she never had with Lou. So Lou is jealous of her mother’s relationship with No, and resentful that her mother hasn’t shown so much closeness to her for years.

It’s never clearly expressed, but we can also speculate about what may lie beneath these feelings: is Lou secretly afraid that her mother would rather that she, Lou, had died and Thaïs had lived?

And if so, is she right to be afraid of that?

We’re left to make up our own minds about these questions. My own view is that Lou’s father is largely right: Lou’s mother has behaved like she has because she has been suffering from depression, not because she does not love her daughter. Lou’s sceptical thoughts about food-processors tell us more about her own (understandable) feelings of insecurity, than they do about her mother’s true attitude towards her.

You may read it differently. However you interpret it, though, it definitely forms a part of the novel’s deeper story about how Lou slowly comes to understand that in real life there are no fairy-tale happy endings, and that broken people cannot be easily fixed.

Entre les murs (The Class): What does the teacher call his students?

posted by Simon Kemp

(This is the fifth post in an occasional series asking and answering a key question about the books and films on the A-level French syllabus. You can find the others by clicking the ‘A-level texts’ tag at the end of this post.)

Entre les murs (The Class) is a 2008 film about a class of teenagers in an inner-city Paris school and their teacher, M. Marin. It stars François Bégaudeau as the teacher, who also wrote the screenplay, adapted from a novel he wrote inspired by his own teaching experiences.

If you don’t know the film, here’s a subtitled version of the trailer:

The turning point in the film, and one of the most dramatic moments in the story, centres on a single word. Since the start of the film, M. Marin has had a teasing, sometimes slightly mocking attitude towards the students, which has been met with a healthy disrespect coming back at him. On this day, though, he pushes things too far and openly insults two of his students. A line has been crossed, the class is in uproar, and there will be serious consequences for teacher and pupils alike.

To set the scene: Esmerelda and Louise are the class representatives, who, as part of their role, get to sit in on teachers’ meetings. The previous day they attended such a meeting and annoyed M. Marin with their whispering and giggling. Today in class he discovers that they have passed on sensitive information from the meeting to their classmates, including some negative remarks he made about one of them. As the mood in the class turns mutinous and M. Marin gets increasingly flustered, he starts to criticise the two girls for how they behaved during the meeting, and the following exchange occurs:

Louise : Mais nous, on a fait juste notre rôle, hein, rien de plus !

Esmerelda : On dit ce qui s’est passé au conseil de classe.

M. Marin : Ouais, bien sûr, ouais. Je n’avais pas cette impression-là, moi. Quand je vous ai vues ricaner là, un moment pendant le conseil, moi j’ai eu un peu mal, ouais ? Ça m’a fait un peu mal pour vous.

Esmerelda : Ah, bon ?

M. Marin : Et j’ai trouvé que c’était ni le lieu ni le moment de le faire. Et que c’était pas très sérieux pour tout dire, d’accord ?

Esmerelda : Ouais, ben, ça dérangeait personne en tout cas.

M. Marin : Ah, mais si ! Si, si. Ah, non, non, non, non, non. Moi, ça me dérangeait, et je crois en plus pouvoir dire que ça dérangeait des autres aussi.

Esmerelda : Non, non, non. Ça dérangeait que vous.

M. Marin : Si, si. Moi, je suis désolé, mais rire comme ça en plein conseil de classe, c’est ce que j’appelle une attitude de pétasses.

Louise : Quoi ?

Esmerelda : Eh, mais vous pétez un câble ou quoi ?

What did he just call them? Here’s how the English subtitles translate the dialogue:

We’re just doing our job. / Yeah.

We say what happens at the staff meeting.

Yes, of course.

I didn’t get that feeling

When I saw you two giggling, I felt bad.

I felt bad for you.

Really? / It was not the time or the place to giggle.

That’s not responsible.

Well, it didn’t bother anyone.

Yes, it did.

It bothered me and the others as well. / No way.

To giggle during a meeting like that is behaving like a slut.

What?

Are you out of your mind?

The English insult in the subtitles certainly works in the film. It would believably trigger the student outrage against the teacher and the disciplinary proceedings that follow. But is it right?

When they come to talk about the insult later on, the student and the teacher have very different ideas about what the word means:

 

Esmerelda : Déjà, pour moi, pétasse, ça veut dire prostituée.

M. Marin : Une pétasse, c’est une fille pas maligne qui ricane bêtement.

 

And dictionaries also disagree. The Petit Robert defines pétasse as :

prostituée  [employé le plus souvent comme injure]

while Le Dictionnaire de la Zone, which specializes in up-to-the-minute slang usage, says it means :

 femme d´allure vulgaire, provocante, aguichante

which, while maybe not as innocent as M. Marin’s own definition of the word, is closer to his version of it than it is to Esmerelda’s.

So it does seem that M. Marin’s insult, while it’s definitely inappropriate language for the classroom, might genuinely mean different things to different people, especially if they’re people of different ages and backgrounds like M. Marin and Esmerelda. He thinks he’s accusing Esmerelda and Louise of behaving like dumb, giggling girls; they hear him calling them prostitutes.

Pity the poor translators who had to try to get these nuances across in the English subtitles. I think we can probably agree that they didn’t quite manage it, and I think we can also probably agree that we couldn’t have managed any better if it had been up to us to do it. Sometimes there simply is no word in English that will translate the full meaning of a French one, with all its connotations and ambiguities. Lucky for us, then, that we can deal with the French words directly, without having to rely on the subtitles!

Why is there an earthquake in Candide?

posted by Catriona Seth

As the ship on which Candide is sailing nears Lisbon at the end of chapter 5, the sky becomes gloomy : ‘l’air s’obscurcit, les vents soufflèrent des quatre coins du monde, et le vaisseau fut assailli de la plus horrible tempête’. Candide, Pangloss and ‘ce brutal de matelot qui avait noyé le vertueux anabaptiste’ are the only ones on board who survive the storm and as they set foot in town, they feel the earth quake beneath their feet. Voltaire gives a graphic description of what happens. He was drawing on a recent historic event.

An 18th-century engraving of the Lisbon earthquake

 

On November 1st 1755, Lisbon, at the time the third largest port in Europe, was hit by a terrible earthquake and tsunami. Much of the city was destroyed. In the following days, reports speaking of 100 000 deaths reached Geneva where Voltaire was living. These were certainly excessive, but they bear witness to the magnitude of the catastrophe, which is still considered to have been one of the deadliest earthquakes ever.

Voltaire was so distressed by the news that he set about writing a long poem. He called it Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne ou Examen de cet axiome ‘Tout est bien’. He speaks of the innocent lives lost and can find no justification for why Lisbon should have been wiped off the face of the earth rather than similar cities like Paris or London.

‘Tout est bien’ refers to the doctrine of optimism: thinking that on the whole ‘tout va pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles’, as the fictional Pangloss would say. Optimism was defended by the German philosopher Leibniz in his 1710 Theodicy, which justifies the existence of evil. He claimed the world could not have been better: to suggest it was imperfect, he believed, was like accusing God of not being up to the task he had set himself.

Following the earthquake, the philosophy of optimism no longer seemed defensible to someone like Voltaire. As he wrote to a correspondant on November 30th 1755, ‘Vous savez l’horrible événement de Lisbonne […] voilà un terrible argument contre l’optimisme.’

Candide was published four years after the terrible events, in 1759, and with the subtitle ou l’optimisme’. In the book, the earthquake comes hot on the heels of a battle-scene. The slaughter is a manmade disaster. The earthquake is a natural one. You cannot blame anyone for it, in the way you might accuse a bellicose general of making his troops fight. The generous and virtuous Anabaptist drowns at the beginning of the episode set in and around Lisbon, whilst the wicked sailor survives. There is nothing moral about this. It clearly shows that all is not well.

During the whole of the ‘conte’, Candide, whose name means he is candid or naïve, is made to learn through experience (and through unlearning what Pangloss has erroneously taught him). Here he is shown that the force of nature cannot be controlled and that sometimes innocents die when criminals survive. This is an illustration of the fact that Pangloss’ philosophy (optimism) does not offer an acceptable explanation of the world. A number of other passages in the text show this in different ways, like the encounter with the ‘Nègre de Surinam’, a slave mutilated by his nasty owner.

Illustration by Norman Tealby for a translation of Candide (1928)

 

Just after the earthquake in Candide, the Lisbon authorities organise an auto-da-fé: literally an ‘act of faith’, supposed to ward off any future disasters by torturing heretics. Voltaire is very sceptical of such actions. Since earthquakes have physical causes, there is no way that burning criminals will have any effect on their occurrence. The university of Coimbra’s supposed pronouncement that ‘le spectacle de quelques personnes brûlées à petit feu, en grande cérémonie, est un secret infaillible pour empêcher la terre de trembler’ is obviously ironic. Voltaire shows us (and this is a subject to which he frequently returned in his writings) that too often punishments do not fit the crime.

Even the severity of the alleged ‘crimes’ is called into question. One of the people put to death before Candide’s eyes has married his godchild’s godmother—an arcane rule of the Catholic Church said that if you were godparents to the same child you were technically related and therefore could not marry. The two others are executed because they removed the bacon in which some chicken had been cooked: this is thought to reveal their fidelity to the Jewish faith. Though Voltaire believed in God, he thought that established religion served to divide and not to unite people. This scene, depicting the public burning of people who simply failed to conform to what seem to be arbitrary and even insignificant ‘rules’, allows him both to condemn superstitious attitudes to natural catastrophes, and to imply that the world would be better off if reason—rather than blind faith and a slavish adherence to religious doctrine—were to triumph.

An example of an auto-da-fé

 

So, to recap, there are several reasons why the earthquake matters:

  • It is a historical event which would have been familiar to Voltaire’s contemporaries.
  • It is a way of showing that natural disasters are not selective in the victims they make.
  • It forces Candide to start facing facts: all is not always for the best.
  • It demonstrates that optimism is a fallible philosophy.
  • It provokes the the auto-da-fé, which shows that religion can be bloodthirsty, and that by encouraging superstitious actions, the Church is clearly pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes.

Candide is known in French as a ‘Conte philosophique’, a philosophical tale. This is because it is a fictional story which is often quite amusing, but one which sets out to teach us something profound and not just to entertain us. Candide’s learning curve is meant to function for the reader too. Like him, we should be asking ourselves what conclusions can be drawn from his different adventures.

L’Étranger: When does Meursault tell his story? (Part Two)

posted by Simon Kemp

Last week we saw the slippery way in which Meursault tells his story from different points along the way, without drawing attention to the fact that he’s doing it.

I left you with the opening lines of the story, which contain the first of Meursault’s time-slips, with an invitation to look at the verb tenses and catch him in the act.

Here’s the passage again, with all the verbs in different colours used to highlight the présent, futur, passé composé, imparfait and futur antérieur (‘will have done’) tenses:

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile: “Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.” Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.

L’asile de vieillards est à Marengo, à quatre-vingts kilomètres d’Alger. Je prendrai l’autobus à deux heures et j’arriverai dans l’après-midi. Ainsi, je pourrai veiller et je rentrerai demain soir. J’ai demandé deux jours de congé à mon patron et il ne pouvait pas me les refuser avec une excuse pareille. […] Pour le moment, c’est un peu comme si maman n’était pas morte. Après l’enterrement, au contraire, ce sera une affaire classée et tout aura revêtu une allure plus officielle.

J’ai pris l’autobus à deux heures. Il faisait très chaud.

You can see first of all just how complex it all is when you use tenses to work out how everything relates to everything else in time. In the first two paragraphs, the present tense is used to set the scene with facts (L’asile de vieillards est à Marengo) and to tell us Meursault’s current situation (he doesn’t know when his mother died, the line in the telegram doesn’t mean much, it is a bit like she’s not dead). From that present tense anchoring us in now, we head back to events in the past: his mother died, he received a telegram about it, he asked his boss for some leave. With the imperfect we get a situation in the past (his boss wasn’t able to refuse), and a hypothetical alternative present (it feels as if she weren’t dead). We look ahead to a future in which Meursault will get the bus, will arrive at the old people’s home, will watch over the body, will come back home, and the whole business will be over and done with. And finally Meursault imagines looking back to the past from the future, from which point everything will have taken on a much more official air.

So, as you see, the opening lines establish a knot of past and future events around Meursault’s now, from which he’s telling his story, a point after getting the news of his mother’s death and speaking to his boss, but before heading off to the funeral. Straight away, though, when we get to the third paragraph, this now has shifted. The action that Meursault got on the bus and the situation that it was hot are now in past tenses, which means the events are in Meursault’s past, and his storytelling now must have shifted some way into the future.

There are other odd little references to the storytelling now in the book. In Chapter Four, as Meursault is telling us about the day Raymond’s attack on his girlfriend brought a policeman to the flat, he starts by saying what happened ‘ce matin’ suggesting that he’s narrating the chapter from later the same day. And the last chapter of the novel seems to pull a similar trick to the first: the opening lines are narrated from a now before the prison chaplain has come into Meursault’s cell, and then at some point we jump forward, and the chaplain’s visit is told in the past tense. That means there are at least five different points from which the story is told, and probably more — perhaps every chapter is told from a different moment in time.

So what’s the point of doing this?

One important effect is that it makes the novel immediate. Meursault is always telling his story from a point close to the action, either in the heart of events or shortly afterwards when they’re fresh in his mind. This makes the novel much more vivid, and allows us to share Meursault’s experience much more closely, than we would if he were telling us the story retrospectively from a point after it was all over.

Secondly, a related effect is that the story being told feels raw. Because he’s telling us the story more or less as it happens, he hasn’t had much time to process or analyse it. That means he gives it to us straight, without having really thought deeply about what things mean, but also without trying to present things in a way that might put him in a good light. This makes the storytelling seem honest and sincere.

And lastly, the intermittent time of narrating means that Meursault has no hindsight. As he’s telling us about the funeral, he doesn’t know the terrible consequences that his trivial actions will have when they’re brought up at his trial as evidence of his heartless nature. As he agrees to write a letter for Raymond, he doesn’t know that he’s taking the first step along the road to his own conviction for murder. Camus’s philosophy of life, like that of his friend, Jean-Paul Sartre, emphasised the randomness of life. For them, life, unlike stories, was not heading for a particular conclusion and had no meaning or message to impart along the way. Camus’s way of telling his story as it goes along is part of his attempt to capture a vivid sense of life as unplanned and unpredictable.

As a guy who takes life as it comes, going with the flow without too much thought or effort, Meursault doesn’t seem the type to keep a diary. Nor is he the sort of person who’d be writing an autobiography for publication, or even someone likely to recount his story to friends over a drink. This might be why the novel keeps its unusual storytelling in the background. We’re meant to feel that the narration is close to the action, but perhaps not enquire too closely as to how, why, and to whom Meursault is telling his story.

 

 

L’Étranger: When does Meursault tell his story?

posted by Simon Kemp

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.

It’s one of the most famous opening lines in modern literature. And it sounds like it answers our question right away. If Meursault says his mother died today, then, clearly, that’s when he’s telling us his story: on the day that he gets the telegram from the old people’s home informing him of her death.

Except that can’t be right, because everything in the story happens after that moment, and he can’t tell his story before it happens. We follow Meursault through the funeral, through work and leisure back home in Algers, through the shooting on the beach, imprisonment, trial and verdict, and by the time we reach the end of the story, a year has passed and summer has come around again. The last sentence of the book is narrated in the past tense (‘il me restait à souhaiter…’) from a point some time after Meursault has thrown the chaplain out of his prison cell and (we presume) before he gets his head chopped off by the guillotine. So the Meursault telling the story on the last page of the novel is at least a year older than the one who started it on page one.

Most stories that are told in the past tense by a first-person narrator, as L’Étranger is, pick a moment some time after the whole tale is finished and make that their time of narrating (the ‘now’ of the storytelling voice). One of the unusual things about L’Étranger is that Meursault seems to tell his story from several different points during and after the events he’s telling us about. To use the precise terms, it’s narrated intermittently (from time to time through the course of the story) rather than, as is usually the case, retrospectively (looking back from after it’s all over).

You do see first-person narrators in other novels who, like Meursault, tell their stories intermittently. Greg Heffley is one. Bridget Jones is another. Antoine Roquentin is a third. All these stories, though, draw attention to their intermittent narration by using the diary form. Greg, Bridget and Antoine let their reader know clearly when the time of narrating changes by marking a new entry in the diary. (As well as diary entries, a similar effect can be used by telling a story through letters, probably the most famous example of which in French literature is Les Liaisons dangereuses.)

Meursault, though, slips between different times of narrating without always making it clear when he’s doing it… or why.

Here’s the first time it happens, in the very first lines of the story:

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile: “Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.” Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.

L’asile de vieillards est à Marengo, à quatre-vingts kilomètres d’Alger. Je prendrai l’autobus à deux heures et j’arriverai dans l’après-midi. Ainsi, je pourrai veiller et je rentrerai demain soir. J’ai demandé deux jours de congé à mon patron et il ne pouvait pas me les refuser avec une excuse pareille. […] Pour le moment, c’est un peu comme si maman n’était pas morte. Après l’enterrement, au contraire, ce sera une affaire classée et tout aura revêtu une allure plus officielle.

J’ai pris l’autobus à deux heures. Il faisait très chaud.

Take a look at the tenses of the verbs in this extract, and see if you can unravel how the events fit together in time, and how the time of narrating changes. Next week, we’ll pick it apart in detail together, and think about why Meursault, and Camus, might choose to tell their story this way.

Un Sac de billes: What does the bag of marbles have to do with anything?

billes

posted by Simon Kemp

Joseph Joffo’s memoir of his time as a Jewish ten-year-old on the run with his older brother in Nazi-occupied France is justifiably famous, and it seems to be a popular choice among the set texts on the new A-level syllabus. As the first in our series answering questions about these texts, let’s see why the book has the title un sac de billes, given that marbles don’t feature in the book beyond the opening chapters.

Marbles are, of course, where we start in the story, with the game being played in the street between Jo and Maurice. Why start the story at this moment? Well, the episode is filled with foreshadowing of the story to come:

  • Maurice and Jo will return from the game to find two S. S. officers at their father’s barber shop, leading to their first real encounter with the Nazis and their antisemitism.

 

  • The game of marbles itself is watched by Mémé Epstein, who, Joffo mentions, is a Jewish woman who has found safe haven in Paris from the pogroms, attacks on Jewish people in Russia and Eastern Europe earlier in the century. A repeated theme in the story will be the fact that this kind of mass persecution of the Jews has happened before (including to Jo’s Russian grandfather), and that means it could happen again in the future.

 

  • And, most clearly, marbles come to symbolize the bond between the brothers. Maurice wins Jo’s last marble off him, fair and square, but, knowing how much he likes it, gives it back to him:

 

Un frère est quelqu’un à qui on rend la dernière bille qu’on vient de lui gagner.

 

The bond between the two boys is a central theme of the story, and their concern for each other is what will allow them to survive the coming ordeal.

 

The returned marble itself is also rather special. It looks a little like a miniature globe, and Jo likes to pretend he has the world in his pocket:

 

Il est bon d’avoir la Terre dans sa poche, les montagnes, les mers, tout ça bien enfoui. Je suis un géant et j’ai sur moi toutes les planètes.

 

There’s not much in the way of symbolism or metaphor in Joffo’s memoir, but this is one definite symbol. The world-marble gives Jo a fantasy of immense power, which is ironic as his extreme powerlessness is about to be brought home to him. But there’s also the fact that there actually is now a giant holding the whole planet in its grip, metaphorically at least. Fascism’s influence over the  world, its threat to humanity as a whole, and its pervasive power that can’t be escaped, no matter how far you run, is implicit in the image.

 

But hang on a minute… what about the bag?

 

There’s no bag of marbles in the opening scene. In fact, Joffo specifies that the marbles are in Maurice’s pockets, which are bulging with them : ça lui fait des poches comme des ballons.

So where’s the bag of marbles?

billes2

It turns up in Chapter Three, in a much briefer scene than the opening marbles game, but one that reinforces many of the same themes. Jo has gone to school with a yellow star sewn onto his clothes for the first time, and as a result has found himself insulted by his classmates, ignored by his teacher, and finally, beaten up in the playground. His non-Jewish friend Zérati, who feels guilty at having drawn attention to Jo’s star in the first place, runs after him and proposes a trade:

 

Mon étoile. Pour un sac de billes.

 

The marbles are handed over in another act of kindness : not between brothers this time, but between Jo and a non-Jewish person, foreshadowing the unexpected kindness the brothers will encounter from French people as they travel, and perhaps showing a better world of common humanity that the coming years will very nearly snuff out entirely.

billes3

So the marbles play a double role in the story, covering the twin themes of the book: on the one hand, immense power holding the world in its grasp in Jo’s fantasy, and its flipside of vulnerability in Jo’s real status, and on the other hand, the solidarity that will enable Jo and Maurice to survive the années noires of the Occupation.

 

And as well as all this, the marbles are just what you know marbles are: a children’s game. Perhaps that game in the street, just before meeting the S. S. officers at their home, is the last true moment of childhood in Jo’s life. Certainly, his childhood is over a little while later as he leaves home with his brother. Looking back, Joffo remarks of that night:

 

C’en était fait de l’enfance.

 

His childhood is over, not only because he will lose the security of home and the care of his parents, as he has to fend for himself in the world. It’s also over because any childhood illusions he may have had – that grown-ups are wise and good, perhaps, or that the world is a safe and predictable place – are about to be brutally dispelled.

 

There’s a reason marbles don’t feature in the book beyond the opening pages. They’re for children, and Joseph Joffo’s childhood ended at the age of ten.