Tag Archives: No et moi

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.

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.

Bookshelf Book Club: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit by Delphine de Vigan

rien ne s'oppose

posted by Simon Kemp

I was pleased to see that No et moi, the marvellous novel by Delphine de Vigan about a lonely teenager whose life takes a strange turn after she starts a school project on homelessness, is on the new A-level curriculum. It’s a great book (and movie) and well worth your time to read, whether or not you’ll be studying it at school. We’ll take a proper look at it soon.

For now, though, I thought it might be nice to introduce another book by Vigan, Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit (Nothing holds back the night), which is actually her own story, or, more precisely, hers and her mother’s. When you discover how extraordinary Vigan’s own family background is, it’s hard to believe she held it back while writing six novels before telling her own story.

The story starts with Vigan’s mother’s suicide. In the aftermath, Vigan embarks on an investigation among the surviving family members to reconstruct her mother’s early life, and try to understand what led her to her final act. We soon pick up hints of dark secrets in the family’s past and serious mental illness to come.

vigan-intexa1

The first half of the book reconstructs the mother’s childhood and teenage years. Part of a large and lively family, in demand as a fashion model for children’s clothes, it seems from the outside to be a charmed life. But, we become increasingly aware, not everything is as it seems in the family. Early on, Vigan gives us a list of family birth and death dates, copied from her grandmother’s house, and it’s with apprehension that we see each of these dates approach as the story unfolds, sometimes bearing down on lives that seem to have barely begun.

The worst of all, though, remains hidden. It is only much later, as an adult teetering on the far edge of sanity, that Vigan’s mother makes the shocking accusation that will make you reconsider all you’ve read up to that point. Tragically, the response from the family only sends her further into her mental illness. The book, which is by now a memoir of Vigan’s own childhood, becomes gripping and sometimes terrifying, as the mother’s increasingly erratic behaviour puts Vigan and her little sister in ever greater danger. One particular moment, when Vigan  glances from across the street through the apartment window  to where her mother is home alone with her sister, is enough to give you nightmares.

As you’ll have gathered already, Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit is sometimes upsetting book, with traumatic themes, although there’s dark humour too (as when the mother decides to solve her problems by lying in wait for world-renowned psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, and leaping out to attack him). It’s also hard to put down once you’re into it, even though you know from the first page where it’s all leading. And if you’re reading or studying Vigan’s fiction, it’s fascinating to learn about the person who wrote the novels, and how her own life sometimes reflected those of her best-known fictional characters, sometimes departed from them radically.

maxresdefault