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A Very Long Engagement – Sébastien Japrisot

 
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Posted October 14, 2016 by

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The following is a compilation of discussions and reviews from the previous version of our website. We hope you enjoy these older deliberations. Just beware, there are spoilers in here.

 
ReadLit Team

The following is a compilation of discussions and reviews from the previous version of our website. We hope you enjoy these older deliberations. Just beware, there are spoilers in here.

ReadLit Team

Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 23/6/2002, 21:24:36

I have finished reading this book and I understand some of you have finished too, so we can start discussing it.

I must say I really liked this book and that I will try other books by the same author.

Like someone says in the cover, this is part romance, part mystery, part history. I think it is a great love story. Matti has become another of my favourite characters. Of course she’s a spoiled kid, but if I had Monsieur Donnay’s money and a daughter like Matti, I would also spoil her. Through her long, painful and sometimes frustrating ordeal in order to find out what really became of her fiancée (and his companions) we see the horrible thing that war is, especially wars like WWI, with the horrifying experience of the trenches. We witness actions both despicable and noble, as war always brings out man’s best and worst features.

Like the best detective stories, this mystery is constructed piece by piece, with conflicting and even contradictory information getting in the way.

I liked the characters, especially the people taking care of Matti, the “Terror of the Armies”, the Eskimo and Benjamin Gordes, as well as this man’s wife and Germain Pires, the detective.

I would love to know Hossegor, I looked it up in a map and I’m sure it’s a wonderful place.

I will stop here to read what you post, and then we will exchange remarks. Greetings.

~~

Posted by Dave on 24/6/2002, 4:04:03, in reply to “A very long engagement”

Guillermo, I too, enjoyed the book. Thanks for introducing me to this author. I hadn’t even heard of Japrisot before you selected this book for us. It’s too bad he must be read in translation because I’ve read a few reviews that claim that Linda Coverdale’s English version leaves a lot to be desired… is even questionable at points. Especially when she throws in some of the more vulgar phrases for a laugh, apparently this was not in every case the intention of the author.

The story really drew me in, maybe because I have had a previous interest in this whole period of World War 1, and especially the battlefield in France. I recently read Jane Urquhart’s “The Stone Carvers” and the non-fiction account called “Vimy” by Pierre Berton. Both of these really illustrate the immense WASTE of human life that took place there. Berton’s book especially shows the horrors of “No Man’s Land” between the trenches. It was every bit as horrible as here in Japrisot’s book. Canada built a colossal monument on the Douai Plains near Arras France to commemorate the loss of life there, and it was unveiled in 1936. A few years later (WWII) the same plot of land was again in the possession of the Germans. To me, that just illustrates the perpetual insanity of war!

Japrisot captures a lot of that insanity in this novel. For the first few chapters I was so convinced that Manech was obviously dead. I didn’t even question it. But then Matti meets Aristide Pommier and he’s the first one that sort of questions it, by saying… “if he’s dead too” (p.77) and then it hit me… hey, the TITLE of the book is “A Very LONG ENGAGEMENT”… what does that mean?

Maybe the guy is alive somehow?

But then, it went on… Matti in her relentless pursuit of facts… and the more things she finds out, the more I keep saying…. “No, the guy’s dead. Give it up woman!”

Then, you get little glimpses of hope, and again, I look at the title of the book. But honestly, right up to the end I was thinking that there is just no way this guy is alive anywhere.

Then, Matti (and the reader) are just blasted with that conclusive news from Pierre-Marie Rouviere. There is a cemetery in Picardy where Manech and the other four are definitely interred.

“Little Matti,” says Pierre-Marie, “I’m sorry to hurt you this way. You knew he was dead.”

I must say, honestly, I felt her pain when Japrisot writes this striking passage:

“Long after he has hung up the phone, Mathilde sits in her wheelchair with her forehead resting on the table, still holding the receiver which she tries blindly to replace in its cradle and finally lets drop to the end of its wire. She does not cry. She does not cry.”

Wow! What an image. It’s Tolstoyan!

There are many ingenious, intricate things going on in the book. Genre-wise, it’s really a romantic mystery. I thought it was brilliantly done, for instance, just as the information begins to pile up for Matti, Esperanza’s illness gets to a place where he is now too ill for her to be able to re-interrogate him. This very illness which brought on the disclosure of the events of Bingo Crepescule in the first place, now frustrates the conclusion of the matter. And his death causes her to rely totally on other avenues.

There are two things which baffled me though, as to their significance. Firstly, that whole issue about the “stamp” stuff. The whole Penoe/Pence issue that went on for some length. I didn’t get it.

Secondly, the two dates at the very end of the book.

Hossegor, 1989

Noisy-Sur Ecole, 1991.

Didn’t get it.

Actually, the whole thing about the one guy in the German boots too. I don’t think I was grasping the significance of what that whole “boot” issue was about.

But, to be honest, I am not really a “mystery” reader. Maybe that’s the problem, this is not my usual fare.
I questioned at times, the superhuman tenacity of Mathilde also. Would someone really have kept the faith, kept digging and digging like she did?

A great story though. Heartrending at the end. I would recommend it to others. I just wish I could read it en francais!

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 25/6/2002, 13:04:38, in reply to “Re: A very long engagement”

Like Guillermo and Dave I found “A Very Long Engagement” an enjoyable reading experience. With a light touch and from an original angle Japrisot shows us the devastating effects of war on the lives of ordinary, insignificant people, especially on those who stay behind. What I liked about his approach is that it is unsensational and entirely devoid of the pomposity that some lesser writers feel obliged to infuse “epic” war scenes with.

Because the book takes the form of a mystery the reader is easily hooked. I did have to refer back to earlier pages a lot, to keep up with who was who and did what and lived where and with whom. I soon realized that the boots were important and tried to keep track of them and did more or less succeed – but only just. The significance of the Victoria stamp is beyond me, though it made a nice story.

I must confess that I was as surprised as Dave that in the end Manech turned out to be still alive, even though, like Dave, I had suspected as much from the title. Mathilde’s tenacity is amazing; anybody else would have given up and gone on with their lives or died of grief. She refuses to see herself as tragic or to have pity on herself, however. Practically the whole tone of the book is like that. She is, for instance, in chronic pain, but we only find out about this when it is mentioned in passing on p. 207: “The operation is a boring fiasco, except that she is now rid of the chronic pain in her hips”. She is even made gentle fun of by the author, such as in the reactions to her paintings: ‘One woman writes “Your flowers speak”. And the next visitor adds, on the following line, “Let’s just they babble.”‘ (p. 211) I liked that. Without these touches Mathilde would have become too good to be true.

I would not call the book a masterpiece. It is a little too slight for that, not layered enough, not complex enough. But I would certainly gladly give the book as a present to my friends.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 25/6/2002, 13:16:31, in reply to “Re: A very long engagement”

Anna, I think we posted our comments about the same time. When I was done typing mine, yours was already posted.

: hooked. I did have to

: refer back to earlier

: pages a lot, to keep

: up with who was who

: and did what and lived

: where and with whom. I

Me too. I can even claim that I read this book *twice* because I went back so many times.
Lale

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 25/6/2002, 13:12:32, in reply to “Re: A very long engagement”

While waiting for my copy of “A Very Long Engagement”, I heard that it was a story about the war, and not, as implied by the title, a love story. I thought “Oh no, Guillermo is making us read another war novel!”. But I was gripped by this story from the first page on and it is both a war story and a love story. It is also a mystery-suspense and I haven’t read anything that could be even remotely classified as mystery-suspense in a long time.
Somewhere in the beginning:

“After breakfast, Sylvain drives Mathilde to the hospital. She sits in the front seat of the car, while what she calls her “scooter” rides in the back.”

Hmmm. “Scooter”. Maybe it is a real scooter but it is too old or too weird to be called a scooter, hence the quotation marks.
Later on (the night of the same day):

” … wriggles out of her dress, and manages to put herself to bed without any help.”

Why would anyone need help to go to bed? Maybe rich people of 1919 received help to go to bed?
And then later:

“Please, no tears: Mathilde never walked again.”

I really was not expecting this. I was shocked. Did anyone suspect that Mathilde was wheelchair bound? Certainly the wriggling out of the dress and getting to bed without help were two weird points that I stopped to think about, plus the scooter which I also considered for a moment or two. But I never suspected anything like this.
The war is an ugly, dirty business. There must be millions of stories like this. It is incomprehensible, inhuman. The book exposes not only the filth of war intricacies but also the crooked minds of people in charge, who will not hesitate to hide “pardon from the president” to satisfy their own mucky (and petty) desires.

>I had difficulty in relating to Mathilde because she was a little too cold in her manners. The author keeps most of Mathilde’s part of dialogs to himself. We see the people she is talking to but we do not hear what she says in response to their misery, their suffering. That made her come across as a little too cool. But overall, I admired her determination. There are people like her. Who go after, for instance, the murderer of their loved one, or who try to follow the traces of a disappeared relative, for years on end, until they get answers.

: It’s too bad he must be

: read in translation because I’ve read a

: few reviews that claim that Linda Coverdale’s

: English version leaves a lot to be desired…

: is even questionable at points. Especially

: when she throws in some of the more

: vulgar phrases for a laugh, apparently this

: was not in every case the intention of the author.

I am very surprised to hear this. I found the translation very smooth, very natural (or course not having a clue how it was like in original). Apparently this Linda Coverdale is one of the best in her area. The little blurb about her in the book states that she was also the translator of Japrisot’s “Rider on the Rain” and a winner of the 1997 French-American Foundation Translation Prize for Jorge Semprun’s “L’ecriture ou la vie”.

: There are two things which baffled me

: though, as to their significance. Firstly,

: that whole issue about the “stamp”

: stuff. The whole Penoe/Pence issue that

: went on for some length. I didn’t get it.

This was important because her father’s lawyer friend, Pierre-Marie, said that maybe Esperanza had manufactured the letter from Captain Favourier. Later when Matti is talking to her father, they (she and her father) agree that is the Penny stamp really existed then the letter was genuine too.

Just one of those little details she took time to confirm. Certainly not essential to the story but just one of the dots.

: Secondly, the two dates at the very end of the

: book. Hossegor, 1989 Noisy-Sur Ecole, 1991.

: Didn’t get it.

I don’t know what this is all about either. Anyone?

: Actually, the whole thing about the one guy in

: the German boots too.

This was significant. It showed who actually died and who didn’t. Up until the very end we thought Biscuit had last had the boots on.

However, I don’t understand how different German boots can be from French boots. How can it be so obvious? Everyone who saw Eskimo (and later Biscuit) immediately noticed that the boots were German. Are they different colour or something?

One sentence (proverb) that I really liked in the book: “A glass of wine, taken with dinner, leaves Doctor’s purse a little thinner.” I hope it is true 😉

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Dave on 26/6/2002, 2:56:27, in reply to “Re: A very long engagement”

Interesting comments Lale. Incidentally, I just nabbed some insight on those final dates in the book. I found the following suggestion from a review that was written by a Mr. Harry Wareham. He says, “Someone questioned the meaning of the last page, specifically HOSSEGOR, 1989 & NOISY-SUR-ECOLE, 1991. I believe these refer to the years in which Mathilde and Manech, respectively, died: therefore ending their Long Engagement.” Works for me. I don’t know?

Concerning your final comment/question Lale (about wine), I do think there is some truth to it. I am reminded of Paul’s instruction to Timothy in the New Testament of the Bible. He says “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (1Tim.5:23) I know I always feel better after a shot or two.

Now… if I could only find some Scriptural justification for my feelings about beer…

 

Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 26/6/2002, 18:25:34, in reply to “Re: A very long engagement”

Interesting comments. They shed light on the stamp issue. I always noticed the significance of the boots: they tell you who died and who didn’t, just as Lale said.

I also agree on one very important issue: by making a little fun of Matti, and by never letting us pity her, the author made it a credible character. Hers is not a tragedy, but a sad drama of real life. Lucky her father was so rich. I found many of the characters appealing: the Eskimo is a nice, decent guy, although the affair with his pal’s wife is very sad and moving. Benjamin Gorde, “Biscuit” is a tortured man, but an understandingly so one: war is something really horrible that makes awful things happen to people. And the love story between Matti and Manech is simply beautiful.
I was also very surprised at Manech being alive at the end, since I was convinced he had died and Matti’s search would end up bad. It did end sadly, though, since he lost all memories of the good times with her. The death of his parents was so, so sad, but it happened to many people. There is a British WWI poet, Wilfred Owen, and notice what happened to his family (this is a real life story): on the day the bells were ringing in his hometown, announcing the Armistice, and just as his parents and brethren were dressing up to go out, the house bell rang and a postman delivered to them the telegram announcing his death at the frontline. He died on the last day of the war. Can’t that destroy your life or what?
Well, let’s go on reading comments on this good novel, and look forward to July’s Greene. By the way, who’s turn is it in August. You know, sometimes books take long to arrive to Mexico. Lale: my next recommendation will be “A global history of World War Two”, OK? (Just kidding).

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 1/7/2002, 16:00:50, in reply to “Re: A very long engagement”

I searched the web for German boots and French boots and found photos of them.
I created a temporary area (home page, rightmost thumbnail on the second row) to put things that are, well, temporary. I put in there pictures of French and German boots. It doesn’t seem to me that the difference is that obvious. What do you think?

Lale

French boots French Boots

German Boots German Boots

 ~~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 2/7/2002, 20:00:23, in reply to “Re: A very long engagement”

I see little difference: same colour, roughly the same shape. Maybe a stupid question: but are you sure they are from the right war, not from WW II for instance?

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 3/7/2002, 13:00:41, in reply to “Re: A very long engagement”

: are you sure they are from the right war,

: not from WW II for instance?

No, actually, I am not sure. I did consider that possibility myself. But the web sites I found are selling these boots (and other army surplus) and they simply say French army combat boots or German army combat boots. I didn’t spend that much time to make sure. I casually browsed at a few pages and most of them did not make a distinction between the wars. However, I noticed that even though the French boots at most of the sites look the same, the German boots vary slightly from page to page (I figured due to time (i.e. which war) and the rank/class of the soldier). The difference remains the same: French boots have holes for the laces to go through and German boots have those metal hooks on the surface (the laces go behind the hooks).

Nothing spectacular. Especially if you consider the part in the book where Matti says, in reference to the mother of the little girl who found the graves: “Wouldn’t she have noticed if one of them were wearing German boots?”
No, I don’t think she would have noticed.
Lale

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 1/7/2002, 15:55:39, in reply to “Re: A very long engagement”

: Now… if I could only find some Scriptural

: justification for my feelings about beer…

I can’t help you with the scriptural justification but as far as your health is concerned you have to drink a glass of beer everyday. You must. Do it for your health.
Check this site out for more info:

class=”quote”>http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/health/newsid_727000/727912.stm

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Chris on 2/7/2002, 16:21:10, in reply to “A very long engagement”

I’ve been on holiday for a while, so I’m just now getting around to posting some comments on this excellent book.
Matti’s determination to discover the truth of her fiancee’s demise was not always easy to swallow (who has that kind of determination and perseverance?), but her passion for answers made me admire her in some way, and I think I’ll now have to include her as one of my literary faves. I was struck by the fact that her charm enabled her to extract information from people who seemed unwilling to talk because they were trying to forget the war, and while occasionally I found it difficult to believe that she could be so successful with them, I was more often charmed myself with her selflessness and devotion.

\On of my favourite aspects of the book was that Japrisot was able to do what many authors fail to do when crafting minor characters – i.e make them more than archetypes. Too often main characters are three-dimensional and very real while the minor actors are rather cardboard with little depth (think Al Gore). Celestin Poux, Gordes, Kleber, etc were all so human. It was a reminder that everyone’s life is as complex as any other, and that if Japrisot had written this novel about any one of them (especially the Terror of the Armies) it would have been as enjoyable, if not as mysterious.

Some of you have commented about the translation, but I can’t say I have much to contribute there. Usually it is the author’s unique style that is lost in translation, and unless you’re able to read in the original, most times you don’t know what you’re missing. For me, the translation was smooth enough.

Did anyone else think it was fun to wait on the twist at the end? I knew all along that Matti’s fiancee must be alive, but I love the anticipation of not knowing how he survived or how Matti would discover the truth. Any time an author can keep me engaged and frantically reading when I am already certain of the ending by the second chapter indicates a good book to me.

Outstanding book. Four Hearts.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 3/7/2002, 13:19:31, in reply to “Re: A very long engagement”

: Matti’s determination to discover the truth of

: her fiancee’s demise was not always easy to

: swallow (who has that kind of determination

: and perseverance?),

There are people like that. In real life, there are people who search, their entire lives, for the murderer of their loved one, or their missing loved one. Some of these people are rich and spend their fortunes during this search. Some of them are not rich and mortgage their homes, withdraw their retirement savings or simply raise funds.

I do not know if I would be one of them. One needs to be very very strong for this kind of task. Like Matti. And money/connections help of course.
Matti didn’t have to go to a day job. She didn’t have children to look after. She certainly didn’t have financial restrictions. Initially, she had accepted the death of her fiancee (when she got a letter informing her of his death). But when she met Esperanza, when she heard the story, she knew there was something to be discovered and she did it. One wonders if there wasn’t a touch of a “pass-time” in her pursuit. Let’s face it, no job, no friends, no children… yes money, yes time… It might be 80 percent love and passion, 20 percent hobby. Am I being too unromantic and harsh?

There is one question I’ve been meaning to ask you guys. When Matti gave the second newspaper ad, she received a letter that said:

“Celestin Poux died in April of 1917 at Chemin des Dames, so you’ve no need to waste any more of your money. I knew him well.”

The envelope bears the postmark of Melun.
Is it revealed who wrote this letter? Who was living in Melun? Was it the old lady who adopted Manech as his son or was it That Man?
Lale

 ~~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 3/7/2002, 13:40:08, in reply to “Re: A very long engagement”

: Is it revealed who wrote this letter? Who was

: living in Melun? Was it the old lady who

: adopted Manech as his son or was it That Man?

: Lale

It is actually revealed who wrote the letter: it was the lady who took Manech in as her son. She was trying to throw Matti off the scent, but did not succeed of course.

I think you are right about Matti’s perseverance. She would not have gone looking for her fiancé that long if, like the others, she had been poor, forced to work for a living and/or had to look after a bunch of children. Making her both financially independent and physically dependent is a clever way of the author to make her endurance at least partly credible. Her handicap also prevents the reader and the other characters from seeing her just as a rich brat. On the other hand, by being rather off-hand about her disability he also prevents the story from sliding into melodrama and cheap sentiment. All in all, well done.

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A Very Long Engagement – Sébastien Japrisot – 1991

 


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