"She hears Lucy saying: 'Marie, you love your husband very deeply; you've managed to find complete fulfilment in your love; you are the only one amongst us who really knows what happiness is.' Smiling, she always replies: 'Yes, it's true.' And now, recalling that exchange, that same mysterious smile returns to her mouth. She turns round and stretches full out, her face towards the ground; the smile has disappeared. 'What is happiness?' she asks herself. 'What does happiness mean?'" (p. 6)
This is the theme of the book: how Marie seeks happiness. Does she find it? This seems to be the conundrum left to the reader. She searches in many ways, leading to a very interesting atmospheric feeling in the book. There are many aspects to this feeling, but one is the very big role that the streets, metro stations, cafés, restaurants, and other Paris places contribute to the novel. Here are a few quotes that illustrate this role of the city itself:
"She is hungry again. She orders a sandwich and bites into it with her mouth wide open, holding the bread with her whole hand. No one looks at her or bothers about her; she feels happy. In this vibrant city, with its noises all around her, she feels completely, delightfully alone. A flower seller passes and holds out a bouquet to her. Oh, not violets, please... " (p. 31)
"The night would always climax in a cacophony of delight when they reached Les Halles and saw the beautiful vegetables piled up in the icy dawn." (p. 84)
"She started by walking aimlessly, so elated was she to rediscover the fresh air outside and the bustle of the streets -- but she walked quickly, in long strides, propelled by a physical need for action and speed. By instinct she went back towards the Right Bank, to the Paris she loved: a strange quadrilateral, enlarged and hear-shaped, delineated more or less by the stations Buttes-Chaumont, Bastille, Opéra and Clichy. This was a Paris that people who came from elsewhere found less than dazzling -- but for Marie it was the true heart of the city, where the streets, the houses, the bars, teh people were the most Parisian in the whole of Paris. ... She went into a restaurant in the rue des Petits-Champs and ordered meat, vegetables, cheese, and cider." (p. 116-117)
The very end of the novel shows what Paris means to Marie and its role in her inner life:
"These reflections brought Marie to a halt. She stood stock still on the corner of a Paris street, with dreamy eyes and a broad smile. In the road two workmen were setting up the boundaries of a zebra crossing... One of them looked up and asked her 'What is it, my lovely: are you laughing at the angels?'"
She replies "to herself rather than to him: 'Actually I'm smiling at you.'" And the final paragraph of the novel:
"Just as she smiled at all the gentle people who passed: at two children who lingered to look at her, satchels under their arms; at a woman in a hurry; at a young soldier who had no desire for victory of any kind: at all these gentle people touched by the simple grace of being alive." (p. 141)
Reviewers compare the author to many feminist and modernist authors of the time that she was writing. I find that the work still seems very much alive, very much in a spirit that speaks to people more than 80 years after it was written. And I love the way that it invokes an atmosphere of Paris that seems to me to exist even now.
Blog post © 2022 mae sander.
Shared with the blog event Paris in July.