“Il n’y a qu’un bonheur dans la vie, c’est d’aimer et d’être aimé” – George Sand
(There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.)
I won’t tell you what happened in the last book I read, nasty, very, but then I like dark crime novels, so here’s a challenge, a book about love. Hell why not it’s that time of year again, St. Valentine’s day approaching. Why not try something that doesn’t revolve around conflict, tragedy or murder? In any case the author, Stefania Rousselle, decided to undertake this survey of French opinions on love by way of therapy for a broken heart. Her day job as a video journalist had included documentaries on the rise of extremism, the immigration crisis, sex trafficking and slavery, terrorism and the European debt crisis. Her conversion to love makes my quibble about reading through a glass darkly pale into insignificance.
So natural cynicism aside what do I make of Stefania’s journey though France to find the meaning of love in the relationships of ordinary people? To be fair this is not a fluff piece, one person admits to being in love with the idea of love, mostly the stories here are grounded in reality. But don’t forget France is the home of romance. Heloise and Abelarde, the chanson d’amour, the French kiss, “we’ll always have Paris.” (Casablanca), the Eiffel tower, The Three Musketeers (Romanticism), Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve …
The night of November 13th 2015, the Bataclan attack was a seminal moment in Rousselle’s career but also the beginning of a dark period in her life compounded by a failed love affair. It all left stefania: “…broken, I was suffocating, my heart was crushed.”
She took to the road, headed north, to the remnants of the refugee camps the authorities were dismantling. In a chat with Salam Salar, 31, from Pakistan she talks of being in search of love. That began a series of interviews, she stayed in the houses of the people she met, and that’s the body of this book. Brief, joyous or poignant passages that evoke something of what it is to feel love. I can only speculate that Stefania has a skill for putting people at ease and getting them talking about their feelings. ‘What is love?’ Is not a question you can ask on the doorstep. Each piece is accompanied by photographs of the houses, possessions, locations that also speak to the people we meet. Stefania says that “they mended her heart”.
Alexandre loves Yann, he experienced a tough youth including homophobic abuse from his own family. Now they are very happy together: “We are the second gay couple to get married in Elbeuf.” Marie-Elisabeth became a mistress, after a holiday she came back to find her boyfriend engaged to another woman, she thought he would return to her but he got married anyway. Five years later they met again, he was divorced, they rekindled their relationship, they had a daughter, it was on and off over the years, eventually he married someone else. The piece left me wondering, as Marie-Elisabeth did herself, why they never got married, (poignant). Rolande met Claude at a cafe, she sat down at his table and began talking, she invited him home for coffee, three years later the pensioners are still together and very happy. Valerie and Pablo worked together in a restaurant, both were unhappily married, they found each other. The many stories here are of lives turned around by falling in love, of grief, absence, happiness and unhappiness, of having children, learning to be alone, remembering a loved one fondly, survival and moving on, living with disability or illness, abuse and redemption. These people are old and young, from diverse backgrounds, the incurable romantic soul, even, a man in love with war, alcoholism, parental jealousy, and alternatives to a partner:
“I really want a man, but I would rather have a job.” [Clara Michel]
Does this book define love, no, but it does give a flavour of the how love in its many guises feels to ordinary people living ordinary lives. These pieces are touching more than profound, but then poets have been trying to define love for centuries and the words never quite seem enough. This collection may be the lift you need if you’re in a trough, a warm uplifting treat for the season of St. Valentine.
Stefania Rousselle is French-American video journalist and documentary film maker. As part of a New York Times team she was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. In the same year, 2016, her team was awarded the Overseas Press Club’s David Kaplan Award for their coverage of the ISIS led attacks in Paris.
Paul Burke 3/3*
Amour: How the French Talk about Love by Stefania Rousselle
9780241406137 Penguin Hardback Feb 2020