This delightfully entertaining comic novel is genuinely heart warming stuff. It will remind you of Amélie in the way it takes wings on a flight of fancy and soars. In Vintage 1954 Laurain, who has always liked to explore the absurd aspects of life, a very French literary trait, truly gives free rein to his imagination. The result is a romantic tale of time travelling and affairs of the heart that leaves you feeling a bit better about the world (the world as it could be, not as it is). Laurain has a lightness of touch and a playfulness that is charming and cheering and this elegantly simple fantasy is energising.
On the 16th September, 1954, Monsieur Pierre Chauveau witnessed a strange occurrence and duly reported it to the police the next day. His statement describes the incident involving a flying saucer in the Beaujolais region of Burgundy. It happened near to midnight on the said night and, of course, he had been drinking with friends, but he was clear that what he saw was very real. Pierre was walking home alone through the Saint-Antoine vineyard, owned by Jules Beauchamp, when he saw flashes and then bright beams of light that came from something hovering above him as he stumbled and sat down in a mystified stupor.
All across France the number of reports of UFO sightings rose sharply that year. There were many reports from the residents of Charmally-les-Vignes, for instance. Sure, some of the witnesses were alkies and drifters but some were truck drivers, others priests and lawyers, could they all be mistaken or drunk? In 1954 there were over 500 UFO sightings reported, but then the next year the number returned to normal – somewhere between 50 and 100. The press had a field day, blowing it all up as much as possible, making outrageous speculations.
Pierre Chauveau became known locally as ‘Mr. Flying Saucer’. Then things died down for many years, that is until the Spielberg movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in 1978. In the picture house Pierre was shouted down when he claimed that the space ship on the screen was the very one he saw twenty four years before. That night he drank the last bottle of the Chateau Saint-Antoine 1954, a vintage said to be as exceptional as a grand cru (the St. Antoine wine was generally said to be very ordinary in every other year, even for Beaujolais!), Pierre took the dog for a walk and was never seen again.
2017, Bob Brown was looking forward to the holiday of a lifetime with his wife, Goldie, in Paris only to find that she can’t go. After thirty years of dreaming about it, when they finally made the decision to book it, they discovered that Goldie was terminally ill with leukaemia. Now she has sunk into a coma so Bob has decided to go alone (taking Goldie with him in spirit). The couple met in a bar in Milwaukee all those years ago. Goldie thought Bob looked like Clint Eastwood, he thought she was as pretty as a garage calendar girl and it all began with a conversation sparked by a postcard of Paris:
Bob: ‘But no one lives inside it?’
‘No it’s open to visitors, though.’
‘So it’s not used for anything?’
‘No nothing at all, they built it because . . . well, just because it’s beautiful.’
‘What a nation,’ said Bob, admiringly, nodding again. ‘they assembled thousands of Steel girders which weigh a ton, to make a giant pointed thing that does absolutely nothing.’
So Bob arrives at Madame Renard’s Airbnb in Paris with a knowledge of the language from night classes and a love of the films of Jean Gabin, Fernandel, and Maurice Chevalier, he’s even read Ernest Hemingway on the flight over. Bob meets some of the residents of the apartment block: Magalie, a repairer/restorer, Julien Chauveau, a mixologist at the world famous, Henry’s Bar, and the tenant president, Monsieur Hubert Larnaudie. They are all transported back in time to 1954, to post-war Paris, the world of Dali and de Gaulle, Gabin and Piaf. Initially strange and unsettling, they are soon enjoying themselves but will they ever be able to return to the modern world? Why would they want to?
Laurain enjoys playing with some of the themes that preoccupy sci-fi writers, for example, meeting one’s younger self, or one’s forbears (as Ausweis the dog does). Vintage 1954 is knowingly nostalgic, the novel does not wallowing in a misty-eyed representation of the past, it’s all a bit tongue in cheek – just whole lot of fun. Julien gets to meet the founder of Harry’s Bar, a man who is a legend sixty odd years later. Jean Gabon and Edith Piaf befriend the time travellers in an optimistic city recovering from war and blissfully unaware of events and turmoil to come. Britain hasn’t even joined the Common Market let alone considered Brexiting, the euro-zone isn’t even a concept and mobile telephones are decades away.
The comedy is gentle and slightly absurd, there are many clever vignettes and sketches that enrich the novel. The tale of Pierre Chauveau’s dog for example:
“As usual, he also poured a drop into the bowl of his dog, Ausweis, daughter of Schnell, granddaughter of Seig, the German shepherd left behind by the Waffen-SS as they fled, whom everyone assumed was part wolf.”
Laurain’s last novel, Smoking Kills, was a wonderful parody of modern life and obsession (which saw the birth of the smoking ban serial killer). Vintage 1954 is also parody but there are no dark tones here. Perhaps Laurain is reminding us that it was a simpler world decades ago and this is a nostalgic tale but that seems a little shallow to me. Maybe this novel is a reminder that we should make the most of our time and place in this world, life is short, and unlike this novel there are few ‘golden’ second chances or opportunities to distance ourselves from the daily grind.
Comedy is the hardest thing to write and by turns the hardest thing to convey in translation so full marks to Jane Aitkin and Emily Boyce for this jaunty rendering into English. Laurain is also the author of The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook, similar light-hearted farce if you like this novel. I would thoroughly recommend Smoking Kills.
Paul Burke 4/4
Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain
Gallic Books 9781910477670 pbk Jun 2019