Sunday 25 August 2013

Short Story Sunday: French Connections...

OK folks, I’m getting back on track here. Having a laptop that works properly makes all the difference. This is Brand New (but does not, thank goodness, involve touch screen – the charming young man in the shop agreed that would be a step too far, given my limited technical abilities). But I can save things, and write things, and look at things, which is all I want to do really, and I am sure it will prove most satisfactory when it comes to ordering books – except, of course, I keep promising there will be No More Books, so forget I mentioned it!

Anyway, it’s Sunday, and it must be time for a Short Story so, since I am catching up, here is a selection of short stories from my trusty copy of The Persephone Book of Short Stories. This week I have two: Dimanche, by Irène Némirovsky, and The Photograph, by Phyllis Bentley.

Irene Nemirovsky
I daresay most of you know that Némirovsky escaped the Russian Revolution and fled to Paris, only to die in  Auschwitz, leaving behind a body of work which included the unfinished Suite Française (which is sitting on my TBR stack). I must admit, I didn’t realise that in addition to her novels she wrote short stories, but apparently she produced more than 40 of them, including this one, which focuses on a mother and daughter who, on the surface, appear very different (they certainly think so). But when it comes to love Agnès and 2o-year-old Nadine are not so dissimilar after all, for both are victims of men who do not care - or do not care enough.

Over the years Agnès has become resigned to the point of indifference, and no longer waits in despair for her charming but errant husband to return from his latest affair. Seemingly calm, serene, and self-contained, she finds pleasure in the quiet beauty of everyday life. But as she contemplates the past, and remembers her hopes and fears, Nadine is playing out the same kind of scene, suffering as she waits for a man who doesn’t turn up.

Némirovsky has a light touch when it comes to writing about feelings and emotions, and her descriptions of Paris at lunchtime on a hot spring day conjure up the sights, sounds and smells of the city. Things may have changed since this was written in 1934 - for example, Parisians no longer head for the country on Sundays, they head for the banks of the Seine to take some exercise). But the smell of fresh baked bread still wafts through the air; above the noise of the traffic you can still hear church bells and birds, and the chestnuts still flower in the Luxembourg Gardens. I liked the way  Dimanche is written, and its quiet restraint with all that hidden emotion seething away beneath the two women’s placid exteriors.

There’s also a French connection in Bentley’s The Photograph. Miss Timperley is
Phyllis Bentley.
an ageing, down-on-her-luck, out-of-work governess who considers trying to pass herself off as a younger woman in a bid to secure a job in the south of France. She is admirably suited for the role, but feels her age may be against her.

Well! She would say she was twenty-nine, and she would have a new, modern, young, almost coquettish – Miss Timperley smiled and bridled at the word – photograph taken. She could not afford it of course; but it had to be done. She put on her clothes with quite a rakish air, and betook herself to an expensive West End photographer.

The account of her trip to this establishment is very funny, but the outcome is not as she hoped, although her landlady tells her:

They’re as like as life. Just your pleasant look, they have. They’re right down good.

Poor Miss Timperley (who reminds me a lot of Miss Pettigrew), sends the picture off with her letter of application for, at the end of the day, she cannot tell a lie, and cannot obtain a post be deception. She decides it is better to starve than to cheat, and that she will go down with her flag flying. She even informs her prospective employers of her real age - 58. Then she weeps, ‘pressing her thin fingers against her anguished face’. A week later there is a response from France.

Miss Timperley winced. There was no hope from France, she knew. She opened it wretchedly, and unfolded the sheet with spiritless fingers…

Really, I shouldn’t reveal the ending, and I shouldn’t tell you whether the new photo worked its magic, but you all know how much I love a happy ending, and I loved this little tale, so draw your own conclusions! This was a lovely story, full of humour and warmth, that left me wanting to know more about Miss Timperley, and more about Bentley’s work.


  1. The second story, in particular, sounds just perfect, especially as my sister just sent me a photo in which I notice another huge white streak through my hair! ;-) I'm a HUGE Miss Pettigrew fan. I don't think I've read any Phyllis Bentley, so she looks like something good to explore next time I'm in the library.

    1. I've never come across Phyllis Bentley before, but this was a fabulous little portrait of a woman who has come down in the world, left penniless when her parents died, living in a room in lodgings, desperately trying to afloat as she gets older and older, and nobody wants her. There must have been a lot like that in the 1930s, and this could be sad, but it isn't.

      Apparently Bentley's novels were all set in an around Halifax, in Yorkshire, and she was best known for the Inheritance saga. As far as I can see there are no longer published, but I'm looking for some second-hand copies, just to see what her novels are like.

  2. What is it about Suite Francaise? I've had the book for ages but like you, I've never got around to reading it! Perhaps I should try a short story like Dimanche.

    1. I think a short story is probably a good jumping off point to try more. Somehow, Suit Francaise seems so daunting, and I really don't know why...