"Les cerfs-volants" (The Kites) is a good read for those wishing to brush up their French, say from A Level. This novel by Romain Gary, who won prizes under both this pseudonym and that of "Emile Ajar", presents the reminiscences of Ludo Fleury who grows up between the Wars in a Normandy village under the care of his eccentric Uncle Ambroise, celebrated throughout France for his skill in making kites of famous historical characters, and leading men of his day.
After a slow start, I gradually became caught up in the story, as Ludo falls for Lila, the self-centred and over-indulged daughter of a Polish count who hires a house for his family in the neighbourhood during the summer. Although Lila appears to return Ludo's love, she also enjoys the adoration of two other youths, and enjoys playing one off against the other, so the relationship seems doomed. I feared a kind of over-sentimental variation on "Le Grand Meaulnes", but once World War 2 breaks out and the French, much to their mortification, are so easily overrun by the Germans, the story gathers pace and depth. Ludo uses his reputation for being a bit mad to be an active member of the resistance. I liked the very French theme of the local restaurateur's controversial attempt to "cock a snook" at the invaders, by treating them to the highest quality French cuisine, thereby showing the unbeatable superiority of the French where it really matters.
Although the plot is quite clunky in places and not all the characters seem entirely realistic - Lila's father, for instance - there are some striking visual and atmospheric descriptions e.g. Bruno playing the piano on the shore. I like the scenes where Ludo so much wants to be with Lila that he imagines her presence. The story is strengthened by the fact that Ludo is not blind to Lila's faults, and uses a good deal of irony in his conversations with her.
Perhaps the ending is a little idealised, but it is comforting to end such a dreadful period on a note of hope.
It is therefore all the more shocking to learn that Gary committed suicide soon after completion of the work.
on 9 January 2004
The first full length novel I ever read in French amply repaid the effort. (I got a mediocre O-level in French aged 16, started French lessons again nearly 40 years on, and read it 9 months later.) It's got humour, romance, adventure, tragedy, history - the lot. Ambroise Fleury, the "potty postman", and Marcellin Duprat, the restauranteur passionate about French cuisine, are beautifully portrayed, as is the lovely/mysterious/tragic figure of Lila. My only criticism is that many chapters are written as fairly unrelated episodes (but you may see that as a plus point), though the book as a whole has an overall sweep from the first page to the last. You can find a translation of selected chapters to whet your appetite if you do a Google search for "romain gary kites". If you're doing A-level French, grab it and read it!