I've known about Natalie d'Arbeloff and seen her around for quite as long as I've been blogging, but somehow or other we didn't get properly acquainted and start visiting until the last year or so, possibly through Clive's Artlog and the on-line exhibitions there. Though this is somewhat of an oversight, I find it very heartening that I'm still making new friends and discoveries after all this time, including those who have been around even longer than I have. Natalie, for those who don't know, and there must be a one or two if not many, is an extraordinarily talented person in an extraordinary number of areas. She's proud to call herself a blogger (as the name of her alter-ego 'Blaugustine' would affirm), but she was an artist and illustrator of renown long before that, is a rare humorist and clearly has a remarkable and unusual hinterland.
I ordered her La Vie en Rosé not long after it came out late last year, but only got around to reading it fairly recently. It was initially sparked, in 2009, by a kind of bloggers' game of Consequences, whereby one person wrote 250 words, another followed on, etc. I'm afraid at the time I found this exercise rather impenetrable and hard to follow, and suspected it was more fun for those engaged in it than for other readers, so in fact finding that Natalie had followed up the words:
we gulp what is here and ours and nobody's and nothing's...
... George said, handing her his glass of rosé.
That's how he talked. She couldn't understand him half the time but he was a poet and she had learned not to ask for explanations
I was instantly gratified.
I'm rather wary of books and stories written by, for or about English and English-speaking people living in France; fiction or non-fiction, comic or earnest, the 'expat' genre spawned by Peter Mayle and Joanne Harris makes me squirm quite a bit, but in the setting of La Vie en Rosé, though it's not exactly recognisable, I feel she's nailed it, not least because she satirises and subverts the conventions of that genre. I straight away liked, felt drawn into and wanted to believe in the world she creates. The humour is sharp and quick but also light and kind. Natalie, is, I believe, at once very clever and very kind, which is still quite a rare combination. It's funny and charming and wry and moving, and just a joy throughout.
In the story, the two main characters, a most oddly assorted pair, are drawn together, almost inadvertently, by a shared imaginative endeavour. They encounter reversals and obstructions, with many a comedy of errors and hilarious episode, they move on and diverge, largely revert to their old selves and patterns, but are momentarily if not momentously lifted out of themselves, touched by one another and by something larger, changed and strengthened. It's only a little book but a delightful one, not glib or over- romantic, but thoroughly satisfying.
The characters are also drawn with a light but loving touch,
and they are similarly drawn in actual pictures too! The book is illustrated throughout in beautiful grayscale. No stranger to the problems and costs of colour publishing, Natalie has gone for Blurb's small format, low cost black-and-white books, and her drawings are just perfect for it. It's a brilliant choice and makes print on demand a viable and affordable option for authors and readers alike. You can order it directly from Blurb here, and I strongly urge you to do so.
Incidentally, in reading it I learned about the celebrated Facteur Cheval, of whom I had previously been shamefully ignorant. Shortly after, I opened our Almanach de Facteur, that indispensible volume, and found a mention of him and his Palais idéal among other notable French postmen!
Then, consequently, I finally read and was bowled over by The God Interviews. There is so much to say about this, and much has already been said by more eloquent reviewers than I here, so please, I know many of you know, own and love this book already, but if you don't, now's the time to do so, so follow those links. It's not only wise and clever and inspired, it's also magically, beautifully and consistently realised, with myriad tiny,understated witty details that make it worth going back to again and again, though a first reading is quickly accomplished. One of my favourite moments in it are when Blaugustine and God are looking at the 'Super Spiritual Sale' in the bookshop window, with 'All the Answers for the Price of One!', and titles such as My Chats with God by Daphne Dolphin, My lunch with Goddess by Lavinia Starsign, Proof that there is No God by Professor I.N. Fallible, and God is dead, she told me so, by Hippekool Dood. Another is when Blaugustine admits to her own experiential conviction of God's existence (not in so many words) but laments to God: 'But I can't prove it to anyone else', to which God simply replies 'So?'
So thank you Natalie, and I'm sorry it's taken me seven years to get there!