Unreliable memories

Memory is a slippery thing. It depends a lot upon what you notice at the time. (Norman: I wonder who owns that yellow Lamborghini parked down the street. Me: There’s a Lamborghini parked on our street?) It also depends upon your interests and pre-existing knowledge. (Me: Don’t you think that Geoffrey Rush was wonderful in The King’s Speech? Norman: Was he the one who played the part of the king?)

The French have a special relationship with memory, and it figures importantly in their literature. There’s Proust, of course, but I think he got one important thing wrong. In that long passage about dipping his madeleine into a cup of tisane and recalling his childhood, he ends with the sonorous words, “l’édifice immense de la souvenir” (the immense edifice of memory). I beg to differ. Memory is not a large, stable, building-like structure. It’s more like…macramé. It’s hard to know where any particular strand will lead, and it’s full of holes.

I think about this whenever I re-read a book that I enjoyed a decade or more ago. Especially one as unusual as The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, by Sébastien Japrisot (La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil), published in French in 1966 and in English translation in 1967. I must have read it some time during the 1980s. I thought I remembered what happened, but it took me by surprise all over again.

Appropriately, the book itself is about the slipperiness of memory, and the way in which one’s perspective influences one’s impressions, and ultimately, one’s memories. It starts off with the first-person story of the lady in question, shifts to the point of view of minor characters (a gas station owner, a policeman, a hitchhiker), then back to the woman, ending with the first-person story of another character altogether.

The Figaro Littéraire once said that Sebastien Japrisot wrote “like Simenon proof read by Robbe-Grillet,” but I think it was the other way around. Alain Robbe-Grillet was one of those postwar writers and film-makers who helped create what was known as Le Nouveau Roman (the New Novel), with books (and films) in which nothing is quite as it seems, and multiple perspectives make one unsure what is really going on. There is no omniscient narrator, only the views of various participants, and no clear “truth” or “reality.” In his famous film L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad), the characters have no proper names, one scene contradicts another, and people move through an enigmatic dreamscape in which people have shadows and objects do not.

Japrisot’s book is like that. It’s not so much a whodunnit (although there is a dead body to be accounted for), as a whatonearthjusthappenedhere.

I won’t spoil the story, but here is the situation. The lady in the car is Dany Longo, who works as a secretary in an advertising firm in Paris. Just before the Bastille Day long weekend, her boss asks her to take on some extra work, by going to his house to type up a long document he needs immediately. She works Friday night and Saturday morning, staying overnight in the house. Then he asks her to drive him and his wife to Orly airport and return the car (a white Thunderbird convertible) to his home.

Dany, with her huge prescription sunglasses, is a timid person, who has never ventured very far from her usual routines, but as she leaves the airport behind the wheel of the Thunderbird, she decides to strike out for the south because she has never seen the Mediterranean. She figures the boss will never know if she gets the car back by the end of the weekend.

That’s when things get strange. As she travels through small towns she has never seen before, people seem to recognize her and the car, and mention incidents that involved her. They insist that she left her coat in a certain restaurant, had her car serviced in a gas station, was stopped by a police officer who noticed her tail-light was broken. As the evidence mounts up, the reader starts to wonder who Dany really is and if her account of events can be trusted. This is all very Robbe-Grillet: in L’Année Dernière à Marienbad, a man keeps insisting to a woman that they had met the previous year, while she denies ever having seen him before. Who is speaking the “truth”?

Japrisot’s book was made into an English-language film with English stars (Samantha Eggar as Dany, Oliver Reed as her boss, John McEnery as the hitchhiker) by the versatile director Anatole Litvak in 1970. It was the last film he ever made (he died in 1974). Interestingly, he also directed All This and Heaven Too, which I wrote about in a previous post.

I haven’t seen the film. I’m not sure I want to. I don’t think it would convey the same disorienting sense of multiple perspectives, from the interior dialogue of the neurotic, yet surprisingly resourceful Dany, to the people who see her only as a remote beauty, aloof and enigmatic behind those huge glasses.

The film even had a peppy little song performed by Petula Clark (!) about hitting the open road and leaving one’s troubles behind. Clearly the lyricist was not paying attention, since Dany’s troubles begin when she hits the road. You can hear the song on YouTube.

Sébastien Japrisot, 1931-2003, wrote several other crime thrillers, as well as the historical novel A Very Long Engagement, made into a movie in 2004 starring Audrey Tautou (I did see that one, and I think the book was much better). It, too, involves varying and conflicting accounts about a particular event that can be interpreted in several ways. Japrisot’s pen-name was an anagram of his real name, Jean-Baptiste Rossi. He knew the advertising world well, having worked in publicity. He wrote eight novels, three of them crime novels, as well as a dozen screenplays, and translated J.D. Salinger and various westerns about Hopalong Cassidy into French.

I have three more of his novels, which I intend to reread over the next while: 10:30 from Marseille (Compartiment Tueurs, 1962), Trap for Cinderella (Piège pour Cendrillon, 1963), and One Deadly Summer (L’Eté Meurtrier, 1978). I may not read them all at once, however. Doing so might destroy my faith in memory forever.

Text by Philippa Campsie

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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2 Responses to Unreliable memories

  1. Great piece Phillipa! The slippery slope of memory is a topic that challenges me as I struggle to write my memoir. I remember seeing Last Year at Marienbad in the 1960s. Haven’t read or seen this one though.

  2. Adam says:

    ‘L’Eté Meutrier’ was made into a film too. I’m not sure if it was better than the book (which I have never read), but at least it had Isabelle Adjani – and all of her too! That’s a very visual memory which would be difficult to lose…

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