She isn’t trying to unearth new gems or evangelize for the overlooked; this is a star show about books and writers so famous that Groskop can compare them to celebrated films:
Perhaps because Jessica Lange stars in both the movie version of Cousin Bette (she plays Bette) and plays Joan Crawford opposite Bette Davis in the TV series The Feud (in which both women consider themselves to be the diva-like Cousine Bette of the piece), I now can’t look at Jessica Lange in anything without thinking about Balzac.
Resuming her discussion of Balzac’s vast output, she offers an inconspicuous aside that a biographer might have spent a long chapter laying out: “My own amateur view of La Comédie Humaine is that he conceived it subconsciously as a way to keep writing. After all, what better way to convince yourself as a writer that you really need to write the next book? If it is part of a series or a grand design, then you simply must keep working.”
I’m damned if I’ve met three recreational readers as astute and amusing as she is about everyone from Flaubert to Françoise Sagan. She knows she’s funny telling stories of her own follies and pretensions and of her girlhood ambitions to master French while growing up in Somerset, England. She reminds us that the “lessons” of French literature almost always come at us sideways or upside down: “Their lessons in happiness are the opposite of the takeaways you find in a self-help book. They don’t always make sense on first reading, and they seem different every time you return to them. The characters in these books are every bit as frustrating and layered as the people we seek to form relationships with in real life.” Reading Groskop, we lose our academic pretensions and realize our love for literature — that is, for books that measure themselves against life rather than against the latest grad-school fad.
The events depicted in French fiction, she shows again and again, are usually grim, and the authors (all men except for Colette, Sagan, and Marguerite Duras) were often cads, as are many of the novels’ passionate and piquant heroes. I’m taken by her accounts of the many ideas and connections the books have inspired in her — for example, consider this observation about Remembrance of Things Past:
Proust is on a nostalgic time-traveling quest where his present self travels backward and his past self travels forward, and somehow they meet in the middle. This fusion of time is what gives life meaning. It’s a deeply felt understanding of what frustrates so many of us in this life. Does anything really matter? How do we know if it matters? Does what we do affect what happens in the future? This is what joy is for Proust: reconciling the fear of loss with an understanding that nothing is ever completely lost.
If you like, you can disparage Groskop as a comedian (because she is one!), a podcaster (of course!), or a promoter of self-realization (she does that too!), but the best readers I know aren’t all professors. Groskop reads with her whole self, her whole experience, and she encounters herself as much in the rapt rereadings as in the disappointments: “[N]ovels can operate as a window into your own soul, one that only you know about. And they can offer extraordinary keys as to how you’ve changed as a person over the course of your life and the lessons that you — and only you — have learned. So it is for me and Julian Sorel.”
Oh, how she used to adore the protagonist of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, and she can’t help but reflect on what that means about her then and now: “[A]s I reread these books at an older age, it has also made me realize that it is a rather sad act, one that means you are always dreaming of another life and never quite inhabiting your own.” She keeps thinking about why we are doing this reading thing anyway — why dive into another culture? “I’ve found a freedom in my passion for this language and this literature. I love it because I want to. I no longer love it because I’m desperate to prove something. It’s an easy love, devoid of obligation.”
She wrestles with Laclos and Colette in ways that seem to suggest they’re too slippery for her, yet the show has to go on while she tries to pin them down. But in most of the chapters, particularly those focused on Balzac, Maupassant, Camus, and Duras, I kept getting up from my chair to go look for these authors on my own shelves. And while my French phase is long past, I still enjoy trying to teach The Stranger and Hugo’s and Maupassant’s stories in community college classrooms.
Groskop herself acknowledges how much her classroom experience with these texts kindled her lifelong love of literature:
One of my happiest memories of my schooldays is my French teacher, Mr. Harley, reading to us aloud from translations of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories. I am not quite sure why he did this (rather than teaching a lesson) or whether he was allowed to do this. After all, we were ostensibly learning nothing, and he was seemingly teaching us nothing. He wasn’t even reading to us in French: he read in English. He read slowly and deliberately, emphasizing certain words, chuckling away to himself whenever he found it amusing. But those stories, read aloud to us, once a week or maybe once a fortnight, were life-changing for me. Perhaps because of those lessons — where all we had to do was listen — we worked harder in the other lessons. Perhaps because of those lessons, we trusted him more, and that made us easier to teach.
Perhaps because of Groskop’s lessons, I want to go back to Balzac and Hugo and even take another ride around the block with Madame Bovary. I’m also grateful to Groskop that her recollection of her French teacher put me in mind of one of the few satisfying online meetings I had this past spring, when my students and I were reeling from the COVID-19 catastrophe: we read short stories aloud around the digital campfire, warm in the glow of Chekhov and Zadie Smith.
Groskop is the best book buddy I’ve never met. If you enjoy her exuberant intelligence and humor, there is plenty more of it in her account of her obsession with Russian literature, which started only after her French obsession was in full bloom, and is happily recounted in The Anna Karenina Fix.
Bob Blaisdell’s new book is Creating Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine (Pegasus, 2020).