This is the story of a book that started with a lot of promises and didn’t keep them all. In holidays I brought with me a novel by Philippe Delerm: Sundborn, ou les jours de lumière (the days of light). Philippe Delerm is well known in France for his short book: La première gorgée de bière (The first sip of beer). He writes about small pleasures of life, his short scenes are like old pictures of holidays, of happiness, of basking in the sun. Sundborn was published before the Beer essays that met such a huge success. In this novel, the narrator is a young man who falls in love (or rather is lost in admiration) for a group of Scandinavian painters who came to the Parisian countryside around 1884, attracted by the Impressionists and the quality of light.
I was very interested to learn that this artist colony really existed. There is actually a school of painting that flourished in this little French village of Grez-sur-Loing, around painters like Carl Larsson and his wife Karin, Soren Kroyer, Julia Beck, (writer) Strindberg… I was only familiar with the paintings of Carl Larsson (his family scenes in Sundborn, Sweden, are always a delight to watch), but I had no idea about the others, nor did I know of the influence of French impressionists overseas. Maybe I can try to visit the place, if there’s a museum or something…
I think that the writer attempted to write in an impressionist way. Just as in the First sip of beer that made him famous, he excels at taking a snapshot of a happy moment. A lot of scenes seem inspired by paintings (I didn’t quite identify them, but there are definitely reminiscences…) and discuss why painting (and art in general) is useful to life. But the problem lies in the plot, in linking snapshots to write a complete story.
The young narrator spends his days in Grez enjoying life with his new Scandinavian friends and watching them paint. But soon, the colony breaks up and painters go back to their home countries, notably Larsson to Sundborn, and Kroyer to Skagen, a small fisherman village at the tip of Denmark. The narrator then spends his life going from one place to the other and trying to relive the colony heyday. But once each of them has gone his separate way, the magic of the moment never really returns as it used to be.
Mr. Smithereens read the book first and didn’t like it: he sighed and grumbled (which means he was very near throwing the book through the window). He said it was soppy. It’s true that the characters are always painted as either happy or sad. That they are all very nice. And that happy moments are painted in lyrical terms. But I wouldn’t say that it was the fatal flaw. The major problem is that the narrator is only a mirror for the painters. He has no life of his own, no talent other than faithful friendship. He’s purely ethereal. He just wastes his life living by proxy, watching others but doing nothing. So we readers aren’t really engaged by the story he tells us, even though there are plenty of emotions at stake. This story would have been so much more interesting if it had been told by one of the painter, or someone who was really alive.