Jean-Luc Seigle: En vieillissant les hommes pleurent [Men Cry As They Get Older]
Much of this novel is set around a short period in July 1961 in the fictitious village of Assys. The Chassaing family consists of four people. Albert works for Michelin and is proud to be a worker (Nous on est des ouvriers [We are workers]), he repeats. His father had fought in World War I, where he had been invalided out as a result of a gas attack. His mother, Madeleine, is still alive and she lives with them but she keeps very much to herself and is not always sure of who is who. Albert has a much younger sister, Liliane, and, as children, they were devoted to each other, so much so that the locals thought that they had an incestuous relationship, particularly after she became pregnant at age sixteen, though in fact the father was the man she married, André, also a worker at Michelin and a proud Communist. Albert had fought, briefly, in World War II. He had been one of the soldiers in one of the forts on the Maginot Line but, once France surrendered, he was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, where he spent the rest of the war. He is bitterly ashamed of this and it is a key part of the novel. Albert is married to Suzanne, who is an orphan, who never knew her parents and was brought up in an orphanage. Suzanne hates the past and is continually trying to replace the old things in the house they inherited from Albert’s parents, with modern things. The couple have two sons. Henri was conceived before Albert went off to war but born afterwards, so that he was five when he first met his father. Their relationship has been tricky ever since. Henri, however, is the apple of his mother’s eye and her adoration of him almost matches Albert’s adoration of his sister. He is currently serving in the army in Algeria. His mother misses him terribly and she eagerly looks forward to one of his regular letters, which she takes to her room, reads and then cries, before allowing her husband and son to see it. The younger son, twelve at the time of this novel, is Gilles. His mother resents him and makes this clear. He, however, is an inveterate reader and, during the course of the book, he will read Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet. His father, who does not read, is terribly proud of him, though does not tell his son this.
Things are not going too well with the Chassaing family. Albert and Suzanne do not have sex any more. Moreover, Suzanne has become attracted to Paul Marsan, the local postman. Gilles, despite his reading, is not doing well at school (unlike his brother) and makes far too many spelling mistakes for such a reader. His relationship with his mother is strained. In particular, Albert is not happy with his life. He wants to please his wife and lets her handle the finances and buy pretty well what she wants. She is about to buy a television set (the first in Assys), because she has heard from Henri that he has been filmed by a television company for a programme on Algeria and that the programme will be shown shortly. She invites Liliane and André, and Madame Morvandieux, the last of the 1914 widows, also comes. They have also invited Monsieur Antoine. He is a retired schoolteacher, who has returned to the area where he lived as a child and spends most of his time reading books, particularly rereading the classics. Indeed, he is the only man Gilles has ever seen reading. Albert, keen as ever to do something for his youngest son, asks Monsieur Antoine to help Gilles with his spelling. He is both willing to do that and to discuss Eugénie Grandet with the boy. The experience of seeing Henri is very emotional for both parents, in different ways. Suzanne goes off and cries, while Albert is determined to do something to get Henri out of Algeria, both for his mother’s sake but also because he does not want to him to have the shame he had after World War II, realising what a futile war it is. Unknown to his wife and son, he sets off early next morning on his mission.
This book is primarily about aspiration and identity. Albert, above all, wants to be a good worker, a good son, a good father and a good husband. He feels, at least as far as the last two are concerned, he has not done a very good job. It is this failure that pushes him to the final grand gesture. Suzanne, presumably, because of her upbringing in an orphanage, wants to have the latest of everything and does not want to think of the past. She also wants her son back from Algeria. Despite this, she loves de Gaulle because, of course, for many of the French, he represented stability. She seems fairly indifferent to both Albert and Gilles, not least because neither provide the spark she needs in her life. This spark is provided by Paul, the postman. Madame Morvandieux lives for her son, killed in World War I, some forty-five years ago. She visits his grave every day and thinks only of him. Liliane also likes the past, but packaged, not in the general way that her brother does, while André, despite his Communist affiliations, wants an easy life. The pair also look for stability but not from de Gaule but from Stalin. It is the search for this identity that keeps them going and when it is disrupted, as is the case with Albert, it can go terribly wrong or, in the case of Gilles and Suzanne, lead onto something different and, perhaps better.
Seigle tells the story very well, gradually building up to the key event of Albert’s decision, but all the while having the other characters living their lives in their own way, a way different from his. The book ends with an appendix called Imaginot. This is what Gilles thought he heard, as a boy, when he first heard the Maginot Line mentioned and he has kept this in mind. In one of his final lectures as a university professor, many years later, he tells his students about the Maginot Line and how it relates to French literature but also to the history of France and, of course, to the history of his father. It is an interesting lecture which, presumably, resonated very strongly with Seigle and his grandfather but also helps to explain Albert’s action and is an excellent way to round off this fine story.
First published in French 2012 by Flammarion
No English translation
Published in Italian by Feltrinelli as Invecchiando gli uomini piangono in 2013
Translated by Stefano Valenti
Published in Spanish by Seix Barral as Al envejecer, los hombres lloran in 2013
Translated by Adolfo García Ortega