Wednesday 31 March 2010

How many Hectors make an acre?

I mentioned a while ago that I was dabbling in various translated novels, and when better than after a trip to Paris to finish off two novels translated from the French? Well, yes, perhaps *on* a trip to Paris would be better, but there's a 782 page reason that I didn't, which will be revealed in a week or two.

Instead, it was my train journey home where I finished a couple of novels (I think I surprised the girl I sat next to, as my bag seemed to have an inexhaustible number of books emerging from it) - and, first up, Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord, courtesy of Gallic Books (thanks!)

Apparently Hector has sold over a million copies worldwide, and Gallic have just brought his words of wisdom to the English speaking world. Having just read books translated from the French by Lelord, Kundera, and Veronique Olmi, I can only conclude that there is no 'French style' which is universally carried across - because the style of this novel is quite unlike anything else I've read. It tells of Hector, a psychiatrist, wandering around the world trying to find out what makes people happy. Or, perhaps more importantly, what makes people unhappy - especially when there seems to be no external reason for their unhappiness.

Lelord is himself a psychiatrist, and so he knows what he's talking about, but as I said - the style is very unusual. Every now and then it's in the second person - the second person, you know... oh wait, that's an example - and it's all written (how shall I put it?) quite childishly. As though it were aimed at children, I mean, rather than telling immature jokes and so forth. Here's an example, which also amused me because I live with one:
A psychologist is somebody who studies how people think or why they go a bit crazy or what makes children learn at school and why some don't, or why they hit their schoolmates. Psychologists, unlike psychiatrists, don't have the right to prescribe pills, but they can make people take tests or choose the right picture in a box or calculate things using dominoes, or tell them what an ink stain makes them think of. And after that they know something about the way your mind works (but they don't understand everything, it has to be said.)
Of course, sometimes writers use a faux-naive voice so as to subtly work on two levels, a sort of knowing wink to the reader - but I don't really get that impression with Hector. Lelord just seems to have chosen quite a guileless, ingenuous narrator - and it works quite well, so that we get a character exploring happiness without an ounce of cynicism. Which just wouldn't happen in the pen of a British writer - we do ooze cynicism with every ink drop.

As Hector travels to far flung places, getting himself into situations which are awkward, dangerous, serendipitous and fun, he compiles a list of lessons about happiness. These are the crux of the novel, so I shan't spoil them now, but to give you an example - the first two are 'Making comparisons can spoil your happiness', and 'Happiness often comes when least expected.'

These sorts of lists could be saccharine and irritating - 'happiness is like a butterfly of joy, flapping its wings of laughter', that sort of thing - but luckily Lelord never wanders into that territory. Each lesson comes from an event in the novel, not just phrased in overly abstract terms. And, since Lelord is a psychiatrist, you realise that the lessons - seemingly off the cuff - actually come together to mirror psychiatric and psychological research, in the least off-putting way imaginable.

All in all, this is an unusual and fun novel, but one which might just have something worthwhile and interesting to say as well - for something else worthwhile and interesting, check out Cornflower's review here!


  1. Oooh this does sound quite unusual and quite different indeed. Oddly it links in to my post today about translations how I want to read more and it sounds like Gallic and this book indeed are places I should be looking. Thanks for letting me know about this intriguing book Simon.

  2. I really enjoyed this book too. It was simple but did have a lot to say in its own ways; I thought it all worked together wonderfully.


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