Erik Orsenna – Deux étés



Erik Orsenna – Deux étés

Original title and publisher: Deux étés – Paris : Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1997

The first sentence of Deux étés is made up of no less than 175 words. After reading it, I was somewhat discouraged and put it aside, at the bottom of my ‘must read’ pile. After a week or two, I picked it up again for a retry and found myself reading it in one go. And since then I can not help but wonder why this book was never adapted for the screen.

Place of action is an idyll : île de B., a Breton island,  ”deterring the clouds; they keep their distance, as if they’re attached to the mainland. An irresistible smooth sky, it must be the caress of a sidetracked Gulf Stream. Flora from different climates, aloes, mimosas, palm trees, a piece of Sardinia in in the middle of the Channel.” Orsenna’s visual and colourful language makes you experience the blue of the ocean, the green of the trees and the variegated flower splendour.

The plot is equally film-worthy: one day translator Gilles arrives at île de B. He escaped Paris, taking his 47 cats and his Remington with him and moves into an old island cottage. He is commissioned to translate Ada by Vladimir Nabokov, a hell of a job. But Gilles prefers dead writers to the complicated Nabokov; dead writers never interfere with his translations. Besides, the translator rather drinks wine and have lively discussions with the island vicar than sit down at his loyal typewriter.

Meanwhile in Paris, his publisher is becoming increasingly impatient and Gilles is bombarded with letters and personal messengers that are sent to île de B. To no avail. Until the summer arrives and the island is flooded with holidaymakers. Under guidance of Mme de Saint-Exupéry (indeed, a descendant of …)  they all do their bit and help to complete Ada.

The contemplative metaphors on the translator profession, the comical discussions with the publisher assistant from Paris and the poetic island views of the protagonist would have been perfect for the film scenario.

About the author: 

Erik Orsenna is the pseudonym of Eric Arnoult, a French politician and member of the Académie Française. The first-person narrator of Deux étés is Orsenna himself. His father’s family owned a holiday house on île de Bréhat where as a child he spent many memorable summer vacations. These memories have been woven into the novel. His website suggests that his love for the island has always remained.

Deux étés has not been translated into English. But in addition to the original French, you can read it in Dutch (Twee zomers) and German (Inselsommer).

The best view of the Bréhat archipelago

The west coast of Île de Bréhat

To enjoy the best view of an island it’s usually best not to actually live on it. At least that was Eugène Schueller’s opinion. Therefore the French pharmacist, founder of the l’Oréal empire and inventor of colouring shampoo, had his summer house built on the mainland coast of Brittany, at Pointe de l’Arcouest. From which he had fabulous views of the archipelago of Bréhat, a group of small islands at only 10 minutes from the Breton north coast.

La Chambre, Île de Bréhat. Fishing port and landing place of pleasure yachts

Rugged bays, small and tiny islands, water in a hundred shades of shimmering blue, bobbing sailboats, a craggy coastline of granite rocks and a tidal range of 12 metres minimum. All these elements made up Eugène  Schueller’s view when he opened his curtains in the morning. On a clear day he could even spot the ‘en pierre’ houses on Île de Bréhat, the largest island of the archipelago and its name giver. His daughter Liliane de Bettencourt inherited the holiday villa at Pointe de l’Arcouest. Until late in her life, the wealthiest woman of France would come in summer to enjoy the view and to swim in her private swimming pool, filled with seawater.

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