This friend once described a short break in Scotland as a ‘“stolen” week’s holiday’. That phrase prompted Héritier to write back in impassioned response.
A pleasure to read, with a wonderfully unexpected ending that gives the book a substance and thoughtfulness that deepens what has gone before...Her friend, she argues, is too subsumed in his work; he needs to think more of himself and his own experiences. The time he takes for himself isn’t stolen, but rather: ‘We are stealing his life from him… he is stealing his own life from himself.
Héritier is a French anthropologist. Most of her previous books are academic texts with a focus on incest, and few of them been translated into English.
This one, however, was a French bestseller, and was duly been picked up by the ever-interesting Penguin imprint Particular Books. It’s a list of small, pleasurable things that Héritier believes ‘make up the sweetness of life’.
At first glance, this could be mistaken for a quick, escapist read, along the lines of Philippe Delerm’s multi-million selling French classic The First Sip of Beer and Other Small Pleasures in Life. A sample passage will cover experiences such as:
sipping a drink, playing with a bunch of keys, urinating out of doors, being moved to tears, shouting for joy when you see a perfect shot at goal in football, caressing, being caressed, kissing, being kissed…
But as it develops, the experiences become much more specific to Héritier herself. Often, but far from always, it is light-hearted, and often it is non-linear. Each experience is no more than a fleeting memory, tumbled in with the rest:
feeling serenely at home in the internal medicine department of La Pitié hospital, having had my wrists tied when I had chickenpox so as not to scratch myself, herding cows while making rosaries…
It’s unfortunate that this translation has resulted in the odd clunky phrase – and that ‘The Sweetness of Life’ is one of them. It just about works as a title, but it doesn’t make much sense as a blanket term for the experiences that Héritier includes.
Yes, the book is about how small events enrich life; but not all of the experiences listed are sweet, or happy. Héritier talks about ‘sobbing in silence for hours’ while watching people fall from the Twin Towers on the news. This involves a depth of feeling that merits its inclusion – but it’s not sweet, and Héritier doesn’t try to make it sound as if it is.
Héritier concludes that her book is a plea to recognise ‘the whole complex affective domain that forms and continues to form us, sensitive beings that we are’.
While it may lack direction at times, Héritier has had an motive behind her experiment all along. She wants us to recognise the smaller events that shape us and our memories throughout our lives.
That classic French literary moment of memory, Proust’s madeleine ‘does not in itself revive a memory’. First, as a child, we have to experience an ‘exceptional… incident’.
It is only then that the ‘sensory unrest’ can ‘take root for ever in the sweet, slightly insipid odour of a little sponge cake’. So instead of focusing on the memories, and the sensory experiences that brings them back, she is cataloguing the original experiences. These are what stick in the memory; and by writing a list of them that is a pleasure to read, she is reminding us why.
If this book were longer it would be insufferable. Its brevity, the beauty of Héritier‘s writing, and its idiosyncrasies mean that it is not so. It’s a pleasure to read, with a wonderfully unexpected ending that gives the book a substance and thoughtfulness that deepens what has gone before.
The Sweetness of Life is available now in hardback from Particular Books, and is available from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookshop, priced at £9.99. An e-book version is also available, priced at £5.99.
Recommended for: Anyone who wishes they had more free time.
Other recommended reading: Laura Dockrill’s Mistakes in the Background, Love’s Work by Gillian Rose, or La Première gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs miniscules (The First Sip of Beer and Other Small Pleasures in Life) by Philippe Delerm.