Lean on Me, by Serge Joncour, translated by Jane Aitken and Louise Rogers Lalaurie

I recently finished reading Lean on Me and felt the need to put pen to paper (or rather fingers to keyboard.).

Here is the blurb, my scattered thoughts follow.

“When a flock of crows invades their shared apartment block, farmer-turned-debt collector Ludovic and fashion designer Aurore speak for the first time. With nothing but the birds in common, the two are destined for separate lives, yet are drawn inexplicably together. Though their story is set in Paris, the tale of Ludovic and Aurore is far from an idyllic romance. With one trapped in an unhappy marriage and the other lost in grief, the city of love has brought each of them only isolation and pain. As Aurore faces losing her business and Ludovic questions the ethics of his job, they begin a passionate affair. Love between such different people seems doomed to failure, but for these two unhappy souls trapped in ruthless worlds, perhaps loving one another is the greatest form of resistance. From the award winning author of Wild Dog, Lean on Me is explores the realities of unlikely love, and how connection and intimacy offer us an escape from all that is harsh and cold in our modern day lives. Winner of the prestigious Prix Interallie, Lean on Me is both a touching love story, an insightful look at the alienating effect of contemporary urban life.”

This book… it started slowly with a forbidden love story, a liaison between two characters I did not really like, nor felt close too, but could understand. It turned intense, ugly, the characters stuck in a trap (partly) of their own making. It’s breathtakingly tense  in parts, extremely sexy and languidly tender in others. These characters navigate lives that have been emptied of their meaning and sparks, barely floating at the surface of problems (for her) or numbingly surviving loss in the anonymity of an indifferent capital (for him).

As I followed their adventures, I came to know them intimately: their seemingly inescapable problems, that engulf and trap, lock their mind in tighter and tighter. And I got the appeal, the gush of fresh air they experience when they finally meet someone who not only understands, but provides an anchor as the earth is spinning, a shelter when the crows attack and a shoulder to cry in loss or failure. However this newfound passion comes at a cost, and the spiral they descend in threatens to break them and tear their fragile, ill-assorted and illicit couple apart.

It made me think… It’s frightening really how easy it is to misstep, to slip, how easy it is to lose it all. Sometimes in the confines of our everyday lives small catastrophes are at play, the kind that can shatter whole existences and require great strength and courage to stay true to oneself or just to salvage what we deem the most important. 

So, even though I couldn’t have been friends with  these characters, a bond of understanding and empathy was created, I was carried away on the wave of their bad choices, suffocating fears, irrepressible longing and uncontrollable desires. My breath caught in my throat as I read on, tensely watching out for a resolution when the situation got truly out of hands. I loved how the author navigated the twists and turns of the two protagonists’ minds, their hesitations and contradictions. They were really well fleshed out. 

flat-lay of an open paperback of Lean on me with an open Kobo e-readeron it. The Kobo displays a folded back. The background is a white wool surface

Reflecting back on this novel, I was looking for a take-home message, a kind of lesson or morale to take from it. But do we really need that? This was a slice of life, the author captured a turning point in the characters’s lives. Sure, there is a rebellion against our current world, the characters are at odds with many aspects of consumerism, urban life, the race for professional success, the unforgiving business world… But I mainly took it as an opportunity to enrich my panorama of the human experience : I walked along these characters, suspended judgement, and I found myself understanding. Despite our differences, their questionable choices, they were believable, they seemed real. I found the ending a bit ambiguous, I was not sure exactly what they would do next. But I love this feeling that their lives continue after I close the page, it’s one of the bitter-sweet thrill of reading.

In short : acutely observed and deftly written.  

Note : I read both the English translation and the original French, jumping between the two, comparing parts that intrigued me. It was really interesting to get a feel of how the translators read between the lines and interpreted. There were some subtleties here and there that were open to debate and subjective interpretation and it became a game to catch these little gray areas where the French and English text were not totally aligned.
📖For example p166: 
“The b*stard had opened an old wound – his class consciousness” 
The French reads “Ce s*laud était arrivé à lui refiler le complexe de classe”, meaning that the b*astard in question has inoculated this *new* consciousness of the class divide in Ludovic. And indeed although he obviously feels out of place as a countryman in Paris, before that moment I had not felt any class shame in the character. Maybe I missed it. I guess it’s part of the translator’s job to read between the lines and interpret.
All in all, both versions were extremely readable, so I think the translators did a very good job. They were two, so I wonder if they each wrote one point of view, as the book alternates between Ludovic and Aurore’s perspectives.

My English paperback was gifted to me by the publisher on my request and I borrowed a French digital version from my local library. 

Lean on me, out 3 march 2022 from Gallic Books/Belgravia
ISBN: 9781910477885
 384 pages
Dimensions: 177 x 127 mm

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