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Book Review: The Incorrigible Optimists Club by Jean-Michel Guenassia

23 Jun

A week ago I finished reading an astonishingly brilliant book called ‘The Incorrigible Optimists Club’ by Jean-Michel Guenassia. When I saw it in library, I disdainfully observed the title. I thought ‘optimists club, whatever, I ain’t gonna read that’… Pessimist Club would sound better to me. Still, I was intrigued and, after flipping through the pages, I knew I was holding in my hand a very special book indeed.

1960. Christer Strömholm, La Methode, Paris

Christer Strömholm, La Methode, Paris, 1960

The main character, Michel Marini, tells us about his life, starting from the celebration of his twelfth birthday in October 1959 all to way to July 1964. It has elements of bildungsroman; we witness the development of Michel’s hobbies, his discoveries of books by Camus and Kessel, films, music and first loves, but the book is so much more than that. Michel’s life starts changing after he starts visiting a Parisian bistro, also frequented by Joseph Kessel and Jean-Paul Sartre, and meets people from the other side of the Iron curtain who fled the Communist regime. These brave individuals, mostly Russians, Hungarians, Poles and Germans, are at the heart of ‘the optimists club’ – they are intellectuals who like playing chess and quarrelling, but above all, they are optimists despite their unfortunate material situations. They don’t have much money and they’ll never be fully integrated into French society. Igor, for example, was a doctor in Russia, but in Paris he drives a taxi because his diploma has no value there. Some found this to hard too bear, like Tibor, a Hungarian actor who decided to return to his homeland.

1960s Paris - Johan van der Keuken

Paris – Johan van der Keuken, 1960s

1965. Marianne Faithfull in Paris

Marianne Faithfull in Paris, 1965

Why I liked this book? Well, first of all, the plot is layered. You have bits about Michel’s struggles with maths at school and his enthusiasm for photography, then the stories from the other side of the Iron curtain and all sorts of interesting individuals, you have the Algerian war of independence, the beginnings or rock ‘n’ roll and New Wave films such as Godard’s Breathless (1960) with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. These events also show the generation gap between Michel and his comrades, and their parents and grandparents. The former promote individuality and freedom, while the latter stand for tradition and norms. Michel is sort of a misfit. I can imagine him on the streets of Paris during the Student protests of 1968, he seems like a type of person to do that.

1969. Couple in Paris. (Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson)

Couple in Paris. (Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson), 1969

Secondly, this book captured the spirit of the times I would say. It made me think of all the Godard’s films I’ve seen and the music by Francoise Hardy. Michel could have seen Anna Karina or Brigitte Bardot on the streets of Paris, how cool is that? It also (again) sparked my interest for Cold war and Iron curtain. I also liked the character Sasha, a fellow Russian who escaped, but he is not accepted by the optimists club. I won’t tell you why is that, but all is revealed at the end. I like his life philosophy. When Michel asked him for a cure for sadness, Sasha told him to: eat something tasty like cakes or chocolates, secondly -listen to music, he particularly recommended Shostakovich, and thirdly – watch films, two or three in a row. Sasha also told him that he used to waste his time working and working, but now he lives slowly and enjoys every day of his life as a gift; he reads, takes a nap in the afternoon, listens to concerts on the radio, walks around Paris, chats with people, feeds the kittens in the neighbourhood.

1960s Paris années, Jeunes femmes sur les Champs-Elysées, Photo Janine Niepce

Jeunes femmes sur les Champs-Elysées, Photo Janine Niepce, 1960s

Oh, I have to warn you that it’s a rather long book, about seven hundred pages, but it’s fast-paced and tremendously interesting. The ending was a bit sad. It’s on you to discover that, but it seems like everything is falling apart as Michel slowly and horrifyingly becomes an adult.