For charity’s sake: high street serendipity and Eveline Mahyère’s I Will Not Serve

eveline mahyere


Much as I love the question, Where do you get your ideas? I much prefer the more specific, Where do you get your books?

The ecology of bookbuying is of course a hotly contested one, and while I will fight with my wallet for the survival of bricks-and-mortar, ideally independent bookstores in the face of Amazon’s behemoth, I have been less actively staunch in my defence of secondhand bookshops, and more guilty, if guilt applies, of supporting their particular nemeses: charity shops.

I buy a lot of books from charity shops.

They’re cheap, they’re local (wherever you live, they’re local: there must be statistics on their relentless influx into high streets everywhere), they serve a – generally – good cause, and above all they are hazed about with an almost magical charm of serendipity. You never know what you’re going to find among the Fifty Shades and Karl Pilkingtons. What’s not to like? Unless you’re a secondhand bookseller. And I do feel bad about that. If I see a secondhand bookshop, I always go in, and I always buy something, but I don’t go out of my way to support them, the way I do mainstream/retail bookshops in their own particular battle.

All this to introduce a book that I could only have found in a charity or secondhand shop, because it’s not in print. Not only is it not in print in its English translation, it’s also not in print in its native French. And this a succes de scandale from the 1950s, easily rankable alongside Francoise Sagan, full of heady teenage passion and rebellion, a debut novel from a young translator and writer who killed herself before it was published. If it seems sad that it’s not available in this country other than to the chance encounter of the charity shop, it seems hugely depressing that it’s not being pored over and passed around by French teenagers. It should be their Spring Awakening.

The hero of I Will Not Serve is 17-year-old Sylvie, who at the start of the novel has been kicked out of the convent where she is being schooled, for writing impassioned love letters to one of the nun/teachers, Julienne. I haven’t read any Colette, I’m afraid, so I’m not sure how this sits alongside the Claudine books in terms of lesbian school fantasies (see also Brigid Brophy’s hilarious The Finishing Touch), but really there is very little that is titillating here, and nothing at all that is salacious.

Sylvie’s love for Julienne is as heady and spiritual as Julienne’s is for God, and that’s really the irony: that for all that at 17 she hanging out in dodgy bars and Bohemian parties, putting away whisky by the glass and popping Benzedrine pills to cram for her Baccalaureate, she is as pure in heart as the nun she adores but can’t actually bring herself to seduce. The one moment, in a borrowed room, when the balance might tip from verbal declarations to physical embrace, it somehow fails to do so.

Is it the story then of a simple ‘pash’? I’m not sure. I’m now not just twice as old as Sylvie, but a touch older than Sylvie and Julienne (who is 25) added together. And with teenagers of my own who are those few short but crucial years younger than the whiskey-swigging rebel, how far removed I am from that absolute sense of ruling passion that Mahyère sees in her teenage heroes! (There is also a cousin and best friend, who have their parts to play.) Was I remotely like that, at that age? I daren’t think. Is that what I’m reading it for? I also daren’t think.

I’m certainly reading it for the stray moments of clear, generalised passion, as Sylvie, here, wonders if she will ever be vouchsafed a vision of the world as pure as those of her favourite artists:

Ever since Adam and Eve, hadn’t the world been given to every man and every woman, as often as a man or a woman appeared on earth to contemplate it?

Which is a wonderful philosophic question, resolving to the issue of the difference between the earth and the world.

But there’s also plenty of this:

“I’m spewing up God,” enunciated Sylvie, bent double over the wash-basin.

Not to mention this:

“One can’t rape God,” sighed Claude. “I only encountered him once, at seventeen. Later on, he always appeared to be absurdly disguised.”

Which makes me wonder about the difference between the English, or rather Anglo-Saxon, ‘rape’ and the French ‘violer’. ‘On ne peut pas violer Dieu,’ as it presumably is, in the original, somehow reads more acceptably off-the-cuff provocative than the English, which clanks, feels ugly – or perhaps I’m just getting old.


One comment

  1. Paul Schloss

    Exactly! And on all counts. I once met a secondhand book dealer – no more, alas – who was driven mad by the local Oxfam bookshop; there was hardly chance to look at the bookshelves for his crazy tirades.

    I haven’t read this book, so it is difficult to comment, but I wonder… do we read too much sex into these kinds of relationships? Are we confusing complex emotions, which include the merest twinge of sex, with sexual desire itself? Mizoguchi’s wonderful Oyu-Sama raises just this question; a question which I attempt to answer here – You might find it interesting.

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