A Fortnightly Review of
Paulette: French by birth, English by chance
by Martin Sorrell
By PETER O’BRIEN.
ASSEMBLING RANDOM FRAGMENTS of a life – memories, letters, photographs, recordings, familial recollections at times precise, embroidered or imagined – Martin Sorrell has fashioned a memoir of his mother, Paulette Marie Eugénie Jaqueline Sorrell, née Tourdes.
She was born in 1916 in France and died in 2010 in England. Although we all have swirling within us a fractured memoir or other material that might present parts of our life to a wider audience, very few such documents ever get organized, written or shared. A teacher, author, editor, and translator (Apollinaire, Lorca, Molière, Rimbaud, Verlaine), Sorrell has given us a story of familial love and affection, but also of wonder and questions. It’s an attempt to understand or at least document the private and public parts of a life, in all its extravagant mystery.
Much of this story is yoked to time and its mutability. As a young mother, Paulette, late from seeing her children off to school, makes a mad dash for the morning train:
Paulette is clearing dishes into the sink and food into the larder. Only when everything’s tidy does she grab her bag of books, lock the front door and run down the steps to the station. As she goes, she signals to Mr Tombs, who a minute ago had to send the train on its way. He sees Paulette, darts back inside, climbs the footbridge and waves his red flag at the train, now a hundred yards clear of the station. The driver spots the flag, and ignoring rules and regulations, slams into reverse and brings his train back to the platform. Mr Tombs opens the nearest carriage door and ushers his neighbour aboard:
“Another flying start, Paulette.”
Time’s grand and historic vagaries are intertwined with personal and particular vagaries. Throughout these pages and the two world wars that they embody, young children grow into old age; houses are lived in, filled up with tableaux and epics, and then abandoned; teachings are learned and forgotten and rekindled, all bound by the fluttering inquisitiveness of the author. When Paulette does die, Sorrell has just a passing speck to hang on to:
I looked at my watch; it was 11:30. I needed to know the exact moment it happened. I went on speaking into Paulette’s ear; stopped to check for breath; spoke again; stopped; listened. I repeated the cycle ten, fifteen times, before the truth began to spread through me that there was no longer someone in there for me to talk to. There was no point in checking the time. Paulette had stopped while I wasn’t looking, as imperceptibly as the hands of a clock.
As with many European families who lived through the last century, there are traumas of various sorts: of extermination camps, of the harsh treatment doled out to collaborators, of a knock on the door that may mean the capture or escape of a family member, of surviving for a few more months on “meals” composed of scraps of leather and a few drops of sewing-machine oil.
And there are stories of the quotidian humanity that somehow carries on and sustains itself throughout the passing show. Assisted by the midwife of people (and possibly also lambs and calves), “Paulette used to claim that as she’d been listening in the womb to the bagpipes and accordions playing downstairs, her feet were dancing the bourrée as she emerged.”
Amid the endearing and parfois triste moments of this life, women have a lot to say and a lot to do. As the author says, “Three generations of women needed to be stronger than their men.” (As the son of a mother who had ten children, brought up 12 other step-children, and who was twice widowed, perhaps I can say that such an observation may be applied to other generations and other families as well.)
As is evident from Paulette’s multivalent name, and the subtitle of this book, this is a tale of two languages and two cultures. There is a funny story of Paulette having to prepare two separate menus, one French and one English, and her English-born children drifting over to the French table to scrounge some of what they considered to be the superior dish. And the author shares an old joke built from a key difference between the French and the English: English engineer demonstrates to a French colleague an ingenious piece of machinery he’s invented, and by trial and error has got to function. Impressive, says the Frenchman, but will it work in theory?
At one point, the author describes his mother as coming from a land “where no one could afford to linger over death.” Paulette might not have been able to, but Martin Sorrell has lingered over both her life and her death. He has given us a thoughtful and colourful memoir of a person we may see walking by us on any street, on any day of our lives.
Peter O’Brien‘s most recent book is Cleopatra at the Breakfast Table: Why I Studied Latin With My Teenager and How I Discovered the Daughterland. He is also responsible for four other books, including Build a Better Book Club (Macmillan Canada) and Introduction to Literature: British, American, Canadian (Harper & Row). He is in the middle of a six-year project annotating / illustrating / disrupting the 628 pages of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce; pages from the project have appeared in The Fortnightly Review (here) and in journals in Canada, England, Ireland, Israel, and the U.S. His teenaged daughter, three brothers, six sisters, eight stepbrothers and four stepsisters have provided voluminous and conflicting material, as well as various survival techniques.