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  • Written by Sebastian Faulks
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  • Written by Sebastian Faulks
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The Girl at the Lion d'Or

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On Sale: September 03, 2014
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-8041-5375-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

"Beautifully written and--extraordinarily moving."--The Sunday Times (London)

From the author of the international bestseller Birdsong, comes a haunting historical novel of passion, loss, and courage set in France between the two world wars. This Vintage Original edition marks its first appearance in the United States.

On a rainy night in the 1930s, Anne Louvet appears at the run-down Hotel du Lion d'Or in the village of Janvilliers.  She is seeking a job and a new life, one far removed from the awful injustices of her past. As Anne embarks on a torrential love affair with a married veteran of the Great War, The Girl at the Lion d'Or fashions an unbreakable spell of narrative and atmosphere that evokes French masters from Flaubert to Renoir.      

"This moving and profound novel is perfectly constructed, and admirable in its configurations of place and period."--The Times (London)

"I would urge those who appreciated--The French Lieutenant's Woman to try this one--. They may well think it superior."--Sunday Telegraph (London)

Excerpt

In those days the station in Janvilliers had an arched glass roof over the southbound platform as if in imitation of the big domes of St. Lazare. When it rained, the impact of the water set up a nervy rattle as the glass echoed and shook against the fancy restraint of its iron framework. There was a more modest rumble emitted by the covered footbridge, while from the gutters there came an awful martyred gurgling as they sought out broken panes and unmended masonry down which to spit the water that was choking them. The thin sound of the locomotive's wheeze as it braced itself for its final three stops up the coast was thus barely audible to the two people who alighted from the train that damp but not untypical Monday night.

One was the driver, who was following the custom of years by climbing down from his cab, hat pulled over his ears, and racing to the side door of the station buffet where his glass of brandy would be waiting for him. There was no time for conversation-just a quick gulp and he was gone, as usual, scuttling back up the platform, hoisting himself aboard with a word to the fireman and a reinvigorated haul on the levers as the engine hissed and the train set off to arrive, as usual, a minute and a half late at its next stop.

The other was a slight, dark-haired girl with two heavy suitcases, frowning into the rain and trying not to feel frightened. She stood in the doorway of the ticket hall, hoping someone would have been sent to fetch her. "Be brave, little Anne, be brave," old Louvet, her guardian, would have said to her if he had been sober, or there, or-for all Anne knew-alive. After a time she did see the long bending approach of headlights, but the car circled the fountains in the middle of the square and disappeared in a spray of water.

Louvet, who thought himself a philosopher, had a theory that all unhappiness was a version of the same feeling. As Anne felt a tremor of abandonment, gazing over the rainy square, she pictured him explaining to her: "When the good Lord made this world from the infinite number of possibilities open to him and selected-from another limitless pool-the kind of misery that his creatures should be subject to, he selected only one model. The moment of bereavement. Death, desertion, betrayal-all the same thing. The child sent from its parents, the widow, the lover abandoned-they all feel the same emotion which, in its most extreme form, finds expression in a cry." Practice had given an almost religious eloquence to Louvet's blasphemous conclusion: "One cannot, my dear Anne, escape the conviction that the good Lord was, if not unimaginative, then at least rather simple."

Anne, who was not a philosopher, saw a dripping form, male by the look of it and wrapped in a cape, approach her from the darkness. His voice was rough and grudging. "Are you the waitress? For the Hotel du Lion d'Or?" His face now appeared in what light spilled over from the yellow lamp in the ticket hall. He was a youth of about nineteen with thick black eyebrows and dark curls stuck against his forehead under a leather cap. He had an extinguished cigarette between his teeth and his cheeks were traumatised by spots.

"Yes, that's right. Who are you?"

"I work there. My name's Roland. I've got the van. The boss said to come and pick you up. It's over here."

He led the way, shambling in a mixture of embarrassment and an attempt to keep dry by wrapping his cape around him, which caused his knees to come too close together. Anne followed, struggling to keep up under the handicap of the heavy suitcases. Roland took her round the back of the station yard and gestured to a small van. He unlashed the canvas from the open back and gestured to her to throw in her suitcases. With considerable swearing and violence towards the tinny machine, he succeeded in making it creep, then jerk, then rush across the darkened square as he fought to locate the gears. Nervous at what might be waiting for her, Anne began to talk.

"What do you do at the hotel?"

"Stuff no one else wants to do. Boots. Washing up. Waiter on Sundays."

"Do you come from here?"

"Yes. Never been away. Don't really want to. I went to Paris once."

"Did you like it?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Don't know."

"I've come from Paris."

Roland made no reply but pulled back the window on his side of the van and pushed at the little windscreen wiper. The rubber had almost worn away on the fragile stick, and its small motor functioned properly only in dry weather. Roland peered forward in an attempt to see through the misty swath that the wiper cut intermittently across the glass. Anne couldn't think what to say to him; it seemed rude not to make conversation, but she didn't want to distract him.

"Do you often drive this van?"

"No. Well, yes, it's not that I'm not used to it, of course. I drive it just as much as anyone else. But petrol, you know."

"Is the boss very mean then?"

"No, it's Madame. He couldn't care less."

"Madame his wife?"

"No. Madame Bouin, the manageress. The Cow. She thinks we should only go to the market once a week and load up. You know, the big market down the road. The rest of the time we have to get the stuff from here. She sends us on foot."

"If you only go to the big market once a week, doesn't the food get stale?"

Roland's nose emitted a snort of what might have been laughter. "Makes no difference to Bruno. It all tastes like pig shit, what he does with it."

They negotiated the perimeter of another square, with the town hall, a curious building beneath a black slate roof in the grand eighteenth-century manner, in one corner. They drove on in silence down a street called the rue des Ecoles, swung sharply left and found themselves face to face with the Hotel du Lion d'Or.

"I hadn't realised it was so near. I could have walked," said Anne.

"Easily," Roland agreed, getting out of the van. "It was the old man, apparently. The Patron. Said I should come. I was playing cards."

"I'm sorry,-"

But Roland had gone, shuffling down a small alley by the hotel and vanishing into the night. Perhaps the other card players had waited for him, their hands concealed face down on some kitchen table. Perhaps they had cut the pack to see who should have the chore of picking up the wretched girl. Anne breathed in deeply.

The hotel was secluded from the square by a courtyard and a grey wall with a pair of rusting iron gates. Anne heaved her cases up to the front doors through whose glass panels she could make out a broad lobby, leading up to a staircase in the crook of which was the concierge's desk. She was aware of a woman behind it watching her as the suitcases dripped gently on to the parquet floor. She put them down on a threadbare mat in front of the counter.

"Mademoiselle?" It was the woman behind the desk who spoke, her voice not so much interrogative as menacing. Mme. Bouin, Anne supposed. Her eyes had a calm quality despite the fact that one of them was monstrously enlarged by the thick lens of her spectacles. Her bearing managed to combine world-weariness with a feline state of readiness. Anne had a sense that anything she herself might say would have been anticipated by this woman, and nothing she could devise would please her. Presumably she behaved in the same way with the guests.

"I've come to take the waitress job."

"Have you now? Then why have you come through the front door? I understood from Monsieur the Patron that you had had previous experience of hotel work. Is this what you were told is normal?"

The woman's voice remained as level as her eyes.

"I'm sorry, I-I didn't know the way in. The young man who brought me, Roland, he-" Anne checked herself, fearing to bring Mme. Bouin's displeasure on to Roland, who had been anxious only to finish his game of cards.

"Where did he go?"

"I'm not sure. It was kind of him to come and pick me up on a night like this."

Mme. Bouin said nothing. Instead, she took a card from among a sheaf of papers in front of her. "Details. Insurance and so on," she said, handing the card across the desk.

"Do I have to do it now?"

Again the woman said nothing but swivelled on her chair and took the handset from a telephone switchboard which she cranked vigorously by hand. She spoke fast and indistinctly. Anne noticed a pile of needlework on the table beneath the board from which hung the numbered bedroom keys. She took the forms and a pen from the desk.

Surname: Louvet. She had grown used to this lie. The local lawyer had advised her as a child to abandon her family name when it was appearing daily in the newspapers. Forenames: Anne Marie Th?r?se. These, at least, and the date of her birth, she could give truthfully. Her handwriting was determined and precise. By the space for "Previous Place of Employment" she put the name of a caf? near the Gare Montparnasse. Next of kin: she wrote down the name of Louvet, her assumed father, blurring with skilled certainty, though not without a qualm, the lines of her identity.

She handed back the completed card to Mme. Bouin. "When will I meet Monsieur the Patron?"

"Monsieur the Patron? How should I know? He has the hotel to run and his other duties to attend to. Monsieur the Patron is an extremely busy man. Here now, you had better follow me." Mme. Bouin stood up and circled the counter. She was much taller than Anne had expected. Her grey dress was inflated by a large bosom on which rested a gold chain and a handful of keys; she walked with an agile bustling movement, pulling a black cardigan about her shoulders as she led Anne to the foot of the stairs.

"You may use the front stairs tonight. At all other times you will use the back stairs."

She went ahead up the thinning carpet. Anne watched the black-stockinged legs in their plain black shoes recede before her, briskly mounting the main sweep of the staircase and turning up another narrower set of stairs, then down a corridor lined with wardrobes and out on to a landing with a bare wooden floor.

Mme. Bouin indicated a further, twisting and carpetless flight of stairs. "Your room is at the top. There is a staff bathroom at the end of this passage on the left, though you must ask in advance if you wish to take a bath. Hot water is restricted and staff are not expected to bathe more than twice a week. You will find a jug and bowl in your room which are adequate for daily washing. You will be required in the kitchen at six-thirty tomorrow morning."

Anne heard the rattle of keys on Mme. Bouin's bosom as she returned the way they had come. Alone again, Anne looked around her.

The bedroom she had been allotted was under the eaves of the Hotel du Lion d'Or and its single window overlooked a back yard where she could see only filmy rain tumbling into the dark. There was an iron bedstead, a plain wooden chair, a small writing table and a chest of drawers with, as Mme. Bouin had promised, a jug and bowl. A curtain in the corner concealed a hanging area for clothes which contained a black uniform. Although the room was plain and small, the rafters that slanted diagonally from above the window gave it a secure rather than imprisoning feeling; the agonised Christ above the bed could be moved somewhere he would be less visibly tormented; the bed linen, though rough and thinning, was clean; the bare floor, even if it was made only from boards, not parquet, had been scrubbed; and above the writing table hung a picture of a medieval knight.

Everything Anne owned was in her two suitcases. Her favourite possession, a second-hand gramophone with a cracked but sonorous horn attachment, she had had to sell, since it was too heavy to carry and she didn't think the Patron would approve of the sound of dance music coming from a servant's room. The records themselves she had been unable to part with-half a dozen heavy black plates in brown paper covers which she stowed in the bottom drawer of the chest.

Anne had left her door a few inches ajar so anyone on the landing below could see her light and might then be tempted to come and talk to her. Apart from Roland, Mme. Bouin and the Patron, she had no idea who else the staff might comprise, but she hoped there would be at least someone who would be a friend for her-a girl of her own age, perhaps, with a big family in the town where she would be taken at weekends. When alone, Anne constructed fantasies of a kind in which the events were all conceivable but in which the crucial element of luck ran well for her. She didn't want to live in a grand manor with cavernous rooms and wooded lands, but in one of those simple houses behind gates where children could be seen playing on the sandy paths and a dog padded silently across the grass. If once she saw such a place, her fantasy was unstoppable and she would bare its inner rooms to her scanning eye, and reshape, recolour and repeople them until they contained what she wanted.

With her clothes unpacked, she arranged her half dozen books along the top of the writing table and propped her picture-a view of Paris roofs, layered and rainswept-on the chest of drawers. On the writing table, next to the books, she placed a photograph of her mother, taken fifteen years before. She wore a formal, posed expression which did not quite conceal a look of timid puzzlement about the eyes.

The rain had stopped when Anne closed the shutters on the small window, though from outside she could hear the water that had gathered as it dripped from the eaves and rang on the paved courtyard below. She pushed her door a little further open and listened. She could hear the sound of crockery, distantly, and of a door banging, but otherwise nothing. Most people, she guessed, would now be in bed, so it was too late to ask Mme. Bouin or anyone else whether it was permissible for her to have a bath. She took her dressing-gown from behind the curtain and went quietly down the twisting staircase and along the corridor to the bathroom. She went in and locked the door, a simple action which caused an eruption of furtive activity backstairs.
Sebastian Faulks

About Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks - The Girl at the Lion d'Or

Photo © Jerry Bauer

Sebastian Faulks worked as a journalist for fourteen years before taking up writing full-time in 1991. In 1995 he was voted Author of the Year by the British Book Awards for Birdsong. He is also the author of Human Traces, On Green Dolphin Street, Charlotte Gray, The Fatal Englishman, The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Engleby, and the James Bond novel Devil May Care. He lives in London with his wife and three children.

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of The Girl at the Lion d'Or a novel by Sebastian Faulks, author of the number-one international bestseller Birdsong. We hope they will enrich your understanding and enjoyment of this greatly acclaimed work.

About the Guide

In The Girl at the Lion d'Or we witness the compromise and unease of France in the years leading up to the Second World War through the eyes of Anne Louvet, a courageous and passionate young girl. When Anne was still a child her life was all but wrecked by the atrocities of World War I, which destroyed her family and the love and security of her small world. Grown now, alone and adrift in a country that is itself adrift in the deepest moral sense, Anne must make her own way. Her search for love and a place in the world demand all her courage, and all her hope.

About the Author

Sebastian Faulks was born in Newbury, England, in 1953, and educated at various schools and at Cambridge University, from which he graduated in 1974 with the intention of becoming a novelist. He took a job teaching in a school in London and began to write freelance articles, mostly book reviews, for various papers. In 1978 he left teaching to take a job as a reporter with the Daily Telegraph in London. By this time he was also running a book club, the New Fiction Society, and continued to write fiction.

His first novel, A Trick of Light, was published in 1984. By this time he had become a feature writer on the Sunday Telegraph and in 1986 moved to the new national daily paper the Independent as its literary editor. His second novel, The Girl at the Lion d'Or, was published in 1989.

In 1991 he gave up journalism to concentrate on writing. In 1992 his third novel, A Fool's Alphabet, was published in London, and in 1993 he published Birdsong to huge critical acclaim. In January 1997 a television and bookshop poll among British readers placed it in their top fifty books of the century. He was named Author of the Year in the British Book Awards of 1995.

His nonfiction book, The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives, was published in 1996, Charlotte Gray two years later; both these books were also bestsellers.

Sebastian Faulks has been married since 1989 and has three children. After a period in France, the Faulks family now lives in London.

Discussion Guides

1. How would you characterize the climate of inter-war France—the period historian Eugen Weber has called "The Hollow Years"—as described by Faulks? In what way was the period "hollow," and why? What elements of the defeatist, cynical France of the Occupation can you trace here, several years before World War II? In what ways are the Stavisky affair and the death of Roger Salengro indicative of the political atmosphere?

2. Hartmann is disturbed by Anne's life story, particularly the "unfairness of the persecution of the villagers" [p. 158]. Why did these villagers persecute Anne's family? Was it from pure meanness, or out of some unspoken fear or perceived threat? If Anne's hometown and her adopted town of Janvilliers are typical of provincial French life at this period, what are that life's drawbacks? What are its strengths?

3. How do Anne's political opinions [see p. 183] reflect those of the country in general, and how do those opinions account for the country's precarious state? What dangers do these opinions, when held by a large portion of the population, imply for France? What about Roland's opinions [pp. 190-92]? How deeply has he thought out his political ideas? Does he have any understanding of where such ideas will lead? Is he evil, or simply unintelligent and thoughtless?

4. What connections, if any, does the author draw between Roger Salengro and Anne's father?

5. Why does Hartmann turn away from Anne at the end? Is it from selfishness and cowardice or out of a sense of duty and a sort of love? What sort of future do you envision for Anne? What might become of her as France moves toward war?


  • The Girl at the Lion d'Or by Sebastian Faulks
  • December 07, 1999
  • Fiction - War; Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9780375704536

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