Updated: Dec 4, 2021
One of the things I've noticed, and grown to appreciate, about my love of French culture is the way I'm more prepared to indulge and explore different genres. I'm already fairly open-minded when it comes to the books, films, and other media I consume, but if they're French then I might be encouraged to go one step further and give them an extra chance. Such was the case with Muriel Barbery's A Single Rose, which might not seem like my kind of thing on paper, but as a fusion of French and Japanese culture - with a side of philosophy and romance - is very much my thing.
One of my favourite books, L'art de la Simplicité, is a similar exploration of that place where French and Japanese culture meet - in the form of a guidebook to minimalist living. The author, Dominique Loreau, is quite direct and forthright with her opinions, but that's one of many factors which makes it so remarkably French. Like A Single Rose, there were parts which didn't particularly relate or apply to me, but that doesn't diminish its appeal or the impact it had upon my life. If anything, it's just another example of how French culture continues to open up and inspire me. If A Single Rose fascinates you with its marriage of French and Japanese culture and lifestyles, then L'art de la Simplicité would be a perfect follow-on.
I can imagine some lazy critics (the kind who only read the back cover and/or the opening chapter) dismissing A Single Rose as a Gallic version of Eat, Pray, Love. There may seem to be some overlap, as our protagonist overcomes past trauma by immersing herself in the food and traditions of another culture while slowly opening herself to love, but the similarities end there. Our single Rose is the title character, and she's headed to Kyoto for the funeral of a father she never knew. Raised in France by a joyless mother and a grandmother who tried her best to counter that, Rose has just turned forty and become the mirror-image of her long-dead mother. A sudden invitation to Kyoto takes her by surprise, but she agrees to go and allows her father's assistant Paul (a Belgian art dealer who has been living in France for many years) to show her around the city and its many temples, according to her father's dying wishes.
Each chapter opens with an historical or anecdotal tale from Japanese literature, which sets the tone for what is to come. In that regard, Barbery brings her philosophical roots to bear on the text, without being too overt or heavy-handed about it - it's just an extension of the journey Rose is on. In fact, the book itself could be considered an allegory that we can use to reflect on our own journey. Has our joy been robbed somehow? When did we stop looking at things with a sense of wonder, and just accept those things which stood in front of us and demanded our attention? Viewing the book in that light provides scope for much greater rewards, which Barbery summarised perfectly when she wrote, "... art is life, playing to other rhythms."
The prose itself is beautiful, and Barbery goes to great lengths to place you in the scene and have you see it through Rose's eyes. Everything is described in delicious detail - from the food and drink to the temples and landscape - and this is thanks, in no small part, to Alison Anderson who has handled all of Muriel Barbery's English translations. Anderson retains the poetic quality I've heard so much about in French, and ensures the material doesn't fall into (or get mistaken for) the usual tropes we find in English-language literature. You get a sense of the exterior place and setting, as well as the internal landscape, as Rose goes on her travels with Paul to learn more about her father, Haru, and his reasons for staying away. As Barbery said in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, "... grammar is a way to attain beauty."
For those who share a similar fascination with French and/or Japanese culture, A Single Rose is essential reading - and for those looking to rediscover or reassess the joy of life, it makes an equally compelling case. I'll continue to think about A Single Rose as I go about my own life, and try to incorporate some of that freshness into my daily observation of things. Having enjoyed both this and L'art de la Simplicité, I would be fascinated to hear the kind of discussion Muriel Barbery and Dominique Loreau could have - just as I'm equally disappointed to miss the conversation between Barbery and Viv Groskop taking place at the Oxford Literary Festival as I write this.
Muriel Barbery's A Single Rose is translated from the French by Alison Anderson, and signed copies can be purchased direct from the publisher or through your favourite independent book stockist.