Friday, August 27, 2021

Rhapsody in Paris (and Italy): MONICA STIRLING, The Boy in Blue (1955)

 "But you're the only person I—"

"I'm the only person just now, yes. That's natural—when one's in love one loves no one—"

"Who said that?"


"Was he in love with you?"

"Not in the least. Well, I was just ten the only time he saw me. But he most certainly wouldn't have been, anyway.

Although Monica Stirling is not, by and large, a hilarious writer, this humorous snippet of conversation between Laurent, a somewhat socially-stunted young Frenchman only just beginning to recover from the terrible losses he suffered during the Nazi occupation, and Marie-Louise, the glamourous, well-to-do older woman with whom he falls in love for the first time, gives a hint of the level of sophistication, tinged with both sentimentality and worldly-wise cynicism, of the universe of Stirling's novels.

Stirling herself seems to have led a wildly varied and sophisticated life. In her youth, she seems to have worked as an actress (her parents Edward Stirling and Margaret Vaughn [real name Flora Rose Parsons] were stage and silent film actors), and traveled extensively. She worked as a journalist, and was living in Paris in 1940, a regular customer of Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company (see below). She published eight novels and two story collections, as well as biographies of Ouida, of Napoleon's mother, and of Hans Christian Anderson.

Some rather impressive critical
blurbs for Stirling's work

I first encountered Stirling two or three years ago when I read her 1953 novel Ladies with a Unicorn. I remember liking it very much, but then (the story of my life) I got sidetracked onto other things. The Boy in Blue is my first encounter with her since, but it certainly won't be my last.

Laurent Tenand is twenty-three, a serious composer who has, to his own dismay, made a small fortune from several pop songs written in collaboration with a friend. Those profits have allowed him to remain, in adulthood, as isolated as he has been ever since his entire family was killed in a Nazi massacre in the French village of St. Roch. Laurent, too, would have been killed that day had he not chosen to remain at home that day to finish his homework. Instead, he spent the remainder of the war with an uncle in Paris, who also took in an elderly Jewish music-teacher who set Laurent off on his musical education.

As the novel opens, Laurent is in limbo (at times, he reminded me rather of a Patrick Modiano protagonist, for those who have read Modiano—and if you haven’t, do), but he is perhaps just on the brink of rejoining the world around him. He is invited by a friend of his who works in television to contribute music for a documentary about a historic house, and goes to see the house for inspiration, in the process meeting its owner, the lovely, elegant, and oh-so-chic Marie-Louise de Brévanne. Marie-Louise is considerably Laurent's senior, by nearly two decades, but Laurent is fascinated and Marie-Louise is flattered and intrigued:

He didn't seem to her to belong to what she thought of as her world, but nor was there anything she could trace to another. … A noble savage, in fact, she thought, smiling to herself because she had never had to do with one before and was devoted to novelty.

The meeting seems to further awaken Laurent, but their flirtation has only begun when Marie-Louise sets off for a planned trip to Spain. Left to his own devices, Laurent, stimulated by his infatuation into seeking rare social interaction at a Paris bar he had occasionally frequented as a student, meets Mounette, a young woman who has worked as a model (naturally, men in novels always meet models, don't they?) but wants to be a photographer. Mounette is charming, quite different from the superficial Marie-Louise:

Her attitude towards people had some of the unacquisitive keenness of a bird-watcher's towards birds.

Her charm is enough to make Laurent speak of his personal tragedy for the first time since it happened—and enough to make him spend the night with her (men are pigs, obviously)—but not enough to dampen his ardour for the teasingly absent Marie-Louise.

It's not necessary to go into detail about the rest of the plot, and I'm sure most of you won't have a great deal of difficulty guessing more or less how it plays out. At times, it can read almost like a romance novel, and contemporary reviews (mostly by men, naturally) tended to dismiss Stirling's work as mostly glittering but sentimental facade. In the beginning, I wondered if they were right. Sentimentality there may be, in moderate amounts, but there is surprising substance too. In much of her work, Stirling concerned herself particularly with trauma and how it is overcome, making her in some way uniquely worthy of rediscovery in our age of memoirs of abuse, bad parenting, and loss.

And yet, she's much more entertaining than most such tales, because she seems to have been determined to combine what at first seem disparate elements—the traumas of our modern age, in particular the scars of WWII, and the elegance and glamour, the creative ferment and sense of adventure, of the postwar European scene. Though I make no bold claim that she shares the brilliance of the New Wave or the New Novel (just as well, perhaps), she does seem tuned in to the same frequency—the agonies of the recent past transmuted into new creativity and new ways of wrestling with life. If some middlebrow authors of the midcentury give one to believe they had no awareness at all of the experimental rush occurring in the edgier realms of art and literature, Monica Stirling by contrast seems to be right there in the middle of it, digesting it and adapting it to her own (admittedly less radical) purposes. Indeed, Princeton happens to have online Stirling’s Shakespeare and Company library card from the early 1940s [see here], from which her reading habits give me an eerie sense of déjà vu—Stella Gibbons, Djuna Barnes, Compton Mackenzie, Elizabeth Bowen, Christopher Isherwood, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Green, Rosamond Lehmann—if not for the fact that she only died when I was 15, I’d wonder if I could be her reincarnation.

In addition to Modiano here and there, The Boy in Blue also made me think of Pamela Frankau's A Wreath for the Enemy or The Willow Cabin, of Breakfast at Tiffany's, even here and there of a slightly less jaded Tennessee Williams (who did certainly love his melodramas about fading beauties and their love affairs—but I would point out Stirling is far kinder to her fading beauty than Williams usually was). In fact, The Boy in Blue might have worked just as well as a play, since it's rather talky as a novel—the long passage in which Laurent tells Mounette his story is crucial and gripping, and skillfully done, but not every author would think of putting such drama into a conversation (albeit with some actual flashbacks).

That aside, however, I found myself more than a little moved by The Boy in Blue, and fascinated by the combination of glamour and the pain beneath it that Stirling seems to enjoy stirring up. The theme of love as a force that can help us heal from our traumas might verge on sentimentality, but in Stirling’s hands it’s also quite plausible. I'm even beginning to wonder if Monica Stirling actually is the author I had hoped March Cost might turn out to be (see here for what I've written about another "glittering" and "sophisticated" author). At any rate, you'll certainly hear more about her here soon, as I'm already on to more of her work.

In the meantime, though, two more tidbits to help show how entertaining it all is. Here's a snippet of dialogue intended, I suppose, to show Marie-Louise's superficiality, but which I have to confess I sometimes relate to:

"Oh dear, oh dear. Whenever I come up against the fact my life's completely selfish I wish I could—I don't know—save someone's life without—without—"

"Without being late for lunch?"

Now, let's admit it: to whatever extent we help worthy causes or work toward change in areas we're passionate about, don't we all also feel like this sometimes?

Finally, because we've all been cooped up too much for the past year and a half, I have to mention that a portion of the novel takes place in Naples, on the Amalfi Coast, and at Pompeii. And to show you Stirling's gift for scenic description, I'll leave you with a long passage describing Laurent's first views of Italy from the train:

Clear gold light rose like water over sharply defined bluish hills. A pair of milk white oxen plodded towards a tumbledown pink house with bullet-pocked walls and blue shutters. Alongside the flowering laurels of an otherwise abandoned village square strode two Carabinieri with cocked hats. A barefoot child in washed-out-blue rags waved, its fingers outspread like those of the fig trees beside which it stood. A row of women, their hair tied back by coloured handkerchiefs, knelt on a river bank and laundered, white sheets taut beside them, a stone at each corner. Groups of men in dark clothes clustered at the end of an otherwise empty street in a small town of pale block-like houses. A priest drove by on a Vespa, his skirts billowing. And then, at last, there was a glimpse of the sea.

There was yellow sand, as he had hoped there would be, and it was spread with rust-coloured nets and wooden boats of faded greens and blues. It was bright blue as he'd expected, and there were palm trees with metallic-looking leaves, pickled by the moist, salty air. Laurent stared and stared, excitement churning in him. He would have liked to stop the train and rush to the beach to touch and smell this marine world of which he'd so often dreamed. Marie-Louise had no part in his emotion, but as soon as he remembered her he credited her with it, and his longing to reach her increased.

Anyone ready to head off to Italia with me?


  1. A socially-stunted young Frenchman and a glamourous, well-to-do older woman? Does this remind you of Claude and Natala? I wonder if Monica moved in the same circles as Natala??

  2. IMDB has a listing for W. Edward Stirling: .


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