Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #194: How the World Was by Emmanuel Guibert

Stories come from unlikely places, and must be found and cultivated where they are. Their shapes are inherent in those stories, and a wise artist follows a story's shape as closely as possible -- and tells the stories that fall into his hands.

So it may seem odd that the French cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert is spending so much time telling the story of one American's life in the twentieth century -- first Alan's War, published in English translation in 2008, and now How the World Was: A California Childhood, coming from First Second in the US exactly one month from the day I'm typing these words -- but these are the stories that fell into his hands when he met Alan Cope in 1994. (I reviewed Alan's War in early 2009; it focuses on the years of Cope's WWII service and sketches his adult life forward from there to about the 1970s.)

Cope's life is not conventionally exciting or crammed with incident: he grew up on the poor side of middle class in southern California near but never in Los Angeles, had a fairly safe war as an armored-car gunner who hit Europe after the Battle of the Bulge, and a post-war Army career that brought him back to Europe, where he settled. Alan's War told the story of the second and third phases; How the World Was fills in the beginning, with Alan's voice -- apparently narrating his entire childhood during one night-long conversation in early November of 1996 -- telling us what he can remember from the first dozen or so years of his life. (Cope or Guibert does mostly leave out Cope's adolescence, which could leave room for another book in the future.)

How the World Was is then the stories a man of seventy remembers and wants to tell a friend of his first decade: from his birth in 1925 to his mother's death eleven years later; about the houses his family lived in, from Alhambra to Pasadena to Santa Barbara; about his family, and the stories he knows about his parents and grandparents and others; and about the moments and days he still remembers from those years. There's no sign that Guibert led the discussion at all, or even guided the flow in the slightest: as he presents it, this is exactly what Cope said and the story of Cope's life as he told it. Guibert may well have molded this story in ways that aren't apparent, but the flow of Cope's narrative is clear and unbroken: we experience it as a story, an old man telling us things that we suspect he may have told many times, that may have gotten polished and refined over those retellings.

Cope's childhood was as pleasant and fortunate as his war service was: he was healthy, part of a large family that cared for each other most of the time, and has happy memories of his youth, which may spill over into when-I-was-a-boy-ism for some readers, especially during his expansive introductory comments. His stories then are each separate and individual, with no central memoir-like spine to tie them all together -- no alcoholic parent, or grinding poverty, or horrible disease, or even sibling conflict to link the stories into a larger narrative. Cope does end this night's tales with the day his mother died, but neither he nor Guibert foreshadows or prefigures that earlier in the book: this isn't the story of a boy whose mother died, but stories of Alan Cope's childhood, including that death at the end.

Guibert tells each of these stories as vignettes -- even his art tends to focus on a character or two, silhouetted and isolated, acting out the stories Cope told him. The effect is not unlike listening to a lively grandfather telling mildly interesting stories about someone else's family: each bit is individually fine, but it doesn't really build or add up to anything larger. But then Guibert isn't promising anything more here: his subtitle insists that this is "A California Childhood," and that's exactly what he delivers.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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