I’m delighted to be launching the blog tour today for Let Us Be True by Alex Christofi, published by Serpent’s Tail on 10th August (hardback and e-book). You might well already be aware of Alex’s writing. His debut novel, Glass, a gentle coming-of-age story about a young window cleaner, was widely praised, earning Alex a well-deserved place on the Desmond Elliot Prize longlist, and going on to win the Betty Trask Prize for fiction.
It’s another one of those times when I really wish my reading list was a little shorter, because I love the look of this one:
Paris, 1958. Ralf is alone, filling his days with glasses of red win at Jacques’ bar, waiting for life to happen to him.
Then, one night, Elsa – bold, enigmatic, unpredictable – whirls into Jacques’ bar and into Ralf’s world, knocking him out of his cautious routine and into a life full of spontaneity and excitement. But Elsa is hiding something. As Ralf falls deeper in love, he reveals more of his past – his childhood in Nazi Germany, his time in a British tank division at the end of the Second World War. But what is Elsa hiding? And can their love survive it?
Let Us Be True charts the lives of these two extraordinary characters through era of great uncertainty, from the war and its aftermath to the deadly unrest of 1960s Paris.
Evocative, charismatic and sweeping in scope, Alex Christofi’s second novel is a moving story of love and loss, of the things we hide from ourselves and from others, and of the personal cost of Europe’s turbulent twentieth century.
As I sadly can’t share a review, what better than to share an extract…
RALF, Paris and Deauville, March–April 1958
Ralf first met Elsa when she began punching him in the head. It didn’t much hurt, since he had been drinking for a couple of hours already, but she had a surprisingly sharp aim. It would certainly have been preferable to begin with names.
It had happened in Jacques’ bar, of all places, where Ralf had settled in for the night. Jacques was a barman of the ancient stock: gruff, suspicious of newcomers, his fingernails so dirty one could barely make out the lunula, his dishcloth employed to ensure an even distribution of grease across his glasses. But to be recognised and accepted in a place like Jacques’ bar was a beautiful thing. One’s glass got bigger and refilled itself; on warm evenings, one might doze in the corner for hours without being disturbed.
Ralf had sat at his usual table. Back in his student days, he used to drink in the Two Mandarins, celebrity-spotting, when he still thought he might complete his doctorate. The university had made the mistake of handing Ralf a lucrative sideline in the translation of scientific papers from the German (the most interesting research still being done by Germans, even after everything). But Ralf had discovered there was easier money still in tutoring language students at Berlitz, and he had set up a new life, albeit a temporary one, in the Marais. The buildings were condemned, which made them cheap, and it was the perfect place to get by while he formed a plan. He had his little maid’s attic, bread and wine. Of course, the temporary became the permanent if you didn’t mind waiting, and Ralf was beginning to see life as an accrual of the probable in the face of the possible.
About an hour before the attack, another of the regulars, Fouad, had woken up, smoothed down his moustache, wrapped his sleeve around his hand and screwed the ceiling bulb back into its fixture. Ralf suspected he did not have an apartment at the moment, difficult as it was to find a landlord willing to take an Algerian. In the few hours between finishing one job and starting the next, he would walk the streets, stopping at Jacques’ to doze for an hour or two before the bar closed and he found himself back out among the rubbish and the trees. He always carried a copy of the day’s paper with him, which lent him a certain urbanity, but which likely doubled as bedding.
Ralf made no attempt to conceal himself when Fouad’s eyes met his own. Fouad waved him over. Once they had broken into a good bottle of wine, they set about solving the various political crises dogging the Fourth Republic, starting with the limpness of the coalition government and moving quickly on, as Fouad often did, to the war in Algeria, which he insisted on calling the ‘war of independence’. Ralf fell back on his usual position, arguing that it was important to stand together, but political aims were poorly served by violence, implying as it did a lack of confidence in one’s arguments. Fouad argued that the object was not to force the government’s opinion, but to force them to listen. At the end of the bottle, they still hadn’t found a solution that was acceptable to all parties, so Ralf went to the bar for another.
Jacques made him wait while he went to the cellar to replace a barrel, lifting the trapdoor beneath his feet and disappearing through the hole. A handbag sat on the counter. There was only one woman in the bar, so Ralf picked up the bag and went over to her.
‘You left your bag at the counter,’ he said.
She looked at him with affable bewilderment.
‘Not mine. Here’s mine.’ She hefted her own on the seat next to her.
Ralf went back to the bar and opened the bag. Jacques was cursing as he rolled the new barrel up each step. Ralf found a lipstick; a bag of other assorted make-up; a diary, which he put to one side (it didn’t have a name, but it did give times and places); a single deadlock key; a compact mirror. Sticking plasters; aspirin. A purse had sunk to the bottom. If he could get a name, or better still, an address . . .
Something hit him quite hard on the side of the head. He stumbled as he was punched a second time. The top of his ear stung. Someone was tugging at the purse, which he clutched tighter by instinct. A woman was screaming for him to let go.
‘Thief! Give it to me!’
Ralf let go just as Jacques shoved the barrel up the last step.
‘Call the police!’ the woman shouted. ‘This man was trying to steal my bag.’
‘What? Ralf?’ said the barman. ‘He won’t even let me round up his change.’
She looked across at him. He had one arm half raised to defend himself. She seemed to be deciding whether or not to keep hitting him.
‘I was just trying—’ he began. She burst out laughing. ‘I was looking for your name,’ he finished limply.
‘Elsa,’ she said, holding out her hand. Behind her, Fouad was putting on his coat. He grinned at Ralf, tucked his newspaper under his arm, and slipped out.
‘Can I . . . offer you a drink?’ Ralf asked.
‘I just punched you in the head.’
‘Yes, and now I need a drink.’
Definitely one for me I think – on my wishlist to catch up with later. One for you too, maybe? Do follow the other stops on the blog tour, see what others thought…
My thanks to Drew Jerrison at Serpent’s Tail for inviting me to join the tour, and for the supporting materials.
About the author
Alex Christofi was born in Dorset and read English at Oxford University. As well as working as an editor, he writes occasional essays and reviews. His first novel Glass, also published by Serpent’s Tail, was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and won the Betty Trask Prize.