Look at the list of current bestsellers and you will find an array of books about dysfunctional families, dystopian societies, global catastrophe, or protagonists living really screwed-up lives. The phenomenon is easy to understand. Many of us are coping with deep-seated anxieties about our world, our health, or even our survival. No wonder, then, that a little book, a collection of short stories, Le petit Nicolas (Nicholas) by René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé, appeals. It offers the reader a refuge from such cares.
A wistful but unsentimental fantasy about a little boy living with his bourgeois parents in a French town, Le petit Nicolas relates the calm, safety, and reliability of a world untouched by politics, war, disease, or any other scourge of our times. Nicolas is innocently mischievous, but curious about nearly every aspect of his life. His sanguine acceptance of his schoolmates like the bully Eudes, the gourmand Alceste, or the teacher’s pet, Agnan (who cannot be hit as long as he’s wearing his glasses), for example, sets up hilarious adventures in and out of school.
Adults in Nicolas’ life pique his curiosity. He observes but cannot explain their exasperation, resignation, disputes, or rules. Reassured, however, by their love and concern, Nicolas sallies forth on his daily adventures that remind readers of the joys of childhood when the world was theirs to explore.
Sempé’s endearing illustrations, humorous and evocative of childhood’s less complicated view of the world, reflect his own life. He knew how thwarted and confused a naughty student could feel. ‘Dismissed’ from school for disciplinary reasons, he worked hard to perfect his illustration skills. His efforts paid off: in the course of his career he illustrated more than 100 New Yorker magazine covers and the Nicholas series he created with his friend Rene Goscinny, (who wrote the texts) ensured his success.
The book is in print, in the original French (my copy) and in English. Short and funny, Le petit Nicolas also is a great read for anyone with a basic knowledge of French. Its vocabulary is current and the writing is clear, descriptive, and direct. Nicolas is an irresistible character I plan to meet again by reading the rest of Sempé’s series.