#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews VINTAGE 1954 by Antoine Laurain

1954 was indeed an eventful, vintage year in France – especially in politics. It began with the Berlin Conference discussing the war in Indo-China and ended with Vietnam partitioned, the French defeated and facing another war – in Algeria. None of this, however, troubles the 2017 cast of Vintage 1954, for whom the interest lies in a bottle of Château Saint-Antoine Beaujolais. It is a bottle better than any other the vineyard had ever produced (and, therefore, probably the only good French wine of a poor year). It’s discovered by Hubert Larnaudie, mouldering in a pile of junk in his family’s cellar. Apartment-block manager Larnaudie draws the cork one evening in the company of three of the block’s residents, all virtual strangers, thrown together when there’s a robbery from another cellar in the building 

They are a motley, one might say ill-assorted, group: Magalie, a ‘gothic rock chick’, who’s a skilled and dedicated antiques restorer ‘with several piercings in her left ear, a pale complexion and scarlet lips [and] … skimpy dresses adorned with skull and crossbones’. Then there’s Julien, a barman – from Harry’s Bar, no less – who’s also a passionate ufologist and the great-grandson of a man who lived in the village where the wine was made, and drank the same vintage in 1978. Finally, there’s Bob, an American in Paris; an AirBnB guest, he works for Harley-Davidson and has come from Milwaukee on a long-planned dream visit – he’s an admirer of all things French, especially the Eiffel Tower: ‘What a nation … they assembled thousands of steel girders which weigh a ton, to make a giant pointed thing that does absolutely nothing.’ 

They drink the wine, savour its finesse, and so to bed. What happens the next day is a good, old-fashioned sci-fi adventure, given a chic French dressing and some very close encounters with people who are clearly Laurain’s literary and artistic heroes, plus, for good measure, a blast at the futilities of twenty-first-century technology. 

The fateful four wake up and slowly realise their world has vanished, to be replaced by Paris in 1954, the ‘Year of the Flying Saucer’. They have brief encounters with Truffaut, Cocteau, Jean Gabin (‘Ne Touchez pas au Grisbi’) and Édith Piaf (‘La Vie en Rose’). But more extraordinary are the people they meet from their own pasts: Hubert’s grandfather André, who’s a wine buff: 

‘“I’ve a few bottles in the cellar and I’m looking forward to hearing what you think.” Hubert let out a shudder. This quiet man would soon acquire a wine yet to be harvested: Château Saint-Antoine 1954.’ 

Julien finds himself deputising for a sick bartender in Harry’s Bar, where he invents a new cocktail, which is tasted by a young actress: 

‘…he listened discreetly and deduced she had made a film … which took place in Paris … “It’s very good!” Audrey declared … Julien let out a sigh of relief.’

Vintage 1954 starts slowly, almost too slowly; then it gathers pace and events come at you from all sides and in top gear. What started with a somewhat vague focus, suddenly turns into vintage Laurain, not quite as good as The President’s Hat, but as inventive and perceptive a story as you could wish for. The big question, of course, is how do they get back to 2017? Do they want to? Laurain reflects: 

‘… humans were not meant to sit in an office chair answering emails … or reading about world events on their phones. Humans had lived for millennia in nature … hunting, fishing and sewing …’ 

There’s only one man who can solve their dilemma … and he misses the train to Beaujolais! 

Reviewed by Max Easterman

VINTAGE 1954

Written by Antoine Laurain

Translated from the French by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce

Published by Gallic Books (2019)


Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 25 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university  lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.

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Category: May 2019Reviews

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