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Americans Rhapsodize Over a New French Novel

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Mitch Teich
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"French Rhapsody" opens when a guitarist learns that a record company loved his band's demo - 33 years after the record company tried to get in touch..

A guitar player receives a letter from a record company, saying his band's demo tape was very well-received, and asking the group to come in for a meeting.  Only problem is, the letter arrives 33 years late, and not surprisingly, the band has long split up.

It's less of a tragedy than it might have been, since the band, The Holograms, is fictitious, the product of French writer Antoine Laurain's imagination.  Laurain's latest novel, French Rhapsody, centers around the efforts of that one-time guitar player, Alain Massoulier, to track down the other members of the band - not to reunite, but so that he might find a surviving copy of that demo tape and hear it one more time.

That effort is at turns funny - one of the band members has become a modern artist whose latest installation is an enormous inflatable representation of his own brain.  At other points, it is dark, as another member of the group has become a far-right politician whose effort to achieve political prominence has echoes in the current American political climate.

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But in large measure, French Rhapsody is wistful, a story of lost youth, as Alain, and other characters come to terms with the notion that their halcyon days are gone, and are now, as The Holograms' former lead singer describes it, "like photographs you find at the bottom of a box in a cupboard, and are really just evidence that you were once in this place, surrounded by these people."

Laurain says it is no coincidence that the fictional song that captured the attention of the fictional record company was called, "Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made Of." "This is kind of a symbolic way to talk about youth, and what we leave behind.  It's a book about passing time."

The recent past has been generally kind to Laurain, who lives in Paris.  He attracted a spirited American following for his first novel translated into English, The President's Hat.  It follows the journey of a hat lost by former French President François Mitterand, and how it changes the lives of all the people who come to possess it.

He followed that up with The Red Notebook soon afterwards, which tells the story of a bookshop owner who comes across an intriguing journal in a handbag discarded on the street by thieves, and who seeks to reunite the notebook with its mysterious owner.

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Credit courtesy Antoine Laurain
Antoine Laurain is author of three novels translated into English, the latest of which is "French Rhapsody."

Laurain has made several trips to the United States with the publishing of his latest three books, and says he's come to understand that American readers might be getting something different from them than his French fans.

"I think you [Americans] are more in the story," he explains.  "You're more involved in the story, and in the characters.  I mean, the American audience sees a kind of French touch, but moreso, a universal story.

"For French Rhapsody, the doctor [former guitar player] is called Alain Massoulier, he lives in Paris.  But he could be Alan Brown, a doc in Milwaukee, or John Smith, a doc in London."

Laurain's recent trip to Wisconsin not only kicked off the U.S. book tour for French Rhapsody, it also represented research for his next book, which he says will feature a character from Milwaukee.

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