When David Mercier, a mid-level accountant whose Parisian life has seemingly plateaued, decides to make the most of his wife and son’s trip to Brittany by treating himself to a bachelor, brasserie dinner of oysters, the only alterations he anticipates are those to his bank balance and his belt. But just as he has finished scouring the menu and handing in his order, in strolls le Président de la République François Mitterrand who takes his seat just beside Monsieur Mercier, leaving his aghast. After eating, when Monsieur Mitterrand forgets his hat, Mercier is left with the perfect opportunity to nab a memento from his new claim to fame, an opportunity he swiftly fulfils. But this black felt Homburg affects Mercier’s life in a wholly unexpected manner as it bestows upon its new owner a torrent of confidence, authority and fervour which sees him criticize a senior colleague during a meeting, leading to a promotion and a new life in Rouen.
However the hat becomes elusive as it makes a habit of escaping its owners. The plot follows the meanderings of the Homburg as it tumbles from one owner to the next and witnesses the almost-magical influence the hat imposes on their lives of these Parisians. The setting is at the heart of the novel and the depictions of Parisian life are charming and almost caricature at times, sprinkled with a playful light humour. Holidays in Brittany, evening aperitifs, oysters squirming at the drops of fresh lemon juice, it is all so very French. And it is infective. You have to question your morals when you find Mercier driving home after washing down his oysters with a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and, wrapped up in the novel’s lackadaisical realm, think that this is fine and dandy. But this is Paris in 1986, pre-internet, pre-mobile phones, where Parisian life streams simply along like the dreams of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and at times it reminded me of the Paris of Woody Allen’s Mightnight in Paris. The novel’s structure adds to this comfortable, pleasurable nostalgia as it fades masterfully in and out of each scene with great fluidity, giving the narrative a very cinematic feel. Hence many a critic’s desire to apply that beloved phrase, an ‘easy-read’, to The President’s Hat.
At the mere mention of that phrase, many a literary-snob might upturn their nose and exclaim that this novel, alas!, is not for them. Often association with summer-time beach reads or novels which absorb you during a tedious train journey, the ‘easy-read’ is often assumed to be lacking a serious purpose beyond its desire to entertain. The President’s Hat, rather, springs a number of stimulating questions and themes. The way the hat ‘magically’ confers confidence and change in the lives of the novel’s characters has something thought-provoking to say about the psychological origins of self-confidence. Also, the figure of Mitterrand as a potent, influential figurehead who leaves his mark on the architectural landscape of Paris, on the political landscape France as a nation, as well as influencing those around him with his presence and his hat, forces readers to reflect on the nature of power, leadership and what that should be. Published en françaisby Flammarion on the eve of the inauguration of the current French president, Monsieur Hollande, The President’s Hat makes us wonder whether this narrative would have been possible or feasible had Hollande or Nicolas Sarkozy replaced Mitterrand in the role of influential head of state…
François Mitterrand and the hero of Laurain’s novel, Mitterrand’s hat.
The President’s Hat is a novel which poses significant and relevant questions about modern life, modern leaders, and offers readers a nostalgia for the serenity of a perhaps outmoded way of life that many of us still (wrongly?) deem to be la vie française. And Laurain achieves this in a charming, agréable style which is light-hearted and very well-written. A word must also be said for the excellence of the translation by Gallic Books which is completely idiomatic, engrossing, and never reminds you that you are reading a text in translation. Which is no mean feat, so bravo! I will definitely be keeping an eye on their future publications, and you should too!