He must have spent months planning the expedition; must have gone over the route a thousand times in his head. He must have felt moments of doubt, told himself it was too ambitious. She hoped it would live up to his expectations. And she understood better than most about dreams that end in disappointment.
Time seems to stultify the vagaries of life. In one’s twilight years, the remorseless onset of age often appears to embed the aged in daily routines, the solitude of the widowed, and parochial roots. Caroline Vermalle’s George’s Grand Tour – published in her native France in 2008, and only now translated into English – is a story of emancipation from these shackles – stagnant routines, withering solitude, and life-long parochial roots. The eponymous protagonist, George Nicoleau, is an 83-year-old retired butcher, widowed and living in rural France. Long predicted to be close to the end of his life, and lately cosseted by his over caring daughter, Françoise, who, according to George, would have him ‘preserved in formaldehyde if she could’. Her decision to undertake prolonged trip to Peru provides George with the opportunity to embark on his own lifelong dream of tracing the route of the world’s most famous cycling race: the Tour de France. Alongside his septuagenarian neighbour Charles, George shakes off his decades-old daily routines and the familiar comforts of his home to seize his one remaining chance to discover the unfamiliar.
People were right, it was his last chance. It was his last chance to make grand exit. It didn’t even need to be dramatic, his exit. Just dignified. Standing.
George’s Grand Tour is told largely from the perspectives of George and his 23-year-old, distant granddaughter, Adèle, who works as an unpaid runner on a London film set. Their relationship, while free from enmity, bitterness or resentment, drifted into estrangement and indifference with the passing of years. Beyond the periodic birthday card or cheque, George and Adèle have had little contact for the preceding ten years. With her mother’s absence, Adèle is charged with regularly contacting her grandfather to ensure he is alive and well. At first intentionally secret, Adèle’s discovery of George’s Tour de France sees her make George promise to text her every night in return for his confidence. Despite his initial reticence towards Adèle’s demands – and his distrust, verging on disdain, for technology – George comes to improve his ability to use his mobile phone, and begins to exceed his nightly quota and regularly send her accounts of his daily exploits. George’s increasingly enthusiastic communiqués alter Adèle’s stultified and dimmed childhood recollections of him, and serve to rouse her from the interminable boredom of her work. This process sees a growing candour and openness in their relationship, yet marks a poignant volte-face: the boredom of unfulfilled youth while the elderly rediscover adventure and the surprises of life.
‘Hats off to you both, you’ve chosen life! Down with the dictatorship of aches and pains, and down with the doctors who stuff us with pills, and down with the daily routine that’s sending us to our graves. We’ve got to rebel. And when the end comes, well, we can bow out with dignity.’
This book is an easy read. Vermalle’s tranquil prose and earthy humour will have the pages flitting by like George’s many kilometres of le Tour de France. While the beamish tone and charming prose inexplicably proffers the – perhaps stereotypical – rustic simplicity of rural France, the work is not emotionally explorative to any great extent and only briefly provides insights into the troubles of its characters. Yet this is a relatively short tale of rediscovery, and was seemingly not intended to be a sweeping account of the tribulations of age and the lives of George and his family. It is a brief, vivid and often drily humorous journey of two retirees who seize their last chance for adventure. Through his travels and reconnection with Adèle, George comes to realise that he no longer relishes solitude, but desires company and human connection. The extreme ends of life – one at its beginning and the other at its culmination – overcome the mutual disinterests corollary to their age, and rediscover the possibilities of friendship between young and old.
‘You know, Adèle, people always say that life is too short. But for so long, so long, I thought that it felt too long. But now … I’m starting to think it’s been exactly right.’