The Most Beautiful Book in the World by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is quite simply a delightful collection of 8 short stories each one focused on the life of a woman. Translated from French into English most of these stories take place in France. When I had first heard the title of the collection I had jokingly said only a Frenchman would write a book with such a grandiose title.
But this collection turns those kinds of cynical suppositions on its head. In fact, The Most Beautiful Book in the World refers to the last story in the collection where women imprisoned in a Russian gulag collectively write a book for their daughters on cigarette paper with a stolen hidden pencil.
Each story deals with an issue in life whether it be senility, finding or losing love, secrecy, the gift of joy or the pain of loss. I’m not sure if this is because I’m a modern girl or just a cynic at heart but each story always held me at the precipice of cynicism but ultimately led me to an entirely different and wonderfully inspiring place altogether. To accomplish this without yielding to saccharine predictability is a gift.
The writing was different as well. I’m not sure if this is because the work is a translation or because this is the way Schmitt writes but each story has this almost old world, parable feel to them that lends them an oddly timeless quality. Schmitt says he wrote the stories ‘when he was forbidden to write’ during the filming of Odette Toulemonde (also the title of one of my favourite stories in the collection) . But the fact that these are not polished literary gems a la Alice Munro, is also what adds to their charm. Reading these stories is like sitting down to a mid-day snack of excellent french bread, cheese and wine served on a rough hewn table. I loved The Most Beautiful Book in the World.