Brain Pickings

Displays of Affection: Iconic French Cartoonist Sempé Explores Relationship Clichés


Charming illustrated voyeurism into the lives of people falling in and out of love.

“I prefer drawing to talking,” Le Corbusier famously proclaimed. “Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies.” The best of drawing can reveal deep and tender truths with just a few simple, expressive lines. That’s what Jean-Jacques Sempé, France’s most celebrated cartoonist, does in Displays of Affection (public library) — a wonderful “book of people falling in (and out) of love,” originally published in 1981. Among other delights of the heart, the charming narrative explores two of my favorite things: bikes and love.

Edward Koren writes in the introduction:

The success of a social satirist can be measured by how much enthusiasm for his work the subjects (and objects) of his satire are willing to show. The great popularity in France enjoyed by Sempé attests to the fond way the French have come to view themselves through his eyes and ears, and to rely on his extraordinary sensibility to get a view of themselves. … The people in Sempé’s world are more the denizens of a global petite bourgeoisie, equally identifiable on both hemispheres and on all the inhabited continents. They live in the humdrum shadow of greatness that for them is chronically out of reach. Inspiration, passion, joy, immortality are some of the ideals never achieved by Sempé’s people, who must content themselves with mundane issues of sustenance, security, uncertainty, anxiety, anger, timidity, and self-importance, to name but a few. All this (and many more subtle and sensitive ingredients) is made laughable and sad by Sempé, who mixes his people into situations that are clichés of modern life.

The enchantment of it, of course, is that even in the most centered and confident of us lives a Sempé character who, if let loose, can steer the wheel — or pedal the bicycle, as it were — in disheartening directions. Koren continues:

Displays of Affection has Sempé fixing his voyeuristic eye and eavesdropping ear on that most clichéd of all subjects — relationships. The great ideal of the grand and lasting passion smiles down on the bumbling solitude of his lovers and mates, who fight, scold, daydream, protect themselves with envelopes of self-importance, always ending up in the same routinized lives they started with. And what is amazing to those of us enmeshed in the deadly seriousness of these matters is how Sempé, with Olympian dispassion, makes it all familiar, personal, real, and truly funny.

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