Collecting Beautiful Moments: A Reflection of The Small Pleasures of Life by Philippe Delerm
By Mariam Pari
Vanessa Bell, A Conversation, 1913-1916. Oil on canvas, 86.6 x 81cm, The Courtauld Gallery. Digital photograph accessed 23.01.24 from <https://courtauld.ac.uk/highlights/a-conversation/>.
The Small Pleasures of Life by Philippe Delerm is a collection of 34 short essays published in 1998 in which Delerm meditates on the little things that bring him great joy. These are varied and seemingly simple pleasures such as helping to shell peas, a garden in August and the smell of apples. Delerm’s writing is a celebration and a testament to how these small pleasures, although transitory, are continuous and persistent. Simultaneously temporary and infinite. Written originally in French and then later translated, this body of work sold more than one million copies in France.
Each small pleasure is dynamically described using three to four pages in an almost child-like manner as Delerm recounts his simple joys that don't just shelter him from the stresses of the real world but create new immersive worlds within themselves. Take Delerm detailing the experience of helping to shell peas: “You talk about work, about plans, about feeling tired- steering clear of anything psychological. Shelling peas isn't a time to explain things, it's a time to go with the flow in a detached sort of way. You’re looking at five minutes’ worth of work, but the pleasure lies in rolling up your sleeves and making the moment last, slowing down the morning pod by pod.” It is Delerm’s ability to capture time and slow it down to almost a standstill across these 34 pleasures that makes the book itself a thing to savour and enjoy.
It is this contrariety between the fleeting nature of these moments and the numerousness that renders them infinite. These beautiful moments come and go. There is sadness in the certainty that they will always go, but joy in the equal assurance that they will always come again. They never cease to exist if we have our eyes open to the possibility they are there. Happiness is experienced in the same way as anguish. In a moment that comes and goes.
My favourite of the essays is titled ‘We Could Almost Eat Outside,’ where Delerm describes that time of year when Winter begins to dissipate, and Spring starts to unfold. The focus on the conditional and the possibility that it may be feasible to move outside to eat, ‘a tiny breeze of delirious wisdom which changes everything and nothing...’ The words ‘what if?’ create a make-believe world amongst inevitabilities where possibilities are passing him by, and it is his choice whether he reaches out to grasp what lies between instinct and hesitation. “A perfect existence.”
While reading The Small Pleasures of Life, I came across this passage in a review written by Louise Bourgeois of the 1990 exhibition The Sigmund Freud Antiquities: Fragments from a Buried Past, which reminded me of Delerm’s ideas. In this review, Bourgeois considered some items that her father had collected:
“My father had one collection and I found it. I still have it. It was a box and inside there were pebbles. There were hundreds of pebbles, and he had it on his desk. He said, “Every time I have a beautiful moment, it proves to me that life is worth living, and in gratitude I put a pebble in the box.” So, he was collecting beautiful moments. Why did he have to do that? Probably because he was anxious, he considered his life hell, and he had to prove to himself that in spite of everything, beautiful moments existed, and the pebbles, was the proof of their existence.”
I talked about this passage with my best friend. We discussed to what extent this technique would be useful for trying to have a more positive outlook on everything, especially in the darker and harder months when it’s more difficult to remain optimistic. We concluded that it is not a useful technique. Not so much because of the philosophy behind it, but the practicality: we would never have enough boxes to fit the number of beautiful moments we experience every day. An almost annoyingly optimistic conclusion, we decided to keep mental pebbles instead.
Noticing is sometimes the same thing as loving and it really is all the little everyday things that make life more enjoyable and worthwhile. The small pleasures of life do exist, making it easier to move through life more effortlessly, with less hesitation, because we know these small pleasures will never cease to exist if we’re there to experience them. Philippe Delerm understands the not-so-secret art of living - a good life is contained within these moments.
There is no prerequisite to happiness, it is not waiting out there for you. It is exactly where you are right now, in the small parts of life. The cup doesn't need to be full all the way to be drunk, the small moments must be taken as they come. There is so much beauty in the supposed purposelessness and in the end, this is the purpose itself.
Starting a new year with all the pressures to be better every year is exhausting, and instead of thinking bigger, I'm going to continue thinking smaller. To think of happiness as something small that can be attained every day, rather than making it a huge thing that seems so far in the future and can only be obtained when the conditions are perfect.
To appreciate the things that I wouldn't be able to experience if I wasn't exactly me and exactly in this place at this exact time. The things that I am lucky enough to do every day or once a year.
For Delerm these are an autumn sweater, blackberry picking, and a croissant in the street. For me it’s laughing with my friends, my sister coming back home from university, and the pictures my grandma sends me of every flower she finds on her walks ever since we taught her how to use WhatsApp.
Life is never perfect but sometimes, in these small moments, I think that it can come very close.