Oh… Philippe Djian

Standard

IMG_20141226_210746~2

Yes, indeed. Another Djian. Why not. I blame Emma.

The book’s “ouverture” is similar to that of Vengences in its confusion of the characters who will populate it and their relation towards each other. I had to draw a mini tree of characters in the beginning to understand who is dating whom and who is the father of whom, and is our protagonist male or female (fortunately the French e muet always helps in separating genders) and to whom, our Michèle, our main character and narrator, was married. Or is she still?

This commotion of characters and the ensuing confusion to the reader is created, as always is the case, over dinner hosted by Michèle. Michèle was married to Richard for twenty years. They have a son Vincent, boyfriend of pregnant Agnès – impregnated by another- who is looking for an apartment in Paris to move in with Agnes and her future child.

The reader’s opinion is quickly formed as to who is the more genial, the more obnoxious, the more abusive, or the more dependent among the bunch, especially as Michèle is singled out as the more mature, the more stable and the more responsible among them.

But let’s back up a tad, to that first sentence of the book:

Je me suis sans doute éraflé la joue (I most definitely scraped my cheek)

This light injury of the cheek has nothing harmless about it; Michèle was raped, a couple of days before the dinner, and the reader only knows about it dozens of pages later. At this stage of the book, one has nothing but compassion towards Michèle: she decides to support her son financially in finding an apartment in Paris, even though she objects to him sticking to Agnès, she silently bares the trauma of the rape, not sharing it with her best friend and longtime business partner, Anna, her mother, at 70, takes up a lover half her age, and pretty soon her father is revealed to have been the murderer of 70 children in a Club Mickey!

As disturbing as the above might seem, there are light touches of humorous writing surrounding Michèle, and this humorous writing is revealed as we start discovering that Michèle and Robert have regular sex. Robert is Anna’s husband; Anna, the godmother of Vincent to boot. Michèle is quite candid in why she started sleeping with Robert: out of boredom, solitude and because he was there. The problem Robert is unaware of is the presence of an even closer Patrick, the neighbor of Michèle, having recently moved with his wife to their neighborhood, and towards whom Michèle is now developing a purely sexual attraction; an attraction that she is actively trying to sparkle within Patrick, whose wife is now on a pilgrimage trip to Lourdes! Add to this foreground an immature son and an insecure ex-husband constantly calling in and requesting support, and I start to laugh, even now.

That said, at times, the reader wonders if our narrator will get any kind of break, and in a succession of phrases Michèle moves from being busy seducing Patrick (maybe because his wife is a Lourdes pilgrim) to dealing with terribly tragic news that floor her. Yet, she gets up on her feet again and alone bears it all and still finds the strength to act again as the focal point to her dysfunctional surrounding.

I leave out several details, several twists and changes in order to get the readers of this review excited about buying this book and reading it. Though the rules of morality seem completely insignificant to her, still I’m drawn to Michèle and I completely sympathized with her, even when she is at her lowest, and she does have these decisions where I wished she wouldn’t take them, but she does.

Michèle, and incidentally the other women in this book are strong. Strong in the conventional sense of able to bear and in the modern sense of liberated, and consciously bearing the consequences of their independence. I admire their refusal of the status quo, sometimes imposed by too much solitude, but at the same time setting down their own boundaries. They lead their men; they make more money than they do, and they provide the security and the stability that these men are lacking. I wonder if it’s too much to say that it is reflective of a changed society; but at the very least, the well-defined microcosm in which the characters of Oh… evolve certainly has the traditional roles reversed.

Michèle’s body itself is a captivating literary creation. It bears injuries in the beginning and throughout the book, is split between three men who crave it, withstands violent sex, blackmail sex, and still provides enough support for the woman herself to be revealed as the source of support and dependency of men around her, after the gratification craze has abandoned them.

A highly recommended book.

Sept Ans (Seven Years), Peter Stamm

Standard

IMG_20141226_183052~2

Generally, I’m biased towards reading writers whose books are reviewed in the New York Review of Books. I like the way they analyze books, I like their selection of writers they target and, more often than not, they would review several works by the same writer. This was the case for Stamm, reviewed in 2011. Seven Years was included in this selection along with  On A Day Like This and Unformed Landscape. What I retained from that review is the style of Stamm, distant, minimalist, no frills. I can read that.

August 2014, the New Yorker follows suit and publish a fiction podcast read by Tim Parks of a short Stamm story, Sweet Dreams. I’m hooked: it’s a very modern story of a couple living in a city, each exhibiting, in my opinion, strong individual traits, and the change that happens in their relation towards each other.

Seven Years opens on Sonia standing in the middle of an art gallery, dreamy, elsewhere, looking outside. She is attending the exhibition of her older friend, Antje, who left her home in Marseille to exhibit in Munich. Narrating the story is Alex. I wondered about his relation to Sonia, and I needed quite some pages to have it confirmed that he is her husband, and that, Sophie, present at the exhibition looking at her mother, is their daughter.

As it seems to me common with Stamm, flashbacks intertwine with the present. Alex seizes the opportunity of Antje’s stay at their place to tell her the story of their relationship. Curiously, he starts with the memory of Iwona, a Polish student working illegally in Germany, with whom he hooked up.

Twenty years ago, they were a bunch of architecture students, Alex, Sonia, Ferdi, and Rudiger, each with his own idea of how to design buildings, how to arrange empty spaces, how to make use of light, form follows function or vice versa. Carelessly drifting through their pre-graduation days, the bunch, dares Alex to flirt with an insipid girl, Iwona. Not really accepting the challenge but feeling himself dragged into it, the night ends with Alex cuddling Iwona, but corrected when it comes to the actual act of sex.

Writing this review, I realize that Alex was presented -early on- as such: someone who is dragged into events, activities and decisions, without making them himself. He does try to benefit the most out of them, but until the very end of the book, he keeps on trying to exonerate himself from tangle that life throws at him.

Je m’étais accomodé de la situation (I had accustomed myself to the situation

Following their graduation, and looking for an internship at an architecture studio in Marseille, the ambitious and beautiful Sonia drags Alex with her where she is successful in landing an internship and in making Alex fall for her. Her internship is extended in Marseille and with Alex back to Munich, they decide to maintain their relationship. In Munich, out of boredom, Alex finds himself dragged into the bed of Iwona, who rarely, if ever, speaks, who has no apparent intellect, who cannot maintain conversations with Alex, yet who becomes frequently his resting center when life becomes tough on Alex.

I didn’t like Alex one bit. After he completes the first of his series of flashback to Antje, she looks at him horrified at his behavior with Iwona, and that was before he cheated on Sonia with her, and he tells her, the story isn’t over yet. I suppose I feel the same as Antje felt towards him. Cheating on Sonia is bad by itself, but Alex frequently expresses ideas and morals that are in extreme juxtaposition to his actions: he unreasonably suspects Sonia of cheating on him in Marseille, while he was with Iwona, he accuses Iwona of bigotry while his morals fail everytime he finds himself without Sonia around him, he tells his daughter not to think of men as destructive machines while, hours before, he was trying to deflower a devout Catholic because he felt he didn’t dominate her yet. At a particularly low moment of the book, Alex stops in front of a mirror at a bar where he was getting himself drunk and considers that he is still good-looking; aged, but still the looker. This particular scene forever alienated him from me.

Alex never uses tender words to describe his relationship with Sonia, even after their marriage, even after her forgiveness to his cheating; in fact, the vocabulary he mostly employs towards Sonia is of a sexual nature, whereas he reserves tender words to Iwona; Iwona, who was never able to understand his theories and grand ideas, who kept herself mute, silently waiting for his return, yet it was her who uttered: I love you, when he least expected it.

What I didn’t like about the book was how much it is anchored in the present. The location is Munich, the time is clearly established in relation to world events such as the fall of the Berlin wall or the economic crisis, and the characters are affected by those events. Adding to such clearly defined timeframe the love triangle and the book could have sunk into those cheap sentimental stories. But the book offers more to the reader: complex characters in minimalist writing.

The complexity of Alex is disorienting: even when he fails he genuinely regrets his failure and curses himself when he falls again. His failures are not due to some grand decision requested of him, but simply to commit to one person, to one action, to one idea, and in this he incredibly mirrors the average man, and it makes one pause to take a break from the reading. His desire to dominate Iwona is dependency masked. His oscillation towards the safe and warm, yet stagnant Iwona draws him away from the achiever, mature and adult Sonia; in a way, Iwona offers the security of childhood, which is evidently what Alex is seeking.

I would have liked to include quotes from the book to illustrate the simplicity of Stamm’s writing, but I fear my translation will not be representative of it.

Incidences, by Philippe Djian

Standard

72234334

This is the original cover of the book, for the paperback edition, which I prefer to the one I got, taken form the movie that was released in 2013.
I’ll start by saying that I wasted too much time waiting to read this book and circling around it, by reading its review and watching the movie based on it. I find myself frequently repeating this same pattern where I’m hastily tasting something and later deciding that I want to patiently savor it. The end result is that too much time is wasted waiting for the ideal situation, time or even setting.
Speaking of setting, I knew that I would be biased (positively) towards Incidences because it is set in the mountains. Because there is snow everywhere. Because it’s cold and the wind roars to fill up the silence of winter.
In such a setting, Marc, the main character of the book, is driving his Fiat 500 back home from a party laden with alcohol, an attractive young girl by his side, his student from the literature class he teaches.
In a sense, the first couple of pages are the story itself, and I’m thoroughly enjoying such a structure (blame Robbe-Grillet) in which my mind does not wander much to “hollywoodian” twists and turns, but enjoys the writing that repeatedly draws out thoughts, feelings and words from the characters. Once the characters are defined within a couple of locations, and interact among each other, it’s a real test for the writer to hold the attention of the reader, to keep him/her motivated to flip the pages.
The intrigue is created when one reads of a professor of literature sneaking into his own house to spend the night with a girl; the intrigue grows when the reader discovers that the professor does not wish to wake up his sister, Marianne, thereby drawing her attention to the remaining of his night. I’m glad Djian did not add surrounding neighbors to Marc and Marianne’s house (as he judiciously did in Oh…), I think this would have diluted the intensity of the story and I fear would have also tinted the events with a comic tone.
At daybreak, Marc wakes up to the realization that the girl sleeping next to him is dead. The solution that would least raise questions by his sister and by the police would be to dump her body in a ditch, up in the mountains. With time, the ditch becomes the focal point of the book, and Marc is drawn there on several occasions, and we the reader understands that Marc is no stranger to climbing up the mountain to find refuge on the edge of that deep fissure.
Having gotten rid of the body, and with no trace to indicate his relation with the girl, Marc proceeds to his work confident in the monotony of the events and people around him: his average students, the head of the literature department who may or may not be in a relation with Marianne, his sister whom he managed to dissuade from asking too many questions…
In this clearly set-up world, enters Miryam, the dead girl’s step-mother, towards whom Marc will let down his guards and will gradually grant her access to his world.
This is my third Djian. I can now safely say that there is a lot of Simenon in him. For starters, the tone adopted by the narrator closely resembles the one in the non-Maigret: though Marc is not the narrator, one feels as if he is the one telling the story; everything that happens is seen through Marc’s eyes. I find this technique to be less patronizing than the first person narrative: without tricking me into taking a side, with or against this “I”, it softens the characters to me, characters I normally wouldn’t sympathize with. I often found myself standing next to Marc; even when he is brooding on some problem he has with his students, for example, he notices his surrounding: the rabbits, the squirrels, the lake, the mountains, the wind, and the reflections varying with the intensity of daylight… Such writing brings him closer to the reader.
There is nothing which is revealed crudely to the reader. Even when the intrigues start to untangle, Djian does them in light touches, at the risk of alienating the reader – might-I-add . The analysis of why Marc is the way he is gradually built up as Marc heads outside of his classroom, into his apartment, as he encounters Marianne’s potential suitor, as he rejects the advances of his students, etc.

51-fH3DtLpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
A word about the movie, to close this review. I think I was unjust to the movie, L’Amour est un Crime Parfait. It’s a stupid title (why add the word Amour) but I think, in retrospect, that the movie did succeed in emulating the narration itself. I think that this blurring between a narrating voice and Marc was well captured in the movie. Another autocorrection I would like to add is that casting Amalric as Marc seemed to be the right choice. Marc inadvertently becomes a flirt to his female students; it’s not because he is macho nor a heartbreaker. Accordingly, Amalric with his physical appearance and the vocal tone he adopted in the movie seemed to me to best embody the character of Marc .