Les Heures Souterraines (Underground Time), Delphine de Vigan

Standard

les-heures-souterraines

I picked up this book after a long period of erratic reading from my part: I had started several books that I was just unable to finish. I attribute my failure to the old-time setting of the stories: early 20th century Iceland, mid-century Japan, 1960s Rome… Consequently, I awaited with impatience the start of the Salon du Livre in Beyrouth, and promised myself to buy books with more modern themes, characters and settings.

And so I landed on Delphine de Vigan’s Les Heures Souterraines. I had seen a couple of Youtube interviews with her; her book No et Moi had received much praise, was translated and later turned into a movie. Her later novel Rien Ne S’oppose A La Nuit was well received and was rewarded with literary prizes

I pick up this book, check out the back cover and note the praise form Le Monde, L’Express, and the mysterious blurb that the book is the story of two wandering souls who might or might interact within a bustling city. Nice.

My pleasant surprise grew when I read that the main soul of our wandering souls, Mathilde, is a Marketing Assistant (my background), well placed within the company, working nicely alongside her boss, Jacques, who delegates her the planning of marketing studies, conducting meeting with key clients, and even allows to be present at upper management’s meetings.

All this will change when, one day, the poor soul makes the unthinkable of recommending to listen to the complaint of a client, against the wish of Jacques, who was looking to hastily dismissing the claims and wanted to wrap-up the meeting.

What follows is psychological torture that grows in magnitude and in creativity as Mathilde is gradually stripped from tasks she was undertaking for Jacques. Then follow the many bullet points of her job description which are handed over to other colleagues, who suddenly form the circle of Jacques’ assistants. Add to the loss of one’s missions the loss of those un-coded perks that some employees enjoy, a nice office location for example, access to certain printers, bathrooms, etc… Or the obscuring of the content and details of meetings and bi-lateral discussions. As anyone who has worked in an office knows, those perks and one-on-one meetings are sometimes as important to the well-being of the employee as are the salary and the financial compensations. They can contribute to an increase in the performance of the employees, as they form part of the psychological well-being the employee seeks within (especially) a large, impersonal enterprise.

Because she documents the tumbling of Mathilde as a result of psychological office torture, I gave the book 2 stars. Otherwise, I would have given it one star. It amazed me how much the writer failed in attracting me to the main character or to the events of the book, noting that I am not unfamiliar to this world, and that I was psychologically prepped to read a novel set in a time and place with which I could identify.

The problem, in my opinion, lies in the structure of the book. The book is not lengthy enough to magnify such a harmless mishap into the (almost epic) proportions given to it by de Vigan. The style is crude to the point that I associated it with the non-fiction writing of weekly magazines. There is too much listing of office and computer jargon, of an enumeration of tasks that add little to the story. It didn’t help my perception of the book as I plodded through it my knowing that de Vigan was a statistician at a company before focusing exclusively on writing. It seriously diminished any merit she had in the few touches she used to portray the realities of office life.

On the counterpart of Mathilde, is Thibault. Thibault for a couple of pages struggles with the idea of breaking up with his girlfriend and soon musters his courage and does it. Interspersed between the various episodes of Mathilde’s life, we drive through the streets of Paris with Thibault as he visits studios and apartments administering medical care to those who call the hospital’s emergency line. Like Mathilde, Thibault is given a backstory -of the most classical essence- which I found added little to the story or to its ending.

In the end, I do not think it is only the structure of the story itself that irritated me but the writing style of de Vigan. Normally, a plot I dislike is something I easily forgive a writer, but not to feel the beauty or the rhythm of the writing is something I cannot tolerate, and as such, I doubt I will give de Vigan a chance again.

7 thoughts on “Les Heures Souterraines (Underground Time), Delphine de Vigan

  1. You know I have a totally different vision of that book.

    I thought it was so accurate in its description of life in Paris. Paris is a glamorous city for tourists and rich people. But when you have to work and live there, it’s another story. Its anonimity is endless.
    The descriptions of Mathilde and Thibault in the metro is exactly the feeling you get when you commute everyday for work.

    As for the description of moral harrassment in the office and the behaviour of her co-workers, the uselessness of unions who only care to protect their asses, that’s all so true.
    For once, I read a novel by a French writer who has actually put their feet in a company. The writer is not a journalist, not a teacher, not an academic. She’s from the corporate world and she knows what she speaks about. Her low spiral to corporate hell rings true. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced it myself but I’ve seen it. And I really like that Delphine de Vigan gave a voice to these employees.
    Thank God, here’s a French novel which is not about a soul tortured about nonsenses.

    Personnally I thought the character of Thibault was weaker than Mathilde. (billet on my blog and on Guy’s blog if you’re interested)

    Btw, Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit is different but beautiful.

    Like

    • It’s very interesting for me that her truthfulness in capturing life in a city, and office life is what attracted you in the novel. For me, so much truthfulness tested the limits of my tolerance with her writing. When I read her, I was just coming out from so much nouveau roman, and fiction pushed to its limit, and the disappearance of all time and space and characters that this book just didn’t have its chance with me. At all. As you say, Thibault might have saved it for me, if his character was more developed.

      I might give her another chance, because I liked your review of No et Moi, that’s how I knew of her actually.

      Like

      • I haven’t read anything in the Nouveau Roman category, I could never make myself start one. My loss, I suppose but it has no appeal. I’m not an Edition de Minuit reader.

        I haven’t read No et moi, so someone else thought Delphine de Vigan a good writer.🙂

        Like

  2. I was getting more and more interested as I read the review until I got to the part about your irritation with the writing style. Decision made on that basis not to bother with this book.

    Like

    • I’m terribly sorry, I just saw your comment. WP failed to notify me. Yes, this book just isn’t for me, and in a way I’m happy to realize that I am still able to dislike books I personally choose; after a streak of two thumbs up and 4-stars on goodreads, it’s good to offer a book a 1-star rating🙂

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s