A Severed Head

Standard

I’ve enjoyed reading this book. My copy came with an introduction by Miranda Syemour but I found myself disagreeing with her. I didn’t think Martin, the main character, moves from hazy view of relationship to lucidity towards the end of the book. There’s definitely truth in this personal voyage that’s externalized with more certainty in the pursuit that Martin makes towards the end of the book. But my impression is that there’s *perceived* certainty and that makes all the difference.

41fb1ramj3l-_sx324_bo1204203200_
This was my first Murdoch and so I was taken by her writing and by her description of London’s fog and of the dreary weather that accompanies the novel.
My impression is that A Severed Head is a story that mocks psychoanalysis and ridicules the pursuit of the self’s happiness, this “do whatever makes you happy”. I couldn’t have imagined a different ending which I took to be more sarcastic than serious in tone.

The story
The story opens on an adulterous couple, Martin Lynch-Gibbons, mid 30s, married to Antonia, and Georgie Hands, a 26-year old student within the apartment of the latter that’s filled with gifts offered by Martin. Georgie wants their relation to be out in the open and Martin hesitates. The characters of the novel, upon hindsight, are all introduced in this scene:
Palmer Anderson, the American psychoanalyst who treats Antonia, and who’s half-sister, Honor Klein, a Jewish anthropologist, will be visiting, Alexander, Martin’s brother to whom Martin leaves his mistresses and Rosemary, Martin’s sister who seems prim but whom Martin suspects of leading a liberal life.
Back home to his unsuspecting wife, Martin is stunned by the revelation of Antonia that she is actually in love with her psycho-analyst whom she has been seeing for a while. So much is Martin in disbelief that he tells his wife to abandon her “ridiculous” idea of leaving him and to go to bed with Palmer instead, to which she replies, I already have.

 

That’s the frame of the novel; within a dozen of pages the stability of the couple is shattered and Martin will remain until the end of the book in search of an apartment to settle himself.
The story is told exclusively from the viewpoint of Martin and Martin never exteriorizes his feelings; he’s actually understanding without being forgiving:

I had been cheated of some moment of violence, of some special though perhaps fruitless movement of will and power; and for this at least I would never forgive them.

His understanding of the various changes that happen around him is unsettling, guided, or possibly mesmerized, by his friend and ex-wife’s lover, Palmer Anderson, who explains to Martin:

I know Antonia very well, Martin. Better in some ways than you do. That’s not your fault but my profession. I know *you* better in some ways than you do.

The longevity of the Palmer-Antonia couple seems to depend, almost exclusively, on their gravitation around Martin, in an effort to nurse Martin, who expresses -more than once throughout the book- his longing to his deceased mother, whose features Martin finds within his brother, Alexander.
These referrals to psychoanalytic textbook cases and this omniscience of the psychoanalyst do not shed the least bit of light on the actions of the characters. In fact, it seems to me that throughout the book, the characters react to their basic urges and provide ad hoc justifications of them. This makes them ever evasive to the reader.
To illustrate, in an attempt to explain one of the deplorable acts that Martin commits, he writes three letters to his victim, none of which overlaps with the other, sends the second and wishes he wrote a fourth letter.

This constant rationalization of basic urges finds its contrast in Martin’s unique act that reflects some kind of willpower, possibly fueled by an early admonishment from Honor Klein:

Could imply, could imply! She said. Where logic breaks down anything can imply anything. It seems to me now that you do not really want your wife back after all

The state of debauchery in which the characters find themselves throughout the book is more comical than explicit and though I found myself frequently laughing at the revelations coming from the characters, the book nevertheless felt serious in the way that it treats the frivolity of emotions in adults who, lacking any sort of moral compass, seem more like children responding to basic needs or, though not very inviting to the reader, close to juvenile dreamers.

Advertisements

L’Ardeur des Pierres, Céline Curiol

Standard

l-ardeur-des-pierres-500534-250-400

I took a chance on this book. The blurb didn’t particularly interest me and I haven’t heard at all of the writer but I guess an old marketing trick worked on me: my copy appeared to be the only one left in the bookstore, so better snatch it before the next reader. I do fall for this trick: this is how I bought my last books even though I had plenty of unread ones on my shelves, but the fact that they suddenly show up in the bookstore in singletons triggers a buying reaction form me, as if by doing this I’m snagging a one-of-its-kind opportunity.

A missed opportunity it would have been, indeed, had I not picked it up again, even though in the beginning I abandoned it after a rash tweet to Curiol that I am reading her book and very much enjoying it. I abandoned it because I didn’t know anything about Japan, I didn’t know about Japanese gardens, nor about patchinko (even though it’s only mentioned once in the book). It’s strange that a book by a French about Japan got me curious about the culture, and a classic Japanese (Snow Country, Kawabata) failed to do that. Both are slow reads (is it something about the country?) but with Curiol I felt that I was feeling my way through the book, much as she was, I would suppose.

This book challenges my stubbornness in refusing to admit that I learn anything from literature. In a way it’s true I didn’t learn anything from the book itself, but the book triggered my curiosity, which would have been otherwise dormant vis-a-vis a country like Japan. Et donc, armed with my tiny knowledge about Japan and with a tweet committing me to finish the book, I present to you L’Ardeur des Pierres.

Almost every page of the book felt to me like going through a cycle: the writing would get a hold on my attention but the inactivity and the silence of the lieu would distract me until the writing would reclaim my attention again, all the way until the climatic ending.

The story is framed by factual dates and names both in the beginning and in the end and this would have normally irritated me had it not been for the fictitious which quickly takes over:

Sidonie, a black French woman, travels to Japan on vacation. Her first, real Japanese encounter is with her ryokan‘s receptionist, a man who dyes his long hair blonde, not a sight Sidonie would have expected as she remarks to herself.Her black skin, her thick hair, and her uncanny presence in such a place will trigger the imagination of the two main characters, Kanto and Yone.

Kanto is presented to us as a man who will go about with his life refusing to apologize, a one-time thief of kamo-ishi (rare stones), maintaining the garden of a Frenchman in Kyoto, the owner of a villa which is unlike its surrounding Japanese structures. Thus, in a few pages, all the clichés that a foreign reader might be expecting of Japan are demolished yet without taking out from us the consciousness that the plot is taking place in Japan.

A floor above Kanto, resides his neighbor, Yone, a big man within a 35m2 apartment, who -though familiar with Kanto- will only once make contact with him, towards the end of the book. The two men live in unsettling isolation which will only worsen time moves forward setting them face to face with their obsessions.

In his scarcely maintained apartment with its faltering bonzais and expiring food, Kanto places the two kamo-ishi having psychologically endured in physically removing them from their habitat:

A découvert, il céderait presque à la tentation de se mettre à courir par précaution, l’imagination nourrissant la peur et la peur, l’imagination, un hélicoptère de la police surgit derrière les cimes des arbres, vrombissant de toutes ses palmes, assigné à la seule surveillance de Kanto le voleur.

Kanto transports the two stones into his van away from curious eyes, or eyes he imagines might be curious of the content of his van, and in this long journey to the safety of his home, he manages to offend his boss, to distance himself from his friend Fumito, and to risk getting caught by the police. Whenever he moves away from his stones, whether physically or in his imagination, like a magnet he is drawn back to their presence, or to their idea. The anxiety weighs on him so much that the precious stones start appearing to him as if they are in mutation, as if they are alive. The awareness of this imaginary characteristic of those stones is so trying to his nerves that it even pulls him deeper into his own seclusion.

Away from the reclusive Kanto, our first impression of Yone is that of successful, happy fellow, working as a questions writer for a popular television game show, Gradually however, we realize that this man is in search of his own identity: he doesn’t know who his father is, his bulky build is a cause of his insecurity around people, and to top it all, he doubts his own virility. In such a frame of mind, Yone becomes intrigued by the story of Ichihachi, a murder not yet caught by the police, and whose story Yone is attempting to write… literally one phrase at a time. His obstinacy in writing this novel takes on epic (in the traditional sense) proportions once he sets his sight on a complex typewriter whose mechanism produces one sentence after an eternity of maneuvering, and he does all what it takes to acquire the machine.

I was surprised that such a scene worked, it didn’t struck me as fake, even though it is implausible; I suppose it’s the blowing up of what should be a simple tool that works in this case, and blends fiction and reality in this story. Our machine will be present in the end scene, but what is the role of Sidonie in all of this? How will Yone and Kanto be brought into contact, and why? I will not reveal those juicy details; instead, I invite you to read the book and check out for yourselves.

In fact, the interest in reading this book lies in the banal situations which Curiol renders so vividly, as in her recounting of the swiftly stolen second stone:

Avec de meilleurs réflexes, il redescend la pente tel un tarzan de liane en liane, un professionnel skieur sur pieds, en moins de temps que prévu atteignant la rive qu’il remonte sans ralentir, certain à présent de sa direction. D’une main arracher le ruban, puis se mettre à deblayer la neige, pas une seconde à perdre, les gestes répliqués à l’identique, les mains encore plus froides devenant outils.

Or in her writing of Sidonie’s effect on Kanto:

Il doit se convaincre de rentrer, de l’oublier, d’oublier toute espèce de divagation dans laquelle elle puisse figurer.

Within such a short book (200 pages) light touches like the above are enough to convey the right image to the reader. I was also impressed with her knowledge of the Japanese culture, and I cite here an example that reminded of Graham Greene’s A Burnt Out Case wherein the European priest, who got accustomed to Africa, remarks the following: “Father Thomas, when you have been in Africa a little longer, you will learn not to ask an African a question which may be answered by yes. It’s their form of courtesy to agree. It means nothing at all”

Curiol writes about Kanto prying into the contents of the living room of his boss

Mais il espère qu’en ne bougeant absolument pas, qu’en jouant au Japonais détaché, impavide, une ruse nationale, qu’il parviendra peut-être à dissuader le propriétaire d’insister, par respect des coutumes étrangères.

The books is recommended even if the slow reading pace might discourage some readers. I will definitely be reading more books by Curiol: a very fine discovery, one that could only have been done inside a bookstore.

Le Premier Amour, Véronique Olmi

Standard

48498224

Another book bought from the Salon du Livre à Beyrouth. I hesitated a lot before even considering this book as a potential buy, because I had no intention of reading something with the word Amour in its title. I also didn’t know what to think of the blurb in the back, a woman abandoning everything because she wants to rejoin her first love. Classically corny.

And since I didn’t learn my lesson from assuming too much based on blurbs, this time I was pleasantly surprised. Somehow, even though I wasn’t a 48-year old married woman with three daughters, I identified quite well with the leading character, Emilie.

It’s her 25th wedding anniversary. She regrets not being able to celebrate it in New York (wise choice), and so decides against dinner at a restaurant and opts to stay in. She takes the day off and thoroughly prepares the food, takes care of her clothes, lingerie, even bed sheets, and heads down to the cellar to pick-up a bottle of wine. The bottle of wine is wrapped with a newspaper on which is a classified with the words:

Emilie, Aix 1976. Rejoins-moi au plus vite à Gênes [Meet me as soon as possible in Genoa]. Dario

She leaves home, takes her car and heads south to Italy fully conscious of her act, which is something I appreciated in the story. Questions arise in her head, certainly, but nothing to make her doubt her whim. Gradually, she starts wondering about how the others would react, primarily her husband, Marc, whether he would bother her parents, whether he would call her daughters, and what would he think of her act.

The book is split into two parts, before and after Genoa. The before part is the more interesting one to me precisely because the entertainment aspect of the story is missing from it. The second part is a mere plot development: we want to find out if all this was true, if she will meet with him, why did Dario ask her to join him, etc…

The first part is the one of the flashbacks to 1976, to her first encounter with Dario, to her teen years growing up in a family in Aix with her sister who has Down’s syndrome, and a mother with whom she longs to connect. Incidentally, I like how she introduced the reader to her sister:

Souvent je pense à cette grande soeur qui avait quelque chose de plus que moi, un chromosome pas très sympathique, le 21.

[I often think of my elder sister who had a little something more than me, the not so nice chromosome 21]

In the first part is the dressing up of the balance sheet of her life: her marriage to Marc, having a family while being employed, taking part in society, in the community, among her colleagues, playing the social role of hostess and friend, raising her daughters. She reveals having done all that in beautiful writing:

Je voulais me marier, avoir des enfants, un metier, des amis, des vacances et des Noël. J’ai eu tout ça. J’y ai mis tant d’énergie, de peur et d’attention, j’ai suivi tant de conseils, lu tant de livres, de magazines, passé tant d’heures au téléphone avec des amies qui avaient des enfants du même age, des maris trop sérieux ou volages, trop présents ou pressés, et qui me donnaient des adresses de Gîtes de France, de médecins compétents, de psychologues disponibles, on échangeaient nos colères et nos fatigues mais jamais pour s’en débarrasser, toujours pour les surmonter, les faire passer pour une défaillance passagère, on avait tort.

[I wanted to get married, have children, a job, friends, holidays and Christmases. I had it all. I put so much energy, fear and attention, I followed all the tips, read all the books and magazines, spent so many hours on the phone with friends who had children of the same age , overly serious or promiscuous husbands, too close or inaccessible, friends who tipped me on hotels and vacations, competent doctors, available psychologists, we exchanged of our anger and our fatigue but never to get rid of them, always to overcome them and making them seem to be a temporary lapse, we were wrong.]

After this passage that encompasses the lifetime of a working mother, I thought it is understandable if she jumps ship and decides to have her little adventure. But apparently it’s still not the case for women, even in the Western world: our narrator wonders if she is allowed to have an adventure at her age, and what are the rules and judgements that govern such a behavior? There are none.

This is the beauty of literature; in those social grey areas one can postulate many hypotheses and test them in a book. In Le Premier Amour, Emilie, as much as she tries, cannot extricate herself from her role as a mother, a wife and a sister. As the book moves forward, her surrounding catches up with her, and what could have continued as an escapade, slowly turned into conscience clearing. She takes advantage of her proximity to her sister to visit her after so many years, to relive with her some of her childhood dreams, she visits her daughter whose decisions dragged her away form her mother.

Though at times her words seem childish – I’m going to meet up with the only man whom I ever loved, she tells her daughter – there is too much spur-of-the-moment rebellion in her, following that distant call from Dario, for her words to be taken seriously. Internally, she rebels against this motherly status that stuck to her, without her knowing it:

Nourrir, soigner, consoler, comprendre, pardonner [Feed, care, comfort, understand, forgive]

As we get closer to the second part of the book, the narrator wonders if her monologue would have been different -indeed if it would have even existed- had she been a man? The question is posed without too much moralizing writing following it, and I’m glad for that, because I suppose Olmi trusts the reader enough to arrive at his/her own answer to this question.

Like I said in the beginning, the writing quickly grabbed my unfocused interest as I wasn’t too content reading about Emilie’s arrangements for her wedding anniversary, but its fast pace kept me hooked well until the early part of the second half of the book. This fast-paced writing somehow obliterates the stereotypes associated with genre writing, and though I expected to drudge through a book about love, I felt closer to it than I did to the office life partially portrayed by de Vigan.

Before I conclude with my recommended label for Le Premier Amour, I must note the shock I received when I found out that Marc, Emilie’s husband, is a taxi driver. I have no idea why I pictured in my mind a bourgeois family enjoying every now and then mid-level luxuries. I suppose I associated, early on, the reckless behavior of abandoning one’s family to follow one’s first love, as something a bourgeois character might indulge in. I was very happy to discover that such was not the case.

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.

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 .