Oh… Philippe Djian

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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.

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Incidences, by Philippe Djian

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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.

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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 .