Sphinx by Anne Garreta, tr. from the French by Emma Ramadan

May 26, 2015 § 8 Comments

Title: Sphinx
Author: Anne Garréta
Translator: Emma Ramadan
Publisher: Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 9419 2009 1

SphinxSince finishing Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, spectacularly translated by Emma Ramadan, I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly what it is about this book that so dazzles me.  I keep returning to the passage –

…The party lasted well beyond the usual timeframe. Strictly speaking, I was no longer listening to the music; it was passing through me.  I was cuing up the records as if by instinct, my vision obscured by a veil of blood. I was in a coma agitated by rhythms that were more and more painfully arousing my desire without ever draining it. In a vague fog I discerned the compact mass of people dancing, flattened one against the other and yet swaying, lifted up in waves. United almost without fissure, they were probably incapable of moving, but the entire mass vibrated in rhythm, all individual drives undone and lost in a higher, sovereign need. George told me later that everyone who entered the club mixed gradually into this mob and that between the hours of two and six in the morning nobody left, the employees were overwhelmed. At eight in the morning, emptied, I collapsed onto a bench and went to sleep.

That night sealed my reputation. It still reigns supreme in my memory; no other night ever achieved such furious intensity…

There have been enough reviews posted online by now that it should come as no surprise to learn that Sphinx is an Oulipian novel and that the particular constraint it operates under is gender. Specifically, an absence of gender identification. Garréta, and her translator Ramadan after, set themselves a monumental task of eliminating masculine and feminine from language. It is difficult to discuss Sphinx while ignoring this subversive act but I find that too often the novelty of Oulipo, the gamesmanship and artistic bravado, is allowed to overshadow what should be the central premise of my (of any) review – whether the final product is well-written – and to limit how we discuss the work. The fact that the author writes under constraint is really just ornamental gilding.  That delightful, if inessential, layer of the novel that remains unnecessary to our enjoyment of the book yet adds to our appreciation. It is something I come up against when describing Oulipo to a particular friend of mine.  I go on and on about the technical skill involved in writing under this or that constraint, only to receive the response – ‘I see. Oulipo. I’m pretty sure that’s an Old French word for “sitting around drinking absinthe and making shit up”.’  Because, when you say it all out loud it does sound a bit pretentious and showy.  And it does beg the question, when you’re devoting so much time to grammatical or structural minutiae what are you sacrificing? The assumption being something is getting lost, the focus being all on conforming to the constraint. The difficulty lies in convincing readers that the answer can be: nothing. From the right pen, of course.

First let me say that Anne Garréta has written a novel that very much reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s Written On the Body (though Garréta’s book came first, published in French in 1986 while Winterson’s novel was published in 1992) in both prose and premise.  This struck me immediately. Winterson’s novel – about a nameless, genderless narrator in love with a married woman who is diagnosed with Leukemia – poses the question Why is the measure of love…loss?”. Garréta’s book deals in those very same themes. The prose style is also similar: dense, ornate, sensual.  Winterson’s a little more earthy, Garréta & Ramadan more formal. Both narrators are self-absorbed in their grief. Taken altogether I believe it’s safe to make the if then statement – if you enjoyed Written On the Body then you will also enjoy Sphinx.  Though this is not meant to imply that they are in any way the same book or story.  They are most definitely not.

Emma Ramadan refers to Sphinx‘s unidentified narrator as Je in an essay she wrote for 5 Dials. It seems as good a name as any (and much better than constantly referring to ‘the narrator’). And so Je is a former religious student turned D.J., infatuated with an African-American dancer named A***.  In one way Sphinx is Je’s attempt at charting the course of their relationship.  The events in Je‘s life that lead to their first meeting, Je & A***’s courtship, cohabitation, visits to America and Je’s connection to A***’s family. The relationship lasts long enough that the initial passion wears off and is replaced by whatever it is that comes after. But A***  dies and Je is left behind to sort through the memories and emotions of their time together. We become lost in Je‘s skewed perspective – narcississtic and self-absorbed – which we’d like to attribute to grief but which ultimately we come to understand is the central component of who Je is. A man/woman locked so far into his/her own psyche as to be almost incapable of acknowledging a world separate from/outside of it. It makes a modicum of sense when we read “I was about to turn twenty-three…”.  Je’s complaints of ennui, Je’s intellectual pretensions, sense of superiority and nihilism can only be acceptable, and then just barely, in young adults… even among Parisians. And so Je remains compelling despite his/her obvious flaws.

I felt as if I had never been permitted such transparency with anyone – anyone but A***. Had I confided more in A*** than in anybody else? What had I revealed? Had I unmasked myself, or at least what I thought I knew of myself? No, more likely I had exposed my own collapse, the ruin of the edifice I had so painfully constructed out of rhetoric and made to stand in for identity. I was forcing myself to forget this nudity. My soul was not retreating behind a multitude of appearances that it could have incarnated endlessly, but rather, hollowed from the inside, was being instilled with doubt over this cavity that it hadn’t filled with anything. I was then forced to recognize what I had always secretly wanted others to discover: “I” is nothing. It was a painful triumph when, faced with this beloved being, I finally achieved what I had always been aiming towards: the ability to confess my own weakness, my nothingness. But the weight of this nothingness was revealed only to me; it remained unintelligible to A***, and I remained in the barrenness, the ruin, at last revealed as if by accident, following this confrontation with m own nudity and death. “What am I,” I was asking myself, “other than what you do not know how to say about me?”

There’s more happening in Sphinx than gender obscuration.

Gender, though, remains at the center of this book.  And, whether we mean it to or not, it becomes something of a game to look for hints or flaws that might reveal something. It seems right to admit that early in my reading I assigned Je a sex.  And when I say “sex”, what I mean is that I assigned Je a male or female body. (I won’t say which, and I hope you’ll understand why in a moment).  The body was really more a function of environmental factors in the story rather than any behavior Je displayed or any slip the author (or translator) might have made. At first this troubled me – as if I’d somehow failed the challenge of setting aside my preconceptions. Until I realized that all I had actually done was provide Je with genitalia – not gender identity.  And that I never felt compelled to do the same with A*** – whose appearance, personality, sexual parts and gender identity remained nebulous – changing from page to page.

Which brings me back to the passage at the beginning of this review. I’ve gone back to read and re-read it at least a dozen times.  The night at the club, described early in the book, that marked the peak of Je’s career.  Je, whose narrative voice – both evocative yet precise – driven but emotionally cold – perfectly described the synchronized, rhythmic mass of bodies on a dance floor.  “…the compact mass of people dancing, flattened one against the other and yet swaying, lifted up in waves. United almost without fissure, they were probably incapable of moving, but the entire mass vibrated in rhythm, all individual drives undone and lost in a higher, sovereign need.”   It’s a lovely bit of prose. One that made me realize I was mistaken in believing that Garréta’s characters, Je and A***,  exist without gender.  Rather – Garréta has achieved the complete opposite.  They,  Je and A***, simultaneously encompass all possible variations of gender and gender identity. Which some might say amounts almost to the same thing… but not quite.


 

A few notes about the author, the English translator and translation of Sphinx:

Sphinx was Anne Garréta’s first novel.  It was published in 1986 when the author was twenty-three.  Garréta is one of the few female members of Oulipo and the first member to have been born after the group’s genesis.  She won the Prix Medicis in 2002 for her book Pas un jour.

The English edition of Sphinx, published by Deep Vellum Press, contains both an Introduction by Daniel Levin Becker and a Translator’s Note by Emma Ramadan.  Both are worth reading and add to the pleasure of the book.  In addition Ramadan wrote an article on translating Sphinx for Five Dials No. 33 – which can be read online here. Even if you are not a translator, or a translation junky, the challenges of bringing this novel to English are absolutely fascinating.

 

Faces In the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

May 18, 2015 § 6 Comments

Title:  Faces In The Crowd
Author:  Valeria Luiselli
Translator:  Christina MacSweeney
Publisher:  Coffee House Press, Minneapolis (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 56689 354 1

Faces in the Crowd*This review contains spoilers*

Subway trains make me think of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Not all the time, obviously. But sometimes a train will be moving in a dark tunnel and a second train will overtake it.  They will run on parallel tracks for a few seconds, side-by-side.  Until the tracks diverge and the two trains separate – each into its own tunnel.  Or one gains momentum and pulls away.  If you are a passenger in one train, for those few seconds when the two trains are accelerating at the same rate of speed you can see clearly into the lit car, filled with passengers, traveling beside you.  It’s eerie. Two reference frames briefly merge.  Then one train begins to move away and the tenuous connection stretches taught, snaps.  You are once again hurtling through a dark tunnel.

The plot of Faces In the Crowd seems to me to be built around this experience, peculiar to underground mass transit. Valeria Luiselli’s two narrators move through the same city but within different frames of reference. A young Mexican woman writes about the time when she lived in Harlem, translating (and fabricating) the poems of a forgotten Mexican poet named Gilberto Owen.  The novel contains post-modern elements.  As this woman writes from present day Mexico City about her past her husband and children interject, comment on and insert themselves into her narration.

The story is also being told from a different perspective, that of Gilberto Owen.  He is a Mexican poet living in Philadelphia in the 1950’s. He travels to Manhattan regularly to see his children.  Luiselli drifts between these two artists – creating a third level of narration in which we are led to believe that Owen’s parts of the story are actually being written in the present by the young woman in Mexico City. A star between paragraphs notifies us of a change in speaker. But sometimes even that can be misleading.

When I was in other people’s beds, I slept deeply and got up early the next morning. I’d dress quickly, steal the odd personal items – my favorites were towels, which smelled good, or white singlets – and depart in a good mood. I’d buy a coffee to go, a newspaper, and sit in some very public space, in full sunlight, to read. What I most liked about sleeping in other people’s beds was precisely that, waking up early, rushing out, buying a real newspaper, and reading in the sun.

My husband stands behind me as I write. He massages my shoulders, too hard, and reads what’s on the screen.

Is it him saying that or you?

Him – she barely speaks now.

And what about you, how many men have you slept with?

Only four, or perhaps five.

And now?

No one else. What about you?

There’s a lot of experimental writing happening in Faces In the Crowd.  It’s a complicated book. Luiselli, a resident of New York City, has (like her two main characters) spent a lot of time travelling the NYC subways. Trains and platforms appear throughout the pages. The plot – and I use that term loosely – is convoluted and challenging. The characters are fascinating but not particularly charming. They do not drive the narrative so much as participate in an exercise in prose, an experiment in time and space.  The narrator’s lives and thoughts overlap.  They are, both metaphorically and literally, passengers on two trains traveling on parallel tracks. Sometimes running alongside each other and at other times entering separate tunnels. The twist arrives when they reach their destinations.

Valeria Luiselli can fairly be described as the new It Girl of Mexican literature. She’s everywhere these days: the Brooklyn Book Fair, Bomb Magazine, LA Review of Books, the London Book Fair, selected as one of The National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 40, Electric Literature, The New Yorker, The Guardian, LitHub, NPR… Faces In the Crowd has been long listed for numerous prizes & shortlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. Luiselli also has a new book of essays coming out this Summer.  She is a talented writer and a unique voice – there’s a casual, brusque earthiness in the way her characters express themselves, particularly the female writer in Faces… (who readers can be excused for imagining as a fictional version of Luiselli, whether or not that is the case).  She is almost masculine in her descriptions of casual sexual encounters.  “I could have told him I was going because I was incapable of sustaining and inhabiting the worlds I myself had fabricated, that I also had a scar splitting my face in two. Perhaps I could have made love to him in the bathtub. Perhaps I did make love to him.”  “My husband has started reading some of these pages again. Did you use to sleep with women? he asks.”

Cliché as it may be, Frida Kahlo comes to mind while reading these pages.  Or at least Salma Hayek’s portrayal of Frida. And the quiet desperation that goes hand-in-hand with having once been young in NYC that Jennifer Egan describes so perfectly in A Visit from the Goon Squad, particularly Sasha’s sections, and Joan Didion captured in her famous essay about leaving the city behind.  Valeria’s writing reminded me of all those things.

For all the apparent talent and promise on display I didn’t particularly enjoy Faces In the Crowd.  Part of that is my fault: I tried to read it in short bursts when what it needs is to be read in long, uninterrupted sittings. But ultimately I was undone by the segmented narrative structure, the messiness of the timeline, the sudden twists built on seemingly the flimsiest of foundations.  The entire thing appears to be the outline of a novel rather than a carefully crafted, finished product. Like Nabakov’s index cards* Faces In the Crowd seems to still be waiting for the author to return and fill in the empty spaces.  To complete the story.  Unless, of course, I’ve completely missed the point and the empty spaces are really what this story is all about.

 

*I probably should clarify that I’m thinking of The Original of Laura.

 

 

Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari

May 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title: Letter to Jimmy

Author: Alain Mabanckou

Translator: Sara Meli Ansari

Publisher: Soft Skull Press, Berkeley (2014)

ISBN: 978 1 59376 601 6

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There has long been a  tendency in the West to over-simplify African nations. The most obvious example  being the habit of dispensing with identifying the 56 countries which comprise the continent as individual nations and instead referring to them unilaterally as “Africa”.  Or the strange and so obviously condescending insistence in defining these countries by their conflicts and crisis, rather than by their triumphs (or, indeed, the mundanity of day-to-day life).  And so famine, apartheid, genocide, conflict diamonds, civil wars & child soldiers have, each in their turn, dominated our conversations about “Africa”. Western images of African nations has been shaped by National Geographic (on the one hand) and the current news cycle (on the other).   Or, to put it simply – by white Western agendas rather than African self-identification.

Thankfully, a new generation of writers has arrived – writers who are building a more complicated, nuanced picture of the continent and of the effects of diaspora on its citizens; who reject the over-simplification of their countries of origin and, by extension, themselves.

Alain Mabanckou is a featured author at this year’s 2015 Pen World Voices Festival and a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. His latest book – Letter to Jimmy (on the 20th anniversary of your death) – is part memoir, part tribute and something of a departure from  his previous work.  Mabanckou is dealing with the concepts of identity, expatriation and race – all topics he’s explored to some extent in his other works. But in this, his most recent, offering he is in a more reflective mood. The simple premise of the book is that it is an open letter from the author to his hero James Baldwin.

At first the letter (letters, plural, would be more accurate) seem completely banal, as if Mabankou intends only to offer a re-cap of Baldwin’s life & career.  He spends pages establishing facts and timelines, discussing Baldwin’s relationship to his parents, his friendships with other black authors, his participation in the Civil rights movement, his books and his homosexuality – all of which I, a reader with a Baldwin shaped gap in their reading history, found very helpful.  But for those solely interested in a Baldwin biography there are already several of those available.  And Baldwin, himself, was an autobiographical writer (particularly in his essays).   It is only when Mabanckou gets past the foundational portion of his book and begins to draw parallels between Baldwin and himself, compare the world in which Baldwin lived to the world in which we live today, what it means to be African versus African American (and the relationship that exists between the two) that Letter to Jimmy engages.  Mabanckou brings a fresh perspective, one which is probably unique among Baldwin scholars.  The two writers have geography in common.  Mabanckou’s writes:  “I was born in Africa, the land of his ancestors.  I had lived in France, his land of refuge. And now I live in his homeland: America.”  Neither man, Mabanckou tells us, knew their biological father. They share similar views on race, society and the role of the writer.  Mabanckou has obviously spent a lot of time and effort reading and understanding Baldwin’s work.  His admiration and affection are apparent on every page.  Even the form of Letter to Jimmy pays homage to Baldwin’s two essays:  “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” and “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind” collected in The Fire Next Time.

This, though, is not a collection of essays.  Mabanckou has truly written a long, though somewhat fragmented, letter. He is carrying on a conversation with Baldwin in which Baldwin’s writings form the other half of the correspondence.  And so perhaps the most powerful passages (in light of the riots in the United States and migrants drowning in the Mediterranean) are when he – Mabanckou – discusses the relationship between Africans to African Americans.  When he tries to explain racism as it exists in both America and France, then and now.

On African immigrants in France –

However, the serious error regarding the perception of black communities in France, as Dominic Thomas points out in his essay, Black France, is to underestimate the different forces behind their  emergence.  One must be warned, he insists, against perceiving them as a homogenous community.  This is how, in a novel like The Black Docker, from Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembène, the author can describe a black community in which the West Indian ranks higher than the Senegalese, a term referring to all Africans, regardless of their country of origin, with everything that it implies about France’s attitude toward people of color from the black continent… How many times during my long stay in France do you think, Jimmy, I was asked if I was Senegalese*?

On the United States –

And when riots erupt on March 19, 1935, after the murder of a black man by a white police officer – several thousand men take it out on white-owned businesses, causing a good portion of the middle-class to flee the neighborhood – you see that, despite the widespread indignation, political figures merely make endless speeches, set up committees, and tear down a few hovels to replace them with housing projects.

(80-years later and the headlines are eerily similar. Mabanckou warns ‘If you return to this world, Jimmy, you will judge your homeland even more severely than you did when you were alive. Inequalities are now more subtle, and more hidden, in a society which has not yet resolved the issue that had been so important to you: redefining American identity, or, in your words, addressing integration through the “power of love.” ‘)

On race & racism  –

Instead of seeking out the definition of one’s status, one is better served by interpreting and untangling the meaning of works, what they convey, what they imply, for the destiny of the person of color. In the end, definitions imprison us, take away from us the ability to create ourselves endlessly, to imagine a different world. As long as these definitions appear absolute, the question of the other remains acute. It is in this vein that I understand your warning: “And, in fact, the truth about the black man, as a historical entity and as a human being, has been hidden from him, deliberately and cruelly; the power of the white world is threatened  whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.”

And again quoting Baldwin’s own words back to him –

“… the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.” **

 


 

This is obviously not a traditional narrative and Sara Meli Ansari does an excellent job keeping the casual tone of the conversation and even capturing the  subtle idiosyncracies of Mabanckou’s English.  She also transitions nicely between the story that bookend’s the letter – Mabanckou’s fascination and eventual meeting with a homeless man on the Santa Monica beach to whom he dedicates Letter To Jimmy – somehow capturing the difference between the author’s anecdotal and epistolary voice.  But, I feel its my duty as a reviewer and Mabanckou fan to say that if you haven’t yet read his novels then this may not the book to judge him on. There is an energy and humor in his fiction that doesn’t find an outlet in his letter. He quotes Baldwin heavily, and a large portion of the book is an examination of Baldwin’s work and life.  What I am trying to say, poorly, is that his nonfiction is not what I would call indicative.

Still, I loved this book. And Letter To Jimmy might ultimately be judged as one of the more important books in Mabanckou’s oeuvre.  It is a frank discussion of race and racism, globally contextualized.  It is also an examination of a great 20th century author’s work; his historical importance and his relevancy in our own twenty-first century world.

 

*Alain Mabanckou was born in the Republic of Congo.  Senegal is located 3,709 km, or 2,305 miles away.

**The last two Baldwin quotes are both from “The Fire Next Time”

 

 

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia by Julio Cortázar (translated by David Kurnick)

April 25, 2015 § 1 Comment

Title:  Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia

Author:  Julio Cortázar

Translator:  David Kurnick

Publisher:  Semiotext(e), Los Angeles (2014)

ISBN:  978 1 58435 134 4

 

00-HS3--Julio-Cortazar-FantomasOne problem with coming to a book without any useful prior knowledge is that your risk being blindsided.  For example:  sometimes you pick up a novella (Say by  Julio Cortázar, an author with whom you’ve had enjoyable experiences in the past. An author who writes playful, Escher-esque short stories and is known for the novel Hopscotch, in which the chapters can be read straight through or mixed up in an entirely non-linear way) seduced by the way the author has used visual images as part of the narrative rather than in the supportive role of illustration only to suddenly, inexplicably, find yourself reading a political tract on the evils of global capitalism. Surprise!

Cortázar is a genius. Fantomas was a comic book hero from the 1970’s written by Gonzalo Martré and drawn by Víctor Cruz Mota.  All the comic book pages featured (and commented on by the narrator) are from the actual issue entitled Fantomas, la amenaza elegante: La inteligencia en llamas (Fantomas: The Elegant Menace and The Mind on Fire).  The premise behind Cortázar’s book is that the narrator, Cortázar, finds himself reading the Fantomas comic book while on a train ride home after attending the Second Russell Tribunal in Brussels – (we’ll get back to the Tribunal later).  As he reads he discovers that he, Alberto Moravia, Octavio Paz & Susan Sontag are all characters in the comic book.  The lines between the comic book story and the “real world” of the novella begin to blend and merge until the readers finds themselves immersed in a marriage of the two.  Books around the world are disappearing.  Libraries are being burned. Intellectuals are being alerted and expressing suitable horror.  Our hero Fantomas leaps into action (and through several windows) in order to stop the villain responsible.

But as the story progresses the intellectuals, with Cortázar and Susan Sontag at the helm, begin to question their priorities. What is the value books when compared to people? And as Sontag tells Julio, “Fantomas realizes now that he’s been tricked, and it’s not a nice thing for him to realize… Now he and many more are realizing that the destruction of the libraries was just a prologue. It’s too bad I’m no good at drawing – if I were I’d hurry up and prepare the second part of the story, the real story. It’ll be less attractive to readers without the pictures”  we all know she’s not just talking about Fantomas.  Cortázar, at least, had a sense of humor.  Because if Susan were truly being forthright she would have explained that the destruction of libraries was actually a distraction, rather than a prologue.  More appropriately: a lure.  Which brings us to the Second Russell Tribunal.

FantomasMost of the following information can helpfully be found in the Appendix of Multinational Vampires.  In January, 1975, the Second Russel Tribunal was held.  The First Russel Tribunal (perhaps better known as the International War Crimes Tribunal) originally took place in 1966 and was organized by Bertrand Russel & Jean Paul Sartre to investigate crimes against humanity committed in Vietnam by the United States of America.*  To date there have been five Russel Tribunals held with the most recent taking place in 2012 on Palestine.  The second, with which we’ll concern ourselves because it is the one on which Multinational Vampires is predicated, dealt with Latin America – instigated by Pinochet’s coup d’etat in Chile.  Ultimately, the tribunal did not limit itself to Chile.  Latin America was the CIA’s playground at the time and many of those attending the Tribunal had Communist leanings, so there was plenty of material for the delegates to work with.  The problem was and remains that the Tribunals are only symbolic.  Those involved had no power in the making of policy. Their goal and hope was that through their participation the atrocities, injustices and economic manipulation would be exposed and brought to the public’s attention.

Which is why Cortázar wrote Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires who, if you haven’t figured it out by now, are the international corporations. The novella is an interesting bit of Cold-War ephemera on the one hand and a neat bit of literary slight-of-hand on the other. My only problem with it is the transition from experimental writing to political pamphlet was so unexpected that the second half of the book became something of a blur as I tried to figure out what had just happened.  Rather like jumping on a subway train expecting to wind up in Park Slope and finding yourself on a platform in Jackson Heights, Queens.  What saves Multinational Vampires, and make it readable, is Julio Cortázar’s dry sense of humor, his clever structure and the way he has his narrator move in and out of the frames of the comic book.  And, not least of all, the realization that there is still some value in Cortázar’s message. Because unfortunately, at least in the case of multinational vampires, the world hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to believe.

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires has been longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. It’s a wonderful translation – the dialogue that propels most of the novella is delivered rapid fire and the transitions I mentioned earlier – between the “main” story, the comic book and the politics – probably weren’t the easiest to execute. Despite all that, and the fact I enjoyed it quite a bit, I’d be very surprised if Fantomas made it onto the shortlist.

 

*Cortázar attended the First Russell Tribunal, as well.

 

The Red Notebook In a Rose-Colored World

April 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title:  The Red Notebook

Author:  Antoine Laurain

Translator:  Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2015)

ISBN:  978 19083 1 3867

TheRedNotebookAntoine Laurain writes perfectly pleasant novels. And his latest, The Red Notebook, sticks to that amiable formula which seems to have brought him some success in the past. The President’s Hat was the story of a man who mistakenly switches hats with French President François Mitterrand. It changes his life. And then he, too, loses the hat. The books is structured around his frantic search to find it again.  The hat passes through a string of characters – changing all their lives for the better during the period they posses it – before eventually, serendipitously, finding its way back to Mitterand.  None of the characters are in any way disagreeable, though one is interestingly curmudgeonly.  Even Mitterand is portrayed as genial and sympathetic, appearing like a benevolent fairy godfather in the final chapters.

The Red Notebook takes its name from another lost object.  A woman is mugged and her purse left behind by the assailant on top of a trash bin. Laurent Letellier, a divorced middle-aged bookseller, finds the bag and goes through the contents looking for information that will help him to return it to the proper owner. Instead he discovers a red notebook and very little else. He becomes intrigued by the women who recorded her thoughts on the pages (obsession would be too powerful an emotion for a Laurain character).  He sets out to find her.  In the place of Mitterand, the French poet Modiano steps in to provide a cameo appearance.  Modiano is remarkably accommodating when Laurent approaches him in the park, having discovered a link between the poet and the notebook’s owner.

Antoine Laurain writes characters well. The protagonist, Lettelier, is attractively disheveled.  His teen daughter spoiled, but wonderfully vibrant. The heroine a brooding version of Juliette Binoche.  Even the employees at Lettelier’s bookshop are convincingly realized. And I desperately would like to believe that Modiano is exactly as Laurain portrays him – engaging, wise and utterly, delightfully pleasant.

At their best Laurain’s books and characters remind me of a sitcom. Because everyone likes sitcoms. I could also compare The Red Notebook to a Rom-Com starring Meg Ryan & Tom Hanks.  Or a less successful version of Laurence Cossé ‘s A Novel Bookstore.  Or even one of Alexander McCall Smith’s many, many books – without the mystery and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

Therein lies the rub.

The Red Notebook (and The President’s Hat, for that matter) relies heavily on character and formula, without injecting any real conflict or originality into the narrative.  It reminds me of too many other things: other books, films, television shows.  But I can’t imagine three months from now saying  – this (story or thing) reminds me of an Antoine Laurain novel. They, the books, lack the qualities which make a story memorable. Which is the problem that comes with pleasant.

 

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