Male Midlife Crisis in Books – a French prerogative?

middleageOr should this post be called ‘Woman! Without her, man is nothing but an animal…’? Over the past 2 months I’ve read a number of books by French-speaking writers in which men are approaching something like a mid-life crisis. Outwardly, they seem a bit young for it  – in their thirties for the most part – so perhaps the disappearance of a good woman from their lives is the catalyst that provokes this falling apart. Seduced and abandoned in equal measure by life and by women, these men are struggling with the weight of their bruised egos.

Although the authors and the stories are all very different, there is a similar atmosphere to these books. It’s the cry of a soul in pain – a man not used to expressing his emotions (yes, even if they are writers like Ramon Hill)  trying to connect with us the readers. Trying to give voice to emotions they are incapable of naming.

Joseph Incardano: Banana Spleen

André Pastrella is a 30-something drifter, although he starts out with a semblance of a normal life. He is a part-time teacher, has an attractive live-in girlfriend Gina, additional income from helping his Chilean friend Pablo do house moves. He enjoys a beer, a tennis game, has a colleague who quite fancies him but he turns her down. He is attempting to write a novel, settle down, but is not quite ready to commit to either.

Then, in the midst of the cold, dry, sterile Geneva winter, his life spins out of control. His girlfriend dies in a car crash and suddenly André realises how much of his self-control (weak though it may have been) depended on her. He squanders her inheritance (which her parents insist should be shared with him) on a family monument in a cemetery, which he later sells to gypsies. His behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.  He loses his job and is made to attend ‘social reinsertion’ classes, where he develops a stalkerish obsession with his instructor on the course. He betrays Pablo by having sex with his hooker girlfriend, he commits acts of vandalism, and generally wallows in the seedy underbelly of the Genevois lifestyle (or what passes for seedy in this rule-driven country). The spleen erupts at all levels: the main character is often infuriating and out of control, but he does produce a manuscript in the end. It remains unclear to me if his grief has been digested and if he has learnt any lasting lessons out of his experience.

220voltsJoseph Incardano: 220 Volts

Ramon Hill is another writer struggling with writer’s block. However, in his case, it’s his fourth book and his previous ones have had some success. His wife Margot suggests they take a break in her family’s mountain chalet, which might also help to rekindle their marriage. Which is not going badly… officially at least… but it’s getting a little stale, buried under the routine of children and work. But isolation proves to be their undoing, as they get to know too much about each other. The couple engage in a deadly game of cat and mouth, of spying upon each other, instead of communicating openly.  As the blurb says ‘ Incardona turns a love story into a noir novel. Because love stories usually finish badly…’.

This is much tauter writing than in Banana Spleen. The story does not finish with the dastardly deed (I leave it open who kills whom and how). And even when we think we understand what has happened, the author reserves another little twist. Cleverly done, written in an impeccably lean style – no superfluous words or wallowing about in misery, like the previous narrator – this one’s a wicked little meditation on marriage and selfishness.

Grégoire Delacourt: On ne voyait que le bonheur (All You Could See Was the Happiness)

I’ve reviewed this in detail elsewhere, but it too is the story of a nervous breakdown of a man nearing middle-age. Antoine may have had an unhappy childhood, but are those psychological scars enough to explain his horrendous deeds? There is a gradual piling on of horror here which somehow avoids the plunge into lurid melodrama. And ultimately, the message of the book is about forgiveness and redemption.

FuirJean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir (Running Away)

The narrator finds himself in a befuddled, jet-lagged state in China, at the behest of his girlfriend Marie (who is safely back in Paris). He has a rather suspicious, bulky man as his constant companion and bodyguard and for some reason an arty young female student joins them too, arousing feelings of desire, even though the male protagonist is sure that Marie is the love of his life. From the sublime to the ridiculous it’s just a small (mis)step. A lust-riddled scene in a toilet on a train is interrupted by a mobile phone in a backpack. There’s a mad dash through the building-sites and busy streets of Beijing on a motorcycle, with smelly bowling shoes, not quite sure whether it’s the police or the ‘baddies’ chasing them. The final part of the book  sees the narrator reunited with Marie on the island of Elba, at the funeral of her father. This part of the story is infused with lyricism rather than visual pyrotechnics and black humour. Yet it’s a hazy, dream-like sequence – almost too good to be true. Is it just wishful thinking, is the narrator being transported to the old stone houses and gardens filled with thyme and sage through sheer exhaustion?

So, in response to my title question: is it a French man’s prerogative to have a midlife crisis? Certainly not, but they are more willing to admit to it and be eloquent about it than most. (Recent presidential peccadilloes aside.)  

I seem to be on a roll with books about midlife crisis and disillusionment – books about German, Polish and other country’s disenchantment with life, love and politics are on my TBR pile, written from both male and female perspectives. I hope it doesn’t drive me to utter despondency…


28 thoughts on “Male Midlife Crisis in Books – a French prerogative?”

  1. I’ve been looking forward to your review of 220 Volts and it didn’t disappoint – the noirish premise and lean style really appeals to me. I don’t suppose it’s available in English yet? If not, I hope an enterprising publisher picks it up for translation. The Toussaint sounds good too, and I love the cover image! Great post.

    1. The Incardona book is not available in English, but Toussaint (not just this book) is available from Dalkey Archive Press. Apparently Fuir the second in a tetralogy, but I don’t think it matters that much in what order you read them.

  2. Interesting post. American writers seem to have that male mid-life crisis schtick down pat – John Updike, for instance, and Jonathan Franzen to name but two – but it sounds as if the French can give them a run for their money.

    1. You’re right – Saul Bellow comes to mind as well, as does Philip Roth. I don’t know if I can bear going back to reread them all to compare them more thoroughly with the European writers, though…

  3. Marina Sofia – What an interesting theme to explore! Interesting how such different writers address the same issue, too. That question, ‘Is this all there is?’ can lead in so many directions… You know, I need to do a post on that whole ‘midlife crisis’ issue in crime fiction. Thanks for the inspiration! 🙂

    1. Ha! Given the amount of post-divorce, pre-alcoholic and bone-weary middle-aged detectives there are in crime fiction, it will be hard work narrowing them down to a manageable list… Look forward to seeing what you come up with!

  4. A very interesting roundup on a very interesting theme, especially to a male who’s been going through his own midlife crisis since about puberty.

    The Joseph Incardano looks especially interesting. Fingers crossed we don’t have too long to wait for the translation.

    I hope it doesn’t drive me to utter despondency…

    As do we! Stay of good cheer, MarinaSofia!

  5. I love how you read and review in themes Marina. It’s interesting that French men are more willing to open up about their feelings this way. It’s certainly not a read you’d get in the UK very often.

    1. The themes just happen, they are by no means planned. That’s exactly what I was thinking: UK men would find a very different way to express their midlife crisis, wouldn’t they?

  6. Ah, the mid-life crisis! That idyllic time that fills the gap between childhood and second childhood! I must say 220 Volts sounds most intriguing, but I don’t think my French is up to it sadly.

    1. I think I’m having one myself – or have been for the past I don’t know how many years… So it’s quite cheering to read of more extreme examples. Or so I tell myself.

  7. The question you ask is the reason why I read so little French contemporary literature.
    The ultimate white male mid-life crisis is in Houellebecq’s Particules Elémentaires or Extension du domaine de la lutte.

    A funny one is Kennedy et moi by Jean-Paul Dubois.

    This is all rather boring.

    If you want to try a refreshing French book, try Héloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim. She’s out of the beaten paths. (billet on my blog)

    1. I know what you mean. Although two of the writers were not French (one is Swiss, the other Belgian), they certainly share this tendency. Still, it’s more candid and interesting than the midlife crisis writing I’ve seen in other countries, I assure you. But perhaps best taken in moderation…
      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll have a look at the Turckheim book.

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