Or 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.
Joseph 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.
Jean-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…