This book fits into no less than four categories of hashtags: #TranslationThurs, #EU27Project, #WomeninTranslation and #20BooksofSummer. However, it didn’t do much else for me! Which is a shame, because I’ve had a good experience, on the whole, with Despentes’ writing.
This time, however, she focuses on such a narrow category of arty-farty pretentious Parisians that it’s difficult to care about any of them. Vernon is a middle-aged loser, former record shop owner now sofa-surfing from one dubious acquaintance to the next. Besides, haven’t we had enough of French male midlife crisis, portrayed in so many French novels and films? I wouldn’t have expected a woman to write about it – although she supposedly makes fun of it. But for a figure of fun, we simply get too many details about Vernon and the people he mingles with.
Everyone is neurotic, narcissistic, racist, drugged to the eyeballs or all of the above. You switch quite rapidly from one point of view to the next, which does allow for comic effect (what people believe about themselves and how they are perceived by others vs. how people are actually perceived by others), but rarely digs beneath the surface of a character. Despentes has created unlikable narrators before, but then gradually revealed many more layers to them. No time for that in this rather futile, repetitive and overly long novel (and there are two more volumes of this!)
There are some good social observations, as you might expect of Despentes, but it’s simply not political enough, witty enough or engaging enough to sustain my interest. It must have been a bit of a challenge for the translator as well to use so much bad language – Trainspotting for the chi-chi media set and those funding them.
The cultural habits of the poor make him want to spew. He imagines being reduced to such a life – over-salted food, public transport, taking home less than 5000 euros a month and buying clothes in a shopping mall. Taking commercial flights and having to wait around in airports sitting on hard seats with nothing to drink, no newspapers, being treated like shit and having to travel in steerage, being a second-class scumbag… Screwing ageing cellulite-riddled meat. Finishing the working week and having to do the housework and the shopping. Checking the prices of things to see if you can afford them. Kiko couldn’t live like that… Guys like him never act like slaves…
Kiko’s job? Trader on the stock markets.
P.S. A French friend who works in publishing says it’s a ‘roman à clef’ with recognisable characters from the Parisian media world, but that is too narrow a satirical premise to appeal to me.
I never understood why the Almodovar film was called Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, because my experience with literature has been that it’s mainly the men who are moody, depressed, angry and existentially musing about it. I’ve been reading a lot of books by women lately, but, as coincidence would have it, the three last ones I read were by men in the throes of what might be called a mid-life crisis, even if they are not all middle-aged. And they all take place in different countries: Switzerland, Sweden and Russia.
Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs (My Neighbour Urs)
In this charming collection of apparently harmless little stories about small-town life in Olten, Switzerland, Capus shows us the gnashing teeth under the veneer of politeness. Yet he does it with humour and grace, laughing both at himself and his fellow citizens. This is a gently mocking midlife crisis.
The narrator (or author, the two are very tightly linked) has five neighbours, all called Urs. Actually, there are six of them, but one doesn’t want to appear in a book. They all gather in the square outside their houses on balmy summer evenings and chat about random this and that, and sometimes even about the important things in life. Such as love and divorce, a sense of belonging, wanting to move away, welcoming foreigners … and the differences between the German- and French-speaking Swiss.
‘Your writing thingy, which you call work…’
‘What about it?” I ask.
‘Nothing,’ says Urs. ‘I suppose it must be some kind of work, that what you do. Don’t mind me, I didn’t say anything.’
‘It’s all right, let it be.’
This book was published in 2014 and has not been translated, but several of his earlier books have been translated into English, such as ‘Leon and Louise’, ‘Almost like Spring’ and ‘A Price to Pay’. You can find review of his other books on other blogs, such as Stu Jallen, Lizzy Siddal and Izzy Reads.
Håkan Nesser: The Summer of Kim Novak (transl. Saskia Vogel)
‘It’s going to be a difficult summer’, says Erik’s father at the start of the summer holidays in 1962. He is referring to his wife, Erik’s mother, who is slowly, almost noiselessly slipping away from them with cancer in hospital. But it’s about much more than that, of course, in this heart-breaking account of the coming of age of two 14-year-old boys. They get to spend the summer at the lakeside cottage, together with Erik’s older brother, Henry, former sailor and now freelance journalist, trying to write his first novel. A rural summer made up of small triumphs, everyday pleasures and benign neglect.
It’s a time of learning to cook, of daydreaming about gorgeous women resembling the actress Kim Novak, attending village fairs, reading and raiding the neighbours’ woodpile to build a floating dock. Those long summer days in Sweden, when time seems to stand still, and the adolescents learn about love and lust and violence. It’s not a thriller by any stretch of the imagination, unlike Nesser’s previous work. Instead, it is closely observed, nostalgic without becoming twee, and reveals a stiff upper lip that will resonate with British readers (or other Northern Europeans). Why do I say it’s about midlife crisis? Because it’s the older Erik, now in his forties, who remembers that fateful summer and The Terrible Thing, with all its consequences on his family, friendship and himself.
Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills (transl. Katherine Dovlatov)
You are forewarned from the outset: this is the story of a failing Soviet writer, Boris Alikhanov, sinking into alcoholism, whose wife wants to divorce him and emigrate together with their daughter. In an attempt to patch his life together (or perhaps to get away from it all), he becomes a tour guide on the rural estate of revered national poet Pushkin, now a bustling tourist site. There, he encounters eccentric characters galore, learns how to massage facts and figures to please the tourists, and sinks ever deeper into despondency, indifference and impotent rage. It could be interpreted as the powerlessness and despair of artists having to live under the Soviet system – and not just artists, but the whole population. However, lethargy does not mean lack of feeling, and there is something very poignant about the stylistic restraint of the last few pages of this slim volume.
Every characters seems to have some kind of deadpan humour and are ready to interject philosophically when they are not busy frying their brain cells with drink.
I sat by the door. A waiter with tremendous felted sideburns materialized a minute later.
‘What’s your pleasure?’
‘My pleasure,’ I said, ‘is for everyone to be kind, humble and courteous.’
The waiter, having had his fill of life’s diversity, said nothing.
‘My pleasure is half a glass of vodka, a beer and two sandwiches.’
Boris himself is self-critical, often all too painfully self-aware, but incapable of taking bold steps and either submit to the party line or else become a truly great dissident writer. His wife reproaches him:
Even your love of words – your crazy, unhealthy, pathological love – is fake. It’s nothing more than an attempt to justify the life you lead. And you lead the life of a famous writer without fulfilling the slightest requirements. With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least…’
‘Do you honestly think he’s a good writer? Perhaps Jack London’s a good writer, too?’
‘Dear God! What does Jack London have to do with this?!…’
You can find a very thoughtful review of this book, complete with a small debate about how to translate colloquialisms, by Guy Savage.
In conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with a little depression, and I enjoyed all of these books. But it always amuses me to see that men’s nervous breakdowns and alcoholic outbursts are associated with great literature, while women’s are treated with disdain and relegated to mere ‘domestic concerns’.
P.S. I’ve just finished a fourth book in the same vein: Pascal Garnier’s ‘Boxes’ and I really think I need a change of decor. Expect some funnier or lighter or just different next reads.
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…