My French book group meets this coming Monday evening, and this month we selected Delphine de Vigan’s 2009 novel – Les Heures Souterraines. De Vigan has six novels to her name, although this is my first experience reading her. Les Heures Souterraines was a Goncourt finalist and translated into English as Underground Time (Bloomsbury).
The book follows two desperately unhappy people—Mathilde and Thibault—for exactly one day. Their unhappiness stems from two very different situations. Mathilde (who is a widowed mother of three boys) is being bullied at her job. The bullying is pretty horrific, so horrific in fact that it starts to undermine the book’s verisimilitude. Mostly because about halfway through, it becomes very hard to understand why Mathilde has even stayed in this office – unless we are to assume that it would be otherwise nearly impossible for her to find another job. This is a detail, perhaps, but one which the author could have easily dispensed with and didn’t, and so it weakened my otherwise intense sympathy for Mathilde.
The bullying, however, was expertly done. And quite frightening. Les Heures Souterraines draws an extremely realistic portrait of a kind of harassment—not at all sexual—that gave me chills. After daring to publicly contradict her boss (at a moment when she was “in favor” with this vain and power-hungry man), Mathilde is subsequently ostracized and then repeatedly set-up to fail or disappoint. The day the novel follows her she is at the breaking point.
Thibault’s unhappiness is less defined. He’s recently realized that the woman he’s been seeing will never love him back, in fact, she finds pathetic, even enraging, the whole idea of his loving her. There is more, namely a drunken argument fifteen years ago that resulted in the loss of two fingers and wrecked his chances at becoming a surgeon. So when we meet him, he’s been working for years as an on-call emergency doctor in Paris, a stressful and unsatisfactory job.
Les Heures Souterraines is a work novel in many ways, and it spends a considerable amount of time exploring how our professional life, separate as we may keep it from our personal life, becomes a strong and unavoidable reflection of a person’s identity. What happens to Mathilde is so unexpected, a completely unforeseen violence and an attack on who she believed she was, that she becomes paralyzed, and by the time she realizes that she must act, do something to change what is happening, it is already too late. For Thibault, the disconnect between the person he wanted to be and the person he finds he has become is so great that he has simply become numb.
De Vigan sets up the expectation that Mathilde and Thibault are destined to meet on the day in question and that this meeting will change the course of their lives. I won’t give anything away, except to say that de Vigan both fulfills this expectation and completely subverts it. That dual result is as frustrating as it is thought-provoking—I suspect my book group will have much to discuss.
Although I read this book in two sittings, and last night I literally could not put it down, I also found myself mostly reading for Mathilde’s story and quite uninterested in Thibault, except as a possible catalyst for Mathilde getting out of her difficult situation. I don’t think this was an inherent problem of the novel’s dual narrative, a technique I usually like, but more because of the contrast between Mathilde and Thibault, which could easily be described as active and passive. Some of the problem comes from Thibault’s psychological state on the day in question—he is so numb that he is difficult to access—but it’s also because de Vigan seems content to leave him more of a sketch compared to the intricately detailed portrait she creates of Mathilde.
After this first experience, I’ll be interested in reading more de Vigan. She is apparently best known for an earlier novel, No et Moi. Her other books include both autobiographical works and true fiction. I’m always quicker to pick up fiction, and her novels seem to favor urban-setting solitude narratives, something I feel (although I’m saying this off-the-cuff and could be wrong) that not many contemporary women writers take as their subject. Loneliness in a domestic setting, yes, loneliness within a couple or because of a broken family setting, yes, but a book that explores the loneliness of the greater urban world seen through a female protagonist strikes me as relatively unique.