Fiction has always struck me as the perfect place to safely explore unusual ideas – the varying levels of distance between the author, narrator and characters somehow create a space for investigating thoughts which might otherwise seem a bit too delicate to touch directly. Without Humbert Humbert, for example, and Humbert’s intricate fictional universe, would Nabokov have felt comfortable delving into pedophilia? This is definitely an extreme case in point, much like Crime and Punishment or African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou. Most good literature does this in some way or another, with varying degrees of intensity.
Over the weekend, I read Didier Van Cauwelaert’s newest novel, La Maison des Lumières, which attempts to do something similar by offering up a look at one person’s reaction to a near-death experience. Jérémie, a twenty-five year-old baker who was once a famous child actor goes to Venice alone after his girlfriend Candice breaks up with him. He visits the Guggenheim Museum to see René Magritte’s L’Empire des Lumières, Candice’s all-time favorite work of art.
Just at the moment he stands looking at the painting, two things occur: from Jérémie’s perspective (which the reader gets first) he enters the painting, literally and physically steps into one of the window’s of the house in the painting and meets a young woman, Marthe, who gives him back a series of idyllic moments with Candice. When he leaves the painting, it’s to discover he has been brought to the hospital after being pronounced “clinically dead” for four minutes, 30 seconds.
As expected, this event pushes Jérémie out of a melancholy apathy and forces him to confront his past with Candice and his mother, as well as his vision of the future, including his passion for the violin, and his professional and emotional opportunities. Through varying methods, Jérémie re-enters the painting two more times, each time encountering a few other people, people he claims to have never seen before in his life but upon research are revealed to really and truly exist.
Van Cauwelaert introduces a series of ideas throughout the course of the novel which include some of the more conventional explanations for a near-death experience (the influence of brain hormones at the moment of death, religion) as well as more experimental rationalizations: the tachyons (particles which travel faster than the speed of light) of Jérémie’s brain enter into contact with the tachyons of the other people he meets inside the painting, as well as a shamanistic view of humanity as linked through organic matter.
Described in this way, it sounds like there was a strong element of fantasy or science fiction in the novel. And yet when reading the book, it felt quite straightforward. The narration keeps this under control, I believe, since Jérémie remains as perplexed with these explanations as the reader. They are given to him by various colorful characters he meets along the way, a very safe method, I think, for Van Cauwelaert to offer a range of explanations for a highly-disputed, and emotionally-charged experience.
So here is where my criticism of the book comes into play. The story, as outlined above, is quite unique. This idea of someone entering a painting (a wonderful fictional re-creation of the emotional experience of art) to learn something about their life is a powerful and interesting idea. And the transformative potential of a near-death experience is obviously huge. At the same time, the increasingly complex interweaving of Jérémie’s experience with the life of Magritte and the woman Marthe from inside the painting is also skillfully executed.
Unfortunately, I felt Jérémie’s actual real-life story lacked substance. It was like Van Cauwelaert got a little too wrapped up in all these different scientific and pseudo-scientific ideas and somehow lost the threads of what to do with the human element of the novel. There was great potential in this book – huge, in fact – for a vivid and creative exploration of how a near-death experience might affect someone’s outward and inward perspective, as well as a real possibility of creating meaningful parallels between art and its impact on reality but in my view this was never fully realized.
La Maison des Lumières is Van Cauwelaert’s nineteenth novel and has done well in France. I won’t be surprised to see it translated in the near future. There was something very appealing about the book and the writing, despite my feeling that it was somehow unfinished. Van Cauwelaert won the Prix Goncourt in 1994 for his novel Un Aller Simple (A One-Way Ticket), and I think I’ll look this up next to broaden my view of his writing.