For my French book group this month we are reading Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s Lorsque j’étais une oeuvre d’art (When I was a work of art). The premise of the book is quite simple. A depressed young man makes a deal with a famous artist – instead of killing himself (which the artist interrupted him from doing) he agrees to sign his life over to the artist who would like to turn him into a work of art. Several extremely painful operations later, the young man is the talk of the world.
Of course, fame and fortune as a living work of art do not turn out to be what the young man expected and he finds himself resenting his new position. He eventually realizes the life he’s accepted is worse than the death he escaped. He is admired and talked about and fawned over but his only value is as an object, not as a person.
Schmitt asks the reader to consider some very interesting questions in the novel – about what defines humanity, about the boundaries of art, about one person having an absolute right over someone else, about the importance of outer beauty vs. inner beauty – and I suspect my book group will have a wonderful discussion in two weeks time. However, I felt that had these questions been handled with a bit more subtlety and a bit less grotesque, the book would have been ten times better.
This is definitely a personal aesthetic preference but I found the story oversized, outlandish and excessive. The characters are mostly caricatural and the emotional tone unrealistic. On the one hand Schmitt creates an incredible, fantastical story, an example of social and artistic excess, which in fairness is highly entertaining and sometimes even provocative, and I suppose you could argue that the book is a satire (although I think if this was Schmitt’s overall objective, he misses the mark, especially in view of the ending), but on the other hand, the seriousness of the questions he asks the reader to consider is undercut by the over-the-top nature of the story. I couldn’t help thinking something more realistic might carry more weight.
Schmitt’s prose is accomplished and a pleasure to read; this helped smooth over my frustrations with the novel’s aesthetic. I’m one-for-one with Schmitt at this point, since I really enjoyed his other novel L’evagile selon Pilate (The Gospel According to Pilate). He has plenty of other work for me to try and I’m not ready to give up on him yet.
Many of Schmitt’s novels have been translated into English and I thought this one had too, but not yet. It’s in a bazillion other languages however so perhaps it will make its way into English soon. Anyone else read his work? Any suggestions about what to try next?