I’ve recently discovered a French author named Michèle Lesbre through her novel Le Canapé Rouge (The Red Sofa) and am now curious to try some of her other work. This particular book was published in 2007 (and was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt) and it’s her tenth novel, which proves she has some literary legs although I believe she’s remained a bit off of the main stage of the French literary scene. (Or perhaps she’s incredibly famous and I’ve just not paid attention…).
Regardless, this tiny novel was impressive for the depth of material it covered in so few pages as well as the way it structured a series of interlacing stories with such apparent simplicity. The structure appears almost messy and haphazard and yet she must have worked very carefully to keep each substory in line with the rest. And then she pulls off a nice narrative sleight-of-hand when, toward the end of the book, the main story suddenly takes second seat to what was originally a substantial tangent.
Le Canapé Rouge is a seemingly simple story of a woman’s train journey across Russia to find a former lover. Anne and Gyl have been friends and lovers for over twenty years, sharing a special “no rules” relationship which trumped the rest of their many affairs. But a few months ago Gyl traveled to Siberia and a few weeks before the novel opens, Anne stopped receiving any letters from him. Worried as well as curious, Anne sets out to see what has happened to him.
Anne is the kind of traveler that purposefully creates significant memories and looks for a deeper meaning inside each experience and with each person she meets. She develops a curious attachment to a fellow traveler, Igor, and despite their inability for real conversation, she weaves a narrative invovling him and herself, invents his life and somehow makes his presence meaningful to her own life.
Eventually, Anne makes it to Irkutsk and Gyl’s new home. Of course, nothing is what she expected and her journey becomes something much more than a few weeks of travel. What ultimately transforms her journey, however, isn’t so much what she finds along the shores of Lake Baikal, but how it ties back to, how it mirrors, the other story in the book.
The second story in Le Canapé Rouge is about Anne’s friendship with an older neighbor woman named Clémence. Clémence’s “story” is that she loved a man named Paul, was meant to marry him and then he was killed when they were nineteen years old. She went on to other lovers, other experiences, another life, but she admits to feeling that she lived her life in a state of perpetual waiting…waiting for her life with Paul.
The two women have spent hours together, hours that Anne remembers throughout her journey across Russia and back home. Most of the time, they discussed the lives of famous women in history (a subject coming from Anne’s job as a writer of these kind of historical portraits), women who dared the extraordinary, who were martyred for their courage, who destroyed themselves for love.
As I mentioned above, eventually Clémence’s story steps forward and gives greater meaning to the story of Gyl and Anne. But in a very subtle way. Very neatly done.
Le Canapé Rouge was a pure pleasure to read, with a surprising number of literary allusions that never felt heavy or pretentious. Lesbre’s descriptions of the Siberian countryside and the people Anne encounters were just lovely, never overdone but almost always tainted with a bit of mystery. In the way that travel makes the world both marvelous and mysterious because of the mindset of the traveler.
The novel opens with just this kind of moment, with Anne looking out the window of the train to see a man standing next to a motorcycle with a sidecar, rolling a cigarette. The description of the man and his gesture is simple but elegantly done and he literally leaps off the page to the reader. But she goes a step further, taking that moment and making it an integral part of Anne and her future life:
Voir un homme se rouler une cigarette, le perdre de vue très vite, me souvenir de lui toujours. Aujourd’hui encore, il m’arrive de penser à la brève apparition de cet inconnu surprise dans son intimité, à d’autres aussi qui de façon mystérieuse se sont installés dans ma mémoire, comme des témoins silencieux de mes errances.
[To see a man roll himself a cigarette, lose sight of him quickly, remember him forever. Still today I find myself thinking of the brief appearance of this unknown person caught in his private moment, and of others who have mysteriously taken up residence in my memory, like so many silent witnesses to my wanderings.]