Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I’m about halfway through the second Agota Kristof novel, La Preuve. My reaction to the first novel is here. I read that book in two sittings, and I tore through it. I was insanely curious about where Kristof was taking the story, and continually surprised and shocked and horrified about her decisions. This gave me little time to think much about the details of the writing and Kristof’s style. Now, however, reading the second novel, I have a little more distance. I know, more or less, what to expect in terms of the story (not the details, but the tone) and so I’m finding myself more critical of Kristof’s style.

Essentially, she uses quite short, straightforward descriptive sentences, terse dialogue and simple action. And this is coupled with the fact that the narrator has zero access to the minds’ of the characters, and in particular, to protagonist Lucas’ mind. There isn’t a single “he thought”. Everything is movement and speech. (This isn’t a surprise if you know that Kristof does a lot of work in theatre.) The effect of this brusque style was quite successful in Le Grand Cahier because it kept the reader guessing what was really going on. By the second book, however, it actually makes me consider whether this is the only way Kristof can write. French isn’t her mother tongue, and perhaps she adopted this style in French because it works for her.

I don’t want to downplay its success. It’s an effective style. I feel the same tension and curiosity to figure out what’s happening, to try and understand what kind of a person the main character is, etc. And if she has selected this way of writing on purpose, her story and aesthetic project are an organic fit. (I suspect the English version, which comes as one book of all three novellas, is a better way to read it – all at once, so the style just flows from one book to the next).

Kristof’s choice for the narration is interesting. The distant omniscient gives the book a cinematic texture. The reader watches the characters, looking for clues in their words and gestures alone to explain their behavior. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that doesn’t let the reader in to at least one of the character’s minds.

I am planning to finish the book over the weekend and despite the bleakness of Kristof’s vision, which makes for rather unsettling reading, I’m looking forward to see what happens and where she’ll go with the third book.

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Related quick note: A friend of mine recently remarked on Agota Kristof sounding a lot like Agatha Christie, and she wondered whether it was a pseudonym. As far as I can figure out, it’s not. Funny, though.

Unrelated quick  note: I am two sections away from finishing Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. (Strike this off my Humiliations List!) I had no idea Hardy was so poetic (yes, I hazily knew somehow he was also a poet, I just wasn’t expecting his prose to be so, um, overtly poetic); many of his descriptions (countryside and character) are simply incredible. I fear for Tess, though, is there no chance for a happy ending?

6 Responses to “Agota Kristof – La Preuve”

  1. Deborah

    Oh dear. Poor Tess, I am afraid there is more sadness to come.

  2. Lilian Nattel

    I fear not–I haven’t read Hardy in many years. Maybe I should again (if I can tolerate the narrative trajectory).

  3. Charlotte

    Hm… I’m pretty sure you know about Tess by now, so I’ll wait to see what you think. I found that book so engrossing for all it obvious manipulations!

    You know, maybe I should start reading in a more focused way — I find the way you’re discovering a new author and refining your appreciation fascinating.

  4. verbivore

    Deborah – Definitely more sadness to come. But what a book!

    Lilian – I’ll wait a year and reread Tess, take a little slower this time. But I loved this book and Hardy’s writing was a pleasant surprise.

    Charlotte – Yes, very sad for Tess. The word engrossing is just right. I had a hard time taking breaks.

    I love reading authors from start to finish. At the moment I’m planning an Iris Murdoch read for 2011, but I’ve been wanting to do this with Balzac as well (not a real start to finish, I fear with Balzac I’d never finish).

  5. Genia

    Dear Verbivore,
    I have just completed reading all three of Agota Kristof’s novels. I have the feeling that Le Grand Cahier is about numbness : numbness of feelings, of morals, of horror for the reader. The second (la Preuve) is tightening the knot of the plot more, a kind of broken mirror both reflecting and hiding two characters. And .. should I say it ? It turned out the most boring of the three to me. Then in Le Deuxième Mensonge, the narrative takes on a deeper significance, very enthralling again. The imbricated layers of reality and fiction make it a really fascinating journey.Very surprising to be given a kind of explanation by the end of the trilogy. Not the kind of novel where you expect it…

    About the style : in Le Grand Cahier the boys are edicting rules for their writing : we will write what we see without adding commments or feelings. Well, not very realistic, of course. The riddle about Agota Kristof’s writing remains.

  6. verbivore

    Thank you for leaving a comment, Genia. I’m very interested to hear that the second book was the most boring. I’ll keep that in mind. I’d like to start the third in a few days, and I’m thrilled to hear that it becomes enthralling like the first one. In terms of the style question, have you read anything else by her?

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