Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘contemporary French literature’

Some Writing

Between January and March this year, I had the very real pleasure (and subsequent immediate self-doubting anxiety) of seeing several short fiction pieces, and one translation, published around this beautiful lit-loving internet:

In January the exciting and new Sundog Lit published the first of my Elemental stories, “miner’s daughter.” These are very short pieces that I’ve been playing with as I work on a longer cycle; they are also auxiliary pieces to the novel I’m slowly writing about a woman who discovers a naturally-occurring nuclear fission reactor (and abandoned mine).

PANK just recently published a second one, called “Mining.”

In March then, Two Serious Ladies, which is an online journal that has published some of my favorite contemporary writers, included a short piece I first wrote over 10 years ago and have been re-writing ever since.  “Gongneung subway, 1.am”

Also, the always-beautiful Cerise Press included my translation of Ramuz’s “The Two Old Maids” in their spring issue. This journal does such wonderful work and this issue hosts a number of really beautiful translations as well as essays. Two of my favorites from this issue are Mary P. Noonan’s essay on Beckett and Jacqueline White’s on Mata Hari.

The Ann Arbor Review published a very tiny poem called “For September.” This poem is the perfect example of something I wish I could re-write now that it’s been published – an ongoing war with my inner poet.

Finally, at Necessary Fiction, I was very happy to be involved in a Round Table Discussion on Kate Zambreno’s Heroines with fellow writers/readers Helen McClory, Joanna Walsh and Christine Cody. This book has continued to stimulate some very interesting discussions around the web, and I highly recommend it.

Some Reading

My reading has been very much all over the place for the last few months—a mixture of contemporary titles, classic and contemporary Japanese novels, and back to Virginia Woolf’s Diaries. I’m also about halfway through Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Woolf and thoroughly immersed—Gordon filters all auto/biographical information about Woolf and her family and peers with lengthy discussions of Woolf’s fiction and other writings. It’s all extremely compelling.

I have discovered a handful of writers this winter worth looking further into. The first is Michelle Latiolais, whose story collection Widow was published by Bellevue Literary Press. She has a novel as well, which I will read soon. And I’m going to write a full post on Widow, but will say quickly here that it was an exceptional collection—the combination of emotional and cerebral that I absolutely love, with narratives just a bit inscrutable but which attain a high emotional resonance. She reminded me of Christine Schutt in many ways (and indeed, Schutt blurbed the book). The second is Mariko Nagai, whose collection Georgic I wrote about here.

I’ve also read two quite different francophone women writers, neither of whom has been translated into English but who were both incredibly well-published in their lifetimes and who walked along the periphery of the “nouveau roman.” The first is Hélène Bessette who was French, and the second is Clarisse Francillon, from Switzerland although she lived for most of her life in Paris. Imagine my delight at finding at small back room at the public library in Vevey that houses the Francillon collection—all of her own work plus the library she donated to the city when she died in 1976. Imagine my further delight when I learned I could check anything out and that it wasn’t restricted to use on site. I toddled home with a tall stack of her novels and am getting acquainted. Her novel Le Carnet à Lucarnes (The Skylight Notebook) is described in the Dictionnaire Littéraire des Femmes de Langue Française in this way:

L’héroine y incarne au féminin trois archétypes de l’imaginaire occidental: Hamlet, le tourmenté, Don Juan, l’insatisfait et Faust, l’orgueilleux.

[In this book, the heroine represents a feminine personification of three western archetypes : Hamlet, the tormented, Don Juan, the unfulfilled and Faust, the proud.]


Something very interesting happened last night at my French book club. We are accustomed to small differences in opinion; this is probably what makes us all come back month after month, the idea that we will discuss and debate a work of fiction, not simply admire it. But last night went far beyond a small difference in opinion. I was especially looking forward to our discussion yesterday evening because I had suggested the book – Robert Pagani’s Mon roi, mon amour (The Princess, the King and the Anarchist, tr. Helen Marx) and was eagerly waiting to hear how much everyone loved it. But last night we got settled in to our seats at the carnotzet at one of our local wine bars, pulled the book out of either a purse or other bag, placed it on the table, and before I could say, “Wasn’t it fantastic?” four other women had torn it to pieces. They didn’t just not like it: they called it worthless, they said it was badly written, there was eye rolling and a symbolic tossing of the book away in disgust.

I was speechless, which is rare for me. And we hadn’t even yet received our wine so there was nothing for me to do but take an imaginary gulp and then charge forward to defend what I considered a lovely, unique work of fiction. I suggested it was not supposed to be read as historical fiction, I brought up theories of monarchy/anti-monarchy conflict and mythology, I said Pagani wasn’t writing stereotypes but ironic caricatures, I argued that it was laugh-out-loud funny. I even tried to read passages aloud in a meaningful voice. Nothing uprooted their disdain.

Now these are intelligent women – clever, articulate, worldly, multi-lingual, fantastically well-read. In short, absolutely entitled to their opinion, however greatly it varied from my own.

So why this huge difference in judgment? I was particularly unsettled by the charge of “badly-written” and so started to think back over my experience reading the book. Which reminded me that by a very strange twist of fate,* I had actually read the English translation of Pagani’s book and not the French original.

My memory of the English text is its delightful simplicity. It reads much like a fable. On the surface there is a lot to laugh at – the narrator very gently mocks each of the characters. But is it possible the English version was better written than the French? Is it possible that Helen Marx, an extremely accomplished translator, might have smoothed any awkwardness out of Pagani’s prose? I cannot say until I’ve read the French. I started last night and in all honesty, I do not find his writing flawed at all. Like the English, it is playful and simple.

But there is another difference between the French version and the English version – a thoughtful introduction opens the English version. And contrary to what I usually do, I actually read the introduction before reading the book. So before I even started, I had some notion of Pagani having deeper but subtly portrayed intentions. I firmly believe the book has a lot to it, as I wrote in my review at The Quarterly Conversation, but I can’t help wondering how influenced I may have been by the introduction. And also by the fact that I had just finished reading Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy, which brought me to this idea of literature being a more useful and beautiful copy of life’s first rough draft, an idea which applied so wonderfully to Pagani’s novel as he takes an historical event and then creates a vibrant fictional tale around it.

On the whole I’m amused by our disagreement last night and sometimes this just happens, so there may be no reason behind it, but as a translator I am now very curious how the French version and the English version might be wholly compared, not just in terms of the faithfulness of the English version, but in their aesthetic and textual presentation.

Recently, at Necessary Fiction, in a review of Lily Hoang’s unique story collection Unfinished, one of our regular reviewers, Jess Stoner, wrote about the importance of the paratexts that surround a piece of literature and how this information influences our reception of the text. Just a quick comparison of Mon roi, mon amour with The Princess, the King and the Anarchist brings an easy list of possibly significant differences: title, cover art, font choice, introduction, back cover text. All of this peripheral data sets the reader up for a certain aesthetic experience of the book. I could argue that the English version book with its black and white fairytale wedding photo gave me a sense of romance (like an independent arthouse film) that the French version with its stark white background and tiny wedding carriage (almost cartoonish) did not.

But this is just guessing, with a tiny measure of self-justification. Unfortunately, I cannot go backward and experience Mon roi, mon amour with fresh eyes so I’ll never really be able to resolve this question. But it will continue to fascinate me.

*I had requested the translation from the American publisher for a reviewer who was interested in reviewing it for Necessary Fiction, but once I had it in my possession I just couldn’t resist reading it quickly before passing it along. I fully intended to read the original before meeting with my book group but, as it happens, sadly never found the time.


In 1994, Houellebecq published his first novel, Extension du Domain de la Lutte. (Trans. as Whatever by Paul Hammond). The book begins as a subtly comic office novel—and of course by comic, I mean that it’s tragic— and then becomes an earnest meditation on the narrator’s experience of depression.

Several things about this book piqued my attention right away. The first thing, which I’ll talk about today, is the narrator himself, who begins his story at a party. He isn’t enjoying the party. He drank too many vodkas and is lying down on some cushions behind a sofa and eavesdropping on two women from his office who are sitting on the sofa. Very quickly, Houellebecq sketches out this amazingly miserable specimen of a man, completely disconnected from anyone else at the party. Someone who is watching and judging and wholeheartedly disappointed with what he sees.

The 30 year-old narrator works as a computer programmer but in his spare time he writes strange little existential pieces on the life and soul of animals. So yes, the guy is weird. I’m pretty sure the reader is meant to feel sorry for him immediately, while at the same time remaining aware that he isn’t a terribly likable person.

That dichotomy is interesting to me. The narrator describes a number of people in the first thirty pages or so, before the actual story gets really going, and each one is depicted in highly unflattering terms. His perspective is so bleak, so harsh. To him, people are either pathetic or ridiculous or simply jerks. That this might be a reflection of how the narrator thinks of himself is, of course, an underlying question.

At the same time, there is a kind of sweetness to him. Again in the early pages of the novel, he describes an evening out with an old friend, someone who trained as an engineer as well but who then became a priest. Their conversation is quite touching. They discuss some of the problems of contemporary society, disagree a little and then find common ground. And then at one point the priest expresses concern that the narrator needs help. He is too much alone, and this isn’t normal.

So the book is curious about this word ‘normal’ and what it means. Who is normal? What is normal behavior?

All these meetings and conversations are all introduction, so to speak. The bulk of Extension du Domaine de la Lutte takes place as the narrator and a colleague named Raphael travel around to train a number of clients in a new computer program. As they travel, that idea of ‘normal’ will become even more important.

Also, the narrator will begin to lose control. Slowly, subtly, gently…he will separate even further from the people around him. He eventually has an alarming psychic break, with serious repercussions…


It’s time for me to get back to some Houellebecq discussions… I took a little breather from him for a few days; he is, if anything, an intense reading experience. The last piece I wrote about was his essay on Lovecraft, so moving forward from that, let me write today about a collection he published in 1991 entitled Rester Vivant. It doesn’t appear to have been translated into English yet, but perhaps now that he’s won the Goncourt, all of his work will slowly find a home in the Anglophone world.

This collection includes eight pieces – I am only going to talk about the first piece here, which is where the collection takes its title. It is an essay, with a little subtitle: Méthode. So let’s say the title could be translated as Stay alive: a method or How to Stay Alive. One little note on this title: he could have written survivre (survive) but he uses the word vivant (alive) instead. For Houellebecq, I think we can read that as an optimistic choice.

The essay is very serious, in an “it-wholeheartedly-sucks-to-be-a-writer-with-a-vision” way, and this does make it a teeny bit melodramatic. But there is a thin and underhanded vein of satire running through the whole thing, and this, of course, is what saves it. Rester Vivant is serious, wholeheartedly serious—I don’t want to deny or argue against that, but the bleakness of his message becomes a kind of exasperated comedy at one point. And this makes it palatable. I wasn’t expecting humor in Houellebecq, but I see now how it fits him. His is a macabre humor, though, a dark and helpless irony.

A small aside: when I discussed La Carte et Le Territoire with my book group a few months ago, I was the only one who suspected that Houellebecq had a sense of humor. There is a scene in that book, where Houellebecq the character, who has been brutally murdered, is finally interred. When the coffin comes out of the hearse and gets carried to the plot, the onlookers can see that it’s a child-size coffin. Because of the way Houellebecq was murdered, there wasn’t much left of him to put in the ground, and the funeral home appears to have selected an economical, if not ecological way of burying him.

Now, I laughed out loud when I read this scene. It has a certain pathos, yes, but I found it more tongue-in-cheek. Also, planting this sly joke in the midst of an otherwise serious book knocked Houellebecq up a few notches for me.

Now back to Rester Vivant.

The essay addresses the reader directly, and that reader is meant to be a fledgling writer, someone who has figured out that this writing business is going to be pretty tough, but also that this life business may in fact be worse. Houellebecq begins with an assertion that life involves inescapable suffering. Then he tells his reader to revel in that suffering. There is no way around it, so embrace it. Love your suffering; cultivate and explore it, and eventually:

Lorsque vous susciterez chez les autres un mélange de pitié effrayée et de mépris, vous saurez que vous êtes sur la bonne voie. Vous pourrez commencer à écrire. [As soon as you provoke a mixture of frightened pity and contempt from other people, you are on the right path. You may now start to write.]

Then you must learn to express your suffering. If you cannot do this, you will die. He urges his reader to write at all costs, finding solace in already existing forms and not losing heart when your suffering takes over, preventing you from writing.

Au paroxysme de la souffrance, vous ne pourrez plus écrire. Si vous vous en sentez la force, essayez tout de même. Le résultat sera probablement mauvais ; probablement, mais pas certainement. [At the height of your suffering, you will not be able to write. If you feel strong enough, try anyway. The result will most likely be bad; most likely, but not certainly.]

Both excerpts have a little tremor of humor, feeble and self-deprecating, but humor none the less.

One of the key phrases of the essay is: Un poète mort n’écrit plus. D’où l’importance de rester vivant. [A dead poet no longer writes. This is why it is important to stay alive.]

Followed soon after by this:

Vous ne connaîtrez jamais exactement cette part de vous-même qui vous pousse à écrire. Vous ne la connaîtrez que sous des formes approchées, et contradictoires. Égoïsme ou dévouement ? Cruauté ou compassion ? Tout pourrait se soutenir. Preuve que, finalement, vous ne savez rien ; alors ne vous comportez pas comme si vous saviez. Devant votre ignorance, devant cette part mystérieuse de vous-même, restez honnête et humble. [You will never know exactly what part of you pushes you to write. You will only know it through approximations and contradictions. Egotism or devotion? Cruelty or compassion? All are possibilities. This is proof that, ultimately, you know nothing; so do not behave as if you knew. Before your ignorance, before this mysterious part of yourself, remain honest and humble.]

The essay ends with the claim that a writer’s calling is to fight back at the society whose single goal is to destroy him*/her. Hit where it hurts, do not spare anyone, not even yourself. This final section has a number of interesting points, which I think I’ll have to get to in a second post.

But I want to spend a second on his tortured artist perspective. At first read, I love this kind of emotional appeal. I’m a sucker for an impassioned soul. And I also can’t help but agree with the thought that if you open yourself up completely to the injustices and horrors of the world we live in, you will eventually get trapped beneath the great mountain of them and probably suffocate. Most people build barriers or pick their battles or find a way to cope; writers and artists tend to get locked in a continual struggle to negotiate how much barrier is needed for self-protection and how little is needed to work in an atmosphere of emotional honesty.

On the other hand, the tortured artist perspective has always irked me just a little bit. I have always felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of the mad genius, that insanely talented or intelligent individual that is completely beyond the rest of society. Many highly intelligent and creative individuals are healthy, functioning people as well.

This is where Houellebecq’s minuscule touch of irony saves the essay for me. Without it, I think I would get stuck at suspicious and annoyed. Instead, I can see that although he is deathly serious about a writer’s position vis-à-vis society, he is also quite conscious of the melodrama it perpetuates. So the only solution for the writer is to camp up that tragic gravity, as subtly or as provocatively as need be. That’s a solution I can get along with just fine.

*The fledgling writer addressed in the essay is a man, no doubt about it, and most likely a man named Michel Houellebecq. He is always somehow writing about himself.


So I finished up my post earlier this week on Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Contre la Vie, Contre le Monde with Houellebecq asserting that the key to Lovecraft’s genius is that he managed to transform his feelings of disgust (about life and social changes he had no control over) into a form of creative hostility. I think it would be quite easy to use this same sentence and exchange the word Lovecraft for Houellebecq. Simple as that. Not hard to see why one writer admired the other.

But Houellebecq’s disgust is of a different variety than what I understand of Lovecraft’s. Lovecraft couldn’t stand the world he lived in, so he created alien worlds to escape into, taking his anger and frustration and working them out or increasing them, both symbolically and overtly, in those new worlds. (This is more or less Houellebecq’s reading.) Now, for Houellebecq, I get the feeling that he is profoundly, overwhelmingly, devastatingly disappointed in human nature. Like Lovecraft, he is revolted by society, but unlike Lovecraft, he is not quite willing to reject it and escape away. Houellebecq is still interested.

His disgust is palpable, but there is more sorrow than hostility in much of what he writes. Every once in a while something horrible does surge up and out of a text, taking the reader more or less by surprise, but then the tone resettles around Houellebecq’s grief. Yes, grief. I think this might be the best word for it – Houellebecq is in a state of perpetual mourning for what he understands of society.

And grief is something that often turns a person inward, so it isn’t a surprise that Houellebecq cannot get himself out of his stories. As I wrote earlier, I think this inability to remove himself from the literary equations he poses and tries to solve is a tricky issue of his writing but it also contributes to the unique nature of his work.

In all honesty, I can see now that one of the reasons I’ve become so interested in Houellebecq is that I usually prefer my writers to stay out of their stories. I tend to balk at, or, at the very least, disregard biographical details when I’m considering a text. I want to be able to consider the literary landscape and the characters without worrying whether the author is speaking from experience or made it all up. I’ve always felt that it shouldn’t matter.

However, because of his unsettling merge of author and character, Houellebecq forces me to consider him biographically at almost every step of the way. My knee-jerk reaction would usually be, “Grow up, get over yourself, get a therapist, and do something truly creative.” But his honesty is actually engaging. His perspective is even seductive—I think humans can be pretty rotten, too—as well as off-putting and that combination is hard to put down.


My Internet access seems to be stable again. Besides the fact that I tend to panic when I lose access to email (something I should probably work on), as a freelancer, my entire professional life hinges on a rapid, reliable connection to the web. When my connection went down last week, I ended up having to scramble to find a way to deliver two translations to a client as well as get my most recent review up at Necessary Fiction. I can live quite happily without that kind of stress, by the way.

Luckily, it’s over…for now. This is an old farmhouse with some old school (for Switzerland anyway) phone lines. One of the lines got moved last week, and reattached in a different way to the farm’s telephone line “hub”. This was enough to knock out our Internet service for nearly a week. Now that I see how fragile the system is, I’m pretty sure a cow will sneeze in the upper pasture next week and I’ll have the same problem.

In any case, this whole incident made me consider my relationship with technology. I’m obviously very bound to my computer and the internet. Which is kind of funny since my favorite pastimes are pretty darn low-tech. Reading, hiking, reading… And yet I spend most of my day answering and sending emails, connecting with people in several countries for work or just because friends live pretty much anywhere and everywhere, or using the Internet for research. The world is small. Very small. At least it seems that way through the “window” of my laptop.

This is all just to say that not only does technology make it possible for me to work from home as a translator and a writer while living in a very small village in Switzerland, it also gives me access to indulge my biggest passion – reading. I’d be one miserable reader if my book buying were limited to the few physical bookstores in the nearest cities. So really, the Internet makes possible much of my happiness and all of my professional life. And yet, I worry sometimes whether I might actually be more productive without the distractions that come as part and parcel of spending so much time online. I’m pretty out of the loop where social media are concerned but I am on Facebook and I write this blog and I spend time reading other blogs and online journals. It is very hard to say “no” to the endless stream of information available on the web.

There is an essay in Michel Houellebecq’s collection Rester Vivant (Stay Alive/Survive) which speaks about the human relationship to technology. He begins with architecture, moves to economics and markets, explores computer science and then ends, briefly, with literature. It is mostly a lament, at least the tone is more overtly sorrowful than critical. It is hard not to agree with his notion of La poésie du mouvement arrêté, which is the title of the final subsection of the essay. The Poetry of Stopped Time or The Poetry of Suspended Movement. Houellebecq argues for a pause – turn off the TV, buy nothing, renounce your desire to buy something, refuse to participate, refuse “knowing” (I find this last idea subtly provocative), simply switch off all thought. Just for a moment, he asks you to stand still.

This obvious solution to the information overload of contemporary society is harder to accomplish than one might think. I suppose I get the closest on dog walks or while reading. Dog walks now involve a chatty, gregarious toddler, an excited dog and a nervous kitten who refuses to be left at the farm, so while my twice-a-day walks are still lovely in their own right, they are not always exactly relaxing. Especially because they are now crammed between work and getting Mlle. Petitvore to daycare on the days she goes and more work and running errands and cleaning house and all the rest. But there are moments of true pause—stopping in the forest to listen to birds, for example, and suddenly, unexpectedly, my little circus all stills at the same time. It’s wonderful what a few seconds of stillness can do for the rest of your day.

And reading isn’t really a pause either, no matter how much I enjoy it. It will always involve thinking, learning, judging. My hours with books are active and intense. I wouldn’t really want it any other way.

It is still nice to be reminded, however, that it’s good sometimes to enter a full stop. Houellebecq is arguing for something both political and social, a rebellion of sorts against the vast whirring machines. I don’t criticize him for that at all; I think he’s right. But I’m also taking his comments in a deeply personal way. I’m a part of those vast whirring machines. I contribute (so does he, so does everyone). So my full stop can never be a real rebellion against the “machine,” it is first a rebellion against myself. I think this is what he’s really getting at in his essay and I like how that turns the critique on its head.


My Internet service has been haywire since last Thursday—the joys of living in the countryside. But it’s on right now and I wanted to write quickly about a book I just finished reading: Ouragan (Hurricane) by Laurent Gaudé. You may have heard of him through his 2007 novel which was translated as The Scortas’ Sun (UK) and The House of Scorta (US). I haven’t read his other work, but will be looking for it directly.

Because Ouragan…Wow. Really wow.

The book is set in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and told in six different voices – an old woman, a prisoner, a priest, a single mother and her former lover. Each individual has a different relationship to the storm. Each individual must suffer through the storm in a particular way. Handling that many voices in a single, tightly-knit narrative can be difficult, but Gaudé pulls it off with great skill. I literally could not put this book down. The story, the writing, the ideas and history behind the story and the writing.

Wish I had time to write more now about the writing. Gaudé’s writing was intense and emotional. He uses a first person narrator for most of the characters, but third person for two of them. That blend was useful, especially for two sections in which all of sudden the voices begin to merge together, telling each other’s stories. Really very well done.

I find it very interesting that such an incredible work of fiction about an intensely American experience should come from a French writer. I’m assuming Gaudé did a lot of research or was already deeply familiar with the culture and history of New Orleans.

I hope the book is currently contracted with translation into English, but I can’t find any confirmation of that on the web yet.

I will have more to say when my Internet issues get worked out…


Today at Necessary Fiction I reviewed Where We Going, Daddy by Jean Louis Fournier and translated by Adriana Hunter:

Where We Going, Daddy is not a memoir in the traditional sense. This is not Fournier’s attempt to work his way to some form of catharsis through well-structured essays, poetic descriptions of his suffering and a philosophical attitude toward Thomas and Mathieu’s handicap. This slim book, written in part as a letter to his sons and in part a collection of vignettes of remembered moments, is appropriately stark.

Click here for the full review.

Well, I thought I’d be able to stay away but it turns out no…However, posting may continue to be sporadic until the second week of September when hopefully the stars will align and solve my childcare issues. In the meantime, some thoughts on an interesting book:


My husband is Swiss. I am American. When we got married, these two nationalities became just another part of our shared life. In a year or so, if I want, I can apply for Swiss citizenship. Someday we may decide to move to the United States and if we do, my husband can apply for American citizenship. There is very little chance that either of us will be denied. It wasn’t until I read Danielle Dufay’s epistolary memoir Mon Mariage Chinois (My Chinese Marriage), that I realized the possibility of “sharing” citizenship is something I never should have taken for granted.

In 1913, Dufay’s grandmother Jeanne married a Chinese citizen. Without realizing it, by signing her marriage certificate, Jeanne surrendered her French citizenship. The book opens in 1922, when Jeanne, separated from her husband because of WWI, is finally traveling to China to meet him again. They have not seen one another for seven years and Jeanne has some very justifiable apprehensions about this reunion. One of the reasons she is finally going is that since her wedding, she has been forced to live as a foreigner in her own country.

The book is formed of the letters Jeanne writes home to her sister Laurence in France, filled with descriptions of the long journey to China, detailed portraits of the various people she meets along the way, and of course, news of her marital situation and life in her new home. I think it is safe to say that the cultural differences between China and France in the 1920s were much bigger than they are today. And Jeanne suffers because of this great rift – not only in her relationship with her husband but also in ordinary everyday experiences. As any expatriate will readily admit, simple tasks can become momentous trials when the cultural frame is shifted.

Now Jeanne’s situation is made even more complicated because of her citizen status. If something becomes difficult for her, she has no recourse to the French consulate and very little support from any of her fellow French citizens. When things between her and her husband become difficult, she cannot just pick up and leave. She is considered “Chinese” in the eyes of the state. She is also supported financially by her husband, which in theory could have been a nightmare, but Jeanne’s husband grants her a liberal measure of freedom to travel and socialize as she prefers. She is not allowed to work, however, except for some part-time English teaching, so she has no means of saving money to return to France.

Mon Mariage Chinois gets a little clunky from time to time. The book was fashioned into a series of letters from Jeanne’s actual letters, a few of her essays and her private journals. I understand the reason for forcing these three different genres together but I’m not convinced it was the best idea. Too much exposition in a personal letter reads false. But this effect is heaviest at the beginning of the book, when Jeanne is giving the background to her marriage. Once she gets on the boat and especially when she reaches Hong Kong and China, this issue smoothes itself out a bit.

Also, the book is not a page turner but best savored slowly. Each of Jeanne’s letters is a treasure trove of historic information, filled with rich detail about 1920s Asia and its customs. As an expat she is keenly interested in the expat community, but also in other minority groups versus traditional Chinese culture. Something I found very interesting was that she was not exempt from the racist thinking that infused her generation, even if she was a victim of it herself.

Finally, aside from its cultural preoccupations, Mon Mariage Chinois is also the portrait of a woman trying to negotiate between her traditional upbringing with its blind championing of marital duty, and her fiercely independent, intensely feminist character.

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.