2 March 2011

Laurent Mauvignier: Loin d'eux (1999)

Laurent Mauvignier's Dans la foule (2006) has been translated into English (as In the Crowd (2008)), but Loin d'eux – literally 'Far from Them' – as yet hasn't been translated. In fact, In the Crowd is the only work of Mauvignier's to be translated in English,  in spite of his importance as a French writer. The reason is probably simply that Mauvignier's work is a little too French, too experimental and introspective for English tastes.

His web site says that his novels (and of course I translate)  'try to circumscribe the real but come up against the indescribable, the limits of speech: a language attempting to put words to absence and grief, love or lack, as if striving to retain what slips between our fingers, between the years.' By definition, then, this is a kind of interstitial literature.

The book consists of a series of interior monologues – most of them several pages in length, some a little shorter – of a single paragraph by six people: Jean and his wife Marthe, and their son Luc; and Jean's brother Gilbert and his wife Geneviève, and their daughter Céline. Luc committed suicide two years previously, and his are the only internal monologues made before his death. The other voices are those of his relatives trying – with very little (or no) success – to come to terms with this death. And the sentences are often very long and meandering.

We learn that this is a working-class family – Jean works in a factory and Gilbert is a baker – where there is no idle chatter to fill the silences, but just silences with a few words to punctuate them. Feelings are not – cannot – be expressed, and this results in a kind of collective autism that has forced Luc away from the parental home in La Bassée and into night-time work in a bar in Paris.

Jean and Marthe never speak of Luc's suicide to each other, although it is forever painfully present. Luc wrote letters home (read in secret by Jean), and he made visits in which words were absent. When the couple visit Gilbert and Geneviève, the two brothers go into the garden, and this is when Jean speaks, but it's always of Luc, and all Gilbert can say is it's not Jean's fault his son's dead. Similarly, Marthe's conversations with Geneviève are on the same subject but Geneviève can't bring herself to say much about how she feels.

The relationship between Luc and Céline was profound, and they had been tied in a close bond since early childhood. Céline later married, although her husband died in a car crash, and despite now being in another relationship, she still feels a sense of abandonment.

Luc was very sensitive to falseness, the automatic social reflexes, the obligation to sign his letters with an artificial closure, and yet he covers both his rooms – at La Bassée and at Paris –  with posters of famous movie actors. In Paris, this once-avid moviegoer hardly ever goes now, and sees the actors on screen as trying to play out the famous poses in his wall posters, so they're somehow less real on screen.  Earlier, he has shown some interest in a young woman who frequents the bar, and notes that she reminds him a little of Jean Seberg (who of course killed herself) in À bout de souffle, and he's written about her to Céline, who thought on a number of occasions that perhaps the girl could introduce him to a new world. Luc's own familial world was suffocating, the movies opened up a suggestion of a different reality, but he was still stuck in a communication limbo.

Reality is ungraspable, although Mauvignier tries to describe just that. A brilliant effort.

My other Mauvignier posts are below:

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Laurent Mauvignier: Apprendre à finir
Laurent Mauvignier: Ceux d'à côté

Laurent Mauvignier: Des Hommes
Laurent Mauvignier: Dans la foule
Laurent Mauvignier: Tout mon amour
Laurent Mauvignier: Seuls
Laurent Mauvignier: Continuer
Laurent Mauvignier: Ce que j'appelle oubli
Laurent Mauvignier: Autour du monde
Laurent Mauvignier: Une Légère blessure

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