'At thirty she survived the death of her husband.
She's now forty and a bastard in a three-piece suit is systematically destroying her.'
That neatly sums up most of Les Heures souterraines, in which the widow Mathilde — whose husband died ten years earlier when their car hit a tree as they were on their way to a hotel in Honfleur — is losing both her job and her existential integrity. In a novel that reminds us of Amélie Nothomb's Stupeur et tremblements (Fear and Trembling) — which of course is a reference to existentialist Kierkegaard's book — Mathilde, a victim of pathological revenge, is slowly stripped of the duties of her €3000-a-month post, reduced to a tiny room nicknamed 'the shed', or 'the shithouse' because it's next door to the sounds and smells of the men's room, and with no access to the firm's intranet or even any work to do.
Furthermore, when toward the end she tries to communicate with the psychotic Jacques Pelletier (whose assistant she has officially been but who for weeks has not spoken to her), her completely reasonable and calmly stated complaint about her catch-22 situation is distorted by her torturer into one of many gross insults that she simply hasn't made.
Perhaps inevitably, she resigns: insanity would probably have been the only alternative. Ignoring the fact that others in Mathilde's office shun her too — after all, they are only doing so out of fear of Pelletier — the source of the protagonist's alienation only stems from one source, and not from several sources as in Nothomb's novel and Kafka's The Trial. Shouldn't the company be aware that he has a behaviorial problem? To mention just a few indications of this:
He complains that his hotel carpet is dirty, whereas the vacuum cleaner has only been swept against the pile; he sends back his plate in a restaurant because the pattern on it is too phallic for him; he brings the receptionist up to his room in the middle of the night because he can't, among the 120 available channels, find CNN; he can't stand waiting in traffic jams so starts yelling insults at his GPS. The list doesn't end there by any means.
But I've left out a major (or in a sense very minor) theme in the novel: the relationship between Mathilde and Thibault.
Mathilde travels to work in Le Vert de Maisons via the métro and the RER, and the narrator underlines her daily acquaintance with this underworld:
'She knew by heart the corridors, the escalators, the short cuts, this subterranean world woven like a web into the depths of the town.'
Thibault both travels and works on the surface of Paris, being a doctor driving to 'emergency' situations, although many of them aren't emergencies, and he knows the streets of Paris and the inhabitants' assumed and real illnesses as well as Mathilde knows the alienation of the underground. Ten years after the death of her husband, Mathilde's three children can't fill the hole in her life, and nor can she the hole in theirs, and surely paying that 'voyante' over in the 16th arrondissement €150 euros just to be told her life will change on 20 May was a sheer waste of money?
Apart from the backstories, the action in Les Heures souterraines takes place on 20 May, when Matilde resigns after eight years, and when Thibault (who has finished with a woman he loves but who is incapable of loving him) is forced by traffic conditions to abandon his car for the night and take the métro.
They are now aware of each other, and both crave heterosexual warmth. Across strapotins, Thibault studies Mathilde and sees what he thinks is a similar mind, and wants to talk to her. But he doesn't say a word. She disappears into her alienated world, and he into his.
Delphine de Vigan is to be congratulated for giving this really absorbing psychological study a much more realistic (and therefore extremely uncommercial) ending than it could have had.
Delphine de Vigan: No et moi
Delphine de Vigan: Jours sans faim