8 April 2014

Olivier Adam: Les Lisières (2012)

Lisières means fringes or edges, and in Les Lisières relates to a large number of things. Paul Steiner grew up in V., a town in Essonne on the fringes of Paris, although with his wife Sarah he moved to Brittany, to a town in Finistère, on the fringe of France.

Now Sarah has left Paul for good, taking their children Clément and Manon, whom he now only has access to once a fortnight. But he can't accept this, can't face up to the fact that his wife has left him and that his children will grow up largely not knowing their father. He obsesses over his situation, making his already unstable mental state worse, and he can't stop drinking. He seems to be on the edge of his sanity, the edge of his own existence, half a person (and yes, The Smiths are mentioned in passing a few times).

As a depressive hooked on various kinds of medicines as well as drink (mainly whisky), Paul is understandably attracted to the kind of literature and music that many consider miserable – like his books, which he writes as therapy. Many times, Paul uses a form of the verb 'engloutir' (meaning to swallow up, to devour), and this seems very appropriate to the existence of Paul and most of the other characters, whose lives are eaten up by desperation, hatred, resentment, envy.

Paul has regularly made an annual visit from his seaside bolthole to his parents' house in V., always dreading the return to the Parisian fringes weeks before obligation calls for him to spend several hours with them. So it comes as an added imposition that he should be expected to spend some days at his childhood home and attend to his cantankerous father while his mother is in hospital for an operation.

This return is an opportunity for the book – and Paul himself – to veer off into memories of earlier days. The experience is a strain on Paul, as his father (he feels) has never really liked him, and is certainly a man of few words, those usually being accusatory and full of complaints about his son and the world in general.

And Paul meets a number of his old school friends, giving some prime opportunities for them to to critise him too for refashioning characters in his books from the real people in V., in fact – as one puts it – for being a 'post-adolescent wanker'.

Even Sophie – the girl he used to lust after in school, who married her much older lover, and who also unbeknown to Paul has always lusted after him – has some criticisms for his writing. But at least she has read him, and when her husband Alain is away and her children at school she takes him into the woods and they consumate their relationship voraciously. She even follows him back to Brittany for more sex and cuddles, only to be followed by Alain, attempt suicide, be saved by Paul, and finally be taken back to a psychiatric hospital near her home on the fringes: much of the time she too is on the fringe of madness.

Paul sees that his family's religion is denial, and this is particularly true of his father, who denies (as his wife has always told him to) that the photo which fascinates Paul – that of a very young baby with tubes attached him – is of his twin, and says he's never had a twin. But Paul's mother (now on the fringes of Alzheimer's) has told him that he did have a twin, but that he died after only three days. Paul later discovers that this is true, and this is of course a vindication of the fact that he has always thought he's had something missing, that there's something wrong with him, and believes that this explains his parents' lifelong coldness to him.

Les Lisières is to some extent autobiographical and Olivier Adam lost thirty-five kilos writing this long book, his eleventh novel and most probably his best. There is a strong political content and Paul is incensed that his father – who once voted for the Parti communiste – now feels that the number of immigrants in France means that he can no longer call the country his own and will no doubt (like a depressingly large number of once left-inclined voters) support the extreme-right  'la Blonde' (the narrator being unable to bring himself to utter the dreaded name Marine Le Pen): we could of course call him a man of the fringes too, clinging on to a belief in a past France that never in fact existed.

Other characters – some being past friends of Paul's, one being a particularly articulate taxi driver – are more politically aware, aware that the major political parties are in thrall to market forces, that the nation's wealth has been handed over to big business, and that only a handful of people now own the country, and are forever trampling on the huge majority of the dispossessed population. Yes, of course Adam is feeding his characters with his own words – after all, what else do most writers do?

And speaking of twins, I'd put this after Agota Kristof's 'Trilogie des jumeaux' as the second best piece of literature I've read so far this year: this is an excellent book, a depressing outsider's delight.

My other posts on Olivier Adam:

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Olivier Adam: Je vais bien, ne t'en fais pas
Olivier Adam: Des vents contraires
Olivier Adam: Le Cœur régulier
Olivier Adam: Falaises

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