6 October 2014

Lionel Duroy: Le Chagrin (2010)

In 1990 Lionel Duroy published Priez pour nous (lit. 'Pray for Us'), an autobiographical novel (or autofiction) of the kind which the French seem particularly gifted at producing. I haven't read that book (yet), but Le Chagrin, published twenty years later, seems to be partly a revisitation of that novel.

Le Chagrin – all 734 pages of it – is an amazingly rivetting read, much of it being the story (told by the narrator named William) of the marriage between Toto (really Théophile, a member of the impoverished aristocracy) and Suzanne, a woman who has pretentions far above her social standing. Both are zealous Catholics (so no birth control), both have staunch extreme right-wing views, and the result of the match is eleven pregnancies, although one offspring dies shortly after being born.

William, like Duroy himself, was born in Tunisia, although the family initially move from there to well-heeled Neuilly, living way beyond their means. This is very much William's side of the story of the family being thrown out of one home to more to poorer neighbourhoods, Toto always dreaming up impossible schemes and running up bills he won't ever be able to pay back, and his wife complaining about living in a slum, and then complaining some more.

For the narrator, Toto comes out of all this reasonably well, although the venom is left for a mother who never shows William any affection, who indeed seems heartless and extremely neurotic. The book picks up the story from the marriage in 1944, through the tribulations and the children, though the narrator's change of political colours and his work on Algeria and New Caledonia for the newspaper Libération, through his first family – with Agnès, who supports him publishing his anger for his mother in spite of strong threats of ostracism from his siblings – to the early noughties, when he's living with Blandine and going crazy over writing this new autobiographical novel which will be called Le Chagrin.

To some readers, it may well seem as though the narrator has given his mother too hard a time of things, that he's perhaps overdone the emotional subterfuge, the heartlessness and the insults, but in so doing he's hardly come out smelling roses: this is therapy, and Le Chagrin – along with Priez pour nous, which this book is also about – had to be written for emotional, existential release.

This is certainly strong stuff with some very powerful punches. Thoroughly enjoyable, although (unlike, say, Delphine de Vigan) Duroy for some reason doesn't appear to have been translated into English.

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