16 December 2014

Véronique Bizot: Mon couronnement (2010)

After publishing two books of short stories, Le Couronnement is Veronique Bizot's first novel, although she's since written two more: Un avenir (2011) and Âme qui vive, which reached the final for this year's Médicis award. With just one paragraph for each of its eighteen chapters and no speech markers, this short novel initially appears a little daunting, but it's not at all.

Eighty-seven-year-old Gilbert Kaplan is the narrator, although we don't find out his name until much later in this book, which is in many ways a study of the absurdity of life, although its treatment of it is in general far from pessimistic. People in it go mad or are thought to be mad but are dealt with in an amusing fashion – M. Schenker, Gilbert's maths teacher at university, is taken away in the middle of a lecture; Gilbert's first wife (he only had one but he calls her his first), jumped out of a window of their house and her false teeth he keeps in a plastic bag to remember her; Colette Lenoir is a more doubtful case of madness, although she keeps Gilbert waiting in her flat for his old friend Henry Lenoir – her husband – until Gilbert suspects that Henry may have died some time before.

The central absurdity is the fact Gilbert has received an award for an important discovery he made when he was a scientist, although this is so long ago that Gilbert has forgotten what his discovery was: far from being delighted by this belated recognition, he sees the attention he's receiving as rather an invasion of his privacy and disruption of his routine.

And Gilbert's routine revolves around his housekeeper Mme Ambrunaz cooking for him and mothering him. She lives in the large property, sleeping in a room overlooked by Gilbert's stone sculptures left over from the later work he took up before it became too strenuous for him. She obviously lives for Gilbert and there's an unrecognised mutuality in this relationship.

Certainly there are no other people whose company he really enjoys. His brother Victor is preoccupied by his novel writing and his fame, and will never forget that his wife left him and was in love with Gilbert, although Gilbert didn't know this and didn't even have a relationship with her; his son is perfunctorily filial; he really doesn't like his sister Alice, who lives in her beloved Alsace and leaves a tacky souvenir from the place each time she visits him; apart from Mme Ambrunaz, the only other person of importance to him was his sister Louise, whom he's not seen for many years and who ran off with a bishop (now long dead) in order to do good works around the world.

Shortly before the dreaded presentation ceremony, Mme Ambrunaz decides to give Gilbert's spirit a lift by taking him to Le Touquet for two nights: she can stay with a nearby distant relative and show him around the town in the day. So she gingerly spends a while reversing Gilbert's old car which she in the beginning drives with white knuckles but handles the autoroute well enough, telling him not to talk to her as it spoils her concentration. And they both love the brief break, and Gilbert wants to tell Mme Ambrunaz how much he truly appreciates her, but he just can't manage it.

They're both very tired when they return but Mme Ambrunaz is in a hurry to have the holiday photos developed. He says he'll go with her too but then notices she's still staring at him, leaning her head back on the sofa. But she can't see him.

Both Gilbert and Mme Ambrunaz expected that he'd die before her and be buried in the plot that she'd chosen for them miles away from the Paris area, a lovely cemetery in the country. But it happened the other way round and it's time for Gilbert to take a taxi to this absurd presentation ceremony. When he arrives he finds a huge crowd, and spots a little group with his brother, his own son, and his sister Alice. But of course no Mme Ambrunaz, and no sister Louise. He decides not to go in.

Earlier in the book Gilbert goes to a book-signing session to buy his brother's latest tome: a seven hundred pager, because Victor says the public wants big books with big themes. Consciously, I'm sure, Veronique Bizot is making a comment on her own book, which is on the surface quite the reverse of Victor's: it has just one hundred pages of print, and ostensibly has a very small theme. But I found that Mon couronnement has a resonance far greater than many much 'bigger' books. This is a little treasure.

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