9 February 2015

Chloé Delaume: Le Cri du sablier (2001)

Chloé Delaume was born in Versailles, of Franco-Lebanese origin, in 1973.  She spent her early years in Lebanon, but returned to France with her parents. When she was nine she witnessed her father killing her mother in the kitchen at point blank range before turning the gun on himself. She later changed her name from Nathalie Dalain, taking her new name from two fictional works: her forename from Boris Vian's L'Écume des jours, and surname from Antonin Artaud's L'Arve et l'Aume.

Le Cri du sablier (lit. 'The Cry of the Hourglass') is the story of what happened before the violence, as well as the unravelling of the heritage left by her family situation. The novel is a kind of catharsis, essentially 'killing the father'. As she says, using the metaphor of the hourglass: 'I will empty myself of the father. Grain by grain.'

This is autofiction rather than an attempt at straight autobiography, which Delaume finds is a very useful tool for experimental writing, and she partly weaned herself on Oulipo. This novel contains neologisms, sometimes strings of words with no commas, although the comma is her preferred means of punctuation, so no colons, semi-colons, she hates question marks, so there isn't a single one, and sometimes there aren't even capital letters following the ends of sentences. The writing is often impressionistic, as in:

'Because always on Saturdays the cars were waiting in front of the school entrance car doors ejaculating parental effusions the mummies smelling good their salivary kisses the daddies smiling rosily tweaking moustaches.' (My translation.)

The mother doesn't come out of this well either: she neglects the child and the narrator suggests that on being left alone her mother was disappointed that during that time she hadn't stuck her fingers in a plug socket or played with the iron that had been left on.

But of course most of the venom is left for the father, the man who is a sea captain and often absent, who is abusive to the child, strangles the cat and serves the hamster as an hors d'oeuvre. When she was standing in the kitchen with bits of her mother on her clothing he pointed the gun at her after but then turned it on himself and a part of his exploded head touched her cheek. It was several months before the child could speak again. (A few years after this book was published Delaume learned from her grandmother that the man wasn't actually her father, but that's irrelevant here.)

Surprisingly – or maybe amazingly is more appropriate – occasional humour pokes through the gloom. The narrator is obviously fascinated with words, and the child looks up things she doesn't know, and after she hears a young guy call his moped an 'enculé' – 'fucker' is the best translation, although literally it means someone who is fucked up the ass – she looks up the word in her illustrated Larousse, but doesn't find it. Her mother tells her it's for 'queers' who do it the other way round, although the word for 'queers' she uses is 'tatas', which is also a children's word for 'aunts', which is the meaning the girl understands. So next time her aunt comes she says 'Bonjour enculée': the mother sees the funny side of this, but the aunt doesn't.

This is not an easy book to read for a number of reasons, but it is wholly original, and I'll have to find out what some of Chloe Delaume's other books read like.

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