28 August 2015

Laurent Mauvignier: Seuls (2004)

One critic of Laurent Mauvignier's Seuls remarked that his first three novels – Loin d'eux (1999), Apprendre à finir (2000), and Ceux d'à côté (2000) – could also have been called Seuls, and this is certainly true. Another point is that the title is pluralized: Seuls – alone (also, quite often, lonely). The 'alone', then, doesn't just apply to the main character, but to others. And it's important not to forget the universalizing factor here: with Mauvignier, everyone is alone, irrespective of the presence of others around them.

In Seuls there are the constants that we associate with Mauvignier's literature: death or loss, lack of communication, the unspoken (often with a deafening silence), (self-)alienation – but in this book in particular pretence is a major factor, not the everyday pretence when people automatically say they're fine when they're far from fine, but deeply-rooted self-deception.

Three friends – Tony, Pauline and Guillaume – have grown up together, going through their first sexual experiences, getting drunk, smoking grass, going through college, etc. It was Tony who wrote his first love letter to Pauline at the age of twelve, which of course she put down to puppy love. But when she leaves the country with Guillaume Tony quits his studies, works cleaning trains among the polyvocality of foreign workers, loses himself in the repetitive work.

For years Tony has wanted Pauline, and they've even lived together platonically while at college, almost (on the outside) like brother and sister. And then after some years Pauline – who's decided to return to France and leave Guillaume who prefers to stay on – asks if she can stay with Tony while she finds a job and can have her own place. Tony, of course, is delighted.

But he still has to play the pretence game, taking vicarious pleasure in other tenants on the stairs perhaps thinking that he's got himself a beautiful girlfriend - Tony, the guy with yellow teeth and tufts of hair that he has to slick down so as not to look so unsightly, Tony the guy with the inferiority complex who smartens up his act now he has a pretend love, the girl he's yearned for for years, but can only love from a distance, she sleeping in the bed while he makes do on the sofa bed. Until, that is, Pauline finds a job and has to leave Tony and his secret, impossible dreams.

The story – which we're fed bit by bit, jigsaw-like, in usual Mauvignier fashion, with its long sentences and suggestions that often startle the reader, sometimes turn things round, introduce a new slant – is told first by Tony's unnamed father and then by Guillaume, with the occasional unmarked interruption by Pauline or Tony's voice. Tony's father is the only person Tony has revealed his obsession to, the man who turns to Pauline when Tony disappears. And the second narrator is Guillaume, the man who discovers that he can't live without Pauline and returns.

A little after Tony reneges on his promise to help Pauline in her removals his father goes with her to try and seek him out, but they open the apartment and meet only the smell of rotting food, and the piss of the cat starved to death, the unwashed clothes, etc. But no Tony.

Tony it is who will ring Pauline but not speak, and Tony it is who will finally speak when he knows Guillaume is away working, who arranges to meet Pauline in a café, and steal her keys. Pauline rings Guillaume and tells him she can't find her keys, and he drives in terror back to his home, to Tony's father at the door who's rung for the police and begs him to stay there, tries to physically restrain Guillaume from entering, from seeing the tragedy that Mauvignier leaves largely unspoken.

Mauvignier is a poet, from his simple observations of bored people making drumsticks with rolled up newspapers, through the symbolism of the Hopper poster on Tony's wall, to the candy floss clouds. This is brilliant stuff.

My other Mauvignier posts:

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Laurent Mauvignier: Loin d'eux
Laurent Mauvignier: Ceux d'à côté
Laurent Mauvignier: Continuer
Laurent Mauvignier: Ce que j'appelle oubli
Laurent Mauvignier: Autour du monde

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