23 January 2016

Patrick Lapeyre: La Splendeur dans l'herbe (2016)

In Patrick Lapeyre's previous novel, La Vie est brève et le désir sans fin (2010) (a title translated literally into English as Life Is Short and Desire Endless) the American character Murphy at one point sees an obese couple at the edge of a lake 'dressed like Martians', taking photos of everything they can see, 'with the probable intention of selling them on Mars one day'. It's far from a one-off comment by the author, and reminded me of Craig Raine's vision of everyday objects from a Martian's point of view, although with Lapeyre of course it's people themselves who are seen as behaving in an alien way. Couples frequently don't get on with one another, see the other as a totally incomprehensible being. Yes, many of us have been there.

This is not necessarily negative though, because Homer, the protagonist of La Spendeur dans l'herbe*, asks himself of his lover Sybil 'From which planet, from which unknown world was she coming to spread such tenderness?': a little over two years before, Homer lived – in between several separations – with his wife Emmanuelle, and it was as though they were both from different, ill-starred planets.

Then there's Massimo, a work colleague of Homer's, who describes the time he started looking for a football kicked well away from the pitch where his team was playing: he forgot the game and became entranced by being in the woods, the silence, as if he were leaving behind his old life for a new one. He says that he later had a similar experience when he left his wife and children briefly during a theatre interval, when he went via a fire exit to meet the darkness and the noise of the streets. He points out that it wasn't as powerful an experience as the first time, but thanks Homer for giving him the opportunity to speak about 'that planet'.

Reading this Patrick Lapeyre novel is a little like being on another planet, and my translation of the back cover gives an idea of the content:

'In the beginning they were like shadows. A man and woman speaking to one another about those who had betrayed them. They speak about it incessantly, obsessively, each time they meet. Until between them, and almost in spite of them, a strange loving relationship develops, the logical product of which seems to be continually delayed. As if the enchantment of the conversation made them forget all the rest.'

This of course takes us back to Zobain territory, and Raymond Guerin's non-sexual relationship with his wife, although there's a major difference: the two here become a fully loving couple after all the lack of sex. And all the missed opportunities, such as the time on the boat when Homer wanted to kiss Sybil's neck but didn't dare, or the time when he lay down on the floor after Sybil accidentally pushed him from his piano stool and wanted to pull her down with him but didn't dare, etc, are simply manifestations of Homer's immaturity. He is just incapable of making any decisions, he's way too sensitive to force the moment through its logic. And even when the moments, er, come at the end the reader isn't treated to any description of them: they happen behind the scenes.

And not only is any sex kept on hold, but the development of the relationship between the dumped Homer and dumped Sybil (by her husband Giovanni to join Emmanuelle) is held back in that almost every other chapter (and there are sixty-five of them in this 378-page book) is concerned with the young Homer's relationship with his parents Arno and Ana, or Arno and Ana's relationship with themselves.

Needless to say, Arno and Ana live on different psychological planets from one another, which obviously must be borne in mind if we have to consider Homer's oddness. OK, he hardly said a word for his first three years (echoes of the real-life Amélie Nothomb), evidently suffered some trauma when a man exposed himself in front of him, and when his mother left him waiting for hours when she was supposed to pick him up from school early. In fact, she was talking to a prostitute because she used to enjoy talking to people about their lives. Also he seems to have had something of an absentee father. How does this parental background affect him? Difficult to say, but in the end his father is living with a much younger girl in Toronto and Homer really isn't interested in him, although his mother died in her fifties and on one occasion we see the son (with a little help from Sybil) tend his beloved mother's grave as a kind of self-redemption for all the times he's failed to appreciate her.

This is one of the books in the January rentrée for this year. And already it feels like it just has to be one of the best French books of the year.

* The expression 'splendo(u)r in the grass' may call to mind the Elia Kazan film to many, although the quotation at the beginning of the novel is from William Wordsworth.

My other posts on Patrick Lapeyre:

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Patrick Lapeyre: La vie est brève et le désir sans fin

Patrick Lapeyre: L'Homme-sœur

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