4 April 2016

Élisabeth Barillé: L'Oreille d'or (2016)

Novelist and biographer Élisabeth Barillé has been deaf in her left ear since she caught an infection at the age of six. This is in many ways an invisible handicap in that its existence can't immediately be detected, and indeed it is possible to camouflage it by many inventions, strategies, and other tactics in such a way as to make her seem an ordinarily hearing person. She managed to survive school, for instance, by sitting in front of the teachers.

And yet evasion of detection isn't as easy as that, and Barillé (born in 1960) throughout her life so far has had to revert to such body movements, such techniques involving thrusting her 'good', that is her right, ear into a prominent position that allows her to catch what is being said that she comes out of this story almost heroically.

In spite of this apparent handicap, though, Barillé has made positive use of her deaf ear, even to the point of coming out of the experience enhanced: by avoiding the frivolity of social life, even if it means using what many would term anti-social behaviour, she has not so much withdrawn from life as discovered the joys of introspection, learned to think more deeply on psychological concerns that she wouldn't have realised existed if she had had normal powers of hearing.

In fact, there are many other benefits that Barillé finds: by turning her right ear to her pillow, a world of silence greets her, which is an added advantage if she happens to be sleeping next to a partner who snores; at the age of twelve, when her father crashed the car carrying the family, Élisabeth was sound asleep with her right ear to her mother's belly and really believes that she escaped death because she was oblivious to the accident until after it happened; and of course she can just shut off very easily, join another reality.

A number of figures, well known or not so well known and who had (or still have) different levels of hearing problems, are brought up here: Gabriel Fauré, François Truffaut, Thomas Edison, Beethoven, 'O', even Frank Sinatra (who appears to have played the hearing card just to escape the draft), etc.

At only 126 pages this is a brief book, but it's filled with delicious gems of thought, fascinating insights into the way a different world can be viewed. One of my favourite sentences: 'L'amour est une infidélité envers soi-même' ('Love is being unfaithful to yourself.') Egoistic this sentence certainly sounds, but then 'L'Oreille d'or' ('the golden ear') or the pun on it 'L'Oreille dort' ('the ear is sleeping') quite naturally turns a person's thoughts in on herself.

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