10 October 2016

Alice Ferney: La Conversation amoureuse | The Lovers (2000)

Alice Ferney's La Conversation amoureuse – a signed copy of which I was fortunate enough to chance upon  for peanuts at a bookstore in France – literally translates as 'The Loving Conversation', which might seem a little, er, limp, but surely beats The Lovers (its English translated title): this novel (which in this Babel edition runs to 473 pages) is more about conversation, holding off the physical moment, than anything else. The first four fifths of it is exhausting in its lack of event, Gilles André and Pauline Arnoult (both married with a child but Gilles on the brink of divorce) just having a meal before both returning (ostensibly separately) to the tennis club where their partners and other friends are. Sex with the heavily pregnant Pauline only takes place in the last fifth, and is mentioned in very few words.

Gilles is aged 49, Pauline 25, and they've both fallen madly in live with each other, although the evening has been sexually unfulfilled for them, in fact constipated by their complex psychology, of which much of the book is filled, wondering what the other would say if a certain thing was done or said. It's a kind of study in waiting, although Ferney doesn't have the humour of Patrick Lapeyre, who (along with Laurent Mauvignier but in different ways) is a master of the sub-genre of the unspoken in fiction.

I don't usually mention reviews of translated works because of the many problems involved, but The Lovers obviously translates some of the problems of the original La Conversation amoureuse. In the Observer, it's interesting that Adam Mars-Jones states that a number of short stories contain 'more incident' than Ferney's work. Quite. I don't give up on books easily, so I stuck this out until the end, and the events (no matter how few they may be) come faster and thicker in the last hundred pages of a book whose English translation crams into 295 pages.

Obviously many people disagree with me when I call the book excessively slow and psychologising to the point of inducing sleep when read, and all right I really wouldn't have appreciated yet another weird, sex-obsessed, violent, suicidal epic that the French excel in so much. But hey, there are limits. And the homosexual writer Adam Mars-Jones notes another problem with Alice Ferney: she goes in for highly frequent references to what is 'feminine'.

And masculine, for that matter: the men of the club really love half-naked men boxing themselves stupid, although Ferney (or at least the narrator) sees this as a 'masculine' sport, in other words one that men like, although not because it's all about sweaty males, just because it's about men being violent to themselves. I think Alice Ferney has a gender problem: a clear-cut division between the sexes, nothing in between, almost no feminine or masculine sides to the opposite sexes. Mars-Jones calls Ferney's many references to 'feminity' a 'throwback', and it's interesting to note that Ferney is opposed to homosexual marriage.

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