12 November 2020

Patrick Lapeyre: Paula ou personne (2020)

Take two people like Jean Cosmo and Paula Wilmann – meeting quite by chance at a wedding reception – although Jean doesn't really know the bridegroom and suspects he's just been invited to make up the numbers on the groom's side, and Paula doesn't really like the bride (her cousin) and has only come because she was asked. In fact, neither Jean nor Paula would have been there under normal circumstances, it's just chance that brings them together. In addition, they met nearly twenty years before, as Jean recognises Paula as the younger sister of Alicia, whom he used to go out with when she was just thirteen. So they have something to talk about and agree to meet at a future time.

Jean is really excited about meeting Paula because it's a long time since he's had a date. But then, so many things separate them: she is a schoolteacher of German, whereas he works in a sorting office in a large post office and comes from a very humble family which didn't have a bathroom or have any books; she's a Catholic in a Catholic school, married to a German with a comfortable job; he lives in a lousy flat in 93 (in Montreuil), and she lives in les Invalides in the centre of Paris. On the other hand, he spent two years at university before leaving at the age of twenty and married a mythomaniac aged thirty for a few years; Paula loves her husband, but her sex life with Andreas is very poor and she has a separate flat near les Invalides where she can be herself. Plus, she doesn't see eye to eye with the other teachers, and the self-taught Jean can bowl her over with his philosophical ideas, particularly Heidegger's. Their impending fusion is a forgone conclusion.

And although it takes over five weeks for them to end up in bed, the wait (and Patrick Lapeyre's books are full of waiting) takes far less time than the central characters in his other books. But needless to say, waiting being something of a religion almost in Lapeyre's novels, it still exists in the time it takes Paula to turn up on a date, in the of number of days Jean has to spend until Paula comes back from her holiday with Andreas, etc. Waiting is desire, and desire is everything here.

The couple have taken a risk and both are aware that their time as lovers is limited: Andreas will inevitably be called back to Germany, and Paula will follow him: there is no way that Jean can support her, even if she wanted such a relationship. In any case, Paula tires in a year of leading a double life, and Jean's insatiable desire for sex is exhausting. But even as they part, Jean refuses to see Paula ever again, doesn't answer any of her calls, and just disappears.

Jean is a misfit, he didn't fit into university, he doesn't fit into his job, and most people don't talk to him at work. Even Jean's surname Cosmo suggests he's on another planet; but he thinks ordinary people are on another planet; he calls a disturbed co-worker who accuses him of sexual harassment a 'sexual' UFO; Reynaldo, a friend of a friend, looks like an extraterrestrial, and so on. Is Cosmo from some other place or does he dream other people are? As Paula puts it: 'You've invented a marginal, persecuted character for yourself and you enjoy him: you're his prisoner.'

At over 400 pages this is no doubt Lapeyre's longest novel so far, and is certainly the best I've yet read.

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