2 May 2014

Alexandre Jardin: Le Zèbre (1988)

Alexandre Jardin's Le Zèbre won the prix Femina in 1988, and I think that apart from a few rather dull moments it's a pretty successful novel.

Provincial solicitor Gaston Sauvage – who lives up to his 'wild' surname – is known as le Zèbre because of his untamable nature, and certainly his wife Camille will learn that his antics continue even after his death.

The front cover more or less sums it up. After fifteen years of marriage le Zèbre feels that the amorous sparkle is fizzling out of his marriage, and tries all means possible to recapture it.

These means include a series of letters to his wife in a different hand and ostensibly written by an mysterious admirer. As camouflage (the reader learns towards the end) his devoted friend Alphonse does the writing. Camille's curiosity is aroused at first, and this then turns to passion as the letters continue and she thinks they're written by an eighteen-year-old school student she teaches. Things come to, er, a climax when the writer arranges to meet Camille in a seedy hotel, and when the writer arrives he blindfolds her and she is sexually transported, although le Zèbre reveals to her shortly after this that the 'schoolboy lover' was in fact him.

But he's not content with that and tries to drive her wild with sexual frustration, then starts disappearing so Camille will believe he has another woman. When he makes it look as if he may have seriously hurt himself by jumping out of his mother-in-law's upstairs window in order to prove his love, Camille knows this is the last straw.* She leaves him, drawing the first and largest part of the book to a close.

Le Zèbre doesn't try to pursue Camille but just wastes away until he looks like death, at which point Camille rejoins him in an attempt to save the only man she's ever loved, although he has cancer anyway and he dies. End of second section.

The third section is the shortest and the final one, but in it le Zèbre seems to come back and haunt Camille, leaving a message on the answering machine, writing letters to her again, and even arranging another meeting in the seedy hotel, from which 'le Zèbre' flees when Camille asks him to take his mask off. Of course, Camille realises (as the reader already knows) that le Zèbre has rigged all this up with Alphonse before his death.

Finally, le Zèbre has achieved his aim: Camille's love for him will always be with her, the vital spark will never die, and she will even transfer the tale to paper.

Definitely worth the read if only because the theme of 're-conquest', as le Zèbre puts it, is one hardly ever touched on by authors.

* There are a large number of colloquial expressions such as this in the book: Jardin seems to delight in them.

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