Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

Les Heures souterraines by Delphine de Vigan. Translated into English by Underground Time.

Paris, May 20th, 2009. Mathilde, 40, wakes up at 4am and knows she won’t sleep again. Her three children are peacefully sleeping and she will turn in her head once again the events that brought her there. Today is a special day: a fortune teller has predicted that she will meet a man on that day. Mathilde ironically states that she’s now low enough to trust a fortune teller.

Same day, same hour. Thibault, 43, wakes up in a hotel room, looks at his sleeping lover Lila. They spent the week-end together, they’ve made love and she said “thank you”. After that simple and dreadful “thank you”, Thibault abruptly decides to face the truth and accept that she doesn’t love him and will never love him. He knows the only way left is to break up with her today. Sitting in the bleak bathroom of their hotel room, he wonders if he’ll be strong enough to do it.

Mathilde is a senior executive in the marketing department of a flagship. Her professional life is a nightmare; she’s been the victim of bullying for months. Thibault is an itinerant GP in Paris. In the morning, he drops Lila home, breaks up with her and takes his first call. Mathilde and Thibault know they’ll have a tough day. Mathilde fights against her will to take a sick leave and stay home. Thibault will have to live through that first day after the break-up.

A decisive day starts for both of them. Mathilde unfolds her life and analyses how it all happened. One day during one meeting, she contradicts her boss Jacques in front of other people. From small silences to bad looks and petty measures, she is progressively set aside of her working team. She isn’t invited at meetings any more, her boss stops talking to her, her colleagues start to ignore her. She’s devastated as she’s been working with Jacques for eight years and everything has always run smoothly between them. She’s given a lot of time to the firm, her job helped her resurfacing after the death of her husband. Mathilde feels betrayed because she invested a lot of herself in this company, because Jacques hired her and had always trusted her.

Delphine de Vigan perfectly describes life in an office: the furniture, the discussions near the coffee machine, the gossips, the lunches with colleagues, the good moments too. The relationships are friendly but shallow. Everything Mathilde says is true to life: the hypocrite speech of the HR lady, the cowardice of her colleagues who are too afraid to lose their jobs to help her. She also perfectly shows how violent it is, and how difficult it is to survive when you become the black sheep. We see the slow deconstruction of Mathilde. She’s the victim and yet she’s ashamed of her situation, as if she were responsible of what happens to her. The firm is a merciless machine that breaks the feeble, promotes selfishness through a good dose of fear. The psychological mechanisms made me think of women beaten by their husbands.  It also reminded me of Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb.

Thibault has a different form of fatigue. His job eats him alive too. He spends an awful lot of time on the streets, stuck in traffic jam and wasting time to park his car. At 43 and after a solid decade as an itinerant GP, he has seen his lot of misery. We accompany him during his visits to the old lady who lives in a filthy apartment, to an obnoxious businessman who’d decided of his prescription by himself, to a lovely young woman who has all the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Somehow, on that 20 of May, his protective armour has holes. He’s affected by his patients, he’s upset to a point he needs pauses between appointments. His ruined love life left him bare and sensitive to his patients’ miseries.

Through eyes of Mathilde and Thibault, Delphine de Vigan gives an acute vision of working life in Paris. I worked there during three years. It was exhausting and we didn’t have any children at the time. Mathilde uses public transports to go to work and what Delphine de Vigan minutely describes is true, totally true. Everything is there, the unwritten circulation rules in the underground, the speed, the urgent need to get into the métro not to be late, the heat, the crowd. If Mathilde experiences underground transports, Thibault lives the nightmare of driving in a big city. Both are sort of crushed by the city, the anonymity, the indifference to other people, the incivility. When I moved in Paris, I looked at all these people rushing, running, looking like they could kill someone to get in their métro. I swore to myself I’d never become like this. And I kept my promise, any time I was tempted to run to catch a métro, I resisted.

The chapters alternate between Mathilde and Thibault and their voice felt real. Everything takes place in the same day, with flashbacks. Their pain, their fears, their despair were tangible and vivid. Delphine de Vigan chose to put the same sentences in their minds sometimes, it enforced the feeling of parallel lives. People think and feel alike but don’t meet in the big city. Her prose is sober and I felt close to the characters.

Although what she writes is really Parisian, there are no obscure references and it is easily accessible to foreigners. I have listened to the audio version and it was gripping. Our lives hold together on nothing. In the comments on my post about La Cousine Bette, we discussed the fear of ruin in 19th C novels and noticed that we tend to forget this threat is real nowadays too. This novel is a reminder. Modern life and security aren’t words that go together well. Have a boss a little too ready to take offence and your life turns to hell.

I’m not usually attracted by books that remind me too much about my working day but this one is good and it is important that novelists write about our life and our society.  I’m not saying that Delphine de Vigan is the new Zola but her novel is an honest scrutiny of the incredible violence experienced by people at work. It is also a lucid look at what big cities and their oppressive atmosphere do to their inhabitants. And if Zola were alive now, wouldn’t be interested in how companies can be weapons of destruction for their employees?

  1. April 18, 2011 at 4:20 pm | #1

    I like the tone of this a lot, it sounds very good. It seems to capture many different things. It does remind me of an obnoxious boss I had. She was so mean, everyboyd told me they would quit if they were me. Now I’m a fighter, I swore, if someone goes, it will be her. I’m still there, she had to leave. Anyway, I can understand when people are not strong enough, it’s a huge fight. I was lucky I had support. But mobbing is even worse. I can deal with abuse of power, that’s what my boss did, but mobbing… That’s so bad. I see it happen constantly. To a certain extent gossip is already some form of mobbing. The people in the métro look frightening. Tired, exhausted.

    • April 18, 2011 at 4:50 pm | #2

      I think what happened to Mathilde in this book is even worse than sexual harassment. At least there, you know what the other wants. Here, she doesn’t know what Jacques wants and where this hatred comes from. It prevents her from asking for help right from the start and undermines her confidence in her skills and her judgment.
      Mathilde isn’t weak and the novel perfectly shows how it quickly turns a joyful and balanced person into a ghost.

      I’ve never been through this at work myself but I sadly know it can happen anytime. This is probably why I was so moved by this book. The bullshit (there’s no other word) served by the HR department is so realistic and melted with fake compassion.
      I’ve seen someone using false accusations of bullying to change of job. I still don’t know if she was unbalanced and really believed in what she said or if it was perfect manipulation. There was an inquiry, it felt like a bad thriller. Awful.

  2. April 18, 2011 at 7:45 pm | #3

    I agree with Caroline, this sounds excellent. I silently made statements on various job-related themes as I read this, so I think it’s something I’d really like.

    Have you seen Human Resources?

    • April 18, 2011 at 8:59 pm | #4

      You’d probably like it. It’s the real face of Paris, not the one of Amélie Poulain.

      Yes I’ve seen Ressources Humaines. Terrible and so true to life.

  3. April 18, 2011 at 9:12 pm | #5

    The book is being published in America at the end of the year. I noticed another one in English but I wasn’t interested in it.

    • April 18, 2011 at 9:19 pm | #6

      You can read it in French, it’s not difficult. It’s available in paperback. Or buy the British edition.

  4. April 18, 2011 at 9:17 pm | #7

    BTW, I read how Zola lived with miners to get a feel for their lifestyle (before writing La Bete Humaine). Many miners attended his funeral years later as they never forgot his interest in their pitiful living conditions.

    Today Zola would be fascinated by the de-humanisation in the modern workplace.

    • April 18, 2011 at 9:40 pm | #8

      I think you’re right. Zola would write about this. I also wonder what Kafka would have written. I’ve found an interview of Delphine de Vigan (in French). She has worked in a company like this and has experienced conflicts at work. She met people who had to face this kind of situation and inteviewed psychologists too. That’s why it sounds so true.

      Work was hard in Post Office but it was more an “army” atmosphere and it was also due to stupid rules. Everybody was working under the same rule. In chapter 17 of Witches Sabbat, when Sachs is doing his military service, he says about army rules and the related suffering: “ce sont des maux qui n’atteignent ni n’écorchent le fond de l’être” (these are pains that don’t reach or scratch deep into your soul)
      Here, it is aimed at one person, it’s treacherous. With their crap about performance, they manage to make the person believe he/she is responsible for what happens to him/her. The victim doesn’t question the system.

      • April 18, 2011 at 11:53 pm | #9

        I haven’t got quite that far with Sachs yet. It’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts to military life.

  5. April 19, 2011 at 8:35 am | #10

    This sounds fascinating. I like your thought about “ruin” – yes, its something that is coming back, especially in these days of public expenditure cuts causing many to be out of work with no prospect of an early return. A fine review so thanks for sharing it

    • April 19, 2011 at 8:42 am | #11

      It’s stayed with me. Delphine de Vigan brought Mathilde to life and she sounds so real. She managed to avoid unnecessary pathos and an unrealistic love story.

  6. leroyhunter
    April 19, 2011 at 9:43 am | #12

    Great post, bookaround. The work stuff sounds scarily accurate.

    “The firm is a merciless machine that breaks the feeble”
    How true. Ages ago I read The Corporation by Joel Bakan, which is a potted history of how corporates assumed such all-encompassing power in the modern world. He has the slightly off-beat approach of analysing a typical corporation as if it were an individual, and concluding that such an individual is psychopathic. There was a documentary of the same name.

    The stuff about Paris is interesting as well. Of course “Paris” has a totally different meaning to a foreigner, a tourist with idealised and selective experiences of the city. Stefan Zweig wrote about a visit to Chartres in the 30s I think where he started by describing the disorientating speed, clamour and pressure of Paris (even then!). Coming back after a day of peace and contemplation around the cathedral he sees the huge dome of Paris’ lights in the distance: it’s a beautiful image and he reconciles the bad elements that he’d started off with.

    • April 19, 2011 at 5:02 pm | #13

      “Scarily accurate” That’s the word.
      The book you mention must be interesting. I agree with the statement that if a corporation were a person, it would be insane.
      In 1998, Marie-France Etchegoyen published a book named “Le harcèlement moral”, which means “Mental harassment” describing destructive practices in companies. It was a huge shock in France as it was the first time it was publicly discussed.

  7. leroyhunter
    April 19, 2011 at 9:44 am | #14

    And I meant to say! – this really sounds worth a read.

    • April 19, 2011 at 5:07 pm | #15

      It IS worth reading.
      And about Paris. I hated living there because of the constant crowd, the time wasted in the métro, the time lost in traffic but I love visiting Paris, walking in the streets, going to museums or to the theatre. It’s a wonderful city to visit as a tourist. If you’re rich, it’s a nice place to live too.

      • leroyhunter
        April 20, 2011 at 10:03 am | #16

        I haven’t been to Paris that often but I know what you mean – I feel exactly the same about London. Love to visit, not sure I’d want to live there.

        • April 20, 2011 at 10:14 am | #17

          I suppose it’s true for all big cities. I’m glad I don’t have to commute.
          Btw, I should visit Ireland, all the French tourists I know and who’ve been there came back enchanted.

  8. April 19, 2011 at 5:44 pm | #18

    If anyone is interested, I’d highly recommend the books by Australian Max Barry: Syrup, Company, Jennifer Government. All anti-corporate. The first two are very funny. Hell perhaps I should reread one.

    He has another one coming out in a couple of months: Machine Man.

    • April 20, 2011 at 7:47 am | #19

      Thanks, I see Company and Jennifer Government are available in kindle version.

      • April 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm | #20

        Guy, I downloaded a sample of Company and that’s all your fault if people looked at me as if I was crazy during my lunch break. Laughing out loud on your own inevitably make people suspicious about your sanity. But what else can I do with phrases like this

        “Elizabeth is smart, ruthless, and emotionally damaged; that is, she is a sales representative. If Elizabeth’s brain was a person, it would have scars, tattoos, and be missing one eye. If you saw if coming, you would cross the street”

        I’m ordering it right now and will read it right after Money if it doesn’t satiate my need for fun, which is quite high these days.

  9. April 19, 2011 at 6:27 pm | #21

    Thanks Guy, I’ m interested and will look them up and
    Bookaroundthecorner, I did ordered Delphine de Vigan.

  10. April 20, 2011 at 7:05 pm | #24

    It sounds very interesting. It’s rare for contemporary authors to get to grips with the world of work – I suspect as many authors have little actual experience of it. There’s also something interesting about the choice of ages. At 40 and 43 it’s hard for them to make entirely fresh choices. To an extent they’re committed, for good or ill.

    I’ll have a look for it.

    • April 20, 2011 at 7:33 pm | #25

      Hi. There are more French books like this to be expected in paperback in 2011. Last September load of new books brought several of them. I read an article explaining that writers start to write about social issues again. At last. I was tired of selfish inspections and anatomies of couples and mournings.

    • April 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm | #26

      PS : you’re right about the age. In my company, at 45, you’re a senior and they have a special program for you. Scary, no?

      • April 20, 2011 at 7:38 pm | #27

        That is a welcome trend.

        I have to admit, I’d find the prospect of being put on a special program quite offputting. The gap between special program and unemployment could I fear be a narrow one.

        • April 20, 2011 at 7:49 pm | #28

          It depends on the program. They also consider that discrimination due to age can happen when you’re over 45. I thought it was young.
          French big companies have a neat program called “Gestion des Carrières et des Compétences” (Management of Careers and Skills) which is imposed by the State. It’s supposed to help you get training periods and adapt to changes in your environment and be able to change of job if needed. In reality, companies use it as hidden redundancy plans and to make people quit. (They give you money if you find a job somewhere else and quit)

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