Noir Désir

January 21, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Un homme accidentel by Philippe Besson. 2007. Not translated into English, very sadly.

Jack m’entraînait là où aucune rémission n’était possible, où aucun pardon ne serait accordé, où la survie n’était envisageable qu’à condition de mentir, de se cacher, où les jours toute façon seraient comptés puisque la vérité finit toujours par nous rattraper. Et j’acceptais ce sort. Mieux, j’allais à sa rencontre. Jack was dragging me to a place where no remission was possible, where no forgiveness would be granted, where survival was possible provided that we lied and hid, where days were numbered because truth always catches up with us. And I surrendered to that fate. Better, I was heading toward it.

Our Narrator has no name and relates the events that blew his life away. One year ago, he was married to Laura. They were expecting a baby. They were in love. He was a lieutenant at LAPD, in Beverly Hills, a quiet job according to him. Life was good until June 15th 1990, the day Billy Greenfield got murdered and dumped down on the manicured lawn of a rich man’s house. Billy was a prostitute. Searching his apartment for clues, the Narrator finds a notebook with the names of Billy’s clients. Among them, Jack Bell, a famous young actor. On June 17th, the Narrator pays a visit to Jack, to investigate the murder.

Then things get out of control when Jack and our Narrator fall in love.

Love at first sight, you say in English. It conveys a sweet image of a romantic encounter between a starry-eyed young girl and her righteous beau. Only the French can describe what happens here. Coup de foudre, lightening stroke. It has everything in it: the suddenness, the blinding quality, the violence, the fire, the storm and the destruction it brings in their lives. Coup de foudre.

Besson excels in describing the whirlwind love between the two men. Our Narrator discovers his homosexuality; he recounts his fatal attraction to Jack and their summer of love. The Narrator doesn’t hide or doesn’t try to find excuses. He doesn’t want pity. He takes full responsibilities of his actions and accepts their consequences. With a little hindsight, he deciphers the key moments, the tiny seconds of hesitation, of flawed decision-making. A hand that lingers too long, a look a little too insistent and the wrong words at the wrong moment. Still he doesn’t complain. No should-haves or would-haves here. He quietly unravels the events, not concealing that he had a choice and purposely headed to disaster, blown away by his relationship with Jack.

The LA setting is well-described but you can tell it’s not written by an American author, that he knows the city as a foreigner. Sometimes his comparisons betray his nationality. I can’t imagine an American novelist writing this:

C’étaient des paroles ordinaires, des choses de presque rien, comme en disent les couples qui s’arrêtent sur des aires d’autoroute, le jour des départs en vacances. These were ordinary words, small talk couples make when they stop on a motorway rest area when they go on holiday.

When I read this in French, I see the flow of tourists on the French motorways on August 15th. I see families pick-nicking on wooden benches between the gas station and the children playground, not a couple in California.

Despite this minor flaw, I couldn’t put this book down, Besson is a sensitive writer. He builds his style around short and forceful sentences, creating a plausible flow for a confession. There’s a music behind the words, a gift for little observations.

Je l’ai observée quelques instants avant de me signaler. J’ai toujours aimé observer Laura sans qu’elle s’en rende compte. C’est beau, une femme qui ne fait pas attention, qui se coupe du monde, qui n’est concentrée que sur son geste. I observed her for some time before showing up. I’ve always loved watching Laura, unnoticed. It’s beautiful, a woman who doesn’t pay attention, who shuts the world out, who only concentrates on her movements.

Or

Dans les étreintes, il y a tout ce qu’on abandonne. In our lovemaking lays everything we give away.

An accidental man. The title says everything. Falling in love is an accident. Meeting Jack is an accident, two parallel worlds colliding. Homosexuality is accidentally discovered. The murder is an accident. The Narrator’s life is accidental.

This novel isn’t translated into English, this is why you get my translations for the quotes. If I’m being honest, reviews are far from unanimous. Some hated it, some loved it. I loved it, but I guess you know that by now.

PS: the soundtrack in my head was A l’arrière des taxis by Noir Désir.

  1. January 21, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    This sounds very, very good. I looked him up ( I didn’t know him), it seems he is well liked in Germany as well. I’d like to read him but I’m still on some sort of book buying ban thing… (It’s hard, hard hard).
    What confuses me a bit is the genre. Is it a crime novel or literary fiction and a crime happens, not that it matters much, just curious. He is not marketed like a crime writer in Germany.

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    • January 21, 2012 at 7:47 pm

      I read somewhere he’s translated into 17 languages but not English, at least not this book. Too bad.
      It’s not crime fiction, it’s literary fiction but the crime is the deus ex-machina of the book. The plot is the love story.
      He’s published by 10:18 but not in the Grands Détectives collection.

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  2. January 21, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! My French is extremely rusty, because I learnt it in school so many years back. But I had a lot of fun reading the French quotes you have given above and trying to decipher their meanings and comparing what I understood with your translations 🙂 I couldn’t understand the quotes without the translations, but I am happy to report that I could get the feel of it and my French is not as rusty as I think. Besson’s prose looks quite beautiful and the book looks quite powerful from your review. I hope the publishers translate it into English – maybe they will read your review and will get inspired to do that 🙂 Thanks for this wonderful review!

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    • January 21, 2012 at 7:54 pm

      Thanks Vishy.

      I always insert bilingual quotes when I read in French.
      When I translate them, as I’m not an English native speaker or a professional translator, I know it’s a bit unfair for the writer. So I allow any reader who can read French –and I can’t believe how many of you learnt French in school or have a francophone partner– to have access to the real text instead of relying on my clumsy translation.
      When I can find a free English translation (for classics), I used the proper translation but it’s still interesting to read the original.

      I wish Un homme accidentel were translated into English. Perhaps some publishers find the theme a bit touchy.

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      • January 23, 2012 at 9:17 am

        From what I can understand, your translations of those quotes are wonderful, Emma.

        I also wanted to say one more thing – it is wonderful that you are reading Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Strangers on a Train’. I haven’t read the book, but I have seen the movie version directed by Alfred Hitchcock and I loved it. Hope you are enjoying the book. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

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        • January 23, 2012 at 9:23 am

          Hello Vishy,

          I’m reading Strangers on a Train right now as it is one of the virtual Christmas Gifts Guy gave me.

          We decided to exchange books for Christmas and read them early in 2012.
          Here is his selection for me and here is my selection for him

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          • January 25, 2012 at 11:14 am

            I loved looking at both your selections! Wonderful titles! Happy Reading!

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            • January 25, 2012 at 12:48 pm

              Thanks, I loved Miss Mackenzie and now I’m having a good time with Strangers on a Train. It’s hard to forget the film though.

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  3. January 21, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Sounds fantastic and something I would love to read. Is this the first book you’re read by this author?

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    • January 21, 2012 at 7:55 pm

      It was my first Besson but certainly not my last.
      I think you’d like it. Next one on the list for the one-French-page-per-day project?

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  4. January 22, 2012 at 2:11 am

    I thought about that but didn’t want to get ahead of myself. I found another novel by the same author translated in English which concerns a young man who meets Proust. Sounds like something you’d enjoy.

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    • January 22, 2012 at 9:55 am

      Yes! thanks for the tip, I’ll look for it.

      Like

  5. January 22, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    oh hope this makes it to us in uk ,I ve not heard besson before ,but like the concept of books written about other places by writers from other countries just read a dutch novel set in Wales ,all the best stu

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    • January 22, 2012 at 10:33 pm

      In the Absence of Men is available in English. I haven’t read it but it can be a way to try him.

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  6. January 23, 2012 at 12:12 am

    Oh you are so good at reminding me of French authors I want to read. I have two books by Besson on my shelves (neither this one, but still!). I really MUST read more French this year. Lovely review.

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    • January 23, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Which ones do you have ? In French or in English?

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  7. leroyhunter
    January 24, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    Sounds interesting Emma, Besson is new to me. Great cover as well.

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    • January 25, 2012 at 8:32 am

      I have En l’absence des hommes now. It’s the one translated into English and related to Proust. I’m impatient to read it.

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  8. January 25, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    Interesting he chose to set it in LA. That may be partly why it’s not translated into English, you noticed a French element which rang false but an American would I suspect notice many more, particularly in the dialogue.

    It sounds clever though. What’s the English title of En l’absence des hommes? Do you know?

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    • January 25, 2012 at 3:22 pm

      Yes, you’re probably right, it could sound strange in English.

      The English title is In the Absence of Men. Something set during WWI.

      Like

  9. N@ncy
    April 28, 2015 at 11:06 am

    I just ordered this book in French…. I will save this review and compare my thoughts after I finish reading! So glad i discovered your blog with great French reading suggestions!
    “Ce matin, je vais plutòt mieux que les jours d’avant….”

    Like

    • April 28, 2015 at 6:43 pm

      Let me know what you think about it.
      I always put quotes in two languages when I have read in French.

      Like

  1. May 4, 2012 at 12:34 am
  2. June 7, 2014 at 11:10 pm
  3. March 31, 2015 at 10:48 pm

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