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Elle by Philippe Djian

May 14, 2017 17 comments

Elle by Philippe Djian (2012) Original French title: “Oh…”

Philippe Djian is probably my favorite contemporary French author. I’ve followed him since his first successes in the 1980s. I loved Échine when I read it then, I got attached to the characters and loved his sense of humor. I have read most of his books and you can find billets on my blog about Vengeances (Not available in English), Incidences (Consequences) and Impardonnables (Unforgivable). “Oh…” won the Prix Interallié in 2012. Elle is already available in UK and will be released by Other Press in the USA on May 23rd.  It is translated by Michael Katims.

Several of his books have been made into a film, 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue), directed by Beineix, Impardonnables, directed by André Téchiné or Incidences, directed by the brothers Larrieux. And last but not least, “Oh…” (Elle) was made into a film by Paul Verhoeven. The film won a Golden Globe Award in Best Foreign Language Film and a César. Isabelle Huppert plays the main character, Michèle and won the Golden Globe Award and the César for Best Actress. Now that I’ve read the book, I want to watch its film version.

Philippe Djian loves American literature and especially Raymond Carver. He indirectly introduced me to John Fante and “Oh…” opens with a quote from A Piece of News by Eudora Welty : It was dark outside. The storm had rolled away to faintess like a wagon crossing a bridge.

“Oh…” is a first-person narrative. We’re in Michèle’s head. She’s in her mid-forties, has been divorced from Richard for three years. They have a twenty-three years old son, Vincent. When the book opens, Michèle has just been raped in her own home by a stranger. He was waiting for her in her house.

Je me suis sans doute éraflé la joue. Elle me brûle. Ma mâchoire me fait mal. J’ai renversé un vase en tombant, je me souviens l’avoir entendu exploser sur le sol et je me demande si je ne me suis pas blessée avec un morceau de verre, je ne sais pas. Le soleil brille encore dehors. Il fait bon. Je reprends doucement mon souffle. Je sens que je vais avoir une terrible migraine, dans quelques minutes. I must have scraped my cheek. It burns. My ja hurts. I knocked a vase over when I fell. I remember hearing it shatter on the floor and I’m wondering if I got cut with a piece of glass. I don’t know. The sun is still shining outside. The weather’s good. Little by little, I catch my breath. I feel an awful migraine coming on, any minute. (translation by Michael Katims)

This very first paragraph sets the tone of the novel. Michèle is cold and detached. She speaks as if she has a permanent out-of-body experience. She’s living her life like voice over. Michèle does not react how you’d expect a woman to react after a rape. She doesn’t collapse, she doesn’t go to the police. She doesn’t say anything, she goes on with her life even if she thinks about it and feels a bit insecure in her house.

Along the pages, we get acquainted with Michèle and her family and friends. She and her best friend Anna have created an agency that produces scenarios for TV shows and for the film industry. Michèle reviews scenarios, meets with writers and takes on their work or not. Unfortunately, Richard writes scenarios that Michèle has constantly refused to promote because she thinks they’re not got enough. To say it strained their relationship is an understatement. Although they got divorced, Michèle and Richard still have a strong relationship. They see each other often and Richard still feels protective over Michèle. When she realizes that Richard is in a steady relationship with Hélène, she gets jealous, even if she has no right to be since she initiated the divorce procedure.

Their son Vincent has just moved in with his girl-friend Josie who’s pregnant with another man’s child. Michèle can’t understand why Vincent wants to stay with Josie and raise this baby as his own. Richard thinks Vincent shall live his life as he pleases but Michèle is convinced he’s too young to make such a decision. There’s also Michèle’s mother, Irène. She dresses like a hooker and has made her goal to live off men. Michèle does not approve of her last boy-friend and is horrified to hear that Irène got engaged to this man.

Michèle is a controlling woman and it stems from her past, a past I won’t disclose to avoid spoilers. She is controlling and since she pays for Vincent and Irène’s rents, it is hard for them to shoo her away and it comforts her in her idea that they are not adults and need supervision.

When this rape occurs, Michèle is trying to end the affair she’s been having for months with Robert, Anna’s husband. She’s also getting acquainted with her neighbor, Patrick and introducing him in her close-knit circle.

This is the setting for a novel that take us through thirty days in the life of a complicated woman. Thirty days full of darkness, haunted by tragedies and bad memories, where sex and death are constant companions.

I think Michèle’s character will shock people with a stereotyped vision of women. If you see her through the lenses of Judeo-Christian morality, she’s doomed. She has an affair with a married man who is also her best-friend and business partner’s husband. This is a triple off-limits man. She loves Vincent but hates motherhood and doesn’t hesitate to remind him how awful her delivery had been. Here’s Michèle commenting on her feelings for her son.

Je n’ai rien caché à ce garçon de l’enfer où m’avait précipitée sa venue au monde, mais je ne lui ai jamais dit quel amour insensé j’ai éprouvé pour lui—que j’aime toujours de tout mon cœur, sans doute, Vincent est mon fil, mais tout finit par tiédir au fil du temps.

 

I hid nothing from this boy and always told him that his birth cast me into the depths of hell. But I never told him the burning love I felt for him—I still love him with all my heart, undoubtedly, but everything cools off with time.

(my translation)

She’s not a stellar example of motherhood. She’s cold and detached. Remorse is not in her vocabulary. She’s harsh in her interactions with other people. Her reaction to her rape is not what society expects from her. Lots of her traits makes her a misfit. But she’s not a monster. She’s fragile as well, fate has dealt her a shitty hand at a crucial moment of her life and she went on as best she could.

Djian’s novel is a tour-de-force. Everything is set for the reader to hate Michèle but they can’t. He manages to balance her character and his writing full of short but pointed sentences gives Michèle a clear and audible voice. He doesn’t judge and his writing is such that this reader didn’t judge as well. I was ill-at-ease, shocked but I never judged her. I thought it must be awful to have someone like her in your family but nothing more. To be honest, I could see Isabelle Huppert in Michèle. I even wondered if Djian thought about her when he wrote the book.

In my opining, this is one of Djian’s best books. I’m not competent enough to analyse this further but there’s something about classic tragedy here. Everything is set to lead to the denouement. It is definitely Djian’s current trademark. It’s dark but not bleak. It flirts with crime fiction.  Djian doesn’t hesitate to take controversial routes and not every reader will enjoy it. But I did. Immensely.

Vengeances by Philippe Djian

December 9, 2013 14 comments

Vengeances by Philippe Djian 2011. Not translated into English (yet)

Qu’avais-je à perdre? Me restait-il quoi que ce soit que je ne puisse remettre en jeu, qui vaille vraiment le coup, qui fasse réfléchir? Que préserver ? Que sauver, que garder ? La réponse était simple. What did I have to lose? Had I anything left that I could throw in the game, that was worth fighting for or that made me think twice? What to salvage, to keep? The answer was simple.

 This billet has a twin brother at Books I love and others I get stuck with. Indeed, I had this Djian on the shelf, waiting for my attention and it was available at Beirut’s book fair. So Nino and I have been reading Vengeances along.  And luck was on our side since we had the opportunity to meet and discuss it face to face. That’s the magical confederacy of book lovers. But back to the book.

Djian_vengeancesMarc is forty five, a sculptor of contemporary works. He’s supposed to live with Elizabeth but she’s currently MIO. He doesn’t know where she is and if she’ll come home. Marc’s son Alexandre committed suicide about a year ago. Then Marc’s life went astray and it drove Elizabeth away. Marc has two close friends, Anne and Michel. They’ve known each other since their youth and their lives have been intertwined since. They belonged to the same tiny ultra-left group, Marc used to be Anne’s boyfriend and Michel is Marc’s artistic agent. They are tied by emotional and financial bonds.

One day, Marc is in the metro, going home, when he rescues a young woman who vomits violently in front of him. She’s totally wasted. He takes pity on her and brings her home. She’s Gloria and she says she’s Alexandre’s girlfriend. On impulse, Marc asks her to move in with him. Gloria’s arrival will shatter what little stability remained in his life.

Gloria knew who Marc was and makes her nest among the triangle of friends and brings poison in this small circle. They had reached a balance and she spoils it. The interactions between the characters are quite interesting. Gloria flirts with Michel and awakens in him what we call in French le démon de midi (Literally, the noon devil, in other word and according to the dictionary, lust affecting a man in mid-life. Yes, we have an expression to say that in French). Anne is frustrated because Michel doesn’t pay attention to her anymore and she wouldn’t mind rekindling her former passion with Marc. Marc considers Gloria as his daughter-in-law; she’s definitely off-limit for him. His art is affected by his mourning and he doesn’t create anything good, which means Michel will soon lack of sculptures to sell. Anne and Michel don’t like Gloria; they feel the danger she represents and let’s be honest, Gloria doesn’t make a lot of effort to be agreeable. She’s impolite and venomous. She clearly takes advantage of Marc’s pain. He feels guilty about his son. They were estranged and he can’t forgive himself for not knowing him better, not noticing that things were that bad for him. So he’s always happy to gobble any piece of information she’ll throw at him. He’s that needy. Does she tell the truth? Who is she really? Marc doesn’t care to know; he’s desperate.

mainThe narrative shifts from Marc’s first person point of view to an omniscient narrator. The changes come quite often and are marked by a milestone “hand” like the one at the beginning of this paragraph. I have read more than a dozen of Djian’s novels and it’s not the first time his character is named Marc. There’s a Marc in Incidences, in the Doggy Bag series, in Assassins and certainly in others. It’s a pattern, the signature of the artist and a way to say to the readers that names don’t mean anything. Marc could be anyone, even a Philippe.

marc_philippeI find the writer is popping in his own page rather amusing, not that it’s never been done before. It reminded me of Hitchcock’s habit to appear in his films. As always, I enjoyed Djian’s sense of humour, especially when he mocks himself:

ChlorophylleLike Incidences and Impardonnables, Vengeances is a dark story. The characters aren’t likeable and a feeling of dread and doom weighs upon the book. I expected that kind of ending but I thought it fell abruptly on me. This book could have been polished a little bit. In my opinion, the characters’ ages don’t match with their life experiences. Marc and Michel are too young to have taken part in these political clandestine fights. They should have been around twenty in 1975, which means being born in 1955 or 1960 at the latest. In this case, you can’t be 45 in 2010. And the novel is set in our time. In my opinion, the ending was botched up, I felt the novel had reached the expected number of pages or that the deadline to send it to the publisher had come. Too bad.

There are recurring things in life. Every year brings a new film by Woody Allen and a new novel by Djian. I love both artists but some of their works are better than others. For me, Vengeances is not Djian at his best. Incidences and Impardonnables are better books. Even if Djian has forever turned his back to the sunny novels of his beginnings, I still recommend Echine and Maudit manège to anyone who would like to read him.

Consequences by Philippe Djian

March 2, 2013 24 comments

Incidences by Philippe Djian 2010 English title : Consequences (Sept. 2013)

Dieu sait vers quoi notre vie nous porte, Annie, Dieu sait ce qu’on récolte au bout du compte. On décide de choisir la facilité et soudain tout se complique. On passe le plus clair de son existence à payer pour ses erreurs, vous savez, ce n’est pas moi qui l’ait inventé. On peut le vérifier chaque jour. God knows where our life leads us, Annie, God knows what we get in the end. We choose the easy way and suddenly everything gets complicated. We spend most of our existence atoning for our mistakes, you know, I didn’t invent this. We can see this every day. (Sorry, no professional translation available.)

I believe every reader has their “comfort” writers, ones they enjoy and turn to when then they when to be sure to read something good. Philippe Djian is one of my comfort writers; I’ve been reading him since adolescence. I wrote a billet about Unforgiveable, but for the rest, I read them pre-blog. He’s not very famous in the English-speaking world, I believe, except for Betty Blue, which was made into a film.

Incidences starts with Marc driving his Fiat 500 at night on a small lacy road in the mountains. He teaches creative writing at the local university and is a womanizer. Or more precisely, he enjoys discreet no-strings-attached sex with some of his students. This particular night, he’s bringing Barbara home for a booty call. The next morning, there’s a slight glitch in his usual routine: Barbara is dead. Instead of following the conventional path and call the police, he decides to haul the body in the mountain and ditch it in a crevasse.

The next day at work, he is interviewed by a policeman about Barbara’s sudden disappearance and seems to get away with it. Myriam, Barbara’s step-mother, comes to see him to hear about Barbara and discuss her with him. They are attracted to each other and start a steamy relationship.

Despite Marc’s carefulness, everything goes downhill from there on.

Marc is 53 and lives with his older sister Marianne, also a teacher at the same university. They have a muddy relationship, coming from a dreadful childhood tainted with violence and abuse. A drama that was never healed happened and the reader discovers progressively the extents of the damages. Marianne and him have put together a way of living that allow them to cope with the past and take care of each other. With Myriam in the picture and Richard, the president of the university coming on to Marianne, their careful balance is shattered.

When you read my summary, it seems quite a classic novel but it isn’t. From the beginning, the reader can feel that Marc isn’t a reliable narrator, that his reactions are out of line, that something’s off in his behavior. Is he sane? The women in his life are his curse: his abusive mother, his fragile sister, his forbidden young lovers and his unquenchable lust for Myriam.

Marc is a cold character, one that makes you feel uneasy, not a mind you’re happy to visit. He doesn’t trust the police and is ready to anything to save himself. He’s like an animal, his survival instinct overcomes all sense of propriety or of moral code. He has a hard time with the stiff conservatism of the university and his affairs with students don’t help his case.

Les professeurs pouvaient s’accoupler aux professeurs, ça ne posait aucun problème, l’exercice était même amplement pratiqué dans les environs, voire encouragé, mais en revanche les professeurs ne pouvaient pas s’accoupler avec les étudiants ni avec les parents d’élèves. C’était la loi. Personne ne voulait d’ennui. Personne ne songeait à mélanger les genres. Aucun membre sensé de la communauté. Teachers could mate with teacher, that wasn’t a problem, the exercise was by the way widely practiced in the area or even encouraged. But teachers couldn’t mate with students or their parents. It was the law. Nobody was seeking trouble. Nobody thought about mixing genres. No sensible member of this community. (Sorry, no professional translation available.)

Djian_incidencesMixing genres is exactly what Marc does and also exactly what Djian is doing in this novel. I haven’t read a lot of Noir but I’ve read enough of Guy’s reviews to recognize the pattern in a book. This is classic Noir to me: a lethal woman unfurling her sexuality to a man who cannot resist, a dramatic event that shakes the hero’s carefully built life, the past looming and threatening, a character who doesn’t make the right decision. He’s doomed from the start and the tension builds up as his life gets more and more complicated as the events develop. The reader is attached to the book with a suspenseful string, knows it can only end badly but wonder how bad it will be and what kind of bad it will be.

Djian’s style is excellent, as usual or at least, I enjoy his style. Contrary to Unforgivable which was too rooted in today’s society for its own good, this one has a sense of timelessness that helps books surviving the time they were released. I love the cover of the book as it represents well the physical crevasse where Marc throws Barbara’s body and the figurative fault-line that this event and his subsequent acquaintance with Myriam create in his life.Once again, Djian didn’t let me down, I wanted to read something good, I did. I also have Vengeance at home and I can’t wait to read his latest, Oh! which received a lot of praise when it was published last fall.

Was the world anything else than a tiny village with hilarious hazards ? (Djian)

June 22, 2010 7 comments

 Impardonnables, by Philippe Djian.  

As Philippe Djian is best known in France than abroad, some biographical details are probably welcome. Djian is a French writer, was born in 1949 and has been famous in France since the 1980s. He lived in the USA for a while and is now settled in Biarritz, in the Basque country. According to me, his best books are the first ones, “37°2 Le Matin” (Betty Blue), “Echine”, “Maudit Manège” (the following of Betty Blue) and “Bleu comme l’enfer”. Apparently, the last three ones have not been translated in English, unfortunately. His favourite writers are mostly American: John Fante, Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman and many others. They deeply influenced his style.

Impardonnables (Unforgivable: a novel) was published in 2009. The plot is centred on Francis, who lost his wife and eldest daughter in a terrible car accident, some ten years ago. His second marriage with Judith, a 50-years-old real estate agent, is in bad shape. The book opens on another personal drama, as his second daughter, Alice, disappears. For Francis, the pain is excruciating and the unhealed grief from the former car accident resurfaces. I will not tell more about the story, to avoid spoilers. Let’s just say things are not exactly what they seem to be and that I did not see the end coming.

Francis is an alter ego for Philippe Djian. He is a sixty-years-old famous writer, who lives in the Basque country. Djian already used another alter ego named Dan in Echine. Francis seems to be an older and disenchanted Dan. When Dan was young, a writer-to-be, a good father for his son Hermann, Francis is 60 (“a young old man”), a famous writer, whose best books are behind him. He raised Alice alone and failed as a father, according to him. Dan was full of life and Francis is sad and disillusioned.

However, there is a lot more in this book than just a mourning and whining writer. It raises issues on parenthood, on how ungrateful children can be, whatever you do for them. (Think of Father Goriot, by Balzac). Francis is lucid about himself and does not try to evade responsibility in the disaster of his life. “Unforgivable” applies to several realities in the novel, the French title is a plural. It relates to acts and to persons. Some things are forever unforgivable because the one who could grant the pardon is dead. Some things are unforgivable because they lead to someone’s physical or mental death. Some people are unforgivable because what they did for futile reasons brought an irretrievable pain to beloved persons.

Reading Impardonnables just after Fante’s Road to Los Angeles was as big a mistake as eating Gruyère cheese after Roquefort. The taste of the first one is so strong that the second seems tasteless, even if it is the best Gruyère ever. So is Francis after Arturo Bandini.

I had never noticed before how much Djian mimics Fante’s style. Even with the difference of language, French versus English, the similarity is obvious. Djian also writes in short sentences, with images and every word is thought through. But I missed the fun Fante sprays in his descriptions and dialogues. Maybe the lack of energy in Djian’s book is only due to the difference in ages between the two characters. Francis is depressed and ageing, whereas Arturo is 18 and excited to start his adult life.

Impardonnables gathers the usual themes of Djian’s novels: a father raising his child alone, a struggling writer, a woman as a best friend. Several weaknesses displeased me in the book, such as Alice being an actress, without sparing us all the clichés (former drug and alcohol addict, egocentric). I did not like either the frequent allusions to Hemingway, as if Francis were a stupid rock star fan worshipping relics. It also includes too many present-day references. No one will understand them in a decade or so, and it will prevent Djian’s work to reach some immortality. I am convinced that immortal books, apart from being exceptionally well written, are the ones that have an eternal theme put in a vague enough setting, so that readers from another time can easily identify. Impardonnables will become outdated because of all those little references to the present time, such as the name of a pain-killer, Philip Roth’s last book or an allusion to Brad Pitt. It is a pity, for it is well written.

Despite all these flaws, I enjoyed reading Impardonnables, and I was eager to know how this would end. I was surprised, which is usually agreeable in a book. It only sounded dull after The Road to Los Angeles, I probably would have had liked it better if I had read it at a different time.

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