Sunday, October 27, 2013

Holy Books of Guttersnipe Das: Marie Redonnet

Marie Redonnet, Hôtel Splendid
University of Nevada Press, 1994
European Women Writers Series
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump

Life is always evolving, society is forever progressing and we are all getting better and better in every way -- claim certain religious types and all advertising men. But, as you may have noticed, it sure as hell doesn't feel that way and that is where Marie Redonnet steps in, as Beckett did, to give us a taste of what life actually feels like: a hotel on the edge of swamp with one sister who is perpetually ill and another who dreams uselessly of being an actress. Life keeps looping around and the toilets never remain unblocked for long. We firmly intend to give up and somehow we don't get around to it.

In Hôtel Splendid, things getting slightly better is always a set-up for things getting significantly worse. Redonnet's staccato sentences, usually 5 to 10 words long, pile up like problems or bills to be paid and patter like rain on the roof. It is very likely that this elegant French novella contains more blocked lavatories than any in the history of literature.

This book is nothing but problems one after another and I can honestly say that I enjoyed it more than anything else I've read all year. It is absolutely transfixing. I laughed out loud so many times and I cannot provide a single example because you have to read it and fall into its strange rhythm and world until reading the words "The head foreman was bitten right in the calf by a rat" provokes you to laughter in spite of yourself.

Here's one taste. (Redonnet works in blocks of text approximately three to six pages long without paragraph breaks.) From page 17: "The swamp deserves more attention. It is a real nature preserve. There is always more of it to explore. Ada seems to be convalescing. The empty hotel is good for her. Even though she has always hated the swamp, she asked me to take her there for a walk. I was sure the swamp would do her good. That is the first time Ada has asked to go out. But she was disappointed by her walk. She couldn't bear the odor of the swamp. She thought it was always the same, no matter which way you turned. She couldn't stop shivering, in spite of the blanket she was wrapped in. When we got back, she went right to bed. She had a high fever. I had to give her a hot-water bottle. It did not warm her at all. She says her limbs are like lead. She blames the swamp for her relapse. She will never go back there again. The walk was not a success."

I discovered this book by reading Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction 2013, which contained some lively stories and some pretentious ones but nothing that compared to the story "Madame Zabee's Guesthouse" by Marie Redonnet. Searching online, I found three short novels (Hôtel Splendid is the first) translated almost twenty years ago and another translated ten years later. (There is also a collection of short stories, now so rare a copy of it will cost you five hundred dollars!) Reading Hotel Splendid made me hope that new work will soon be available, including a collection of short fictions. Redonnet's work is weirdly irresistible, like an unsettling dream you can't stop dreaming.

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