Saturday, May 14, 2016

“He sees no other meaning he might give to his life than to bear witness to what no one wants to know.”   
-- Deputy Willy Bost, in Nevermore by Marie Redonnet

Marie Redonnet, Nevermore

Translated by Jordan Stump
University of Nebraska Press, 1996

I have a predilection for elegant and peculiar French novels in which almost nothing happens.  But here is an elegant and peculiar French novel in which things happen non-stop.  Events are reported in language as compressed and flat as a summary in TV Guide.  “A frenetic erotic thriler” said the Times Literary Supplement, which is true, but also totally misses the point.  It would be more true to say: “A frenetic erotic thriller totally uninterested in being a frenetic erotic thriller.”

As odd as it is to say, this book is not about what happens in it.  What happens is like a TV left on, at full volume, in the corner.  As ever, Redonnet is looking at power, at decay, at corruption, at the impossibility of separating virtue from vice, growth from loss, goodness from nonsense, in the human heart.  As in her previous novels, she employs prose that is spare, flat and overpoweringly hypnotic.

Redonnet is invariably compared to Beckett, but she has a special strangeness all her own.  At least five of her novels were translated into English 20 years ago.  At least among English language readers, she now seems to have fallen off the radar.  How foolish and ungrateful we are!  She ought to be at least as famous as Marguerite Duras.  

If you’re new to Redonnet, I suggest starting with Hotel Splendid.  Also, Dalkey’s
‘Best European Fiction 2013’ -- a hit or miss affair -- is totally worth purchasing just to read the stunning Redonnet story that appears there.

Redonnet’s deliberately flat prose is not for everyone, but I have been hooked for years.  No.  The correct word is haunted.  To give you a sense, here’s the first paragraph of Nevermore:

“This transfer to San Rosa, on the west coast, just next to the border, was not what Willy Bost had dreamt of.  But he wants to forget what he had dreamt of, just as he wants to forget the past.  One the first page of the notebook he wrote in red ink: ‘It is forbidden to remember the past.  It is forbidden to compare the present with what I had dreamt of.’  He chose that particular notebook because it fit into the inside pocket of his jacket, so that it would always be within reach.  As if he were going to need an assistant in San Rosa, and had decided that this notebook would be his assistant.”      

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