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Monday 13 October 2014

The Author and Me - Eric Chevillard (translated by Jordan Stump) - 2015 Best Translated Book Award

In early June I reviewed Eric Chevillard’s “Prehistoric Times” from Archipelago Press, “postmodernist literature”, “France’s foremost absurdist” were the quotes at that time. From a different publishing house (Dalkey Archive this time) but the absurdist things have not changed. "The author and me" is due for release tomorrow.

Our protagonist is a first person (un-named?) narrator who is not the author (as he goes to great pains to point this out in the numerous, well 40 to be exact, footnotes), or is he?

The theme of the work is a gentleman having lunch with Mademoiselle and being enraged by being served cauliflower gratin instead of tout amandine.

Disappointment...despair...rage! The urge to kill then comes over you, Mademoiselle, and above all the secret temptations of torture. All at one you find yourself thinking of the many possible but overlooked uses of the most rudimentary tools. And this time your tongs won’t undo you hammer’s insistent labours. For once – how wonderful! – your tongs and your hammer will be working as one. Something sublime may well be in the offing, exquisite in its inventiveness.
Have you ever longed to strangle someone, Mademoiselle?
Besides me, I mean?
Your pursed lips say no – not even me? Really? Oh, but in that case you must never have endured so cruel and agonizing an experience. Just imagine, imagine a beautiful trout, still wriggling only the day before, as at one with the stream as the current, the muscle of the light, the intelligence of the water, its tender flesh perfumed with a little spray of lemon, sprinkled with finely slivered almonds, diaphanous hosts toasted golden brown in sizzling butter...
Just you take a whiff of that.
But what’s this? What on earth can that be? That stench?
Unholy God!
They say disappointment is bitter – I find it more insipid than anything else.
It’s cauliflower gratin!

To say this is an absurd book would probably be an understatement, we have our author addressing us (quite frequently) to point out that he is not the character in the novel, his life experience being quite different than his character’s. We have his describing the metaphysical pleasure of reading itself, the pace according to the writer, and followed by a footnote with advice on how to approach, and at what speed, Chevillard himself.

We have all number of explanations of the human condition:

(Nevertheless, the cafe had its regulars. They nodded on spotting each other. Some swapped banalities and information on the meteorological conditions. About as useful as reminding each other what they were wearing that day. Empty words, more an avoidance strategy than anything else. Thus did the regulars keep each other at a distance. The clouds served as a buffer.)12
12 This is also the reason for the screen of politesse that the author unfolds between himself and others. He even adds a certain unctuousness, to prevent any friction. Can harmony exist without distance? Obeying an impersonal code, we efface anything that makes us stand out. We become any man in the street. In the end, it’s as if we weren’t there at all – and such is indeed the author’s most constant desire: to be somewhere else, far from here. What to do with the hyper-presence of those boors who refuse to fade into the background, or at least suck in their stomachs a little? Civility is a game of capes and passes by which we dodge the bull, which is more often a talkative neighbour than a savage beast blowing steam from its nostrils.

Nothing escapes the wrath of Chevillard in this one, in “Prehistoric Times” he put evolution in reverse, here he holds a mirror up to the day to day banalities, points out how absurd our behaviour is, and similarly shows us that human existence is trite, miniscule, and irrelevant:

(As a general rule, however, the most talkative were those sitting alone. Telecommunications had made spectacular progress. Everyone was compulsively fingering his mobile phone – the term was accurate, if slightly deceptive. What had become mobile were the house, the workplace, the solid block formed of family, friends, and acquaintances. Mobil, but heavy as ever, and people’s backs bent accordingly under the weight. Sitting at cafe tables or walking down the street, hunchbacks everywhere. All that scoliosis, all those soliloquies betrayed the imposture and untruth of lives risen up from the void, written on the wind. The deluge’s great wave was sweeping those drowned souls away, no one knew where.) 15
15 It’s finally come to pass, at long last we have in our power – or almost – the magic wand of fairy tales: those multifunction telephones that know everything and work all manner of wonders, soon to include teleportation. Of course, by this short-circuiting of all distance (which once mapped out human space) and delay (which one structured human time) we’re also remaking our bodies and minds. We’re mutating, flocking toward the future, sheep that we are. Paradoxically transformed into dumb beasts, stripped of the power of concentration, motivated by impatience alone, by immediate necessities, by imperious, rudimentary instincts. And so we see the rise, in the flesh, of the man so long dreamt of by science fiction.

This work is, of course, not everybody’s cup of tea, there will be people who are infuriated by the ramblings, the lectures, the demeaning nature. The conversations not marked, may distract, the internal musings of our author and his character could enthral or enrage you, the self centeredness of both characters could make you smile or wince. But there is no doubting that this is a thinking piece of writing, pushing the boundaries of the expected norms of the written word, blurring the lines between narrator, protagonist and author. Our writer attempting to deconstruct the formation of a perfect novel.

One for slow contemplation and discovery, a work on the edge, skillful, surprising, joyous, repetitive infuriating and mundane all at the same time. One thing you will be guaranteed of though – you’ll never look at cauliflower the same way again.

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