Monday, July 16, 2012

A girl who doesn't exist yet

I found Life Is Short and Desire Endless, by Patrick Lapeyre, to be a quirky and infuriating little novel. And yes, there's something decidedly French about it. Somewhere between the lightly philosophical musings on human relations of Hervé Le Tellier and Michel Houellebecq's more blatant crude and caustic cynicism. Gentler than Houellebecq, definitely, but I am beginning to discern a spectrum of contemporary French male novelists.

The story centers around Nora — a free spirit and aspiring actress, a little bit Holly Golightly. But we never really get to know her. Rather, we try to home in on her by triangulating the perspectives of Blériot, her married French lover, who is "prepared to uphold that any man who hasn't loved two women at once is condemned to remain incomplete"; Murphy, an American in London, works in finance, whom she's "left"; and the more peripheral Vicky, a childhood friend. They each of them have had their turn at playing house with Nora, and they pine for her, with varying degrees of disabling obsession.

Despite the distance separating them, it's as if Murphy and Blériot are moving on either side of a thin partition, as transparent as a paper screen, each aware of the other's existence, inevitably thinking about him, but unable to give him a name or a face, so that they both seem to be groping their way like sleepwalkers along parallel corridors.

It becomes rather clear that Nora's lovers, and there are others beyond those three, know her as little as we do. But they are desperately in love with the idea of her. And this seems to be something she cultivates.

The actors who play Nina Zarechnaya, she explains, mostly take their inspirations from other Ninas they've seen at the theater or from people they've met, imitating the way they speak or move. As a result, the effect is almost always disappointing. Because everyone already knows Nina.

Now she'd like to incarnate someone who doesn't exist yet.

"Do you understand?"

He understands and he doesn't understand. Either way, he's take with the idea of loving a girl who doesn't exist yet.

Then just when you think you've pinned her down, she's gone.

Neither Nora nor Blériot are particularly likable (and it's a bit tiresome to read about Blériot's constant groping. Really, is that all men — and French men in particular — ever think about? I'd only just started believing we'd got past all that...), and the others don't have enough screen time for me to pass judgement. This story doesn't cover any new territory, and ultimately it's something of a downer, but it is compelling in its exploration of desire, what drives people to each other, and what it is that makes relationships work (or not).

Read Guy Savage's thoughtful review at His Futile Preoccupations.

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