Saturday, February 09, 2013

How are you supposed to have any intimacy?

"Stanley, if you closed your store for just a week and you let me elope with you..."

"What a romantic idea. Where would we go?"

"To Montreal."

"Never."

"What? You have something against Quebec, too?"

"I didn't endure six months of close starvation to lose ten pounds just to gain them back in a few days. Montreal's restaurants are irresistible, as are its waiters."

What do more than 25 million readers see in Marc Levy? All Those Things We Never Said, written in 2008 and recently released in the US, is currently being heavily promoted, including a Paris getaway sweepstakes — sadly, for US residents only (it runs till tomorrow if you're interested), and a bit weirdly, as Paris figures into this novel in only a very small way and as a nice place to die.

Levy is touted as the most-read French author in the world, all his novels topping the bestseller lists in France. I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

All Those Things We Never Said is a "romantic comedy" (admittedly, not really my go-to genre). Julia's supposed to be married on Saturday, but her estranged father's died and he's being buried that day. With the wedding indefinitely postponed, Julia spends the ensuing week getting to know her father, and reexamining life and love in the process.

I very nearly abandoned this novel very early on. I didn't, only because work has been very trying and I couldn't be bothered to think to grab something else to read before heading out on my daily commute. I was well over halfway before I developed any interest in how it might turn out.

It reads like a movie (one of Levy's novels has already had the film treatment) — it is heavy on dialogue. In itself that's not necessarily a bad thing, but the conversation is fairly superficial — it's as if these characters have no internal lives at all. It lacks nuance. These people remain two-dimensional.

Starting in New York City, the story takes us to Montreal and later Berlin via Paris. The writing does nothing to bring these places to life on the page. Berlin fares a little better than the other cities, but then I've never been there, and the Wall plays a vital role in the story. Really, most of the events could've taken place anywhere.

"If there were, I don't know, perhaps a little sitting room or a library, maybe a billiard parlor or a laundry room... then I might have some place to go and wait for you. These one-room apartments... What a strange way to live! How are you supposed to have any intimacy?"

Intimacy? Is this a translation error? Maybe privacy? Or is it meant ironically? If so, it's not sufficiently backed by subtlety of character, or strength of character, for the reader to be cued to interpret it this way.

One German journalist aspires to a Pulitzer, which strikes me as a weird thing for a German journalist to say, or a French author to write, even on the off-chance that it might've been meant symbolically (and I certainly hope it wasn't the translator's choice to create a context for American readers).

What puzzles me most about this novel is how little it feels like a French novel. Not that I can tell you what a French novel should feel like. Maybe the expectation of Frenchness was built up in me because of the Paris sweepstakes connection. Just because an author's French doesn't mean he has to write about France. But there's no depth, no awareness, no reflection; no French philosophical attitude. This is not Michel Houellebecq or Emmanuel Carrère, or Patrick Lapeyre or Hervé Le Tellier. (I name these authors because they are contemporary, and I've read them and they all feel French. To be fair, the first pair can't be said to deal in light romance, and should not be used as a basis for comparison with Levy on any other score but this point about Frenchness I'm trying to make.)

All Those Things We Never Said does not feel French. It feels like a fairly predictable Hollywood movie. This novel was not for me, which is too bad, because there are a couple points that interested me — the father's story about meeting the love of his life and the father's final circumstances — and they could have been developed into very different novels. Have you read it? Am I being unfair?
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