Gustaf Sobin’s The Fly-Truffler is initially similar to another recent novel, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee. In both books an aging male professor falls in love with a student, seduces her, bestows her with invented properties, then suffers terribly for his misplaced passion. With Coetzee the suffering is directly moral: A social line is crossed and the man must be made accountable. His lust costs him his job and sends him into exile, where a string of humiliations demotes him to animal-like conditions, sobering his romantic and escapist ideas about love. But Sobin’s professor, Philippe Cabassac, never renounces his mythology of Julieta, the woman he obsesses over. Rather, upon losing her, he embraces a dreamworld in which he perfects a romance that failed in reality. It’s an emotionally richer book, and sometimes a far more sentimental one.
Cabassac is a landowner in Provence who teaches linguistics and, when the season is right, unearths the black truffles the region is famous for. His excavations would be futile if it weren’t for the flies that deposit their eggs over the truffles. Cabassac flushes the flies from their nests, then digs below their eggs for his prize. Once eaten, the truffles mysteriously allow him to dream of the deceased Julieta. It’s never clear how this works, since when she was alive the two of them never truffled together, nor is truffling even mentioned in the lengthy section of the book that covers their relationship, yet without the truffles his thoughts and dreams of her are fleeting at best. So when truffle season ends, Cabassac mourns her departure as though she has died all over again.
Sobin’s prose has a tactile passion to match the fervor of his characters. The language is muscular and vivid, filled with an appealing jargon attached not only to the art of fly-truffling, but to the general flora and industry of Provence, the silkworms, the water mills, and the Provençal dialect itself: “Cabassac himself had composed an entire lexicon devoted to nothing but grain.” It is this last aspect that gives the most engaging form to the bond that grows between Cabassac and the still-living Julieta. In their pursuit of obscure phrases of the dying language, they discover in their mutual appetite a feeling that comes to pass for love between them.
But for all of the gorgeous language, Sobin, a poet as well as a novelist, can err on the side of heavy-handedness. When Julieta, pregnant, embarks on a thesis of the silkworm, Sobin needlessly elaborates the parallels between her own gestation and that of her subject, seemingly nervous that the supple connections between his characters’ lives and their studies will not be readily apparent. Thus his inert commentary and exposition too frequently serve as a map to the themes of his book, overwhelming it with claims of meaning, when the scenes themselves would have sufficed beautifully.
A subplot emerges that presents a woman, eerily similar to Julieta, who haunts Cabassac and increases the sense that his desire can have no other object. Yet this thread develops little strength of its own and seems in the end a device to give form to, and accelerate, the downfall of Cabassac. Slowly selling off parcels of his land to support his dream life, he loses all concern for his outward responsibilities, his job, his home. His self-destructive dreaming of Julieta is moving, yet there’s a degree of implausibility when he doesn’t hear the bulldozers treading toward his house. Plausibility may not be the issue in matters of passion. It sounds so joyless and fussy to request it. There is the attractive notion that Cabassac’s love is so consumingly treacherous and rife with denial that even his senses won’t admit contradictions, won’t acknowledge that the water and electricity for his house have been turned off, that eviction notices are piling up at the door. Yet Sobin’s leap into this very agreeable fantasy seems to strain the bounds of believability. Even for a book of luxurious evasions, The Fly-Truffler has a surplus of improbability that, by lessening the reality of Cabassac’s predicament, ultimately prevents any real sympathy for his stubborn compulsion to love the dead.