In the 1956 essay “The Age of Suspicion,” Nathalie Sarraute described what the traditional French novel could offer its readers: “Comfort in their solitude, a description of their situation, revelations of secret aspects of the lives of others, counsels full of wisdom, fair solutions to the conflicts they suffer, an enlargement of their experience, the impression of living other lives.”
That all sounds quite nice, yet Sarraute, one of the foremost practitioners of the nouveau roman, composed the essay to inveigh against classical French literature—its complacency, its hypocrisy, its falsity. Fifty years on, the nouveau roman has fallen out of fashion, and the nouveau nouveau roman, too. But French literature—or, at least, three French novels newly translated into English—shows few signs of returning to its consoling roots.
Instead of providing illusions or escapism, each of these books reveals a man trapped in dreadful circumstances, with little or no recourse. In Dominique Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, protagonist Pierre suffers the drudgery and powerlessness of lower-middle-class life. Mercury Under My Tongue, by Quebecois author Sylvain Trudel, proves grimmer—it depicts a 17-year-old dying of bone cancer. Memory, easily the most distressing of the three, provides a fictionalized account of author Philippe Grimbert’s terrible discoveries about his family.
Memory, deserved winner of the Prix Goncourt, may well take its place among the best of the “autofictions,” that particular French genre that combines the tenets of autobiography with the freedoms afforded by the novel. Grimbert and his protagonist share a name and much of their history, yet Grimbert, the author, has made alterations in the names of other characters and in the means by which he uncovered his family’s past.
At first, Memory seems a conventional, even tedious, memoir. Grimbert discourses about his childhood wish for an elder brother. He indulges himself by recounting boyhood fancies, then offers an account of how his parents met and fell in love. Yet even in these first pages, there are suggestions of secrets lingering just under the surface: a trunk in the attic that mustn’t be opened, a ceremonial candlestick and a penchant for unleavened bread belying the family’s Catholicism. Then there’s the matter of the name “Grimbert” itself. His father had changed it, legally, from Grinberg. “An M for an N, a T for a G; two tiny changes,” writes Grimbert. “But of course M for mute hid the N of Nazism, while G for ghosts vanished under taciturn T. I was constantly bashing up against the painful wall with which my parents had surrounded themselves, but loved them too much to try to climb it, reopening the wound. I had decided not to know.”
But at the age of 15, with the aid of a family friend (an invented character), Grimbert reverses that decision. He discovers his Jewish heritage and learns that before his mother and father married, they were brother- and sister-in-law, married to a pair of siblings who would perish in the Second World War. And that imagined older brother? He was more than a fantasy. Grimbert finds that a half-brother, Simon, his father’s first child, was gassed at Auschwitz.
A fantasy has become reality, and what seemed plain truth (the pleasant story of his parent’s courtship) is revealed as so much make-believe. It’s an astounding literary coup. “My parent’s story,” writes Grimbert, “which I had imagined so straightforward, became tortuous. Blindly I followed its path, on an exodus that took me away from those I loved toward unfamiliar faces. I walked a road full of murmurs, now able to make out the corpses laid out on the verge.”
In the second half of the novel, Grimbert imagines his parents’ true and much darker history. He conjures their adulterous liaison while the husband of one lingered in a prison camp and the wife and son of the other were believed interned. He even dares envision, as few children would, their first act of coitus: “Maxime will thrust back and forth, diving in to the deepest part of Tania until the moment when, unable to hold back any longer, he will bite his lips so as not to cry out.”
Restraining himself may prove pleasurable for Maxime, but that strategy won’t work for his son. A practicing psychoanalyst, Grimbert has said in interviews that he wrote Memory as a release, a chance for the repressed to return. For over 20 years, since his parents’ double suicide, the pain of their story had dogged him. Grimbert means this book to serve as their epitaph, and an epitaph of that half-brother, too—a gorgeous and wrenching attempt to lay these ghosts to rest. He likens his book to a grave.
A grave’s where the protagonist of Trudel’s Mercury Under My Tongue will soon find himself. Seventeen-year-old Frederick Langlois suffers from an osteosarcoma that is turning his hip bones into lace. Stuck in the children’s wing of a Montreal hospital, he muses on life, religion, etc., and composes execrable poetry under the pen name Metastasio.
Precocious and pretentious, Langlois indulges in the philosophical twaddle overheard in many a college dorm. His illness affords him a special vantage, true, and his self-involvement is appropriate to his situation, but that doesn’t entirely excuse his tirades or bombast, or Trudel’s decision to subject the reader to them. Langlois’s thoughts on divinity: “Your God is a poor lunatic who invented a son condemned to stagnate in the helplessness of childhood, then be reborn eternally in the golden straw that we take to be rays of hope.” On joy: “Happiness and freedom I throw to the pigs.” Of his poetry, it’s best not to ask. Well, all right, but you were warned: “. . . and the empty stomachs/fill with bare-assed shadows/that will see daylight/under a sky of burnt bread.”
Pierre, the hero of Dominique Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, is a barman at a café in the French suburbs—it’s his job to ensure that stomachs are full and the bread unburnt. Pierre recounts a few days in his life that encompass the closing of the café where he’s worked for so long. Unmarried, childless, with only a few friends, Pierre locates his meager sense of self-worth in his work. “You really are a useful thing in other people’s lives when you’re a barman,” he muses. “The customers don’t realize it outright, of course, but when all’s said and done, in good times and bad, there’s always a bar in their lives, and a barman, a bit wizened but very professional, to serve them whatever they want.” Alas, the book’s plot deprives Pierre of his job and leaves him alone and adrift with his discursive thoughts. At 117 pages, it’s the slimmest of the three novels, and easily the slightest, a scant portrait of a man bereft of self-awareness. But it does put one in mind of the proper remedy for three depressing novels. Pierre, give me a Lillet. And don’t be stingy, baby.