A Life on Paper: Selected Stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynard translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (2010) Small Beer Press (2010) 256 pp
Before the Best Translated Book Award put Georges-Olivier Châteaureynard’s A Life on Paper on its longlist (and now it’s a finalist), I had never heard of this French author, despite his long career (not that this surprises me). I hope to get to know his work much better, though that will require a lot of work from translators. So far, from my slight research online, A Life on Paper is the only work of his to find its way to English. Thanks to Small Beer Press for bringing this one to our attention, and hopefully Edward Gauvin is working on some of Châteaureynard’s novels.
A Life on Paper is a collection of more than twenty short stories compiled from several collections Châteaureynard has published over a thirty-year period. Most of the story are very short indeed. I can’t emphasize this enough: it was a delight to read one or two a day over a month. While writing this review I was often reading a passage to quote and found myself still reading after a few pages.
Categorizing Châteaureynaud seems futile. He’s called a fabulist, but I think this is too limiting; frankly, some of his stories seem to be written just for the fun of it, with no metaphorical intent whatsoever. I would say he’s like Kafka — the bizarre happens in an every-day setting and the characters keep acting like it’s completely sane — only his tone is quite different, reminding me more of Melville’s story-telling style. Well, there’s no reason to categorize him, and I hope some passages from his stories will give a better sense of whether you’d enjoy this collection.
The first story is “A Citizen Speaks,” from April 1974. It’s only a couple of pages long, a good introduction to the collection because it introduces right away just how strange this book can be. Here’s how it begins, first in the first-person plural and then in narrowing down to the first-person singular:
As for the blight, we call it rust for its color. In reality, whether mold or oxide, its true nature eludes us. Does it not assail stone and slag alike? Both zinc and bronze? Even woodwork corrodes here. The leprosy spares only living things: a tree will spend ten years unscathed, slowly rising over a path, but let a branch be cut, treated, painted, and varnished — that branch will be disease-ridden in a few months. So unerring is it that old men’s complexions often imitate its taint. That was how my father died: reddish, as though life had singed him.
In a clearing separated from everything else, seeming to exist somewhere else, in fact, is a marble statue of a fawn. As unique as the clearing is, though, the fawn is not immune to the blight.
On his cheeks, chest, and thighs blossomed brown spatters of blight; hardly the least curious feature of this kind of decay is that it begins from within, making its way from the heart of the thing to its surface.
I’m skipping a lot here (even though it’s such a short story), but in an effort to show some of the descriptive powers at work, and some of the strange imagery, I want to move to the point in the story where the narrator has an irrepressible desire to stab the statue with a stick.
From the wound, with a stirring as of dust, red shavings drained away, a coarse powder of mingled rust and marble that I momentarily mistook for blood. I could not have been more terrified had the faun brought his hands to his chest.
“A Citizen Speaks” is not the strongest story in the collection, but the narrative pull and the fluid writing was certainly enough to get me hooked. Yes, I pretty much knew then that I would enjoy this book.
“A Life on Paper,” the next story in the collection, introduces a narrator, a type of academic, who is fascinated by what is called the Siegling-Brunet collection. It is in this story that I first felt the whiffs of that old style of narration with the formal tone that still manages to contain irony, humor, and emotion. It also shows how Châteaureynaud can treat a ludicrous subject with seriousness that passes on to the reader.
The Siegling-Brunet collection no doubt constitutes the most extensive gathering of photographs devoted to a single person. Kathrin Laetitia Siegling was born in London on January 12, 1939. On April 14, 1960, she died in Amiens, where she had moved with her husband François Brunet. She lived, then, some 7,750 days, during which, at the rate of some dozen shots every twenty-four hours, her picture was taken 93,284 times. To the best of my knowledge, the negatives were never preserved, but the 93,284 prints were.
Sadly for our narrator, the photographs are now scattered around.
Victims of a lack of imagination too common to waste time maligning, Brunet’s heirs all but gave away the chests that contained, in its entirety, an iconography unique in all the world: the life of a woman captured and made fast hour after hour, from birth to death.
What I liked so much about this story is that it remained focused not on Kathrin, the subject of the photographs, but on her obsessed father, Anthony Siegling. What was he trying to do? Why? And how exactly could he have practically accomplished what he did?
We must imagine what these twenty years of unyielding routine were for him and her. For twenty years, Anthony Siegling never went to bed without first passing through that doorway, bathed in red light, to his darkroom; without having selected, enlarged, developed and fixed, dried and glazed a dozen portraits of his daughter. What could his thoughts, his state of mind have been — his exaltation and, almost certainly, his occasional exhaustion? With his infinite patience, night after night, image after image, was he able, in discerning an almost imperceptible change in Kathrin’s features, to surprise time at work? For truly, the mystery of time itself is caught in the continuity of the Siegling-Brunet collection. Kathrin’s appearance remains unchanged from photo to photo, and yet the first show us a newborn, and the last a woman dead at twenty.
The death of Kathrin is fittingly anti-climactic. Such is not the case with another story about the death of a young woman, “The Peacocks.”
To introduce a couple that must have been fun to write because they were certainly fun to read, I’d like to touch on “Unlivable” and then look a bit more closely at “Icarus Saved from the Skies.”
“Unlivable” begins in a riot of humorous details that are, on the surface, pointless, but which lend to a cumulative effect. It’s the “(picnic, lighting)” kind of detail, and I think Châteaureynaud’s use of Nabokov’s method works well. Let’s throw Woody Allen in the mix of “styles I thought of” as well; I can almost see him delivering this as his monologue at the beginning of Annie Hall.
Accommodations obsess me. I have what you might call a housing neurosis. Most of my childhood was spent in cramped quarters (my mother sublet the cellar to me and my father), leaving me with a tendency toward claustrophobia no less crippling than the legacy of agoraphobia bequeathed me on visits to my grandparents (father’s side), a pair of fanatical balloonists. I’d rather not discuss my other grandparent’s house; my asthma specialist says it’s best not to think about it.
Without making too big a deal of things, suffice it to say I’ve gone through a few rough patches. If I tallied them up, the lows of my life as a renter would vastly outnumber the highs. For a while I lived in flames. Well, I exaggerate. They were flamelets, but annoying all the same. At all hours of the night and day, fires would break out spontaneously in my apartment, here or there, behind a painting, inside a closet, under a chair, in the laundry hamper . . . None of my belongings were safe. How often did I find myself penniless, needing a new driver’s license, all because my wallet had gone up in smoke along with my jacket while I was asleep?
Eventually our neurotic narrator seems to get the perfect house.
Now, to end with a look at one of the more fabulistic of the bunch, “Icarus Saved from the Skies.” In this story, Châteaureynaud destroys a marriage he begins hopefully on the basis of a fantastic deformity:
The ironies of fate are infinite. Around the time I turned twenty, despite having decided to steer clear of both doctors and women, I met Maude, then a surgical intern, and at her pressing request became her lover.
Don’t go thinking I’ve ever borne the slightest ill will toward the medical body, much less a woman’s body. My prejudice extends only to the physician or female likely to see me naked, discover my misfortune, and make it even crueler to bear.
From the title, we can guess quickly what the deformity is. With humor and pathos, we see the narrator and Maude become more and more intimate until he is forced to show her his budding wings. She’s fascinated and determined to help him however she can. Where he wants to melt into a corner to hide his deformity, she wants him to have pride and to feel blessed. But he can’t:
Who was I really? Did I even know? A cripple? A monster? A future carnival freak? An angel in the making?
He is ecstatic when one day, after their marriage, the wings seem to shrink. Maude becomes depressed.
It wasn’t long before I accused her of being more fascinated by my deformity than in love with me. To this she snapped back that I had the wingspan of a waterfowl and was birdbrained to boot.
She’d scored a point there and, beating a hasty retreat, I went to sulk in my office.
Yes, there’s a bit of Wodehouse in that strangely both understated and overstated, “She’d scored a point there.” But I can’t see Wodehouse taking this narrator to the darkness as Châteaureynaud will do.
And if, one of these days, someone else besides Maude were to show interest . . . A poor way to thank the woman who’d taken me as I was at the worst moment of my life, but my own underlying ingratitude reassured me at heart: I saw it as proof I wasn’t on my way to being an angel.
I really could go on. I looked forward to a new story each night, knowing that it would be different from the other stories in the collection and different from anything else I’d read. Châteaureynaud has immense literary skill, and he’s put it to work to both give us pleasure and give us something to think about.
As an afterthought, it’s been over a months since I finished this book, and I still haven’t found its substitute: I need another book that offers a bit of short reading guaranteed to please daily.