The New Press and Linda Coverdale are doing some exceptional work (as always) bringing us some great books from the French. Already this year they’ve brought out Jean Echenoz’s newest work, 1914 (my review here). And while not new translations, in June The New Press will publish Three by Echenoz, a compendium of three great Echenoz works: Big Blondes, Piano, and Running. Just now they are bringing out Julia Deck’s debut novel, Viviane (Viviane Élisabeth Fauville, 2012; tr. from the French by Linda Coverdale, 2014).
When I started this book I had no idea what it was about. I loved it, and part of the reason I loved it was because it was filled with discoveries. I have no intention of spoiling the book here, but sometimes it’s great to just pick up a book and let it carry you away with no preconceptions, and this book is well suited for that.
The first brief section alone is filled with a few surprises. First, it’s told in the second person, something I’m always wary of (though it works great here for reasons I’ll get into later). Importantly, the narrator is not talking to “you” the reader; rather, she is talking to herself:
You are Viviane Élisabeth Fauville, wife of Julien Hermant. You are forty-two years old and on August 23 you gave birth to your first child, who will no doubt remain your only one.
It is now November, the child is twelve-weeks old, and here’s one thing that’s happened in the meantime:
On September 30 he put an end to two years of conjugal misery. He said Viviane — coming home at some late hour from his so-called planning department — Viviane I’m leaving, it’s the only solution, anyway you know that I’m cheating on you and that it isn’t even from love but from despair.
When we come into the story, it’s as if Viviane is just coming out of a fugue state, trying to orient herself, remembering something very strange:
[. . .] on Monday, November 15 — yesterday — you killed your psychoanalyst. You did not kill him symbolically, the way one sometimes ends up killing the father. You killed him with a Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Profection santoku knife.
As I mentioned early, this all happens in the first few pages (not that it’s a long book at 149 pages, generously spaced), and we are getting oriented just as Viviane is, who comforts herself: “you forget.”
Though I do enjoy these kinds of stories, I understand that others find them one-note exercises. I don’t think that’s the case here. While Viviane attempts to construct herself and her narrative, it is simultaneously disassembling itself. As the story progresses (or digresses), Viviane shifts from “you” to “I” to “Viviane” to, brilliantly, “the person in question.” This is underlined in the parallels between her disjointed character and the disjointed sentence (wonderfully rendered here by Linda Coverdale); but, also, the narrative itself starts to fall apart around Viviane as she attempts to get away with murder while injecting herself into the stories of those who knew the psychoanalyst: “I am the plaything of circumstances and I’ve decided not to resist, to go whichever way the wind blows.”
It’s not what I would call a “penetrating examination of the self” (a quote I imagine exists in many places — maybe even on this blog — to describe many books); rather, it’s a fascinating and fun crime novel, where the criminal has to care for an infant, and we fear for everyone.